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.


Is It 1920 or 1964 for Immigration to the U.S.?

Observers have likened 2020 to 1918 (a time of pandemic), to 1929  (a time of economic catastrophe), and to 1968 (a time of social unrest). However, for those who are concerned about U.S. immigration policy, a question arises: Is 2020 going to be more like 1920 or 1964?


1919 and 1920 were years of trauma and change in the U.S. World War I had ended in November of 1918, and millions of American troops returned from European battlefields, with the last troops arriving home in early 1920. The influenza pandemic ended in the summer of 1919 after killing hundreds of thousands of Americans.   1919 America also experienced economic hardship, labor strikes, and racial violence. In 1920, women were guaranteed the right to vote, Prohibition took effect, the Palmer raids resulted in the arrest of thousands of alleged radicals, the Ku Klux Klan was revitalized, and the economy entered a depression.  

1920 also was a presidential election year. The Republican Warren Harding ran against the Democrat James Cox. Daniel Okrent, in The Guarded Gate, writes that Harding’s “1920 campaign rested on an advertising slogan that would reverberate politically for the next century: ‘America First.’” (p. 265) Harding also advocated a policy of limited immigration. 

Harding won the election, and shortly after his inauguration he “… called Congress into special session to pass new limits on immigration, which he then signed into law.” This law put an unprecedented ceiling on the number of European immigrants allowed entry each year and limited the number of entrants from individual European countries, which was intended to reduce immigration from southern and eastern Europe and which favored immigration from northern Europe. According to Okrent (p. 288):

The consequences of the 1921 Emergency Immigration Act were immediate. The 3 percent rule cut immigration from Poland by 70 percent, from Yugoslavia by 74 percent, from Italy by a breathtaking 82 percent… 28,503 Greeks arrived in 1921 but only 3,457 were allowed through the gates in the first post-quota year.

The law was followed by another in 1924 which further restricted European immigration and which was signed by Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s vice president and successor after Harding died in 1923. The 1924 law also barred almost all immigration from Asia.

Although it is difficult to determine Cox’s position on immigration, and although the 1920 Democratic Party platform supported the continued ban on immigrants from Asia, it is possible that had Cox prevailed, he and Congress might not have followed in the restrictionist footsteps of Harding and his congressional allies. The Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) had vetoed restrictionist legislation twice during his tenure, perhaps largely based on the desire to gain the support of voters of southern and eastern European descent. (Okrent, p. 190 and p. 220) Cox may have continued Wilson’s stance on immigration policy.

Beyond his immigration policy, as president Hardingsurrounded himself with individuals who were later accused of misconduct” and “Harding himself allegedly had extramarital affairs and drank alcohol in the White House, a violation of the 18th Amendment.” 

With regard to Harding’s views on race, some claim that Harding was a “racially enlightened” president for the time, noting his support for anti-lynching legislation and a speech in Alabama in which he “argued for full economic and political rights for all African-Americans.” (See also here.) At the same time, some of his remarks on race are abominable. It has been noted that in the Alabama speech he asserted that “segregation was also essential to prevent ‘racial amalgamation,’ and social equality was thus a dream that blacks must give up.” In addition, Okrent states that Harding endorsed the book The Rising Tide of Color Against the White World-Supremacy by the white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, in which Stoddard sought “… to persuade his readers that worldwide catastrophe was in the offing, and that the central conflagration would be ignited by race.” (Okrent, pp. 264-265) (This endorsement apparently occurred during the same Alabama speech.) Moreover, Harding signed the 1921 immigration legislation, which “represented the culmination of decades of racial and religious-motivated bigotry against newcomers from southern and Eastern Europe and Asia.”


1964 was a key year in the civil rights movement. After years of peaceful activism demanding the equal treatment of African Americans, the movement helped achieve the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Beyond civil rights, one journalist states that 1964 “… was the year American culture fractured and eventually split along ideological lines — old vs. young; hip vs. square; poor vs. rich; liberal vs. conservative — establishing the poles of societal debate that are still raging today.” 

