A Border Policy with Decency

Brian Gongol

In the last week, I've driven across three states: Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska. In each state, I drove past road construction, stalled vehicles, and law enforcement -- all either blocking a normal lane of traffic or on the shoulder.

Iowa recently expanded its "Move over, slow down" rules for dealing with vehicles on the roadside. It's now the law that drivers must give extra leeway, pretty much no matter what. I'm guessing that all three states have roughly the same rules. I've always tried to follow the same practice of moving over and slowing down, not because it's the letter of the law, but because it's the right thing to do. I don't think I'm exceptional in that regard, either.

Sure, if everyone followed the law exactly -- always staying in their lanes and pulling over adequately -- then "move over, slow down" might not be strictly necessary. But sometimes the wind gusts. Sometimes a load falls off a truck in front of you. Sometimes a tire blows out. The unexpected can occur, and even if you're doing everything you can to stay in your lane, you can still be overwhelmed by circumstances.

Is it sensible to follow a rule like "Move over, slow down" to protect your driving record? Yes. But it's more important to follow the rule because the people you're protecting are other human beings.

And it doesn't matter whether those other human beings are fellow Iowans, or Illinoisans, or Nebraskans. I'm not out checking IDs when I'm trying to do the just and decent thing by giving them a little extra leeway.

That's the framework I think we ought to be applying to the situation on the southern border, as well as to the issue of refugees generally. It's really not imposing that much to ask us to give people a little extra leeway.

The situation we face -- with thousands of people trying to enter the country in a state of desperation -- calls for an approach that does a few things:

1. Recognize the essential humanity of the situation. Good people don't go barreling through a road-construction zone at 100 mph because it's wrong to endanger other human beings like that. Sure, they chose a high-risk occupation -- but a decent human being gives them plenty of room and slows down. People who come here often make high-risk choices, too. But many of them make those choices because staying at home is even more dangerous. Most Americans really aren't ready to digest the unspeakable violence some people face in their own homelands. The least we can do is to, in effect, move over and slow down.

2. Grapple honestly with whether there is a "right" thing to do. The letter of the law can be the refuge of the scoundrel who wants to avoid the moral complications of personal responsibility and the gray spaces created by empathy. We often say that the three components of a crime are means, motive, and opportunity. But those are also the three components (in mirror form) of a moment to show true moral leadership. And we, as a country, have unparalleled means to do most things, and clearly we are in the midst of an opportunity to act. But do we have the motive? Do we believe anymore in being a true shining city on a hill?

3. See a challenge as an opportunity. It's practically a cliche to note that most personal growth comes from moments of struggle. But what about on a national scale? Are we up to the challenge of doing more -- maybe not everything, but at least doing something -- to aid our fellow human beings seeking refuge from abominable circumstances at home? Could that challenge reveal itself as an opportunity? Just for instance, there may be states that might welcome a few more refugees as a small step towards countering their depopulation trends.

4. Frame the costs and benefits in the right way. Virtually no one is a true total deadweight on society. For as much as people try to frame immigration of all types as a drain on the public purse, it's almost never true. People generally create value wherever they go, and there's a very good case to be made that almost anyone's measurable output as a worker rises dramatically when they move from a poorer place to the United States. It's easy to find and exaggerate anecdotal evidence of immigrants and refugees who end up claiming benefits from the welfare state. But the fact is that most people, most of the time, want to be self-sufficient.

5. Fit whatever we do into a larger vision. The world is tightly connected, as networks of all kinds bind every part of the globe to all of the others more than they did just a generation ago. The world's food supplies, health concerns, economic activity, and flows of ideas are all interrelated, and no amount of pandering and preening about doing things for ourselves is going to change that. So we need to ask: If there are troubles around the world, can we really avoid the consequences? The honest answer is that we usually can't -- so, as a matter of self-interest on the national level, we ought to look for ways we can help to ease pressures and make things better. We won't always succeed, but we ought to be on the lookout for ways we can stop problems from exploding.

We face a public-policy choice right now about the treatment of foreign children. That bears serious scrutiny. We need to remember the regret we as a country should feel over our similar policy choices circa 1938. The violence in places like El Salvador may not be state-run, but it is on a huge scale, and the kids who flee from it are true refugees. They deserve humane treatment as such. During WWI, Herbert Hoover led a US program to deliver food aid to people in occupied Belgium so they could avoid a famine. We helped because it was the right thing to do, regardless of the legal circumstances surrounding the German occupation. Americans don't have to wait for perfect law and order before choosing to do what is right, just, and compassionate. If the extraordinarily daunting nature of the journey is not itself enough of a deterrent to keep people from trying, then what good comes of us applying cruelty on top of it? In a quest to be a "great" country, we shouldn't torch the values and practices that make us good.