Whither The Wall

President Trump’s promised wall along the border between the United States and Mexico was part of the wrangling between Republicans and Democrats that led to a brief government shutdown over the weekend.

onrfrqd6mxsghuj5Surprisingly, some Democrats who had long opposed the wall signaled that they were willing to drop their opposition if Republicans would make concessions to give “Dreamers” — immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States when they were children — additional legal protections.  And, in negotiations with the President to try to avoid the shutdown, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer evidently offered to agree to more than the $1.6 billion in funding for the wall that Trump has requested.  More recently, Democratic Senators are saying that Schumer has withdrawn that offer and it is “off the table” because it was intended solely as a last-ditch effort to avoid the shutdown.

And, as the politicians wrangle, prototypes of different models of the wall apparently are being tested to determine whether they really would deter illegal border crossings.  According to a report by the Associated Press, eight models of the wall have been constructed in San Diego, and U.S. military special forces and U.S. Customs and Border units spent weeks trying to breach and scale the models.  The models are made of different materials, including steel and concrete composites, and are as much as 30 feet in height.  According to the reports, the designs did have some success in repelling the military forces, which include members trained in trying to climb high walls.

Political positions are fluid, but it would seem to be difficult to take the position that a wall is wrong on principle after you’ve agreed to support it, and even throw more than a billion dollars at its construction, in exchange for other concessions.  And if the reports on the testing are accurate, that would remove one argument that often is made against Trump’s wall proposal — namely, that a wall would be ineffective because illegal immigrants would be able to climb or otherwise breach it.  Of course, even if the ethical and functional objections to the wall are set aside, there would remain other grounds for opposition, including enormous cost, the impracticality of a wall in rugged mountainous regions, and the aesthetics of a wall in certain scenic areas — but the signs indicate that Donald Trump’s wall may be moving closer to reality.

“Shithole” Manners

I really would rather not write all the time about President Trump and his latest escapades.  I honestly would rather write about just about anything else.  But sometimes, President Trump is alleged to have said something that simply can’t be ignored.

donald-trump-gty-jt-180107_16x9_992So it is with the allegation that, during a meeting with congressional leaders about American immigration policy issues, Trump referred to Haiti and some countries in Africa as “shitholes” and said American policy should try to restrict immigration from those places.  Trump later issued tweets that seem to deny the use of that vulgar term, as well as disputing the notion that his remarks were racially motivated, although he admitted to using “tough” language during the meeting.  On the other hand, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who attended the meeting, confirms the report that Trump used the word “shithole” to describe the countries.

Could it really be that the President of the United States used the term “shithole” to describe another sovereign nation, however strife-torn or impoverished or economically or socially challenged it might be?  Could it really be that the President of the United States, who as the head of the executive branch of the government is the titular head of the American diplomatic corps, used such crass, inflammatory, undiplomatic language in an official meeting?  Could it really be that the President of the United States is so profoundly ill-mannered and graceless and brutal?  Could it really be that the President of the United States wouldn’t recognize that people would interpret such remarks as racially motivated and that world leaders would react with shock and horror to such statements?  It’s mind-boggling . . . but in the era of the Trump presidency the mind-boggling has become commonplace.

But let’s give our elected President the benefit of the doubt and accept his denial that he used that coarse term, and assume that Senator Durbin and any other sources for the news reports simply misheard whatever “tough language” the President actually used.  What’s equally bad, from my perspective, is that some Trump supporters have actually tried to defend the early reports of Trump’s alleged “shithole” remarks by arguing that the term accurately describes the countries.  Such arguments, which speak so dismissively and callously about countries where human beings live, and work, and struggle, solely in order to advance a political point, show an appalling lack of basic human kindness and decency and simple good manners.  Calling someone else’s country a “shithole” is almost sadistic in its cruelty.

It’s another deeply troubling sign of just how low and horrible our political discourse and culture have become.  Where is our humanity, and basic decency?

