This essay originally appeared on the op-ed page of The Washington Post, where the author has a column and was also posted on The American Prospect.
The commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall have thrust into the public spotlight the border guard who ordered the gates opened. The subject of both a new German-language book and film, one-time Stasi Lt. Col. Harald Jäger has recounted why he defied his orders. And his story couldn’t be more relevant to the debate consuming our own nation.
On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, prompted by an erroneous announcement from an East German Politburo spokesman that his compatriots would be free to cross the border, thousands of East Berliners flocked to the checkpoint Jäger supervised. His superiors told him to keep the gates closed, though he could let a few people through, provided he marked the passports of those he determined were activists and blocked their re-entry when they came back.
When one such young couple returned from the West, going home to their small children, Jäger saw that while the wife could re-enter, her husband’s passport had been stamped, forbidding his return. Jäger faced a choice. “My responsibility was clear — enforce the law and split the couple,” he recalled to the Financial Times. “But at that moment it became so clear to me… the stupidity, the lack of humanity. I finally said to myself, ‘Kiss my arse. Now I will do what I think is right.’” He let the couple in. Then he commanded the guards to throw open the gates. The rest is history — and a lesson to a nation now embroiled in a different, but not that different — contest between the imperatives of custom and law, as some construe it, and those of keeping families together.
Of the thousands of words written lately on President Obama’s impending order to exempt some undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, most have dealt with the politics of the issue, not the humanity behind it. What the media have largely failed to emphasize is that Obama’s order will be shaped almost entirely by the imperative of keeping parents with their children. The administration is planning to allow the undocumented parents of children born here (and who are, thus, US citizens) to stay and receive work permits. Unfortunately, this will not include parents of the “dreamers” who are already protected by executive order from deportation.
What the pundits have tended to overlook, as well, is the humanity behind Obama’s apparent willingness to act without congressional approval. Every year since Obama became president, the government has deported roughly 400,000 undocumented immigrants, with little regard to whether they’ve broken any law save crossing the border without papers or overstaying their visas — or whether their kids are wondering where their parents have gone. On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center reported that in 2012, some 13 percent of schoolchildren in both Texas and California had at least one undocumented parent. That’s a lot of parents, a lot of kids.
It’s not as if Obama hasn’t waited for Congress to address the immigration conundrum. Nearly 18 months ago, a bipartisan majority of 68 senators passed an Obama-backed bill that would have significantly augmented our border security forces and provided a long and tortuous pathway to legalization for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The Republican-controlled House refused to take up the bill, however, though it likely would have passed. Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders declined to risk the ire of the nativists in their ranks.
So long as Republicans — many of them from heavily gerrymandered districts with few Latino voters — continue to control the House, that chamber isn’t likely to enact any serious immigration reform. It is likely, however, that the House will stay in Republican hands until at least the first election following the next decennial redistricting — that is, until 2023. Should the wave of deportations without regard to family status continue until then, the number of broken families could easily rise into the millions.
Obama has no doubt calculated the political risks and advantages of acting alone; he could be sued for political malpractice if he didn’t. He believes, rightly, that the president has the authority to direct immigration officials to exempt particular groups from detention and deportation. But beyond the political and legal calculations are those that are simply human.
None of this is to equate the legitimacy of our laws and policies to those of the late, unlamented East Germany. But even democracies can, and not infrequently do, violate the most elemental human rights. Stripping children of their parents is such a violation. It’s time — past time — to stop the stupidity, the lack of humanity.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.