Immigrants Strengthen American Democracy

We Americans should really get some perspective about where we live… I was reminded lately of every conversation I’ve ever had with an immigrant, almost all of which… included the notion, ‘Oh, you people have no idea. All you do is bitch about and bad mouth your own country, but if you knew about the country I came from, you’d stop (expletive) on your own…’ In Saudi Arabia, grown women can be jailed for doing the kind of things we think of as routine without the permission of a male guardian. China rounds you up if you’re the wrong religion and puts you in camps… Only five percent of Burundians have electricity. The homicide rate in Honduras is eight times what it is here. The inflation rate in Venezuela is 2,719%. The Philippines in the last five years has put to death 27,000 low level drug dealers… There is a reason Afghan mothers are handing their babies to us… Any immigrant will tell you we’ve largely succeeded here.

Bill Maher, from Real Time with Bill Maher, 8/27/21 podcast  

In a previous post this year, I reluctantly argued that open borders advocates should temporarily assent to restrictions on immigration by the Biden administration in order to help protect America’s imperiled liberal democracy. I suggested that one element of the administration policy should be to admit immigrants at levels that existed prior to Trump’s presidency. One advantage of this conservative immigration policy would be to appeal to moderates in the electorate who are comfortable with some immigration, rather than alienating them with a policy that would allow unprecedented levels of immigration. Democracy in the U.S. was solid during decades of modest yet historically high levels of immigration after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. While the authoritarian Trump did make nativism the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, his victory was by very thin margins and was assisted significantly by unrelated factors such as the actions of James Comey and the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton. 

Another advantage of a Biden administration strategy of maintaining a status quo ante Trump policy is that it would continue to infuse the U.S. with immigrants, albeit at lower levels than what open borders advocates would like, who will appreciate and help revitalize America’s democratic fabric. Many immigrants to the U.S. come from illiberal societies, and most of these individuals probably don’t take liberal democracy for granted, as suggested by a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce: “… immigrants, for whom the reality of oppression or lack of freedom is a not so distant memory, come not to undermine our values, but to embrace them.” Roya Hakakian, an immigrant from Iran and author of A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious, is clearly appreciative of American liberal democracy. Describing the impetus for her book, Hakakian states that “… I thought, what if I could somehow show… America that most native-born Americans can’t see, the small signs of democracy that may be invisible to those who have never lived elsewhere.” For example, she notes the widespread adherence to traffic laws in the U.S. as a reflection of the respect for the legitimacy of laws created by a democratic system. Similarly, the congressman Ro Khanna, the son of immigrants, was taught by his parents to appreciate the U.S. and its political institutions. “His parents took Khanna and his brother to Washington to see the monuments and insisted they both learn about the Constitution.” Abdul Memon, an immigrant from India who became an American citizen, states, “I don’t take my citizenship lightly. I think we have the best freedom anywhere – especially the freedom of speech.” One of the people who reported Trump’s abuse of power that was the basis for his first impeachment was retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child. Vindman recently remarked that “I didn’t think the president was above the law. This is a country of laws. And I did what I thought was right, which is reporting him.” It appears as though his commitment to and confidence in American democracy are at least partly due to, in his words, “… perspective on where my family has come from.” The attitudes of these four immigrants align with research indicating that “immigrant and second‐​generation confidence in our political institutions exceeds that of native‐​born Americans” and that “immigrants are boosting overall American confidence in our institutions of government.”   

Meanwhile, many native born Americans seem to be hostile towards liberal democracy or indifferent about its possible demise. Tens of millions of Americans voted to retain Trump in the 2020 election despite his attempts to intimidate the media, his refusal to commit to leaving office if defeated, his use of the power of his office in an attempt to undermine a political opponent, and his affinity for foreign dictators. Moreover, shortly before the election, a USA Today article reported that “the number of Americans who feel they would be justified in using violence to achieve their political goals has increased sharply from 8% in 2017 to 33% today.”