Ready For That Special Jackfruit And Turkey Tail Recipe

In addition to allowing me to experience the succulent dumplings of Momo Ghar, my recent journey to Morse Road with Dr. Science also introduced me to the wonders of the Saraga international grocery store, where Momo Ghar is located.

Saraga is found in one of the ubiquitous Morse Road strip malls and is housed in what used to be a Toys ‘R Us store.  Many people consider it to be the finest ethnic grocery store in Columbus.  If ethnic food shoppers can be said to vote with their feet, that view may be right — when we were there Thursday afternoon, the place was packed with people of all stripes, buying all kinds of food that would be considered absurdly exotic and wouldn’t be found in your standard American supermarket.

You know that you’re going to a different kind of grocery store when the first thing you encounter on your way in is an enormous crate of watermelon-sized, and disturbingly textured, jackfruit — which looks like the kind of fruit aliens should be slobbering over in a Star Trek scene.  But the jackfruit is a pretty mild surprise compared to what you find inside the store.  There’s an entire aisle of different kinds of frozen “pot sticker” dumplings, for example, and the place is packed with every imaginable kind of sauce and spice, heaps of unusual produce, a halal butcher shop, a Mexican bakery, a bustling fish shop, large sacks of different kinds of rice, cooking implements, and even clothing.  The meat aisle is particularly impressive, with lamb, goat cubes, prepackaged duck feet, and “fresh turkey tail,” among other options.  I knew that some cultures like duck feet, but I found myself wondering where in the world people might confess to a hankering for some good old fresh turkey tail.

What Saraga tells you is that Columbus has a large and diverse immigrant population, which is one of the many things that make our community a cool place to live.  I’ll be back because I’d like to take a closer look at that pot sticker aisle and browse around in search of something interesting to have for dinner.  And now I know where to go if I run across a particularly mouthwatering jackfruit and turkey tail recipe.

Immigration Chaos

This weekend, we saw again what happens when the federal government acts on the basis of executive orders rather than statutes that proceed through Congress, are subject to hearings and debates before being approved by our elected representatives, and get signed into law by the President, as the Constitution contemplates.

ap-immigration-trump-cf-170126_12x5_1600Late Friday afternoon, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration.  Like many executive orders, this one features dense references to statutes and programs that makes it beyond the comprehension of normal Americans.  The order has multiple components, but the ones that had an immediate effect over the weekend indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow refugee vetting procedures to be reviewed, and blocked citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.  (The last component has people talking about the Trump Administration imposing a “Muslim ban”; the Trump Administration denies that, noting that the seven countries listed were actually identified for special treatment by the Obama Administration and that many other Muslim-majority countries are not included on the list.)

The order was issued, and then . . . chaos reigned.  Were people with “green cards” — that is, permits that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States — subject, or not subject, to the bans?  First they apparently were, then the Trump Administration said they weren’t.  In the meantime, international airports and security officials struggled to figure out how they were supposed to implement the ban, unsuspecting travelers were left in limbo in airport concourses, lawyers filed lawsuits, different federal district courts issued different orders about different parts of the executive order, and now it’s not entirely clear who can or should be doing what, and for how long.  It’s to the point that, because a federal court ruling in Boston is different and perhaps broader than a federal court ruling in New York, immigration lawyers are encouraging international travelers to re-route through Boston’s Logan Airport, just in case.

All of this is aside from the merits of the executive order, which has been widely viewed, in the Unites States and abroad, as a sign that the country that features the welcoming Statue of Liberty on its eastern shore is now in the hands of paranoid xenophobes.  And the confusion about the terms and implementation of the executive order just make the black eye America has absorbed a little larger and a little darker.

It was clear that the Trump Administration was going to do something about immigration; it was one of Trump’s principal campaign themes, and so far he has acted on things pretty much like he said he would.  But it’s also another example of why government by far-reaching executive order is just bad policy, period — whether the executive orders are issued by the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration, or any other Administration.  We need to stop government by executive edict and administrative thunderbolt.  It’s time that Congress started to do its job.

