Fault Lines
10 December 2017

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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.

18 Comments on this post.

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  • Richard G. Kopf
    6 March 2017 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Dave,

    Inherent in you superb post is the notion that there is a difference between law and justice. We want cops and other low-level government types to do law because we don’t and should not trust them to do justice.* All the best.

    RGK

    * What do we mean when used the word “justice?” I can tell you this: After thinking hard about the question and writing more than a little about it, I don’t have a clue!

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      6 March 2017 at 10:20 am - Reply

      Your Honor,

      exactly. I invite all Americans on the fence about this distinction to spend a couple years in Europe, where laws really are secondary to feelz.

      All the best,
      David

      PS: I resemble the implication that any of my posts are “superb.”

      • shg
        6 March 2017 at 12:50 pm - Reply

        “All the best.” Suck up.

        • David Meyer Lindenberg
          6 March 2017 at 12:57 pm - Reply

          What? Should I sign off my comments with random strings of profanity, like Mort?

          • shg
            6 March 2017 at 1:18 pm -

            To thine own self be true…

          • Scott Jacobs
            6 March 2017 at 5:50 pm -

            I have a fucking name, God Damnit…

          • shg
            6 March 2017 at 8:13 pm -

            Which shall, in perpetuity, be Mort.

          • David Meyer Lindenberg
            7 March 2017 at 8:25 am -

            Surprise iambic pentameter!

  • jdgalt
    6 March 2017 at 11:33 am - Reply

    It seems to me this post (deliberately?) completely misses the point of this controversy, which is that Vargas is being punished for his political speech, by means of selective enforcement.

    Do we really want to be the kind of country where speaking in dissent from present law — especially when the government considers that dissenting view “dangerously popular” — provokes the cops to take a hard look at what three felonies you’ve committed today, just by being alive?

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      6 March 2017 at 11:45 am - Reply

      Vargas (who is a woman) is being deported to remedy her ongoing violation of immigration law, which, at least in this case, cares not a whit for her “political speech.”

      As to your generalization, it fails. We want to be the kind of country where if someone announces to the world that they’re breaking a certain law, the cops take a hard look whether that’s in fact the case and step in if so.

    • SCG
      6 March 2017 at 12:47 pm - Reply

      The unfortunate reality is that if your VISA or other immigration papers are not up to date or otherwise legal you are best served by shutting up. It’s not about the feels here; it’s the reality that if you are here illegally you really shouldn’t draw the attention of ICE/CBP.

  • Hastur
    6 March 2017 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Civil disobedience often leads directly to jail. That’s part of the price paid for loudly and visibly violating law that one disagrees with.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      6 March 2017 at 11:50 am - Reply

      Correct. A point all too often lost on today’s activists, who think crying “civil disobedience!” immunizes them from the consequences.

      In fact, it’s exactly that willingness to sacrifice for your beliefs that makes civil disobedience noteworthy.

  • Keith
    6 March 2017 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    We‘re supposed to believe that if enough people “debate” whether a law should continue to be, it poofs out of existence.

    As attenuated as it is, if Brown was aiming at some sort of nullification type scenario for the times that the masses think an illegal act should be ignored, maybe I can see it. Shame there aren’t any juries involved here.

    Otherwise, the argument seems misplaced.

  • Mike G.
    6 March 2017 at 7:25 pm - Reply

    Well, Europe sure is a lot different these days. Back in the 70’s, European law enforcement didn’t particularly care about an individual’s feelz.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      13 March 2017 at 8:37 pm - Reply

      Their own feelz, numbnutz. Also, reply button.

  • Todd Brecher
    7 March 2017 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Stumbled upon this and very impressed by the level of balanced thought reflected here. Something truly lacking on both sides these days. Like many I feel terrible about the human cost of some of the deportations that are going on, and the lying by trump administration that only violent criminals are being deported is despicable. (In sure we will eventually hear crowing from Trump about the hundreds of thousands of “dangerous criminals” that they deported which will be another big lie). But your fundamental points that these people are breaking the law, that just ignoring that is irresponsible and dangerous (and could backfire badly on a minority party) and that democrats bear responsibility for not getting broad immigration reform down over the last 20 years are all very strong ones.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      7 March 2017 at 8:46 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Todd, I appreciate that.