Most Americans have been surprised as well as dismayed by the “child refugee crisis” that erupted, seemingly from thin air, on the U.S.-Mexico border in the spring and summer of this year. I was dismayed, but not surprised.
In May 2007, I made my first visit to the political demarcation that separates Mexico from the United States. For a month I traveled the 1,952 miles of la linea from east to west, starting at Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville, Texas, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and ending at the iconic fence separating San Diego and Tijuana. Stories about Mexico’s drug violence, which then-new President Felipe Calderón was taking unprecedented steps to address, were regular news staples. President George W. Bush’s proposed immigration reform bill had taken center stage politically (very temporarily, as it turned out), even as Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and CNN broadcaster Lou Dobbs thundered about the “illegals” onslaught.
My border exploration began as an interesting freelance assignment from Parade magazine but evolved into a defining professional experience. I wrote a book about the U.S.-Mexico border in 2008 and later traveled extensively in northern Mexico on a research project.1 In June 2011, the Obama Administration, through former Commissioner Alan Bersin, appointed me to direct policy and planning for U.S. Customs and Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security. At 60,000 employees, Customs and Border Protection is the largest law enforcement organization in the Federal government. I left just over a year later, concerned about the Administration’s policy compass.
Drugs. Violence. Immigration. “Illegals.” Little appears to have changed along the border in seven years, even as the region has dominated recent headlines in a somewhat novel way. At the center of the 2014 “crisis” are waves of Central American refugees, a great many of whom happen to be children seeking asylum in the United States. Although the migrants are refugees seeking asylum, the overheated politics surrounding immigration have only increased the political inconvenience of their exodus.
Like the Bush Administration before it, President Obama has asked a divided Congress to pass legislation that will bring systemic, structural immigration reform into law. He has been answered for the most part with a mixture of confusion, venality, and, above all, irresponsibility. Unlike George W. Bush, whose plan also fell into the maw of congressional dysfunction, Obama poised himself to go further on his own, issuing a series of Executive Orders—some of which he has stayed until after the 2014 midterm elections—that prescriptively define which immigration rules the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Defense will and will not enforce.
But that has not, and cannot, really fix the problem. The tension in the border “crisis” hearkens back to geopolitical dilemmas with more enduring roots than can be captured in emotional, media-driven debates. And while there have been consistent flaws in this Administration’s policy tactics, the far more troubling failures involve the absence of strategic common sense, creativity, and, above all, courage.
Why does courage matter in policymaking? Isn’t that more appropriate for measuring combat valor than metering conference room debates? Courage is an intangible; it cannot be fed into a database or revealed by a statistical analysis. Yet courage is relevant because it defines the limits of action. Leaders with courage can expand the realm of the possible, as FDR once did, when he reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Without it, would-be leaders spread malaise and leave the public paralyzed in a crisis of confidence.
The presence or absence of this mystical quality is especially crucial when there is compelling evidence for both sides of an issue. And if we do not see “it” in a President, we refuse to accept his administration’s bold policies on contentious issues like border security and immigration reform. No matter how convincing or urgent the logic for action becomes on our teeming shores, we steadfastly refuse to hand our chief executive the keys to our golden doors unless we detect a stout heart guiding his outstretched hand. President Bush’s immigration reform proposal was brave in one sense: He went against his party base to proffer it. President Obama’s immigration policy, on the other hand, has only served to heighten the partisan divide.
In the United States, border security and immigration reform occupy a strange category in that they are simultaneously foreign and domestic policy concerns. There are practical threats to public security that border security must address, and there are issues of economic prosperity that border management must encourage. From terrorists to narcotics to Ebola, border authorities are charged with preventing people or things from entering the United States that could cause the public harm. At the same time, from tourists to supply chain components to customs revenues, authorities must speed the passage of people and things into the United States that bring benefit. These dueling requirements are imposed on customs authorities at every U.S. port of entry, and they are woven into the fabric of the immigration laws those officials must enforce.
But as our divided Congress illustrates, the American public does not know how to handle the geopolitical challenge presented over the past three decades through our recent immigration waves, whether those waves take the form of legal guest workers who overstay employment visas, illegal migrant women hiking through deserts to give birth, or young children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala emerging on our South Texas shoreline. When we talk about a “crisis” on national and international media, we are not just referencing that moment’s events along the southern border. We are really talking about a much broader question: What kind of nation will we become?
In 2005, the renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed one explanation for the existing geopolitical tension in his final book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. The immigration wave from Latin America over the past three decades, Huntington said, is incompatible with the core of American identity and threatens the very fabric of Western civilization. “All societies face recurring threats to their existence, to which they eventually succumb”, Huntington wrote in the book’s foreword. “Yet some societies, even when so threatened, are also capable of postponing their demise by halting and reversing the processes of decline and renewing their vitality and identity.” Huntington’s prescription is straightforward: “Americans should recommit themselves to the Anglo-Protestant culture, traditions, and values that for three and a half centuries have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions.” In short, Huntington argued for constraining the Latin American migration wave lest the power and promise of what it means to be American be lost forever.
