US immigration law belongs fairly high up there on any list of injustices in the world. Many people mostly reject the idea that someone’s legal rights should depend on who their parents are or what color their skin is, but accept that it is effectively illegal to hire anyone who doesn’t have the right paperwork, which is incredibly difficult to get if you didn’t happen to be born in the right country.
Most economists think the country would be much richer and better off if it were significantly easier for people to get permission to live and work here, but instead it’s nearly impossible. And millions — arguably billions — of people who want to live and work here live in poverty elsewhere instead because we have made it illegal for Americans to choose to hire them.
And on top of all that, enforcement of immigration law is typically excruciatingly inhumane. Children are taken from their parents. Widespread brutality and sexual assault take years to address, if they’re addressed at all. Most of the people who die in ICE custody are young and healthy and should not have died. Some of the worst elements of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement have since been changed — for example, after a 2018 outcry, there were changes to the policy to take young children from their asylum-seeking parents — but families are still routinely sundered forever by deportations, and the US-Mexico border is still effectively enforced in part by “you will probably die of dehydration while trying to cross it on foot,” and the legal system surrounding immigration is confusing, expensive, and often deeply unjust.
This has affected many people I know personally. These are incredible people who want to work on important problems, and who have employers eager to hire them, but who happen to have been born in the wrong place and so will never have the opportunities I was born with.
I’m mad, sad, and frustrated about immigration policy. And one question I think about a lot is how journalists and citizens can productively demand better. In the last week, Title 42 — a temporary coronavirus-related order put in place during the Trump administration — was repealed in favor of a new, Biden administration policy, which will allow asylum seekers to apply online but turn them away by the tens of thousands at the border. It remains to be seen how it will work in practice, but it has a bit of an air of a political compromise that satisfies no one (is applying online really an option for the people in the greatest danger?) and will likely still leave us with a perpetual humanitarian crisis at the border.
When political strategy gets in the way of helping people
Talk to people within the Biden administration about this dilemma, and often they’ll agree — but argue they’re caught between a rock and a hard place, especially when it comes to enforcement of immigration law at the US-Mexico border. The rules seem tremendously unfair and in no one’s interests, and enforcing them might require lots of deeply inhumane policies. I don’t get the sense that anyone in the administration is happy about the horrifying recent spike in deaths crossing the border or leaving people to die for being born in the wrong place.
But expanding admissions of asylum seekers is politically unpopular, and people in the Biden administration suspect that if they take too many steps to welcome asylum seekers, they’ll lose the next election. In the cold realpolitik logic here for some, it’s worth perpetuating an unjust system to keep approval ratings from slipping in order to stay in power, so that it’s later possible to change the laws that are the whole problem.
How should we think about logic like that? I don’t like it. I tend to be very skeptical that anyone who says they just need to hold onto power first, then make things better, will actually make things better. It’s too easy for that kind of self-serving logic to become all-consuming; there’s always another election to win.
To be fair, there are important respects in which the Biden administration’s immigration law is less capricious and stupid than that of his predecessor: more refugee resettlement, more permanent visas, and so on. Some of that progress is because Trump made a lot of things worse in reversible ways, and because the pandemic temporarily made everything much worse, rather than Biden making a lot of things better. It would be bad for just immigration policy if its proponents gave up on doing politically popular things, picked a bunch of unwinnable fights, provoked a backlash, and lost.
So obviously the logic of “this is unjust but we have to pick our battles” is legitimate logic at least sometimes. It’s just a question of when it’s reasonable and deserves a pass, and when it becomes an excuse.
Immigration is where this question has recently been most salient because of Title 42’s recent expiration and because people who work on making US immigration policy better have been struggling with what good policy from here would actually look like. But I think this quandary goes far beyond immigration.
Any policy role involves some balance of trying to accumulate power and trying to spend it — hopefully on making the world a better place. No matter how important a problem is, you’re going to spend some of your time trying to get the power to do something about it, and then some of your time trying to do something about it. It’s a setup ripe for deception — or self-deception — about how much you need to sacrifice for your own political position.
Maybe the frustrating and inadequate new asylum rules are the best compromise between political and humanitarian concerns; maybe they’re not. And maybe the justified sense among voters that our politicians are making unprincipled, confusing, bureaucratic compromises is part of how we got into this boat in the first place.
Politics is about doing what’s possible, not what’s best, and what’s possible is always going to fall far short of what’s best. At the same time, if all of us are too willing to give unethical systems and the politicians perpetuating them a pass on the pragmatic grounds that their opponents are even worse, I think that makes those unethical decisions easier to keep making — even where they aren’t necessary and we can do better.
A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!