The 24-hour news cycle rarely gets dominated by anything of substance but the issue of family separation at the border has taken hold lately. Regrettably, many pieces are hastily written to serve whatever narrative the writer has chosen. In this void, there is misinformation on each side, which is quickly used to justify ignoring the actual human tragedy at hand. So, I hope this essay can be of some use. Before delving into what exactly is U.S. policy and whether it is useful, it’s necessary to fill the void with a quick recap of immigration history. Then we can examine what our current policy is, see if it “works” and what is the real immigration crisis at the border.
History of Border Enforcement (Or Lack Thereof)
It will surprise a few readers, but for most of American history, there were few, if any, immigration laws on the books. There were no immigration regulations at all, until the 19th century. In fact, for roughly half of America’s lifetime, we operated under what we could now call “open borders.” There were naturalization requirements, that is regulation on who can be a citizen, but there were no residency requirements, that is who can live and work here.
The first immigration regulations started during the Progressive Era, with laws aiming at restricting Chinese immigration. From the 1870s to the 1920s our modern immigration system starts to take shape. Most notably in 1885, the federal government attempted to ban foreign contract labor, a policy that the commissioner-general of immigration admitted in 1907 was difficult if not impossible to enforce. The commissioner-general’s report already looks familiar as exceptions were made for Mexican migrant labor in order to skirt the spirit of the law. In fact, early foreign labor restrictions always made exceptions for Mexican immigrants. Even the heavily restrictive 1924 National Origins Act placed no restriction on Latin American immigration. Ironically after its passage, aimed at restricting Eastern and Southern European immigrants who would threaten American identity, the federal government passed its first amnesty in 1929 for thousands of illegal European immigrants.
It’s in the 1940s that America’s immigration policy towards Latin America starts to resemble our current situation. Labor shortages in the United States demanded an answer and the government expedited the migration of Mexican farm labor, mainly men, to the United States to pick up the slack. In a harbinger of things to come, U.S. policy from the 1940s to the 1950s varied between harsh crackdowns and open doors.
By the 1960s, immigration policy had removed national and racial distinctions but maintained limits, preferring skilled labor and immigrants with family ties. Policies were further updated in 1980 with the Refugee Act and then again in 1986, providing amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants in return for crackdowns on hiring future illegal immigrants (contrary to popular belief, no border security provisions were ever included). Later tweaking to the system occurred throughout the 1990s until today but much of the debate centers around how to prevent further illegal immigration and what to do with those illegally present in the U.S right now. Broadly speaking, most Americans favor some form of amnesty for those presently illegal in return for added border enforcement.
How Did Family Separations Start?
Dara Lind provides a sober window into how big the problem has become:
Between October 1, 2017 and May 31, 2018, at least 2,700 children have been split from their parents. 1,995 of them were separated over the last six weeks of that window — April 18 to May 31 — indicating that at present, an average of 45 children are being taken from their parents each day.
Where did this policy start? It started during the Obama administration. Faced with a massive spike in migration (both illegal crossing and legally presenting oneself at a port of entry) in 2014, the Obama administration spent millions on prosecuting migrant parents and expediting deportation cases. The difference between then and now is one of degree and intention. The Obama administration did separate families and detained thousands of unaccompanied minors. Additionally, their policy of internal removals, affected over 100,000 American citizen children. However, Secretary Nielsen admits the Obama administration’s border separation policy is significantly “less” than the current policy. Unlike today, the main surge was in unaccompanied minors, not families arriving together. Additionally, the data shows significantly less migration now than in 2014.
The main difference is that this administration began prosecuting everyone who crossed illegally, thus, by extension, mandating that every parent who crossed with a child would be separated from that child. Secretary of Justice Jeff Sessions openly defended family separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration. In the meantime, crossing spiked by 64%. Recently, President Trump signed an executive order to keep families together while processing their cases. Complicating matter is legal precedent limiting how long law enforcement can detain minors. Until the law is updated, potentially any executive order ordering families to be maintained together could violate the law by functionally indefinitely detaining minors. Currently, authorities are unsure how to unify the thousands of families now separated in the last few months.
