Republicans (who call themselves “conservatives” although recently most of them seem more like right-wing radicals to me) accuse Democrats of advocating for “completely open borders”, which they say would be the end of the United States as we know it. Since we Democrats are so obviously crazy, it is their patriotic duty to oppose us!
This is a travesty. I don’t know any mature adults – of any political persuasion – who advocate for completely open borders. So instead of this distortion, let us explore what problems we have with our borders as a nation, what changes might be desirable, and how to make progress on these issues.
- We have 13 million undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants in the USA
- It is physically impossible to deport them all, and if we did, our economy would be severely damaged
- Having this large an undocumented population undermines the general respect for law and order
- The countries from which most of these people have come are unable to absorb them back
- The US immigration rules are such that most people originating in these countries will never be eligible for legal immigration. If they were to apply, they would join a 20-year waiting list
These factors combine in ways that make it very hard to make any progress.
We are country of immigrants
The United States is a nation built almost entirely on immigration. I am a first generation immigrant – a moved here from Denmark, when I was 30 years old. My wife’s family came here from England about 10 generations ago on one branch with another arriving from Luxembourg about 4 generations ago.
Some came because they lived in poverty or other hardship, and they saw hope of a better future here. Others – like me – were comfortable where they were, but went out in search of adventure.
We want to allow for some immigration to continue; the flow of fresh ideas that immigrants bring, is a great source of innovation, creativity and in the long run prosperity.
On the other hand, we want to maintain some control over the volume of immigration, so that we are not swamped with new people faster than our economy and our culture can absorb them.
We also want to honor some ethical imperatives for the welfare of human beings. Firstly, our nation has an obligation to look after the welfare of our own people. If we have many unemployed low-skill workers, we should probably not be allowing a lot of poor, poorly educated Central Americans in to further depress their chances of employment. Second, if people are fleeing war zones (maybe in areas where we have been at least partially responsible for the instability), we should be willing to – along with other nations – take our share of those whose very survival depends of them getting to a safe place. And thirdly, if we have a border to a country riddled with dire poverty, we should try to find ways to help alleviate this poverty, so that the people there can make a living there and not have a strong incentive to travel on dangerous routes and sneak across our border to live in the shadows here.
That third item is important. One of the motivations for NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – was to create good jobs in Mexico. And it did work to a certain degree.
Where we ought to try to get to
We want to have a fairly free movement for highly educated people who are so good at their job, that they command a premium in the job market. Doctors, engineers, scientists, successful artists, winning athletes. The free flow of these people – who are likely to want to go back and forth between several countries – is a benefit for all the countries that they touch.
We also want to allow people in certain professions where we have a shortage of trained people to come in and join in our labor market, so long as they don’t flood it and depress the wages for our own citizens with similar skills. Nurses, toolmakers, even sheepherders. In doing so, we need to be careful not to drain the countries where they are coming from of all their talent, leaving them unable to make progress.
Finally, we want to allow families to come together. The nurse, who came here from the Philippines should be able to bring her husband and children, so long as she can earn enough to support them. The young man who went to live in France for a few years, should be able to bring in the wife he married during that time.
The procedures for these differently motivated flows should be fair, and workable. It is ridiculous to have 20 year waiting lists for Mexicans and Indians, while people from Britain in similar circumstances can be admitted in less than 2 years.
And to incentivize people to follow the proper procedures, we should block those that do not qualify from entering and expel those that broke the rules and overstayed their visitor visas or snuck in across the border.
Why is it so hard to clean up this mess?
President Trump and his helpers claim that we can fix most of our problem with undocumented immigrants by building a wall along the Southern border. This will not work for several reasons:
- It addresses only immigration from Mexico. While it is true that a large proportion of undocumented immigrants currently in the USA are of Mexican or Central American origin, the net immigration from Mexico has not only stopped in recent years, but to some degree been reversed. Partially because of NAFTA, partly because under Obama the enforcement actually got stricter. Today most illegal border crossings are people from Honduras and Guatemala, who really have a good case for asylum.
- Most undocumented immigrant entered legally at a port of entry on a tourist visa, and just “forgot” to leave. A border wall does not address this. At all.
One of the problems is that the system of administrators and judges that are supposed to process asylum seekers as well as people apprehended at the border is so dramatically understaffed, that anyone that has access to a lawyer and insists on being treated by the book faces an 18-24 month wait time for a court date. In the mean time they have to be either locked up at great expense or released in the US and given some assistance while they wait. By the time the court is ready for them, they have gotten themselves connected to the underground support system. If we could get new arrivals to their first court hearing in 3-5 days, this would not happen. And we would save a ton of money.
Another problem, is that large business sectors employ the undocumented at sub-minimum wage. If we could stop this (by imposing such heavy fines on these law-breaking employers that it would not be worth the risk of getting caught), the pull factor that draws these people across the border would fade away.
To really enforce the rules that allow people to live for years in the undocumented underworld, we need to be able to determine who is here legally and who is not. Our population is so diverse, that you cannot tell by looks or speech/language. We need to have a national ID card that tells us who is a citizen, who is a permanent resident, and who is a student or a guest worker. And whoever is none of these can be held until their status can be determined. The 1986 immigration reform bill anticipated the introduction of such an ID card, but it was too controversial to pass Congress.
I do not understand why this is such a wedge issue. Most people from both parties should be able to agree on many initiatives that would greatly diminish this problem.