Fuel To The Fire

New Year’s Eve might be even a bigger deal in Europe than it is here.  (Google “drunk Brits new years eve” if you don’t believe me.)  But in Cologne, Germany — and in other cities in Germany and elsewhere — the drunken mayhem took a turn for the worse.

In Cologne, mobs of drunken men surrounded, assaulted and robbed women in the huge square outside the city train station; two rapes also were reported.  German police now estimate that as many as 1,000 men were involved in the incidents and are looking for 16 men in particular.  More than 100 women and girls have come forward to report the gropes, robberies, and attacks by the men, and they describe a chaotic and lawless scene in which the gangs of men did whatever they wanted without fear of apprehension or reprisal.  The women say there was no meaningful police presence at the scene, and the Cologne police chief said the scale and nature of what happened was “a completely new dimension of crime.”

GERMANY-EUROPE-MIGRANTSWhat makes the story even more incendiary is that witnesses described many of the men gathered in the square as being northern African or Arab in appearance.  Critics of Germany’s recent decision to permit more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East to enter the country have seized upon the attacks in Cologne and elsewhere as another reason to reject the open-door policy.  German authorities have said, however, that there is no evidence that the men who committed the robberies and assaults were recent refugee arrivals.

And there is an undeniable undercurrent of distrust of German authorities lurking in reports of the incidents, too.  The initial police report on the New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne said there was a “joyful, party atmosphere” and a celebration that was “mostly peaceful.”  It was only after countless women began telling people about being mauled and robbed that authorities changed their reports to acknowledge the lawlessness and disorder.  You can’t read about the Cologne mobs without wondering whether the initial reaction by authorities was to minimize the extent of the criminal activity in order to avoid additional criticism of the German immigration policy.  Indeed, comments by Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, amazingly seemed to suggest that the assaulted women bore some of the responsibility for the attacks, saying they should “keep at an arm’s length” from strangers and “stick together in groups, don’t get split up, even if you’re in a party mood”.

We’ll have to wait to see whether the German police apprehend and identify specific suspects, but the failure of authorities to be forthcoming about the incidents in the first place simply, and unnecessarily, adds fuel to the anti-immigrant fire.  It’s hard for many of us to accept, but Donald Trump apparently appeals to some Americans because of the perception that he is “speaking truth to power” — and that perception can be created only if there also is a perception that power isn’t speaking truth in the first place.  When authorities are seen as trying to downplay the facts or bury the true story, it only reinforces that underlying perception and gives blowhards like Trump more ammunition for their anti-immigration rants.

Further Vetting The Vetting

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, officials are looking at whether they may have missed clues that could have predicted the murderous death spree of Syed Rizwa Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.  And it appears that some blazing red flags were, in fact, not seen, and that the immigrant screening process employed by the United States is not, in fact, as foolproof as some advocates have represented.

The biggest missed clues were social media posts.  As the New York Times recently reported, Tashfeen Malik had talked openly on social media posts about her support for violent jihad and her interest in being part of it.  However, the agencies charged with deciding whether she should be permitted to enter the United States never saw those posts because “immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.”

tashfeen-malik-l-and-syed-farook-are-pictured-passing-through-chicagos-ohare-international-airport-in-this-july-27-2014-handout-photo-obtained-by-reuters-december-8-2015-reutersus-customs-and-border-pStrange, isn’t it, that in our modern, internet-obsessed age, where many people share their innermost thoughts and views on-line, that social media posts of an applicant for entry to the U.S. aren’t reviewed as a matter of course to search for violent, pro-terrorist, or anti-American sentiments?  Wouldn’t you think that unprompted social media posts are much more likely to yield insights into a would-be immigrant’s true feelings than the answers given at a stilted, formal interview with a consular official?  And it’s not as if the jihadists are shy about sharing their views on social media — after all, ISIS and other Islamic terror groups actively use the internet as a recruiting mechanism and are happy to post videos of beheadings and other bloody activities as part of their recruitment campaigns.

