America’s Dumb Immigration Debate
The good thing about writing on debates in America is that they tend to be at a higher level than debates in most other parts of the world. There are notable exceptions to this, though. Global warming is one of them – thanks to the far right’s pigheaded denial, against overwhelming scientific evidence and expertise, that manmade climate change is real and serious. Likewise, the far left has dumbed-down debate on virtually anything with anything to do with sex or race, including, in recent years, immigration.
The US debate on immigration has become so stupid, so deeply, unbelievably stupid, and it’s stupid in a way that’s unique to America. As far as I know, only in America are illegal immigrants widely called “undocumented immigrants,” as if they’re people who just lack travel documentation, rather than people who (often willfully) broke the law to enter, or remain in, the country. Only in America do lawmakers from a major political party condemn the immigration authorities for doing their job of tracking down and deporting illegal immigrants and demand that they be abolished. Only in America are there “sanctuary cities,” which openly frustrate the federal government’s and the immigration authorities’ attempts to arrest illegal immigrants. Only in America does a significant segment of the political spectrum claim that having ANY immigration and border control is racist. And, lest we mistake this for a sign that the US is at the forefront of the debate, only in America do people claim that not having open borders (i.e. not allowing anyone to enter at will) is further proof that their country is uniquely oppressive and racist – despite the fact that no country on Earth has a policy of open borders (the only place in the world that has this is the Norwegian special territory of Svalbard). It’s no wonder that Jonathan Haidt, liberal social psychologist and Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has said that the left in America is no longer able to talk sensibly about immigration.
But as loud as these crazed voices are, they’re unlikely to resonate with the majority of the American population, who – like apparently most people in the rest of the world – seem to think countries need at least some kind of effective immigration and border control. The reality is that the United States is the richest, most powerful country in the world, as well as one of the freest, and is still widely viewed as “the land of opportunity,” and that there are therefore many more people wanting to move there than it can accommodate. The reality is that, unless you want to encourage bad behavior, you need to penalize those who enter or remain in the country illegally, which is why, as the New York Times editorial board noted, “Every person who assumes the title of president of the United States also takes on the role of deporter in chief” (this is also why President Joe Biden’s plan to give the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the US a pathway to citizenship is a bad idea and has been rightly denounced by those on the right as “amnesty for illegal behavior”). And the reality is that if the Democrats don’t start to realize these things, it’ll probably hurt them badly in the next election, that, as David Frum noted in The Atlantic, “If liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals will not do.”
The reality is that, unless you want to encourage bad behavior, you need to penalize those who enter or remain in the country illegally.
As someone who’s lived in several different countries, I can respect these realities. When I went to the US for university, I couldn’t just enter as I pleased – I had to apply for a visa. Likewise, when I went to Hong Kong to work, I couldn’t just waltz right in – I needed approval from customs. If I had ever breached the terms of my stay in either case, I could have been deported – I wouldn’t have liked it, but I’d have had to concede that the authorities were within their rights to do so.
What’s a common-sense position on immigration, one that both left and right should be able to agree on? It’s one that ensures the country’s borders are secure and people don’t regularly flout its laws with impunity. It’s one that rewards those who entered and remained in the country through legal avenues above those who did so through illegal ones. Or, in other words: “We cannot simply allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently, and lawfully to become immigrants in this country.” Which “right-wing” figure said this? Former President Barack Obama, circa 2005. These sentiments were perfectly sensible back then, and they’re perfectly sensible today; it’s a mark of how much the immigration debate has degenerated that many on the left would consider them anathema now.
