Short Take: The Punishment Tango

You’re all for sex workers, but “johns” are criminals?

You call for legalizing the use of marijuana, maybe even narcotics, but the dealers who sell it are criminals?

You demand the undocumented immigrants be allowed to work, to support their families, to thrive, but the employers who hire them are criminals?

It takes two to tango, but your heart only goes out to one of the dancers, while the other remains evil. This isn’t going to work out the way you wish it would.

Last week’s ICE raids on undocumented workers in Mississippi—the largest of its kind—has drawn widespread protest for brutally separating parents from their children and deporting migrants whose only sin is escaping poverty and oppression in their homelands by finding job opportunities in the US. The protests are justified. But some critics also complain that ICE targeted workers, without also penalizing their employers.

For example, CNN commentator Jake Tapper simultaneously decried the humanitarian effects of the raids, and also criticized an administration official for failing to “hold buisnesses responsible for this.”  Such complaints are not new. There is a long history of federal immigration enforcement agencies rarely penalizing employers, and critics complaining that they should do so more often, even as they also lament the harm ICE raids inflict on workers.

It clearly feels different, the asymmetrical power relationship between employee and employer, the latter taking advantage of, if not abusing, the former. But without an employer, how does an employee work? Without a seller, where does the weed come from? Without someone buying sex, to whom is it sold?

Imagine that a person named Bob is seeking work to escape poverty and support his family. Congress enacts a bill known as Bob’s Law. Under this legislation, Bob is allowed to live wherever he wants, and law enforcement agencies are forbidden to punish him for taking any job that might be offered him. But there’s a catch: any business that hires Bob will be severely sanctioned for doing so, even though Bob himself will not be (perhaps they must pay a large fine, or the owner must go to prison, or both).

Yay? What does that do to help Bob, who wants only to escape poverty and support his family? Surely, Bob is sympathetic. You can’t blame a person for trying to survive. Yet, we simultaneously blame the person who would enable him to do so.

Bob’s law is purely imaginary. But those who argue that the federal government should refrain from punishing undocumented workers, but rigorously prosecute the employers who hire them, are effectively advocating much the same sort of policy in real life. This regime would not target undocumented workers directly, but in practice it would consign them to much the same sort of miserable existence as Bob would face.

Can you have it both ways? Does it make any sense? Does it help the person you want to help by hurting the person you want to hurt? To call for punishment, for more vigorous enforcement, against the person or entity for whom you feel no love may be viscerally satisfying, but it can’t be squared rationally with the desire to help the person for whom your sympathy flows.

In all transactions, there are necessarily at least two sides, and it makes no sense to promote the acceptability of one while simultaneously rejecting acquiescence of the other.

8 thoughts on “Short Take: The Punishment Tango

  1. David

    The illogic as you present it is manifest; but some people have more nuanced views. Economically, there is supply and demand of workers, and some see it as, if one wants to fight illegal alien workers, it is more efficient – and more humane – to go after the employers in preference to the workers, or at least in conjunction with going after workers. It plausibly seems to some as if the current environment is analogous to one in which drug traffickers may act with impunity, enjoying the fruits of their economic pursuits, while their addicted customers are subjected to arrest and deportation.

    That is, presuming there is some economic advantage or perceived advantage to hiring undocumented workers (e.g. they’ll do work others won’t, willingly, for less pay, and without complaining about unsafe conditions or harassment etc.?).

    Because you love individual anecdotes only tenuously related to the topic…I remember finding myself quite annoyed by friends from California who complained about illegal aliens and the cost of government services, but in practically the next sentence boasted about the Hispanic undocumented landscapers they hired cheaply for cash.


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