John Garvey

John Garvey

“Les Miserables,” the musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel, has been running in London since 1985. Last Christmas, it was released as a movie that won three Academy Awards. By the time of the DVD release, the film had grossed more than $440 million worldwide.

The music and the all-star cast (including Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman) had a lot to do with the movie’s success, but the story is the real attraction. Jean Valjean, the protagonist, spends 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister and her seven children. Upon his release, he is issued a yellow feuille de route, a kind of domestic passport that identifies him as a former convict, making travel and employment difficult. Inevitably, he violates his parole. For this, Inspector Javert, the righteous embodiment of the law, pursues him throughout the novel.

Living under an assumed name, Valjean becomes a successful entrepreneur and the mayor of his town. He adopts the orphaned child (Cosette) of one of his factory workers. But then Javert finds him again. The rest of the novel is an account of the effort to bring Valjean to justice.

Hugo meant for the reader to sympathize with Valjean. His petty crime, committed out of desperate need and generosity rather than cruelty or selfishness, cost him 19 years of his life, plus other years on the run from Javert. In the meantime, Valjean lived an exemplary life, did much good for his town and his employees, and took in Cosette. In the end, (spoiler alert) even Javert is overcome by Valjean’s goodness.

My mind returns to this story when the issue of illegal immigration arises. The main argument against providing some form of relief for undocumented immigrants — such as a path to citizenship — is the problem of “rewarding” people who broke the law by entering the U.S. without permission or who stayed without permission.

I’m not enough of a romantic to believe that every undocumented immigrant has the soul of Jean Valjean, but the crime they have committed (crossing the border without going through customs) is often motivated by a desire to feed a family.

I don’t mean to minimize or excuse breaking the law. It’s wrong to jump the immigration queue, especially when so many must wait years for U.S. residency. It’s also wrong for undocumented immigrants to presume on another nation’s hospitality.

But we must be careful of adopting a resolute, unforgiving, uphold-the-law-at-all-costs approach, like the one taken by Javert. He spent his last days hell-bent on ruining a model citizen who posed a threat to no one and in fact made his world a better place.

As long as we’re going strictly by the book, it’s worth mentioning that federal law treats the act of illegal entry into the U.S. as a mere “administrative offense,” less serious than theft.

It makes perfect sense to say that those who sneaked in should have to get in line behind legal applicants. Make them pay a fine and back taxes for the period of their illegal stay. And just to make sure they are the kind of people we want to allow to reside here permanently, make them wait 10 years for permanent residency, then three more years before they can apply for citizenship — nearly as long as Javert spent pursuing Valjean.

These are the terms proposed in the bill the Senate passed in June. I don’t think anyone could fairly accuse us of coddling criminals if we adopted that kind of settlement.

At the end of the day, we have to stop hounding people for something they did long ago, often for generous reasons.

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Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.