Tag Archives: child migrant surge

Open Borders and the Child Immigrants from Central America

As the arrival on the U.S. border of thousands of minors from Central America has consumed the attention of U.S. politicians and the media, open borders is rarely suggested as a policy option.  One exception is the Libertarian Party, which has issued a strong statement in favor of open borders  for these children, as well as most other would-be immigrants.  Another, noted in a previous post,  is from Ross Douthat of the New York Times: “One answer, consistent and sincere, is that the child migration really shows we need an open border — one that does away with the problems of asylum hearings and deportations, eliminates the need for dangerous journeys across deserts and mountains, and just lets the kids’ relatives save up for a plane ticket.”

As Mr. Douthat suggests, open borders would release the government from spending enormous amounts of money detaining Central American child migrants and adjudicating their cases. (President Obama is requesting billions more for these purposes.) Open borders also would help the child migrants and their families immensely.   Families could be more easily reunited and wouldn’t have to pay thousands of dollars to have their children smuggled into the U.S., and the children wouldn’t be exposed to dangers on their long journey to the border, nor would they have to endure often miserable stays in U.S. detention.  The children also could escape horrendous conditions in their home countries, without the fear that they would be deported back.

Related to the inability to consider the open borders option for these child migrants are references to the situation as a “crisis” (here and here) or a “problem.”  Apprehending, detaining, and adjudicating the children is a self-imposed policy choice Americans have made, and it is this interference with the migration flow that is creating the strain on government resources.  Without this interference, the “crisis” or “problem” wouldn’t exist for the government.  The child migrants would travel safely to the U.S., disperse throughout the country, link up with (or arrive with) family, and start new lives. Some schools may see an increase in their student populations, which would involve some strain and expense for school districts, but eventually the children, like their U.S.-born peers, would become working members of society.  (See here for information on the economic impact of immigration on the receiving country.)

Beyond these self-evident advantages of open borders in addressing the child migration flow, here are three additional thoughts about the flow and the commentary surrounding it.  The first is that given the dire conditions and limited resources for children in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the source countries for most of the recent child migration, the U.S. should facilitate their migration, in addition to opening the borders.  Loans could be provided to families or individual children to use for air transportation to the U.S., and once families are working they could begin to repay the loans.  This support could be provided exclusively by private organizations and individuals, but in a previous post on facilitating migration, I noted that the government may be in a better position to help than private entities.  As previously mentioned, this would allow poor families to avoid ground transportation through an often dangerous Mexico.  It also would enable them to quickly escape the violence and poverty endemic in their homelands.  Graphic descriptions of the dystopian conditions in the three aforementioned countries have appeared in recent articles and reports, including the following from the New York Times about conditions in Honduras:

Narco groups and gangs are vying for control over this turf, neighborhood by neighborhood, to gain more foot soldiers for drug sales and distribution, expand their customer base, and make money through extortion in a country left with an especially weak, corrupt government following a 2009 coup… Carlos Baquedano Sánchez, a slender 14-year-old with hair sticking straight up, explained how hard it was to stay away from the cartels.  He lives in a shack made of corrugated tin in a neighborhood in Nueva Suyapa called El Infiernito — Little Hell — and usually doesn’t have anything to eat one out of every three days. He started working in a dump when he was 7, picking out iron or copper to recycle, for $1 or $2 a day.  But bigger boys often beat him to steal his haul, and he quit a year ago when an older man nearly killed him for a coveted car-engine piston.  Now he sells scrap wood.  But all of this was nothing, he says, compared to the relentless pressure to join narco gangs and the constant danger they have brought to his life.  When he was 9, he barely escaped from two narcos who were trying to rape him, while terrified neighbors looked on.  When he was 10, he was pressured to try marijuana and crack. “You’ll feel better. Like you are in the clouds,” a teenager working with a gang told him.  But he resisted.  He has known eight people who were murdered and seen three killed right in front of him. He saw a man shot three years ago and still remembers the plums the man was holding rolling down the street, coated in blood.  Recently he witnessed two teenage hit men shooting a pair of brothers for refusing to hand over the keys and title to their motorcycle. Carlos hit the dirt and prayed. The killers calmly walked down the street. Carlos shrugs. “Now seeing someone dead is nothing.”  He longs to be an engineer or mechanic, but he quit school after sixth grade, too poor and too afraid to attend.  “A lot of kids know what can happen in school. So they leave.”

The New York Times piece adds that “asking for help from the police or the government is not an option in what some consider a failed state. The drugs that pass through Honduras each year are worth more than the country’s entire gross domestic product. Narcos have bought off police officers, politicians and judges. In recent years, four out of five homicides were never investigated.”  (See also here for information on conditions in El Salvador and here for conditions in a number of countries.)

