Questions as Violence: A Reason It’s Hard to Debate Immigration

"Well, if you illegally come into any country, you’ve transgressed the law. Is this true or isn’t it?"

I recently shared information on how to help non-citizens targeted by ICE. This elicited a number of questions from a friend. (We’ll call him Vince.) He and I seem to disagree on how to approach the subject of immigration. But though we disagree (as many do in the United States), it can be extremely difficult to find the crux of the disagreement. I don’t think we did in our ensuing conversation, but, with Vince’s permission, I want to share our discussion, as it shows how difficult dialogue can be.

It began after I shared this image:

Vince: So, why do you think helping people to break the law is right and just? Honest question.

Me: What law?

Vince: Well, if you illegally come into any country, you’ve transgressed the law. Is this true or isn’t it?

Me: How does one illegally come into the country? Could you tell me which part of the US Code? I practiced immigration law, so I’m interested in actual laws.

Vince: I didn’t study the law as you did, however from my understanding one enters legally by a port of entry. For example:

Me: That’s not the law. It’s a regulation put forward by the executive branch. Because Congress did not vote on it, it does not have the status of law in the US.
The US Code says that asylum seekers do not have to enter via a port of entry.
If you don’t know the law, why are you picking fights with people who do?

Vince: You think I’m picking a fight?!? I’m confused.
So it’s put forward by the executive branch and it’s all we have but you think we should undermine it and that that’s okay. Correct?
By the way, asking questions is definitely not picking a fight. That makes me sad that you just assume that.

Me: It’s not so much the asking questions as it is the presumptive framing. The questions presume I lack proper respect for government and that what I’m doing undermines it. The rough equivalent on my side would be something along the lines of, “So you think we should disregard the dignity of migrants and refugees if our president tells us to?”
My view is that the regulation put forward by the executive branch is actually in contradiction to US law and should not be followed.

Vince: I see. Interesting. But what it sounds like is that the executive order stands in direct relation to the law of this country on multiple levels. I suppose you have convinced yourself that you are justified in resisting this executive order and encouraging others to do the same. I can understand your frustration with my framing of the questions I will try to do less of that in the future. However, I wasn’t “attacking you” and just because I am ignorant and do not possess a background in law (like you do) doesn’t mean that I cannot ask valid questions. I always think its very foolish to dismiss people solely on the grounds that they are not “qualified experts”.

Me: I don’t understand even how I’m resisting the executive order. That’s not clear to me
I do think, however, that if you are going to argue about the law you should know something about it

Vince: That’s true. That’s why I asked the question. I’m not necessarily convinced either way. I just wanted to know your perspective.

Me: That’s not what I got from your original question: “So, why do you think helping people to break the law is right and just?“ The question presupposed my post was an act of support in breaking the law.

Vince: That’s what I was assuming based on your post.
I figured you would set me straight and I asked you because I knew that you had studied law.

Me: Yeah, so my response would be that someone raising the question would need to be more specific. I don’t think it would be fair to assume that persons targeted by ICE are not in the country legally. And people following the directions in that post certainly are acting in accordance with the law.
To put it succinctly, it’s not just that we may have a disagreement on conclusions. I actually disagree with the question, as it was put.

Vince: I should have asked: so, why do you think helping people to disobey an executive order is right and just?

Me: I don’t see how I’m helping them disobey the order if they’re already in the country.
Again, I disagree with the question

Vince: Do illegal immigrants exist? Or are they simply undocumented American Citizens? Do American Citizens exist? Do you think a country has a right to defend its own borders? If yes, then does that only extend to those outside of those borders but then is null and void once an individual crosses those borders? …idk, Give me a question that you’d like to answer. I’m at a loss.

Me: We do have persons we designate American citizens. Countries do have a right to regulate their borders. The term “undocumented American citizens” doesn’t make sense, because citizens either have a birthright-related citizenship or have gone through the naturalization process. There are immigrants who are in the country who are undocumented, though I wouldn’t refer to them as a whole as “illegal immigrants”

A few closing thoughts on my side:

This was a difficult conversation on both sides, partly because we struggled to come to a question that could be framed in a way that respected the perspectives of both sides. What often happened, as happens in the larger culture, is that rather than having a coherent dialogue, the two sides are actually having two different conversations at once. 

For this reason, we kept having to step back from what appeared to be the question at hand and to work through the presumptions that were built not only into our conclusions, but into the very questions we ask one another. Much public debate operates through the tactic of forcing unfair questions on each other. If we want to have a real dialogue, we must resist it, and we must first of all resist it on our own parts. 

We’ll need to rethink how we look at debate. We don’t need exclamation points to attack one another — questions can also be acts of violence. We can ask wrongly. So we need to agree on what questions to ask before seeking answers. And we need to recognize that, just as with our conclusions and presumptions, our questions may need revisiting and revision. 

We also need to resist being condescending or presumptive of bad faith. I’m not convinced I always succeeded doing this in the above interaction. Good debate requires not only intellectual skill but also moral virtue. The same virtues involved in overcoming sexual passions are necessary to overcome our emotive passions when engaging in hard conversations. The practice of good debate, like the practice of chastity, is hard. And it takes a long time and a lot of practice (and a lot of doing it badly, though hopefully less badly as we go on) to learn how to do it well. 

For these reasons, public debate on this issue is largely futile, and perhaps will only be ended when one side destroys the other. It will take a lot of time and commitment to come to common questions, let alone common ground. It requires not only intellectual skills but moral virtue, including intellectual and emotional detachment and asceticism.  

America just doesn’t have the patience for this. At its best, our attention span is an election cycle, and so our response is to try to destroy one another with each election. At its worst, our attention span is a social media word limit, and we accept the Twitter terms of debate in setting each other on fire with hot takes (including hot takes disguised as questions). This, of course, will not bring about peace, for peace can only be found in faith seeking understanding, both with God and with one another. Catholics need another way. 

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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