In the September 29 edition of the Washington Post, opinion columnist Fareed Zakaria explained how “Italy and Sweden show why Biden must fix the immigration system.” He apparently didn’t realize he was channeling his inner Barbara Jordan, the civil rights icon who as chairwoman of President Clinton’s Commission on Immigration Reform made many of the same observations a quarter-century ago. That said, he still gets some key points wrong by accepting the popular — but erroneous — media narrative.
Sweden and Italy. Zakaria begins by referencing the recent elections in two very different nations, Sweden and Italy.
In Sweden, as the Post reported on September 14, “A loose coalition of right-wing parties has narrowly defeated Sweden’s center-left government in a general election, a victory that promises to upend Swedish politics and the country’s reputation as a haven for progressive, pluralistic ideals.” Note that statement contains both reporting and spin.
The paper explains that the Sweden Democrats (SD), which it describes as “a once-fringe anti-immigrant party”, won enough seats in the election to form the second-largest party in the nation’s parliament, the Riksdag. According to France 24, “Authorities have struggled to contain the gang violence that has spread from big cities to small towns, and SD's hard stance on immigration and crime has resonated.”
Italy held its parliamentary elections on September 25, bringing the Fratelli d’Italia party and its leader, Giorgia Meloni, to power. As Zakaria explains, “a big part” of Meloni’s “policy program is immigration”. He quotes the prime minister-apparent, who argued, “Nations only exist if there are borders and those are defended.”
Perhaps Meloni is channeling her inner-Barack Obama, who a year ago noted: “[W]e're a nation state. We have borders. The idea that we can just have open borders is something that ... as a practical matter, is unsustainable.” Zakaria missed the chance to draw that parallel — but I won’t.
Tying the Two Elections Together. Zakaria then ties the two elections together, arguing: “There is lots of demagoguery in these two politicians and their parties, but there is also an important truth at the heart of their appeal. Immigration in many countries in Europe is out of control.”
As an aside, the Post columnist is a being a bit naïve in calling out “demagoguery” in foreign elections but ignoring it in our own public discourse. Of course, the word “demagogue” comes from the Greek words “dēmos”, meaning “common people”, and “agōgos”, meaning “leader”, and while I assume we want our elected officials to be “leaders of the common people”, “demagoguery”, like “stunt”, has come to mean something one side does successfully that the other side doesn’t like.
But I digress. Returning to Zakaria, the author expands on his assertions in that last excerpt:
By “out of control,” I do not mean it is too high. It’s impossible to say what the right number is for any given country. I mean that migration is now largely taking place in a chaotic manner, with massive surges in flows, rampant human smuggling and crime, and a total breakdown of the legal system by which countries evaluate and admit applicants.
If that sounds exactly like what is happening at the Southwest border, it’s only vaguely redolent of the situation there to Zakaria, who goes on a discourse about the differences between immigration to and in Sweden compared to the United States.
Returning to his own point, Zakaria aptly notes that what “enrages” many Americans “is the sense that people no longer become immigrants through a process that the host country controls but rather by crossing the border illegally, claiming asylum status, gaining entry and then simply sticking around. And that fear is justified.”
That last statement is a big admission by any Post columnist, let alone Zakaria, but it’s undeniably true. His next statement, however, is even more refreshingly honest:
The U.S. asylum system has broken down. It was designed after World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, to take in people who faced immediate and dire persecution. Today, many people seeking asylum face hardships much like those that have traditionally led people to seek a better life here: poverty, crime, disease, dislocation. They are deeply deserving of dignity and decent treatment. But anyone claiming asylum for only those reasons is abusing the system in an effort to bypass the normal immigration process.
To quote John Winger (Bill Murray) in the 1981 Army comedy, Stripes: “That’s the fact, Jack!”
Asylum is an exception to what is supposed to be our well-ordered immigration-admission system, and political leaders — be they Republicans or Democrats — who miss the point that Americans who do not want their humanitarian instincts abused soon won’t be “leading the common people” for long.
Zakaria Goes Off Track. Returning to his own political instincts, however, Zakaria goes off track after correctly asserting that “the normal immigration process ... is now utterly dysfunctional”, blaming the Trump administration for “deliberately jamm[ing] up” that process — which “was already clogged and understaffed” — further.
While I assume there is a Post directive to the effect that no immigration article may be published that doesn’t blame Trump in some manner or another, the man did gamely try to take steps to bring some sense of order to our immigration system, with some level of success.
Note, for example, that the number of persons who were naturalized — the apex and finale of our immigration system — increased nearly 20 percent between FY 2017, Trump’s partial first fiscal year, and FY 2019, his last full fiscal year before the Covid-19 pandemic threw USCIS processing into a tailspin.
If Zakaria is looking for a reason why “routine business visa applications from countries such as India can take months; students cannot enter the United States even after getting scholarships; and work-visa applications now rest on the chance of applicants winning a lottery (literally)”, perhaps he should start in Wuhan, not Mar-a-Lago.
And into a Ditch. Zakaria’s analysis really heads into a ditch, however, when he next states:
The Biden administration is going into the midterm elections with a strong hand. It could be undone by this one issue. It has found an intelligent way to speed up the consideration of asylum requests, though it feels woefully inadequate to the backlog at hand. There are about 744,000 asylum cases pending.
“Strong hand” is an allusion to the card game Bridge, about which I know little so maybe I’m missing a key point, but as I have recently explained, immigration and the border are the biggest weaknesses for an unpopular president as his party heads into the November midterm elections — largely due to the very factors and concerns Zakaria identified.
As for the “intelligent way to speed up the consideration of asylum requests”, what Zakaria is referring to is a scheme DHS and DOJ recently implemented directing USCIS asylum officers to adjudicate asylum applications filed by border applicants — a power heretofore exercised only by immigration judges in removal proceedings.
Zakaria’s sole support for his upbeat take on that scheme is a glowing assessment of it that appeared in the New York Times on September 27.
As I explained in the New York Post the next day, however, the Times’ take is “foolishly hopeful”, because the department’s plan will “offer more protections to illegal entrants, while removing safeguards protecting US interests”, and simply encourage more illegal immigration of the sort that Zakaria identifies as a source of voters’ angst and concern.
What Would Barbara Jordan Do? Which brings me back to the late Ms. Jordan. In testimony before the House of Representatives in September 1994, laying out the findings of her commission, she explained:
If we cannot control illegal immigration, we cannot sustain our national interest in legal immigration. Those who come here illegally, and those who hire them, will destroy the credibility of our immigration policies and their implementation. In the course of that, I fear, they will destroy our commitment to immigration itself.
Jordan made those points in connection with the unlawful hiring of illegal aliens by unscrupulous employers, but her core points dovetail with Zakaria’s, i.e., that “there are limits to how many people a country can absorb” and that voters who believe the immigration laws are being abused will soon reject even legal immigration.
This is just the latest (mostly) correct take by an unlikely source on what is going on at the Southwest border, following one from David Frum in The Atlantic. I seriously doubt those calling the shots on Biden’s border policies at the White House take my evaluations of the deleterious consequences of those policies seriously, but they should listen to Zakaria, Frum — and Barbara Jordan.