Tom Nichols, author of Our Own Worst Enemy, posits that one factor in the willingness of some Americans to scrap our democratic traditions is an erosion of their character. He suggests that many Americans are spoiled by years of prosperity, feel entitled to do whatever they want, and don’t take responsibility for the effect of their actions on others, as exemplified by the January 6 insurrection. He states, “… with increasing frequency, our form of government is under attack by bored working and middle-class citizens…” A lack of “seriousness” among many Americans, according to Nichols, is problematic because this virtue is “the greatest requisite for a stable democracy.” 

In contrast, immigrants are often the embodiment of seriousness and responsibility, enduring hardships by moving to a new country to ensure a better life for themselves and their children. As David Brooks wrote years ago, “… immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic.” A regular infusion of immigrants into the U.S. might help to counteract the decadence which may be undermining our democracy. 

Another way immigrants fortify American democracy is through further demographic diversification. While diversity can trigger nativist populism, as it did with the rise of Trump, in the long term it could blunt the political power of white supremacist populism and the authoritarianism with which it is associated. Although there were surprising levels of support for Trump in 2020 among Latino and Asian American voters, Biden won most areas with large concentrations of these voters, often by enormous margins. Some observers suggest that  “… the eddies of this shift are less important than the tide of Latinos — and Asian-Americans as well — who still voted mostly for Mr. Biden, and who deserve a large share of credit for Mr. Trump’s defeat.” Biden’s win may have saved American democracy, and the votes of recent immigrants and their descendants may have been necessary for him to prevail.

At times in American history, Americans have feared that immigrants would threaten our political institutions. The opposite is the case. A regular flow of immigrants will increase the number of “serious,” responsible citizens who appreciate and are committed to American democracy. It will also weaken the strength of authoritarian populism based on notions of white supremacy.

 

The U.S. Should Admit As Many Afghan Refugees As Possible

The desire of many Afghans to obtain refuge in the U.S. after the Taliban takeover of their country evokes several themes previously discussed on this site. As with Syria, Central America, and Haiti, the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan which are impelling people to emigrate. Accepting Afghans into the U.S. would bolster America’s ability to counter terrorist groups Women would especially benefit from being able to emigrate from Afghanistan to America. Finally, a liberal policy towards admitting Afghan refugees aligns with generally positive American attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. Within the current constraints imposed on immigration policy by the primacy of maintaining American liberal democracy, the U.S. should rescue and admit as many Afghan refugees as possible.

American Culpability

Fortunately, many Americans are pressuring the Biden administration to rescue Afghans who collaborated with the U.S. during the American occupation over the last two decades. These individuals aided U.S. efforts to combat the Taliban and to improve the lives of fellow Afghans. 

However, absent from the American conversation about the Afghan refugees is acknowledgement of a broader U.S. responsibility for Afghanistan’s travails dating to before the 2001 American and NATO intervention there. In the 20th century, Afghanistan was generally peaceful until it was invaded in 1979 by the Soviet Union.   During much of this period before and after the invasion, many Afghan women had occupations outside their homes and gained more freedom. The Soviet Union’s occupation of the country lead to armed conflict, and the U.S. provided weapons to Afghans who were resisting the Soviets. While this aid helped to  push out the Soviets, it exacerbated the conflict and strengthened radical Islamist forces Moreover, after the Soviets left Afghanistan, the U.S. neglected the country, and it descended into a civil war which culminated in Taliban rule in the late 1990s, as related in a Vox article:

“While experts argue over how much of an impact America actually had in post-Soviet Afghanistan, many agree that arming dozens of mujahideen factions for a decade and then leaving those heavily armed groups to figure out peace directly contributed to the civil war and the rise of the Taliban.” 

The lives of many Afghans, especially women, improved because of the U.S. intervention since 2001. Yet the U.S. has allowed the Taliban to regain control, possibly undoing the gains of the last two decades. This decision, combined with major American culpability for Afghanistan’s suffering since 1979, obligates the U.S. to admit many Afghan refugees, including both those who directly assisted Americans in Afghanistan and others who need to flee their troubled homeland.

