Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

A Higher Authority

By Karen Musalo

In the current controversy over illegal immigration, many take the position that immigrants who enter the United States illegally — whether to flee persecution, escape poverty, or rejoin family members — have broken the law, and their actions are therefore wrong or immoral. But can we equate illegality with immorality? Perhaps some reference to the experience of World War II will help us answer this question.

Many of the heroes of World War II were people who refused to follow laws or orders they believed to be fundamentally wrong. Indeed, following orders was not accepted as an excuse for war crimes either in the eyes of the world or the judgment of the Nuremberg tribunal.

One may say that the laws of the Nazi regime are far different from U.S. immigration laws and that a comparison between the two is inappropriate. Although this proviso is true, it is still useful to remember those heroes of World War II who violated immigration laws to save lives.

One of those heroes was Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat assigned to his country's consulate in Lithuania in the early 1940s. Jews who fled from Poland into Lithuania needed permission to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan in order to continue on to other destinations. Sugihara persuaded the Soviets to give permission, and then, against the explicit orders of the Japanese government, he issued thousands of visas to Jews fleeing from the Nazis.

Sugihara made his decision after consulting with his family and listening to his 5-year-old son ask, "If we don't help them, won't they die?" He also listened to his own conscience.

Did Sugihara break the immigration laws of Japan? Most likely, yes. Were his actions moral and ethical? No doubt they were. We should reflect on Sugihara's good works as we look at the relationship between what is legal and what is moral.

Karen Musalo, acting director of the International Human Rights Clinic at American University in Washington, was a visiting professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in 1994-1995.