Between Folly and Cruelty on Immigration

Can right and left break out of their disastrous cycle?

Nature’s temporary solution to the crisis on the United States’southwest border is upon us, in the form of high summer temperatures that should reduce the migration rate and relieve some of the pressure on our overcrowded camps and courts. So it’s a good time to step back and assess the disastrous cycle in which our immigration policy has been caught.

The cycle started with a gap between the elite consensus on immigration — unabashedly in favor — and the public’s more conflicted attitudes, which differ depending on the day’s headlines and the wording of the polling questions. Across the first 15 years of the 21st century, too many Beltway attempts to simply impose the elite consensus set the stage for backlash, populism, Trump.

Unfortunately that backlash did not just give us a more restrictionist president. It gave us a restrictionist president who mixes ineffectiveness in legislating, incompetence in administration, and an impulse toward “toughness” as the response to every challenge — one that easily becomes a license for cruelty when a crisis hits. As it has, in the form of the wave of family migration — to which the Trumpian response has been, first,

  • the formal inhumanity of the child separation policy, and since then, the
  • informal inhumanity of an overwhelmed detainment system.

This inhumanity, in turn, has driven many liberals — led by the Democratic Party’s would-be nominees for president — to repudiate not only the specific evils of Trump’s approach, but the entire architecture of immigration enforcement as implemented by, well, the last Democratic president. The camps for asylum seekers must not just be made more humane; they must be closed. Deportations of non-criminal aliens must not only be limited; they must be ended. As migration rates increase exponentially, the government must respond by … decriminalizing illegal entry and extending public benefits to undocumented immigrants.

These policies are far more reckless than the old path-to-citizenship, more-guest-workers elite consensus, because they learn exactly the wrong lessons from the last five years of turbulence. We now have multiple case studies, European and American, of how in a globalized and internet-connected world migration can suddenly cascade, how easily a perceived open door can lead to a dramatic rush to enter — and then how quickly the most generous societies can find themselves retreating to enforcement and lurching toward populism.

For this cycle to break, for immigration policy to stabilize instead of whipsawing between folly and cruelty, you would need fraternal correction to happen within both the right-wing and left-wing coalitions.

On the American right, that correction ought to come from religious conservatives and their representatives, who have generally been far too blasé about the conditions in the migrant camps and the Trump administration’s moral responsibility to migrants.

Yes, these conditions reflect funding shortfalls in which Democrats as well as Trump are complicit; yes, some of the problems were also problems under Obama, and liberal partisans are only just now noticing; yes, reckless adult migrants are often responsible for putting children in peril in the first place.

But none of this absolves the United States of a basic responsibility to keep vulnerable people, children above all, in the most humane conditions possible when their detention is required. The harsh reality of border enforcement tends to breed callousness and prejudice, of the sort that pervades a recently-exposed Border Patrol Facebook group, unless someone in authority is pushing back hard against that tendency. And it’s plain that Trump’s team doesn’t regard that kind of pushback as a moral obligation, that they are either invested in the idea that cruelty might be a useful deterrent or indifferent to the conditions that visitors to the camps keep uncovering.

This is where the president’s religious supporters should be intervening, should be applying moral pressure, should be working to prove that the immigration restrictions they support can be implemented in accord with basic Christian principles. At the moment their efforts are meager, and that proof does not exist.

Then on the Democratic side, the obligation to halt the march of folly falls upon the party’s moderates, its House and Senate leaders — who behaved responsibly last week in passing the border funding bill over Ocasio-Cortezan objections — and finally on the would-be moderate trying to win the party’s nomination, Joe Biden.

Of all the questions that his leftward critics want to relitigate on the debate stage, this might be the most immediately important: Were Barack Obama’s deportation policies (which at their peak removed more people than Trump’s) immoral and un-American, a compromise with fascism that liberalism must now repudiate and permanently leave behind?

Biden has an obvious incentive to answer no, to defend as pro-immigration realism the last administration’s efforts to legalize longtime residents while also resisting migration waves.

But it’s how the party’s voters answer, and what the next Democratic president does, that will determine how fast the cycle of polarization continues turning, how wide our immigration gyre becomes.