Asylum Policy: A Case Study in the Liberal-Conservative Divide

By Jerry Kammer on June 28, 2019

Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race, and more recently on sexual orientation). But [their values] often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital. ... Conservatives care a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions. ... Social conservatives have the broadest set of moral concerns.

— Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind

I thought of Jonathan Haidt this week when a friend told me she was furious at the federal government's treatment of Central American children being taken into custody as they and their families enter the country illegally to seek asylum. Her plan was to contribute to a charitable group that assists the families and to protest to her congressman.

I responded that I shared her concern for the suffering of the children and their parents. I said I thought the urge to ease the anguish of a frightened child is a noble human emotion. But I added that I hoped she would tell her representative that our government should not only take better care of our children, but should also take steps to reduce misuse of our badly disjointed and incoherent asylum system. I said that system is now being abused to legitimize what would otherwise by an enormous influx of illegal immigration.

The situation at the border, while heart-breaking in its misery, is a case study of the conflict between the liberal and conservative sensibilities. While my politics are generally liberal, I line up with conservatives who call for our government to provide immigration policy that welcomes newcomers who play by the rules, and enforces the law against those who break it. I believe that open borders are an invitation to chaos that would plague future generations of Americans.

As Haidt observed, liberals are most concerned about caring for the vulnerable. Conservatives, he said, have the same concern, but not with the same intensity, and they temper it with concern for the implications of unenforced borders. Conservatives are attuned to the fact that unrestricted immigration can be disruptive and divisive and erode the cohesion that is vital to a democracy.

In their responses to the current asylum crisis, liberals are demanding that the Trump administration release asylum-seekers pending their appearance before an immigration judge. Liberals believe that as a wealthy nation, implicated historically in Central America's instability, we are obligated to welcome all asylum seekers into our national family. Many also believe that that immigration is a human right and that boundaries are a system of oppression. Inclusiveness is their most sacred value.

Meanwhile, conservatives want to deny entry to those who are seeking deliverance not from political persecution but from economic deprivation. They are alarmed at the real-world effects of allowing asylum-seekers to stay and work here while they await immigration court hearings that — in our jammed and overwhelmed system — are years away. Meanwhile, of course, they have children and build lives. They also acquire an understanding of the fecklessness of our system and the impunity available to many who defy it. That word spreads fast around the world.

That understanding is vindicated by the fact that federal authorities seldom deport them despite deportation orders issued by the court. And if, as happened earlier this month, there is talk that ICE will launch a campaign to enforce the orders, immigrant rights activists will express horror at the injustice and inhumanity. Some say they don't support open borders. But what's the meaning of that when they oppose all efforts to set rules for admission?

Back in 1990, Doris Meissner, who would serve in the Clinton administration as the head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, articulated the moderate, pragmatic view of immigration enforcement that was widespread among Democrats at the time, but has all but vanished in the meantime.

Wrote Meissner:

A system that is efficient, fair and operates effectively should break the cycle of relentlessly increasing caseloads [in the courts] because improper applications are likely to diminish as the system demonstrates its ability to decide matters equitably and quickly. No system can overcome the impetus to migrate that is caused by continuingly deteriorating political and economic conditions in the source countries. However, effective immigration systems flow not just from the threat of border police and detention centers. They flow just as surely from the knowledge that decisions will be made fairly and quickly and that repatriation will follow for those who are unqualified.

Another liberal, immigration scholar David Martin, sized up the dilemma we face in attempting to establish an asylum system that provides compassion to many without extending a welcome to all. He cautioned that "setting foot within the United States will remain a distinct possibility for potentially huge numbers of the world's populace whenever poverty, overcrowding, oppression, disappointment, hope, advertising, or adventurousness makes them sufficiently determined." Martin wrote that in 1983, when the world's population was about four billion. It is now approximately eight billion. As a contrarian liberal who thinks conservatives understand this dilemma far better than Democrats, I join Martin in his conviction that "concern over numbers … rests on quite legitimate foundations."