A compassionate people would demand that these kids be given usable options for applying for asylum in their home countries so that they wouldn’t have to undertake a dangerous journey with “coyotes” — human smugglers mixed up in the drug trade.

Instead, America is arguably experiencing its worst spasm of nativism since the early 20th Century. Then, magazines such as Judge ran cartoons depicting a Statue of Liberty with a Chinese face welcoming crime-prone and diseased immigrants. Now, protesters in towns like Murrieta, Calif., are turning away buses carrying these kids to shelters, accusing them of being scabies-infected lawbreakers.

But such nativism will ultimately run into what University of California’s John S.W. Park calls America’s “Huckleberry Finn Problem.” Slavery unraveled when, like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Americans couldn’t bear to enforce anti-fugitive laws preventing blacks from fleeing to freedom. “Inflicting the law became hard,” notes Park, “when there was so much evidence of common humanity.”

The same is happening now. There is no movement of private citizens turning in illegals, but sanctuary cities are cropping up offering safe haven, also what happened during slavery. Such responses reflect this core intuition: Laws requiring the government to do what private citizens won’t are wrong, especially in a country founded on the notion that a government’s powers can’t exceed those of its people.