You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Let the Border Kids Stay

We owe them, after all

John Moore/Getty Images

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a swath of the American right was obsessed with an antique British parliamentarian, William Wilberforce. During the exhausted final moments of the Bush presidency, this nineteenth-century crusader—an evangelical, an advocate for animal rights, and an opium addict—suddenly became the subject of numerous celebratory op-ed columns, biographies, and slogans. To social conservatives in particular, Wilberforce seemed to embody the possibility that a politics drenched in morality might ultimately prevail, despite the many recent setbacks in the culture wars. After all, he had pressed his lonely crusade against the slave trade so persistently that he managed to abolish it from the British Empire in 1807, despite the vociferous opposition of moneyed interests.

Of all the Wilberforce revivalists, the most dogged was Sam Brownback, then a senator from Kansas. At seemingly every turn, he tagged himself a “Wilberforce Republican.” When the musty biopic Amazing Grace appeared in 2007, Brownback stumped for the film. Later that year, in a tribute to his idol, he introduced the Wilberforce Act, which was intended to curb the modern-day incarnation of slavery: human trafficking. 

The primary subjects of Brownback’s legislation were women and children forcibly transported across the world into sexual servitude and various other states of coerced labor. Inside the Wilberforce Act, however, was another provision, unheralded at the time, but which now looms quite large. Just as the bill relaxed immigration laws to provide more sympathetic treatment to victims of trafficking, it created a set of similarly generous procedures for kids who illegally arrived at the border without their parents. The implicit moral logic of the Wilberforce Act held that unaccompanied children and sex slaves were the most helpless of new arrivals. It would be intolerably cruel to cast them out without ensuring their safety.

Almost nobody—only two House Republicans at first—opposed the Wilberforce Act. That’s because it seemed like a cost-free gesture. It was difficult to imagine that more than a small handful of children would ever set out on such dangerous journeys alone. (It was especially inconceivable given that the law explicitly exempted Mexicans and Canadians ofrom its protections.) But the arrival of tens of thousands of Central American kids this year has exposed just how badly Congress underestimated the urge to immigrate: A great mass of humanity will endure enormous risk at the least sign that they have America’s blessing to flee here. 

Now that these kids are no longer an abstraction, many of the conservatives who supported the Wilberforce Act would like to retract their votes. Once, they viewed child migrants as worthy of association with one of history’s moral giants; now, some conservatives treat them as criminals who can’t be ejected from our country harshly enough. But the unanticipated numbers of children availing themselves of the Wilberforce Act shouldn’t undermine the initial logic for it. The bill’s conservative authors understood that the United States has obligations to the world’s most desperate cases—and that those obligations should play a decisive role in shaping our immigration policy.

On the surface, at least, the complex moral calculus of immigration has flummoxed Barack Obama. He has managed to find himself the villain of two wildly competing narratives. In the right-wing version, he’s the lawless president—practicing a corrupt policy that buys Latino votes with his non-enforcement of immigration laws. On the left, he’s guilty of precisely the opposite crime. He’s the “Deporter in Chief,” willing to heartlessly expel millions of immigrants in his naïve pursuit of a grand legislative bargain with Republicans. Neither of these narratives is especially fair. But their existence captures the difficulty of his task: designing a rationalized immigration system so that it becomes both more humane and more faithful to the rule of law. 

At its core, the overriding obsession of recent U.S. immigration policy has been the sealing of the Mexican border. This is an old hobbyhorse that acquired greater urgency after 9 / 11, fueled by false rumors that our assailants had crept into the United States by land. In short order, spending on border enforcement tripled, to $18 billion in 2012. It would be silly to assume that this money has been spent wisely, especially given the charlatan contractors circling this pile of cash. But today our border increasingly resembles a forcefield, and migration from Mexico has plummeted. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office rated U.S. control of the southern border to be 69 percent effective; by 2011, that rate had risen to 84 percent. 

Liberals tend to dismiss any fixation on the border—and somewhat understandably so. Conservatives invoke it as the primary immigration emergency when it is, in fact, a pretext for avoiding an unpalatable discussion of the fate of the eleven million undocumented people living in the United States. However border security isn’t just a matter of law and order; it’s also the foundation for a generous immigration policy. An anarchic border creates a foul political mood, which makes it harder to help the immigrants here and those aspiring to come. 

And yet the border has an even greater importance than that. There’s a strain of liberal political theory, most compellingly formulated by Michael Walzer, that holds that a community’s sense of social solidarity and self-determination depends on its ability to deny membership to outsiders. This sounds like a fairly academic notion, but it’s not. 

Without a well-regulated border, we lose the capacity to make choices about whom we admit to our country. We end up simply taking those who manage to make their way in—which diminishes our financial and political capacity to accept others based on our economic need or their moral merit. But in the last decade, we’ve solved that problem. We have a secure border that affords us the ability to make choices—to prioritize the entry of the groups who most need our help, especially when we are directly responsible for their plight. 

