Immigration Principles and Consequences

It is widely accepted in the modern world that an independent nation has the authority to control who may enter its borders.  As long as this principle is accepted, persons entering a country will be subject to some kind of confirmation or examination; and as long as that is true, the potential exists for whatever system is put in place to conduct those examinations to become overloaded.  The result is delay, and in order to maintain the orderly entry, some kind of living arrangements for the people waiting to enter (or not) must be maintained.

This possible situation is being played out in reality in the United States along our southern border with Mexico.  The situation further is not quite captured by this neutral language, as there are both widespread failures and evils due to enforcement of policies not appropriate to the overloaded situation – possibly not appropriate at all – and scattered but mainly reliable reports of intentional abuses.

Quite recently the concern over the living conditions provided, together with these reports of abuses, has led some to term the detention centers “concentration camps”.  In a technical sense, the term is accurate, but it has been mainly used to invoke the horde of negative connotations the term has acquired in the popular mind by its association with Nazi Germany.  Those connotations are unfortunate because they imply an intentional evil where the situation we are dealing with is, primarily, accidental.  Certainly some of the abusers may feel enabled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and feelings of President Trump, other politicians, or their own supervisors: but the institutional problems would exist in the most welcoming possible society, as long as it as accepted that entry to a country may justly be controlled.  Further, if the general principle that entry to a country should be monitored is correct, it is logically possible that in a given country as a given time, a limiting stance on immigration is reasonable.

Solutions to these immediate problems would take one of three forms:

The orthodox approach would be to increase the resources – monetary, personal, legal – devoted to monitoring and controlling immigration at the crisis points.  President Trump’s border wall would fit this category (except that it is not something that can be completed quickly) as would his administration’s deployment of National Guard troops to the border (although it is not clear that this helps directly with the processing of paperwork and so forth that is the real slowing factor).  A more direct solution would be to hire more Customs & Border Patrol personnel, on at least a temporary basis.  Other steps would include reviewing policies in place and either temporarily suspending normally sound policy which is inadequate to the situation, or replacing policy if it is found fundamentally lacking.

An alternative approach would be to re-evaluate the basic principle.  Especially in a world where modernist ideas of democracy ideas are generally accepted – which is to say, the people pre-exist their governments – it is not clear on what grounds a government should be able to stop a person’s travels.  The first cause that comes to mind would be self-defense: in other words, the apprehension of criminals, a check on medical conditions, or possibly the confiscation of weapons.  And these, almost certainly, will take some time: in the United States, even domestic background checks can take several days.  Another potential issue is identifying who exactly – after entry – is a citizen or “really” part of a nation, and who is either passing through or merely resident.  So although it is attractive to think we could see entirely free human movement, as long as there are regionally distinct authorities, this is unlikely as even the most minimal and common-sense limits and restrictions produce the same problem as the endorsement of national borders as a principle produces: a time in which travelers or immigrants must wait for authorized entry.

A final possibility – which has been actually advocated for at times by the Democratic party, and was for years the de facto policy for immigrants who had previously entered in an unauthorized fashion – is to maintain all the formal principles as valid, while simply not enforcing them when it is inconvenient or difficult to do so.  This is the easiest at any given moment, but is simply procrastination and thus is not really a solution.

I am in favor of the first procedure: specifically in this case an increase in personnel and other resources dedicated to managing this crisis.  Because I believe freedom of human movement is a worthwhile ideal, even if (as outlined above) it cannot be fully met in a fallen world, I would hope this would be combined with a re-evaluation and liberalization of the formal requirements for immigration, as well.