During a speech to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Attorney General Eric Holder said that creating a “pathway to earned citizenship” was a “civil right.” Mr. Holder put it this way:


Creating a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country is essential. The way we treat our friends and neighbors who are undocumented – by creating a mechanism for them to earn citizenship and move out of the shadows – transcends the issue of immigration status. This is a matter of civil and human rights. It is about who we are as a nation. And it goes to the core of our treasured American principle of equal opportunity.

As someone who believes in earned citizenship if it’s done in the context of other steps related to border security and encouraging more high-skilled workers coming to America, perhaps I have a bit of standing to say that what Holder said is nonsense. Offering earned citizenship to illegal aliens falls under the category of prudential arguments about immigration reform. There are serious policy arguments on both sides.

But Attorney General Holder’s claim is more than simply silly; it is also pernicious. It attempts to frame this debate not on the merits of granting a pathway to citizenship for those who have violated our laws; it’s an effort to frame it as a conflict between those who support (good people) and those who oppose (bad people) basic human rights. This is an effort, in other words, to demonize those with whom one disagrees, and therefore creates yet more polarization and anger and self-righteousness in a debate that probably needs less of it.

What Holder said also reveals a fairly common mindset of those on the left, which is to characterize whatever position they embrace not simply as correct but as a basic civil right. In other words, as something fundamental and teleological, as a right that is ours based on our nature as human beings. The idea that a person who violates American sovereignty by illegally crossing our borders should be given a pathway to citizenship as a matter of civil and human rights is therefore indefensible, an invention. The attorney general is employing a very serious concept in a reckless way. And it empties the term of meaning, just as promiscuously accusing those who oppose the policies of President Obama of racism empties that charge of meaning. It really ought to stop, since human rights violations and racism really do exist.

Offering earned citizenship to those who are in America illegally may make sense economically, from a security standpoint, and even morally. Fine; if one believes that, then make the arguments. But words actually mean something — human rights and civil rights as concepts mean something — and so for Holder to make the claim that he did is quite unfortunate. But it is also, alas, quite predictable.

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