Fortunately for migrant advocates, there is an alternative geopolitical argument. Robert Kaplan, in his 2010 book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate, argues that we need not fear the threat of Latin American migration into the United States because it is necessary—even beneficial—for the two societies to merge. “The organic connection between Mexico and America—geographical, historical, and demographic—is simply too overwhelming”, Kaplan wrote.
America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north to south, from Canada to Mexico, rather than as an east to west, racially lighter-skinned island in the temperate zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Kaplan welcomes migration and sees tremendous benefits to bridging the national divide.
Which viewpoint best suits the American interest? Which prescription should we use to frame policy? This is not an insignificant question. For Team Huntington, no policy on immigration reform that reduces controls or quotas for any Latin American country is welcome. No policy proposal passes muster if it specifies insufficient punishment for “criminal illegals” or inadequate funding for border security. It matters not whether migrants are legal guest workers who fail to speak adequate English and overstay their visas, or eight-year-old orphans fleeing abusive and violent communities. “Illegals” denote not just people who have broken a law but people whose very presence endangers the American way of life. “Illegals” take American jobs. “Illegals” are people who only the naive think can be assimilated. Team Kaplan sees all these issues from the opposite perspective.
The fact that the battle lines in this debate have hardened around partisan bases makes the situation that much worse. In successive elections, the Democratic National Committee has presented the Republican position as racist and xenophobic. This is an unfortunate line, for, inflammatory adjectives aside, Huntington’s overall analysis is correct: The wave of Latin American migration over the past three decades into the United States, driven largely (as hundreds of migration scholars have illustrated) by increasingly restrictive U.S. border controls, is unlike any that has happened before in American history. The Democratic Party’s denial of this truth only hardens Republicans, who look at immigration reform and see only a mounting siege on American culture and partisan calculations.
The irony of Huntington’s case, and of the resulting political divide, is that the most obstructive U.S. immigration policies (many of which remain part of our legal code today) originated from the Democratic side of the aisle. For the first century of the country’s existence, there were no restrictions at all on immigration into the United States. It was not until 1882 that a Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-led House of Representatives united to assert that a specific group of immigrants could not be assimilated. After they passed the bill, Republican President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It became America’s first migration ban.
The anti-migration position continued during the next four decades regardless of which party held power, even hardening during several Democratic administrations. Congress passed anti-Japanese, anti-European, and anti-illiterate laws. Public sentiment driving these policies came not only from Huntington’s “Anglo-Protestant culture” but from labor unions, self-styled progressives, and eugenicists. Woodrow Wilson vigorously opposed welcoming migrants, making the same policy case that Huntington did—albeit with a eugenics subtext.
Not everyone supported restrictive policies. Then, as now, immigration supporters included industrialists who sought to profit from an expanded labor pool, religious advocates who viewed migration as a human right, and undocumented migrants themselves, who banded together politically as Germans, Irish, Chinese, Italians, Czechs, Jews, Arabs, Poles, and Japanese, asserting that no matter their native language, they too were entitled to pursue the American dream.
Today, these migrants are Asian and Latin American, and the political argument for their rights remains the same. For Asians, the issue appears less contentious. But for Latin Americans in general, and Mexicans in particular, their historically huge numbers challenge America’s idea of its own culture. And if migrants, whether legal or illegal, perceive one political party as fundamentally opposed to their ethnic origins, culture, and “unassimilable” way of life, then such a wave also challenges the existing political landscape—especially near an election.
The Huntingtonians’ ultimate fear is not merely a bifurcation of American culture but a split of U.S. territory. “Demographically, socially, and culturally, the reconquista of the Southwest United States by Mexico is well under way”, Huntington claimed in 2004. But Huntington made a mistake by conflating migrants seeking work with an eccentric professor’s political ideals. That professor, the University of New Mexico’s Charles Truxillo, a widely quoted Chicano studies activist, believes that, by 2080, the U.S. Southwest and Northern Mexico will secede from their respective countries and form a República del Norte. “There is a growing fusion, a reviving of connections”, Truxillo said in a fall 2000 interview. “Southwest Chicanos and Norteño Mexicanos are becoming one people again.”