The 1964 presidential election offered stark choices. Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic incumbent, had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and promoted the Great Society, a group of government policies meant to end poverty and address other societal ills. His opponent, Barry Goldwater, opposed Johnson’s domestic agenda and as a senator had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, presaging the harnessing of white racial grievance by future Republican presidential candidates, although Goldwater personally “loathed segregation.” 

Although it has been noted that immigration policy was not a major issue during the 1964 presidential contest, Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address included this statement“We must also lift by legislation the bars of discrimination against those who seek entry into our country.” It is unclear what Goldwater’s vision was for immigration policy, although he apparently supported increasing immigration from Mexico. 

After Johnson’s re-election in 1964, his administration worked hard to overturn the immigration laws that had been enacted in the 1920s. Daniel Tichenor of the University of Oregon writes that “Johnson recognized that failing to spearhead an immigration overhaul would significantly undercut his civil-rights, social-justice, and geopolitical goals.” The end result was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which “… ended a draconian national-origins quota system that was explicitly rooted in eugenicist notions of Northern and Western European superiority.” Referring to the Statue of Liberty at the signing ceremony for the legislation, Johnson stated that “the lamp of this grand old lady is brighter today–and the golden door that she guards gleams more brilliantly in the light of an increased liberty for the people from all the countries of the globe.” (Okrent, p. 394)

The 1965 act led to more diverse immigration and higher overall levels. (Also see here and here.) The impact was significant: “… in the three decades following passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the United States, more than three times the number admitted over the preceding 30 years.” As of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, “fifty years after passage of the landmark law that rewrote U.S. immigration policy, nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the United States, pushing the country’s foreign-born share to a near record 14%.” Today about 33 million immigrants legally reside on a permanent basis in the U.S. and come from countries around the world.

Given the law’s connection to Johnson’s civil rights and social justice goals, which Goldwater did not emphasize, it is difficult to imagine that Goldwater would have helped orchestrate this transformation of the nation’s immigration laws. (While the 1965 law is preferable to those of the 1920s, it continues to be the foundation of today’s immigration enforcement regime, which inflicts enormous harm on both immigrants and Americans.)


America in 2020 rhymes with America in 1920 in a number of ways.  The U.S. is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and, although the influenza pandemic had ended a year earlier, memories of it must have been fresh. New rights were granted to groups in both years, with women gaining the suffrage in 1920 and LGBT individuals gaining new protections in 2020. Economic downturns characterize 2020 and a century ago. 1920 was bookended by pogroms against African Americans in 1919 and 1921, and 2020 has been characterized by continued violence by police and others towards African Americans. As in 1920, America today is home to an emboldened white supremacist movement.  

Moreover, like 1920, 2020 is a presidential election year in which one of the candidates has used the slogan “America First,” whose administration is scandalous (in Harding’s case, would be scandalous), and who is hostile to immigration, particularly immigrants who are not white Christians. (See here and here for more parallels between Harding and Trump. Like Harding, Trump also has made comments on race that are deplorable.) Julia Young of the Catholic University of America writes that

… the Trump administration has made it very clear that its vision for American greatness is a nativist one. In this nativist vision, the time period to which we return is one in which immigration is sharply restricted by national, ethnic, and religious criteria. Perhaps we have an answer, then, to the unanswered question within ‘Make America Great Again’: Trump’s America is looking more and more like the America of 1920.  

2020 also echoes 1964 in some ways. As I have noted, after years of activism, the passage of 1964 Civil Rights Act (the same legislation on which the Supreme Court based its 2020 decision granting employment protections for LGBT individuals) provided new protections for groups that had experienced discrimination, including African Americans. Similarly, widespread protests in 2020 against police mistreatment of African Americans have led to government initiatives at the federal and local levels to prevent further injustices. 

As in 1964, this year’s national election offers Americans two very different choices. However, unlike during the 1964 campaign, the outcomes of this year’s election for immigration policy are clearer. As I noted in a previous post, Trump and his Republican allies seek to diminish the flow of legal immigrants into the U.S. The Trump administration has used the current pandemic as an excuse to ban, ostensibly temporarily, almost all immigration. (See also here.) Trump’s re-election, combined with Republican control of Congress, could lead to a dramatic reduction in legal immigration.

