Can immigration policies succeed with empathy rather than cruelty?

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A new book on immigration appeals to the hearts of Americans. A book by Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, uses stories, history and the troubling present to convince Americans that enacting humane immigration reform would be in line with best traditions of America.

Almost everything Ali Noorani writes in his new book Crossing Borders: Reconciling a Nation of Immigrants describes a place he personally visited, giving the book a journalistic sensibility and the benefit of a longtime observer’s touch. This bears fruit on the first page of the book when he describes a trip to Honduras: “In our efforts to learn more about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States, we expected that A feeling of fear and despair runs through our meetings. Instead, we met determined, focused and proud people. Who wanted more for their country. Who didn’t want to leave their house. But were leaving because of failed institutions – in Honduras and the United States.

Noorani shows that violence is an important driver of migration from Central America: “In 2017, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world. Honduras ranked number four, with Guatemala at fourteen. Overall, at least 17 of the world’s 20 deadliest countries are located in Central America, the Caribbean and South America. In March 2022, there were “87 gang-related killings [a recent] weekend” in El Salvador, according to National Public Radio.

Noorani makes many pointed observations about immigration policy in the United States. “For many, when it comes to immigration, perception is reality,” he writes. “The opponents of immigration have understood this for a long time. For them, there is never enough enforcement to “control” immigration. And, when a series of application criteria are met, as were the border security elements of the 2007 immigration reform legislation, the goals are shifted. If an administration treats immigrants with compassion, opponents claim that immigration is out of control. Conversely, cruelty is control.

It is a strong point. The current standard for evaluating border policies is not whether policies are effective or consistent with our values, but whether they are “tough”. It’s like we judge college and high school basketball coaches by who yells and berates their players the most.

We saw this in the discussion of the Trump and Biden administration’s use of Title 42 on the border. The use of rapid evictions using Title 42 did not reduce illegal entry but encouraged it. Rather than present themselves at legal entry points to seek asylum, individuals have entered the country illegally in order to apply for asylum. People looking for work are increasing their attempts to cross the border, much more than in the past according to Border Patrol statistics. (See statistics on recidivism.) Discussions about effective ways to reduce illegal immigration, including providing more legal pathways to enter and work in the United States, are mostly absent.

The book takes the reader on a journey through the American political scene, particularly the Trump years. But he also pays attention to those whose prospects are lacking. It is about men who feel their dignity is being undermined by the need to emigrate – illegally, due to the insufficient legal pathways in the US immigration system – to feed their families or build a better future.

“Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala form the Northern Triangle of Central America,” writes Noorani. “They are among the poorest and most unequal countries in the world, with histories complicated by American political interference, political corruption, violence, and economies dependent on foreign direct investment and cash crop agriculture.”

Due to the lack of space, news stories about the border can give Americans the impression that immigrants seeking to escape desperate situations are a recent phenomenon. Noorani provides historical context: “For generations, immigrants and refugees have come to the United States to realize the freedom and opportunity that our democracy affords. . . . It is the story of America defending, sometimes imperfectly, the right of people to live in a nation of laws that treat people humanely, allow them the free practice of religion, the ability to express their and their freedom to pursue joy.”

It would be easy for Noorani to dwell on the negative and the difficulties. However, it describes the efforts of American communities to offer political solutions, find common ground, and offer humane treatment to refugees and others.

Ali Noorani points out that much of the media reporting, especially on television, focuses on the border, but Americans see or read little about what people in Mexico and Central America are leaving behind. He believes that a better understanding of the violence and economic desperation people are experiencing could generate more sympathy and a greater willingness to make political compromises on immigration. It’s a sensible conclusion.

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