What does a 150 year old book have to do with today?  It is another way of viewing the current debate on illegal immigration.

In the book Les Miserables by Victor Hugo there are two characters that illustrate ideas for handling law breakers.

Jean Valjean is the main character of the book who is first sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family.  Attempts to escape add to his sentence and Valjean finally gets out of prison nineteen years later.

As an ex-convict no innkeepers want to take Valjean in but he is finally taken in by Bishop Myriel.  Valjean steals silverware from Myriel only to be caught quickly by the police.  When taken back to Myriel he chastises Valjean for leaving so abruptly without taking the silver candlestick holders and reminded Valjean of his (not actually made) promise to lead a better life.  Valjean is grateful for the gift and the reprieve and immediately robs a boy of a silver coin before deciding to turn his life around.  This leaves an arrest warrant hanging over Valjean’s head.

Later, after Valjean has moved to a new town, changed his name, and is a successful factory owner he finds that Javert is the police inspector of the town.  Javert worked in the prison and knew Valjean but did not feel comfortable identifying the mayor as Valjean without more corroboration.  Much of the story follows Valjean trying to live a normal life under the shadow of his prior criminal record and the possibility of going back to prison for the rest of his life.

In spite of his circumstances and the difficulties of his life, Valjean’s goes on to live a remarkably charitable life eventually saving Javert’s life at great risk to his own.  Javert has a change of heart toward Valjean and then commits suicide because he cannot reconcile his personal feelings about the charity Valjean has shown and Javert’s commitment to enforcing the law.

We have an incredible debate right now about illegal immigration.  Some people think that anything short of deportation is somehow rewarding illegal behavior and should not be tolerated.  That is the Javert side of the argument.  Other people think that the people are here to work and provide for their families in a peaceful land without significant civil unrest and the immigration system is not working.  There is simply no timely way to come into the United States from countries south of the border.  Because of this reality we should perhaps show a little compassion for the people here illegally.  This is the Myriel side of the argument.

The crime of illegal immigration is illegal border crossing which is a very minor crime on the books.  First time offenders may be fined $50.  It is a regulatory crime on the same level as speeding, jaywalking, driving with an expired license or out of date registration on your vehicle.  It is a traveling violation.  It is not some huge moral violation.  The penalties are civil in nature, not criminal.  First time sex offenders face jail time.  First time illegal border crossers are sent back with a $50 fine, maybe.

There are some people who are here and part of rather violent cross border gangs.  We already deport people convicted of crimes.  There are other groups like La Raza that are very vocal in their support of Mexico and would like to take the Southwest United States back for Mexico.  These people are dangerous to the nation and should be deported as well.  These groups are not representative of the vast majority of people who emigrate here.  We need to look at them as individuals and find merciful workable solutions.

Think about Valjean for just a minute.  If you were in his position just trying to make things better for your family and stole a loaf of bread, would you want to spend years in prison?  Is it an unjust system that would not have any kind of mercy for such an individual?  The system that would simply condemn such a man is a completely unjust system.  He can work to pay back the baker, he can maybe pay a fine, but years in prison?  No way.

I find that when I am on the guilty end of things I try to get as much mercy as possible.  I try to talk my way out of speeding tickets.  I suspect you do too.  Maybe we should extend a little more mercy toward the people who have moved here illegally.  It really is such a minor crime.  Be more like Bishop Myriel and less like Javert.

Find solutions that work rather than unnecessarily punish people.

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