Countering Terrorism

There are fears that the Taliban takeover will increase the risk that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will attack the U.S. from Afghanistan. Admitting Afghan refugees, especially those who have proven their commitment to liberal values, provides the U.S. with the human capital essential to combating terrorism. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, American military and intelligence personnel were largely deficient in the language proficiencies and cultural knowledge that would have made the intervention more successful. Afghan refugees could provide indispensable support to the U.S. in gathering information on potentially threatening activity in Afghanistan and in any future American interventions.

In addition, the success of American foreign policy in general depends considerably on the willingness of allies to collaborate with the U.S. This willingness is based on trust that the U.S. will look out for the interests of the allies. According to former diplomat Earl Anthony Wayne of the Wilson Center, the debacle in Afghanistan has damaged the credibility of the U.S., and he suggests that protecting and evacuating vulnerable Afghans will mitigate this damage. On the other hand, Nathan Smith notes in an email that if Afghan allies of the U.S. are “stuck in Afghanistan to face the wrath of the Taliban, their fate will be a cautionary tale for any who consider helping the Americans in the future. Immigration restrictionists are the clear enemies of US national security.”

Protecting Afghan Women

Female Afghans have much to gain by being allowed to immigrate to the United States. While some in the Taliban have stated that women’s rights will be respected, the group does not have a good record. Bret Stephens makes this prediction

“There are roughly 18 million women and girls in Afghanistan. They will now be subject to laws from the seventh century. They will not be able to walk about with uncovered faces or be seen in public without a male relative. They will not be able to hold the kinds of jobs they’ve fought so hard to get over the last 20 years: as journalists, teachers, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs. Their daughters will not be allowed to go to school or play sports or consent to the choice of a husband.”

Public Support for the Afghan Refugees

Happily, Americans seem to be receptive to the idea of bringing some Afghan refugees into the U.S. According to a poll, strong bipartisan majorities want the U.S. government to take in Afghans who assisted the American effort in the country. At the same time, it is unclear how far this welcoming attitude extends. Would most Americans be willing to admit ordinary Afghan soldiers who fought against the Taliban? What about women who were empowered during the U.S. occupation but might be persecuted by the Taliban? 

I would support the admission to the U.S. of all Afghans who desire to immigrate, plus the effort required to evacuate them, were it not for the precarity of American liberal democracy. Instead, the Biden administration should admit as many refugees from Afghanistan as is politically possible, which hopefully includes both those who worked directly with Americans over the last two decades and those who face persecution for other reasons.

 

Immigration and American Democracy in 2021

Republicans in government have targeted the provision of water and food both to undocumented immigrants in areas along the southern border and to voters waiting in line to vote in Georgia. These actions are emblematic of the GOP’s anti-democratic and nativist features. With an anti-immigrant Republican party poised to not only reclaim national power but to destroy democracy itself, the future is foreboding for supporters of both liberal democracy and normal levels of immigration to the U.S., let alone for open borders advocates. Given this perilous political environment, what approach to immigration policy should open borders advocates hope that the Democratic Party pursues before the next sets of national elections? Sadly, one that is conservative.

The likely scenario of future Republican control would be despite the party’s failure to win a majority of the electorate in all but one presidential election since 1988. Republicans are favored to regain dominance in Congress in 2023 through reapportionment, gerrymandering, and the efficient distribution of its voters across the country. (See also here.) Similar structural advantages will benefit the GOP in the 2024 presidential election.  

Moreover, many Republicans are willing to embrace nefarious tactics to ensure the 2024 Republican presidential candidate’s victory, including voter suppression, installing pliant Republican officials in state election systems who might block the state-level certification of election results favorable to the Democratic presidential candidate, empowering Republican state legislatures to choose their states’ slates of presidential electors, and congressional refusal to certify a Democratic election victory. Should Republicans regain the presidency, it is likely that they would use these anti-democratic means to permanently maintain power. All of these tactics would be buttressed by the acceptance by Republican voters of the lie that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats. As Thomas Friedman notes, “there is simply nothing more dangerous for a two-party democracy than to have one party declare that no election where it loses is legitimate, and, therefore, if it loses it will just lie about the results and change the rules.”  

