Suppose one night there is a knock on your door. You open it to find 100 bedraggled families shivering in your yard — exhausted, filthy, terrified. The first cry of your heart would be to take them in, but you’d know there were too many.
But you’d still do something. You’d rally your neighbors and the local authorities and put some system in place — some way to provide immediate care, figure out who these people were and how, within your means, you could lift them up.
And this is precisely what the U.S. has failed to do in handling the refugees who are flooding across the southern border. There is nothing remotely like an adequate system in place to handle the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence in Central America or seeking economic opportunity. And there is no prospect of a plan being put in place from either Republicans or Democrats.
And in that way the border crisis is paradigmatic of our politics right now. Both parties are content to adopt abstract ideological postures. Neither is interested in creating a functioning system that balances trade-offs and actually works. In the age of Trump, national politics is showbiz — self-righteous performance art to make the base feel good about itself.
The Trump show is all about toughness and cruelty. The administration adopted a zero-tolerance policy that was supposed to deter potential immigrants. It failed miserably. Roughly 103,000 unauthorized immigrants reached the U.S.-Mexico border in March, twice as many as in March 2018.
Aside from baring his fangs, Trump is uninterested in processing the extra refugees. The facilities are overwhelmed. Over 800,000 people already have their cases pending. New asylum seekers are held for a couple of weeks, dumped out on the streets, and most will wait until 2021 to get their formal hearings. My colleagues Michael Shear, Miriam Jordan and Manny Fernandez cite the words officials are using to describe the situation: “operational emergency,” “systemwide meltdown,” “the system is on fire.”
The field is wide open for the Democrats to come forth with a decent plan. But on many issues the 2020 Democrats aren’t really having a primary campaign; they’re having a purity test. The candidates are not sure if they can deviate from wherever the social media warriors have defined the leftward edge. So the Democratic show consists of indignant generalities intended to sound radical while changing nothing.
Many Democrats in Congress are denying there even is a crisis on the border. The only Democratic candidate with an immigration plan so far is Julián Castro, who wants to repeal a 1929 provision that made illegal entry a federal crime. Others gesture toward the open border crowd with policies like eliminating ICE. This is Trumpian extremism reversed.
Immigration is one of those issues on which the extreme positions are wrong, because the correct answer means balancing competing goods.
On the one hand, these people are our neighbors. Many of them come to us with harrowing stories of husbands murdered, daughters raped, mass extortion. It’s our obligation and joy to reach out to them with a hand of solidarity. It’s barbarism to send them back to lawlessness.
On the other hand, many who are coming across seeking asylum do not qualify for it. When they get their hearings, only 20 percent win the right to stay in the United States because they’d face persecution in their home countries. Many come for traditional economic reasons. The murder rate in El Salvador has fallen in half since 2015, while the number of asylum seekers has skyrocketed.
The U.S. cannot take in everybody who wants to come. So the first task is to set priorities. The victims of violence and persecution get top priority, then those being systemically denied their basic rights because their country has become a failed state, then those seeking economic betterment.
Then you create a system to implement those priorities. Over the short term do the things any practical mayor would do: build new detention centers at the border; expand the capacities at the ports of entry; expand the number of judge teams, to speed through the backlog; create an orderly release procedure coordinated with humanitarian agencies; increase the number of counselors so refugees can navigate the system; vet children in their home countries for refugee status so they don’t have to make a fruitless trip.
Over the long term, you help build better police and justice systems in the home countries. You cooperate with Mexico to jointly tackle this challenge we face together. You might shift to a more skills-based immigration system while increasing the number of refugees we take in each year.
Designing a practical response that wins widespread support is, in theory, not hard. But it requires starting with a certain question: What can we do to help them? Much of today’s politics starts from a different question: What posture can I adopt that will reflect well on me? What can I say to prove I’m manly or woke?
This is what happens when the politics of practical action get replaced by the politics of performative narcissism.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.