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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Empathy, but also realism, are necessary in facing immigration

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/Adobe stock

I AM AN IMMIGRANT — a legal one. Over a period of 16 years, I’ve gone through a succession of work visas, acquired a green card, married an American citizen (herself an immigrant), passed the citizenship test, and in just 17 days will take the naturalization oath, accompanied by my wife and our two American-born sons.

Since 2002, I and members of my family have entered the United States umpteen times. At times, those crossings have been fraught. Once, before she got her green card, my British-born daughter was held up by immigration officers who doubted her story that she was visiting her father. Those were agonizing hours.


So I can well understand the great wave of moral outrage that swept the United States and world last week at the separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the US-Mexican border.

I can sympathize, too, with the parents, most of whom are from poor and violent Central American countries. My wife was once an asylum seeker from a poor and violent country. Her main motive for leaving Somalia for the Netherlands was to avoid an arranged marriage to a man she scarcely knew. Knowing that this was not a sufficient reason to be granted asylum, she emphasized the civil war in her country. In the same way, whatever their true motivations, today’s asylum-seekers from Honduras and Guatemala know to talk about the violence they are fleeing. This has become easier since 2009, when a court ruled that victims of domestic violence were entitled to asylum.

To those of you contentedly living in the country where you were born, I address a plea for empathy and also realism. A world without cross-border migration would be a poorer world in multiple ways. The question is not whether to stop migration but how to manage it. But from those of you who regard any regulation of immigration as somehow unjust — who want illegal immigrants to be treated the same as those who follow the rules — I plead for rationality. Wholly open borders are not a sane option for any country. And comparing today’s US government with the Nazis — who systematically persecuted native-born German Jews by depriving them of their citizenship, then their rights, then their property, and finally their lives — is preposterous.


Last week, Vanity Fair quoted the claim of an anonymous “outside White House adviser” that Trump’s speechwriter Stephen Miller “actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border. He’s a twisted guy . . . He’s Waffen-SS.” I think this quotation tells us more about the standards of journalism at Vanity Fair than about Stephen Miller, who is both conservative and Jewish.

The problem of what exactly to do with asylum-seeking families predates Miller by about two decades. It was in 1997 that a consent decree was issued, known as the Flores settlement, which prohibits the US immigration authorities from keeping children in detention — even with their parents — for more than 20 days. As it takes up to 50 times longer to adjudicate asylum applications, the authorities either let the families go (at which point most disappear into the invisible army of the undocumented) or they try to separate parents from children.

The last time the issue surfaced, in 2014, the Obama administration threw in the towel. Just 3 percent of the tens of thousands of children from Central America who entered the United States that year were ultimately deported. The Trump administration didn’t want to be such a pushover. It was nevertheless pushed over — not by the asylum seekers, but by the media.


The German leader Trump more closely resembles is not Adolf Hitler but Angela Merkel. She too was forced to cave by the media, in 2015, when her statement to a sobbing Palestinian girl that Germany “could not manage” to accommodate refugees from the Middle East triggered a storm of emotion. You may recall what happened in the months after Merkel’s U-turn. European and American leaders confront essentially the same problem. I just wish the media would express the same outrage about the camps in Turkey and North Africa where Europeans are now trying to confine their would-be immigrants.

This is not an American problem. It is a global problem. According to a Gallup survey published a year ago, more than 700 million adults around the world would like to move permanently to another country. Of that vast number, more than one-fifth (21 percent) say that their first choice would be to move to the United States. The proportion who name a European Union country as their dream destination is higher: 23 percent.

As I said, they have my sympathy. I love Scotland, the country where I happened to be born, but it was not where I wanted to spend my life. What I didn’t do was jump on a boat with my kids and try to bluff my way into America, intending to stay there even if my asylum claim was rejected.


The United States has a broken immigration policy and it cannot be fixed by presidential executive orders. The Constitution clearly states that this is a job for Congress. That’s one of the things a newly minted American citizen learns. It’s the native-born journalists, with their addiction to hyperbole and bad history, who seem to have forgotten it.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.