In recent weeks the national dialogue has been dominated by hysteria at levels unprecedented even in the era of #nevertrump. Disturbing pictures of children, seemingly caged, were promoted by cynical activists and media outlets to the agitation of many whose political thoughts are dominated by their emotions. A goal of the Trump administration, so the trope went, is to separate immigrant children from their families. Well, it was not a goal but it did occur, as it did in the Obama administration and for the same reason.
Previously, children accompanying parents who were arrested at the border for illegal entry were detained together with their parents. The Obama Justice Department settled the Flores case brought by immigration activists with an Agreement for Judgment, providing that children could not be detained for more than 20 days. The hope of the immigration activists who brought the lawsuit was that everyone would be released. Many children, however, were separated from their arrested parents and moved briefly to Customs and Border Protection temporary facilities. These are where the recently publicized, distressing photos were taken during the Obama years.
After a couple of days, the children were moved to Child Care Shelters, operated by the Office of Refugee Settlement (ORS) which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. These shelters already existed for the large numbers of unaccompanied children who cross the border illegally in large numbers. These are not happy places but the children are well cared for and provided not only with food and shelter but supervision, activities and education.
To minimize the number of children moved to these shelters, the Obama administration engaged in so-called “Catch and Release,” the practice of arresting illegal entrants, but releasing them on a personal recognizance to return to a court date. The default rate at these court dates, however, turned out to be 97%. And those children will be the “Dreamers” of tomorrow.
The Trump administration instituted a “Zero Tolerance” policy when arresting non-citizens for illegal entry. The Department of Homeland Security announced that rather than wait the 20 days (deportation hearings are too backed up to occur in 20 days) the children would be separated immediately and sent to the ORS shelters where unaccompanied children were sent. The expressed hope was that this would also have a deterrent effect on illegal immigration.
President Trump’s recent executive order, requiring children to be kept with accompanying parents, will be dependent on the government’s ability to get a modification or stay of the order in the Florescase.
Every parent or grandparent responds with a primal protective emotion to the thought of children being separated from their parents. This emotion kicks in even at benign moments, such as a child going off to its first day of day care, the first day of school or, for some older children, boarding school. The emotion is higher at involuntary separation – the death, hospitalization or imprisonment of a parent, for example.
Five out of six children in the ORS Shelters – 10,000 of the 12,000 – are not children separated from their parents at the border but children who arrived unaccompanied. Indeed the poster child for the separated children, the weeping toddler looking up at an unconcerned Donald Trump in the doctored Time Magazine cover, was not, in fact, separated from her mother. The only separated children of that mother, who had previously been deported, were those she left at home on her latest attempt to enter illegally.
Those who would cynically use this emotion to drive immigration policy never mention that their goal is an Open Borders Immigration policy – a unpopular idea with the electorate. On the other hand and equally cynically, Trump and some Republicans in Congress try to limit any immigration, legal or otherwise, by promoting the idea that immigrants take away good paying jobs from Americans and are much more likely to engage in criminal activity.
The United States needs immigration and lots of it. Immigration has driven our economic engine from the beginning and, with our aging population, is more necessary than ever. The lost manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt have not gone to cheaper immigrant labor. They have gone to cheaper labor overseas. Minimum wage jobs go begging. And except for drug dealers and members of gangs like MS-13, immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than Americans in the same circumstances. A few anecdotes of repeat illegal entrants committing horrible crimes do not change that fact.
We need smart, selective immigration though. 150 years ago, an elderly or unemployable immigrant was thrown onto his family for support. Hard working and productive immigrants contribute to our national wealth but our 21stCentury “safety net” for food, housing and health care is an improvement for many who lack it in their home country. Many who claim the coveted “asylum” status would be denied legal admission otherwise because of their likelihood of becoming a “public charge.”
Politicians in both parties are using the immigration issue for posturing and finger-pointing. Attempts to pass an immigration bill fail when the politicians are really seeking only an election issue.
There are several moving parts for any Immigration Reform Bill. One major portion is DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) providing legal resident status for those called, in a brilliant marketing stroke, “the Dreamers. Those who were brought here as children and have been raised and educated as Americans should, in any just system, be able to establish themselves and apply for citizenship without first being deported to a country they have never known. Immigration conservatives went along with an amnesty immigration bill in 1986, which was coupled with a promise of tightened border security. The amnesty occurred. The secure border never did.
Having been burned once, they will not go along unless a DACA bill includes sufficient funding for an unclimbable wall, where necessary, and sufficient funding of the Border Patrol and a legal immigration hearing system sufficient to provide prompt deportation hearings for illegal entrants. It is the delays in that system which necessitate family separation. Democrats, on the other hand, refuse to support any DACA bill with other limitations on immigration. Some of them would simply like to import a more favorable electorate.
Other issues considered necessary to passage of a DACA bill include ending or reducing family-based “chain” migration, giving priority to persons with a relative already here, and “Diversity lottery” immigration, giving an advantage to persons from countries not already well-represented in the population. The President claims to prefer educated professionals or skilled workers but seems really to prefer reducing immigration altogether.
The right way out is not Open Borders or reduced immigration, but more and smarter immigration. In the present hyperventilating political climate, it doesn’t seem possible to pass anything at all.