Should a populist authoritarian Republican Party gain and cement its hold on the federal government, immigration policy would worsen as it did under Trump. The Trump presidency’s border enforcement was crueler than that of past administrations. In addition, the administration worked to reduce legal immigration. While president, Trump proposed changes which, according to The Washington Post, could have “cut off entry for more than 20 million legal immigrants over the next four decades.” His administration also used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to temporarily ban almost all immigration during most of 2020. Speaking about the ban shortly after it was ordered, Stephen Miller, Trump’s staffer in charge of immigration policy, “pledged that it was only a first step in the administration’s longer-term goal of shrinking legal immigration,” according to information acquired by The New York Times.  

Anti-immigration sentiment continues to pervade the political right. In 2018 it was reported that “large numbers of people… are extremely receptive to a politics that positions whites as victims and a growing minority population as an existential threat. This kind of white identity politics has become more and more common in the mainstream conservative movement since Trump’s ascendancy.” Today Trump remains very popular among Republicans, and the columnist Charles Blow observes that “…tremendous energy is being exerted not only by white supremacists in the general population, but also Republican office holders, to attack immigrants, curtail immigration…” Referring to right wing Fox News, the organization Media Matters for America notes that in 2021 “Fox fearmongering on immigration issues has been consistently xenophobic, biased, and inaccurate…”  

Given these threats both to American democracy and to, from an open borders perspective, an already limited level of immigration into the country, open borders advocates must hope that Democrats make the best possible political decisions in order to defeat Republicans at the federal, state, and local levels. The Democrats are not role models for implementing a just immigration policy, but they are far superior to the alternative. Furthermore, they do not threaten liberal democracy.

Unfortunately, these political decisions involve implementing immigration policies that are morally repellent to open borders advocates. To begin with, the Biden administration needs to mitigate the political damage that is being incurred by the situation at the border. It is obvious to open borders advocates that the “crisis” at the border is caused not by the desire of large numbers of Mexican and Central American immigrants to enter the U.S. and escape often dystopian conditions in their home countries. It is caused by long-standing and immoral immigration restrictions that severely limit the number of immigrants who may enter the country. The restrictions predictably have produced mass detentions, removals, encampments on the Mexican side of the border, hazardous journeys to reach the border, and the suffering and death of people who attempt to cross without permission. The just solution, in an alternative political context, would be to admit every immigrant who desires entry into the U.S., with very few exceptions.

However, allowing large inflows of immigrants across the southern border would likely strengthen the appeal of the Republican Party in both 2022 and 2024, notwithstanding some support among the American public for increased immigration levels. A more politically promising approach for the Democrats would be to significantly increase the number of refugees from Central America and Mexico who would be allowed to apply for refugee status in their home countries, managed by the U.S. government and perhaps the U.N. The disorder and suffering at the border seems to be driving public disapproval of how the Biden administration is handling the situation, so providing an alternative orderly process that would give aspiring immigrants an opportunity to enter the U.S. might alleviate the disorder at the border and might be more palatable to the American public. Subsidizing temporary refuge in Belize and Costa Rica might be an option for those not accepted as refugees.

While polling can be unreliable, surveys suggest that the public may be amenable to in-country processing of refugee applications to address the situation at the border. In one 2019 poll, nearly 75% of respondents said that “‘taking in civilian refugees’ escaping violence and war was an important immigration policy goal for the U.S.” Another poll from 2019 showed majority support for admitting Central American refugees. However, a third 2019 poll found that “most respondents (74%) said it was ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important to reduce the number of people coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.” 

