The Ad Misericordiam Diversion of Obama’s Immigration Speech

When the facts are not on your side in a debate, one very strong way to divert your opponent and win the argument is to use the ad misericordiam diversion, better known as an appeal to pity or sympathy.  Prior to his executive order to temporarily grant legal status to about 4-5 million people in the country illegally, President Obama said many times that he did not have the constitutional authority to take such an action.  While there is debate about this, I believe he went beyond the powers of a president, which is why in his speech he used an appeal to sympathy argument and not a legal one.   Listening to the type of argument a person makes gives one insight into their thinking, and in this case it seemed obvious that this move was purely political and sadly made millions of people in need of help and answers mere political pawns.

In his speech, President Obama shared a verse from the Bible and called on our compassionate hearts to support his action and he referred to an individual who could now reunite with her family, an act all good-hearted people would naturally support.  It seems these days that we can’t have an honest dialogue about difficult issues and actually do something to move toward a solution.  If you consider the plight of the poor in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and other countries one naturally opens his heart and wants to help.  It’s a natural human reaction to want to help those who are less fortunate, and millions of people help those in need in many ways, especially at this time of the year.  Given that we are a compassionate nation, what could possibly be wrong with President Obama’s action?  Even if one opposes support of any sort for a person here illegally, there are many children who are citizens based on their birth here who live with parents who may be here illegally and we can’t ignore the possibility of breaking a family apart by deporting one of the parents.  The issue is complex and there is no simple or perfect solution and when we have moral dilemmas such as this it is best that our leaders work together and that a president works within the laws.

When listening to the president’s appeal to sympathy argument, the first thing that came to my mind was why does our compassion only apply to people here illegally for 5 years or more?  If a person has been in the country illegally for 4.5 years he or she is now treated differently than someone who has been here for 5 years or more.  Why?  If the appeal to sympathy applies to someone here for 5+ years, why does it not apply to someone who has been here 2 years, 3 years, 4 years?  Are they not just as sympathetic and in need of our kindness and support?  We’re going to deport to someone who has been here 4.5 years but not someone who has been here 5 years?  Seriously?  How is that compassionate?  How is that fair?  It seems to me that the action the president took can not only be challenged in the courts by those who feel he went beyond his constitutional powers and that he violated his oath of office to faithfully execute the laws of the land, but it can also be challenged by people here illegally for less than 5 years.  I would imagine a class action case could wind its way to the Supreme Court claiming the executive action is not equal treatment under the law for all persons as guaranteed by the 14th amendment, and that the 5 year requirement may violate the 8th amendment’s protection because it seems arbitrary and capricious.  The 14th amendment says that our laws apply to all persons and that they get equal protection.  With this executive order we now have two similarly situated persons being treated differently.  These are just some of the reasons the president should have waited and worked together with Congress on a more comprehensive approach that included securing the border.

Setting the legal argument aside for a moment, the debate diversion used was an appeal to pity or sympathy not a legal one.  So the question remains, why does our compassion not apply equally to two similarly situated people?  According to our president, our compassion begins after a person has been here for at least 5 years, and that is a hard sell, if you’re using the appeal to sympathy argument.

The challenge goes further, too.  If one uses the appeal to sympathy argument, then it must apply to all people and that means our definition of a refugee must change.  A refugee is defined as an alien unwilling to return to his or her country of origin “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”  Note that the definition does not include poverty.  It seems harsh for such a compassionate country that did at one time allow people who were escaping poverty to come here and build a better life for themselves to not only not include such people in the definition of a refugee, but to have them so low on the list of potential legal immigrants that they really have very little chance of ever getting in legally.  This is why they take matters into their own hands and come here illegally, often going on dangerous trips and dealing with horrible coyotes and others who take advantage of them, and in some cases rape and murder them.

As much as we would like to broaden the definition of a refugee and open our borders and our hearts to poor people all over the world, we simply can’t.  The economic burden and strain on our social safety net would be too great, not to mention significant health concerns and the strain on our hospitals and doctors.  Our infrastructure could not handle such a large increase in our population, our schools would be burdened, and taxes would have to be raised rather significantly.  Maybe over time all of these people would prove to be tax paying citizens who could boost our economy, I don’t know, but we control the number of legal immigrants and visas we offer every year for a reason.

The current law dealing with people here illegally also includes significant penalties for employers who hire such people.  Are these fines now dropped?  Is it compassionate to not to allow a person in need of work and who wants to work to provide for his or her family to be blocked from work that others do not want to do?  If the argument is an appeal to pity, doesn’t that aspect of the law have to be removed?  The president’s action is likely to cause more confusion and division than he may have thought.

I’d like to say the president’s heart is in the right place, but frankly I feel his actions were not only disingenuous and purely political but actually hurt immigrants.  Had the president waited 6 months I believe the new Republican majority in Congress would have put a more comprehensive bipartisan bill together that would have helped all people here illegally and would have attempted to make the border more secure.  Had that happened then both political parties could have said they worked together to help those in need and maybe there would have been some political gain by both parties.  To head that off and gain a political advantage President Obama took his action now, rather than 6 years ago or any time between then and now.  Had the Republicans not acted then an appeal to sympathy to help generate a bipartisan bill would have been appropriate.

It’s unfortunate that our political leaders can’t work together to solve problems.  The problem of illegal immigration is rooted in people seeking a better future for themselves.  They are human beings and deserve better than to be used as pawns in political games.  They do not need our pity, they need our help.  Sadly, the president’s appeal to pity will only hurt them in the long run.  A common sense bipartisan approach would have been much better for the people involved and for the nation.  Instead, we are now even more divided thanks to an unfortunate use of the ad misericordiam diversion.



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