I won’t be evaluating the states of the souls of politicians who vote on immigration policy, parents who send unaccompanied minors across borders, adults who cross borders illegally, or US citizens who express ideas on the subject.
At least I’ll try to avoid both. I’m certainly not qualified to do either. What I would like is to identify a few avoidable impediments to the conversation.
Usually one side talks about illegal aliens (or, less grammatically, just illegals) and the other side calls them undocumented immigrants. Neither is helpful: illegal modifies actions, not persons. And though alien, on its face, just means stranger or foreigner, it at least hints at repulsive and hostile space creature to most people today.
To call them undocumented is true as far as it goes, but the point is not the lack of documents but the law-breaking that resulted in their absence.
How can we stop talking past each other? I propose that, for one thing, we may as well go ahead and say refugees or invaders. Nearly everything one side says makes sense if they’re refugees. Nearly everything the other side says makes sense if they’re invaders.
In some cases refugees seems accurate: children fleeing violence or hunger or human trafficking, conditions so bad that a nightmarish, life-threatening journey culminating in an uncertain reception looks preferable. And in other cases, “invaders” is not a stretch at all. Terrorists and exporters of gang warfare and drug addiction do belong in a different category. To block their entry, even if their own life stories are tragic, too, is an act of reasonable self-defense.
There’s something else that’s impeding straight talk: a false either/or that makes conversation impossible. Either politicians are manipulating events behind the scenes, or these children are innocent victims of forces beyond their control. Both are obviously true. If we discern political machinations, that doesn’t mean we’re wild-eyed conspiracy theorists who believe one omnipotent, invisible puppeteer is micromanaging every wrinkle of the narrative. And if we want to see innocent children cared for, that doesn’t mean we’re pro-terrorism, gang warfare, and national destruction.
People who would otherwise follow their best instincts and advocate treating refugees as human beings hesitate, because that, as they see it, would be to fall into the trap laid by their political opponents.
The politicians pit us all against each other. Some of them profess compassion for unaccompanied minors, but the only solution they propose is “Go back where you came from.” Other politicians, who profess compassion just as earnestly, manufacture a crisis, or at least a dramatic escalation of one, which multiplies the suffering of the ones for whom they cry their crocodile tears. Then they point to the suffering children as evidence that their preferred policy must be instituted immediately, laws be damned. It’s a little like the terrorists of Hamas who use children as human shields and then display photos of their corpses to incite hatred of the soldiers they goaded into attacking.
Do we lack the will to safeguard the wellbeing of both the victims and the citizens? It’s hard to tell, because it’s hard to find anybody of influence who’s trying to do both. Everybody ratchets up the rhetoric. We’re led to believe there’s no option but to send them immediately back to the conditions they’re fleeing or else “dump” them without adequate health screening or even advance notice into schools already struggling to provide marginal safety and literacy.
Parents of public-school kids in inner city Chicago, who have enough problems already, are led to believe that humanity to the stranger and sojourner means exposing their own children to tuberculosis. And people who want to help the unaccompanied minors are led to believe that even providing some kind of emergency assistance entails abandoning our country to such lawless chaos that pretty soon it'll be in no condition to serve as a safe harbor for anyone.
Years of living abroad have convinced me that American can-do ingenuity is not a myth. If we devoted the energy and imagination we’re renowned for to finding a solution somewhere between “Go back where you came from” and surrendering to anarchy, we could come up with something better.