The Contradiction at the Heart of Permissive Immigration Rhetoric

It’s no secret that Democrats have turned left on immigration, whether or not they explicitly support open borders per se. Yet beneath their advocacy of policies that would, in practice, put us on the road to open borders lies an odd contradiction.

Although a handful of the more radically honest progressives have explicitly advocated the abolition of borders — Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times, Jesse A. Myerson in Jacobin, and Dylan Matthews in Vox, to name a few — most mainstream Democrats would never publicly endorse such a proposition. But the immigration policies that now enjoy widespread Democratic support — such as the proposal to decriminalize border crossings and stop deportations of unauthorized immigrants — would at the very least make it more difficult to enforce American immigration laws. In this increasingly permissive disposition toward immigration, some progressives have embraced a cosmopolitan universalism that draws no distinction among the world’s many nation-states and does not recognize any distinction between those within a polity and those outside it. They envision, in the words of Hillary Clinton, a world organized around “open trade and open borders.

And yet this vision is often justified on the grounds of the national interest. Elizabeth Warren, in her proposal to overhaul our immigration system, writes: “We can be better than this. Americans know that immigrants helped weave the very fabric of our country in the past — and they know that immigrants belong here today.” Julián Castro, the original proponent of decriminalized border crossings, contends that “we must remember what immigration means to our national identity, and who we want to be as a country.” Kamala Harris tweets that “this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda flies in the face of our nation’s values.”

Hence the contradiction: As they appeal to the character of the nation and to the national interest to justify their immigration proposals, progressives increasingly seem uncomfortable with even the concept of nationhood. In a recent congressional hearing, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez remarked that “unspeakable horrors have been executed by the United States in the name of citizenship, in the name of determining who is a citizen.” Yet the people seeking to lead her party refer time and again to a set of values that, in their view, constitute an American national identity — and use those values to justify their immigration agenda. We are better than this. Immigration means something to our national identity. To oppose its excesses is to reject our nation’s values. But without the “unspeakable horrors” supposedly generated by the concept of citizenship, in a world in which there is no distinction between members of one state and members of another, what are “our nation’s values”? To put a different spin on Samuel Huntington’s famous question, who are “we”?

The argument for unrestrained immigration policy — that impoverished migrants fleeing persecution in anarchic societies would benefit from coming to the U.S. — surely contains some truth, but it eventually breaks down under the weight of this contradiction. In a 2010 poll, 78 percent of recent immigrants said that the legal rights and protections enjoyed under the American system were a major reason for their seeking citizenship. Yet one needs only to look to the state of our contemporary immigration politics to imagine the consequences of a functionally borderless society. Who would be eligible for welfare benefits? What would the political consequences be in deep-red states? The result would surely be harmful, especially for newly arrived migrants.

Having borders — real, structurally sound, and functionally enforced borders — are an essential aspect of what it means to be a nation-state. Sovereignty is a necessary antecedent to self-determination, and our capacity for democratic self-rule is inseparable from our ability to decide who can be a member of the polity and where the country literally begins and ends. Advocates for a more charitable disposition toward immigration often remind us that we are a nation entirely composed of immigrants, historically serving as a shining city on a hill for hopeful foreign migrants desirous of a better life for their children. On both counts, they are correct. But in order to remain that way, the U.S. has to be able to reach a settlement on immigration that does not put excessive strain on the country. Our international reputation for being a land of opportunity, where everyone in our jurisdiction has plentiful access to the blessings provided by the American system, relies on our continuing to be a country of laws. On immigration, though, progressives want to have it both ways.

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