The second idea is that the emphasis that some are putting on ensuring that the child migrants receive due process to determine if they are refugees, while possibly helping some immigrants stay in the U.S., is harmful to the open borders cause.  It helps to legitimize the exclusion of those who are not determined to be refugees. Sonia Nazario, the author of the aforementioned New York Times piece  describing conditions for children in Honduras, urges the creation of refugee centers in the U.S. where the children’s cases can be adjudicated.  She emphasizes the need for officers and judges to be “trained in child-sensitive interviewing techniques” and that children be represented by a lawyer.  However, she doesn’t hesitate to condone deportation for economic child migrants: “Of course, many migrant children come for economic reasons, and not because they fear for their lives.  In those cases, they should quickly be deported if they have at least one parent in their country of origin.”  Similarly, Jana Mason, a United Nations employee, states that “… these children, if they need it, should have access to a process to determine if they’re entitled to refugee protection.  If they’re not, if they don’t meet that definition, we fully understand, then they’re subject to normal U.S. deportation or removal procedures.”  Their implied message is that if the children get a fair examination of their refugee claims, they have been treated fairly, even if they end up being deported.

So what Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason are saying is that if the only problem Carlos, the previously mentioned 14 year old, has in Honduras is that he only gets to eat two out of every three days and lives in a tin shack, he shouldn’t be allowed to emigrate to the U.S. And some children do want to migrate for economic reasons.  In a recent survey of Salvadoran children who wish to migrate to the U.S., some cite this reason for wanting to migrate.  Referring to children living in the most impoverished areas of the country, the survey’s author writes that “this desire for a better life is hardly surprising, given that many of these children began working in the fields at age 12 or younger and live in large families, often surviving on less than USD $150 a month.”  Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason also imply children shouldn’t be allowed to migrate if their sole reason is to reunite with family already in the U.S., but again many want to migrate for this reason.  According to the survey of Salvadorans, about half have one or both parents in the U.S., and about one third identify family reunification as a reason for them to migrate.

John has noted that this effort to exclude non-refugee migrants can result in the exclusion of refugees.  Notwithstanding Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason’s emphasis on a pristine asylum process, the process of identifying who qualifies can be flawed, especially if you consider the history of asylum adjudication.  As I’ve written previously, asylum is very narrowly defined under the law, and it is easy for asylum applicants to not qualify.  Furthermore, when politics intrude, asylum decisions can be tainted.  During the Cold War, asylum seekers from Communist countries were favored over those from non-Communist countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala, according to Bill Frelick and Court Robinson (International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 2, 1990)  And the recent arrival of immigrant children has become highly politicized, with “pressure on the president from all sides,” according to The New York Times.  The Times reports that “… administration lawyers have been working to find consistent legal justifications for speeding up the deportations of Central American children at the border…”  In addition, the outcome of an asylum case can depend greatly on who is adjudicating the case.  Finally, as Ms. Nazario suggests, if the U.S. doesn’t make it easier to apply for refugee status in Central America, refugees will still have to make a dangerous journey to the U.S. to even be able to apply for asylum.

The larger point is that it is immoral, with some rare exceptions, to stop people from migrating, regardless of their reason for doing so. There is, as John suggested recently, no justice in “an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth…”  Similarly, the group No One is Illegal, which supports open borders, suggests that it is morally impossible to bar some immigrants while allowing others to enter: “… the achievement of fair immigration restrictions — that is the transformation of immigration controls into their opposite — would require a miracle.”  Refugee advocates like Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason, by emphasizing a distinction between those who deserve to be allowed to immigrate and those who do not, do harm to the effort to achieve the ability of all people to migrate freely.

The third idea is that the U.S. may bear some responsibility for the violent conditions in Central America.  In the case of Guatemala, the U.S. helped overthrow a democratic government in the 1950s, leading to a succession of repressive regimes and a civil war with massive killings of civilians by the government.  While it is difficult to prove causation, this legacy may account for some of the country’s current violence and poverty.  In addition, the U.S. deportation of Central American immigrants in the 1990s apparently has contributed to violent conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  Matthew Quirk, writing in The Atlantic six years ago, explained this link:  A small number of Salvadoran immigrants formed the MS-13 gang in Los Angeles in the late 1980s,

but MS-13 didn’t really take off until several years later, in El Salvador, after the U.S. adopted a get-tough policy on crime and immigration and began deporting first thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Central Americans each year, including many gang members.  Introduced into war-ravaged El Salvador, the gang spread quickly among demobilized soldiers and a younger generation accustomed to violence.  Many deportees who had been only loosely affiliated with MS-13 in the U.S. became hard-core members after being stranded in a country they did not know, with only other gang members to rely on… MS-13 and other gangs born in the United States now have 70,000 to 100,000 members in Central America, concentrated mostly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The murder rate in each of these countries is now higher than that of Colombia, long the murder capital of Latin America.