What’s most troubling about the New York Times article linked above is the “debate” within the government about whether it is “even appropriate” to look at social media in the visa application process.  The concluding paragraph of the Times article, apparently seeking to explain the reluctance to review social media, states:  “Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States.”

Such justifications make no sense to me.  Sure, social media posts endorsing violence might not be “definitive evidence” (whatever that means) that the writer will become a mass-murdering terrorist, but don’t we want to even check on whether someone seeking entry to our country has voiced such sentiments, and if so build that undoubtedly relevant information into our decision-making process — and maybe ask a question or two about such statements in that stilted interview?   Why take a head-in-the-sand approach to available information.

And why the curious concern about whether it is “appropriate” to look at social media postings?  After all, social media posts are public statements, available to the world.  Companies routinely review social media postings as part of the job application process, and parents counsel their children to consider how that Facebook picture of their embarrassing behavior at a boozy party might be perceived by a prospective employer.  Yet the delicate sensibilities within our government are worried that it might not be “appropriate” to look at whether the likes of Tashfeen Malik have expressed violent, anti-American views before they decide to let them enter the country?

It’s bad enough that Farook and Malik were motivated to gun down innocents in San Bernardino in furtherance of their own, twisted beliefs.  It would be inexcusable if the government did not learn from the process by which Malik gained entry and use those lessons to improve our immigration protocols and enhance the information-gathering process.  Establishing a mechanism for reviewing public social media posts of visa applicants would be a good place to start.

Strangers In A Strange Land

Do a majority of Americans really feel like “strangers in their own country”?

That’s one of the provocative conclusions of a recent Ipsos poll.  According to the poll, 53 percent of Americans surveyed — 62 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of Independents, and 37 percent of Democrats — agreed with the statement “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.”  An even larger percentage of respondents agreed with the statement “More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”

arrival20usaThe poll designers believe these results expose “neo-nativist” sentiments in America and help to explain the mystifying, continuing popularity of Donald Trump.  They state:  “Simply put, Trump’s candidacy taps into a deep, visceral fear among many that America’s best days are behind it. That the land of freedom, baseball and apple pie is no longer recognizable; and that ‘the  other’—sometimes the immigrant, sometimes the Non-American, and almost always the  nonwhite—is to blame for these circumstances.” In short, they apparently view the statements posed by the poll and quoted above — which don’t explicitly refer to race or immigration — as nevertheless exposing racist and xenophobic attitudes among Americans.  (At the other end of the spectrum, they view the statement “More and more, America is a place that I can feel comfortable as myself” as exhibiting non-“nativist” sentiments.)

I’m skeptical of this kind of armchair analysis of the American psyche generally, and particularly in this instance where the two purportedly “nativist” statements seem to tap into a less sensational sentiment — the view that America is heading in the wrong direction.  For decades, pollsters have asked whether respondents think America is heading in the right direction; last week the Rasmussen poll found that only 28 percent of Americans say yes to that question.  I don’t recall reading that the right direction/wrong direction question is supposed to expose “nativist” views, and I don’t see its phrasing as materially different from the statement that “More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”  Both statements are broad enough to encompass a wide range of dissatisfactions — with political developments, with economic issues, with cultural and social changes, with security issues, and with America’s position in the world, among many others — and therefore can’t be directly tied to “nativist” attitudes.

I have no doubt that there are racists in America and that at least some of the anti-immigrant sentiments are rooted in racist xenophobia, but I think the notion that a majority of Americans are “neo-nativists” is silly.  It is, perhaps, easier to rationalize a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with our country’s direction as rooted in ignorant, racist views, because it allows people to avoid evaluating whether there are less inflammatory, more substantive concerns underlying the sense of unease with our position in the world.  I don’t know why, for some people, the bumptious blowhard Donald Trump seems like a solution to our nation’s perceived problems, but I think the conclusion that he has tapped into a previously hidden vein of racism in America just allows people to avoid tacking the tougher question:  what is it, exactly, that is motivating people to express support for this guy?

