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Crisis at the Border

April 13, 2019 (1,855 words)

The other day I was startled by a front page story in The New York Times that announced the U.S. border could be at a breaking point. Then driving home from work yesterday I listened to National Public Radio tell me how “thousands of undocumented immigrants cross our Southern border every day.”

This is quite a change from what we’ve been hearing from the likes of NPR and the NYT since the first of the year, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won her dramatic show-down with President Trump over border wall funding. We were repeatedly assured by reliable sources that illegal crossings were at an historic low, with the implication being Mr. Trump was only hammering away at this contentious issue to keep his out-of-touch base fired up.

At this stage of his unexpected presidency one might say Donald Trump has earned his legion of critics. It’s hard to cozy up to any world leader – let alone our leader – who seems to revel in displays of belligerence. So it’s no surprise that many in the media have found fault with the actions of this administration’s Department of Homeland Security, especially the way it has decided to “separate families,” and “put children in cages.”

… looking past the catchy soundbites

Such a policy of family separation does indeed strike even the casual observer as beyond the pale. But as with most controversies there is more to this story than what is easily captured in a catchy soundbite or a juicy headline. To do justice to this subject we will have to set aside whatever disdain we may feel for the current occupant of the White House.

According to the article Migrants Pour Into a System That’s ‘On Fire’ appearing above the fold in column one of the Thursday, April 11 edition of The New York Times:

“The very nature of immigration in America changed after 2014, when families first began showing up in large numbers… These days, thousands of people a day simply walk up to the border and surrender. Most of them are from Central America, seeking to escape gang violence, sexual abuse, death threats and persistent poverty…

“The smugglers have told them that they will be quickly released, as long as they bring a child, and that they will be allowed to remain in the United States for years while they pursue their asylum cases… The resulting crisis has overwhelmed a system unable to detain, care for and quickly decide the fate of tens of thousands of people who claim to be fleeing for their lives.

“For years, both political parties have tried – and failed – to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, mindful that someday the government would reach a breaking point. That moment has arrived. The country is now unable to provide the necessary humanitarian relief for desperate migrants or even basic controls on the number and nature of who is entering the United States.”

… balancing concern with pragmatism

Many successful Americans with a good head on their shoulders and some disposable income to spread around are stumped by this crisis. Decent people instinctively feel sympathy for the less fortunate. Yet these same decent people also possess a pragmatic sense that we can’t absorb uncontrolled waves of indigents into our communities without creating havoc.

And so we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. We are the lucky inhabitants of a land where “God has shed his grace,” but this patriotic logic leads to an awkward conclusion. People in the Third World, specifically in this case the citizens of Honduras and Guatemala and Nicaragua, have apparently not been showered with similar grace.

Though we may no longer openly invoke such faith-based formulations, asserting that we have been blessed by God can only mean those others have been forsaken by God.

Oh my, this is starting to get uncomfortable. But wait, as any successful American will gladly tell you, the reason we are “blessed” has nothing whatsoever to do with God’s grace. Our exalted status on the world stage can be directly attributed to our embrace of “liberal democracy,” and the many-splendored benefits that flow from this revolutionary and liberating economic/political arrangement.

The average person on the street may not be able to explain exactly what is meant by the term, but they nevertheless hear it invoked by our pundits on a routine basis, and so have enthusiastically (if uncritically) jumped on board this ideological bandwagon.

For example, in describing Robert Mueller’s long, deliberate investigation into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 elections, Andrew Sullivan recently had this to say in New York magazine: “Mueller single-handedly showed the norms of liberal democracy and the rule of law can be upheld even as most of the political actors, especially the president, have been behaving like bit players in a banana republic.”

… flattering ourselves into thinking we are special

A certain breed of American tends to flatter himself into believing we live under the rule of law, in a land of equal opportunity, where all are free to make their own way to the best of their ability. That life has worked out nicely for the clever and the advantaged blinds that specimen to the many inequities built into our system, where the rich get richer without much effort, and the poor remain essentially powerless to improve their circumstances in any meaningful way.

We see free-market capitalism – the beating heart of a liberal democracy – as our secret sauce. If only we could find a way to export our dynamic sense of entrepreneurship to the struggling, backward regions of the planet. That would be the best way to address the dire economic straits so much of the Third World finds itself mired in.

