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The pernicious myth of “open borders”

Trump is obsessed with a wild mischaracterization of the status quo that fuels extremism.

President Trump’s Mexico Border Policy Stirs Controversy Mario Tama/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s White House is obsessed with “open borders,” a pie-in-the-sky utopian vision of a world of unlimited free movement in which to move from Haiti or Havana to Houston would be about as easy as moving from San Antonio to San Francisco.

This idea, while fun to think about and, in my view, at least somewhat attractive as a kind of aspirational future vision of the world, obviously does not have any mainstream adherents in practical American politics.

But the Trump administration suggests that the open borders lobby is, in fact, massive and powerful and that essentially all critics of its approach to immigration policy are open borders fanatics.

In a January 30 press release, the administration claimed that “attempts at immigration reform have failed because open borders special interests in both parties have dominated the discussion,” while yesterday’s official talking points about family separation charge that Democratic critics of indefinite incarceration of asylum-seeking children are “intent on furthering their agenda of open borders.”

Trump himself is a little less into the jargon but similarly paints a portrait of an extremely stark choice.

“We’ve got to have borders,” is a staple of his campaign rhetoric, because “if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country.”

And this notion that the alternative to an immigration crackdown is some notion of borderlessness isn’t limited to Trump himself. David Frum, both a leading immigration hawk and a leading Trump critic, wrote earlier this week to exhort fellow Trump opponents to be meaner to Central American asylum seekers, arguing that “like so many human institutions, borders are both arbitrary and indispensable. Without them, there are no nations. Without nations, there can be no democracy and no liberalism.”

This is all, in truth, total nonsense. The United States of America as it exists today is, in fact, a country, and it has borders. Our borders are not currently open, nor were they open under George W. Bush. It is not the case that open borders is the only alternative to Trump’s immigration crackdown, nor is it remotely true that harsher immigration laws are required to avoid a situation of borderlessness.

The fact that this kind of rhetoric has become normalized, including in elite circles, is itself a kind of insanity. The implication is that the survival of the country requires the level of immigration law violations to fall to zero, a standard that the United States has never met throughout its history and could only conceivably meet through the institution of a costly and cruel authoritarian regime that would greatly damage the interests of American citizens.

America’s borders are not open

Last Saturday afternoon, I arrived with my family at Dulles International Airport on a flight from Madrid, returning home from our vacation abroad. After disembarking the plane, we had to stand in a series of long lines to present our passports to border security officials so that they could verify we were, in fact, American citizens with legal permission to enter the country.

I suspect that most of the people throwing around rhetoric about the importance of borders are familiar with this procedure — certainly Frum, who is himself an immigrant from Canada, must be — but it really is worth dwelling on this for a moment.

The most convenient way to go from one country to another is via airplane, but anyone who tries to enter the United States via airplane without appropriate documentation and the legal authority to do so will find themselves in a world of trouble. That’s because the United States does not have a policy of open borders. The borders are, in fact, heavily policed. And crucially, we should recognize that the costs of policing our borders are borne largely by American citizens — we pay the taxes that maintain the border control facilities, and we are stuck in the lines waiting for our passports to be inspected.

We could, if we wanted to, reduce the costliness of the airport border control regime, but in exchange, it would probably become less secure. Alternatively, we could increase the security — by, say, requiring a detailed hand search of all baggage — and in exchange make the process more costly. Reasonable people can disagree about the right way to strike the balance, but that’s all there is to it — a political balancing act of costs and benefits in which the imperatives of border security need to be balanced against other considerations.

Unpoliced borders can be useful

One place I’ve been where the border really is quite open is the St. Croix River, a popular canoe trip destination that also happens to serve as the border between Maine and New Brunswick.

When I canoed this river with my summer camp in the 1990s, people were free to camp on either side of the border with no problem. After 9/11, more stringent US-Canada border control rules were put into effect that mean you now must camp on either the American or the Canadian side of the river without switching. Like other efforts at border hardening, there may be some benefits to this approach, but it also has the downside of inconveniencing people. The good news is that you are still free to canoe the river.

True border security might be interpreted by some as requiring the construction of a physical barrier through its center, or at least the installation of a vast physical surveillance apparatus that would monitor crossings. Either would, obviously, spoil the natural landscape and destroy a pleasant recreational activity that is enjoyed by many American citizens. The fact that we choose to leave this portion of the border unpoliced does not mean we have “open borders” in general, nor does it imperil the existence of the nation.

By somewhat the same token, the borders between American states really are open. This allows for a certain amount of mischief — it’s common for residents of Massachusetts to drive to New Hampshire to buy cheap booze and smuggle it back home, thus costing the Bay State tax revenue and imperiling public health — but the gains in terms of practical convenience are obviously quite large. The fact that there are no controls whatsoever at state borders doesn’t mean the borders don’t exist or that they lack legal significance, as you will swiftly see if you try to live in a high-tax state while pretending to live in a low-tax one. That, in turn, is a reminder that in a practical sense, most enforcement of legal boundaries doesn’t actually happen where the boundaries exist.

America regulates immigration very strictly

Critically, despite the mythmongering of the White House, immigration to the United States is currently regulated very strictly.

