I read an interesting op-ed piece by Thomas Sowell this week. Dr. Sowell is an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His piece argues that it is perfectly legitimate (and not inherently racist) to be alarmed by the porousness of our borders and to be emphatic about our need to have control. It’s a good piece. I concur with his insistence that there are legitimate arguments to be made on many sides, and that branding opponents as “racists” simply because they are concerned about border security is not constructive or honest.
But something caught my eye in Dr. Sowell’s piece of which he may, or may not, be aware.
In nearly seven hundred words, Dr. Sowell never once uses the word “refugee,” even when writing about historical examples of mass migrations to flee epidemics. “Illegal immigrants” appears five times.
Dr. Sowell is right about the importance of labels. What we call something profoundly affects our orientation toward it. But the labels about which we should be concerned aren’t limited to whether a particular advocate for a particular point of view is a racist.
A profoundly important question of labeling is, are these children “illegal immigrants” or “refugees?”
That question can’t be answered as a generalization.
To be a refugee, according to the United Nations 1951 Convention on Refugees, one must:
- be “outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence”
- have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”
- be “unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection” of the country or nationality or habitual residence, “or to return there, for fear of persecution.”
There are other requirements, mostly conditions that disqualify someone from refugee status because of their criminal behavior or their participation in the cause of persecution itself.
Let’s take the illustrative case of an imaginary Guatemalan girl, 12 years old, who crosses the border into the U.S. (my imaginary case borrows information from various news reports).
There’s no question that the first criterion is met. Indeed, every illegal immigrant meets the first criterion; they’re here. (They wouldn’t be “illegal” if they weren’t.)
Everything hinges on the second criterion, with its multiple components. Let’s say that this girl has been carefully sheltered in her home since she was eight or nine because of the violence against women that has been likened to a war on women in Guatemala. In the last two years, several other young girls of the family’s acquaintance have been raped or murdered (or both), and still others have been compelled to become sex slaves of gang members. She barely escaped such a fate herself earlier this year.
Sounds like a well-founded fear of persecution. But is it because of any of the identified causes?
I think it is fair to say that the point is debatable, but the odds may favor the assertion of refugee status in a case
such as this specific and admittedly hypothetical example. I can readily imagine an attorney for this girl arguing that the persecuted group of which she is a member is young women. Certainly the international community has recognized that such targeting of women is going on (in many parts of the world) and has granted refugee status to those who flee successfully.
So, for the sake of argument, we grant this girl the second criterion. Then it is simple to demonstrate that the third criterion also is met. She wasn’t able to rely upon the protection of her country before, and nothing has changed.
Viola! A refugee.
Except . . . here in the U.S., according to our immigration laws, we add an additional criterion:
- The individual must be “admissible to the United States.”
If this additional criterion was about keeping out terrorists and criminals, it probably wouldn’t add much that isn’t already covered by the UN Convention. No big deal.
But, as anyone familiar with our immigration rules and regulations knows, “admissible to the United States” is a pretty high bar.
The point is this:
Around the world, children innocent of any serious offense (other than crossing the border) who are fleeing persecution because children are being targeted in their home country probably would be considered refugees. Here, in the country that prides itself on its moral goodness, these children are likely to be considered “illegal immigrants.” The first classification provides them protection; the second, deportation.
We expect other countries to deal with floods of people fleeing dangerous conditions in nearby countries. We don’t expect them to welcome them in as immigrants necessarily, but we do expect them to shelter them until the trouble passes or other arrangements can be made. Sometimes, that process takes years.
Here, we are left to try to manipulate our arcane immigration laws for humanitarian ends (as the Obama Administration appears to be doing), or to force these children back into the very dangers from which they fled.
How would you like to be the Border Patrol officer or National Guard trooper who gets to take a truckload of boys and girls across the border to Mexico?
“Stay warm and well-fed, kids. And try not to get raped or murdered.”
That’s not the image of our nation I teach. I hope it’s not the image we’ll chose to cherish.