This is also not the time to risk a political backlash by pushing “immigration reform” legislation, in which legal status is granted to undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in enchange for tighter enforcement at the border. Such legislation failed under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and it is not even feasible given the current composition of Congress.

However, restoring the immigration system to what existed before Trump gained power is politically prudent. Biden has already revoked the 2020 Trump administration ban on most immigration and has restored normal levels of refugee admissions. 70% of Americans support increased or current levels of immigration, and most Americans view immigration positively.

 In addition, the Biden Administration should attempt to shield the “Dreamers,” immigrants who were illegally brought as children to the U.S., from deportation. This is popular, even, according to some polls, among Republicans, and the political strategist Chuck Roca suggests that even “piecemeal” progress on immigration would win the support of more Latino voters. Repairing the damage wrought over the last four years probably won’t weaken the Democrats in upcoming elections.

Open borders advocates can find support for this temporary acceptance of immigration restrictions in the thinking of Joseph Carens and others. Carens, who provides one of best foundational cases for open borders, writes that “the state is obliged to admit as many of those seeking entry as it can without jeopardizing national security, public order and the maintenance of liberal institutions.” (“Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” p. 30) The maintenance of liberal institutions is what is at stake in the U.S. right now, unfortunately. Furthermore, backing restrictionism in the service of anti-authoritarianism is advocated by a number of anti-Trump columnists, including Andrew Sullivan, Bret Stephens, and David Frum.

Restrictionism must be accompanied by the Democrats being laser focused on non-immigration policies that maximize the party’s electoral prospects. Tim Miller writes in The Bulwark that Democrats should

“find the most tangible, popular items with working-class voters… we’re talking about actual benefits. Get them into legislation, get them voted on—and then relentlessly crush any Republicans who opposes them… Make the GOP own the insurrection and the bigoted, conspiratorial crazy in the suburbs. And make them own blocking economic help in working-class communities. Be relentless about it. That’s the whole ballgame.”  

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post also notes that Biden’s focus on economic issues could bring political benefits to Democrats.  Similarly, the analyst David Shor emphasizes “…talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates. Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues.” Shor identifies immigration issues, with some exceptions, as ones that should be deemphasized by Democrats, even with Latino voters

The United Kingdom and the U.S. had to form a temporary alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union during World War II in order to defeat the Nazis. Similarly, open borders advocates should temporarily assent to restrictions on immigration for a better long term outcome. While unscrupulous Republicans may overthrow American democracy even if Democrats pursue the most popular set of policies possible, including more conservative immigration policies, at least such an approach makes Democratic victories in 2022 and 2024 possible. Once liberal democracy can be stabilized, there can be a renewed push to make our immigration policies more just than those that existed before, during, and immediately after the Trump presidency.

 

What I mean when I say “The border is a lie”

I typically tweet at least once a week that ‘the border is a lie.’ Some readers may intuit what I mean by this statement, others may be less clear on its meaning. Since I have heard from some of the latter, I wanted to provide clarification. I explain below that first, it is meant literally, in that the border is imaginary, and second, that it is meant to indict the border as a purveyor of lies, in that it legitimizes a violent caste system based on mythology. 

The border is literally a lie:

The line separating two given states is an imaginary one, and we do our grasp on reality a service by regularly reminding ourselves of that. The border also holds itself out as the place where two nations cleave, but it is lying here too because those nations, like the fictional line that separates them, are also imaginary. I explain more below about why this is so.

The border is a purveyor of lies:

The border is the purveyor of lies in our minds, on paper and in the physical world. 