 

 

Carnage In Paris

Reports are still coming in, but the world has been shocked by another deadly terrorist attack.  This time it happened in Paris, where more than 100 people were killed in a coordinated series of shootings that targeted a sporting event, concert, and restaurant.

We’ll have to see what the investigation shows as to who planned the attacks — ISIS already is claiming responsibility — and what their motivation was, but the attacks show, once again, that the citizens of the western world must always be on guard.  Those of us who have enjoyed a trip to Paris can easily imagine that we might have been at the restaurant, or the concert, where the masked men armed with machine guns started indiscriminately shooting innocent people.  We think such horrors can’t happen again . . . and then they do.  We shake our heads at what seems to be senseless violence, but to the perpetrators such attacks obviously are not senseless.  They are carefully planned and designed to sow panic and give the terrorists the advantage.

At this point, with the identity of the assailants still not released and details sketchy, we don’t know the backgrounds of the shooters.  If they do, in fact, turn out to be Islamic extremists affiliated with ISIS, that fact will only feed into the anti-immigrant backlash that seems to be building in Europe in the wake of the decision by the EU to have member states accept large numbers of Syrian refugees.

The repercussions of such a finding are likely to be felt in America, too, and probably will mean that immigration will remain a huge political issue and that security will once again become a focus of discussion.  I think part of the mystifying, apparently enduring appeal of Donald Trump is that he talked about immigration when other candidates really weren’t — and although many people want to dismiss all of the voters concerned about immigration issues as racist xenophobes, I think that many are simply worried about the potential risks of an apparently porous southern border.  If we can’t stop the flood of people crossing into the country, what’s to prevent ISIS or al Qaeda militants from joining the tide?

In the meantime, our hearts will ache for the people of France and the awful loss and horror they have experienced.

Trumpelstiltskin

You may remember the Grimm’s fairy tale about Rumpelstiltskin, the odd little man who helped a miller’s daughter spin straw into gold and become a queen.  A year later, after the odd little man returned to collect on her promise to give him her first-born child, he gave her the chance to keep her baby if she could say his name.  When she ultimately said his name was Rumpelstiltskin, the little man became infuriated, stamped his foot so hard that it plunged deep into the ground, and then tore himself in two trying to free himself.

And so it is with Donald Trump — except he expects everyone to know his name already.

Trump can’t quite spin straw into gold, but he is a flamboyant figure who has a talent for cashing in on his mysteriously gained celebrity millionaire status through TV shows and business deals.  But he wants to be seen as a kind of legitimate political figure, too.  So he has declared his candidacy for President, and being Trump he has done it in the loudest way possible — by focusing on immigration and contending that “the Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States” who are “in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”  He says the United States “has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world.”

Trump’s anger-fueled, extreme views on immigration have been attacked as racist and have attracted a lot of media attention — and whenever candidates get media attention it helps their standing in the polls.  According to a recent CNN poll, Trump has moved up in the crowded field of Republican candidates. However, no rational person expects Donald Trump to be the eventual Republican nominee, or even a serious contender when the primaries start and polls measure more than simple name recognition.

But Trump’s furious political foot-stamping has come at a cost that threatens to shred his business dealings.  NBC, Univision, and Macy’s have all ended their business deals with him, and most recently the PGA decided not to hold an event at the Trump National golf course in California.  And as Trump tries to explain his views on immigration, and continues to offend millions, we can expect his business ventures to experience additional fall-out.

The Donald could have been satisfied with a TV show and a catchphrase.  By throwing his elaborate coiffure into the political ring, Trumpelstiltskin has put himself in a deep hole and may end up tearing himself apart.

An Issue That Captures And Frames The Worst

Immigration is a hugely important, multi-faceted issue.  In a world of many terrorist threats, border security is of paramount importance.  The influx of immigrants who don’t enter the country in an authorized way puts pressure on education, health care, and social benefits systems.  Immigrants are happy to perform physically challenging, low-paying jobs that are essential to our economy.  And what should we do with immigrants who crossed the border illegally but have worked here for years and whose children were born here?

