It says a lot about U.S. immigration angst that a blowhard egomaniac like Donald Trump can catapult into the leading GOP presidential primary contender by promising, if elected, to deport all illegal immigrants and build a wall along our southern border.
Trump’s diatribes evoke visions of barbarian hordes, killing, raping and plundering as they sweep into America’s heartland. What’s scary is not so much Trump himself (who’s comes across like a Batman comic-strip villain) but the way the Republican base is devouring his message.
Illegal immigration is, indeed, a problem that cries out for reform. However, it can’t be solved by viewing it narrowly as just a U.S. problem or simplistically as one of lax interdiction along the Mexican border. It’s symptomatic of a far more profound global malady, and the solutions are too complex to be encompassed by Trump’s “they’ve got to go” slogan.
People don’t usually leave home, hearth and community in droves because they want to, but because they have to. The world is wracked by starvation, thirst, climate disasters and, most of all, violence. As a result, more refugees are on the move globally than at any time since World War II.
According to the United Nations, there are about 43 million refugees who have been forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution, over 15 million of whom have fled their home countries. The worst trouble spots are the Middle East and Africa. Uncounted more millions have been uprooted by natural disasters.
Syria is currently the largest source of refugees. Due to the four-year civil war there, some 4 million have fled the country (while more than 7 million are internally displaced within it). Initially Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt absorbed them. Now the overflow is lapping Europe’s shores.
Daily news reports depict desperate Syrian refugees by the tens of thousands, risking the treacherous Mediterranean crossing to Greece and Italy in small boats, rushing the border barriers in Macedonia, trekking on foot towards Central Europe, and attempting to stow away aboard trucks and trains traveling through the “chunnel” from Calais to Britain.
Illegal Mexican immigration into the U.S. totals about 500,000 annually and is fueled primarily by poverty and narco-trafficking violence.
Immigration can be compared to osmosis, the process by which dissolved molecules in a solution like saltwater spontaneously move through a porous membrane from the side with the greater concentration of solute to the side with the lesser concentration.
Like osmosis, immigration naturally flows away from insecure, impoverished areas towards regions that provide security and sustenance. The more desperate their plight, the more likely people are to turn into refugees and ultimately to become illegal immigrants, slipping across porous boundaries.
There are essentially three ways to reduce illegal immigration.
The most effective way is to alleviate the suffering that impels masses to migrate across borders at great risk, such as by providing them economic assistance or deploying peacekeeping forces where they live. Ironically, by failing to arm anti-Assad rebels in the early days of Syria’s civil war (in a misguided effort to avoid creating another strife-torn Iraq or Afghanistan), the Obama administration prolonged the conflict and created a human catastrophe that has led to the largest refugee crisis in the world today.
The second way is to employ force to keep illegals out or to expel them once they get in. Indeed, the willingness and ability to use appropriate force levels to protect and control a country’s boundaries is an essential feature of sovereignty. Hence Trump’s comment to NBC news reporter Chuck Todd, “Chuck, we either have a country, or we don’t have a country.” The issue is how much force. Trump’s answer – immediate mass deportation and a massive wall — is almost as garish as his real estate developments.
An estimated 11 million illegals presently reside in the U.S. That’s roughly equivalent to the number of German citizens who were forcibly expelled from Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II (in a reversal of Hitler’s “lebensraum” policy). This forced migration was accomplished in short order by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but only through brutal methods. The deportation of this many illegals from the U.S., after affording them due process of law, would take at least a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to locate, detain, house and feed them, not to mention adjudicate their cases before administrative judges. Meanwhile, others would take their place.
As for a southern border wall, it would have to stretch about 2,000 miles and look like the fence protecting America’s base at Guantanamo, Cuba. Even then, resourceful smugglers and human traffickers would find ways to cross – cutting through, burrowing under, climbing over, or simply going around it. After all, this country’s land boundary with Canada is about 5,550 miles long, and the length of our collective coastlines totals nearly 12,500 miles, providing ample alternative opportunities for penetration.
The third way is also harsh, but preferable to testosterone-charged levels of force and deserving of careful consideration. That is to make the destination less attractive for illegal immigrants by denying them work and benefits. The justification is that work and benefits are rewards that should go to immigrants who come through the front door, not the back one. In the U.S., this approach would require tougher policing of employers hiring undocumented aliens and federal and state legislation to change entitlement programs, as well as a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of illegals.
I’ll concede that Trump is right about one thing. There are self-serving interests in the U.S. who have enabled lax immigration enforcement. Many businesses profit from the influx of cheap labor to perform menial, physically taxing, low-paying and unpleasant jobs in the agricultural, food processing, domestic service, hospitality and construction sectors (perhaps including some of Trump’s enterprises). Many elected officials curry favor with Hispanic voters, who tend to oppose tougher border policies.
In the U.S., debates about illegal immigration usually degenerate into shouting matches about whether any immigrants, even the legal ones, are desirable. These issues are, in fact, quite distinct. One can be in favor of robust legal immigration — recognizing that immigrants have historically conferred a great benefit on the U.S. — while, at the same time, opposing immigration enforcement policies so divorced from immigration laws that the ledger must be balanced every few decades with a blanket amnesty for illegals.
Given the willingness to compromise, this nation can certainly construct a rational immigration system, one that balances humanitarian against law enforcement and national security concerns, business against labor interests, and economic opportunities for newcomers against economic dislocation for those already living here. An important component of that system should be strong U.S. engagement abroad to alleviate the miserable conditions that set mass migrations in motion.
So we don’t need Trump to solve our immigration problem. In fact, Donald, “You’re fired!”
Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is the founder of Museum L-A and author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.