Ask a Franciscan

Must I Obey All Laws?

Q: Aren’t immigration laws as binding as all other laws? Even though someone can campaign to change a law, isn’t that person obliged to obey all current laws?

A: Yes, immigration laws are as binding as all other laws. Any law, however, could be unjust—even if enacted by legitimate authority. No person can be morally compelled to obey an unjust law (for example, any law that said all newborn children with Down syndrome must be killed or Nazi Germany’s laws that justified killing people for being Jewish, for being gypsies or being homosexuals, or other reasons).

A law is not unjust because you disagree with it or because you find it inconvenient. A law is unjust if it violates some right that is even more fundamental than that law itself. Genuine civil disobedience requires that the person accept responsibility for his or her noncompliance with that law. That separates civil disobedience from terrorism.

Nelson Mandela is a living symbol of civil disobedience—in this case, against apartheid laws in the Republic of South Africa. Eventually, he was released from prison on Robben Island and was elected president of his country.

Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience over 30 years was a significant factor in India’s becoming an independent country in 1946. In 1930, Winston Churchill said: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.”

Churchill was describing Gandhi’s meeting with Lord Irvin, viceroy of India. The term fakir is the term for a Hindu ascetic. That quote certainly did not represent Churchill’s finest hour.

Immigration reform has been debated in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere for years. All human laws must be respected, but they always carry the possibility of being unjust laws.

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