Finally, the Libertarian Party has pointed out that “… U.S. government policies have caused the conditions that some of these Central American children are fleeing. The War on Drugs has created a huge black market in Latin America, causing increases in gang activity and violent crime.”  (For more information on connections between the drug war and immigration, see here.)  While U.S. contributions to problems in certain countries may not support a case for open borders, it does add another layer of U.S. responsibility for doing what is just for migrants from these countries.

In conclusion, establishing an open borders policy, combined with U.S. facilitation of migration, is the only moral and pragmatic response to the influx of Central American children.  Efforts to aid only a portion of the children in their quest to stay in the U.S. are morally insufficient and help to justify immigration restrictions.

What we can learn from Glenn Beck’s humane gesture and the response

Glenn Beck (website, Wikipedia) is a political pundit in the United States who’s been described as a conservative with libertarian leanings. Beck has a large fan following. His shows can be quite mesmerizing, even if you don’t agree with him. He’s able to convey a mix of curiosity and honesty even when his statements are all wrong, and one often gets the sense that he’s sharing his own inner struggles with his viewers.

Beck has a streak of independence from mainstream wisdom that can be both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, this independence attracts him to conspiracy theories that most people dismiss, and that are often false, and exaggerated even when true. On the other hand, he can sometimes stick his neck out to courageously make an important and true point despite the fact that this would be detrimental to his ratings and subscriptions.

The story

In late June 2014, there were a couple of stories in The Blaze (a website owned by Glenn Beck) about Beck asking his audience to show compassion to the children who had been crossing the U.S. border illegally. His foundation, Mercury One, was accepting donations to help feed and house the children, and was targeting to raise $300,000. One article noted:

Beck has stated that the Obama administration is “directly responsible” for the recent flood of illegal immigrants from Central America. And though he believes every person who crossed into the United States illegally must be sent home, Beck and the charity he founded, Mercury One, have chosen to do all they can to help ensure the refugees have basic necessities like food and water.

An earlier article noted:

Beck said the American people have to make a choice. They could “run down to the border” and secure it themselves, but “that doesn’t fix the humanitarian crisis, and we have to err on the side of humanity.”

“If we’re going to be Americans, a choice has to be made. And we always make the right choice,” Beck said. “As people, we always do. We would rather extend ourselves and see the life of a child protected than err on the side of being silent, still, and [seeing] harm come to a child. … Acting in a compassionate way is what makes us human. It’s what makes us Americans.”

Beck said the tens of thousands illegal immigrants flooding our border “have to be sent home,” but that we can’t stand by while so much suffering is happening “on our side of the border.”

“I’m not talking about, we’re going to send them into our cities,” Beck said. “I’m saying, can we please get them port-o-potties? Can we get them portable showers? Can we feed them? You want to show the world what it means to be an American? Then let’s do that. Let’s put the well-being of others on the highest pedestal.”

On July 8, 2014, The Blaze published an article by Erica Ritz about Glenn Beck’s announcement that he would be “bringing tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears and soccer balls to McAllen, Texas on July 19 as a way to help care for some of the roughly 60,000 underage refugees who have crossed into America illegally in 2014.” Here’s the video segment:

Issue Hawk noted (based off of the same video):

Beck plans to go to the border on July 19, bringing with him, according to Mediaite.com, “tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears, and soccer balls.” He will be joined by religious leaders and two Congressmen who could stand a lesson or two in compassion, Reps. Mike Lee of Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas. He then said this decision has cost him money (vis-à-vis subscriptions/donations) and garnered “violent” hate mail from his audience.

Beck’s attitude on immigration is much different than is currently espoused on conservative media. “The best way to secure our borders and to make America a safe place,” he says, “is to make it accessible to all those fleeing poverty, oppression, and violence. Anybody in search of a better life.” He mocked those (like Sarah Palin) who claim that this is solely the President’s fault (or part of a secret agenda).

Beck’s announcement met with a lot of critical pushback in the comments on the Blaze story, mostly expressing strong disapproval of Beck for lending any sort of helping hand to the “illegals”. It was also covered in a few other sources:

  • The Huffington Post also published the story, and responses there were mixed: some viewed Beck’s approach as cynical and insincere, some expressed reactions similar to those common on the Blaze, and some expressed admiration of Beck.