Which brings me to former President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, a plan that President Joe Biden has scrapped. It’s a pity. When Trump first announced his plan to “build the wall,” I, along with most other liberals, thought it was nuts. I reconsidered after I found out just how porous the US-Mexico border is: in February 2019 alone, 76,000 people crossed the border illegally, and from October 2018 to July 2019 688,375 people were apprehended trying to do so. (And what’s stopping dangerous criminals and terrorists from taking advantage of this to enter the United States too?) I came round on the wall after I realized that a border wall would mean that border patrol agents wouldn’t be pelted with rocks by people on the other side, as they sometimes are, and that they wouldn’t need to rely so much on tear gas and attack dogs to keep people out. Perhaps the money required to build the wall would arguably be better spent building schools and hospitals, but in principle the wall isn’t a bad idea. Unfortunately, since the wall is presently too closely associated with Trump’s racism to be palatable to Democrats, US Border Patrol will have to find other ways to secure the border. Since the majority of illegal immigrants actually enter the US legally and then overstay their visas, controlling immigration will also require increasing support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement so it can track down and deport more of them.
It’s often forgotten that when Trump spoke of building a “big, beautiful wall,” he also mentioned putting “a big, beautiful door” in that wall to let in legal immigrants. And that’s the right idea: having immigration controls so a country can choose when to open the door, how wide to open it depending on the circumstances, and who to open it to.
It’s often forgotten that when Trump spoke of building a “big, beautiful wall,” he also mentioned putting “a big, beautiful door” in that wall to let in legal immigrants.
Who should the US choose to let in? Well, there’s a case for an exclusive, elitist immigration policy. The US is an incredible magnet for talent, attracting extraordinary people from all over the world – why not take advantage of that and admit only the best and brightest, people who are likely to contribute the most to the country? This can be done through the H-1B visa program, which has been called America’s secret weapon for bringing in foreign talent (Trump’s suspension of H-1B visas was one of his many great blunders as president).
Conversely, there’s also a case for a more expansive immigration policy. As Bret Stephens observed in the New York Times, the United States is vast and relatively sparsely populated. “Roughly 80% of Americans live in urban areas, covering just 3% of the overall landmass,” Stephens wrote. “We have a population density of 35 people per square kilometer – as opposed to 212 for Switzerland and 271 for the UK.” He went on to note that the proportion of immigrants in America, at 13.5%, is not particularly large, and that immigrants are more entrepreneurial and less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans. Furthermore, the US fertility rate is falling and the population is aging, and there are labor shortages in many industries, including agriculture. As Trump’s own acting Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney acknowledged: “We are desperate, desperate for more people. We are running out of people to fuel the economic growth.” America would therefore benefit from having more, younger immigrants. The case for this gets even stronger when you consider competition with China. China has 1.4 billion people; the US has 328 million. China’s economy, in terms of nominal GDP (for what that’s worth), is currently two-thirds the size of the US’ and is closing the gap fast. So far, the US economy has remained ahead of China’s through better innovation and technology, but no country, no matter how innovative, will be able to continue to outcompete a country with more than four times the population indefinitely, especially when the latter is fast narrowing the technology gap between them. Dramatically expanding immigration could give America the boost it needs to maintain its edge over China.
And then there’s a case for an immigration policy based not on America’s self-interest, but on compassion. When Chancellor Angela Merkel let a million refugees, mostly from war-torn countries in the Middle East, into Germany in 2015, she got a lot of flak for it from certain quarters, but I respect her generosity of spirit in doing so: it was a noble thing to do and a humane thing to do. The US should try to make sure that the immigrants it lets in integrate well and share basic American values, but it could do something similar and emulate Germany’s example. Granting asylum to those genuinely fleeing persecution by their home government falls under this rubric, as does the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which enables illegal immigrants who entered the US as minors to apply for a work permit, since it makes an exception for those who broke the law when they were children (and who in most cases were just following their parents).
Which kind of immigration policy should the US choose? I think the answer to that question is best left to American citizens themselves. But, whatever the case, secure borders and a secure immigration system are essential. There’s a case for an exclusive immigration policy, there’s a case for an expansive immigration policy, and there’s a case for a compassionate immigration policy; there is no case for having borders and an immigration system you cannot control.