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Breaking the law is right (sometimes)

Photo by AP / Kevin Glackmeyer

Some people still know the difference between law and justice:

“Speaking at a debate on Illinois’ controversial legislation that grants driver’s licenses to the state’s estimated 250,000 undocumented immigrants, [Lake County Sheriff Mark] Curran responded to an audience member who said that granting undocumented immigrants a driver’s license was “a slap in the face” to the rule of law.

Curran, a conservative Republican sheriff of a county of over 700,000 people next to Chicago, is a vocal supporter of immigration in the U.S.

‘Ultimately, I believe in the rule of law. But we have to be honest about that. When we talk about the rule of law, a couple of things,’ Curran said. ‘One, our country had the rule of law that women didn’t have the right to vote. Minorities didn’t. Rosa Parks got caught in the rule of law. We can go on. Nazi Germany was the rule of law. So, ultimately, some laws are unjust in some sense.’ “

Heading into MLK Day weekend, it’s only fitting that we recall what Dr. King wrote 50 years ago on the relationship between justice and the law in his now-famous epistle from a jail cell: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ ”

As an outspoken critic of the nation’s immigration system and an equally vocal supporter of comprehensive reform, I’m often confronted with the argument that to offer any leniency, any mercy or sympathy, with any one of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States is to oppose American law and, thus, oppose America herself.

But America’s own history is rife with heroic examples in which the law was disobeyed when it failed to meet the highest standards of justice. Whether we point to colonial rebels refusing to pay taxes, abolitionists leading people north via the Underground Railroad, customers ordering gin at a speakeasy during Prohibition, or a brave secretary refusing to surrender her seat on a segregated bus in the Jim Crow South, the past provides us with a variety of instances wherein breaking the law was the right thing to do, justly and morally so.

With those examples in mind, when nativists and the opponents of immigration reform insist that we respect the rule of law, I respectfully disagree. We must obey the rule of justice, which the law is forever meant to serve.

It’s clear that whenever an immigrant sneaks across the border or overstays their visa, a law is broken. If the act was committed in adulthood, then the person must be willing to accept some form of punishment. MLK acknowledged that some of his actions were against the law, and he was willing to face the legal consequences for those actions — hence, the letter written from a damp jail cell.

But if we’re to deport every undocumented immigrant as the law demands, including those brought here as children, there’ll be cases in which following the letter of the law requires that an injustice be done.

If a parent, say, illegally crosses the street with their child, do we fine both for breaking the law? If a mother takes items from a store and hides them in her baby’s stroller, are both mother and baby locked up and sent to court?

Of course not, because a child doesn’t know a thing about jaywalking or shoplifting, and she knows much less about international borders and immigration law.

So, yes, some immigrants are undocumented. And, yes, some of them even entered the country illegally. In both cases their presence here is unlawful.

Yet to punish undocumented immigrants brought here as children, while it may be the legal thing to do, is emphatically the unjust thing to do.

And in the end, justice should be more important to us than the law.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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