A Biden victory, combined with Democratic control of Congress, would likely liberalize immigration policy. The Biden campaign website refers to immigration as “an irrefutable source of our strength” and states that “immigration is essential to who we are as a nation, our core values, and our aspirations for the future.” It notes the significant economic contribution of immigrants. It acknowledges the trauma inflicted by deportations, “including under the Obama-Biden Administration.” It notes the “moral failing” of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies, claiming that Biden will stop practices such as separating parents from their children at the southern border, forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for weeks before being allowed to apply for asylum, and raiding workplaces to arrest undocumented workers.   

Like Johnson, a President Biden would  “… commit significant political capital to finally deliver legislative immigration reform to ensure that the U.S. remains open and welcoming to people from every part of the world…” Among other proposals, he would work with Congress to enable the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to acquire legal status and eventually citizenship. He would back legislation that would provide agricultural workers who have long worked on U.S. farms an opportunity to gain permanent resident status. He would support legislation that would reduce wait times for family-based immigration. He would support creating new visas that would allow localities to petition for additional immigrant visas to support local economic growth, a topic that was addressed in a previous post. He would increase the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. He also would reinstate DACA and “… explore all legal options to protect their families from inhumane separation.”

Even if all of Biden’s immigration policy proposals were actually enacted, the results would fall far short of the aspirations of open borders advocates. In terms of increasing the number of immigrants admitted each year, it apparently fails to reach even the levels contained in the 2013 bill which passed the SenateHis platform also repeats the conventional and impossible intention to “uphold our laws humanely.” Nonetheless, the Biden policy would create more opportunities for immigrants and cause less suffering than that of Trump.

It is difficult to predict public support for Biden’s immigration policy.  Polls conducted in late 2018 and early 2019 suggest that most Americans think immigrants strengthen America and believe immigrants have positive attributes. In addition, “the percentage of Americans who said they want immigration levels to be reduced is at the lowest level, in two different polls, since that question was first asked going back to 1965 (in Gallup’s poll).” However, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and the journalist and author Charles C. Mann observes that “pandemics.. have long-term, powerful aftereffects.”  He notes that the 1918-19 flu pandemic “inspired fear of immigrants and foreigners…” With the coronavirus having spread to the U.S. from abroad, it is conceivable that the pandemic could lead to an increase in xenophobia in the U.S.

So will it be 1920 or 1964 for American immigration policy? In 2020, will Americans elect a nativist candidate, or will they choose a liberal who views immigration as essential to the country and welcomes immigrants from around the world? A Trump victory could doom the opportunities for many people to immigrate to the U.S. (or to legalize their status), as Harding’s victory did, and ensure the continuation of an exceptionally abusive immigration enforcement system. A Biden administration could increase the flow of immigrants into the U.S., as the Johnson administration did, eliminate some of the cruel elements of the Trump administration’s enforcement regime, and allow many unauthorized immigrants to gain permanent residency. We will know the answer soon.


Immigration Reform or Revolution?

The idea of unconditionally open international borders, and entirely free migration across them, faces a great deal of resistance. Resistance comes, not only from the right,1 but from those on the left who may support the notion, but fear that vociferous advocacy for border abolition will sabotage the hopes of incremental reform by stoking a xenophobia that empowers its opponents.2 It is true that if we advocate for the abolition of migration restrictions, we may fail to reach our goal. But if we refuse to advocate for them at all, we are certain never to. The surest way to kill radical change is to stay silent about radical ideas. Border abolitionism needs more than just sympathizers, it needs proponents unafraid to make themselves spokespersons. As Rosa Luxemburg, the nineteenth century Jewish-Polish Marxist, pointed out, it matters tremendously whether we voice support for reform or revolution.

In Rosa Luxemburg’s 1899 pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, she challenged the moderatism of Eduard Bernstein, a Marxist contemporary of Luxemburg’s who believed that capitalism could be overcome through incremental reform.3 Luxemburg’s chief admonition in the pamphlet was that reform, when accepted as the means to a revolutionary end, risks becoming the end goal itself. The danger of the revolutionary who embraces moderate incrementalism is that they become moderates who disavow revolution. 