First, in our mind, the border reifies and reaffirms nationalism. Nationalism is the delusion that people can and should be taxonomized and then segregated by territory or culture or ethnicity. This notion is both fictional and ultimately racializing (as well as historically recent). It is fictional because the notion of nationality is both overinclusive and underinclusive. Nationality is overinclusive in that it asserts a monolithic population where there is none. While culture is real, there are no clean lines demarcating one culture from another. Rather, traditions blur into one another, and no group of people, no matter how allegedly monolithic, is without its own internal diversity (for example, a New Yorker might imagine a shared ‘american’ identity with a Dallasite, but may in reality share nothing in common with respect to politics, culture, values or even language). Nationality is also underinclusive in that people may share culture, values or other traits across borders that they do not share with members of their own ‘nation’ (for example, a New York City progressive may share more in common with a Torontonian progressive than they would with a conservative Dallasite). Ultimately, nationalism’s project of territory-based or culture-based taxonmization and apartheid of people is impossible mythology. But worse than impossible, it is also destructive. Nationalism, because it asserts that this taxonomization and segregation is desirable, also racializes people, otherizing different languages, skin tones, etc. into silos that we come to believe erroneously have biological or other bases in nature. Nationalism builds and reifies an ‘us’ and ‘them’ caste system, or racial caste systems, in our mind.

Second, this lie is not just in our minds, it is also written into our law. Nationalism’s caste delusion is reflected on paper in naturalization and immigration law. These written laws protect and enshrine the ‘us’ and ‘them’ case system by according rights to ‘us’ and taking rights away from ‘them.’ Like all caste systems, these laws exist to preserve power for some at the cost of others’ rights. Citizenship and immigration laws build a legal fortress around the privilege of some at the expense of other’s dignity and humanity. The law lies to us when it insists that this legal arrangement is natural, inevitable, and ancient; in a word, that it is self-evident. It is none of these things; but caste systems purvey these lies to discourage challenges against themselves. They need lies to discourage challenges because they are, on their face, obviously anti-democratic in their hostility toward principles of liberty and equality. We have been so conditioned to see the world as a quilt of nation states fixed by nature, that we don’t even have the framework to question it or imagine alternatives. By claiming to be natural and inevitable, these laws prevent us from interrogating them and never need to justify themselves. Only lies can sustain citizenship and immigration law because these written rules are, on their face, the opposite of democracy.

Finally, the lies written into law are made real in the physical world with violence. The violence of deportation, concentration camps and policing are where the rubber lies hit the real road, so to speak. The border is the physical site where the ideas of nationalism and the written words of law physically subtract rights from some to protect the power and privilege of others. The physical borders are pregnant with the delusions of nationalism and the lies protected by law. Their authority is used to justify and legitimize the physical violence that borders carry out. The border is the situs where the lies in our minds and the lies in our law mature into real atrocity. That is why we say “the border is a lie,” in order to denounce not just this violence, but the delusional presumptions and erroneous legal conclusions that license its brutality.

When we say ‘the border is a lie,’ we are rejecting all of those institutions discussed above which are oppositional to anti-racist democracy. We are demanding that the anti-democratic and racist nature of nationalism, citizenship law and borders is not self-evident, that it is both challengeable and replaceable, and that the notion that it is ancient is ahistorical. We are stating our refusal to consent to these institutions, expressing our commitment to their abolition, and demanding that they be replaced with new systems of democratic, anti-racist political and civic inclusion. To say the border is a lie is to spit truth in the face of power.

Transforming America’s Policing and Immigration Systems

Many Americans are considering how to transform their police departments in the wake of abuses against citizens, particularly African Americans. There have been numerous proposals to help ensure that the police do not mistreat people and do a better job fighting crime. These include ending overcriminalization and reallocating some police resources to other entities. These ideas for revamping the police also could be applied to transforming America’s immigration regime, which is similarly characterized by an overly broad set of laws to enforce and a misuse of resources. 

Transforming America’s Police

Ending Overcriminalization

To revamp policing in the U.S., overcriminalization must be confronted. As Seth Stoughton, Jeffrey Noble, and Geoffrey Alpert note, there are so many laws that violations are ubiquitous. If everyone is a criminal, officers have almost unfettered discretion to pick and choose which laws to enforce and whom to stop, frisk, search, or arrest.” (See also here.) This empowers the police to unfairly target minorities, among other problems. Christy Lopez of Georgetown Law School adds that “police themselves often complain about having to ‘do too much,’ including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped. Some have been vocal about the need to decriminalize social problems and take police out of the equation.”

