Immigration Policy: Bordering on Madness

Eduardo, a three-year-old boy from Honduras, looks at his father after migrants illegally crossed into the U.S. from Mexico in Penitas, Texas, November 7, 2018. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The U.S. is lousy at excluding illegal immigrants — and at treating them humanely once they’re here.

If this is the way President Trump treats his prisoners, he doesn’t deserve to have any.

More than 350 children have been removed from a holding facility in Texas designed to hold about 120. The children were filthy, many of them sick, many of them hungry, with inadequate hygiene and care. Children seven and eight years old were looking after infants. The children had been held for weeks in contravention of the law, under which they may be held for no more than 72 hours.

“Don’t blame us!” says the Border Patrol. “The Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to be looking after those kids.” HHS in turn pleads poverty: “Operating under a deficiency,” it says. No room at the inn.

The United States is not good at incarceration — strange, given that we get so much practice at it. Whether it is roasting homeless veterans to death in Rikers Island or the systematic rape and abuse that characterizes our prison system, Americans are among the world’s most incompetent and dangerous jailers.

Part of that is the familiar deficiency of American public administration — American prisons are what happen when you create a hermetically sealed society with the DMV lady as dictator-for-life — and part of that is our sick culture: We view rape and abuse as a motivating, and at least wincingly tolerated, part of the penitential mix. We make feature-length comedy films that consist of little more than prison-rape jokes. We think the answer to terrorism is electing the guy who promises to be “very hard on the families.”

And very hard on the families is what we are.

The problem of illegal immigration is itself the result of massive administrative failure in the United States. By systematically failing — and refusing — to enforce our own immigration laws, we have created the international equivalent of what the tort lawyers call an “attractive nuisance.” There are jobs, homes, support, and (in spite of the law) benefits to be had in the United States, with relatively little prospect of serious consequences for those who are caught. If you are a poor Guatemalan without much in the way of economic and social prospects, illegal immigration to the United States is a perfectly rational choice. Guatemala has its own deficiencies, to be sure, but the situation here is Washington’s creation, not Guatemala City’s.

Rather than insisting that the government do its job and secure the borders, Americans have since the Reagan amnesty been content to watch the ideological–social pendulum swing remorselessly back and forth — Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump — each of the two major tribes celebrating when its man takes the conch and lamenting when it passes to the other side, each tribe sure that this is the variable that matters to our national peace, prosperity, and purpose. American politics is Lord of the Flies without the boyish vigor.

Meanwhile, nothing of substance happens on illegal immigration, and on many other issues.

And so rather than dealing with the problem proactively, like a nation of 325 million or so free and self-governing citizens of a republic, many of them grown adults, we attempt to use the same anemic and fruitless methods that failed to address the problem in the first place to deal with it retroactively — with the inhumane results we see before us.

Of course there is much to criticize on the other side of the border, starting with the cynical “recycling” of children, whom illegal immigrants use, with the quiet encouragement of their home governments, as human shields. But we cannot govern Mexico for the Mexicans or Guatemala for the Guatemalans. We can only make available such help as we have to offer. Still, we can and must be responsible for our own practices, beginning with our own law enforcement.

The problem is not the so-called child-separation policy per se. Separating children from their parents is an inevitable consequence of enforcing not only immigration law but many other laws as well. The problem is our inability — and maybe our vindictive unwillingness — to see to it that our procedures are administered and implemented decently and humanely — and effectively, which is of consequence for the other two criteria. That means ensuring that the preventative measures are enforced in a way that is actually preventative. Instead, we have opened the floodgates and then been surprised by the flood. That is foolish and counterproductive.

It is also, in practice, indecent.

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