Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Dopes and Dupes

In immigration perhaps more than any other policy issue we get to consider the relationship between bad actors and sheer stupidity.

Members of a group of more than 50 asylum seekers, mainly from South America, wait for U.S. authorities to process them after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border fence, as seen from Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on September 5, 2022. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

There are, I was reminded Monday, at least two kinds of stunning writing. Of course, there is really good writing, excellent writing, which demands to be savored so that you sit with it, stunned. This is the word version of a Cirque du Soleil stack of contortionists. Then there is the stuff that you can’t believe for other reasons, writing that seems to short your brain because you don’t want to believe it. 

No criticism of Wall Street Journal writer Alicia A. Caldwell’s news prose, but her Monday immigration report was the second kind of stunning. “Tens of thousands of migrants who crossed the border illegally in the past year are in limbo after the U.S. government failed to file the necessary paperwork in court, leaving them with no immigration case to fight and ambiguous legal status in the U.S.” First, the dopes: the U.S. federal government, which does very nearly nothing if not file paperwork, failed to file the necessary paperwork to open cases against these migrants. Second, the dupes: what is ambiguous about the legal status of “crossed the border illegally in the past year”? 


The only conclusion one can come to, reading this brief WSJ report, is not a new one. The American immigration system is, in its current makeup, irreparably broken. Not only has it been broken—there is a backlog of immigration cases approaching 2 million; there are expected to be 2 million new arrivals by the end of the fiscal year; and more than 11 million people are living in the U.S. illegally already—but the breakdown is accelerating. The Journal reports that some 47,000 of the nearly 284,500 immigration cases this past fiscal year were dismissed because the feds failed to file a “Notice To Appear” document. Between 2013 and 2020, fewer than 12,000 cases were missing paperwork. Approximately 15,000 of 144,751 cases were missing documents in the 2021 fiscal year. Now this, some 17 percent. And: “On a recent Thursday morning in Los Angeles, the  immigration court Judge Nathan Aina said that 11 of the morning’s scheduled 15 cases were being closed for failure to prosecute.” The numbers boggle. 

The supposed ambiguity of where that leaves illegals—see? not so difficult—is due to a system that seems designed to be overwhelmed. Migrants who have illegally crossed the U.S. border and are then released into the country, according to WSJ, “typically have an initial court date set several weeks later, the first step to applying for asylum or other protections in the U.S. and the start of a legal process that can take years to complete when everything goes as planned.” One might reverse that last part and say the plan is for the process to take years to complete. As the Journal explains, “Without any determination of their legal status, migrants in these situations don’t have legal permission to live or work in the U.S., but they have also not been ordered to be deported to their home country.” Little wonder, then, that they melt into the country, to join millions of others in a gray economy subsidized by tax dollars and blue-state sanctuaries. 

It is perhaps instructive to recall that on July 3, 1984, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial called "In Praise of Huddled Masses" that included the line, "If Washington still wants to 'do something' about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders." That was, and should probably remain, a reminder that the newspaper is Wall Street’s journal, and evidently not the United States of America’s journal. There is no self-government in preventing we the people from deciding who out of many gets to be a part of us, the one. 

So, dupes and dopes, American citizens. In immigration perhaps more than any other policy issue we get the chance to consider the relationship between bad actors and sheer stupidity. The former have always and will always exploit the latter, and so there is a point where the old axiom about ascribing nothing to malice which is adequately explained by incompetence ceases to be a razor and acts instead as a shield, obscuring responsibility.

Look, filing paperwork is what federal employees do; in my very limited experience working with bureaucrats, they are even moderately good at it. It is some of why so little else seems to get done. But I can make an easy case for the marked uptick in missed paperwork these last couple years being in part due to federal telework. It is hard to make anything happen in a timely manner when functionaries are emailing documents around and round in circles. That, however, is only an explanation, not an excuse. Yes, we have degrees of crime, and intent does matter in adjudging it; but the crime is still there, the thing that was done. 

Ask yourself, then, a simple question, as you recall what you know about the health of our country and the rule of law: If there were a powerful lobby in Washington, D.C., here to promote the interests of the cartels of northern Mexico, would anything look different?