Decriminalizing or legalizing the use and sale of drugs that are currently illegal would be a significant step towards tackling overcriminalization. The war on drugs has resulted in violent interactions between the police and civilians, sometimes leading to deaths, such as the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. Furthermore, as I related in a previous post, minority communities have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs, with huge numbers of people imprisoned and permanently disadvantaged after their release from prison. (See also here.) Eliminating the laws on which the war on drugs is based would greatly benefit millions of people and save enormous amounts of money currently spent on enforcement and incarceration.

Reallocating Resources and Focusing on Actual Criminal Threats

Ending the war on drugs would mean that drug addiction would be treated by healthcare workers and counselors rather than involving the police, and drug commerce could be regulated by agencies not affiliated with the police. It also would mean that money previously used for enforcing the drug laws would be transferred from police departments to these other entities.

Drug use is not the only area where the police should defer to other professionals and where resources should be redistributed. Stoughton, Noble, and Alpert state that “for too long, the hammer of criminal law has been used against a wide array of social ills. The result is police over-involvement in matters that would be far better left to other government institutions and social-service providers, including school discipline, poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse.Cases in which people are in mental distress also could be better addressed by mental health providers and others rather than by the police.

After releasing police from the responsibility to address situations that could be better handled by others, police should focus on the few people in communities who commit most crimes. German Lopez states in a Vox article that

the vast majority of crime in communities is perpetrated by just a few people in a few specific parts of the city… If police focus on just these few blocks and, specifically, individuals — through policing strategies known as “hot-spot policing” and “focused deterrence” — they can stop and deter a lot of crimes in their cities.

This approach also “can limit who’s directly impacted by policing — by targeting a few people in a few areas, instead of sweeping whole neighborhoods with aggressive stops.”

Transforming the U.S. Immigration System

Curtailing the Scope of Immigration Laws

Due to the considerable legal restrictions on immigration, everyone who attempts to immigrate legally to the U.S. is scrutinized by the authorities to ensure that they a meet an extensive list of requirements which are full of virtual trapdoors, just as overcriminalization makes virtually everyone in the U.S. a lawbreaker and vulnerable to being targeted by the police. The limitations on immigration mean that most of the world’s inhabitants are ineligible to even apply to immigrate. Even those individuals who are candidates to immigrate because of a family connection, job offer, or other attribute must overcome “grounds of inadmissibility.” Furthermore, the Trump administration has made the grounds of inadmissibility even more challenging, as well as creating other barriers for immigrants. 

The consequences of the current immigration laws are devastating. They force large numbers of people to remain in other countries where they may experience economic deprivation, unsafe conditions, or separation from family in the U.S. Those immigrants who attempt to circumvent the barriers by crossing the border without authorization or by overstaying a temporary visa face potential physical abuse by immigration agents, detention, deportation, and mistreatment by non-government actors, as well as death in deserts and at sea. Like the frequent murder or mistreatment of civilians by American police stemming from suspicion of nonviolent misdeeds, such as selling cigarettes on the street or using a counterfeit bill, there is a glaring mismatch between the violence and coercion inflicted by immigration authorities and the mere movement of people from one country to another to, in the overwhelming majority of cases, improve their lives through hard work. (See also here.)   

In addition, like the police’s reliance on abundant legal foundations to profile minorities, the current immigration laws enable the stopping of individuals based on perceived unauthorized statusespecially with greater police involvement in immigration enforcement.    

Furthermore, just as the distrust generated by overpolicing has led to a reluctance of many civilians to contact the police when they are actually needed, many Latinos do not call the police for help out of fear that the police will inquire about their immigration status.

For over a century, immigrants and would-be immigrants have been negatively impacted by American immigration laws, immoral constructs that arose primarily based on racism. (See also here.) This has inflicted immense suffering on millions of people. At the same time, those who have managed to immigrate to the U.S. have enriched it economically and culturally. 

