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.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hope is a double-edged sword. When I was thirteen years old, I came to somewhat understand politics and its effect on me, my family, and the country I lived in. “Chávez finally died! What a joy!” I heard in the hallways of my high school and even at my grandmother’s house back in 2013. How can people celebrate a person’s death? I asked myself. Yet, he was the reason for Venezuela’s faltering economy leading us to poverty, inflation, a remarkable increase in the murder rate and corruption within the police force and government. People celebrated his death, because it was a sign of hope that their oppression was finally coming to an end. But this sense of hope did not last long. Nicolás Maduro assumed the presidency, ruling Venezuela by decree. The Bolivarian Revolution created food shortages and a decrease in living standards. The government began to impose socialist doctrines on every student by changing the content of our textbooks. Math lessons turned into calculations of how much land needs to be reclaimed from private owners by the government, and social studies became just another form of propaganda for Chávez’s pictures and his Bolivarian projects.
Nonetheless, my family continued to dream and to hope. My older brother decided to trade his dream of becoming a professional musician for the hope of finding a better future in the land of the free. He entered the United States with a student visa (F-1) which allowed him to enroll as a full-time student in a language training program. He did not know English, so this was the first step for a new beginning. Two years passed and money was running out, as he was not allowed to work under a student visa. He was no longer able to pursue a full-time course of study. This broke one of the many student visa rules, leaving him without a lawful immigration status. He did not want to go back to a life of oppression in Venezuela, so he overstayed his visa, fully aware of the risks of being deported and barred from reentry into the country in the future.
After months of worry and desperation, he met a woman who helped him to evade U.S. immigration laws by entering into a sham marriage. One of the most common ways for immigrants to get a lawful permanent resident status in the United States is by being the spouse of a U.S. citizen. Of course, this is illegal if couples do it for the sole purpose of getting a Green Card with no intention of living as husband and wife. For a marriage to be valid, it is not enough to have a ceremony and a stamp on a marriage certificate. The noncitizen and spouse must submit evidence of cohabitation such as commingling finances and pictures of shared experiences together. They must submit to an interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer for the purpose of determining the genuineness of the marriage. In other words, the couple has to prove – through concrete actions – that they intend to establish a life together as a married couple. If they don’t, this is considered a violation of immigration law and violators are subject to harsh legal consequences.
This is just one of many examples from US history, in which people have defied unjust laws, by engaging in conscientious rebellion. Perhaps the most well-known is the Underground Railroad, from the era of American slavery. This was a vast network of people, routes, and places that helped fugitive slaves from the South to escape to the North and to Canada where African Americans could live as free men and women. This abolitionist movement was led by ordinary people, white and black. Some were farmers, business owners, and ministers. It was not an actual railroad, but a metaphorical one, its purpose being to transport people over long distances from border states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland where slavery was legal. The way it worked was through “conductors” guiding fugitive “passengers” running away from plantations to shelters called “stations” where “station masters” helped them to hide from their owners. Meanwhile, the Slave Acts, first passed in 1793, allowed local governments to capture and return fugitive slaves back to their owners and to punish those people who aided in their flight. Later, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 imposed harsher measures by compelling citizens to assist in the capture of escaped slaves, while even denying these runaways the right to a jury trial. Those who interfered with the rendition process were forced to pay $1,000 and could spend up to six months in jail.
Conscientious rebellion arises from a moral obligation to oppose unjust laws. Is it just to send people back to the place where they are being threatened the most? When I was a child, men in masks pointed a gun at my older brother’s head. They tried to kidnap my youngest brother and attempted the same thing with my mother, just a few months later, at her place of work. Coming to the United States was one of the only ways to escape these kinds of actions on the part of the Venezuelan government. And yet, the United States immigration policies became harsher with each passing day. During the first academic year, F-1 visa students are not allowed to work, and after that time, they can only participate (with restrictions) in practical training – for little pay – related to their course of study. It is not enough to be a good student, pay taxes, and have no criminal records for the country to offer permanent residency.
Each year, thousands of families are being separated at the borders, and even those with legal immigration status who suffer from drug addiction are detained for prolonged periods and treated far worse than those in prison serving sentences for violent criminal offenses. There has been a growing number of migrants seeking asylum within the United States from countries lacking economic opportunities and with high rates of violence, but they are being restricted in terms of the benefits they can receive and the things they can or cannot do while their petition is pending. My best friend has been under a pending asylum process for more than five years with no progress. She is now a senior undergraduate student who wants to go to medical school and become a neonatal surgeon. However, she cannot apply and have the benefits of a regular permanent resident or a citizen student when it comes to financial aid. She would have to apply as an “international student,” demonstrate that she is economically able to be in the country and pay her tuition out of pocket. After six years in this country – and in the final stage of my undergraduate studies – the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) department denied the visa that allowed me to stay legally in the country as well as my application to register permanent residence in the United States. Since I turned 21 years old, it would take years for another visa to become available for me to adjust my immigration status when petitioned by a family member. As per my decision letter, I am “not authorized to remain in the United States and should make arrangements to depart as soon as possible.” This is how dreams and hopes are crushed. And it is why the current immigration laws are unjust.
It is because of the existence of these unjust immigration laws, human beings are morally obliged to commit acts of conscientious rebellion. People engage in sham marriages as a form of rebellion. We may see it as a demonstration of our human rights, but in the eyes of the government, it is just another crime; “a threat to U.S. national security, financial institutions and the integrity of the immigration system.” Yet, people still enter into a fake marriage being aware that both the foreign national and the U.S. citizen can get a sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 (and deportation for the immigrant, of course). Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
This is the modern-day representation of the Underground Railroad. Immigrants are the fugitive “passengers” running away from their country of origin trying to find a “shelter” (sham marriage) with the help of a “station master” U.S. citizen who helps them become free, whatever that might entail. Just as people in the era of slavery had a moral obligation to help enslaved people escape through a metaphorical Underground Railroad, people today have a moral obligation to enter into a sham marriage in order to help immigrants to remain in the country.
Humanity is characterized by love and compassion. We are all human beings. We all have sentiments. We cry, laugh, scream, and love together. By the mere fact of sharing a place on Earth and building relationships with one another, we take on the obligation to offer a helping hand to those in need and to develop a sense of solidarity. As the Scottish philosopher W.D. Ross once reflected, our moral duties arise out of our relationships with other people. All it takes is a look at the man or woman in the mirror to make the world a better place.