March 15, 2019
What David Frum Gets Wrong About Immigration
In November last year Hillary Clinton gave an interview to the Guardian in which she said:
“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration, because that is what lit the flame…I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken, particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘We are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.”
David Frum pulled this quote out in a lengthy article in April’s print edition of the Atlantic (online this week here) to say that Hillary was, despite the many criticisms she received, correct. Immigration is socially and politically divisive, and if liberals don’t figure this out and start advocating for what he seems to consider “responsible” immigration enforcement, the fascists will. While Clinton was speaking about Europe, Frum is speaking to a U.S. audience. He wants us to know that immigration has both positive and negative consequences, and that “the left” is in denial about the negative. The failure to come to terms with this and get serious about enforcement will cost Democrats elections, and the country, in the worst case scenario, its democracy.
Frum concludes his article:
Many Americans feel that the country is falling short of its promises of equal opportunity and equal respect. Levels of immigration that are too high only enhance the difficulty of living up to those promises. Reducing immigration, and selecting immigrants more carefully, will enable the country to more quickly and successfully absorb the people who come here, and to ensure equality of opportunity to both the newly arrived and the long-settled—to restore to Americans the feeling of belonging to one united nation, responsible for the care and flourishing of all its people.
For Frum, and many in the centrist camp he represents, immigration is a domestic management problem, a function of border control and legal remedy. There is no real sense in his argument that we need to assess why people migrate, or the ways in which U.S. policy contributes those reasons.
The world is facing the largest refugee crisis it has faced in 70 years. This is no secret. The primary reasons for this crisis are war and climate change. These “push” factors register not at all in Frum’s account. Indeed, he claims people migrate more now because the world is relatively more wealthy and thus more people have the means to move. Implicit in this argument is an assumption that we can conduct business as usual around the world, while simply being more selective about who gets in when the people displaced by that business come knocking.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are 68.5 million people in the world today displaced by violence and human rights violations. 24.5 million have crossed borders and are considered refugees – the highest number ever recorded. 3.1 million are seeking asylum. The sources of the conflicts displacing the most people are directly tied to U.S. foreign policy. The number of refugees from the Middle East has risen dramatically since the U.S. invasion of Iraq set off a regional conflict that has rippled out to Syria, Libya and Yemen. In 2017 the top two countries of origin for refugees worldwide were Syria (6.3 million) and Afghanistan (2.6 million).
Closer to home, U.S. policy in Central America has contributed greatly to the current refugee crisis. The Obama administration’s support for the consolidation of the 2009 coup d’etat against President Zelaya in Honduras is directly tied to the exodus fleeing ongoing violence and political instability there. The historic role of the United States as a defender of right-wing governments and movements in Guatemala and El Salvador is directly tied to ongoing violence in those countries. In a survey of refugees from Central America in 2015, 40% reported the murder of a family member within the previous two years.
The U.S. response has been to offer a wall: a physical barrier at the border as well as legal barriers to entry meant to deter refugees. Obama and Trump have both leaned on Mexico to stop the flight of refugees heading north, offering military assistance to “secure” Mexico’s southern border and currently pressing for asylum seekers to be held in Mexico rather than permitted entry into the United States. None of this is working to stop people fleeing Central America. 90% of asylum seekers in Mexico are from the northern triangle of Central America. The number of people engaged in irregular border crossings has actually increased in recent months, despite some of the most draconian policies ever implemented by the United States to deter them.
So, for folks like Frum and Hillary Clinton, the question they need to address is what Europe and the United States should do to de-escalate the conflicts they have been instrumental in creating. U.S. foreign policy is too often exercised in a moral vacuum, where the consequences for people on the receiving end of our quest for global hegemony are ignored. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon. But until it does, people will continue to flee the violence visited upon them. To argue that we need to be more selective in our entry processes without addressing the underlying causes of migration about which we can actually do something, is disingenuous at best.