Eliminating most immigration restrictions would benefit the vast majority of people who wish to move to the U.S., end unnecessary suffering, and benefit the country.

Reallocating Immigration Enforcement Resources to Focus on Actual Threats to the Country

On land borders, at airports and other ports of entry, at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, and within the U.S. itself, American agents are tasked with extensively screening foreign nationals wishing to gain legal residency in the U.S. In addition, internal agencies such as ICE enforce immigration laws, and immigration judges are overwhelmed with immigration cases. Moreover, Customs and Border Protection agents patrol the border and apprehend immigrants. Every day thousands of immigrants are incarcerated. (CBP also daily screens hundreds of thousands of visitors and returning citizens and legal residents entering the country by land, air, and sea, checks for illicit or hazardous materials in cars, trucks, ships, planes, and trains, and processes and collects duties on merchandise. Many of these duties benefit the U.S., including the detention of wanted criminals, seizing products that violate intellectual property rights, preventing the entry of pests, plants, and soil that could harm farms and habitats, and stopping the trafficking of wildlife. CBP also helps to enforce quarantine orders to help stop the spread of communicable diseases.)

However, the current immigration system was unable to prevent the 9/11 attacks, which were perpetrated by temporary visitors to the U.S. As I have argued, an immigration system with few restrictions, but with rigorous screening to keep out people who could threaten the country by entering temporarily or permanently, might do a better job preventing terrorism than our current system. Without having to consider a multitude of requirements for allowing people to immigrate, authorities could better focus on screening entrants for their threat to national security. (At the same time, domestic right wing terrorism appears to be a threat that is not being adequately addressed.)

Currently, the greatest threat to the U.S. is the coronavirus.  Our current immigration system was unable to stop its entry into the country, although it is unlikely that any system could have prevented its entry, given its ability to spread asymptomatically and our initial lack of knowledge about the virus. A poor response by all levels of government and many individuals has magnified its deadly impact.

Resources are needed to develop an infrastructure that better controls the spread of coronavirus and that will provide a better response to future viruses. Given our increasing knowledge about the virus, it appears to be important to devote additional resources to better address it domestically through increased testing, tracing, mask wearing, social distancing, and targeted quarantining, as well as research on therapies and vaccines. Resources also need to be devoted to coordinating an international response and to monitoring the outbreak of new viruses in certain regions of the world.

With the largest number of people infected by the virus in the world, the U.S. should be more concerned about exporting the virus than importing it. Trump has used the pandemic as an excuse to bar most immigrants from entering the U.S. (while continuing to allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as visitors from some countries to enter the U.S. from abroad). Instead of suspending immigration, the U.S. should focus on screening people entering the U.S. and people leaving the country for the virus. As the CDC notes, this “can be resource intensive.” 

The money saved by not checking immigrants based on extensive restrictions, by not arresting, detaining, and deporting immigrants, and by not adjudicating immense numbers of immigration cases could be reallocated to better screen for terrorist threats from abroad, to fight domestic terrorism, and, above all, to control the spread of the coronavirus and future viruses, as well as to bolster the current functions of the CBP which don’t involve immigration.

Sonia Shah, the author of The Next Great Migration, highlights the importance of migration for humans. She states:

… how did migration come to be such a prominent part of our history? It’s because its benefits outweighed its risks over the long-term. So this whole idea of migration as a crisis is what I’m trying to kind of interrogate. And it seems to me that it could be just the opposite, that migration isn’t the crisis, migration is the solution.  

If migration is the solution for people in countries who are experiencing deprivation, violence, climate change, and other hardships, and given the lack of justification for blocking their movement to another country in most cases, it is time to transform our immigration laws and reallocate the resources that are being used to enforce them. Both the police and the U.S. government should stop unjustifiably harming and harassing millions of people and focus on protecting the country from actual threats.

 

Creative Commons License Immigrants Strengthen American Democracy is licensed by Joel Newman under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.