Donald Trump and his administration are abominable. At the same time, some of his prominent critics have made statements on immigration policy that are flawed. These critics include the editorial page of The New York Times, many of the Democratic presidential primary contenders, and Andrew Sullivan, a conservative commentator.
My criticism of the Times and the Democrats stems from the fact that it is impossible to have humane immigration restrictions, contrary to what they suggest. In Sullivan’s case, I challenge several of his policy positions. Moreover, they are all apparently opposed to open borders, disregarding solid arguments for this policy.
The Times’ July editorial, entitled “The Immigration Crisis Is Corrupting the Nation,” decried the cruelty of the administration’s immigration enforcement, highlighting the mistreatment of immigrant children in detention facilities. It concluded that “… only a desensitized nation could continue to permit the separation of children from their parents — and detaining all of them in atrocious conditions — as a morally acceptable form of deterrence.”
While I support condemnation of the administration’s immigration policies, the implication of the editorial, including its title, is that the country’s current immigration policy has passed a line separating humane and inhumane policies. Unlike the policies of previous administrations, the editorial seems to be saying, the Trump administration’s policy is making many Americans callous about the impact of enforcement on immigrants; the policies of previous administrations were not so cruel as to “corrupt the nation.”
However, there is no line separating humane immigration restrictions from inhumane ones. This reality was suggested by the organization No One is Illegal in their 2003 Manifesto, which states that while “many of those critical of (immigration) controls believe that such controls can somehow be sanitized, be rendered fair… the achievement of fair immigration restrictions… would require a miracle.”
Ever since the federal government began restricting immigration in the late 19th century, the effect has been uninterrupted suffering by people seeking to improve their lives through migration. Beginning in 1882, immigration laws targeting Chinese immigrants led to denials of entry into the U.S., long detentions, and separated families. Laws enacted in the 1920s significantly reduced immigration from Europe, which prevented many from fleeing the horrors of the Nazism. In the 1930s the U.S. deported more than a million people of Mexican heritage, most of whom were U.S. citizens, and in the 1950s hundreds of thousands more were deported, again including American citizens. According to one journalist, in the 1950s operation “… tens of thousands of immigrants were shoved into buses, boats and planes and sent to often-unfamiliar parts of Mexico, where they struggled to rebuild their lives. In Chicago, three planes a week were filled with immigrants and flown to Mexico. In Texas, 25 percent of all of the immigrants deported were crammed onto boats later compared to slave ships, while others died of sunstroke, disease and other causes while in custody.”
Immigration enforcement continued to harm people during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. In the 1980s and 1990s tens of thousands of Haitians fleeing violence and poverty in their country were intercepted by the U.S. government at sea and sent back to Haiti. In addition, thousands of immigrants have died trying to enter the U.S. due to a border enforcement strategy implemented in the 1990s, as explained by Wayne Cornelius of the University of California, San Diego, in 2006: “By forcing migrants to attempt entry in extremely hazardous mountain and desert areas, rather than the relatively safe urban corridors traditionally used, the concentrated border enforcement strategy has contributed directly to a ten-fold increase in migrant fatalities since 1995… Since 1995, more than 4,045 migrants have perished from dehydration in the deserts, hypothermia in mountainous areas, and drowning in the irrigation canals that parallel the border in California and Arizona.” The George W. Bush administration executed large scale raids at businesses that led to the detention and deportation of thousands of immigrant workers in the 2000s, including one raid which resulted in “… children who had no idea their mother or father was not coming home. The children went significant periods of time alone and uncared for.”
Consider also immigration enforcement under President Obama. During the last five years of his administration, the U.S. and Mexico sent close to a million migrants from Central America back to their home countries. As Nicholas Kristof observed in 2016, “… we help pay for Mexico to intercept them along its southern border and send them — even children like Elena — back home, where they may well be raped or killed… Nobody knows exactly how many people have been murdered or raped after deportation because of this American-Mexican policy, but there’s no doubt many have been. I heard of one Salvadoran man who was shot by a gang within hours of being deported by Mexico. Indeed, by some accounts, the gangs keep an eye on the buses arriving in San Salvador and unloading deportees, who become sitting ducks.”
Many who made it to the U.S. experienced mistreatment by the government under Obama. In 2015, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission reported that “‘while these immigrants migrate to the United States to escape harsh living conditions, once they cross the U.S. border without authorization and proper documentation, the federal government apprehends and detains these individuals in conditions that are similar, if not worse, than the conditions they faced from their home countries.’”
During the Obama administration there was a devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Following the disaster, a U.S. Air Force plane flew over Haiti broadcasting a message from the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., who said in the message, meant to dissuade Haitians from fleeing to the U.S. on boats, “’If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.’” The Coast Guard patrolled Haitian waters, ready to intercept anyone trying to escape. Many lined up outside the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, hoping to be allowed to flee Haiti, but only those with U.S. passports were to be airlifted out of the country.
Raids, detentions, deportations, dangerous attempts to evade border controls, forcing would be immigrants to remain in perilous situations in other countries, and mistreatment by government agents and others have all been characteristic of immigration restrictions for over a century. The Times itself recently noted that “every person who assumes the title of president of the United States also takes on the role of deporter in chief.” Even if U.S. immigration policies revert to the status quo ante Trump, they in no way could be considered humane.