But this facile analysis ignores a few inconvenient truths about the free-market and unfettered capitalism.

Inconvenient Truth #1:
The free market does not automatically serve every segment of the population. A “market failure” is what happens when private companies don’t provide a socially desirable good due to a lack of return on investment. In other words, if there is not enough money to be made from a potential venture, the entrepreneur deems it not worth his time or effort, and therefore nothing will happen.

This was true in the United States of the 1930’s, when electric and telephone companies were unwilling to enter rural America. And it’s happening again now, in those same regions of our country, with broadband internet access.

Expecting “the market” to magically lift the Third World (or any depressed area) out of poverty ignores a basic tenet of enlightened self-interest: why trapes off to a forlorn part of the world, and deal with untold obstacles and hardships, when we can make more money right where we’re at?

Inconvenient Truth #2:
Our multi-national conglomerates have mastered the art of extracting whatever natural resources are to be had from various and sundry remote outposts around the world, while managing to leave the indigenous populations as destitute as before the vaunted “development” came to their town or village.

… the need for a new, more comprehensive approach

The problem of economic disparity, and of struggling nations, requires a new, more comprehensive approach than the one we are used to applying. Our conservative/libertarian think-tanks, in particular, do not have all the answers when it comes to economic development or foreign policy.

Rather, “Today it is most important for people to understand and appreciate that the social question ties all men together, in every part of the world.” So says Paul VI in his papal encyclical of March 26, 1967, Populorum Progressio (On The Development Of Peoples):

”The progressive development of peoples is an object of deep interest and concern to the Church. This is particularly true in the case of those peoples who are trying to escape the ravages of hunger, poverty, endemic disease and ignorance; of those who are seeking a larger share in the benefits of civilization and a more active improvement of their human qualities; of those who are consciously striving for fuller growth.

“With an even clearer awareness, since the Second Vatican Council, of the demands imposed by Christ’s Gospel in this area, the Church judges it her duty to help all men explore this serious problem in all its dimensions, and to impress upon them the need for concerted effort at this critical juncture.

Our recent predecessors did not fail to do their duty in this area. Their noteworthy messages shed the light of the Gospel on contemporary social questions. There was Leo XIII’s (1891) encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pius XI’s (1931) encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XII’s radio messages to the world (June 1, 1941, Christmas 1942, and May 14, 1953), and John XXIII’s two encyclicals, (1961’s) Mater et Magistra, and (1963’s) Pacem in Terris”.

… a guideline, not a specific policy proscription

Paul VI’s effort, like all papal encyclicals and Church documents (and Christ’s Gospel, for that matter), does not spell out a specific economic policy proscription. Instead such literature serves as a clarion call to remind us that an economic system must operate under a moral umbrella, within a moral framework, if it is to function properly and yield equitable (not equal) benefits for all its willing participants.

Economic behavior cannot be detached from moral considerations. It is not a “science” whose “laws” somehow supersede the sense of right and wrong we are all born with. This is a thumbnail sketch of Catholic social teaching on the subject. The curse of the modern era is the way economic actors have been given elaborate intellectual justification to “operate freely,” apart from any such consideration.

If our economists and think-tank scholars, especially those of the conservative/libertarian variety, are serious about improving the lot of the less fortunate in this country and around the world, they would do well to consult the Catholic Magisterium for guidance, in addition to the series of well-known “rational” treatises they have weened themselves on for the last several hundred years.

In the meantime, while we await the glorious epiphany on the part of our wealthy leaders and opinion makers, our movers and shakers who sit atop the investor class, what can the rest of us common folk with a little disposable income to spread around do about the crisis at the border?

One thing we can do is contribute to those international charities that already have boots on the ground in the countries under discussion, working with local residents to build roads, bridges, schools, homes, and clean water systems. All the things we in the First World take for granted.

If you want to be thoroughly pragmatic about it, give to such charities until it hurts, or it is just a matter of time until these marginalized families make their way to your city or town, to become a burden on our already-strained municipal services.

As the man said, today the social question really does tie us all together, in every part of the world, whether we like it or not.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
April 13, 2019

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