So it is perhaps not surprising — in fact, it’s entirely predictable — that the incredibly important immigration issue manages to encompass much of what is appalling about the current sorry state of American government:  completely politicized yet frozen in place, featuring a legislative branch that is seemingly incapable of acting despite the obvious need for action and a President who can’t lead or forge a compromise and so acts unilaterally, and infused with finger-pointing, cringing political correctness and demagoguery that seems to preclude both rational discussion and reasonable compromise.

President Obama’s decision yesterday to issue sweeping executive orders on immigration issues — orders that will establish new programs that will change the legal status of millions of immigrants, change deportation practices, and end other programs — don’t help matters because they just highlight the politicization of this important issue.  President Obama has previously said, correctly I think, that changing immigration laws and policies through unilateral executive orders would be “very difficult to defend legally.”  The President also earlier had made the decision to defer any action on immigration until after the election, an approach that obviously was calculated to help Senate Democrats up for reelection.  In view of that decision, arguments that unilateral action is urgently needed now ring awfully hollow.

I’m sure that President Obama’s supporters will argue that issuing executive orders of dubious constitutionality is justified here because it will goad Congress into taking action that should have been taken long ago.  That argument is like saying that the behavior of the bully in A Christmas Story was justified because it ultimately provoked Ralphie into standing up for himself.  I’m not buying that, either.  America is supposed to be a constitutional form of government where the executive branch and legislative branch both respect and honor the limitations on their powers.  The fact that Congress has dropped the ball doesn’t excuse the President’s overstepping of his constitutional authority.

I’m not trying to excuse Congress’ leaden inactivity on developing a comprehensive set of immigration reforms or side with the anti-immigration fear-mongers, but I think President Obama’s decision to issue these executive orders is a mistake that will only make it much more difficult to address a crucial issue in the correct, constitutional way.  Brace yourself, because the shrill demagoguery on all sides is about to increase in pitch and volume.

Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

Functional Disenfranchisement

According to an AP story, President Obama has decided to refrain from issuing any executive orders on immigration until after the election.  The sources for the story are “two White House officials” who probably are floating the idea as a kind of trial balloon.

The President had promised immigration advocates that he would take action by the end of the summer, so they are disappointed and angry about the President’s decision.  The decision is expected to help certain “vulnerable” Democratic Senators who are facing tough reelection campaigns this year.  The story reports that the officials said that the President “concluded that circumventing Congress through executive actions on immigration during the campaign would politicize the issue and hurt future efforts to pass a broad overhaul.”  At the same time, the President apparently says he will take executive action, without any congressional involvement, by the end of the year.

Does the President really expect anyone to believe that his decision is an attempt to avoid politicizing the issue?  That depiction of his motives is laughably false.  It’s obvious that the contrary is true:  the President recognizes that immigration is a hot-button issue, and issuing aggressive executive orders is just going to hurt the Democrats who — unlike the President — are facing the voters this November.  The effect of the delay in any action by the President is entirely political; it will avoid anyone being held accountable if the voters happen to disagree with whatever edicts the President issues.

We’ve heard lots of talk about people being disenfranchised by policies, for example, that limit early voting.  This decision is the functional equivalent of disenfranchisement; it’s just a more duplicitous approach.  Wait until after an election to protect incumbents, then have a lame-duck President issue executive orders and hope that voters are focused on some other issues by the time the 2016 election rolls around.  Reliance on executive orders of dubious constitutionality to make huge changes to federal law and practices is distorting the political process, encouraging Congress to do nothing except raise more campaign funds, and stripping us of our ability to influence national policy through our votes.

Mr. President, you’re not fooling me, and I doubt that you’re fooling anyone else.  If you are going to make huge changes to immigration policy, at least have the guts and fairness to do so before the election, so voters can have their say about your actions.

The Costs Of A Porous Border

We’re learning more about the costs — direct and indirect — of the mass influx of unaccompanied minors and other illegal immigrants across our southwestern border, and the news is becoming more and more concerning.

