Nearly two years ago on a stage in Miami, all but one of the assembled candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination assented to the proposition that entering this country illegally should not be considered a crime. Among those who raised their hands in agreement were the current president and vice president. A year and a half later, after winning the presidency, Joe Biden promised that his administration would not deport a single would-be immigrant during his first 100 days in office.
We all know what happened next. The Biden administration is on pace to carry out more deportations in 2021 than Donald Trump did in his first year in office. The cages are still there and so are the kids, arriving in the thousands. Responsibility for the border has been quasi-officially delegated to Kamala Harris, a challenge to which the vice president has responded (following “robust” talks with the president of Guatemala) with a stark declaration: “Do not come. Do not come.” Lest there be any ambiguity about what this means for those who might hazard the journey anyway, she added: “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”
No one should be surprised at the speed with which Biden and Harris have abandoned their positions. Decriminalization of border crossing was always untenable. Even a meaningful large-scale shift in enforcement policies away from those established by his two most recent predecessors would likely require the outright elimination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, if not the Department of Homeland Security itself, a prospect about as politically viable as abolishing Social Security.
This entirely predictable series of events has nevertheless given rise to another one of those bizarre cycles of sham indignation that have become the defining feature of American public life. Republicans who had defended the last administration now decry the chaos at our southern border, and, in response to Trump’s strong showing among Hispanics in last fall’s elections, some wags joke about the White House building a new wall to keep his supporters out. Meanwhile earnest progressives who had supported Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren during the primaries are feigning outrage that the candidate they once claimed to oppose for very clear reasons is exactly the sort of president they imagined he would be.
These facile recriminations distract us from the truth, which is that immigration remains an intractable problem. By this I mean that there is simply no feasible solution that is as humane as progressives and their scattered allies (among Catholics, for example) might desire, nor is there a competing hardline approach that would appease the business interests who remain ultimately responsible for the priorities of the conservative movement.
Which is why I think we should moralize less and think more about the practical questions posed by immigration. There is nothing wrong with admitting that ours is a unique situation. History has rarely presented us with anything resembling the stark juxtaposition between the wealth and safety of the United States and the poverty and lawlessness characteristic of so many nations in Central and South America. For many immigrants a journey roughly the length of that between New York City and Boise, Idaho, might mean the difference between flourishing and abject misery for generations. And unlike in Europe, which continues to face a refugee crisis for which our own leaders are largely responsible, there is no body of water separating would-be migrants from these shores.
While some nations have always had higher standards of living than others, it has rarely been the case outside of wartime that neighboring countries offered such radically different prospects for their respective inhabitants. In the era of modern mass communications and automobile transport, attempts at migration will be inevitable. The only reasonable modern comparison to the present bifurcation of the American landmass is the brutal tyranny of the Kim regime in North Korea and the comparative prosperity of the democratic South, which are separated from each other by a militarized border. This, at times, appeared to be more or less what Trump envisioned: the erection of a truly secure barrier with a permanent military presence, defacing the landscape with what would soon have become a hateful symbol of American pecuniousness.
For any number of reasons the wall of Trump’s dreams was always unlikely and will remain so. But the same can be said of a truly open border, which, despite being scarcely less fanciful, remains the de facto position of polite American liberalism. At a time when wages are already stagnant and even economists are discovering that the prevailing business model in the service industry that has captured an ever-increasing share of our labor force is premised upon paying delivery drivers and fast food clerks something far short of a living wage, it is difficult to imagine how the American economy could afford to absorb hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more workers. Nor is it clear that importing a class of quasi-indentured servants with no political rights to mow our lawns and mind our children serves the cause of justice. Any solution to the wage problem would require nothing short of a political-economic revolution, one that transformed every facet of life in this country. Whatever else its supporters expected the Biden administration to deliver, it is not this.
For all these reasons, I think I can say with some confidence that the most likely immigration policy for the foreseeable future will be the status quo, hateful as it apparently is to all sides. Our politicians will continue to alternate between glib sermonizing and Wall of Shame fantasies while holding fast to the ad hoc limiting principles, selective enforcement, and capricious indifference that have served both parties well during the last three administrations and will no doubt continue to do so.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.