Long festering due to neglect, callousness, and race-based suspicion, the Southern border of the United States, which has long been likened to a bodily wound, was ripped open this summer. Anyone paying attention and possessing a moral conscience will remember the summer of 2018 as a particularly mean season of failed policy, a bankrupt administration, and a barely concealed hatred—all producing undeniable human rights atrocities. The old wound is raw, ugly, and more shameful than ever.
As the Trump administration imposed a “zero tolerance” policy toward anyone caught entering the U.S. outside official channels, even those seeking asylum and attempting to play by the established rules, criminalization of unauthorized entry effectively weaponized previous efforts to restrict and deter migration. We all know the results of over 2300 family separations: children already traumatized by violence, poverty and strife in their home countries were ripped from the arms of their parents, held in cage-like pens, and sent to facilities hundreds of miles from the familiar. In horror, news media assured that we saw desperate parents holed up in prison-like federal facilities, exhausting every means to contact and reunite with their infants, toddlers and teens. It has taken months and heroic efforts on the part of the ACLU and other nonprofits to fight for the victims of this mean-spirited policy and reunite forlorn families. Hundreds of cases are still unresolved: picking up the pieces has hardly been a priority of this government, whose slow response and limited commitment of resources has caused it to miss court-ordered deadlines to resolve cases by locating and reuniting detained children with their deported parents.
Veterans of policy analysis know all too well about unfortunate and unintended consequences of policy innovation. The precise outcomes of any change in the law depend on complex interactions among administrative choices and the vagaries in patterns of human behavior as people respond to new incentive structures. When something goes wrong in social policy outcomes, prudence often dictates extending the benefit of the doubt to policy innovators. However, recent migration fiascos are not just garden-variety instances of well-intended policy gone awry. Starting with the travel bans initiated in the first days of the Trump presidency (against Muslim non-citizens), we have witnessed a series of loathsome attempts to disregard the bodily and mental well-being of “special” groups (particularly, people of color).
Arguably, the stated policy goal of deterring excessive numbers of immigrants into the nation may have some merit. However, the means deliberately chosen by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to achieve this end –the Executive Order instituting “zero tolerance,” the summary deportation and removal orders departing from previous protocols, and the none-too-subtle pressure on immigration judges to rule against refugee and asylum applicants to deny permission for entry and resettlement assistance—are immoral. The toll in human suffering and lasting trauma is immense and foreseeable. Many foreign nationals migrate to seek asylum and protection from harm for their families and, under conditions of maximal vulnerability, they risk all to keep their families intact. This new round of degradation, compounding trauma inflicted upon thousands of children and their desperate parents, cannot be excused.
Rather than dwell on all that went wrong this summer, the most constructive path forward is to identify specifically what we have yet to do as a nation to get the policy questions right. The need has never been greater for comprehensive immigration legislation that will adjust this failed system. Further, insisting upon fair treatment of those seeking asylum or refugee status is not synonymous with demanding open borders.
If we fail to make careful distinctions about who, what, and why, then demands for enhanced security and orderly entry-policy screening will exert undue influence on future policy. We already witness this drift in calls to restrict eligibility for refugee admissions (despite the worst refugee crisis in history, Trump administration officials first signaled an intention to halve the already paltry annual level of 45,000 and have settled instead on 30,000 -the lowest level since the 1980 refugee program began!). We also see this pressure in the elevated rhetoric surrounding a violent crime (the July 18 murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts) allegedly committed by an undocumented entrant to the U.S. in 2011. Noting the tendency toward over-reaction and scapegoating that flies in the face of reliable aggregate crime statistics, New York Times’ Paul Krugman recently referred to “a mythical wave of crimes committed by scary dark people.” In short, we will have a lot of work to do even after placing comprehensive policy reform on the national agenda.
If there is a silver lining to this very dark cloud, it is that Americans demonstrated that they do indeed care, despite the Trump administration wager that we would remain indifferent. The diversions of planning and enjoying summer vacations did not distract us from noticing that these atrocities were committed in our names –a clear moral line had been crossed. Catholics in the US would not allow these struggling families separated by a cruel and punitive migration policy to be treated as mere political footballs. The Catholic Church can be proud that it was prominent among the many voices of conscience reminding all that human dignity does not stop at the border. Catholic Charities agencies, faith-based legal advocates, and several prominent bishops denounced the policy and raced to the border and detention centers to assist the victims of this cruel initiative; they are to be commended for feeling the shame, exposing the shame, and intervening with a timely contribution to reverse the shame of U.S. inhumanity on the border.
The crisis is far from resolved. Newly released budgetary priorities for the Department of Homeland Security (which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and transfers of funds into expanded detention (including revised rules for detaining children) and deportation efforts are coming to light. Further, the heightened rhetoric surrounding the construction of a border wall continues to incite and “rouse the Trump base” which supports such punitive directions for U.S. migration policy.
How will this ignominy be remembered? Hopefully as a momentary aberration—one perpetrated by those temporarily at the helm of a nation composed of millions of people of conscience, with a long and generally admirable history of welcoming the stranger. If we have lost our way as a nation, the most direct route back to virtue is to recall our more beneficent past and the values we have long affirmed in public policy (though not consistently practiced): hospitality, inclusion, opportunity, and respect for the human rights of all. Remembering the best aspects of our past ought inspire us to reject all abuses of power, like these witnessed during our summer of shame.
Families displaced from their homelands and fleeing unspeakable dangers deserve U.S. support, not rejection or indefinite prison-like detention. Even if we cannot open our homeland to every new arrival, refugees and asylum seekers must be treated with respect and dignity, not dismissed in preemptory ways, subjected to the cruelty of family separation, or demonized as violent criminals. The shame on the border this summer constituted a betrayal of our national heritage as a land of hope and dreams. May the healing of the wound at the border be nigh.