For over a generation now, America’s elites have willfully ignored a substantial segment of the public that has misgivings about ever-increasing levels of immigration. Whenever possible these elites—in the academy, religious institutions, the media, politics, and business—have responded to such misgivings with platitudes about our status as “a nation of immigrants,” conveniently overlooking the four decades of the 20th century when the gates were substantially closed. When such evasive tactics have proved ineffective, immigration advocates have routinely denounced those who resist their agenda as racist xenophobes—and continued to pry open the flood-gates to unskilled as well as skilled migrants.

In recent months, of course, popular anxieties have broken through the thick haze of immigration happy talk and moralistic complacency, most recently in the unresolved controversy over thousands of “unaccompanied alien children” from Central America who have been streaming across our southern border and overwhelming our capacities to process them. As is often the case with such populist outbursts, sound gut instincts do not necessarily translate into good policy. For as it happens, there are compelling arguments to admit these young people fleeing social, economic, and political chaos for which the United States bears considerable responsibility. Yet many of our countrymen are now impervious to such arguments, after decades during which immigration and refugee advocates and their allies have uncritically embraced all those seeking entry here and declined to articulate any meaningful criteria by which Americans might come to make difficult choices.

These elites have sown not only disaffection but confusion. In the current controversy, this confusion is definitional, political, and moral. Taking the definitional first, advocates and their allies have appropriated the legislative term “unaccompanied alien children”—despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Central American youth arriving at our border are 13- to 18-year-olds. If the issue were contraception or abortion, their champions would insist on referring to them as “young adults.” More to the point, the most straight-talking student of the region, anthropologist David Stoll, points out that in Central America “children” of this age are in the workforce and starting families.

No matter. In his recent report on this issue, “Children on the Run,” the U.N. high commissioner for refugees insists on referring to these youth as “boys” and “girls.” He goes on to make the case that while they may not meet the prevailing definition of refugees, these “children” nevertheless merit “international protection” and hence legal residence in the United States. What the commissioner fails to address are the social and fiscal challenges when such uprooted and uneducated “boys” and “girls” get caught up in the pathologies of life in our cities—especially gangs, pregnancy outside of marriage, and drugs.

Similarly confounding is the political and policy confusion enveloping this issue. Outraged Americans and their Republican tribunes have sought to pin this fiasco on President Obama and his de facto amnesty for individuals who arrived here illegally as children—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Yet the surge in young people arriving at our southern border from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador clearly began in the fall of 2011, well before DACA went into effect in August 2012, just in time for the final months of the presidential campaign. Indeed, by May 2012, Texas governor Rick Perry was calling on Obama to address the developing humanitarian crisis at the Texas-Mexico border.

To be sure, once in place, DACA did not help stem the tide from Central America and undoubtedly contributed to rumors of sanctuary in the United States that even the White House’s top immigration adviser, Cecilia Muñoz, has had to credit. So, too, the administration’s throttling back on deportations of noncriminals and minors likely conveyed the impression in Central America that once here young adults would be permitted to stay.

What outraged Americans do not want to face up to—and what their champions are not prepared to tell them—is that this crisis has been many years in the making. More to the point, America had a distinct role in creating the current mess. Aside from the long and complicated legacy of our military interventions in the region, one can point to our deportation of thousands of convicted criminals to Central America—more than 129,000 between 2001 and 2010 alone, most of them members of criminal gangs who have subsequently wrought havoc in their home countries. At the same time, the United States has been the source of a lively weapons trade into Mexico and Central America. Last but by no means least is our continuing demand for illegal drugs, which in recent years have been routed by Mexican cartels through the three Central American countries that young people are now fleeing. According to General John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, 80 percent of the violence in those murderously violent countries is attributable to the drug trade for which we are the primary market.

Immigration and refugee advocates are more than happy to point to such indicators of our complicity in the surge of Central American youth to our border. But these advocates have no credibility with the Americans who most need convincing. Feeding this lack of credibility is the complete silence of such advocates when it comes to acknowledging how our relatively open borders have contributed over time to the break-up of families and the ensuing social disorder in Central America that now spurs the surge of youth across our border.

In fact, it is social dislocation due to migration that has led some Catholic leaders to speak on occasion of “a right not to migrate”—a right to stay at home. Of course, the bishops have spoken out even more loudly and consistently on “the right to migrate.” The result has been a curiously libertarian concoction such that the church tends to advocate whatever “the people” (the poor) want when it comes to migration decisions, while remaining remarkably oblivious to the impact of such decisions on traditional Catholic concerns like communal and political cohesion.

When it comes to illegal immigrants, the Catholic position is even more perverse. Suddenly, any hint

of populism evanesces. The wishes of “the people” (middle-class Americans) are now suspect and categorically overridden by the claims of the biblical “stranger.” Indeed, just about any opposition or resistance to illegal immigration is viewed as morally suspect or racist. The pronouncements of Thomas Wenski, archbishop of Miami and one of the leading voices on migration for the American hierarchy, on the status of illegal immigrants are admittedly extreme but not atypical of the moral obtuseness of the bishops on these issues: “The last time that we excluded legally a whole class of people from the benefits and the protection of American law was called Jim Crow, and this country has yet to recover from the bad effect.”

Our secular elites have displayed only marginally greater insight into the ethical and moral dilemmas presented by contemporary mass migration. Even Michael Walzer, in his subtle treatise on distributive justice, Spheres of Justice, adopts an ill-considered maximalist position on the rights of guest workers. Arguing that once admitted to a host society guest workers must be afforded the option of becoming full citizens, Walzer ignores abundant evidence that guest workers routinely shun membership in host societies and cling, not always successfully, to a strategy whereby they derive income from their host and maintain ties to the home country, to which they intend eventually to return.

More egregious but also more typical of the thinking of policy elites is “Children on the Run,” the U.N. report. It reflects a clear effort to expand the definition of refugee status to something broader called “international protection.” In general, I have no criticism of such reform efforts. But I do question the prudence of the specific grounds on which the high commissioner for refugees invokes the need to protect young people in Central America. For while his report stipulates that “it is understood that not all children leaving situations of poverty warrant international protection,” it goes on to suggest that “all violence against children, including physical, psychological and sexual violence, while in the care of parents or [other caregivers],” constitutes “a potential basis for providing international protection.”

It is worth noting that this recently issued report is based on research and funding that required a couple of years of lead-time. If this particular crisis has been some years in the making, so too have immigration and refugee advocates been laying the groundwork to make use of it for some time. Such are the tireless efforts of today’s conscientious reformers, underwritten by sympathetic funders and abetted by ideologically attuned academics. These operatives are skilled not merely in the passage of legislation but in the arcane arts of rule-making and administrative politics as well as media management. Even when such professionals seek to speak out on behalf of the disenfranchised or unrepresented, they have a difficult time maintaining meaningful lines of communication with those whose interests they purport to represent. In the case of immigration reform, as political scientists such as Gary Freeman and Peter Schuck have pointed out, such political entrepreneurs have managed to operate under the radar and expand immigration levels through technical fixes and incremental legislative changes in the face of considerable popular anxiety if not outright opposition. But now such immigration reformers are running aground on the shoals of a resurgent populism.

In many respects, these reformers and their religious allies are reaping what they have sown. Unfortunately, those who pay the price this time will be the young adults from Central America whose legitimate claims on America’s conscience and largesse may now go unheeded.

Peter Skerry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, teaches political science at Boston College.

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