This primarily takes the form not of a militarized border or of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents dragging people out of their homes, but through the banal functioning of American employment law. There have long been questions, for example, about whether Melania Trump did paid modeling work while in the United States in 1996 on a tourist visa.

If she did break immigration law, however, she didn’t do it for very long. She entered the country in August on a tourist visa and by October 18 had snagged an H-1B visa for skilled guest workers. The reason she did this is that it’s extremely challenging to find paid work in the United States if you don’t have a visa.

It’s true, obviously, that there are millions of undocumented long-term residents working under the table in the United States. But there’s a reason these undocumented workers are concentrated in unskilled jobs in a handful of industries — it’s possible to get under-the-table work, but it’s really hard to do white-collar professional jobs on this basis.

And getting work visas is hard. Melania snagged her H-1B, but there is a hard numerical cap on the number of these that we hand out.

Beyond the difficulty of getting good jobs, to live and work in the United States without legal status is to burden oneself in any number of ways. From getting an education to getting a bank account or a mortgage or anything else, life is hard when you’re living here without permission. It’s true that many people do it anyway, but it’s equally true that these significant burdens deter most people from doing it. That’s fine, as obviously there wouldn’t be much of a point of having a visa system if there were no penalties for breaking it. But the reality is that the current regime is very much not an “open borders” regime.

More importantly, there is overwhelming evidence that opening the borders to more immigration of skilled foreigners — not just more models like Melania, but more doctors and dentists and engineers and lawyers — would raise incomes, reduce inequality, strengthen the tax base, and otherwise greatly benefit the country. Depicting the United States as teetering on the brink of borderlessness obscures all this to our detriment.

Now, what’s true is that even though our immigration laws are quite strict and the practical consequences of breaking them are quite real, enforcement is nonetheless imperfect. But that doesn’t mean we have “open borders” — it means immigration law is like every other area of law.

“Zero tolerance” doesn’t apply anywhere else

The Trump administration’s framing of the Central America asylum seeker crisis is that they must engage in the mass detention of children (either separated or with their parents) because that’s the only way to ensure compliance with the law.

And it is true that if they subjected asylum seekers to a less intrusive monitoring regime while they await their hearings, probably some people will simply not show up for their day in court. This demand that the system be made foolproof underlies the rhetoric of “zero tolerance” as well as the demands for an impenetrable physical barrier on the border and much of the White House’s other thinking on immigration policy.

Perfect enforcement is not, however, a standard that we apply to any other area of the law.

Stealing bicycles is, for example, illegal. And the illegality of bicycle theft almost certainly has practical benefits in terms of increasing the security of people’s property. That said, it’s also clear that bikes are getting stolen and people are getting away with it and the government isn’t really doing much about it. The penalties for bicycle theft are not especially severe, and few police resources are dedicated to catching bicycle thieves. That doesn’t mean we have an “open bicycles” regime, that personal property in bicycles is a myth, that roving gangs of bicycle thieves are operating in the open, or that laws against stealing bikes are pointless.

It simply means that in the scheme of things, bicycle theft is not that big a deal and pouring more and more resources into addressing the problem isn’t worthwhile. The White House consistently tries to raise the stakes on immigration enforcement by bringing up the fact that some small share of unauthorized immigrants murder people. They harp away at this even though immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than natives, and even though cities with more immigrants have less crime rather than more. And it’s true, obviously, that some people who break immigration laws go on to later break the law against murder. By the same token, some people who steal bicycles later go on to commit murders. But nobody thinks a “zero tolerance” regime for bicycle theft would be a good way to prevent murders.

We need common sense on border enforcement

“The media never talks about the American victims of illegal immigration — what’s happened to their children, what’s happened to their husbands, what’s happened to their wives,” Trump said at a rally Wednesday night in Minnesota. “The media doesn’t talk about the American families permanently separated from their loved ones because Democrat policies release violent criminals into our communities.”

This is the illogical logic of the border panic.

Because murder is bad and some murders are committed by unauthorized immigrants, we need to keep asylum-seeking children in cages because otherwise there’s a chance some people will skip bond on their asylum hearings and become unauthorized immigrants. By this logic, we could execute bicycle thieves, end all legal immigration, or justify basically anything else under the sun.

Common sense, however, is that if you’re worried about America’s murder problem — which really is a serious problem — you should address murder, not immigration. About 40 percent of all murders in the United States go unsolved, which in my view is a more serious problem than people getting away with sneaking into the country and working under the table. Right now the combined budgets of ICE and Customs and Border Protection are about double what the FBI gets, and Trump’s budget proposal slashes funding to local police departments. Instructing US attorneys in border districts to make prosecutions of misdemeanor illegal entry their top priority means those offices will need to sideline prosecutions of other crimes.

Trump’s fulfillment of his campaign pledge to let immigration agents “do their jobs” rather than narrowly target resources on violent criminals means he’s making it easier rather than harder to get away with serious crimes.

The true purpose of “open borders” rhetoric is to try to exempt the topic of border security and immigration enforcement from the normal political process in which we consider the trade-offs and choices involved. If even a single opportunity for a person to break immigration law and get away with it is reframed as an existential threat to the existence of the nation, then suddenly all kinds of things — from a multibillion-dollar border wall to mass incarceration of children — suddenly seem reasonable. But none of it is true.