Let’s start with the easy part. The policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border, delivering them into a bureaucratic labyrinth while their fathers and mothers await trial or petition for asylum, is the wickedest thing the Trump administration has done so far — and you can tell exactly how wicked by observing how unwilling White House officials are to defend the policy on the merits.
The true rationale has been clear from the beginning. Yes, it’s partially a byproduct of the tension between the administration’s desire to hold illegal arrivals while their status is adjudicated and a court ruling that forbids holding children for more than 20 days.
But the cruelty of separation was also deliberately chosen, in the hopes of reducing the number of families trying to make a dangerous border crossing by delivering the ones who get here into a child’s nightmare and a parent’s hell. It’s only since the cruelty has become palpable instead of theoretical that the Trump team has fallen back on the claims that their hands are tied, that they don’t want to do this, but law and order requires it, what can you do?
Honesty is generally too much to expect from this administration, but this is a case where it would be useful for everyone if the Trump White House just admitted that this policy was conceived as a deterrent – traumatizing a certain number of families in the hopes of bringing greater order to the border in the long run.
That admission would get us closer to the hard problem in migration policy. Some harshness, some deterrence, really is unavoidable in any immigration system that doesn’t simply dissolve borders. So policymakers are therefore obliged to choose tolerable cruelties over the intolerable one that we’re witnessing in action right now.
This dilemma was apparent (or should have been) in the Obama years, when a far more pro-immigration administration pursued sweeping amnesties, eventually by executive fiat. Liberals hailed those amnesties while paying less attention to the consequences of the Dreamer amnesty in particular: It created the impression that kids brought to the United States illegally would soon gain legal status, which in turn helped drive a surge in children being sent north without their parents, overwhelming the Border Patrol and saddling the Obama White House with a problem that it ultimately passed along to President Donald Trump.
Now because Trump is hated and because he’s added extra cruelties, the persistence of that problem – the kids living in converted Walmarts or passed off to relatives or foster families and unaccounted for thereafter – has suddenly become a source of outrage for liberals. So have the internal roundups carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which have likewise been dialed up under Trump, but which predated him and earned far less media attention.
Some of this wider outrage is understandable, but it doesn’t sufficiently reckon with the realities that forced even a liberal White House to run detention centers and pursue deportations. It’s not just domestic politics and the (justifiable) fear of backlash; it’s also that a more generous immigration policy can easily end up requiring more enforcement to prevent a snowballing effect – because migrants are responsive to incentives established by receiving countries, not just conditions at home, and often (just ask Angela Merkel) the more you welcome the more will attempt to come.
So even if you hope to move gradually toward open borders, as much of the Democratic Party seems to want, the slow pursuit of that utopia is still likely to force even Democratic politicians to conduct crackdowns in the year-to-year time being. If ICE were abolished tomorrow, President Kamala Harris would probably end up reinventing it.
This means that even liberals have an interest in finding the least-cruel way of cracking down.
My own view, largely unchanged since the days when Mitt Romney was hooted at (including by a then pro-amnesty Donald Trump!) for mentioning “self-deportation,” is that workplace enforcement is that less-cruel way. Mandate some version of the E-Verify program, make it harder to hire illegal immigrants, and somewhat more people would leave voluntarily and somewhat fewer would arrive illegally in the first place, reducing the need for ICE raids and the incentives for sudden border surges.
E-Verify is harsh in its own way, since it locks many people who have been here a long time out of better-paying jobs. But with that harshness comes possible advantages for working-class Americans: E-Verify mandates “lead to better labor market outcomes among workers likely to compete with unauthorized immigrants,” a 2014 study found, with higher incomes for American-born Hispanics and recent-immigrant citizens.
Right now neither party wants these mandates (E-Verify has fallen out of the proposed House immigration compromise), because both immigration activists and business interests hate them. But morally, E-Verify seems vastly preferable to the brutality of family separation and the harsher Obama-era measures that liberals have belatedly discovered.
Trump is showing us what the greater cruelty looks like; that makes it a good time to choose the lesser one.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service