Declaring a “humanitarian crisis” at the border might only harden the roadblocks to treating migrants humanely.
Everyone, the Administration and Rick Perry alike, is discussing the influx of unaccompanied minors at the border as being some kind of emerging “humanitarian” situation. Portraying these children as refugees of a sort may seem to offer a way of talking about this immigration problem in a less heated and more sympathetic way than the normal, security-fixated tone of the immigration debate.
But we should be wary of accepting declarations of “humanitarian” emergencies at the border. That’s because the practical reaction to a “humanitarian crisis” isn’t really that different from the reaction to a security crisis, playing into the hands of those with ever-escalating border security demands. Further, associating a border “crisis” with the “humanitarian” only further threatens to bring the border security debate to the topic of how we deal with refugees and asylum seekers, which up to this point the US has been fortunate to mostly avoid. It may not be able to be helped, but sensationalist talk of humanitarian crises or emergencies should probably be avoided, supplanted by a more prosaic discussion of problems, needs and facts on the ground.
Less sympathy toward refugees
One of the clearest differences between immigration politics in the US and Europe is the extent to which asylum and refugee issues are front and center in the latter, while in the US immigration immigration controversies have been focused elsewhere. I see it as fortunate that US politics hasn’t suffered from occasional acute panics about “bogus asylum seekers” that have warped asylum policy in many European countries. It may seem that by putting the children showing up at the southwest border under the protective “humanitarian” umbrella, we are insulating them from the ferocity of border-security politics. Instead, we might just be bringing the ferocity of border-security politics into the way we deal with those seeking refuge in our country.
As nativist protests erupt in some places where unaccompanied children or mothers and their children arrive after being used from Texas, what the “humanitarian” label has accomplished is not the creation of some alternative mode of politics for dealing with these children and their mothers, but rather skepticism and panic towards those seeking refuge. This may not be avoidable, but it is ugly, and a political tone about refugees more similar to what has become dominant in Europe is a worrying possible result.
A “humanitarian crisis” and a “security crisis”: Less different than you might think
Discussion of “humanitarian crises” at borders have a way of only adding fire to ongoing security arguments. A “humanitarian crisis” is actually well equipped to play into the hands of border hawks with seemingly unlimited desires for security resources: Successfully argued “humanitarian crises” at the border seemingly result in more security resources for security organs.
The reason for this is that, in a “humanitarian crisis,” the key word isn’t really “humanitarian” but is instead “crisis.” The situation brings forth an “emergency” way of dealing with things that tends to reinforce security organizations’ way of doing business, rather than actually changing the orientation of policy toward a more “humanitarian” mode. So, in trying to get attention and sympathy for child migrants by talking about a “humanitarian crisis,” what’s inadvertently being emphasized is the element of “crisis.” The clearest response to this is more security, rather than the conversion of security organs into humanitarian organizations — and when more security is proposed, that’s difficult to counter, because it’s a crisis, right?
FRONTEX, the European Union’s border agency, offers an example. FRONTEX has increasingly argued that it has a humanitarian mission in rescuing migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, which has won it more resources but not resulted in a very substantive change from before in how policy approaches the issue of migrants dying at sea. My University of Edinburgh colleague Nina Perkowski discusses this in a very good unpublished working paper, the title of which — “The role of the exception in the EU border regime: from security to humanitarian emergencies?” — captures the gist of this observation. What’s gone on with FRONTEX and migrants to Europe dying at sea may shadow what the eventual response to the current “humanitarian crisis” is going to be in the US: More security, piled on top of the already-record levels of security, well beyond diminishing returns, but perhaps no more hope for the migrants arriving at the border, and no real way of addressing the underlying problem.
How do you avoid the political bind?