Unfortunately for Truxillo’s dreams of reviving a mythic Aztlan empire (another moniker for the feared República to come), little public support exists on either side of the border for overthrowing the legacies of their English and Spanish colonial oppressors. Truxillo stokes Huntingtonian suspicions of a Mexican reconquista by asserting that Northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest represents a “spiritual homeland” for migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
But in Northern Mexico, deep in the heart of this supposed spiritual homeland, an interesting Anglo re-conquest has unfolded over the past two decades. In 2009 and 2010, I traveled extensively throughout this region, visiting all six Mexican states bordering the United States as well as Sinaloa. From Monterrey, in Mexico’s northeast to Tijuana in the west, I saw increased trade and economic activity (a NAFTA legacy), as well as bumper stickers supporting every branch of the U.S. military (presumably from family connections). Every Mexican I met knew someone living in the United States. Many Mexicans apologized to me—in their own country—for not being able to speak English. American culture has seeped south as Mexicans and their culture have migrated north. Salsa, barbecue, Corona, and beisbol are now equally popular in both countries.
For Truxillo’s political vision of a reconquista to bear fruit, both southwestern Americans and northern Mexicans would need to believe they would benefit more from creating a new nation than from simply allowing the tensions between their two countries to evolve, and dissolve. They would have to conclude, by a commanding majority, that assimilating both cultures each into the other would weaken the two states instead of strengthening them. Few on either side of the border appear to believe these things. Even Truxillo recognized this in 2000, saying that those who have achieved positions of power or otherwise are “enjoying the benefits of assimilation” of Hispanic, Latino, or indigenous ethnicity are likely to oppose a new nation. That fits the description of most people living in the region we are discussing.
As Kaplan argues in The Revenge of Geography, while Mexicans migrating to and from the United States may feel a cultural duality, this has not translated into secessionist energy or political violence. Northern Mexico has endured criminal strife, but it is not because the Sinaloa Cartel is bankrolling the reconquista. Quite the contrary, most borderland residents of Mexican origin describe a situation of ongoing exile, feeling not quite at home in either country. “I am Mexican, but I do not think any of the terms apply to me”, a Mexican-born San Antonio high school student told sociologist Harriett Romo, responding in Spanish to a question of whether he identified as Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, or Mexican-American. “Yo soy quien soy” (“I am who I am”), he said.2
By virtue of being present in the United States, this young man—undoubtedly lacking legal documentation—may hope to eventually call himself an American. While he may not assimilate as quickly as Huntington would like, I doubt Truxillo would be able to draft this student into his República del Norte army simply because he speaks Spanish. “I guess my more personal side is Mexican”, an American woman of Mexican origin told Romo, “but I don’t think I can define my ties to Mexico. We have double identities. Half of my papers are Mexican. Half of the other ones are American. Sometimes I feel I don’t belong anywhere.” Such migrants are not likely to find meaning or opportunity by fighting for the reconquista, unless perhaps there is a very plush revolutionary payroll to tempt them.
Despite Professor Truxillo’s assertions (and Professor Huntington’s fears), few in either Northern Mexico or the U.S. Southwest will have any more interest in reclaiming the República in 2040 (or 2080) than they have today. In Europe, Scots and Catalans, like stressed tectonic plates, are ready to rumble at any moment, but both Mexicans and Americans are mixtures of migrant races and, at least at some level, they know it. Who needs the hassles of a third set of papers from yet another constructed nationality? Yo soy quien soy.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of just being who you are turns out to be less achievable on the Potomac these days than on the Rio Grande. Although the flow of unaccompanied Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, and Honduran children arriving at the U.S. border started more than two years ago, it only emerged as a “crisis” when the Administration could no longer prevent news organization from documenting the deplorable conditions these minors lived in while detained. The politics surrounding the child refugees—which represent an actual, not theoretical, humanitarian crisis—are colored by the racial, ethnic, and political overtones of the Huntington/Kaplan debate. What else can one call a situation in which children are either sent back to war zones or allowed to roam around the United States without adequate shelter or food because our legal system cannot process their cases quickly enough, with the rest detained in varying degrees of squalor while awaiting their day in court?
First, some blunt facts. In most of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, nobody really knows who is in charge. For more than a decade, over half of Guatemala’s territory has been listed by all reputable security analysts as “ungoverned space.” The governments of El Salvador and Honduras have equally questionable writ over their regions. Traveling through these chaotic spaces, Catholic Refugee Services workers report endemic violence, intimidation, and poverty that is just as likely to come from policemen or soldiers as from gangs or cartels. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world today (if you don’t count the Syrian government murdering its own people en masse), and El Salvador and Guatemala are not far behind. In both El Salvador and Guatemala, policemen and military members told researchers from the Immigrant Policy Center that they had sent their own children north to seek U.S. asylum, saying their lives were at risk if they remained anywhere in their home country.
The United States has not been the only receiving country of refugees fleeing these three failed states. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, asylum requests in Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, and Mexico have increased 432 percent over the past year. Even in Nicaragua, one of the regions poorest countries, asylum requests increased between 2012 and 2013 by 240 percent; one suspects this is so because it is a lot closer as a destination, rather than for its bucolic weather and scenic charms.
