The Immigration Dilemma: No Simple Solutions to a Decades-Old Problem

Previous Democratic and Republican administrations have endorsed many of the same policies that are now being condemned.

This picture, taken on Aug. 28, shows a portion of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border seen from Chihuahua state in Mexico.
This picture, taken on Aug. 28, shows a portion of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border seen from Chihuahua state in Mexico. (photo: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

Children in “cages.” Family separation. A president who called illegal immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers while running for office. The wall.

For Catholics trying to respect the dignity of all human life, seemingly intractable immigration chaos presents lifelong conflicts of conscience. Catholic teaching advocates respect for the rule of law and acknowledges the right of nations to secure their borders. It also teaches the Old and New Testament Scripture about loving strangers and the poor.

“At the root, it’s all about human dignity,” said Ave Maria Law School professor Elizabeth Donovan, who specializes in legalities of human trafficking, immigration and asylum.

“If people arrive from a place where they faced extreme violence, you may feel they have a better chance of having their dignity respected and upheld here. But it is not simple. The problem is, many of these populations are vulnerable in the United States. Whenever you have vulnerable people you will have people willing to exploit them. The system is not treating people humanely. And what’s really sad is there cannot be bipartisan support on fixing the system.”

Experts from both sides of the political divide describe an immigration system that has not worked well for generations, dating back to the mid-20th century. They say the system fails immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, and the U.S. economy and culture.

Today, advocates of cracking down on illegal immigration are mostly on the political right. This political dynamic is a relatively new phenomenon.

Former Republican President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty bill in 1986 and declared Latin American immigrants “are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.”

Former Republican President George W. Bush, who was fluent in Spanish and often expressed his love for Mexico, declared in 2006: “Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic. It's just not going to work.”

President Donald Trump, by contrast, ran on the promise of building a “big, beautiful” border wall. Mainstream media organizations portray him as a man responsible for children in “cages.” In truth, Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration built the notorious chain-link detention facilities to continue family-detention practices that began almost 20 years ago.

“The kids are being housed in the same facility built under the Obama administration,” said Thomas Homan, who was Obama’s executive associate director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nearly four years, at an immigration conference in June. “If you want to call them cages, call them cages. But if the left wants to call them cages and the Democrats want to call them cages, then they have to accept the fact that they were built and funded in Fiscal Year 2015.”


Economic and Security Issues

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has treated border control as a major component of U.S. national security. Since the attacks, the federal government has spent hundreds of billions on border patrol, deportations and beefing up the agencies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Though Trump wants more border barriers, he did not initiate them. Former President Bill Clinton approved construction of 580 miles of border fence when he signed “Operations Safeguard and Hold the Line” in 1993. Back then, mainstream Democrats sounded hawkish on immigration and border control. That was a Democratic Party more loyal to unionized labor than waves of new migrants. Party leaders considered illegal immigrants a threat to jobs for Americans.

“All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected, but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country,” Clinton said during a State of the Union address in 1995.

“The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use imposes burdens on our taxpayers. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.”

In 2008, former first lady Hillary Clinton, running for president, echoed her husband’s tough immigration talk while stumping in Iowa.

“You’ve got to toughen border security,” Hillary Clinton said. “You can’t continue to have open borders. And you’ve got to put more personnel and technology along the borders to make sure we know who’s coming into our country and prevent people from entering illegally. I think everybody should agree with that.”

Fast-forward to 2019, and leading Democrats for the presidential nomination want Americans to provide free health care for illegal immigrants. They oppose nearly all deportations and advocate veritable open-border policies.


U.S. Bishops’ Perspectives

Ashley Feasley, director of the Office of Migration and Public Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said Americans are understandably confused about today’s immigration mess.

“President [George W.] Bush instituted family detention,” Feasley told the Register.

The Obama administration ended the practice briefly.

“Then they, themselves, opened up family-detention facilities in 2014,” Feasley said. “The Trump administration has not used family detention to the degree that we hear in the media, but they have aggressively pursued trying to allow the expansion of family detention by calling for more money in the budget to fund it.”

Trump escalated border controversy with tough talk, the promise of a border wall and criminal prosecution of people caught attempting illegal border crossings. Adult suspects are held in adult detention centers to await prosecution. The government turns minors over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If the agency cannot place them with an adult relative in the U.S., they are typically housed in juvenile detention facilities or foster care.

