Could Senator Lee’s stand on immigration take a hint from Thomas Jefferson?

Official portrait of United States Senator
Mike Lee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Daniel Burton

This week, invited to join in a bipartisan group of Senators in developing some guidelines for repairing America’s long dysfunctional immigration system, Senator Mike Lee opted not to sign the group’s Statement of Principles.
“Although I am encouraged by the process and continue to support efforts to make real progress on immigration reform,” said Utah’s junior senator, “I am not able to sign the Statement of Principles released today.”Standing at odds with Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lee tempered his opposition by reiterating that he was “greatly supportive of what the group aims to accomplish[.]”However great his support, Lee found real objections to the Statement of Principles (read them here).

These guidelines contemplate a policy that will grant special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country. Reforms to our complex and dysfunctional immigration system should not in any way favor those who came here illegally over the millions of applicants who seek to come here lawfully.

Additionally, the framework carves out a special exception for agricultural workers that has little justification. Maintaining the safety of America’s food supply is an important goal, but it is unclear why immigrants in this sector should achieve special status over skilled workers in industries equally important to the American economy.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by
Rembrant Peale in 1800.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Well known for his principled adherence to the Constitution and frequent reference to the Founding generation, Lee might find some guidance from Thomas Jefferson, that quintessential thinker of the founding generation. During his time in Paris as ambassador of our fledgling republic, Jefferson was called upon to negotiate a consular convention with France. According to Jon Meacham in The Art of Power, the Congress had rejected a previous draft of the agreement negotiated by Benjamin Franklin. Where Franklin had failed, Jefferson succeeded because he decided that “instead…of declining every article which will be useless to us, we accede to every one which will not be inconvenient.”

It’s a practical philosophy for negotiation and for governing, one that served Jefferson throughout his life. Find the common ground and agree upon it. One need not roll over in order to find a way forward. And if there is any issue upon which American policy makers need to find a way forward, it’s immigration.So, the question is: could Senator Lee agree to a Statement of Principles–and thereby put Utah at the forefront on immigration–without surrendering things that matter?Lee might argue that the reasons he did not sign the Statement are areas upon which he cannot agree to concede. Illegal immigrants shouldn’t receive special benefits, nor should they receive preference over others seeking to immigrate legally. Further, agricultural workers shouldn’t receive preference over workers in other sectors.
But should these be blocks to Lee agreeing upon common ground? While no one wants to provide special benefits to law breakers, the law is flawed. Laws are made by men, and men regularly make laws that are flawed and that should be changed. Further, America has a long history of flaunting and changing unjust laws, from the Boston Tea Party to the Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War to Rosa Park’s resistance of social segregation in the 1960s. Even today, protest continues against laws Americans see as unjust, with Hobby Lobby refusing to comply with portions of the Affordable Care Act because company owners believe the massive healthcare law implicates their First Amendment rights in practice of their religion.

Whether you disagree with the issue each of these individuals or groups was protesting, but each, with the exception of Hobby Lobby, saw a change in the law or policy after their illegal action. At issue here–the presence of millions of immigrants in the United States outside of the legal framework of the American immigration system–isn’t exactly a pernicious problem. Despite complaints that they are a drain on American social welfare, immigrants actually tend to use fewer resources than “legal” Americans, work more than the average, and, like generations before them, prove to be a boon and a blessing to our country. We could all be better educated on their effect on our country.
And if the cry of “AMNESTY!” gives pause, remember that the act of the government giving a pardon is not unheard of in American history. In fact, it’s fairly common and extends to the beginning of the republic.One glaring example is the Alien and Sedition Acts passed during the Adams Administration and strongly opposed by Thomas Jefferson. The laws placed severe limits on civil liberties, prompting Jefferson and James Madison to draft the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to propose the laws’ nullification by state legislatures. Upon taking office as the third President of the United States, Jefferson pardoned those who had been prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts and let the acts expire to the infamy of history. The Alien and Sedition laws were unjust, and Jefferson gave amnesty to those who had been affected by it.
Lee also expresses concern with the Statement of Principles on the grounds that it provides special benefits to a class of immigrants–those in agricultural labor. But American immigration policy has selectively permitted American citizenship to select groups and individuals throughout history, disproportionately bringing the best and the brightest from around the world to American shores. Whether it is providing special visas to foreigners seeking higher education, applicants who bring special skills, or an EB-5 visa that fast tracks citizenship to investors who build businesses that employ Americans, current and past immigration policy has often, if not always, favored certain groups over others with the purpose of making America stronger.Immigration policy uniquely reflects our values by demonstrating who we want to accept into our country. Are we saying we don’t want to accept those whose work is by the sweat of their brow rather than the intellect of the mind?Last, while supportive of an immigration policy that would secure our borders, Lee ignores several principles that should weigh heavily, especially as it relates to families and the economy. Coming from Utah, where families are often larger than average and where the influential LDS Church places a premium on strengthening the nuclear family, Lee should understand that current immigration policy includes a system that threatens families with unnecessary separation. It is a system where fathers and mothers here illegally must leave the country, and their citizen children and spouses, to seek, and perhaps fail to obtain, legal citizenship.Do we want to perpetuate a policy that will leave more families broken and likely reliant on social services? A strong nuclear family is less likely to avail themselves of social services, but requiring one spouse or both to leave children in order to obtain citizenship is likely to create a greater strain on welfare services already straining under the load of five years of high unemployment.Which leads to the economy. Continued economic relies upon expanding the labor force. The United States faces the problem of providing for aging Baby Boomers reliant on social security and other government benefits paid for by younger workers. As the average number of children per family in America decreases to match that of the stagnant economies of Western European countries, fewer workers are supporting aging entitlement recipients. Allowing those who want to work, and are willing to take labor intensive positions, is a logical and wise solution. Allowing immigrants who are here to stay here may not decrease how fast our population ages, but it will take decrease the pressure.


I’m appreciative that Senator Lee wants to uphold the law. I would be more appreciative if he would lead out in making the law better. Lee’s stance is perhaps more Javier than Jean Valjean. Unlike his time as a clerk in the Supreme Court, Lee’s job is to make law, and if there is a law that is flawed, to rewrite it. Work in a legislative body requires compromise, something the Senator understands and demonstrated well in his recent amending of the NDAA with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. However, failing to lead on immigration is a missed opportunity. Immigration reform can be a net gain for the United States, and the Statement of Principles by the Group of Eight is a step in the right direction. It’s not too late for Lee to take a page from Thomas Jefferson’s playbook to put Utah at the forefront of that change.

PoliticIt contributor and creator Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on Twitter as @publiusdb or on his blog where he muses on books, politics and ideas. View additional posts by Daniel, here.


Share this article