The Open Borders Trap

The Open Borders Trap

Originally published by The New York Times

Plunge into the progressive discourse on immigration, and you’ll quickly hear that it’s not enough just to legalize America’s 11 million unauthorized migrants, however cherished the goal may be and however long it has eluded reach.

Outraged at a president who has gone as far as seizing toddlers from their undocumented parents, a progressive vanguard seeks to decriminalize border crossing, ban deportations, end detention, “abolish ICE” (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) and make undocumented migrants eligible for government aid.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the progressive standard-bearer, likens detention facilities to “concentration camps.” Eight advocacy groups have released an immigration plan they call “Free to Move, Free to Stay,” a slogan that suggests no limits.

ImageAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez outside a Texas facility where migrant children were being held.
Credit...Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

Eager to court activists, whom they consider influential with the Latino vote, the candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have moved sharply left from the party’s norms. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont vows a moratorium on deportations and a move to “break up” ICE. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts joined him in pledging to make border crossings a civil, not criminal offense, before leaving the race this week. Both would include undocumented migrants in their plans for universal health insurance (as did the former mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, a moderate who also left the race recently).

Some Democrats fear the permissive tone will alienate voters who consider President Trump bigoted or cruel but want border control. Yet what’s notable about the progressives’ stance isn’t just the retreat on enforcement. It’s the lack of an affirmative case for immigration — an argument for how it strengthens the economy, invigorates the culture and deepens ties to the world.

Nothing propelled Mr. Trump’s rise more than his attacks on immigration, yet some progressives reject the notion that immigration needs to be defended at all. If natives don’t have to justify their existence, why should the foreign-born?

“I think the question of good versus bad misses the point,” Cristina Jiménez, the director of United We Dream, a group that supports immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, told me. “Human flow is the reality as more people get displaced by globalization and climate change and people are fleeing poverty and oppressive countries.”


Cristina Jiménez protested in favor of the DACA program in Los Angeles in 2018.
Credit...Reed Saxon/Associated Press

This reluctance to articulate immigration’s benefits is especially striking given how readily its critics cite its supposed harms. They say immigrants increase crime, lower wages, threaten jobs, spread disease, strain government budgets and abet terrorism. The point isn’t that these claims are all true — immigrants have crime rates lower than natives — just that critics make their case in clear, concrete terms.

By contrast, progressives defend immigration with bland abstractions — “our diversity is our strength” — if they defend it at all. Most approach the issue through a civil rights lens, as a matter of doing justice to the poor and oppressed (which it is) rather than meeting America’s economic needs or slowing demographic decline (which it can be as well).

“People on the left have a hard time arguing why immigration is important to the country,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan research group that explores ways to lower migration’s costs and increase its benefits. “This is still one of the most pro-immigrant societies in the world, but that diffuse feeling hasn’t been matched with a coherent, cogent, succinct political case.”

The border crisis commands so much attention that legal immigration and its benefits are regularly overlooked. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that three-quarters of immigrants are here legally.

With the foreign-born share of the population nearing record highs, and restrictionists seeking cuts in legal admissions, progressives can’t afford to remain merely anti-anti-immigrant. If they want to sustain the longest, most diverse epoch of mass migration in American history, they need to explain why.


To understand the progressives’ mind-set, it is important to understand their two-decade quest for legalization and its bitter residue.

If the right sees the undocumented as invaders, the left sees them as victims of poverty and violence. Even more, it sees them as family and friends. The average undocumented person has been in the United States for 15 years. Many have American children. Progressives warn that deportation campaigns destabilize entire communities, harming immigrants and natives alike.


“My mom is in deportation proceedings — for many of us this is personal,” said Erika Andiola of the legal services group Raices, who co-authored the Migrant Justice Platform, a set of policy recommendations that includes a deportation ban.

Progressives also say efforts to compromise have made matters worse. “Comprehensive immigration reform,” the Democrats’ strategy for many years, offered Republicans tougher enforcement in exchange for a legalization. Republicans spurned deals twice (in 2007 and 2013), yet enforcement budgets soared — propelled, progressives say, by the “comprehensive” logic, which legitimized getting tough. Since 2003, the number of agents involved in internal removals has nearly tripled.

A Democratic president brought more disappointment. Breaking his promise to prioritize legalization, President Barack Obama instead set records for deportations — three million over eight years. Activists occupied offices of his re-election campaign and labeled him the “deporter in chief” — a rebuke that helps explain the candidates’ fear of activists’ wrath today. (More recent protests targeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.)

Mr. Obama eventually used executive action to protect the Dreamers — unauthorized migrants who arrived as children — and tried to restrain deportations by focusing on criminals. But he failed to win a broad legalization and left his anti-immigrant successor a formidable deportation machine.

