Under the Jim Crow laws, discrimination was not merely legal.  It was mandatory.  It was illegal for blacks to live, work, and shop in certain places.  Virtually everyone today regards this as an enormous injustice.  So do I.  But I question the claim that modern American policy is vastly morally superior.  The American government continues to mandate discrimination against an unpopular minority: illegal immigrants.  And this mandatory discrimination is far harsher than anything under Jim Crow.

Most obviously:

1. Under Jim Crow, there were many places in America where blacks were not legally allowed to live.  Under current immigration laws, there is nowhere in America where illegal immigrants are legally allowed to live.

2. Under Jim Crow, there were many jobs in America that blacks were not legally allowed to perform.  Under current immigration laws, there are no jobs in America that illegal immigrants are legally allowed to perform.

Admittedly, immigration restrictions are not worse than Jim Crow in every possible way.  Most notably:

1. Illegal immigrants face fewer restrictions on travel.  De facto, though not de jure, illegal immigrants are free to use any form of transportation that doesn’t require identification; they can ride trains but not planes.  Under the Jim Crow laws, blacks were unable to use many forms of transportation either de jure or de facto.

2. The children of illegal immigrants face fewer restrictions on attending public school.

3. The Tuskegee Institute estimated
that 3,446 blacks were
lynched between 1882 and 1968 – about 40 per year.  The FBI reported 681 hate crimes against Hispanics in 2010, but only one of these was a murder.  Lest we feel too superior, note that according to conservative estimates, several hundred immigrants die crossing the border every year.

The Jim Crow laws were awful.  Still, if you had to suffer under Jim Crow or modern immigration laws, Jim Crow seems like the lesser evil.

You could object that our moral obligations to citizens are far higher than our moral obligations to foreigners.  But that’s hardly satisfactory.  After all, the essence of the segregationist position was the American blacks were not fully-fledged  American citizens.  Imagine that instead of abolishing Jim Crow laws, the American public had resolved its cognitive dissonance by simultaneously (a) stripping blacks of their citizenship, and (b) declaring that “All citizens are entitled to equal treatment.”  Would that have made the Jim Crow laws any less reprehensible?

Another possibility: You could say that the treatment illegal immigrants receive is an appropriate punishment for their law-breaking.  This position would be plausible if legal immigration were easy.  But for the typical low-skilled immigrant, legal immigration is virtually impossible.  The U.S. makes it illegal for most foreigners to live and work here no matter what they do.  So how does the treatment they receive in any way fit their “crime”?

But perhaps I’m overlooking some crucial distinction.  So tell me: What is the moral difference between Jim Crow and immigration restrictions?