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Our Debate On Illegal Immigration Is A National Disaster


When emotionalism meets scaremongering, it’s difficult to have a useful debate about anything. Yet for immigration, those seem to be the two choices.

The Trump administration has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy requiring law enforcement to prosecute illegal immigrants. Yes, the policy comports with the law. Yes, the Obama administration engaged in a similar policy on a smaller scale — and yes, the media covered it very differently.

But, no, President Trump doesn’t “have to” temporarily break up families. He chooses to strictly implement the law, claiming, among other things, that it is a necessity in stopping gang violence. Trump officials’ inability to deal with the mess they created incompetently implementing their policy, and the public relations disaster resulting from that ineptitude, is on the administration, and no one else.

Trump has admitted, in fact, that “zero tolerance” is not only meant to cut down and discourage illegal immigration, but it’s a gambit to push Congress towards some form of a broader immigration deal that favors his priorities. It’s difficult to believe that Democrats, who’ve eagerly embraced the ugly optics of separation policy, will be more inclined to agree to a deal now. You can’t simultaneously argue, as Trump officials have, that you’re being forced to do this, then admit it’s a negotiating tactic as well. At least, not convincingly.

Moreover, even if everything Trump is saying is true, there’s got to be a more humane way to deal with families that are separated. Any policy, for instance, that fails to let parents know immediately, and continuously, exactly what’s happening to their children, is immoral — and it seems to me such things can be fixed administratively. It can certainly be fixed by Congress.

The idea, however, that this is something hatched completely in a vacuum is absurd. Even if separation policy is misguided, and I think it is, the administration doesn’t “kidnap” or “snatch” little children from immigrant parents. Nor is the policy equivalent, in any conceivable way, to the Holocaust or human rights abuses of third world nations.

So when people like Joe Scarborough offer hysterical analogues, comparing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who are temporarily separating illegal immigrant parents from their children while cases are being heard with Auschwitz guards leading children to cyanide showers, they help create a moronically hyperbolic atmosphere that makes it increasingly impossible to fix anything. These children deserve better, yes, but there is no evidence that they are being willfully mistreated. In some cases, they are being protected.

Moreover, despite perceptions, often created by the president himself, the Trump policy isn’t really zero tolerance. Those who claim asylum at ports of entry are not separated from their children. Only parents charged with entering the country illegally and who claim asylum after being apprehended are detained. Adults who choose not to be deported have to wait for adjudication of their case. While this happens, the law prohibits children from being held in the same detention centers as adults.

One of the underlying policy problems, largely ignored by those covering this story, is that in the past families who claimed asylum were often released with a bracelet (one that could be easily removed) if they promised to show up at a hearing at some later date. They often did not show up. Does anyone on the Left know how to fix this problem? Do they believe it’s a problem, at all? It sure doesn’t seem like it.

The Trump administration, after all, didn’t invent the cages that are being used to temporarily hold families who attempt to illegally enter the country. Our border policy was a mess long before Democrats were selectively citing scripture to shame conservatives. Actually, Trump’s here in part because it’s a mess.

Instead of explaining the complicated dynamics of the problem, many in the media are stoking outrage by doing things like conflating unaccompanied minors with separated children, making no distinction by age or circumstance.

Trying to blame Trump for an influx of young foreign citizens is misguided. The majority of kids in care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most often teenagers, are apprehended because they’re here without any parents. It’s a growing problem. In 2013, a little fewer than 40,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended by the Border Patrol. That was a historic high. In 2016 there were nearly 60,000. This year there are likely to be more than 80,000.

As Doris Meissner, the director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute, recently told CNN, it’s a phenomenon that “dates from just the last few years, and was not one that the Bush or early Obama administrations confronted in any significant numbers.”

Moreover, what should border enforcement do with unaccompanied children? Unless your position is that anyone who wants to walk over the border should be able to do so, including children,  there will be detention centers, and a fraction of the people in those detention centers will be children.

It’s true that some Republicans act as if everyone coming over the border is an MS-13 drug mule, while some liberals act as if there is no criminality associated with unregulated immigration, even from a nation experiencing an epidemic of lawlessness and violence. But perhaps the biggest tragedy of the immigration debate is that, despite the acrimony surrounding it, it’s probably the most easily fixed. The majority of Americans still aren’t ideologically rigid on the issue. They’re open to immigration (and to Dreamers), but most also want secure borders. Falsely feeding the dueling perceptions that the United States is a budding fascist state or anarchy without a border create a political climate that makes immigration impossible to fix.