  • Gawker covered the story with the title Glenn Beck Angers Conservatives by Being Humane to Immigrants, pointing out how Glenn Beck’s humane gesture got heavy pushback from conservatives, including legislators.

  • Jonathan Topaz covered the story in an article titled What Glenn Beck fears could destroy him for Politico, July 9, 2014.

  • Over at Big Journalism, John Nolte offered a more sophisticated criticism of Glenn Beck, arguing that showing compassion to the illegal immigrants only incentivized more of them to cross, and to risk their lives in the dangerous journey. While his own criticism was prima facie reasonable, Nolte seemed oblivious to the statements of other critics of Beck, as evidenced in this paragraph (emphasis mine):

    Beck’s desire to help kids caught in a geopolitical crossfire through no fault of their own is laudable. We all want to help. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that it’s wrong to use American taxpayer dollars to feed, house, and offer medical care to these children. No one opposes that.

    Beck thinks more needs to be done.


  • In a post on Hot Air titled Glenn Beck, the border crisis, and the Republican Party’s empathy gap, Noah Rothman argued that conservatives had the problem of being and/or giving the impression of lacking empathy for suffering people, and Glenn Beck’s gesture was a good counterexample, but the pushback against him illustrated the problem again. He also pointed out many instances of lack of left-wing empathy, but said that conservatives needed to take more proactive steps to turn the narrative around.

  • In a post titled Glenn Beck Trucking Supplies to Border for Illegal Immigrants, Surprising People Who Base Their Opinions on Stereotypes at Reason‘s Hit and Run blog, Ed Krayewski wrote:

    Beck appears to be the only prominent figure, left or right, interested enough in the crisis at the border to do something himself and not just use it as a political opportunity to push for his preferred policy solutions. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid attention to Beck over the years.

  • In an article titled What Glenn Beck Got Right About The Border Crisis in The Daily Caller, July 11, 2014, Matt K. Lewis praised Beck’s humanitarian decision, and also noted:

    Personally, there are a lot of things I like about what Beck is doing. Conservatism shouldn’t be just about politics, and, of course, it isn’t. Conservatives (even the evil Koch brothers!) tend to be charitable — at least, in terms of giving money.

    Nolte argues that Christian charity should be done in secret, and to a certain extent, I agree. But isn’t there something to be said for leaders who are willing to set a positive public example? Isn’t there something gained from Glenn Beck challenging his audience to put aside politics and anger — and instead react to a humanitarian crisis simply as humans and people of faith?


    Additionally, isn’t it possible that Beck and Gohmert and Lee will — having seen the plight of these refugees — come away changed or have a different perspective? One wonders how bad things must be in Guatemala or Honduras for a mom and dad to pay a coyote to smuggle their child into a foreign land. Perhaps this will result in some introspection.

The analysis

  1. Whether Beck’s approach will actually help the children he intends to help, and whether his method of doing so is cost-effective, are questions I have no idea on. I am generally skeptical of gifts in kind, and I also have no reason to believe that Glenn Beck has a good track record of effective use of charitable donations. Finally, even if it were effective, an altruistic donor should still compare it against other, perhaps even more cost-effective ways of doing good. I have no specific evidence against Glenn Beck, but my general Bayesian prior suggests it’s highly unlikely to be a good place to donate money.

  2. The main value of what Beck is doing is symbolic: it raises the status of the issue, and makes the point that private individuals can (and arguably should) extend a helping hand. It elevates the humanity of migrants over their “illegal” status. Seeing a major figure (hitherto) respected by a large number of restrictionists make this point publicly has huge value, even if his specific actions are not that helpful.

  3. Of course, one can read this cynically and say that Beck is just looking for publicity, perhaps sacrificing short-term financial interest for long-term gains with a new demographic or target audience. Another possibility is that Beck was influenced by a big donor who made donations to Mercury One conditional to Beck using the money to take these actions (Beck does indeed mention an anonymous donor who gave $100,000, but there’s no evidence that the donor provided explicit input to Beck’s decision). I don’t have enough inside information to know the extent to which either of these is true. However, it is largely irrelevant to the analysis here: I’m interested more in the symbolism of the action itself rather than Beck’s possible ulterior motives.

  4. On the other hand, as my co-blogger John Lee pointed out eloquently a few days ago, the issue is primarily one of justice, not compassion. The presumption of freedom of movement across borders should be built on basic rights rather than on special pleading based on extenuating circumstances. The Libertarian Party agrees, saying:

    Ultimately, the fact that many of these children are fleeing dangerous situations isn’t the issue. Even if they were coming to the United States for fun, we should still allow them to enter. All foreigners should be allowed entry into the United States unless the government can produce positive evidence that they pose a threat to security, health, or property.

