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.