The Aquarius is seeking asylum for Libyan migrants in Italy—but nationalist Northern League refuses entry

The unhappy plight of a ship in the Mediterranean raises important questions for European and American policymakers. That ship is Aquarius, operated by the non-governmental organization Medecin San Frontieres. It contains more than 600 asylum seekers picked up from the coast of Libya. The ship’s requests to dock in Rome and Valletta have been denied by the Italian government.

Although the Italian Coast Guard appears ready to supply the ship with food and water, government authorities—under the direction of interior minister Matteo Salvini, one of the country’s two de facto leaders and a member of the right-wing Northern League—are adamant that Aquarius will not dock in an Italian port. Spain has offered the ship safe harbor, and the mayors of several Italian port cities have said they will defy the government’s decision, but by late Monday it was not clear where the boat would go.

Salvini’s European critics have labeled him a heartless bigot for refusing entry to a boat full of asylum seekers, many of whom are likely victims of persecution and abuse. Of course, many of these critics hail from central and northern European nations that have not been subjected to waves of North African immigrants, as the southern shores of Italy have been. Salvini makes a cogent argument, moreover: As long as Italy keeps accepting boatloads of migrants claiming to be fleeing persecution, it will entice more and more people, truly or falsely seeking asylum, to make the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean. The belief that such frequently fatal odysseys should be discouraged is not obviously wrong. Nor is it easy to blame a nation for insisting that its borders have some meaning.

The United States is dealing with in essence the same problem, with migrants from Central and South America crossing the border largely at will into the United States. As in southern Italy, the problem of mass illegal immigration has generated social anxieties and political problems that elite commentators in New York and Washington have trouble appreciating. In both cases, popularly elected politicians have responded to those anxieties. In the case of North America, the Trump administration has implemented a policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents. “If you are caught smuggling a child,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last month, “then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” The aim is to dissuade bogus asylum claims and discourage dangerous border crossings, though the results are so far unclear.

In both cases, liberals and progressives have reacted with white-hot rage. From what we’ve been able to discern, their criticisms have amounted to renewed accusations that the Italian government and American administration are peopled by racists and xenophobes, bent on punishing vulnerable migrants for the crime of seeking freedom and a better life.

Those criticisms may be sound, but on their own they fail to appreciate—or even acknowledge—the real difficulties in which the Italian and American governments find themselves. Citizens of sovereign nations have a reasonable expectation that their societies will not be quickly transformed by immigrant populations. This expectation may offend the sensibilities of right-thinking commentators, but it is a fact at all times and places. The Italian and American governments are attempting to respond to that expectation by disincentivizing immigration—that is, by making it clear that easy entry is not a sure thing.

The Australian model may be instructive. The country several years ago established offshore detention facilities on the island territories of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to process the claims of asylum applicants who come to Australia by boat. Human rights activists enthusiastically opposed the centers and challenged them in court, and the Papua New Guinea center has since been decommissioned. The Nauru center is still operative. Whatever the demerits of the centers, they were a good-faith attempt on the part of the Australian government to resist and disincentivize undeserving asylum claims while at the same time treating asylum applicants with decency and humaneness.

There are no easy answers on this subject, and the policies of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are open to fair criticisms. But substantive criticisms, so far, have been few. If progressives in America no longer believe in borders, they should say so. If they have a better way of limiting illegal immigration, they should explain what it is. Merely fulminating at the administration only convinces its supporters that its critics are irrational and its policies are sound.

The great need is for reasoned debate and workable solutions. We have enough vitriol already.

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