Steve Hilton: On immigration, America’s incompetent elite fiddles while the border burns

Immigration has always been the most inflammatory of political issues. We all have strong feelings. Mine are shaped by the fact that I’m an immigrant twice over.

My parents fled communism in Hungary and were welcomed by Britain, where I was born and raised. And now here I am in America, making a new home for our family since we moved here in 2012. It’s impossible for me to be anything other than pro-immigration.

Let me add a few more elements of personal context. Soon after moving to the U.S., I came back from a short foreign trip and was detained at one of America’s busiest airports. There was a technical problem with my passport. This arose from the fact that the last time I had crossed the border, I had been part of the group traveling with my former boss, the United Kingdom’s then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

I was held without my passport in a room alongside all the others who had been detained, yelled at and treated with rudeness and contempt by border officials. I remember thinking: if this is terrifying for me, with all my advantages, imagine how frightening it must be for the other people here.

And then another, much more frightening occasion: returning from a family trip, it turned out that my young son’s new passport didn’t include his visa – it was inside his old passport. Again: we were detained at the border by aggressive and needlessly rude border officials. While I looked after my other son, the one whose documents were at issue was separated from my wife while she dealt with the situation. His terrified cries were simply unbearable.

Our ordeal lasted roughly 45 minutes. It must have been four or five years ago. And yet we still remember it as one of the most traumatic experiences we have been through. And again: that was us, with all our advantages, our confidence and ability to confront and reason with bureaucrats.

So when I think of the political arguments about immigration this week I think of them in very personal terms. I wouldn’t be here if Britain and America hadn’t welcomed me. I’ve seen and heard the terrified cries of a child separated from his parents.

Yes, there are big and important issues – complex and difficult issues – in the immigration debate. But in the end, these grand policy debates are about people, their lives and their experiences.

Government, as it has gotten so big and centralized and bureaucratic (just like so many corporations) is hopeless at remembering the people. People are treated like the inputs and outputs of a giant machine; numbers on a spreadsheet.

That’s why I wrote my book “More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First” a few years ago. I wanted to make the argument that the size and scale and complexity of the systems we have built to manage the modern world are starting to be counterproductive. The pursuit of “efficiency” is sacrificing humanity.

Immigration is perhaps one of the toughest tests of these principles. How do we make immigration policy more human?

Some say that if you basically didn’t have an immigration policy, if you let everyone into your country, if you effectively abolished your borders, then you would avoid the problems of inhuman treatment at the border.

That’s true as far as the actual border is concerned – but think of how inhuman an “open borders” policy is in other ways.

There are over 60 million refugees in the world today, victims of horrendous conflicts in places like Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan. An open borders asylum policy would mean offering asylum to the ones that managed to make it here – survival of the fittest – without taking real need into consideration. Isn’t that inhuman?

An open border would mean a much higher number of workers coming to America. As Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has said, that certainly helps them, but it “would make everybody in America poorer – you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state. ...What right wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs. You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? ... You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?”

An open border would mean a much higher number of people coming to America who don’t speak English. President Obama thought that was a social problem, talking about his “patriotic resentment” at seeing Mexican flags at pro-immigration demonstrations, making clear that he himself was not immune to “nativist sentiment,” as he put it: “When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

Open borders would also mean many more people coming to America who would be dependent on public services, like those provided by schools and hospitals. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., understood the problem, raging in the mid-1990s about the proportion of California’s health budget being spent on the births of illegal immigrants’ babies.

And of course, an open borders policy would make it impossible for anyone to state with confidence that only law-abiding people would cross the border. In any random and uncontrolled situation like that, it’s reasonable to assume that you would end up with the best and worst of humanity.

Included in that number will be some truly horrendous criminals. Just ask Kate Steinle’s family about the humanity of that. We can argue forever about the exact proportion of criminals among the law-abiding, but frankly, isn’t one too many? Don’t we have enough crime in America without importing it?

On a number of levels, then, it is evident that an open borders policy is inhuman.

Next question: anything other than open borders requires some kind of border control. And this is where it gets hard, and complicated. What’s your policy – do you have a numerical target? Do you apply economic tests? Humanitarian tests? What are they? How do you implement them? What’s the impact of your policy on other countries? How much does it cost?

It seems to me that it’s because they don’t want to answer these difficult questions – because any answer at all (any border control at all) means turning some people away – that the Democrats have made their sudden and remarkable shift to an extreme open-borders position. They have abandoned the reasonable attempts to wrestle with these complicated issues that we saw in the past from President Clinton, Sen. Feinstein, President Obama and Sen. Sanders.

Their overnight conversion to open borders is not a sign of Democrats’ humanity. It’s a sign of their political cowardice, and a sign that their brains have turned to mush.

For the rest of us – who care about the humane design and implementation of policy in all areas – that means some clear thinking is required on immigration. And that has been sadly lacking in our political elites these last few years. Immigration policy has been a complete mess, for a long time.

Let’s set out some clear principles:

1. As a sovereign nation, America has the right to welcome – and turn away – whoever it chooses.

2. If we care about the rule of law (and remember that President Trump’s critics constantly lambast him for allegedly undermining it), then the right level of illegal immigration is zero.

3. All immigration should be handled speedily, humanely and firmly.

4. America should offer refuge to those fleeing persecution, and should welcome those who want to contribute to our economy and society. But this cannot be without limit.

5. A limit, once set, must be enforced. The public’s consent for immigration depends on the government’s control of immigration.

I’ve been living in the United States for six years, through two presidential campaigns and now four congressional election campaigns. I don’t recall any such sober and serious debate on immigration. Instead, we get insults flung at anyone who raises any questions at all.

Here are some specific actions that flow from the principles outlined above.

It is obvious that America’s southern border is massively under-enforced and under-resourced. A proper border wall, as President Trump has repeatedly called for, would help stop the dangerous and unauthorized crossings and the consequences we have been seeing in recent days.

Zero tolerance for illegal immigration is clearly the right policy. Anything else undermines the rule of law. But zero tolerance has to be backed up by maximum competence. To make that happen we need a major increase in the capacity of our border authorities so they can handle immigration and asylum claims in a speedy, humane and firm way.

The flow of migrants – whether for humanitarian or economic reasons – is one of the greatest problems of our age. It is upending politics right across the world. We need a transformation in the scale of our response.

Here in America, we should consider opening asylum application centers in the countries where refugees are coming from, so they don’t need to make the hazardous journey to the U.S. border. In addition, we should insist that asylum-seekers make their claim in the first country they come to.

In the short term, President Trump should tell members of his team to get their act together. I have been totally shocked at the sheer incompetence of senior administration officials this week.

Particularly egregious is the performance of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. He was previously Homeland Security secretary – he knew the zero tolerance policy was coming. He should have made sure the bureaucracy was better prepared. He has a lot to answer for.

Also shocking: the performance of Democratic congressional leaders – Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. They have made it plain this week that their priority is scoring political points, not solving problems.

The whole political establishment has let America down. Our incompetent elites are fiddling while the border burns. Let’s hope they are shamed into bringing real change, not just crisis management.

We’ll be debating all this on Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT on “The Next Revolution” on Fox News Channel with a fantastic line-up, including Tammy Bruce. Hope you can join us!