The complex world of simplification

Like most issues, the immigration issue in America looks simple. It's worth looking more closely.


The sweep of news – from Iraq to Ukraine; Washington, D.C., to Ferguson, Mo. – tells us about conflicts and issues in categorical terms. We learn about protesters, police, Yazidis, Ukrainians, conservatives, liberals. That can’t be helped. In trying to make sense of the world, we roll up the news into trends, conflicts, groups, nations.

Unrolling is just as important, however. Unrolling explodes stereotypes. Every issue has ifs, ands, and buts. Every crowd is a mosaic of individuals thinking different thoughts, living different lives, just happening to come together at one moment.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), you’ll meet US district Judge Robert Brack in Las Cruces, N.M. Through his eyes, you’ll see the immigration issue writ both large and small. That’s important in a political atmosphere where left, right, and center have strong opinions about what should be done, where numbers and nationalities are bandied about and new laws and better barriers proposed. Judge Brack is the busiest jurist in the nation when it comes to immigration. More than perhaps any other person in public service, he can see the big picture. Mostly, however, he sees individuals with individual lives, families, and problems.

Our cover story is not intended to change your mind about immigration enforcement. It is simply showing the human dimension of the thousands who are illegally crossing the border and the equally human dimension of those enforcing the law being broken. As the good judge says when he sentences an otherwise solid noncitizen who faces deportation to Mexico and being physically cut off from his family and ailing wife in the United States: “I’m not very happy to be the face of a system that creates such results.” 

A word about our writer: For the past seven years, Tom Peter has reported from some of the most dangerous places on the planet: Afghanistan, Iraq, northern Syria. His recent focus has been the US-Mexican border. These are complex problems. As Tom has come to see it, Americans are prone to oversimplifying problems and concocting ready-made solutions. He recalls numerous conversations with diplomats and military officers in places like Iraq who would observe that “it seems pretty simple” what should be done. But reengineering a society is never simple. The human factor gets in the way, as attempts to curb illegal immigration show.

Criminalization of illegal entry has supplanted the longstanding practice of shipping migrants home when caught. This new policy has a simple intent: to send a message that will deter would-be migrants. Has it done so? That depends on the individual. The threat of prison time might filter back to a village in Central America. It might stop some from hazarding the journey. Others might still believe the risk is worth taking. Even those deterred today might reconsider if economic, family, or safety issues become urgent needs. 

People are complicated. News simplifies complication. That works as long as we don’t forget to look at all those human pieces that make up life’s mosaic.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at

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