Immigration

Fix Immigration Without Sacrificing Innocent Children

Splitting up families runs counter to everything the U.S. stands for as a nation.

Keep them together.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

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Whoever said there are no bad ideas never spent any time in Washington. Many never get off the ground, thankfully, but one of the worst I can remember hearing is now under serious consideration by the Department of Homeland Security: forcibly separating children from their parents when families are apprehended crossing the U.S. border.

In a word: No. That is not who we are as a nation. The sight of government authorities taking young children from their mothers and fathers and placing them in group homes or foster care is not a policy we can accept. This shameful act would be compounded by the inevitable incidents of mistreatment, abuse and neglect that would result when children slip through the cracks of the system.

Imposing this kind of cruelty on children runs counter to everything we stand for as a moral, compassionate and freedom-loving nation. The federal government should not be in the business of breaking up families, whether they are migrants apprehended at the border, or parents living here illegally with their American-born children.

Any such policy would impose terrible costs on both parents and children -- as well as the U.S. as a whole, gravely damaging our image in the world and our relations with our neighbors. And for what?

The rationale for the border proposal is to deter people from coming here illegally. But let’s get serious. Parents seeking better lives for themselves and their children are willing to take extraordinary risks. They don’t attempt illegal border crossings -- often sacrificing their life savings to pay a smuggler thousands of dollars and enduring life-threatening conditions -- believing that they will be caught. The prospect of living the American dream -- the chance to work and give your children opportunities you never had -- is more powerful than any threat issued by Washington, including family separation.

This should not be a partisan issue. In fact, Republicans should be leading the charge against it, given the energy they devote to defending “family values.” There is no more important family value than allowing children to live with parents who love them -- and our government should respect that value on every inch of U.S. soil.

It’s true that we face an intractable humanitarian problem at the Mexican border. About 54,000 undocumented minors and their accompanying adults were stopped between Oct. 1, 2016 and Jan. 31, 2017 -- more than twice the number over the same period the previous year. Relatively few are Mexican; most are Central Americans. Although levels of violence in Central America have declined, applications for asylum have increased, driven by bleak prospects at home and the lure of family ties in the U.S.

The surge in asylum cases has fed a backlog in the court system, and without adequate detention facilities, many asylum seekers are released until their hearings can be held – which can take years. That time lag has fed the perception, encouraged by smugglers, that getting across the border amounts to permanent legal status.

There’s no denying that this is a serious problem, but there are far better ways to address it. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on border security rightly calls for more asylum officers and immigration judges. Speedier case handling must also make provision for the adequate legal representation that judges have called for. Enhanced cooperation with Mexico would help secure its southern border with Guatemala and Belize. Long-term investment in Central America’s governance and development is no less important, and it’s something that General John Kelly, now Homeland Security Secretary, advocated as head of the U.S. Southern Command.

In the end, however, all of these steps are insufficient if Congress does not adopt an immigration reform bill that gets to the root of the problem: the demand for more labor by the U.S. economy. Migrants come here to work, and they will keep coming -- by hook or by crook, no matter how awful the potential deterrents -- so long as companies and farmers face labor shortages, and so long as fake work papers can be easily and cheaply purchased. 

The solutions are not complicated: Yes, do more to secure the border, where possible and rational. But also increase the number of visas and restructure them around our economic needs, offer a path to permanent status for those here illegally and willing to pay fines and learn English, and create a biometric identification for all legal U.S. workers.

The problem is that politicians have sold the public on the idea that simple solutions -- like a giant wall or a massive deportation force -- are all we need. The latest simple solution is just the worst one yet. We should build a border wall 1,000 miles tall before we consider making orphans of innocent children.

Cleaving families apart and sacrificing children is not Solomonic. And it’s certainly not American. 

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net

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