By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Is there a way to be both rational and compassionate when dealing with the flood of immigrant children pouring across our southern borders? I would assume that even the most tough-minded advocates for tightening our borders would be unwilling to live with scenes of United States border guards dumping Hispanic toddlers into the Mexican desert to fend for themselves.
Where is the intelligent middle ground in this matter? I wrestled with that question one night in mid-June after listening to Bill O’Reilly call for a strong military presence to “secure our southern border.” It sounded good. Every other country in the world polices its borders; it is central to what makes a sovereign country sovereign. But that very afternoon I had watched a newscast from McAllen, Texas, showing a beach in Texas, with dozens of Texans sitting on beach chairs and swimming in the Rio Grande. This Texas beach was directly across from a Mexican beach where Mexicans were doing the same thing.
But along with the sunbathers there were Mexican jet skiers and motorboat operators ferrying illegal immigrants into Texas. The passengers would jump from the boat into the knee-high water on the Texas side and scoot up a small hill into a parking lot where they were met by friends and family members in cars who drove off with them into Texas. I had no idea it could be that easy.
I assume that there must be dozens of other spots along the border where the same thing takes place. We see scenes of long lines of Mexicans climbing fences and trudging across barren deserts to get into the United States. I guess they don’t come to this beach in McAllen because there is something attractive — perhaps easier access to jobs, safe houses, and a network of friends — near those more arduous crossings than around McAllen and areas like it.
It leads me to conclude that there is no way to “secure” a border as long as our border with Mexico, no matter how many troops and dollars we devote to the effort; that if people want to get into our country illegally, they and the smugglers will find a way. If that is the case, the only answer is to make it less attractive for those willing to sneak into the country to undertake the illegal effort. There were fewer border guards, fewer fences, and less surveillance on the Mexican border 20 years ago. But we did not have the flood of illegal immigration we are experiencing now. Why not?
Because those tempted to sneak into the United States back then had to figure out how they were going to survive — how to secure jobs, housing, education, and medical care — once they got here. Some did figure it out, people who had a network of friends and family to help get them on their feet.
But not the hundreds of thousands who are creating the crisis we face today. Something has changed. They are coming now because they know we provide a safety net. There is a mock border sign floating around the Internet; perhaps you have seen it. It reads: “U.S. Border: Lots of Free Stuff Ahead — health care, education, housing, food, contraception, abortion, phones, cash, dental services. Sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.” It is satire, of course, but it makes the point. The fears that held back earlier generations of illegal immigrants are gone.
This means, if we do not want to face the cruel choices of what to do with illegal children coming across our borders, that we have to send out the message that there is no favorable risk-reward in seeking to enter our country illegally in the first place. And that can be done. First by establishing a generous level of legal immigration, enough to provide for the country’s employment needs without threatening the jobs of those already living here. Work visas and a guest worker program can be part of this scenario, when the job market requires temporary and/or seasonal workers.
If we do that, will there not be those determined to go outside the system and come into the country illegally anyway? There will. They must not be rewarded for that decision. It should be made clear to them that the United States will not guarantee them access to our schools, hospitals, and welfare system — all the things that illegal immigrants count upon to make their life in the United States an attractive alternative to their home countries.
And one other thing: We have to make the penalties on employers who hire illegal workers certain and severe. That is not happening now. Those employers are breaking the law as surely as are the illegal immigrants.
Would it be unjust to do these things? In what way? We cannot take into the United States everyone in the world who would prefer to live here rather than in their home country. We have a Christian duty to provide refuge for those who are faced with starvation and whose lives are in danger. But we do not have to open our borders to do that. We can help them through foreign aid and international humanitarian assistance to their countries of origin. It is demanding too much to insist that we open our border to everyone who is attracted to the higher standard in the United States in comparison to other parts of the world.
It is true that there will be some who will sneak into the country, even after we have made it clear that we are not going to provide employment opportunities, health care, and education for them. We will have to find a just and fair way to deal with them once they are here. It should be a manageable problem. Their numbers will be minute in comparison to the situation we face today, with the benefits of illegal immigration unmistakable to everyone unhappy with life in their home countries.
I don’t think even St. Francis of Assisi would require more than that of a Christian. We sometimes hear people say that “charity knows no bounds.” But it is not true. We cannot do what we cannot do. St. Francis would call upon us to open the doors to our house to a traveler abandoned in a storm; to provide him a safe and warm place to spend the night and enough food to get him back on his way. I don’t think he would require that we support him as a member of our family for the rest of his life, along with anyone else who finds himself similarly in need of help.