For years now, one side of the immigration debate — the side of billionaires, professional bipartisans, and all the great and good — has argued that an amnesty of some kind for illegal immigrants isn’t just a sensible policy choice but a crushingly obvious one: self-evidently wise, morally farseeing and a win for almost everyone, from corporations to labor unions to Republican politicians to the immigrants themselves.
Nested inside that debate has been a smaller one, over the Dream Act, a measure opening a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived as minors. If comprehensive reform has been cast as a no-brainer, the Dream Act has been portrayed as a test of basic moral fitness: To oppose welcoming these young men and women is to oppose all that’s decent, humanitarian and just.
Now we’re getting a lesson in why reality is never quite so black and white. Over the last two years, a crisis has developed on our Southern border: a children’s migration of increasing scale, in which thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America have made the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, many apparently motivated by the belief that some sort of legal status awaits them.
The numbers are striking, and so is the timing. Before the current surge, the Border Patrol was apprehending about 20,000 unaccompanied children trying to cross the border every year. That number doubled across 2012 and 2013, as President Barack Obama was halting deportations of illegal immigrants who had arrived as minors, and it is projected to more than triple in the current fiscal year.
Our system is ill equipped to handle the influx. The Border Patrol is neglecting other law enforcement duties, and the bureaucracy and courts are struggling to care for the children and process their cases.
The young migrants are not, obviously, deeply familiar with the ins and outs of U.S. politics; they’re following rumors spread by smugglers, for the most part. But the rumors exist for a reason: They’re fueled by a sense that “if you want to get into the U.S., now is the time,” a scholar of Latin America told The Washington Post. And the Obama White House has conceded that a “misperception of U.S. immigration policy” is playing a role — one significant enough to dispatch Vice President Joe Biden to Central America to clarify that we are not actually opening our borders to any minor who reaches them.
Yes, the young migrants are not simply deceived. True, they are not currently eligible for Obama’s deportation halt, which is confined to children who arrived before June 2007. But their overwhelming numbers, and the fact that they come from so far away, will make the White House’s plans for stepped-up deportation difficult to swiftly carry out. Many of them have been menaced by gang violence in their home countries, which allows them to apply for asylum and hope to eventually win it. Others have already been released with only a court summons, and may simply decide to remain and try to stay out of law enforcement’s way.
And if they do, they will have a good chance of eventually receiving the amnesty that smugglers have promised them. If an immigration reform eventually passes under a President Hillary Clinton, today’s young border-crossers will no longer be new arrivals: They'll have been here for several years, they'll be sympathetic figures embedded in communities, and there will be strong, understandable pressure to allow them onto any path to citizenship.
And even if they aren’t deemed eligible — well, they can look at America’s political landscape and reasonably assume that if they remain in the shadows, eventually another push to regularize their status will come along.
Their journey northward, then, is a case study in how the mere promise of an amnesty can — through entirely rational incentives — worsen some of the humanitarian problems that reformers claim they want to solve. And it raises the question of how, exactly, supporters of amnesty would resolve this kind of problem.
One answer, consistent and sincere, is that the child migration really shows we need an open border — one that does away with the problems of asylum hearings and deportations, eliminates the need for dangerous journeys across deserts and mountains, and just lets the kids’ relatives save up for a plane ticket. Come one, come all.
But this is not the answer that Obama or the congressional architects of an immigration bill would offer. Instead, the official promise is always that we'll get amnesty and a system of enforcement that will deter and deport and police employers more effectively — so that major crises don’t recur, future migration happens mostly through legal channels, and this comprehensive reform can be the last.
But if this is actually the goal, then why not first prove that a more effective enforcement system can actually be built, and only then codify an offer of legal status?
Because when that offer seems to be forthcoming, if you haven’t built it, they will come.
Email Mr. Douthat at email@example.com.