Daniela Vargas Paid a Fair Price
March 6, 2017 (Fault Lines) – My colleague Matt Brown wrote a clever post about Daniela Vargas, an illegal immigrant and former Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiary who was taken off the streets by ICE on March 1, minutes after she spoke out against deportations at City Hall in Jackson, MI.
Vargas, 22, who crossed the border at age 7 with her Argentinian family, gave a speech about how her parents gave her a “better life” by bringing her to the U.S. and discussed her plans to become a math teacher. She also explained that her father and brother have been detained since February, and described her fear of having the same thing happen to her.
When she was done speaking, she left in a hired car that was immediately pulled over by ICE agents. She’s being held in a detention center in Louisiana and will be deported later this week.
Matt says that while what happened isn’t a sign of “creeping totalitarianism” or “literally Hitler,” it is upsetting to see someone punished for taking a stand against a body of law, even if it’s one they happen to be actively violating. In Matt‘s opinion, it would’ve been better if ICE had just let her stay, though he acknowledges Vargas went out of her way to provoke immigration authorities.
His argument’s smart, thought-provoking, persuasive – and completely wrong! For it to work, Matt needs you to believe in a fantasy version of America, where anyone can ignore and indeed remake the law if they hate it enough.
He starts us down the rabbit hole by trying to distinguish Vargas‘ lawbreaking from that of someone who isn’t at the center of a trendy debate.
For people who don’t see immigration laws as any different than traditional criminal and regulatory laws that could deprive someone of their liberty, watching Vargas speak out and then get arrested is probably akin to seeing some guy post a video of himself committing a burglary on Facebook only to find the police waiting at the door of his home, which happened to be the address listed on his profile.
The difference between that and what happened to Vargas, of course, is that there isn’t a nationwide political debate about burglary or other traditional criminal laws.
Sneaky, isn’t it? Matt pretends that the validity of the law depends on its popularity. We‘re supposed to believe that if enough people “debate” whether a law should continue to be, it poofs out of existence. Of course, that’s not the way it works. Laws are repealed by Congress; they don’t phase in and out of reality according to the whims of the mob.
That‘s something for which we’re all grateful, though we may not know it. Imagine if people were free to disregard the law as long as enough of their friends approved of what they were doing. Folks in the Midwest would declare a theocracy and build ziggurats out of guns. Folks on the Coasts would smear themselves with woad and patchouli, and spread terror in the name of Bernie.
Nor is it clear where Matt draws the line between a law and a law law. How many people have to engage in “nationwide debate” before the law’s no longer binding? Sovereign citizens debate whether the government can make it pay tax. Is the IRS screwed if the movement becomes popular enough? The likes of NAMBLA debate whether we need laws against pederasty, and conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos recently suggested children can consent. Should we all be worried, lest these people reach critical “debate mass” and our children are no longer safe?
Maybe Matt has a sort of direct-democracy, Switzerland-without-the-formality-of-voting concept in mind, where majority opinions have the force of law. But with the presidency, both halves of Congress, 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships in Republican hands, it’s not the survival of immigration law he should be concerned about: it’s laws preventing irate nationalists from tarring and feathering illegals.
Matt tries a couple more times to distinguish immigration from the rest of black-letter law:
Most laws don’t typically implicate a complicated web of criminal and civil provisions coming from all sorts of different sources.
That’s totally irrelevant to the question of the law’s validity. That’s like saying bananas aren’t fruit because, unlike apples and strawberries, they’re not red.
People don’t usually break other laws against their will as children, and most offenses aren’t ongoing ones you can commit passively.
The first part‘s irrelevant. The second part‘s wrong. Nobody’s forcing Vargas to live in the United States; she’s actively choosing to stay here.
Perhaps aware that he’s run out of things to throw against the wall, Matt then tries a different tack. It’s not just that Vargas violated laws that aren’t really laws: she’s also not really responsible.
[W]hat the hell were the organizers of the conference thinking? Did the immigration lawyers involved really have no clue this might happen? Even if ICE had never done something like this before, had they not been watching the news? Were there no speakers available who wouldn’t be exposing themselves to possible detention by speaking?
Again, nobody forced Vargas to appear at the conference and give a speech. It’s trendy to infantilize young women – especially on college campuses – but we ought to give Vargas enough credit to assume she knew the risks. She went on stage anyway, so she must’ve decided the risk of being deported was worth getting her message out there.
Whether that was a smart move is a fair question. Her public display of ingratitude towards taxpayers and a government that let her stay even after her DACA status expired may well sour people on her cause, and as immigration attorney Mario Machado points out, the fact that she let it expire at all is on her. On the other hand, nonviolently breaking the law to make a political point is classic civil disobedience, and she deserves at least some credit for having the courage to act on her convictions.
But neither bravery nor foolhardiness absolve her of the consequences of breaking the law. For better or worse, Vargas returns to her home country knowing she achieved exactly what she set out to do.
Matt, of course, thinks immigration authorities should’ve exercised discretion and let her go:
The real message is that having the laws doesn’t mean we should always use them.
The trouble with unelected cops and bureaucrats deciding which laws apply at any moment is that there’s no way to hold them accountable: you‘re at the mercy of noblesse oblige, with no recourse if they choose to wield their power in a way you don’t like. We might just as easily argue that the agents who detained Vargas did exercise discretion – they just didn’t make the call Matt wanted.
Rather than play these games and pretend the law is illegitimate and deserves to be circumvented, Matt might’ve done better to ask why Obama, whose executive actions on immigration he cites approvingly, didn’t work with Congress to reform the law between 2009-2011, when Democrats controlled the federal government.
Alas, Obama didn’t. Congress left the law in place. And so, what Vargas did was flagrantly illegal. Not only that, but she went onstage for political reasons and dared ICE to come after her. As a matter of policy, detaining and deporting her makes complete sense, as inaction would’ve encouraged other foreigners to flaunt the law.
More importantly, it’s what we’d expect of a healthy, functioning government. If laws are void when people feel they should be, or if we encourage law enforcement to substitute its judgment for that of the lege, we invite arbitrary rule. Even the most passionate defender of Vargas‘ conduct might want to think twice about cutting down every law in England at a time when Trump is king.
 As her lawyer later explained, Vargas herself was caught up in the same raid but was released. Why is anyone’s guess: possibly because, as Matt speculates, the agents cut her a break, possibly because she lied and claimed she still had DACA status.