Here are two imagined narratives, one from the left and one from the right.
When you bring a healthy mix of empathy and clear thinking to the tough question of how the United States should deal with immigration, the picture grows complicated because we need a lot of immigrants to serve our own national self-interest. At the high end are immigrants who are hardly among the less fortunate — they are talented and well trained people whose skills we need to meet the voracious demands of our economy. At the opposite end is a mother in Honduras whose husband has been killed by a gang and whose son will be next if she does not find asylum in some other country; her dream is that the U.S. will be that country, but if she and her son get to our border, she may or may not even be considered for political asylum. If we still believe we are a beacon of freedom, we should listen to her pleas. In between these extreme examples are millions of people for whom, over the years, our immigration and naturalization system has worked slowly but well. But there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who have never made their peace with the system. They are here without the legal right to be here, living in our midst, undocumented and uneasy. As a nation, we want the benefit of their work but we have been willing to leave them in a limbo built out of a strange mix of hope and fear. This is unfair to those in limbo and unworthy of our country. This is a problem in desperate need of a solution.
Congress has avoided solving challenging immigration questions for years, unable to muster majorities in this complicated domain where many of those who are most directly affected can’t vote. A pathway to citizenship has seemed attainable at times and, at other times, far beyond reach. One might expect employers to help bring sense to the field, but many of them have been drawn into the shadow world, too, because they rely on undocumented workers. In the meantime our southern border has become a travesty.
We have wasted precious energy on the question of whether or not to wall off our entire southern border. Walling off some parts of the border almost certainly makes sense, but in many other areas it is an expensive pipe dream and a waste of money better spent on more personnel and speedier handling of cases.
Most unauthorized crossings of our border with Mexico have historically been men looking for work. However, as troubles grew in Central America over the last decade, the number of families that came north and crossed our southern border without permission grew enormously. While it is hard to know exactly what mix of detention and release during a case will work best for families, one thing is clear: forcibly separating children from their parents is barbaric. Courts have ruled against the practice and it may be behind us, but perplexity about how to handle families remains.
Perhaps the only unchallengeable reality is that, as a country, we need to put more effort into this sector where we have for many years been unable to align law with reality, and have instead left the enforcers of the law with an almost impossible task. As a result, immigration has become a flashpoint of anger and dismay in our politics while a large number of lives have been confused, disrupted, damaged, or lost. If we try harder as a nation, we can do much better. After all, well managed immigration allows people who want to be here to fulfill their dreams even as it strengthens our nation.
No wonder we have a problem at our borders. We live in the United States, the best country in the world, and there are millions of people who would like to live here. If we let lots of those people in, what happens to our wages? What happens to our jobs? What happens to our politics? What happens to the programs that take care of us when we need help? Where is the money going to come from to take care of the people who come in who haven’t been here paying taxes?
So it is no surprise we need ways to stop people at the border and, if that doesn’t work, ways to find and remove them once they’re in the country. No way is that going to be easy or pleasant. Suppose some of them say they are refugees who just want to stay because their situation at home was dire. How are we going to find out if that’s the truth? If it is the truth, if things were really bad where they came from, is that enough to let them in? How long is it going to take to make rulings in all those cases? I suppose if you let people out while their case is going on, a lot of them will come back when they are supposed to, but where do they go in the meantime and what about the ones who don’t come back, or the ones who do come back but they don’t leave if they lose their case?
Which gets us to the question of all the people who are already living here — millions of people — who don’t have the right documents. Some of them are working in the shadows, working for employers who haven’t properly checked out their paperwork. A lot of the people without papers came here trying to get jobs and now they are trapped in the jobs they found because they have to be careful not to cause any ruckus. It is not a good picture. There are too many to try to identify them all and send them back. Making them all into citizens is hardly a solution, either. That word, amnesty — what does that mean? Unless you are nothing but trouble, all is forgiven, welcome to your new home. No one really knows what to do about all the people who are here who aren’t supposed to be here, but one thing a lot of us do know is that we don’t want to keep having more pour in.
That’s why a wall on our border with Mexico is appealing. A border has to be a real border. We put fences around our backyards and locks on our front doors — why wouldn’t we take the same precautions with our country? If the border has too many holes it will encourage people to come in illegally. That is unfair to those who came here legally and to all the Americans who properly enjoy the rights and privileges and responsibilities associated with being a citizen.
Everybody deserves to be treated as a human being, but it’s not our place to save everyone who is hurting in the world. We have to be realistic when it comes to determining our capacity as a nation to absorb those who want to make a life for themselves here.