Our program becomes not the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the system of wage labor, but the dimunation of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself.4

Those resisting any form of oppression, not just capitalism, should hearken to Luxemburg’s warning. It raises salient questions for those struggles against oppressive systems in which structural change feels further away than ever and there is anxiety about alienating moderates: should we engage with the project of that system’s reform, or should we endorse its abolition? 

Luxemburg’s question seems always to be hanging in the air for those of us who support the opening or abolition of national borders. Must we choose between incremental “immigration reform,” and a real right to migrate? A few have come forward as notable carriers of the open-borders banner, such as New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo.5 There may be many more who, though silent, have been asking themselves Luxemburg’s question— closet border abolitionists who would tomorrow protect migration as the inalienable right of all, but do not think it politically acceptable to say so today. That was the kind of socialist Luxemburg was speaking to in her pamphlet, and that is the kind of “immigrant rights advocate” I want to speak to here: the person who wants to endorse an open border, but fears doing so. I hope Rosa will give that person a reason to participate in an anti-border revolution that needs their voice.

Reform is Sisyphean

Consider Rosa’s point that reform is Sisyphean. Luxemburg characterizes efforts to reform capitalism, such as labor unions, as labors of Sisyphus in that the incremental changes they achieve are often rolled back by the inherent injustices in the capitalist system that remains despite reforms.6  Luxemburg acknowledges that reforms like unions, while necessary to saving lives, are insufficient to eliminate systemic oppression. 

The problem with reforming an immigration law is that merely changing the way we exclude people fails to challenge the notion that the state has the right to exclude people at all. This concession keeps the inherent injustice of exclusion intact, justifying future revocations of otherwise progressive reforms. As author Natasha King points out about amnesties, a reform commonly thought of by progressives as a step forward, they historically accomplish little more than justifying tighter restrictions after they are passed.7 The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was a progressive reform for its time (among other things, it eliminated explicitly racist grounds for deportation)8 but by 1996 a host of new exclusionary rules made the law much more restrictive,9 among them measures that would grow the migrant prison camp system under each successive President.10 In 1979, 2,000 people were imprisoned on immigration charges on a given day in the United States, a number that has risen steadily over the decades and is today over 52,000.11 In 2013 congress seriously debated an “immigration reform” bill establishing lawful status for millions living without it12 – but today it is debating bills taking away legal status from many who have enjoyed it for decades.13

Changes that allow some to enter but fail to establish an inalienable right to migrate for all, are only temporary. Within them lies the seed of their undoing because they reinforce the idea that the nation state has the authority to discriminate on account of birthplace and ancestry. Our unwillingness to identify an open border as our goal concedes authority to the lies that undergird the immigration system’s brutality – that the state has the right to exclude and that no one has a right to migrate. Without abolition, we lose the war before we can even win the battle. 

Borders are Anti-Democratic

The fight to destroy the border is the fight to save democracy. Luxemburg dismisses Bernstein’s notion that democracy and capitalism are compatible. “He who renounces the struggle for socialism, renounces both the labor movement and democracy.”14 Here, Luxemburg challenged the notion that inherently oppressive systems can coexist with the principals of equality and personal liberty that characterize democracy.

A closed border, and the presuppositions that enforce its closure, must be called out as incompatible with democracy today. As other movements against other forms of oppression have recognized, excluding any group of people from an allegedly democratic order means we have no democracy at all. 15 The conventional view is that “democracy requires a bounded polity whose members exercise self-determination including control over their own boundaries.” 16 But some, like academics Nandita Sharma, Bridget Anderson, Cynthia Wright17 and Arash Abizadeh,18 have pointed out an inherent contradiction between maintaining a democratic order based on equality and personal freedom on the one hand, and the brutal social caste and deportation which the conventional “bounded polity” demands on the other. “Anyone who accepts a genuinely democratic theory of political legitimation domestically,” Abizadeh writes, “is thereby committed to rejecting the unilateral domestic right to control and close the state’s boundaries.”19 The only true democratic order is one in which no border exists to diminish the rights and liberties of some. This understanding is missing from most mainstream “immigrant rights” conversations, who limit themselves to practical or moral arguments against migration restrictions,20 and lack the insight of Luxemburg’s exhortation that the survival of democracy is itself on the line. 

Because democracy itself is endangered, Luxemburg’s other democratic point is that the fight against capitalism is not just about the liberation of workers. Similarly, the fight against the border is not just about the liberation of migrants. The right to migrate is no more reserved for those migrating than, say, the right to free speech is only for those speaking – like all rights if they are not ensured for those invoking them today, they will not exist for those who must call upon them tomorrow. “Immigrant” and “refugee” are identities assigned randomly by geography and time – any one of us could find ourselves tomorrow outside our state of citizenship fleeing violence, chasing work, or pulled by love. As they say, our liberation is bound up with the liberation of others. Border abolition is a fight for liberty itself, against the idea of caste itself, and none of us can be whole or truly free until that fight is won. 

Reform is for the Privileged 

Those of us who are safe have no authority to ask those in danger to wait for safety. Luxemburg describes Bernstein as out of touch with workers, and unfit to speak for them.21  She is reminding us that privilege is relevant to the moral authority with which one resists change. The privileged person who is not affected by immigration restrictions possesses questionable moral authority to oppose border abolition. I have no place asking those imprisoned because of where they were born to wait for liberty; I cannot ask the parent who seeks through movement to improve the lot of their children to wait for better lives; and it is indefensible for me, from my safe position, to ask those fleeing violence to wait for safety. 

The right to migrate is a right precisely because it commands with urgency a freedom which must be ensured now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., making the abolitionist argument against American apartheid, condemned calls to wait for farer political weather, reminding the privileged that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”22 The privileged citizen will advocate for the end of migration controls of every kind, or that person will ally themselves with the violence of deportation – but there is no middle ground. These are the high stakes Luxemburg is asking her readers to own.

Borders are not Sustainable

Closed borders are also not sustainable. One of Luxemburg’s primary reasons for rejecting Bernstein’s incrementalism was her disagreement with his view that capitalism could be improved upon, that is, made politically sustainable. Luxemburg believed capitalism was inherently self-destructive, no matter how much this or that reform allegedly softened its edges. Bernstein argued that capitalism could manage its own internal contradictions, and the modern acceptance of closed borders asks us to believe the same. But as discussed above, there is an inherent contradiction between maintaining a society in which democracy and equality are supposed to be bedrock principles and surrounding that society with a border that creates a sub-class of human beings who are not equal and cannot participate in that democracy. Eventually one of those forces begins to destroy the other. 

The unsustainability of these inherent contradictions of exclusionary institutions like borders, and even citizenship itself, is something Hannah Arendt pointed out in her 1954 work The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt argued that immigration and citizenship law inevitably create a population of rightless “stateless” individuals, who lack even the right to have rights.23 She wrote that the lack of status for members of this group inevitably becomes corrosive to the entire democratic integrity of the society.24 Arendt identified the rightless legal status of political refugees as among the conditions in post-First World War Europe that facilitated the rise of totalitarianism there: 

Once a number of stateless people were admitted to an otherwise normal country, statelessness spread like a contagious disease. Not only were naturalized citizens in danger of reverting to the status of statelessness, but living conditions for all aliens markedly deteriorated.25

The longer we have normalized and accepted closed borders, the greater danger they have posed to the liberty of both non-citizens and citizens alike, as Arendt predicted. 

The exclusionary treatment of non-citizens has only deepened from the time that exclusion was accepted as law. Closed borders are themselves an historically recent phenomenon barely older than Coca Cola – there were effectively no federal immigration laws in the United States prior to 1875,26 and not even any U.S. border patrol until 1924.27 As author Teresa Hayter reminds us of migration restrictions, “[f]ar from being a natural feature of the political landscape, they are a relatively recent and disastrous distortion of it.“28 Yet the first closed borders of the late nineteenth century have given us fortress Europe and the mass carceral-deportation machine of Obama and Trump. Where once people crossed painlessly from country to country, now thousands die annually attempting to cross the deserts of North America and the seas of Europe. The number held in prison camps only rises with the passing of time. By the time Reagan was president, the open door of Ellis Island was politically unimaginable, but by the time Trump was president the same could be said of Reagan’s 1986 amnesty. Each new brutality justifies the next, more severe incarnation of violence.  

