The Corner


Border Politics and the Use and Abuse of History

A U.S. Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexican border near Calexico, Calif., in 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Much has been written — some of it either inaccurate or designed to obfuscate the issue ahead of the midterms for political purposes — about the border fiasco and the unfortunate separation of children from parents. Rich Lowry’s brief analysis is the most insightful.

The media outrage usually does not include examination of why the Trump administration is enforcing existing laws that it inherited from the Bush and Obama administrations that at any time could have been changed by both Democratic and Republican majorities in Congress; of the use of often dubious asylum claims as a way of obtaining entry otherwise denied to those without legal authorization — a gambit that injures or at least hampers thousands with legitimate claims of political persecution; of the seeming unconcern for the safety of children by some would-be asylum seekers who illegally cross the border, rather than first applying legally at a U.S. consulate abroad; of the fact that many children are deliberately sent ahead, unescorted on such dangerous treks to help facilitate their own parents’ later entrance; of the cynicism of the cartels that urge and facilitate such mass rushes to the border to overwhelm general enforcement; and of the selective outrage of the media in 2018 in a fashion not known under similar policies and detentions of the past.

In 2014, during a similar rush, both Barack Obama (“Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.”) and Hillary Clinton (“We have to send a clear message, just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. So, we don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”) warned — again to current media silence — would-be asylum seekers not to use children as levers to enter the U.S.

A few other random thoughts. Mexico is the recipient of about $30 billion in annual remittances (aside from perhaps more than $20 billion annually sent to Central America) from mostly illegal aliens within the U.S. It is the beneficiary of an annual $71 billion trade surplus with the U.S. And it is mostly culpable for once again using illegal immigration and the lives of its own citizens — and allowing Central Americans unfettered transit through its country — as cynical tools of domestic and foreign policy.

Mexico’s policies of deliberately exporting its own citizens are decades-old and hinge on providing it a social safety valve in lieu of domestic economic and human-rights reforms.

Illegal immigration, increasingly of mostly indigenous peoples, ensures an often racist Mexico City a steady stream of remittances (now its greatest source of foreign exchange), without much worry about how its indigent abroad can scrimp to send such massive sums back to Mexico. Facilitating illegal immigration also establishes and fosters a favorable expatriate demographic inside the U.S. that helps to recalibrate U.S. policy favorably toward Mexico. And Mexico City also uses immigration as a policy irritant to the U.S. that can be magnified or lessened, depending on Mexico’s own particular foreign-policy goals and moods at any given time.

All of the above call into question whether Mexico is a NAFTA ally, a neutral, or a belligerent, a status that may become perhaps clearer during its upcoming presidential elections. So far, it assumes that the optics of this human tragedy facilitate its own political agendas, but it may be just as likely that its cynicism could fuel renewed calls for a wall and reexamination of the entire Mexican–U.S. relationship and, indeed, NAFTA.

Finally, it is unfortunate that former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden and former first lady Laura Bush have both demagogued the issue by respective grotesque and ignorant comparisons of current border shelters to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the forced Japanese internment during World War II. At its horrendous peak in August 1944, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex on some days exterminated 10,000 human beings and may have cumulatively murdered well over 1 million Jews, as well as Eastern Europeans and Russians.

To suggest that a detainee center is anything similar to that industrial killing monstrosity is unhinged, abhorrent — and shameful. It is an insult to current U.S. border-enforcement personnel who do a heroic job at great risk to protect the border in a humane fashion under unimaginable conditions and political pressures. And it is a greater injury to the lost 6 million of the Holocaust when their fate is so cavalierly and ignorantly used for political advantage. Hayden also should remember that during his own tenure at the NSA and as CIA director, he was constantly and in exaggerated style besmirched on issues such as “enhanced interrogation,” drones, and intrusive surveillance. He too often became the object of frequent and unfair comparisons to various Nazi allusions of the sort that he is now promulgating against the Trump administration.

Equally ironic is that during the Abu Ghraib controversies, the Iraq War furor, and the post-9/11 renditions, George W. Bush — a constant target of brown shirt/fascist/Nazi slurs — was on occasion loosely compared to instigators of fascistic round-ups, including but not limited to the Japanese internment.

Moreover, we often forget that the forced relocation and internment was an unconstitutional and amoral act aimed at mostly Japanese-Americans citizens (among them the parents and grandparents of my current neighboring farmers), along with some Japanese residents.

It was whipped up by the feverish progressive McClatchy Bee papers, facilitated by California attorney general Earl Warren (“The Japanese situation as it exists in this state today may well be the Achilles heel of the entire civilian defense effort.”), who found the hysterical atmosphere that he helped create quite useful in getting elected governor in 1942, and, of course, green-lighted by a progressive FDR and his wartime advisers, especially Harvard Law grad John J. McCloy, a blue-chip Wall Street lawyer, FDR intimate, and later World Bank president, Ford Foundation head, and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. Unlike Warren, McCloy never regretted his instrumental role in the Japanese-American internment.

One can disagree with a current policy without stooping to distort history to smear an administration, especially when such tactics in the past have been used against those now employing them.

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Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won; and a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness.