Last week newspapers published the horrifying photograph of a Salvadoran father and his young daughter lying face down on a bank of the Rio Grande after they drowned trying to cross into the United States. The image became a rallying point for those who believe the United States should welcome all who flee chaos in Central America.
In an appeal to this sentiment at the first of two Democratic presidential candidate debates, former San Antonio Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro challenged his fellow Texan on the stage, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, to join him in supporting repeal of the law that makes illegal entry into the United States a crime. Entry without permission should be treated as a civil offense, he said. The following night, during the second debate, eight of 10 candidates supported the idea.
To his credit, Mr. O’Rourke rightly refused to jump on the bandwagon, saying it would be unwise to decriminalize illegal entry. And in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, former Democratic assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Juliette Kayyem affirmed the wisdom of that view.
She dismissed the idea that the law in question, Section 1325 of the federal criminal code punishing “improper entry” into the United States, is the legal basis for the unpopular Trump administration policy of separating children of illegal entrants from their parents until they can be repatriated. She compared the call for its repeal to the demand for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be abolished.
These positions, she wrote, allow Democrats and others who support them “to avoid what can’t be avoided: that a nation based on laws must have deportation, enforcement and removal standards to protect its borders.”
She suggested that sentiment amounts to wishful thinking that “the heart-wrenching aspects of a power that sometimes needs to be utilized will just go away.”
Speaking of the heart-wrenching event that affected so many Americans, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele on Monday nobly accepted blame for the deaths of the father and daughter, telling the BBC that his country failed to provide them with water, jobs or safety. “What country did they flee?” he asked. “Did they flee the United States? They fled El Salvador, they fled our country. It is our fault.”
It is a sad fact that life in Central America is so chaotic. The only way it will change is if the people demand it. That President Bukele acknowledged the existence of the problem is a welcome change in itself. But it will take years to improve conditions in the region.
Meanwhile, the flood of panicked migrants must be stopped. Mexico and the United States have to reclaim control of their borders. Mexico is taking action, but the flood will continue as long as U.S. asylum law creates an incentive to cross the border to obtain legal protection as a refugee.
Instead of repeating Section 1325 or abolishing ICE, Congress should swiftly reform our asylum laws.
Not every person who shows up at the border is a harmless person fleeing chaos. We need laws and enforcement mechanisms to keep out dangerous individuals, diseases and pests that could wreak havoc on humans, animals and plants, unsafe products and potentially weapons of mass destruction. To decriminalize illegal entry and abolish ICE is tantamount to nullifying our borders. The way to preserve our national borders is to enforce the rule of law.
That almost half of the Democratic candidates for president endorse the repeal of Section 1325 should be of serious concern.