When Democratic presidential candidates were asked during the first round of debates if crossing the border without authorization should be decriminalized, 8 in 10 raised their hands. At that moment, President Trump’s re-election chances brightened considerably. Trump’s policy of inflicting misery on legal applicants for asylum has failed on every level: It hasn’t discouraged the ongoing influx of hundreds of thousands of desperate Central Americans, and the human catastrophe of overcrowded, reeking detention centers will go down as a shameful era in our history. (See Best U.S. columns.) But the sane and politically viable response to an absolutist policy in which no asylum seekers are welcome is not its complete opposite—opening the border to all who choose to enter the country. As David Frum pointed out earlier this year in The Atlantic, “If liberals won’t enforce borders, fascists will.”
Most Americans, polls show, strongly support immigration with defined rules and reasonable limits. Massive, unlimited immigration is a different matter. A backlash against “too much” immigration has shaken global politics like an earthquake, triggering Brexit, the rise of right-wing parties throughout Europe, and the election of anti-immigration populists such as Trump and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. (See Briefing.) The U.S. asylum system was set up to provide refuge for people suffering political and religious persecution, but most of the 100,000 who are arriving monthly are fleeing poverty, joblessness, and crime. As Frum points out in another piece this week, by that standard “at least 2 billion people on Earth are eligible if they can make it over the border.” That includes about 32 million people in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Are they all eligible for asylum? The U.S. badly needs comprehensive immigration reform, along with a major effort to reduce the misery and chaos in Central America. But inviting more people to come will surely backfire, no matter how humanitarian the intentions.