Open the Borders
Last week’s change in immigration policy by President Obama was a welcome shift. When even the opposition refers to immigrant children as those who are here “through no fault of their own,” it is clear that this DREAM-Act-by-another-name was not just the right thing to do, but something that might have been relatively uncontroversial if not for the political climate.
For all of that, though, last week’s news left me wanting something more. I’m not talking about Romney’s call for a “long-term solution,” which almost certainly includes no path to citizenship for any undocumented immigrant. Nor am I even talking about “comprehensive reform,” the elusive grand bargain that combines stepped-up enforcement on the one hand with another one-off amnesty on the other. No, I’m talking about an idea that is seemingly unthinkable but long past due: open borders.
We have around 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Many of them have been here for some time and have become Americans in all but name, which has led to calls for them to be legalized in some way. We are held back from doing this by a basic notion of fairness: why should people who broke the law be rewarded for it? Shouldn’t they, to use the oft-repeated phrase, get in the “back of the line” behind those attempting to immigrate legally?
But there’s a question we never ask when we frame the debate this way: should we be restricting immigration at all? Does it serve us well to do this? More importantly, is it the right thing to do?
At the very least, our quota-based system of immigration restrictions is not even in keeping with the majority of our history. Our borders were essentially open until after World War I; up until that time, less than 1% of over 25 million immigrants to Ellis Island were turned away, mostly for health reasons. Even when Congress finally started to restrict immigration in the early 20th century, it maintained open borders with the entire Western Hemisphere – yes, including Mexico – until 1965. So our “illegal immigration problem” is actually a creation of our own public policy decisions over the last four decades. There’s almost no historical precedent for our current immigration regime.
There’s a profound truth that this history reveals. It’s often said that we’re a nation of immigrants, but it goes deeper than that: most of us are here because the borders were once open. All 308 million of us who are not indigenous Americans are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants (voluntary or involuntary) to this country. Of those, the vast majority of us are descended from ancestors who had the good fortune to immigrate when there were no restrictions. So when we support the quotas we have now, we are in effect trying to deny this generation of immigrants the open access that benefited most current citizens. We’re happy to keep the American dream out of reach for newcomers because we’re already grandfathered in.
Can you imagine anything more un-American? We loathe the idea of granting privileges to people on the basis of their ancestry, and yet we let it happen every day that we keep our borders closed. You might expect this kind of thing in Germany or Dubai, where it is nearly impossible to become a citizen no matter how long you live there (their examples, incidentally, are why I find the idea of a guest worker program, and the permanent underclass it would create, to be doubly insulting for would-be citizens). But these places don’t make the promises that America does.
The objections to open borders are well known. Chief among them is the economic one: won’t it unleash a chaotic wave of new immigration and depress wages for everyone? I don’t have time to deal with these arguments in full, but the data don’t back this up; illegal immigration to the U.S. declined by over two thirds between 2005 and 2009 (could it have anything to do with our hospitality?). Even if immigration were to increase as a result of open borders, it wouldn’t be unlimited; markets simply don’t work that way. Finally, it’s worth nothing that immigration brings benefits, too: new immigrants mean more demand as well as more supply, and more demand means more and better jobs.
But these things are beside the point. No matter what kind of benefits it might bring, there are certain lines that we as a polity simply shouldn’t cross. Some things are just wrong. Just as we wouldn’t arbitrarily deport 3% of our citizens just to make our lives easier, we should not let unproven economic fears lead us to discriminate against those Americans who had the temerity to be born to different parents than the rest of us.
So by all means, make people jump through hoops to become citizens. Require that they take a test that one third of natural-born Americans couldn’t pass. Require that they wait a few years and commit no crimes. Heck, you can even require that they learn English (it will benefit them in the long run, anyway). But let anyone who has the gumption to undertake these things begin their journey to citizenship – right now.
We need to end illegal immigration, but we need to do it by removing it as a category altogether. It’s time to open our borders and recover our soul.