Instead of addressing the refugee crisis with direct, engaged leadership, both major American political parties have exploited the border situation to appeal to the worst instincts of partisan extremes—instincts that, with Republicans in particular, are rooted in fears of miscegenation rather than sound, humane policy. The House GOP’s position borders on immoral. Rather than seeking to stabilize the situation, in keeping with U.S. experience with past refugee crises (Vietnamese refugees following Saigon’s fall, for example), the GOP wants to turn the United States into one large Anglo-Protestant gated community. Many of the same voices who now call for sending thousands of destitute children back to war zones and for changing a competent and rational 2008 law aimed at protecting human trafficking victims once excoriated Janet Reno for sending Elián González back to Fidel Castro’s Cuba at gunpoint. What reconquista are your constituents afraid of? One led by orphans with coloring books, or 13-year-olds forced into prostitution?
But if the House Republicans appear to lack a heart, then President Obama seems to be missing a spine. The Administration’s domestic policy agenda on immigration has been so inconsistent and opaque that it has been exceptionally difficult to discern the real reason, outside of ubiquitous partisan political considerations, why it does anything at all. Whether they are artificially inflating deportation statistics or advocating amnesty workarounds (and stoking the smuggling rumor mill) through the prosecutorial discretion and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policies, Obama Administration officials have been so inconsistent and haphazard with their Executive Orders that they have increased, rather than reduced, uncertainty for migrants. In so doing, the President’s policies create voter dependency around race and ethnicity in small doses, and the Democrats seem to expect their base to keep coming back for more. Unfortunately, this form of political heroin offers no protections beyond momentary fixes.
As Exhibit A, consider the Administration’s net response to the child refugees. On the one hand, Administration officials seem intent on “changing the enforcement culture” of immigration and border management authorities; on the other, they fail to recognize that, by law, enforcement is exactly what the American taxpayers have hired them to do. And although migrant advocates have hammered President Obama as the “Deporter in Chief”, his Administration has inflated the deportation numbers significantly by adding Voluntary Returns at the U.S.-Mexico border as deportations in 2012. These were never counted as deportations before, and they have made the data difficult to track from previous years.
But what has the President’s response been to a legitimate refugee crisis? Deportations. Security enhancements. Prison funding. Instead of leading, the President needs to get his base jonesing for that post-election policy fix, an Executive Order pardoning millions of undocumented workers “because Congress won’t act.” Unfortunately, a future President could just as easily rescind Obama’s order, leaving millions of migrants in dangerous limbo. Democrats appear more concerned about being seen as political salvation swamis than about making sound and internally coherent policy.
The most dynamic changes poised to occur in U.S. migration policy in the next decade may not be in the United States, but rather in Mexico. The historic wave of Mexican migration into the United States appears to have slowed dramatically, if not altogether ended. In 2011, the net flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States fell to zero. Since then, more Mexicans have left the United States than have arrived. “Looking back over the entire span of U.S. history, no country has ever seen as many of its people immigrate to this country as Mexico has in the past four decades”, the Pew Research Center reported in 2012, illustrating why Huntington was both right and wrong. “However, when measured not in absolute numbers but as a share of the immigrant population at the time, immigration waves from Germany and Ireland in the late 19th century equaled or exceeded the modern wave from Mexico.”
Huntington correctly identified the Mexican wave as historic. But he incorrectly concluded that this wave would not recede or that it was incompatible with advancing the American interest in the 21st century. In August 2014, Mexico’s Congress, which has been running circles around our own, passed President Enrique Peña Nieto’s long-awaited energy reform bill, ending 75 years of state control over the energy sector. As migration flows indicate, Mexico is slowly but steadily evolving into a middle-class country. “The result of that will be a sea change in its relations with the United States, which will finally see Mexico not as a problem but as a partner”, predicts Fareed Zakaria, echoing Robert Kaplan. “Once they do, North America—the United States, Mexico and Canada—will become the world’s most important, vibrant and interdependent economic unit.”
Unfortunately for Republicans (and, of course, for Professor Truxillo), most migrants who have become U.S. citizens and are now “enjoying the benefits of assimilation” can only find a political home among Democrats. But rather than exert moral authority through patient, deliberate leadership, President Obama has exploited the border challenges for political gain. The lack of candor and direct engagement from both sides is shameful. Americans should demand better; we should expect at least a scintilla of courage from our leaders. In the meantime, the kids just keep on coming.
1The Border: Exploring the U.S.-Mexican Divide (Stackpole Books, 2008).
2Quoted in I. William Zartman, Understanding Life in the Borderlands (University of Georgia Press, 2010), p. 227.