At a closed-door briefing with members of Congress earlier this week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson disclosed some of the direct costs.   According to members of Congress who attended, Johnson said the federal government is spending between $250 and $1,000 per day, per child, to house and feed the minors.  When you are talking about more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors already in the country and needing assistance — and U.S. officials predicting that another 30,000 will cross the border by September — you don’t need a calculator to see that the ongoing and future costs are enormous.

As everyone knows, our federal government is cash-strapped.  Some people may say we’ve been racking up huge budget deficits for years, and these costs will add just a little bit more to those deficits.  That reaction ignores the reality of our financial situation.  Every dollar of our deficit is financed through the issuance of U.S. government bonds and notes.  Do we really want to have to issue more bonds and notes to pay for these services, and pledge the full faith and credit of our country for them?  With our current budget situation, the inescapable reality is that we will be borrowing more in the future to pay the interest on these bonds and notes — which means that we’ll be paying directly out of pocket for our border problems for years to come.

There are indirect costs as well.  The U.S. government can’t house all of these minors on military bases, and already we’re seeing governors and mayors raising questions about whether these minors are coming to their states and communities — where they will need more housing, and food, and medical care, and attention.  Who will pay for it?  The NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon is in full swing.  Pennsylvania’s governor has expressed concern about whether the illegal immigrants have infectious diseases, says there should be enough room on military bases in Texas and Arizona to house them, and wonders how he will pay for the needed services if they are sent to Pennsylvania.  Officials in other states are saying that the federal government has resettled some of the immigrants in their states without providing adequate notice to local authorities.  And officials in cities as far away from the border as New Bedford, Massachusetts are concerned that an influx of impoverished, non-English-speaking immigrants will further strain governmental and school budgets that are already stretched to the breaking point.

Massachusetts sheriff recently said, “we are all border states now.”  There’s some truth to that.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that our porous border is creating huge problems for communities and states across the country.  As we figure out how to deal with these unaccompanied minors, we also need to pay attention to the root cause of the problem — a border that sometimes seems to be little more than a line on a map.  We can’t afford to pay $250 or $1,000 a day to care for every child that crosses illegally into our country, and we also can’t afford the security risks of a border that permits them (and adults, too) to do so.  The Obama Administration and Congress need to figure out how to close that border and do it before the costs and consequences become overwhelming.

The CDC And The Mass Breakdown Of Governmental Competence

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability.  Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.

That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling.  In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria.  In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.  The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards.  The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.

Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic.  But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue:  a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies.  In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country.  And those are just a few of the stories.

For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties.  The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation:  is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do?  In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question. 

The President And The Pool Cue

Tuesday night President Obama was in Denver and decided to stop in at a brew pub, have a beer, and shoot pool with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.  Photos of the President brandishing a pool cue and lining up a shot are all over the internet.

The President’s pool hall visit has received a lot of criticism.  Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC and a Democratic Representative from Texas, Henry Cuellar, whose district is on the Mexican border, questioned why the President was shooting pool and drinking beer rather than going down to visit the border and address the flood of unaccompanied minors who are crossing into the U.S.  The Congressman called the President’s actions bizarre and said that if he had time to shoot pool and drink beer, he should have made time to visit the border when he came to Texas for fundraisers.

This incident captures why it would suck to be the President in the modern media world.  You can criticize the President for his administration’s handling of the immigration issue, and you can question, as I have, why his proposal to deal with the influx of minors doesn’t address securing the porous border that allowed the kids to cross in the first place.  But are we really to the point where we’re arguing about the imagery of the President shooting pool as opposed to the substance of his approach?  If, instead of shooting pool and drinking a beer, the President was photographed reading a book, or visiting a museum, would we hear the same hue and cry?  I doubt it.

We see so much of the airbrushed, sanitized, carefully crafted politicians who are afraid to say and do anything real because they might be criticized.  This incident shows why.  I might disagree with President Obama’s policies on many things, including immigration, but I’ll defend his right to pick up a cue, line up a shot on the eight ball, and channel his inner Minnesota Fats now and then.  Our fixation on photo ops is cheapening our politics.