If a leftist vanguard has radicalized, that’s partly because Mr. Trump’s violation of norms has been so radical. He muscled through two travel bans, mostly aimed at Muslim countries. He cut refugee admissions to record lows. He rescinded the Dreamer protections, a move now before the Supreme Court. He dropped targeted deportations for a broader approach that officials boast is meant to spread fear.

In the biggest breach of norms, Mr. Trump separated nearly 3,000 children, including toddlers, from families illegally crossing the border, sending some to foster care in distant states (without telling their frantic parents where they were). Adding racialized insult to injury, he has called immigrants “rapists,” likened them to snakes, complained that they come from “shithole” countries and warned that African visa holders would never “go back to their huts.”

Faced with such relentless attacks, progressives say they’ve been too busy defending basic rights to focus on immigration’s broader benefits. “I think we’ve done a good job at pointing out the harms of the current immigration system,” said Deepak Bhargava, a longtime migrant rights leader now teaching at the City University of New York. “The question that has not been engaged enough is the centrality of immigration to the country’s future.”

But many progressives also reject the kind of arguments that supporters of immigration once made. An obvious case for immigration is economic: It has powered the rise of Silicon Valley, brought entrepreneurs to the inner city and staffed hospitals in the reddest and bluest of states.

Yet some on the left say economic arguments commodify immigrants or denigrate the native work force. “That frame pits workers against each other,” said Mary Small, the legislative director of Indivisible, a political organizing group. She prefers solidarity-based appeals that explain how “everyone’s humanity is tied up in the way immigrants are treated.”

“If you want me to give you some top-level GDP number, that’s just not my voice,” said Lorella Praeli, a former Dreamer who is president of Community Change Action, a political organizing group that works with immigrants. “I would start with the story of self.”

More than the progressive groups they court, the Democratic presidential candidates do at least nod toward economic rationales. Ms. Warren says immigrants “grow our economy and make our communities richer.” Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg (who quit the race this week) both proposed special visas for immigrants willing to move to struggling areas.

Still, the candidates speak to the issue most passionately as a civil rights concern. In his eight-page plan, Mr. Sanders makes three perfunctory economic references — and nine pleas for racial justice. (Mr. Bloomberg, a notable exception, financed the nonprofit New American Economy to argue for immigration’s economic benefits.)

Few immigration narratives have inspired more sympathy than the story of the Dreamers — who are frequently described as children illegally brought to America “through no fault of their own.” But many Dreamers now reject that phrasing, for fear it implicitly faults their parents (just for seeking a better life). They have also shed their image as academic achievers to avoid elitist overtones. The logo of United We Dream once featured a diploma. Now it shows a bullhorn and clenched fist.

“We grounded the organization in a much deeper analysis of racial justice,” said Ms. Jiménez, the group’s co-founder. “We do not separate our experience as immigrants from the experiences of brown and black people in this country.”

As he tried to rein in deportations, Mr. Obama drew moral distinctions, pledging to focus on “felons not families.” Some progressives call that phrasing a false dichotomy in a world that targets minorities for mass incarceration. Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders would reduce the crimes for which migrants could be deported (excluding what Mr. Sanders calls “old or low-level” offenses).

Rather than celebrate immigrant achievement, some activists call the “good immigrant” narrative a pernicious story line that requires newcomers to prove their worth. When the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, praised Dreamers last year for becoming doctors and nurses, critics said he reinforced a harmful trope.

Cecilia Muñoz, a longtime immigrant rights advocate who served as Mr. Obama’s domestic policy adviser, argues that the left should embrace talk of good immigrants, not disparage it. “Talking about the contribution of immigrants is a way to win the hearts and minds of people we’re trying to reach,” she said.

Even the classic argument that the United States is a “nation of immigrants” now causes some people on the left unease. This framing seeks to normalize contemporary immigration by conjuring its precedents and subtly predicts its success — if the Irish and Italians made it, it suggests, so will the Mexicans and Hondurans.

But Ms. Jiménez rejects the triumphal narrative, arguing that immigrants, who are mostly people of color, have more in common with the oppressed people that story omits. “We’re also a nation of native people who were victims of genocide and African-American people who were brought here in slavery,” she said. “There’s something about the system that’s going after us for the color of our skin.”

Immigration poses a moral dilemma: There are more potential migrants than the country can accept. To the extent that they’re fleeing poverty and violence, it’s unfair to keep them out. But with nearly two billion people living on less than $3.20 a day, it’s impossible to let them all in. Hence the need to set limits and enforce them humanely.


A Honduran man and his son on the Mexican side of the border after being denied entry into the United States.
Credit...Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

That at least was the Democrats’ previous position. “We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented and unchecked,” argued the 2008 Democratic platform, in what sounds like an artifact of a long-ago age. “We need to secure our borders.”