Is It Necessary?
Secretary Sessions portrayed the world of American immigration as a dystopia. In his comments justifying the recent policies, he darkly intoned that millions wish to relocate here. From my time researching and talking with immigration restrictionists, I routinely find that there are two major concerns that are cited to justify draconian measures.
This is the most common and one that resonates the most. Many Americans feel that they would be more amenable to the concerns of migrants if it didn’t come at the cost of Americans’ safety. Furthermore, most Americans feel that there is a distinct link between immigrants and crime. The problem is that it is simply untrue. Immigrants commit less crime than native Americans and in particular, foreign-born males from Mexico and Central America (the populations most likely to illegally immigrate) commit less crime than their native-born white counterparts.This sound astonishing but it is true. Dr. Rubén G. Rumbaut concluded in his study published by The Police Foundation,
[I]ncarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, even those who are the least educated. This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, who make up the bulk of the undocumented population. These patterns have been observed consistently over the last three decennial censuses, a period that spans the current era of mass immigration, and recall similar national-level findings reported by three major government commissions during the first three decades of the twentieth century, as did another U.S. commission in the 1990s. Given the cumulative weight of this evidence, the rise in immigration is arguably one of the reasons that crime rates have decreased in the United States over the past decade and a half—and even more so in cities of immigrant concentration…Indeed, the rates for all of the immigrants and U.S.-born children of immigrants in this sample are lower than the rates for native-stock majority-group whites.
The rates for Central Americans without a high school diploma was 1.11% compared to native-born whites at 4.76%. With a high school diploma, it was .81% to native-born whites’ 1.22%. Mexican foreign-born males had an offense rate of .7%, diploma or not. I really can’t stress this enough, the population most feared for their criminality are the least likely to victimize American citizens.
- Open Borders
The most amorphous but probably the most powerful fear justifying draconian measures is one of “open borders.” From what I can best surmise, it seems this fear is that without the harshest possible enforcement of the law, we “won’t have a country.” Tens of millions will swamp into the United States, whole countries will be drained of young men and soon foreigners will run our country. It’s an old fear and, in centuries past, not a totally unreasonable one. In the British Isles alone, Neolithic Britons were invaded by the Celts, who then were invaded by the Romans. Then the Romano-Celtic-British faced Anglo-Saxon invasion, who were in turn attacked by Scandinavians. Eventually, these Celtic-Roman-Saxon-Danish hybrids we call Englishmen were taken over by the Normans, themselves a mix of Scandinavians and French (also a mix of Franks, Celts, Romans, etc…).
We do not face such a fate. The moment this seems likely, I’ll let you know. In reality, our border region is quite secure, we spend quite a lot on border security and “demographic replacement” from Latin Americans, that boogeyman, like the Krampus of German immigrant lore, simply doesn’t exist.
First, America’s border with Mexico remains incredibly safe. Border counties have less crime than their counterparts, as the former head of the border patrol admits. Additionally, our border patrol are not lone, unsupported agents of order in a world of chaos. We spend billions on border security with tens of thousands of border patrol agents, making it one of the most heavily patrolled borders in the world.
Second, migration from Latin America, both legal and otherwise, is on a permanent decline. It plummeted during the Obama administration and the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States decreased by 300,000 between 2009 and 2015. The number currently stagnates at around 11 million. It seems that Latin Americans simply aren’t moving to the United States like they used to. At current trends by 2050, migration will virtually cease, much like mass migration from Europe dried up by the mid-20th century. Between a growing Latin American economy, fertility shifts, increased enforcement and demographic changes, Latin American migration will eventually seem like a thing of the past, like the aging and disappearing Little Italy.
