Americans are and should be outraged at reports of migrants detained in dirty, overcrowded conditions near the southern border. This is not how the United States should endeavor to treat people desperate for a better life. Meanwhile, highly offensive social media conversations that reportedly occurred among Border Patrol personnel are unforgivable but are at odds with my own observations of Border Patrol agents, who go above and beyond the call of duty to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants found tired and hungry on our Southern border.
It’s time for some straight talk on immigration. There is almost none left in the highly emotional and politicized environment of the Trump era.
To govern in the immigration space and accomplish meaningful change requires compromise across Democratic and Republican lines. Very few solutions are black or white. Polls reflect that most Americans want to see two basic things when it comes to immigration: that we are fair and compassionate to those immigrants who have become honest and integrated members of our society (most notably the “dreamers”) and that we secure our borders. This broad consensus is drowned out in the current political debate, but it is actually the place from which the Obama administration tried to govern. I served in that administration. We fought for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012, tried to expand upon it in 2014, focused our resources on deporting major felons and saw some of the lowest numbers of apprehensions on our southern border in decades.
As someone who for three years owned the difficult issue of immigration generally and enforcing border security specifically, I know these hard lessons:
First, high volumes of illegal immigration on our southern border (and the tragic overcrowding at holding centers that follows) cannot be truly solved unless we make the long-term investment to reduce poverty and violence in Central America. Congress and the Obama administration began with an investment of $750 million in 2016, but the yearly investment has decreased since, and Trump has now suspended it altogether. This is the exact wrong thing to do. State and Homeland Security officials have told me the modest assistance so far was starting to make a difference.
Second, we cannot, as some Democratic candidates for president now propose, publicly embrace a policy to not deport those who enter or remain in this country illegally unless they commit a crime. This is tantamount to a public declaration (repeated and amplified by smugglers in Central America) that our borders are effectively open to all; this will increase the recent levels of monthly apprehensions at our Southern border — about or more than 100,000 — by multiples. For the same reason, we cannot formally decriminalize unauthorized entry into this country, though first-time illegal border crossers are in fact rarely prosecuted for that misdemeanor (except for last year’s disastrous “zero-tolerance” policy).
The Obama administration’s immigration priorities for deportation included both those who committed major crimes and those who were apprehended at the Southern border. Those apprehended at the border were allowed to remain in this country while their deportation and asylum cases proceeded to conclusion.
Third, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has attracted criticism from the left for accepting last week a more moderate version of legislation to provide humanitarian aid to migrants at the border. The media sensationalized the speaker’s agreement as a “striking defeat” and a “capitulation.” Give her a break. Those who govern in a democracy know that progress requires compromise, and the speaker made the obvious calculation that it was more important to deliver prompt help to those facing inhumane conditions on the border than it was to delay and hold out for everything House Democrats wanted.
All this comes amid a larger alarming trend in today’s politics, on both sides of the aisle. To win support from a vocal and committed segment of a major party’s base — and simply for the sake of a good applause line — candidates for office now espouse extreme policy proposals that are unworkable and have no hope of winning the broad support of Congress and the people they represent.
As a child of the 1960s, I’m as idealistic as anyone. As someone who has held public office and took that responsibility seriously, I also know to be realistic. Those who aspire to public office should not espouse campaign promises that have no prospect for success — this is a disservice to our democracy and assumes voters are fools.
Here is a radical proposal: a presidential candidate who is willing to educate, enlighten and tell voters the hard truths. This trait has all but evaporated in U.S. politics, but it is the single best job qualification for those who aspire to lead. I’m a Democrat, and whoever among the current Democratic field of candidates demonstrates this profile in courage will earn my vote.
Jeh Charles Johnson was homeland security secretary from 2013 to 2017.