Friday 22 November 2019

Caravan shows US need to find balance on immigration

Central American migrants traveling with a caravan to the U.S. make their way to Mapastepec, Mexico. AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Central American migrants traveling with a caravan to the U.S. make their way to Mapastepec, Mexico. AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

Megan McCardle

Just in time for the US midterm elections, a caravan of migrants, thousands strong, is wending its way north from Central America toward the US border. President Donald Trump is on the attack. And, lo, it's time for another national conversation about immigration.

As usual, that conversation has started unproductively, with Trump's declaration - with no evidence - that there are criminals and "unknown Middle Easterners" mixed in with the migrants. The conversation might easily end unproductively, too, with Democrats condemning his unsubstantiated claims, then hastily changing the subject to something else.

But if that's all, just the usual hackneyed, base-pleasing rhetorical points lobbed across the ideological divide, that would be a shame.

Trump is wrong to cast fact-free aspersions on desperate people seeking a better life. But the left is wrong if it thinks that making that observation ends the argument, because even a caravan of nothing but decent, hard-working people would raise big questions.

There are billions of decent, hard-working people living in the world. Do all of them have a right to migrate to the US merely because doing so would make them better off?

Immigration restrictionists and advocates both struggle with that question to some degree, depending on the scale they use when considering it.

On the macro scale, restrictionists find it easy to say, no, of course we can't let in every single person who wants to come, because doing so would transform the country into one that few Americans of any political persuasion would want to live in.

Migrants would languish in the kind of squalid poverty that the US hasn't seen for a century, in numbers - a doubling of the US population is probably a conservative estimate - that would defeat any conceivable tax-and-transfer programme.

But on the micro scale, where you can see the human faces, "reasonable" immigration restriction starts looking "ruthless". Those Honduran migrants lying under a tarp in Huixtla, Mexico, aren't any less deserving than you are of clean drinking water, safe streets and a warm, dry abode. By what moral right do we tell them to go home and hope that their local MS-13 chapter decides to prey on somebody else?

A truly open-borders policy has almost no constituency in the American electorate, but it's the implicit philosophical framing of most media stories on immigration, which tend to focus on the micro problems of individuals, not the macro problem of just how many of those individuals the country can admit.

If we're going to find any sort of sane, workable immigration compromise, we don't need more anecdotes; we need to synthesise the micro and macro problems. (© Washington Post Service)

Irish Independent

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