    Beck, on the other hand, seems to be motivated largely by compassion. He urges us to “err on the side of humanity” and says that when America is no longer good, it stops being great. So clearly, Beck is quite far from an open borders advocate. But compassion can be an important first step in recognizing the humanity of other people. This isn’t to say that restrictionists don’t recognize the humanity of potential migrants in theory, but many of them seem to forget it in practice or deprioritize it relative to other considerations. By highlighting the issue, Beck is trying to force people to more explicitly confront the dilemma. Some, like John Nolte, rise to the challenge by arguing that the treatment of migrant children is unfortunate but is the lesser of two evils. The more common response in the comments is to continue to refuse to confront the dilemma, and to shout Beck down.

  5. All that said, Nolte’s general class of criticism is correct in a broad sense, although it may very well not apply here. Namely, being more welcoming to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization. On the other hand, raping people who crossed borders without authorization reduces the incentive to cross borders without authorization. Offering amnesty to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization, whereas shooting them on sight reduces the incentive. It may well be the case that the primary reason for the recent surge of child migrants was worsening conditions in Central America. At least that’s what Dara Lind suggests on Vox.com. The other hypothesis is that a 2008 law passed to protect sex slaves has meant that children are less likely to be deported, and therefore incentivizes more child migration (more here). Whatever the reason, there should be a Bayesian prior that changes to the level of welcome at the margin affect migration decisions.

  6. The above leads us to two closely related contradictions in the compassionate moderate approaches to migration championed by progressives and Glenn Beck. First off, it isn’t very logically consistent to show compassion to migrants once they have crossed the border, while having little concern for those outside (cf. territorialism). The inconsistency is even weirder if you simultaneously think of illegal immigration as morally wrong. Think about it: you’re saying that if somebody who does not matter does an action you consider immoral, he or she starts mattering a lot more! Related to the moral contradiction is the practical implication: territorialist compassion incentivizes more illegal immigration, thereby heightening the contradiction with continued emphasis on border security and the rule of law. These points were made by co-blogger Nathan Smith here and Joel Newman here.

  7. What I find personally heartening about Glenn Beck’s thinking is that even though he is clearly far from open borders, he is employing some of the core elements of reasoning used in establishing the open borders presumption, and his thinking appears to be evolving fast. As the quotes above show, on June 25, he was putting emphasis on the fact that after feeding people, it was important to send them home. But by July 8, he had dropped explicit reference to sending people home, and even suggested that, in an ideal world at least, the United States should be open to people fleeing poverty and oppression. This does not mean he favors open borders in the current world, but he seems to have acknowledged a presumption of freedom of migration, even if very vaguely and in passing. What’s perhaps even more encouraging is that this rhetorical shift occurred despite significant pushback from his fan following. Whatever Beck’s inner views, the fact that he saw an opportunity to evolve in a direction opposite to what his audience was incentivizing him to do suggests that his public statements on the issue might continue to try to push his audience to think of the humanity of migrants.

    All in all, I don’t expect Beck to become a champion of open borders any time in the near future. The best-case scenario I consider plausible is that he acknowledges a presumption of free movement, but rather than actively campaigning for it, blames politicians in a vague way for politicizing the issue for personal electoral interest. If pressed, he might retort with some of the reflexive libertarian retorts against open borders. Of course, I’d be happy if I were wrong about this and Beck went all the way to open borders, if he could do so while still retaining at least something of a public presence.

    At the same time, I consider it quite unlikely that Beck’s views, or his choice of emphasis, will move in a more restrictionist direction. It’s very hard to stake out a humanitarian position and then return to “illegal”-bashing rhetoric. Even if he wanted to, I think Beck (or anybody else, for that matter) would find it hard.

  8. Beck’s admittedly limited, confused, and compassion-heavy moves will probably do more for the open borders cause than other, more minor, political pundits (such as John Stossel or Andrew Napolitano) who embrace open borders far more completely. That’s because Beck connects with a larger audience at an emotional level. And going by Wikipedia views and Google Trends, Glenn Beck appears to be the most read-about and most searched-about pundit among top American television and radio pundits. Rush Limbaugh (website, Wikipedia) is the only other figure who performs comparably. So Beck is in a position to influence a lot more people than most pundits.

    There may be a lot of visible pushback against him right now, but Beck has set a precedent and next time around, there will be more open support for him from within the conservative flank (cf. Asch conformity experiments). Even if Glenn Beck fades out as a pundit himself (due to this issue or any other), it’s likely that future firebrands will pick up where he left.