Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Psychology of Illegal Immigration

The written rules aren’t what matters.

I once worked for a company whose employee handbook laid out very specific rules governing attendance.  Excessive tardiness and excessive absences were not to be tolerated.  The handbook contained the language you’d expect to see about what might become of those who broke the rules—words such as, “Violators may be subject to disciplinary action up to and possibly including termination of their employment.”  Scary stuff.  So, having read that, employees showed up every day and on time, right?  Wrong.  The supervisor in my department wanted to be popular, and let such matters slide.  Predictably, certain people dragged in when they felt like it, if they felt like it.  They were least likely to feel like it just before or just after a weekend.  As a consequence, we were chronically short-staffed on Fridays and Mondays.

This is the difference between a written rule and an actual rule.  The written rule is relevant only if it’s enforced, at which point—and only at that point—it becomes an actual rule.  Conversely, sometimes enforcers write their own rules.  How many times have you had a boss who simply wanted it done his way or her way, even if those wishes reflected no company rule or policy?  The boss’ rule may have been unwritten, but the boss was enforcing it, so that made it a rule just the same.  Chances are you followed it.

This is a basic point of human psychology, which quite literally is taught in Psychology 101, or at least it was in the college class I took.  As a general principle, people tend to meet the expectations placed upon them—the actual expectations, not the written ones.  The expectations are defined entirely by examining which behaviors are punished, which are tolerated, and which are rewarded. You can’t learn this by reading the rule book, but only by looking at what the bosses actually do.

This principle entirely explains what is going on at our southern border. 

The Obama administration would have you believe otherwise.  On Tuesday Homeland Security boss Jeh Johnson addressed a packed Congressional committee hearing.  Republicans told him that lax immigration enforcement—particularly DACA, the president’s executive order allowing the children of certain undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation “temporarily”—has led to the crisis.  The truth of this is so blindingly obvious that the statement clearly wasn’t an attempt to get information, just to score political points.  So naturally, Johnson denied it.  He pointed out that DACA applies only to children whose parents brought them here, and who have lived here for at least seven years.  “When you’re apprehended at the border, regardless of age, you’re a priority for removal.”

But while denying out of one side of his mouth that immigration policies are to blame, out of the other he conceded some key facts.  “Priority for removal” notwithstanding, no children have been sent back.  For that, Johnson blamed a 2008 law that he says prevents their removal pending a hearing on their cases.  Obviously, this treatment has sent out no shockwaves of discouragement and disappointment to other migrants contemplating the trip.

Johnson also admitted that confusion about what the rules really say and whether the authorities will actually enforce them has played into this, but he denied that this confusion was in any way the fault of our government.  He complained that human smugglers are giving the migrants “disinformation” that smuggled children will be allowed to stay in the country.

It’s only disinformation if it isn’t true.  And the truth is not a philosophical or theoretical matter.  It’s very practical.  In practical terms, no one has been deported, and we’re putting entire families on planes and buses and sending them into the interior of the country on the honor systemyou know, that system which extends a level of trust to people who you believe will follow the rules.  Since these migrants have already demonstrated their level of respect for our laws, take a good guess as to how many of them immigration authorities will ever see again.  You'll have to guess, because the administration isn't saying.  And what does that tell you?  Have you ever known a politician to withhold favorable news?  The migrants, who paid smugglers $3,000 to $4,000 to place them into the welcoming arms of waiting border agents, so far have gotten their money’s worth.  

The rules say this kind of thing is illegal.  But let’s see what the reality is.  12,000,000 undocumented immigrants now live here.  They stand as a living testament to the fact that once you’ve made it into the interior, odds are you’re golden.  This is because most of them, barring the commission of violent crime (although we regularly release criminals, too, up to and including those guilty of murder), are not “priorities for enforcement.”  Not even the staunchest opponents of illegal immigration believe significant numbers of them will ever face deportation, and few are calling for that. 

Until two years ago, the children of such migrants at least technically faced such a threat.  At the time their parents crossed the border, if anyone had suggested that any leniency might be in store for their children, this would have been “disinformation.”  But guess what?  They’re still here.  That’s because the practical reality turned out to be far different from the legal one. 

And then there are these two even bigger and more potent realities:  America is a big-hearted nation, and there are strong political forces here fighting for the migrants.  Often they win.  They’re winning now, and have been for some time.

Even so, we still have not arrived at the point where an undocumented family or child can absolutely count on never facing deportation.  But the odds in their favor are pretty good and getting better all the time.  If you were living in a bad place and had such a good shot of improving your family’s life, would you take it?

The answer can be found in that Psychology 101 class.

