The numbers are small for a large country like this, but the alarm is big over the influx of Central American children coming over the southern border. People are merging this special case involving about 57,000 children with generalized anxiety about a broken immigration system that has resulted in an estimated 11 million illegal residents. At bottom are fears that the United States is incapable of managing an orderly immigration program.
The surge of solitary children is especially disturbing because the arrivals are so pitiful. The public knows that they are innocents escaping war-like conditions and grinding poverty. But the public also knows that vast stretches of this troubled planet are soaked in misery. If fleeing war, violence and destitution is reason enough to be granted the right to stay in the United States, distressed souls in the hundreds of millions would qualify.
Are these children true refugees, as their advocates insist? To be granted asylum in much of the world, one must arrive directly from a place of threat. The children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are traveling through relatively safe Mexico.
And if what we're seeing is a flood of real refugees, part of a humanitarian crisis, where's Canada in all this? Canada seems to be watching the whole scene from a perch of detachment.
Finally, there's the big question of what we should do about people stuck in corrupt countries with collapsed economies. The solution can't be to simply move entire populations to the United States.
Here's where the latest humanitarian crisis and the system failure do meet: Most of the children are being united with family members, many of whom are themselves here illegally, having come for jobs.
So many tough questions are nagging Americans as they watch this sad parade of kids arriving alone at Texas bus stations. It's not just about helping several thousand bedraggled children. It's about loss of control, the absence of a philosophical and legal foundation from which we can deal with such crises.
The recent surge is tied to a law signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush that gives child immigrants from Central America special consideration not available to those from Mexico or Canada. Bush was acting on a humanitarian impulse, as was President Barack Obama when he decided to ease up on deporting illegal immigrants brought here as children.
America veers from immigration crisis to immigration crisis in large part because it lacks the structure of a well-ordered system. It could have had that in the immigration reform legislation that has already passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis. Among other things, it would seriously enforce the ban on hiring undocumented workers, while legalizing millions who came in under the lax rules.
But the Republican-controlled House won't go along because the plan would "reward lawbreakers." The perverse result has been to preserve the jobs magnet that attracts the vast majority of illegal immigrants. If foreigners risk coming here without papers in the hopes of receiving an amnesty, as many conservatives argue, that is a product of their own refusal to grant a reprieve that - given the legislation's strong enforcement mechanism - would be the last amnesty. We call this irony.
So round and round we go.
Clearly, lines must be drawn, and that's not easy to do when humans are involved. But good laws do make the lines easier to determine. Without an effective immigration law, the public won't feel confident that when something extraordinary happens - such as the flow of unaccompanied children from Central America - we can balance kindness with the national interest.
We have a law ready to go. Let's pass it.