The only apparent way to avoid this discussion of a “crisis” is to treat the fact that there are unaccompanied minors as not justifying exceptional changes in the way that border security operates — as, basically, something to be dealt with, but not a “crisis.” The media is unlikely to cooperate on this, particularly as Fox News has relished talking about this in crisis dimensions. To be sure, there are more unaccompanied minors than the system was built to handle, but whether this constitutes a policy problem to be dealt with swiftly or a “crisis” is another matter. The increase in unaccompanied minors has been visible for a couple of years, so arguing that in the past few months it has not suddenly become a “crisis” that the normal order of border security is totally unequipped to deal soon with is not far-fetched. The White House seems to very carefully be using the term “humanitarian situation” rather than “crisis” or “emergency”, but that language might not be un-charged enough.
Meanwhile, the Administration’s request for “emergency” funds to build the infrastructure needed to deal with more unaccompanied minors from countries with which the US does not share a land border seems likely to be hijacked by the secure-the-border crowd.
The fact that some of those crowing loudest about a “humanitarian” crisis at the border are border hawks who are using the developments to push for meeting their previously favored policy of endless security ramp-ups on the border shows it pretty clearly: Talking in sympathetic tones about a “humanitarian” crisis can have unintended political consequences.
The White House recently moved slightly toward reconsidering deportation policies that have removed a record number of immigrants from the United States. Now even that reconsideration (not even a policy change) is on pause:
President Barack Obama has asked his Homeland Security chief to hold off on completing a review of U.S. deportation policies until the end of the summer, senior White House officials said Tuesday, in a move aimed at salvaging any hopes for Congress to act on immigration this year. … “The president really wants to maximize the opportunity to get a permanent solution enacted, which requires Congress,” said Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.
A permanent solution certainly does require Congress, but most congressional Republicans still don’t seem compelled. In the meantime, absent some under-the-radar changes, problematic deportation policies continue. Why? So the president can show Republicans that they can “trust” him on immigration, and that he won’t move until they’ve slammed the door super hard.
Here is the inevitable conclusion after five years of immigration back-and-forth under Obama: The “can we trust the Administration?” line is not genuine, nor is any hand-wringing about the administration. Chuck Schumer already called this out back in February, proposing that an agreed reform be implemented entirely during the next administration. (Necessarily, under any bill, this would mostly be the case anyway.) Of course, that proposal got the conversation nowhere, because the conversation is not really about the administration.
The only really significant variable in whether immigration reform passes appears to be whether enough Republicans are comfortable enacting some kind of broad legalization. This has everything to do with their own primary voters and nothing to do with anything Obama could do, after five years of record enforcement, to build “trust” or give them “space.” (Or with how much security is piled onto an eventual reform bill.)
If the administration proceeded in making deportation more humane, it might provide those Republican congressmen a useful talking point in rejecting reform. But would it have any effect on the fate of a nearly dead bill?
Instead, maybe moving ever so slightly forward on changes to deportation policy might actually show Republicans that they can’t get their preferred policies without cooperating on a reform proposal. This will not work in the short term, and its long-term success is hardly guaranteed, but this is also apparently true of the strategy that if you enforce the law in a way closer to what Republicans want, then compromise will eventually become immanent. Meanwhile immigration policy is still a problem, which executive action might marginally (but helpfully) address.
So, what exactly is delaying the deportation review going to achieve?
Right now the hopes of immigration reform activists hang on the every word of House Republican leadership. The problem is there is no Kremlinology for this group. There’s no way to decode their public utterances to discern some kind of significant, hidden mode of thinking or grand plan. The much more likely situation is that what they say from day to day is incoherent.
What we know about John Boehner’s way of operating is that John Boehner wants to continue to be speaker, and passing major legislation is all well and good as long as doing so doesn’t endanger that first goal. He is also probably part of the Republican Party elite that sees immigration reform as a long-run electoral necessity for them. But these views don’t fit together when his restive caucus hasn’t been brought around on the idea. So what he says from day to day will likely be inconsistent.
This leads to the recent instances where Republicans have started to claim “we can’t trust Obama to enforce immigration laws.” This is an absurd claim for a whole number of reasons, but most notably, I think, because it is an alleged complaint that has no way to be satisfied. Like the claim that the border ‘needs to be secure’ before reform efforts, in the absence of any criteria for establishing trust, it just turns into a vague, passive-aggressive, blame-deflecting way of blocking reform.