Today, many progressives offer only a hazy sense of how to grapple with limits. Indivisible is among the groups that favors a moratorium on deportations. Is that the same thing as open borders? “Hmm, that’s an interesting question,” said Ezra Levin, the group’s co-founder, before saying the answer is no.

Are deportations ever justified? “Folks are still trying to figure out where they’re at,” said Ms. Small.

Charles Kamasaki of UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza) warns that equivocation is a mistake. “We can’t make progress without acknowledging the legitimacy of basic immigrant enforcement, and that means some people who come here unlawfully will have to be returned,” he said.

In his recent book, “Immigration Reform,” Mr. Kamasaki, who has worked for migrant rights for nearly 40 years, advises other progressives to moderate their tone — to seek bipartisan compromise, avoid assuming all opponents are racist, and question whether “unfettered immigration is necessarily in their community’s interest.” (UnidosUS itself has subtly broadened its image, dropping “La Raza,” sometimes translated as “the race,” for a name that evokes national unity.)

However beneficial immigration may be, it can complicate other progressive goals, like expanding the safety net. The more poor immigrants the United States admits, the more expensive it is to provide free college or health care.

Yet few progressives see a need to consider trade-offs. “If your frame is that ‘there’s not enough resources,’ I’m just rejecting the question altogether,” said Ms. Praeli, the president of Community Change Action. “Our movement is grounded in abundance rather than scarcity.”

On the contrary, many progressives are pushing for safety net expansions that include the undocumented. Mr. Sanders was once an immigration skeptic who called open borders “a right-wing proposal” to undermine wages. Now hailed by some Latino supporters as “Tio Bernie,” he would include all immigrants, “regardless of immigration status,” not only in his plan for free health care but also free college, expanded school meals and other safety net programs.

Rather than grapple with limits, progressives seek to manage the numbers by addressing “root causes” — like “bad trade deals” (Mr. Sanders), “climate change” (Ms. Warren), or funding Central American wars (the Migrant Justice Platform).

The focus on root causes helps shift the moral frame — if America causes migration (which it often does), it’s more obligated to take migrants in. It also suggests a solution: If the United States helps poor countries prosper, migration may subside. All the Democratic candidates would increase development aid.

Reducing poverty is surely a good thing, but development is unlikely to slow migration, at least in the short run (though reductions in Central American violence would help). On the contrary, as the scholars Michael A. Clemens and Hannah M. Postel have shown, as incomes in poor countries rise, migration grows, because more people can afford to leave. Only after countries reach middle-income status do the numbers subside. It’s doable — Mexico did it — but it takes decades.

Perhaps the most discomfiting issue for progressives to face is the role of migration in Mr. Trump’s rise. If progressives deplore Trumpism, and immigration fueled it, should the left moderate its immigration demands?


DACA plaintiffs on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington in November after arguments for and against the Obama-era program were presented.
Credit...Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Where fundamental justice is at stake, the movement is right not to bend. But not every immigration issue is a matter of high principle. Legalizing Dreamers is an issue with deep moral stakes. The diversity lottery — which gives 50,000 visas a year to people from underrepresented countries, regardless of family ties or special skills — is not. (Mr. Biden vows to retain it.)

Progressives say they are winning. Mr. Trump tried to make the 2018 elections a referendum on immigration, and Democrats captured the House. Surveys show support for immigration growing. Some progressives see parallels to California, where an immigration backlash in the 1990s incensed Latinos and turned the state blue.

“I don’t think the cruel nativism of Trump has won the day,” said Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a group that supports legalization. “Just the opposite — it’s forced a choice and people are choosing.”

Perhaps. But the more immigration becomes part of the culture wars, the more its supporters have to lose. Immigration propelled Britain from the European Union and left Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany a lame duck. Immigration’s value can’t be assumed. It has to be defended.

I once asked a leading scholar of immigration what benefits it had brought America, beyond good food and affordable child care.

“Don’t underestimate the value of good food and child care,” he replied.

It was partly a quip — an acknowledgment that supporters of immigration hadn’t sufficiently explained its benefits and that some of those benefits privilege elites. But it was also the start of a serious argument: immigrants make everyday life better in concrete, measurable ways. Self-interest has always been part of what makes immigration in America work. Ellis Island has its place in national lore not only because it welcomed the huddled masses but also because those migrants and their descendants helped raise great cities, defeat Hitler and usher in the American century. Has any country grown richer, more powerful, or more culturally vibrant from welcoming immigrants?

By all means, Democrats should insist that immigrants get justice. But they should also spell out the many ways — prosaic and profound — the country needs them.

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