Reports suggest that the Obama administration is planning to deport hundreds of families whose applications to remain in the country were rejected by immigration courts. Immigration rights advocates have begun rallying in opposition, arguing that it is inhumane to send back to Central America — the source of many of the cases — people who have fled violence and crime-ridden neighborhoods for a chance at a better future.

It’s hard to argue with that, but it is based on a flawed premise. To not deport those whom a judge has ruled ineligible to remain is to discard any notion of enforceable immigration law. And that is an indefensible position.

We share concerns about the fairness of the immigration court system. It is understaffed. Studies have found that petitioners who have a lawyer at their elbow stand a much better chance of winning permission to stay than those without lawyers, largely because of the arcane and confusing nature of immigration law itself. But those facing deportation do not have a right to a lawyer paid for by the government, unlike criminal defendants.

But that shortcoming is an argument for more robustly funded immigration courts, not an excuse to not enforce a lawful order from an immigration judge.

No doubt the U.S. immigration system is in shambles. Congress must stop using illegal immigration as a boogeyman and start crafting reforms that would include a path to citizenship for those who have put down roots and have been responsible members of society, while stiffening the government’s ability to enforce borders and track down people who overstay visas.

The current wave of asylum-seekers raises particularly vexing questions. The U.S. has a long and occasionally problematic history in Central America, and bears some moral culpability for the criminal gangs that relocated from U.S. cities to thrive in urban neighborhoods of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The U.S. also is the main market for the illicit drug trade that helps many of those gangs flourish.

The solution to those issues, though, isn’t to allow entry to the U.S. for anyone able to reach the U.S. border. Those who face legally articulated persecution — usually based on religion, political beliefs or other recognized classes of special victimization — should be granted asylum if U.S. immigration courts say they are eligible.

The government has both the right and the responsibility to determine who gets to enter the country, and who gets to stay. Openness to immigration has been one of the nation’s strengths. Still, we have to expect the government to follow through on legal processes that have been completed.

When the courts reject arguments that individual migrants have a right to stay, the government is correct in targeting them for removal. To do otherwise not only erodes the sense that we are a nation ruled by laws, but it also serves as an encouragement for others who think gaining entry to the U.S. is as simple as showing up and saying, “Let me in.”

From an editorial in the Los Angeles Times