It is hard to recall another instance where the government of the United States has looked as chaotic and incompetent as it has along the southern border over recent days. In May, the administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal migrants that would mean the arrest of any unauthorized border crosser and (probably) the separation of children from their parents. And, in fact, children were separated. Some administration representatives said this was intended as a deterrent; others said not. Some said separation was official policy; others said not. The President announced that the administration had no choice because the law required separations. That was false. Then when the political uproar became too intense, the President apparently discovered separations were not required by law and rescinded the practice. Meanwhile thousands of distraught children were separated with no thought or plan as to how to, at some point, reunite them. In some cases parents have been summarily deported while their children are still being held somewhere by the U.S. government. Meanwhile the President holds political rallies inveighing against the “infestation” of the United States by migrants who allegedly go on crime sprees as soon as they get here. Meanwhile, Congress, which has responsibility for legislating some sort of order out of this morass, is completely paralyzed.
All of this — the malevolent theatrics and botched policy — is doubly damaging because migration is a real and hugely difficult problem. Even informed, reasonable persons of goodwill have few real answers. Over recent months, the debate over migration has become a shouting dialogue of the deaf pitting hardline border security advocates, who see the nation under siege, against humanitarian activists, who see human hardship and a moral obligation to alleviate suffering.
Migration is hardly new. Human beings have been on the move since our earliest ancestors learned to walk upright on the African savannah. The modern state system dates to the 16th century and for most of the period since migration across state boundaries has been a reality but not a first order problem. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, some large countries even welcomed migrants to provide a needed workforce and to settle “empty” lands. During this period, most migration was from Europe and it was driven by a search for economic opportunity and sometimes religious freedom. World War II dramatically changed the migration landscape as millions were displaced by conflict, devastation and persecution. Under the new postwar United Nations system, international agreements and institutions were put in place to protect the rights of people fleeing violence and oppression. That system seemed to work pretty well for three or four decades as relatively limited numbers of people fled in search of safe havens.
However, over the last 20 years this picture has changed profoundly. In the 1990s millions of Latin American migrants (mostly Mexicans) flooded the U.S. border fleeing poverty and uncontrolled criminal violence. It all became intertwined with the flow of narcotics northward. American border controls and immigration law were poorly equipped to cope with the challenge. Soon credible studies indicated an “undocumented” immigrant population in the United States numbering about 12 million. Even so, immigration never became a dominant political issue during the Bush (I and II), Carter and Clinton administrations.
The political climate has clearly changed. It is ironic that the change has come at a time when the actual “illegal migration” problem in the United States is much diminished. The undocumented population in the country is much smaller; far fewer migrants are entering the United States illegally; border controls are better by orders of magnitude; and the courts and other institutions tasked with the problem are better equipped and more capable. One might reasonably expect that public opinion would reflect this change — and perhaps it has. A new Gallup poll found that a record number of Americans (75 percent) believe immigration is good for the country. At the same time, opinion among political conservatives supporting Trump has moved sharply in the opposite direction.
Concern about immigration is not hard to understand. Outsiders/foreigners bring change and the unfamiliar. Sometimes they take jobs wanted by others. They can burden local institutions, including schools and health facilities. In Portland, the school system is currently coping with over 30 different nationalities among its students. Anyone who thinks that is easy has not been in the classroom.
But the challenge facing the United States — accommodating largely Hispanic, Christian immigrants — pales next to that confronting Europe. With the pervasive breakdown of effective political and social order in much of the Middle East, and with extreme poverty throughout much of Africa (made more acute by climate change), Europe has been in the crosshairs of a massive migrant challenge. Modern communications have spread a fateful message: you can escape your desperate circumstances by making your way to a land of milk and honey — Europe. Syrians by the hundreds of thousands, Yemenis, Sub-Saharan Africans, Eritreans and Libyans, the list is endless. These populations by their very nature (mostly Muslim, often desperately poor and unskilled) are far more difficult to assimilate. Meanwhile the international dimensions of the problem grow. We now have a significant Yemeni refugee population on a South Korean island, Iranians on a South Pacific island and Sub-Saharan Africans are starting to appear on the U.S.-Mexico border. In Europe, the political lethality of migration in Europe is reflected in Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the election of nativist political leaders in Italy, Austria and Hungary and the acute political peril facing Europe’s longest serving, most influential leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.