Thirdly, reports of America’s demise are greatly exaggerated. I wrote on this back in 2016 and the numbers have not changed. There is no demographic Reconquista of white America. Latino Americans learn English faster than their historic European counterparts, the Hispanic middle class continues to grow (albeit unevenly) and assimilation continues unabated. 25% of all Hispanic newlyweds marry outside their own group, with 43% of all interracial marriages being between whites and Hispanics. While 14% of foreign-born Hispanics marry outside their group, that trend jumps by 157% to one third by the first native-born generation. By the third generation, 80% of Hispanics will marry outside their group. The longer Hispanics live here, the more they resemble their Anglo neighbors when it comes to politics or general cultural attitudes.
White nationalists and their increasing number of “mainstream” sympathizers are selling you a fiction to justify scapegoating Latin Americans. Your country – our country – isn’t being stolen from you by anyone.
Is It Just?
A good authority on the subject is St Augustine in De Civitate Dei, book XIX chapter 27:
In this life, therefore, justice in each individual exists when God rules and man obeys, and when the mind rules the body and reason governs the vices even when they rebel, either by subduing them or by resisting them, while from God himself favour is sought for good deeds and pardon for offences, and thanks are duly offered to him for benefits received.
Can one truly say that our treatment of families and children along the border is just? Is God’s favor sought by separating a Downs syndrome child from their parents? By mocking their plight? Are we seeing justice by inflicting massive psychological trauma on children? Child developmental experts put it this way, “On average, what we see is that this early experience seems to be a major risk factor for mental health problems later on in life. This effect lasts years.”
Psychological damage, despair, detachment and likely permanent “unresolvable grief.” Take a quick listen and tell me God’s justice is being pursued. The horrible thing is this kind of abuse isn’t unique. In the 1950s, the federal government launched “Operation Wetback” deporting thousands in conditions once called a “penal hell ship.” Thousands of complaints were filed as people reported being assaulted and abused. Thousands more were stranded in the Mexican desert and dozens died, baked in 125-degree heat.
That legacy continues. In Virginia, during both the Obama and Trump administrations, Central American minors were confined naked, beaten while handcuffed and locked in solitary. A 30,000-page report from the ACLU documents that, during the Obama administration, children were sexually assaulted, beaten, and withdrawn medical care. One teenager allegedly miscarried after being mistreated. Even if 66% of it is false, that’s 10,000 pages of pure horror. Now there are routine reports of legal asylum seekers being denied access to ports of entry, which is illegal. There are reports of legal asylum seekers being separated from their family. You could choose to disbelieve every single source, but why trust politicians caught lying from the start or the administration before ?
Possibly the most poignant part of the tragedy is that none of this is necessary. Leaving aside the obvious point that deportation or detention does not require beatings, assault or sadism, detention of families – together or separate – was never necessary to process deportation proceedings or asylum hearings.
There used to be the Family Case Management Program, where families were processed and kept track of by caseworkers. ICE themselves said it worked well with a 99% court date attendance rate. Naturally, this program was ended first thing with no explanation. Given that individuals in the administration early on discussed using family separation to discourage legal asylum, it isn’t surprising.
Looking back at how we got here, I can see little justification, conservative or otherwise for this continued cruelty, seemingly for its own sake. Ultimately conservatism has to be about conserving something not simply “triggering the libs.” First and foremost it is about a transcendent moral order and lining our politics in tune with it. I can think of very few moral orders, transcendent or otherwise that are served by being cruel to vulnerable families.
Does any of this look like anything orderly, free or just?
For various & sundry related to the topic;
- Ron Unz, The American Conservative, “The Myth of Hispanic Crime.“
- Ron Unz, The American Conservative, “Postscript on Hispanic Crime.”
- The Ninth Court’s Flores case
- Matthew Loftus, Mere Orthodoxy, “Romans 13, Jeff Sessions, and Separating Families at the Border.“
- Charlie Savage, New York Times, “Explaining Trump’s Executive Order on Family Separation.”