Originally published by New Republic
For nearly three decades, American immigration policies have reenforced the false notion that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals. From Bill Clinton’s militarization of the southern border in 1993 to the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after the September 11, 2001 attacks—and now to Donald Trump’s detention of asylum seekers in concentration camps—Washington has normalized the view that undocumented immigrants are a threat to America. A threat to be policed, detained, and deported. Though time and again proven untrue, this rhetoric—echoed in society as a whole—has only become more pervasive in recent years. Most horrifically, it was on display in the “manifesto” allegedly posted by the gunman who murdered 22 people at an El Paso Walmart last weekend.
In recent years, Democrats have tried to respond to the tightening noose around undocumented immigrants’ necks with tepid measures, but even those—such as a 2013 bill to offer a pathway to citizenship while increasing border militarization—have failed to shift perceptions. The latest proposal in vogue among Democrats, to try undocumented immigrants in the civil legal system, does nothing to stem the mass deportations that have surged over three administrations in the last two decades.
The only way to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of undocumented immigrants is to fundamentally change the narrative that views them as criminals and so, views them as a threat.
To this end, Democrats and immigration advocates should remind skeptical white voters that undocumented immigrants have long made America great. In fact, many of their own ancestors were undocumented immigrants, beneficiaries of an era of open borders.
While “my grandparents came here legally” is a common refrain among white opponents of immigration reform, it misses the flip side of American history: For most of its history, the United States has had open borders for white people. Many of our forebearers, including my great-grandfather, were undocumented immigrants, no different from Central American migrants today.
For the first century of its existence, the United States had completely open borders. Though it is now derided as a far-left fantasy, in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century, the idea of someone simply coming into a new country and starting a life there, without any papers whatsoever, was eminently normal.