Harvard law School’s May Ann Glendon puts her finger on the sorest spot of all in the immigration debate:
Overshadowing all other concerns is alarm over the fact that there are 11 or 12 million immigrants in the United States who have entered or remained in the country illegally. To comprehend the depth of feeling attached to that issue, one has to keep in mind that there is no country on Earth where legal values play a more prominent role in the nation’s conception of itself than the United States. That was one of the first things Tocqueville noticed in his travels here in the early 1830s, and, as the country has grown larger and more diverse, its reliance on legal values has become ever more salient. In the culture struggles of the late twentieth century, Americans had to rely more heavily than ever on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the rule of law to serve as unifying forces. Persons who come from societies bound together by shared history, stories, songs, and images can easily overlook or underrate the importance of this aspect of United States culture. Persons who come from societies where formal law is associated with colonialism may well find the United States’ emphasis on legality rather strange. But no solution to the challenges of immigration is likely to succeed without taking it into account.
This is why the grant of social security benefits to regularized workers for their time as illegal workers jarred, and why even earned citizenship stings: Both provisions reward the initial lawlessness.