On a bright June 15th President Obama directed the Department of Homeland Security to use their prosecutorial discretion to discontinue the deportation of those young undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who had arrived in the United States before they turned sixteen, had lived here for at least five years, had not been convicted of a crime, and had graduated from high school or are currently in school. The standing rhetorical trope was that these youngsters should not be punished for being brought to America “through no fault of their own.” While some complained that the president did not have the right to determine which laws should be enforced or that the policy turnabout was cynical, so close as it is to a hard-fought election, much of the response, including the reaction from many Republicans, was that the policy, if not the process, was right.
Again and again we heard the mantra that children should not be punished for acts that were not their fault. How could a three-year-old decide whether to live in Tampa or Tampico? How could a seventeen-year-old valedictorian decide to return “home” to Veracruz when her family lived in Santa Cruz? According to surveys, most supported the idea that it was fundamentally unfair to prosecute and persecute these children.
This rare bipartisan comity raised an underlying issue. Many things happen to children through no fault of their own. Do we as a society have the responsibility to respond to these generational fault lines? Most dramatic are the pernicious effects of poverty. Just as some children are brought across the border in violation of immigration laws, other children are born into home-grown poverty through no fault of their own. Or they are brought up in familial environments of violence, drugs, neglect, and abuse. Does society have any responsibility in ameliorating the damage?
Perhaps we claim that these are fundamentally different matters. In the case of undocumented children, we are merely deciding that, if they pass our moral hurdles, they be left alone. This seems like a sturdy libertarian solution on which liberals and conservatives can find common ground. No resources are being transferred, and money is saved by the non-enforcement of not-very-enforceable immigration laws.
If we take seriously the rhetoric of “no fault” in poverty or other abusive realms, we would be forced to do more than to turn our backs and shade our eyes. Children go hungry and are badly clothed through no fault of their own. But as a society, we let those inequalities remain, because it would mean sharing the wealth and shifting the burden.
My examples are ones that point to the failures of parents. Parents have responsibilities at which they often fail. But what about education? Some children receive an excellent education, and other children through no fault of their own attend deeply inadequate schools. They no more chose to live in depressed neighborhoods than other children chose to cross the border. But here we proclaim the value of neighborhood schools without recognizing educational justice. With health care the issue is similar. Children do not choose to receive inadequate care, while residing in medical deserts. Parents bare responsibility, but the government must insure access to quality care.
The reality is that there are many domains in which we must consider the “no fault” argument, but often it is those with fault who are protected. When Wall Street investment houses teetered and banks swayed, it was hard to claim that these too-big-to-fail investments needed to be rescued for errors that occurred through no fault of their own. It was precisely their fault, but their bonuses and options and suites were preserved. A case could be made that the failure of these institutions would have had sharp reverberations throughout the economy, harming those who were not at fault, but why did saving the financial service industry first and foremost involve protecting those who were loaded with fault and with personal resources to cushion their own fall.
These bailouts were showered while each school day children attended crumbling schools received inadequate health care, and lived in deep poverty for which they had no responsibility.
There is much to admire in the President’s call to protect immigrant children from deportation, and there is praise to be allocated to Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio who recognize the fundamental rightness of the policy. But, given the rhetoric of the policy justification, who is to speak for other children who suffer through no fault of their own, while elites at fault find that forgiveness is easy and free.