The facts of the case are well known. The administration initiated this policy and now regularly and falsely claims either that it is not separating families, as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen did this week (“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”), that it is doing so but it’s the Democrats’ fault, or that it is forced to do so by court rulings.
That these are all lies has been summarily established. And while we have become alarmingly inured to Trump administration lies, these falsehoods are of a much higher order than, for example, crowd size at his inauguration.
The damage from the policies, along with the lies and congressional inaction that support them, is severe on many levels. The psychological, and even neurological, damage done to children who experience the levels of stress these separations induce has been widely reported. Our refugee policy is in tatters. Such state-sanctioned cruelty is a cancer metastasizing through our body politic in ways that emphasize the depth of our political dysfunction and our growing nationalistic insulation. You can accuse me of overreaction, and you might be right, but we must ask ourselves if a system that does this to immigrant children could find a twisted rationale to do it to citizen children belonging to groups the administration disdains.
I take solace in the fact that many people of all political stripes find the practice as horrible as I do. Yet, as my 16-year-old daughter asked at breakfast this morning, “If so many people are against it, why are we still doing it?”
I suspect she’s not alone in the query, so here are some of my answers to it.
Our government is less representative than any other in my lifetime: Whether it’s a tax cut directed at the already exceedingly wealthy political donor class, proposals to take away health coverage that majorities want and need, or tariffs sure to hurt millions more Americans than they will help, this latest affront is part and parcel of a government that fails to represent the will of the majority.
It takes a not-very-close shave with Occam’s razor to connect this problem to the fact that President Trump lost the popular vote by a count of almost 3 million. Another dimension of this lack of representation is the toxic interaction between the concentration of American wealth and an electoral system that’s more pay-to-play than that of any other advanced economy.
The economics of immigration are not understood. We’ve already established that this debate is occurring in a fact-free zone, but just in case we ever find the road back to Factville, it is worth noting the following:
• Immigrants commit fewer crimes than natives (to be precise: “No solid data support [Trump’s claims], and the data that do exist negate it”).
• There’s little evidence that immigrants hurt the wages of native-born workers.
• Over the long term, immigrants’ fiscal impact tends to be positive at the federal level, though negative at the state and local levels. On net, “the evidence does not suggest that current immigrant flows cost native-born taxpayers money.”
• Immigration is a plus for long-term growth.
In the Trump era, xenophobia and racism have been elevated and encouraged. Such sentiments are long in the American bloodstream, but ethical, inclusive leaders often appeal to our better selves. Conversely, history is replete with demagogues who tap these divisions for political gains.
Some of the solutions to these problems are as obvious as they are elusive. Ideas for more representative voting abound, and many have bipartisan support. The problem is “path dependency:” It’s hard to get there from here. Or, more plainly, controlling, vested interests have every incentive to maintain, if not strengthen, the status quo.
But some ideas are less obvious. There has been a revealing increase in support for some sort of national service, a required or strongly encouraged year of public service for young people from all income classes. It could involve military service, but projects could also include much-needed work on public goods, including physical capital such as parks, water systems, public housing and environmental projects, and human capital, such as tutoring, child and elder care.
Research shows many benefits for participants volunteering in such activities, but in this context, advocates for national service are motivated by throwing economically and racially diverse young people together in a way that might boost a signal that has been thoroughly jammed by the Trump era: empathy.
I’ve long argued that one way to understand American politics and social movements is YOYO vs. WITT, or “you’re on your own” vs. “we’re in this together.” The YOYO play is characterized by attacks on social insurance, the safety net, immigrants and the role of government in general, attacks that are all too familiar today.
Typically, the pendulum swings from YOYO to WITT when people recognize that we need functional government to protect us from market failures, aging out of work and existential challenges such as global warming. But we also need moral leadership that unites us through the empathetic understanding that we’re all in the same boat, trying to realize our own potential and that of our children.
This sensibility has been in remission since Trump’s ascent, but the cruelty at the border seems to be reawakening it. It may even be giving that old pendulum a nudge in the right direction.