Every day more children come. They cross the Rio Grande on rafts. Some have Hello Kitty backpacks. Some come with their mothers, but many are on their own. They come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. Many are teenagers, but some are no more than toddlers. Some disappear before they ever make it to the United States.
In the past few weeks a humanitarian crisis has broken out on the U.S. border. The border authorities are overwhelmed. The kids are being warehoused in makeshift customs processing centres and military barracks. Toilets and showers are in short supply. To relieve the crush, some moms and kids were shipped to Arizona and dumped off at the Phoenix bus station.
Since last October, about 50,000 unaccompanied children have been intercepted at the Mexico-U.S. border. The human tide shows no sign of letting up. As immigrant and human rights groups howl about the awful living conditions for the kids, border officers say they've been turned into babysitters. "We're having to provide them baby formula, diapers, medical treatment," U.S. border patrol officer Raul Ortiz told NBC News. (They're also trying to prevent the older kids from having sex.)
The crusade of children trying to reach the Promised Land has sparked a hot debate about who's to blame, and what to do about it. Some blame violence in their home countries, and some blame U.S. President Barack Obama for loosening the rules on young illegal immigrants in the U.S.
The obvious solution is to send the children home. But that isn't in the cards. Before they can be deported, they're entitled to a lengthy period of due process. Many will be released into the custody of relatives already in the U.S., never to be seen again. All are entitled to the services of immigration lawyers, who will argue that the children qualify as refugees.
The mainstream media depict the new arrivals as fugitives from gangs, poverty and violence in their home countries. "Immigrant children need safety, shelter and lawyers," declared an editorial in The New York Times.
But there's another reason why the kids keep on coming. Their families believe the borders are wide open. They've heard that if their kids make it to the U.S., they'll be allowed to stay. "A high percentage of the subjects interviewed stated their family members in the U.S. urged them to travel immediately, because the United States government was only issuing immigration 'permisos' until the end of June, 2014," a U.S. border report said.
The rumour isn't true, but the hope is not entirely mistaken. Lenient government policies and lax enforcement mean that many new arrivals will indeed be able to stay in the U.S. indefinitely – long enough to have children, at any rate, who will have all the privileges of citizenship.
Even for illegals – who now number around 12 million – the benefits of life in the U.S. are obvious. Children get free medical care and education. Adults can get jobs, drivers' licences, perhaps even a "road map" to citizenship. Illegal immigrants are now 5.2 per cent of the work force, according to the American Immigration Council. Nobody is seriously thinking of sending them back home.
At 17 per cent of the U.S. population, the Hispanic presence is now a huge force in U.S. politics. The elites of both parties agree the immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. But no one has a serious plan to secure the border or enforce the immigration laws. Progressives believe that generous immigration policies reflect America's liberal humanitarian values. Big businesses depend on Hispanic immigration (both legal and illegal) as a reliable source of cheap labour. Neither party wants to alienate the Hispanic vote. And anyone who questions the wisdom of admitting a huge influx of low-skilled people into the United States is labelled as a nativist, a Tea Partier, or worse.
In fact, the U.S. would be much better off with a system like Canada's and Australia's, which admits immigrants on the basis of education, skills and language ability. But it's probably too late now.
One of the people who questions current U.S. immigration policy is George Borjas, a Harvard labour economist who has studied immigration economics for decades. He argues that the large-scale migration of low-skilled workers has hurt the economic opportunities of less-skilled natives. Businesses and affluent Americans gain; the people at the bottom lose.
The changing economy has radically shifted the immigration equation. Back when nation-building meant busting the sod and building the railways, less-skilled immigrants were essential. Today they are a liability. Mr. Borjas points out that in the U.S., Hispanic immigrants have also been held back by slower assimilation. They join ethnic enclaves and don't learn English. Their kids don't do very well in school. Their earnings may never reach parity with those of other Americans. For them, the melting pot has become a myth. Low-skilled immigrants are more likely than earlier generations to receive welfare assistance, and they create a substantial burden on cities and states.
Immigration is almost always good for immigrants. But it is not always good for the host country. Mr. Borjas argues that U.S immigration policy creates little or no economic benefit. And it will almost certainly increase inequality. "Huge skill differentials … will almost certainly become tomorrow's differences among American-born ethnic groups," he argues in his book Heaven's Door.
These views are deeply unfashionable in the United States today.
And that is the reason why immigration reform is bound to fail.
Of course, we Canadians shouldn't be too smug. Our geography keeps us well insulated from the waves of suffering humanity that inundate much of the developed world. So long as we are bordered by three oceans and a rich country, we'll never be confronted by tens of thousands of impoverished children who are struggling to make it to the Promised Land. The heart says take them in. But the head says send them home.