The existence of those kinds of blocks is not commensurate with actually passing reform. Some sharp observers don’t see those kinds of statements as very problematic:
True, but it’s also (more plausibly) what he’d say if he really doesn’t know what he’s going to do about the issue. The problem is that, in the meantime, it just sets up another unmeetable condition for moving forward on reform, where the Senate bill actually made political progress by determining how the previously unmeetable conditions would be met.
The good news, I guess, is that the House GOP leadership’s tack could just change again tomorrow. Somewhat promising standards for immigration reform one day, declarations incommensurable with passing them the next.
People near the front lines of what’s happening at the southwest border often have rather complex and layered views about what’s going on there.
A tendency to oversimplify these views helps to inform a lopsided policy response to the border — one that has piled on more and more security measures without addressing the obvious other dimensions of the problem.
People living near the border feel unsafe, are fed up, and demand more security. This account has a lot of truth to it, but it is a huge oversimplification. In general, majority views on the border and immigration have for a long time been complex and, at first blush, perhaps self-contradictory: demanding more security, more pragmatism, and more compassion.
Some ranchers, like the quasi-vigilante Roger Barnett, have aggressively advocated for greater security. Others have more nuanced views. (See some supremely illustrated examples in Edward Caputo’s 2007 Virginia Quarterly Review article). Lavoyger Durham appears to be one of the latter group. Durham is a South Texas rancher. He’s at the center of this powerful article by Ananda Rose discussing the rise in migrant deaths in South Texas.
Rose rightly calls Durham a good Samaritan. He’s put up South Texas’s first water station, and often offers urgently needed assistance to migrants who are too weak to travel onward. Some of the help he offers is technically illegal. Durham, who like many border ranchers is bilingual, at some point started to ask the migrants he encounters who are too weak to go on if he can interview them as they wait for the Border Patrol. He says he wants to understand them and their journey. Most say no, but some agree. Durham’s conversations with them, even in their weakened states, are humanizing. The migrants can tell their stories, such as in the video above. His YouTube channel is worth checking out.
It’s interesting, then, to watch Durham talk in this video, produced by the Texas Department of Agriculture, about the urgent security needs at the border and the overall lack of safety.
Concern about security and concern about migrants coexist.
There are three things to observe. First, what people want out of the government defies simplification into a ‘greater security/less security’ trope. Second, we should actually try to understand how all these views fit together according to people’s worldviews, rather than seeing them as contradictory.
Thing third thing to observe poses a question that’s difficult to answer: Why has our political response obsessed so much over the security dimension of the border and immigration, when there is clearly a whole lot else going on? The response does injustice to the complexity of how Americans think about, feel about, and respond to what’s happening at the border. It’s a systemic response, reducible to no clear group of policymakers, and it has not satisfied anybody.
I thought of a shorter way of expressing my post from yesterday. It starts with the well-worn Bismarck adage that politics is “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
A broad legalization is what people (including a majority of Americans in polls) have been wanting Congress to do about the unauthorized population for many years. Congress has not acted. So the President is left to do what he can, to achieve what is possible in this area.
What is “possible” is what the President can succeed politically at doing without Congress.
He has judged that he could not succeed politically at just stopping deportations. Understandably, he says this would extremely overstep his authority in the Constitution, and could set a bad precedent. Unsaid is that this would also cause a major spat with Republicans in Congress (who could say it’s impeachable).
However, he can succeed politically at deferring the deportation of groups of unauthorized people who politicians find it difficult to inveigh against. People brought here as children, and now family of members of the military and veterans, for instance.
In our ossified system, action is limited to “special” executive discretion at the limits of where Congress refuses to legislate. People have been worried that gridlock may lead to more unilateral executive action, but in reality the practice seems less than grand. Politics is a form of opportunism — and the only opportunity that exists is to nibble at the edges of problems Congress pointedly ignores. Whether the executive correctly surveys the full scope of its opportunities is another matter.
Meet the Zermeños. They’re an Arizona family, but only one of them is a US citizen. The citizen Zermenño, Gabriel, is in the military. His father José and his sisters all lack legal status.