But this administration is hoping you didn’t take that class.  It prefers you to be ignorant, uninformed and misled on this issue.  That is why it’s denying the obvious truths now.  That’s why it’s refusing to tell you how many immigrants it’s put on planes and buses into the interior of the country.  That’s why it’s refusing to tell you how many of them have checked in with immigration authorities upon arrival as they were instructed to do.  It’s not that the administration feels you can’t handle the truth.  It's that the administration feels it might not be able to handle your handling of the truth, if the unvarnished facts rub you the wrong way and you decide to express your displeasure at the ballot box.  That wouldn't do.  The president hasn’t yet figured out how to bypass an election.

Johnson did make one apology, though.  He says he’s sorry his department flooded Arizona with so many immigrants without saying diddly squat about it to our state government.  The apology might even have come across as sincere if he’d revealed how many immigrants his department sent.  You are not allowed to know that.

I touched earlier this week on the president’s decision to bypass Congress and rule by executive order.  He and his supporters have justified this strategy by pointing to Congress’ inaction.  But this inaction was not a failure.  It was a decision.  Congress chose not to enact the president’s second term agenda.  But the president had an answer for that.  He simply took the powers delegated to Congress under the constitution onto himself. 

Now that presidential strategy is about to get a challenge.  House Speaker John Boehner has announced his intention to sue the president for violating the separation of powers. 

As I’ve made clear in recent posts, I am not a fan of this president.  But such a lawsuit is not the way to go.  The Constitution lays out a very clear procedure for responding to a president accused of abusing his powers.  This isn’t it.  But the door to impeachment is closed to the president’s opponents for now.  For one, although it seems clear to some that the president has exceeded his authority, the question of whether any of his actions rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” as contemplated under the constitution is highly debatable.  After all, he didn’t order a break-in, lead a cover-up, or lie under oath about anything.  Even if the GOP were to get an impeachment through the House, the president’s job would then be in the hands of the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it would be quite safe.  So it’s not going to happen.  The chances of a lawsuit accomplishing anything significant probably are remote at best.  But if filed in advance of the mid-term Congressional elections, the lawsuit certainly would make a statement and perhaps energize GOP voters, although Boehner denies that’s what he’s trying to do.

Meanwhile, as our leaders continue to spin, obfuscate, deny, point fingers and bicker, the southern border stands open.  One of the questions Johnson got from Congress Tuesday was whether he’d call for sending in the National Guard.  He responded that he wouldn’t rule it out.  But a deputy explained that security is not the issue.  The Military Times quoted Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello as saying, “It’s not a challenge to arrest people who come as children or families with children.  Many illegal border-crossers don’t try to elude border agents and quickly surrender once they encounter agents.”

They’re not coming here to elude anything.  They’re coming here to stay and believe their chances are excellent.  Johnson told Congress that an important strategy of his will be to try to disabuse these poor misled migrants of their silly notions that our government might allow them to remain.  “What is critical is we correct the record, we straighten the misperceptions,” The Blaze quoted him as saying.

But this begs the question:  What misperceptions?  Correct the record in what way?  What could he possibly say that would convince migrants that the whole idea of coming here illegally and getting to stay is hopeless?  Yesterday Johnson brought his roadshow to Nogales (for the benefit of those not living in this area, it's a big border city south of Tucson).  He repeated his claim that illegal immigrants can’t expect a free pass.  That statement is false to the point of dishonesty, as is his assertion that current policy is not to blame for encouraging the migration.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Ask the immigrants.  The Arizona Daily Star did.  It spoke to one woman who brought her two young children across.  We’ve all been hearing how gang violence is “forcing” people to leave.  This woman’s problem was that life in Guatemala was hard, and her husband had left her.  The migrant’s coyote robbed her of her last peso before she made contact with Border Patrol.  A short time later, there she was standing at a Greyhound station with bus tickets in hand.  

Mr. Johnson, how, precisely, is this not a “free pass?”  And if you’re so sure it’s not, then why do you steadfastly refuse to say how many bus and plane rides you’ve handed out, and how many of the migrants have checked in with immigration officials at their destination as they’ve been ordered to do?

The Star reported that immigrants are coming because they believe they’ll get a bus ticket if they bring a kid.  In what way, Mr. Johnson, is that notion a “misconception?”  In his Nogales speech yesterday, Johnson warned migrants that the journey into America was long, hot, and unsafe.  But the Star reports that migrants have begun to simply walk up to border agents at ports of entry to present themselves.  That’s how sure they are of the reception they’ll get.  And they’re getting it.

See?  Pyschology 101.  At this point, I’d credit my psychology professor with knowing what he was talking about. 

The Obama administration, not so much.


Other posts related to this topic and other political matters can be found here.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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