Central America has hemorrhaged migrants in recent decades. Its long civil wars—battles between U.S.-supported governments and Marxist insurgents—flared and abated and then flared again, with death squads preemptively squashing potential rebellions. Millions fled during these grinding conflicts. One in five Salvadorans came to reside in the United States. The numbers from Guatemala and Honduras were never quite so dramatic, though still fairly staggering. (There are more than one million Guatemalans living in the United States.) These departures—which were driven by the search for economic opportunity as well as the quest for safety—divided families and weakened the underlying structures of societies, creating the conditions for chaos. 

After the cold war ended, the United States more or less fled the region, too. But the American appetite for cocaine remained. Honduras, with its unguarded coastlines, empty jungles, and convenient location, became a global capital of the drug business, with some 40 percent of U.S.-destined cocaine touching its soil on its journey northward. Gangs sprouted alongside this booming trade. Their growth was a tragicomic tale of the perils of unintended consequences. During the past two decades, the United States deported thousands of Los Angeles gang members back to their birth countries in the Northern Triangle, introducing hardened criminals and their tribal customs. These gangsters were often dumped with little warning and essentially no program for curbing their impending threat. Then there was the joint U.S.-Mexican war on drugs, which propelled gruesome Mexican criminal organizations into Central America in search of greater freedom to operate and new business opportunities. 

The governments of Central America weren’t prepared for this influx, to say the least. Gangs arrived just as these countries were making a ham-fisted transition to democracy—a transition that viewed the principle of law and order with skepticism. Correcting for the authoritarian abuses of the past, the judiciaries tended to think of offenders as victims of social injustice; prosecutors were viewed as implements of power-mad dictators. (According to official numbers, 98 percent of crimes in Guatemala aren’t prosecuted.) And after all the civil wars and insurgencies faded into history, the security forces were scaled back, a particularly unfortunate stroke of bad timing. They are now simply outnumbered. Two years ago, the State Department estimated that there are some 85,000 gang members in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In the face of this growth, the Honduran police force has shrunk to just 14,000—and a poorly paid force at that. Officers make $400 per month, supplemented by “war taxes” they have empowered themselves to assess. 

It was inevitable that childhood would fall victim to such social decay. Since gangs recruit in schools, classroom attendance has collapsed. NGOs in the region report that thugs use rape to coerce girls as young as nine into their schemes. This is the expression of a society that has degraded the very value of life. In Honduras, death is concentrated in metropolitan abattoirs: The city of San Pedro de Sula is arguably the grimmest place on Earth, with 173 homicides per 100,000. By comparison, war-torn, refugee-ridden Congo has 30 per 100,000. 

It’s hardly surprising that the gangs would capture large chunks of the state in these countries. The vice president of Honduras’s National Congress has estimated that 40 percent of the police force is tied to organized crime. Guatemala’s security services were so thoroughly corrupted that the United Nations set up a special agency to combat criminal impunity—though three out of four murder cases still go unpunished. These are the classical preconditions for claims of asylum: When kids are targeted by gangs, they can’t appeal to any authority for plausible sanctuary, because the authorities are implicated in their torment. Many of the children crossing the Rio Grande aren’t trying to evade the border patrol but desperately seeking their protection. 

One hundred and fifty years ago, the arrival of refugees from Ireland provoked a wave of draconian proposals for closing off access to the United States. The most eloquent rebuttal to these restrictions came from Herman Melville, who had himself recently crewed a ship from Liverpool brimming with immigrants. In his mostly forgotten novel Redburn, he waxed lyrical: “Let us waive that agitated national topic, as to whether such multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores; let us waive it, with the one only thought, that if they get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world; there is no telling who does not own a stone in the Great Wall of China.” 

It’s a beautiful passage, moving in its cosmopolitanism and big-heartedness. But Melville’s expansiveness touches on the very anxiety that makes so many Americans wary of helping the migrant kids: the worry that opening doors for one group will inspire other groups to elbow their way in; that showing compassion for victims of violence in Guatemala will set an irreversible precedent that will require us to show the same compassion to victims of violence in Syria and the Central African Republic and Iraq and Congo. This isn’t an unreasonable concern. U.S. immigration laws frequently end up ushering in far more new arrivals than their authors intended. 

But ultimately, this anxiety is just an excuse for inaction. For starters, the proximity of Central America makes the scale of this crisis singular. So, even if our generosity to the border kids motivated other asylum seekers, the influx would be a manageable one. The odds of Syrian and Congolese children showing up at our airports in great numbers is exceedingly remote. They would need valid visas to even board flights to the United States. Besides, we’ve shown many times in the past that our immigration law can extend a hand to particular groups at particular times—Indochinese and Cuban refugees, to name two—without opening the border to all comers. 

Over the decades, we’ve built a generous immigration system—and also provided it with rigid constraints, starting with a well-policed border. The fact there will always be another beleaguered group knocking on our door doesn’t mean that we should turn away the unaccompanied kids who immediately need our help, especially when our society has contributed to their woes. Obligations can feel frighteningly endless, but that doesn’t absolve us of their burdens.