Like the Times, several Democratic presidential primary contenders apparently subscribe to the concept of humane immigration restrictions. Julian Castro proposes decriminalizing crossing the U.S. border without authorization. (See also here. ) A number of other contenders also have signaled their support for Castro’s proposal. Some commentators (see here and here) claimed that Castro was advocating open borders, which he denied. He stated that “we can maintain a secure border, but we can also treat people with basic respect and compassion and common sense.” While decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings would deny the government one less tool to torment immigrants, it would leave the fundamental restrictionist infrastructure in place, as Castro himself acknowledged. The inhumanity of restricted immigration would continue.
Sullivan, a conservative who demonstrates his anti-Trump boni fides by noting that “for Trump, lying is central to his disturbed psyche,” doesn’t claim that immigration policy can be made humane, but several of his views on immigration warrant criticism. To begin with, Sullivan advocates a reduction in the number of legal immigrants allowed into the U.S., as well as “a new focus on skills.” He wants “to slow the pace of this country’s demographic revolution” in order to weaken white supremacy, among other goals; he suggests that mass immigration “was the single biggest reason why Trump was elected president.” While it is true that Trump tapped into white nationalist sentiment to help him win the 2016 election and while I applaud Sullivan’s goal of weakening white nationalism, I have argued the opposite: increasing immigration levels may be a good way to marginalize white nationalism.
Sullivan also writes: “In the U.S. in the 21st century, should anyone who enters without papers and doesn’t commit a crime be given a path to citizenship? Should all adversely affected by climate change be offered a path to citizenship if they make it to the border? Should every human living in violent, crime-ridden neighborhoods or countries be granted asylum in America? Is there any limiting principle at all?” These are rhetorical questions for Sullivan, who clearly has a narrow conception of whom should be allowed to immigrate to the U.S., but based on the solid arguments for open borders, my answers to the first three questions are “yes,” and the answer to the last is “yes, but…”
The “limiting principle” is one articulated by Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer, and while it is not easily dismissed, it should not block the implementation of open borders. The principle is that extremely harmful swamping (huge migration flows in a short period of time under open borders) could override arguments for open borders. It is difficult to predict what migration flows might look like with open borders or what the impacts of swamping might be. Some researchers suggest an overall positive result for both immigrants and receiving countries if there are huge numbers of people who end up migrating. In the end, it is necessary to accept uncertainty when making radical policy changes that are morally warranted. (See here for a more in depth discussion of swamping.)
Another issue is Sullivan’s traditional view of whom should be considered a refugee. He subscribes to the longstanding legal definition that asylum should only be granted to those who are fleeing certain forms of persecution. He rejects those fleeing climate change, violent conditions, or poor economies as worthy of admittance into the U.S. on those grounds.
However, this narrow view of what constitutes a valid humanitarian claim to entry is untenable. Sullivan is of Irish descent, but applying his limited view of whom should be admitted to the U.S. to those fleeing the potato famine of the 19th century would have meant barring the entry of hundreds of thousands of Irish at risk of starvation. The Irish migration constituted, as Sullivan remarked about some of the migration from Central America, “classic economic immigration… that it has absolutely nothing to do with asylum.” Yet dismal economic conditions can lead to severe bodily harm and death, just as persecution can, and in 21st century Guatemala, some are also dying from crop failures, spurring emigration from the country. And what about Venezuelans who have fled their country because of a lack of food and medical care?
With regard to Sullivan’s dismissal of living in violent, crime-ridden countries as grounds for admittance, he is disregarding the risk people are exposed to in countries wracked by war (Syria, South Sudan, etc.) or whose governments are unable to provide basic security (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, etc.) (See here and here for further analysis of the shortcomings of the current refugee regime.)
Finally, for those who do make it to the U.S., Sullivan suggests that it is unlikely that they will ever be deported, calculating that annually two percent of undocumented immigrants are deported from the U.S.; for most of the undocumented in the U.S., “no consequences will follow for crossing the border without papers.” However, the two percent deported translates to hundreds of thousands people who are ejected from the country each year, and since most undocumented adults in the U.S. have resided in the country for more than ten years, many of the deportees’ lives are being shattered. In addition, there are other consequences beyond deportation for unauthorized entry, such as languishing in border detention facilities and/or being separated from family members. Even immigrants who have been able to evade apprehension face the continual threat of arrest and deportation, causing immeasurable stress for them and their families, and their undocumented status makes access to decent jobs and college difficult. And many of those who make it to the U.S. have had to endure dangerous and expensive journeys to get here.
It also should be noted that not many undocumented immigrants even make it to the U.S. There are currently between 10 and 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., which means that only about 3% of the people in the U.S. are undocumented out of a total population of nearly 330 million. Furthermore, compare the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to the over 150 million people worldwide who would like to move to the U.S.
I do not question the intentions of those whom I have criticized in this piece, whether they be to reduce the cruelty of current immigration enforcement or to corral white nationalism. In addition, some of these individuals in their hearts may support a much more open immigration system than what they publicly advocate but are constrained by political considerations. After all, running for public office on a platform of open borders would be imprudent. I suggested as much in my last post.
For those of prominence who do recognize that open borders is the only moral immigration policy and that it is impossible to have a restrictionist policy that is humane, they should publicly acknowledge these truths. At the same time, they also can concede that for now our society is not ready for such a transformation, while pushing for improvements in the system, such as Casto’s proposal to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings. That would be an honest and realistic stance on immigration policy .