In February of 1974, William E. Simon, President Richard Nixon’s energy czar, announced that the energy crisis that had engulfed the nation for months was over. Not because anything had changed, but because shortages of gasoline and other fuels, along with high prices, were now normal. And, by definition, anything that’s normal is not a crisis.
The fact that that all happened in the “Doonesbury” comic strip rather than in real life does not alter the fact that anything that has been going on for a long time is not properly referred to as a crisis. A tragedy, perhaps. A disgrace. A farce. But not a crisis.
Last week, President Joe Biden named Vice President Kamala Harris as his point person to deal with the ongoing flow of immigrants, many of them unaccompanied children, who continue to arrive at our southern border in search of a better life. It is the same role Biden filled in the Obama administration, to little lasting effect.
There is no reason to suspect that her plan is to declare the crisis ended by virtue of its longevity. But it is way past time for our government to do something to end the disgraceful situation.
A recent increase in the number of migrants, the largest seen in the last 20 years, has left the federal government in custody of more than 15,000 unaccompanied minors, scattered, sometimes crammed, into shelters run by Customs and Border Patrol or Health and Human Services. That is an unacceptable situation no matter what one thinks of immigration policy.
Republicans have, with reason, criticized the administration’s handling of the matter. Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Chris Stewart said the government should do more to make it clear that the border is not open. Rep. Burgess Owens — again off on an unhelpful tangent — manages to accuse the administration of being at once Machiavellian and inept on the daft conspiracy theory that Biden and company actually want a flood of refugees because it somehow empowers Democrats.
But Romney is among those who also see a need for American immigration policy to be compassionate and understanding of the factors that drive immigrants north. That will, he knows, be a difficult needle to thread. And Romney should be a leader in striking a deal that will bring Democrats and at least a few Republicans along to finally pass legislation that will realistically address the situation.
The last time Congress actually did something about this problem was Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. In the years since, some bills got through the House, others the Senate. Any truly bipartisan deal would almost certainly have been signed by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama, if only members of Congress were more interested in solving the problem than they were afraid of being tagged as soft on immigration.
During the Trump years, a serious attempt was made to simply frighten people away from our border, with policies that included separating young children from their families with such casual cruelty that, even today, hundreds of children have not been reunited with their families.
Now, Biden is clearly in the market for an immigration compromise he can sign. It will have to include a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented persons already here, especially the so-called Dreamers, those who were brought to the U.S. as children and have grown up knowing no other homeland. It will also have to put forward rules that make our border more secure and make it much more difficult for employers to hire workers who are here without authorization.
To be both effective and humane, any plan to address unauthorized immigration will have to include serious, and expensive, efforts to make such Central American nations as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, whence most of the immigrants come, places that a lot fewer people feel the need to flee. Without that, no number of border guards, no strength of walls, will stop the push and pull.
Given sufficient political leadership and will, the unaccompanied children, and families arriving together, can be accommodated in decent shelters as the process unfolds and determinations are made as to who qualifies for refugee status, who has relatives or other sponsors to see after them in the U.S. and who must be turned back.
The very thought that we can make our border areas and our immigration process so nasty and frightening as to end the flow is both irrational and beneath us as a nation. If our elected officials would stop using other people’s misery as way to score partisan political points, we could meet this challenge by drawing on our public and private skills, spaces and humanity.
Apart, we can never build enough walls. Together, we won’t need to.