The USCCB estimates the government spends $319 a day on each detainee and $950 a day for an asylum-seeking mother with two children.

“It is inhumane to house young mothers with children in restrictive detention facilities as if they are criminals,” wrote Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, then-chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, in a letter to then-Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson in 2015.

The bishops’ website says that “a majority of the families who have been apprehended at the U.S./Mexico border are fleeing extreme violence and persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“These women and children seek protection in the United States, risking increasingly dangerous journeys north to find safety. Instead of receiving refuge, however, ICE often places these families in confining detention facilities.”

The bishops contend the detention of children is “psychologically and physically damaging and is against international human-rights law and general child-welfare principles.”

Feasley said the bishops want law and order, but envision better ways to achieve it.

“The bishops absolutely respect the rule of law and the right of nations to control their borders,” Feasley told the Register. “It is a question of how that should be done in the most humane fashion.” advocates alternatives to mass detention, which include “release, affordable bond or other tools of support.”

“Many immigrants and asylum-seekers already have strong community ties and robust incentives to appear in immigration court, and for certain populations release to the community during case processing is appropriate,” the bishops’ website explains.


Bipartisan Exploitation?

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., spent five terms in Congress fighting for better border protection, more deportations of immigrants convicted of crimes, and an overhaul of the country’s immigration policies. Tancredo says we cannot fix immigration in the United States because Republicans and Democrats are each in the business of exploiting immigrants.

Business-minded Republicans, he says, have long favored illegal immigration as a source of cheap labor.

“The greater the supply of unskilled labor, the less you have to pay for it,” Tancredo said.

He claims Democrats want to get illegal immigrants hooked on government services, such as free health care, education and food.

“In politics, when you rob Peter to pay Paul you can always count on the support of Paul,” Tancredo said.

Tancredo served in the Reagan administration for eight years and ran for president on an immigration-reform platform. He insists immigrants and working-poor Americans suffer most from the broken system.

He blames uncontrolled immigration for a free flow of drugs and sex slaves into the United States. Once here, Tancredo said, some exploited immigrants experience suffering worse than anything they tried to escape.

Donald Kirwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a Catholic public policy institute, blames Trump’s crackdown on immigration for much of the misery Tancredo describes.

“This administration’s wrong-headed policies and enforcement have been the best friend that smugglers and human traffickers could possibly have,” Kirwin said.

He believes Trump’s border policies and rhetoric are intended to discourage illegal immigration but have backfired. People desperate to escape “criminal gangs, immense poverty and natural disasters” will try to reach the United States regardless of border enforcement. To succeed against increasingly adverse odds, Kirwin explains, they pay for assistance that can put them under the control of human traffickers and smugglers.


Contrasting Arguments

Kirwin does not fully discount Tancredo’s claim that illegal immigration fosters abuse. However, he said, the solution is not a nativist immigration crackdown. He advocates a regional immigration strategy in which the United States works with other countries toward bringing order to chaos with humanitarian policies and practices.

“There are smugglers and bad people who move people across the border,” Irwin said. “There’s also no good legal option for people who are really desperate — and there’s no doubt a lot of them are desperate. We are not doing any of the things that we should do to address this. Simply enforcing the border, and doing little else, is a recipe for failure, and it always will be.”

Tancredo, a non-Catholic Christian, said Catholics concerned about social justice and human dignity should support even tougher border enforcement and a wall. They should support policies, he said, that make it nearly impossible for cartels, drug smugglers and human traffickers to profit from suffering.

“Ask him how he feels about children in cages,” Irwin said in response.

“There is absolutely no reason that children should be in cages,” Tancredo replied. “To avoid that, all we need is for their parents to avoid coming here and breaking the law. When they do that, they risk having their children in cages.”

Tancredo said he has visited border-detention facilities “many, many times and recently.” The conditions in which the United States holds children, he insists, are “better than the places from which they came.”

He said detainees have medical care, dental care, good food, recreation and sporting activities, and more. During one visit to a detention facility, a man walked north through the desert and pounded on the door seeking detention.

“So, of course, one of our border agents opened the door and let him in,” Tancredo said. “This man told them he had dental problems and came to get them fixed.”

Tancredo says the detention’s dental facility fixed the man’s teeth and allowed him to leave.

