Many Nebraskans this weekend asked me about the kids at the border. Here’s a short version of what I told them. This is a bit over-simplified, but these are broad brushstrokes of how I understand the situation at present:
1) Family separation is wicked. It is harmful to kids and absolutely should NOT be the default U.S. policy. Americans are better than this.
2) This bad new policy is a reaction against a bad old policy. The old policy was “catch-and-release.” Under catch-and-release, if someone made it to the border and claimed asylum (whether true or not, and most of the time it wasn’t true), they were released into the U.S. until a future hearing date. Many folks obviously don’t show up at these hearings, so this became a new pathway into the U.S.
3) Catch-and-release – combined with inefficient deportation and other ineffective policies – created a magnet whereby lots of people came to the border who were not actually asylum-seekers. This magnet not only attracted illegal immigrants generally, but also produced an uptick in human trafficking across our border. (We now also have some limited evidence of jihadi recruiters spreading word about how to exploit the southwestern border.)
4) Human trafficking organizations are not just evil; they’re also often smart. Many quickly learned the “magic words” they needed to say under catch-and-release to guarantee admission into the U.S. Because of this, some of the folks showing up at the border claiming to be families are not actually families. Some are a trafficker with one or more trafficked children. Sometimes border agents can identify this, but many times they aren’t sure.
5) Any policy that incentivizes illegal immigration is terrible governance. But even more troubling is that catch-and-release rewarded traffickers, who knew they could easily get their victims to market in the U.S.
6) This foolish catch-and-release policy had to be changed. But changing from catch-and-release does not require adopting the wicked family separation policy. The choice before the American people does not have to be “wicked versus foolish.”
7) The administration’s decision to separate families is a new, discretionary choice. Anyone saying that their hands are tied or that the only conceivable way to fix the problem of catch-and-release is to rip families apart is flat wrong. There are other options available to them. The other options are all messy (given that some overly prescriptive judges have limited their administrative options), but there are ways to address this that are less bad than the policy of family separation they’ve chosen.
8) There are many senior folks in the administration who hate this policy, and who want to do something better.
9) But some in the administration have decided that this cruel policy increases their legislative leverage. This is wrong. Americans do not take children hostage, period.
So what happens next? Obviously the Congress is broken and clearly bears much of the blame for a broken immigration system. We have many different problems clustered together: The border is too porous. Our asylum and refugee polices are too subject to executive branch whim, rather than clear legislative debate before the American people. We don’t have any coherent policy for dealing with kids who were brought here as minors but who have never known any home but the U.S. And more broadly, we have no long-term agreement about what levels of legal immigration we should want, or what kinds of workers we should prioritize. The Congress clearly bears much of the blame.
But neither the horrors of family separation nor the stupidity of catch-and-release should be about leverage for a broader debate. We should start by tackling the specific problem before us in the narrowest way possible.
The President should immediately end this family separation policy. And he should announce to the Congress the narrowest possible way problems like the FIores consent decree and related decisions (which bias policy toward release into the U.S. within three weeks after capture) can be resolved.
I am also working on a possible solution with James Lankford of Oklahoma, a man of integrity who has been pouring great energy into addressing this human tragedy at the border.
This is quite true. Immigration was broken long before Trump came along and weaponized it. It is great that Congress could consider comprehensive reform, but that reform must include a ridiculous wall or else Trump will not sign it. So here we are.