Liberals Need National Borders

The immigration issue is there for the taking for Democrats—if they don’t treat it as a culture war.

Beto O'Rourke carries his son Henry O'Rourke on his shoulder as they march along the US Mexico border in protest of President Donald Trump's proposed border wall, February 11 in El Paso, Texas.
Beto O'Rourke carries his son Henry O'Rourke on his shoulder as they march along the US Mexico border in protest of President Donald Trump's proposed border wall, February 11 in El Paso, Texas. Christ Chavez/Getty Images

The only issue falling under the heading of “foreign policy” that is likely to matter in the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign is immigration. A June Gallup poll found that 23 percent of respondents considered immigration the most serious problem facing the United States—the highest such figure recorded since Gallup began tracking the metric in 1993. The good news for Democrats is that while Republican President Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants and refuge-seekers has stoked the fear and hatred of many Americans, it has awoken the fundamental decency of many more. The proportion of Americans who support providing asylum to Central American refugees is rising and is now at 57 percent, while large and growing majorities favor giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal citizenship.

Democratic presidential candidates should talk about immigration as often as possible, including in the upcoming primary debates on Sept. 12 and 13. But they must find a way of talking about it that does not seem to pit immigrants and their rights against citizens and their legitimate concerns. None of the candidates actually endorse that right-wing boogeyman, open borders. But you wouldn’t know that from the debates thus far, in which none of the leading figures—save Joe Biden—addressed concerns about the rapid increase in immigrants from Central America entering the United States illegally, reversing a downward trend since 2005, or registered dissent when asked if they would decriminalize illegal entry. The very hatefulness of Trump’s policies and rhetoric lures Democrats into embracing the exact opposite.

How, then, do we need to talk about immigration? Two very fine books have just been published that raise this question, though only one of them does so explicitly. In This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, Suketu Mehta argues—vehemently—that immigration is not a privilege that rich countries grant to, or withhold from, citizens of poor ones but the fulfillment of a moral claim earned by virtue of a long history of colonial and corporate exploitation. “They are here because you were there,” he admonishes the reader. A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, by the New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, is not a manifesto but a fine-grained account of a single Filipino migrant family. DeParle shares Mehta’s view that immigration brings great benefits both to the country immigrants leave behind and to the one where they settle. But he is a cautious advocate who writes, “Given how much immigration has risen in recent decades, it’s no surprise to hear demands for new limits, especially in an age of stagnant wages and terrorist threats.”

I am a friend of Suketu’s, as well as an admirer of his work. He makes a powerful case for the moral universalism that constitutes the left’s answer to Trump’s spiteful nationalism. A Honduran mother, he writes, “wants what you want: a better life for her kids—or even, more simply, just the continuation of her life. And that’s not possible where she lives.” Whether you call her a “migrant” or a “refugee” is, Mehta writes, a matter of etymology. She has a right to a better life. Americans have an obligation to accept her, not only because they are ultimately responsible for her plight, but because borders, and thus claims based on sovereignty, “are of recent vintage” and “flimsy.” Why should Westerners move around the earth like the lords of creation while Hondurans or Eritreans stand at the back of every line?

There is no morally honest answer to this question, though liberalism seeks to compensate for unjust inequalities. But so long as people continue to identify passionately with their country, citizenship will confer rights, and borders will matter. (See this clarifying debate on the subject between leftist thinkers in Dissent.) Even in a so-called nation of immigrants, voters will regard immigration as a matter to be determined by national self-interest and will insist that the distinction between an immigrant and a refugee is legal and moral, not merely etymological. People will care about borders.

We ignore these facts at our peril. DeParle warns against the liberal habit of seeing immigration issues “as a matter of racial justice,” for it is not only racists who see the question in other lights. Since immigration’s benefits flow disproportionately to elites, whether as business owners seeking low-paid labor or as employers of nannies and gardeners, “supporters should be mindful of those who suffer the costs, whether in job competition or neighborhood change.” It’s true that Trump and his henchmen rhetorically blow up even ephemeral costs to monstrous propositions, but saying so will not alleviate fears of displacement and dispossession. Look at Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel tried, and largely failed, to convince voters that the country could absorb a million Middle Eastern refugees with no real harm to its economy or social fabric.

How, then, can Democrats harness voters’ sense of decency without seeming nonchalant in the face of their concerns? While rejecting Trump’s hysterical depiction of immigrants as violent criminals who join gangs, candidates need to be less ambivalent about enforcing border security. The litmus test of decriminalization elevated a marginal issue that mattered only because Trump had exploited a provision of the law criminalizing illegal entry in order to separate parents from children. That practice could be stopped without rewriting the law. Similarly, pledging not to pursue immigrants living in the United States so long as they do not otherwise run afoul of the law sends a message of impunity that is bound to increase illegal immigration. A more just enforcement system would target employers, perhaps through a mandatory e-verify system, more than their immigrant workers.

What’s more, the fact that immigration is good does not, as DeParle observes, make it good at all levels and in all forms. Why should the United States continue to grant 50,000 visas a year to underrepresented countries in the diversity lottery? Family reunification accounts for two-thirds of legal immigration, while elsewhere in the West the figure averages 40 percent. Shouldn’t the United States follow the lead of other countries that have reformed immigration laws to target workers in new economic growth sectors? Mehta praises Canada’s generous and popular approach to immigration, but Canada awards visas according to a merit-based points system determined by the state. Trump would like to do the same. Is that a reason not to do it? It is possible to believe that the United States would benefit from more immigrants than the 1.1 million it now legally accepts, but that newcomers should be chosen according to criteria that better fit the U.S. economy. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has in her presidential campaign proposed something like this, though since she also wants to expand family reunification, either the merit-based program would be very small or she would greatly expand the ranks of immigrants.

According to The Washington Post, almost all the candidates endorse raising the number of refugees the United States admits annually from last year’s pitiful level of about 22,000 to the 110,000 figure that former President Barack Obama had projected for 2017. (Elizabeth Warren would go to 175,000 by 2022.) That may be a hard sell, but it would be shameful to do otherwise given the millions of legitimate refugees now seeking shelter. Democrats must, however, insist on enforcing the necessarily blurry line between immigrants seeking a better life and refugees seeking protection from violence or persecution. They should be prepared to work with Mexican authorities to house asylees and adjudicate their status before crossing into the United States. (The Trump administration would also like to do so, but without making any serious investment in Mexican capacity.) Some may choose to remain in Mexico; this, too, should be encouraged. Refugees have a right to protection but not a right to choose a preferred country.

The Trump administration’s increasingly ruthless attacks on immigrants have required a tortuous reinterpretation of the lines from the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the State of Liberty: “Give me your tired and your poor—who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, recently glossed the verse. That is a battle line worth drawing, and the Trump administration has done Democrats a favor by drawing it. Rethinking the way the United States takes immigrants and refugees—while increasing the numbers of both—will not put Democrats on the wrong side of that line. Americans believe in immigrants, and, unlike the president, they believe that the United States is made better by them. The issue is there for the taking.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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