“I asked an agent if this happens a lot, and he said, ‘Hell, yes.’ Then he showed me to the medical facility where there was an MRI machine, a CT scan, etc.,” Tancredo said. “I heard about people who came in with cancer and were transported up to Phoenix to be treated. So the claim that these places are horrible abusive environments is just plain crap.”

Kirwin says Tancredo, Trump and other “anti-immigrant extremists” have become experts at degrading and dehumanizing immigrants by conflating migration with criminality.

“They call them rapists, terrorists — they are killers and members of MS 13,” Kirwin said. “If you are a Catholic, that’s a libelous and scandalous way to view a large group of desperate people seeking better lives.”

Kirwin wants Catholics to know most Latin American immigrants are also Catholics seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families.

Kirwin said, “And let’s not forget. Jesus was a migrant,”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.


US Immigration Historical Highlights

1790: Congress passes The Naturalization Act of 1790, allowing any free white person of “good character” who had resided in the United States for at least two years to apply for citizenship.

Early 1800s: A wave of mass immigration from Europe begins. Immigrants overwhelm East Coast port cities.

1819: Congress passes the Steerage Act of 1819, mandating shipping companies to improve conditions for migrating passengers. The new law also requires ship captains to provide demographic information on passengers.

1849: Anti-immigration activists form the “Know-Nothing Party” to push back against Irish and German immigration.

1860s: The Irish comprise one-third of all immigrants in the United States. Germans comprise the second-highest immigrant population.

1870s: States pass their own immigration laws. The Supreme Court intervenes in 1875, ruling immigration policy an exclusive purview of the federal government.

1880s: The country’s second largest immigration surge begins, as 4 million Italians and other Europeans arrive to take advantage of industrialization and urbanization in the United States.

1882: Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act in response to claims a small demographic of Chinese immigrants are depressing wages in the rail, mining and agriculture sectors. The law forbids additional Chinese from entering the country.

1891: Congress passes a law forbidding convicted criminals from entering the United States. The new law also forbids entry by those who are sick or suspected of polygamy.

1892: Irish immigrant Annie Moore, a teenager, becomes the first person processed at Ellis Island. Located in New York Harbor, Ellis Island is the first immigration processing station.

1907: The United States and Japan reach an informal agreement limiting emigration from Japan to the United States. The agreement assures Japan will allow emigration only by those who meet specific professional criterion determined by the United States government. The law resulted from concerns a new influx of Japanese workers would depress wages.

1917: Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1917, setting a literacy requirement for immigrants and banning all immigration from most Asian countries.

1924: Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1924, setting national quotas for immigration. The system issues immigration visas based on the nationality of residents in the United States as of the 1890 census. The federal government establishes the U.S. Border Patrol to enforce immigration laws at the Canadian and Mexican borders.

1942: The United States and Mexico agree to the Bracero Program to address U.S. labor shortages. The program grants temporary worker status to agricultural laborers from Mexico.

1948: Congress passes a refugee resettlement law to assist European immigrants flooding the U.S. during and after World War II.

1950s: The United States admits more than 3 million Cold War refugees, including 38,000 Hungarians who took on the communist government of the Soviet Union and lost.

1952: Congress passes the McCarran-Walter Act to end the exclusion of Asian immigrants.

Early 1960s: Operation Peter Pan helps about 14,000 unaccompanied minors enter the United States to escape the communist Cuban regime of dictator Fidel Castro.

1965: Congress passes the Immigration and Naturalization Act to end the national-origin quotas of the 1920s. The act establishes a new system that favors family reunification and labor skills.

1980: Some 125,000 Cubans arrive on boats at the Florida coast, seeking asylum from communist oppression.

1986: President Ronald Reagan signs the congressional Simpson-Mazzoli Act, granting amnesty to more than 3 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. Reagan declares the act a compromise, seeking better enforcement of immigration laws.

2001: Congress considers the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The proposal, which fails, would provide a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.

2012: Congress passes the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act. President Barack Obama signs it into law, temporarily shielding “Dreamers” from deportation.

2017: President Donald Trump signs an executive order restricting immigration and travel from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria and Yemen. Trump claims the order will protect the United States from hostile countries exporting terrorists.

2018: Trump lifts travel ban on Chad. U.S. Supreme Court upholds the ban on the remaining seven countries.

2019: Trump announces a proposal to allow indefinite detainment of families suspected of illegally crossing the border.

 — Wayne Laugesen

Sources: Pew Research Center; The History Channel; Wikipedia; The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation