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Like you, the Saintly Mule has watched with horror the events unfolding at American borders. He has subsequently watched with disgust and disappointment the rather bumbling responses to it in Washington by all parties. A lackluster commitment to due process and human dignity seems to prevail.

Now with the abuses in the immigration system, I am not intending to deal. Over-zealous enforcement, avoidable violence, and corruption are not part of my subject as their status as moral evils is self-evident. These things must be fixed, but I do not presume sufficient expertise to propose viable solutions.

What I am interested in is the root question of why America’s basic philosophy on immigration has changed so radically since the early 20th century, and whether our past not may shed some light on the present. That is, after all, what the past does best.

Welcome to The Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.

Let’s back all the way up to the beginning—before bathetic images of children in cages—some of which may even be real—before political calculations about which position is most likely to overthrow or prop up the current administration, before confirmation bias hits the like button on the Facebook meme that supports our chosen narrative. Let’s take a deep-knee bend in the interest of cultural sanity and consider a more elemental question—a question whose answer may seem obvious to us, but would not have a little more than a century ago.

The question is: Do you believe people suspected of attempting to enter the country illegally should be detained at all? I believe this is the first question almost by definition. It floats below the radar as an assumption. But once asked, it begins to highlight new fault lines in the discussion.

If you say no, then you are envisioning what is functionally an open border, which leaves the category of “illegal” immigration a concept without any standing. More than half my heart is with you, and I shall return to this idea later.

Yet I am guessing that most people would say yes. They do believe in some form of brief detention, at least in order to confirm identity and vet for violent criminals and so on. But if you believe immigration can be illegal in any form, then detention of some kind becomes a necessity. I understand and have sympathy with this position as well. That we want to know who is entering the country and why they are coming is not in itself problematic or scandalous, but a simple exercise in prudence.

The question, however, involves prolonged detention under the assumption of criminality. Now I would ask you to recognize first that prolonged detention in any form is by definition a form of incarceration against a person’s will. That is simply what it is. And if you’ve not realized it already, you should come to terms with the fact that it is the default form of punishment in our country for everything from murder-one to drunk-and-disorderly.

I bring up the issue of general incarceration to draw a parallel. Institutional detention is the same no matter what you call the abode—holding cell, jail, prison, processing facility, salt mine. The conditions may be better or worse, more or less humane, but they all consist by definition in the first evil of the loss of liberty beyond what is necessary to confirm identity.

Now I have strong feelings about the morality of incarceration as a standing punishing for non-violent persons as practiced in our nation, but I will leave them aside for now. I will here grant— because everyone simply does—the idea that incarceration may be a legitimate part of law enforcement both within a nation and at its borders.

I’ll grant it because it is only by doing so that the second question becomes an issue—“do we incarcerate children with the parents or not?” This seems to be the question du jour, although I am shocked that I haven’t heard a single pundit ask it this way. It is always phrased “should we separate children from parents?” An unfairly rhetorical question that does not admit of any discussion. Who could possibly say yes to the question so phrased?

But if we have already granted that “yes, adults can justly be incarcerated,” then by definition children and families must be incarcerated together or they must be separated. That seems like the irreducible math of it.

Now think about our nation’s incarceration industry. Do we ever incarcerate children with parents? If you get a DUI tonight, what happens to your children? Do they spend the night in jail with you? Can they? Would you want them to? No, you have to scramble, hoping some relative is available, or your child goes into the foster care system for such time as you’re not available.  I have never seen an outcry over children suffering in the foster system because mom was put in jail for two years on a marijuana possession. Where is our moral outrage here? Why has no one yet been able to stage the right photograph on this subject to get our justice-juices flowing? Are we not a fickle people?

On the other hand, we can certainly say yes, we should incarcerate families together. It is in no way incoherent to say that the prison industry should accommodate whole families. When I was doing missions work in Mexico 15 years ago, I was told that much of the Mexican prison system is actually set up like this. If you earn a 2 year sentence for some offense, then it is often possible that your spouse and kids can join you, bring you food, and so on. But this also meant that prisons in Mexico were more like shanty refugee towns. Is this the alternative we are actually arguing for without realizing it—keep illegal immigrant families together while incarcerated? Perhaps we think that with our limitless resources we could do better for whole families than Mexico does? Perhaps. We are a strong nation with a large share of the world’s resources within our control.

How long, however, before heart-rending pictures of the conditions of whole families in detention were circulated, and the temperamental public cried out “stop incarcerating whole families.” Yes, we are fickle and politically divided enough to generate an endless march for this cause as the opposite one.

So what will it be? Do we incarcerate children with their parents or not? I understand that at the moment the disturbing images all surround the immigration question, but please, don’t let that issue cloud the deeper one of which it is just the most recent expression. We incarcerate all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons—and lots of them have families.

Don’t let that issue cloud the deeper one of which it is just the most recent expression. We incarcerate all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons—and lots of them have families.

The subject as it stands seems insoluble to me. This may be because I am not an immigration expert nor a politician, but again I suspect that, given the prevailing presumptions, every answer to the question will be revolting to the mass of people—particularly if it is accompanied by poignant pictures.

So the Saintly Mule would like to close this musing by challenging that first assumption—the one about incarcerating people suspected of illegal border-crossings. I do not propose it as an answer. Surely what’s coming here is as politically untenable as any other solution. That is not the point. I’m attempting to widen the conversation with an additional viewpoint. I do not know myself how strongly to endorse it, but I know that when I heard it, I was struck with that pleasant sensation that comes from thinking a thought you’ve never had before. It is satisfying, and one can almost feel the soul expand a bit from having thought it—this is often especially the case with views with which one disagrees. So while I know that most will disagree with Dr. Milton Friedman on the subject, I offer his thoughts on immigration as another way to think about this provocative issue.

If interested, here’s a youtube link where you can hear Dr. Friedman in his own words:  Friedman Lecture

In brief, Friedman observes that until 1914, America had open borders. If you could get here, you were an immigrant, and you could stay. He then observes the inconsistency that most people today would say that such a system back then was a good thing for the nation, but those same people inevitably say that such a system wouldn’t work today. And while he observed this back in the 1980’s, it is even more so today based on my Facebook feed.

It is said, and not without truth, that if we threw open the borders today, we’d be flooded with people. It would be such a drain on our resources as to reduce the standard of living of most people to a mere shadow of what it is today.

Why the inconsistency? Why was the open border a viable policy in the past but not the present? What’s changed?

Friedman suggests that in a culture where individuals are “promised a certain level of subsistence” (think “health care is a human right”) regardless of their levels of productivity, then the arrival of new people truly does become a liability to those already present.

In the old system, everybody benefited. He observes prior to the 1914 change, all the risk was upon the immigrant for their success, so “nobody would come unless he thought he would do better here than elsewhere.” New immigrants provided additional resources to business, and did better themselves. Hard working people who took positions unwanted by those already present, for a negotiated wage that was usually less than the prevailing one, but was infinitely higher than what was available in their country of origin. Thus the arrangement was mutually beneficial.

On the other hand, he muses that we’ve now built a system whereby immigration is only good and valuable so long as it’s illegal. The immigrant who comes in illegally today does not qualify for welfare or social security and so on. So this is the only way to get these necessary laborers without them demanding the “prorated share of the pie” to which they are “entitled.”

Mind…blown.

Now again, I do not know whether Friedman is right or wrong. Is this the pipe-dream of a radical free-market advocate or simply the implications of believing that humans are free moral agents? I don’t know, but it is worth trying to get behind the current rhetoric to an earlier form of the question.

I do believe—my Christianity informs me that—humans are divine image-bearers, who should not be made to give up their inalienable freedoms and responsibilities to large collectives of other humans we call “nations” and “governments” Remember persons are eternal, while nations and governments are not even persons. They are short-lived and artificial phenomena. Rome is no more, but every Roman citizen and serf lives on still before the eyes of God in some everlasting state. So while I do not know the answers to large international quandaries, I do know that when forced to choose, my faith requires me to land on the side of actual everlasting persons rather than a vague temporary impersonal anomaly like a “nation.”

When forced to choose, my faith requires me to land on the side of actual everlasting persons rather than a vague temporary impersonal anomaly like a “nation.”

So maybe we should step back from the rhetorically potent but functionally impotent question of whether or not we should incarcerate children with their parents, and really wrestle with the prior questions: Why is incarceration of fellow-image bearers our default solution to every social ill? How did the tiny ideas of “nationhood” or “race” ever come to loom so much larger to us than the concrete “persons” we meet every day? And what would change in our country’s immigration philosophy if we really gave people the freedom to exercise both the rights and responsibilities for which they were created?

We’ll catch you next time at The Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.

The Saintly Mule would like to thank you for listening to his ravings. If you don’t want to miss any of them, be sure to subscribe to the podcast at ITunes or Google Play and if you’d like to support the production of these little essays, please visit his Patreon page. May the peace of Christ be with you.