It seems cruel and inhumane that someone who is serving in the military for the United States might face the deportation of a loved one. It also presents a problem to the mission of the military if its personnel are distracted from their duties overseas because they have to help defend relatives against deportation. So President Obama is making official an informal policy laid out in 2010 by DHS, where unauthorized relatives of military personnel can apply for “parole in place,” meaning they can apply for legal status in the United States without having to return to their home countries for ten years beforehand like normal.
José Zermeño is planning to apply for this program. Gabriel’s sisters have applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Read from the other direction, it may seem cruel that US citizen Gabriel’s sisters are allowed to stay, but their father, who raised them on his own in America, is not. That would suggest the logic of extending the logic of DACA to parents of US citizens, even without a special program for the people connected to the military. So, once you begin acknowledging that it’s worth it to grant leave to some people despite their immigration status, you realize that legitimate grounds apply to a whole range of people. This is one of the compelling logics for a broad legalization, of course.
All this gets to an infuriating and contradictory aspect of the immigration argument. On one hand, there is a rather clear general principle supporting a broad legalization. On the other hand, without Congressional action, that principle can only find expression in well-defined areas that would seem very difficult to contest politically. It’s a clear moral and policy judgment, pressed through a distorting political filter.
Of course, President Obama is taking this action amid increasingly dim prospects for immigration reform any time soon. The extent of this authority to carve out these areas of non-enforcement is disputed. This heckler says the president can stop all deportations. The president replies he cannot ignore whole sections of law (but can use discretion to decline to do some enforcement). Everyone agrees that the temporary nature of deferred action is not as good as the permanent nature of a final Congressional legalization. The push to move forward without Congressional approval relies on the perception that there is some middle ground for maneuver.
In practice, the “middle ground” comprises the areas where there is perceived political license that permits deferred action — areas that encompass people whom it is very difficult to argue against, such people who were brought to the US as children, or who have raised people who have risked their life for the United States. These are subjective political judgments, made when Americans back a path to citizenship for the bulk of the unauthorized population by large majorities. So why not a broader program? The perception is that such a policy would need to go through Congress. Why wouldn’t the more limited one need to? Why are certain people harmed by the sad dysfunction of Congress more than others? There’s a consistent and universal principle at work here — that there should be a general legalization — but as long as Congress remains still on the issue, where that principle is exercised basically comes down to a necessarily rough reading of the political landscape. These are subjective judgments to make, and in making them it is wise not to arguably make the path to reform more difficult accidentally by deferring action for a population that anyone feels they can argue strongly against. How some people perceive other people to judge still other “groups” of people becomes a motivating criterion. (Perceive being the important word.)
So, a more normal life in America must proceed piece-by-piece for a family like the Zermeños. Still, millions will benefit from no program like this, despite the fact that the humanitarian and public-benefit criteria of deferred action might also very plausibly apply to them. The basic cause for such a mess is Congress not acting when everybody knows what Congress has to do: it is difficult to get even the most devoted anti-immigration activists to talk seriously about deportations en masse. Every time we defer immigration enforcement, it shows the logic for why further enforcement should be deferred. That is, until Congress decides to enact the only clear policy solution to this — which always has been the only clear policy solution, and will continue to be the only clear policy solution.
Things have been quiet here since I’ve been settling in Edinburgh, starting a Politics PhD that will focus on immigration and security politics in Arizona.
It sounds weird to go to Europe to study immigration back home, but in the past I’ve found that being somewhere else can give you greater perspective of what goes on at home.
For instance, the biggest migration-related news in Europe since I arrived has been an accident off the coast of Lampedusa, an Italian island close to North Africa that serves as the gateway of many refugees and unauthorized migrants to Europe. Nearly 200 people have died in this one accident.
For me, it’s difficult not to think about the many migrants who die in Arizona’s deserts. A peculiar mix of public sympathy for the migrants and concern about their unauthorized arrival, which is now being noted in the Italian response, is very recognizable from what’s happened Arizona over the past 10 or 15 years.