But the liberty of citizens has also fared worse as the brutality against non-citizens has escalated. Today, citizens can be jailed for decades just for giving water or comfort to people who dare transgress the inviolable border.29 The history of the law that criminalizes such aid and comfort is demonstrative of this escalation – originally passed in 1917, it became a felony in 1952, and the penalty for its violation was increased in 1994, 1996 and 2004 respectively.30  It is difficult to ignore the correlation between harsher treatment of migrating people and the erosion of liberty generally. Consider how democratic institutions and independent judiciaries have been weakened in the United States, Poland, and Hungary by parties and leaders carried into power on the popularity of their xenophobic platforms.31 Just as Marxists warn that capitalism would in time collapse into greater suffering, borderism too is collapsing into an anti-democratic, illiberal order. 

From an Arendtian perspective, no reform can overcome these internal contradictions, so none can make the border sustainable. 

The Revolution

None of these insights mean, however, that settling in the abolitionist camp precludes support for reformist measures. Luxemburg acknowledged that we can and should pursue reform consistent with abolitionist goals, as long as revolution remains the goal and not mere reform.32 This is also how Angela Davis has positioned reform within the prison abolitionist movement, instructing that “[w]e support reforms that will make life more livable for prisoners, while we call for the abolition of prisons as the default solution for the social problems that prison presumes to solve but cannot.”33 The pursuit of revolution requires us to support reform measures whose goals and rhetoric are consistent with abolition, and with the understanding that incremental changes – like “comprehensive immigration reform” – are not goals. The end of those exclusionary forces that preserve privilege for some at the expense of others’ dignity – all migration restrictions, and yes, citizenship and nationalism as we know them today – are the kind of immigration revolution that is fit to be our goal. If the opportunity should arise to make, say, asylum less restrictive on the path to that goal, we should seize the chance to save lives, but only while acknowledging that justice is nevertheless delayed and denied. As No One is Illegal activist Harsha Walia put it, “[w]e aim for campaigns with short-term goals that are not fundamentally at odds with – but rather advance and strengthen – our long-term vision of naming and transforming the root causes of injustice.”34

Demanding revolution rather than reform also demands vocal advocacy. Borders have, through normalization, calcified into a hard boundary around our moral and political imaginations. Other progressives need your voice to hear that a borderless world is possible. Be open with friends and colleagues about your position, write op-eds, go on the record. When you’re told why a borderless world won’t work, do ask how well borders, and the countless lives they claim, are working today. Talk about the right to migrate like it’s real, and the borders like they’re fiction, because both are. Match the outrage your views will inevitably stoke in your opponents. You are right to lose patience with tinkering around the edges of the border’s brutality, and with groveling for crumbs of justice: Family-based visas reduce to a privilege for the few what should be the right of all, and asylum amounts only to exclusive access to freedom —the opposite of a right to migrate. Partial justice is not justice. Our tolerance of it only undermines progress and exonerates injustice. 

Many fear that unapologetic advocacy for border abolition stokes conservative or fascist backlash and some may even blame that advocacy for undermining democracy for this reason. Their fear may be justified, but their blame is misplaced. Xenophobia, like fascism, does not need provocation to fuel its lust for brutality, and it alone is to blame for its violence. Consider the popular far right labeling of any immigration policy that isn’t indiscriminate deportation as “open borders.” A “backlash” describes some aggressive rhetorical or political movement, and we are already faced with that. As I discuss above, despite decades of timid proposals like DACA, or perhaps because of them, the far-right’s escalation of violence against migrating people has only become more aggressive, and more popular, not less. Far right ideologies cannot be appeased or met half-way, that only emboldens and legitimizes them. They must be fought and resisted, and provocation is ideal for triggering confrontations in which this fighting can commence. Mohandas Gandhi’s quip “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” is a good summary of how social justice movements from Selma to South Africa have used the provocation of oppressive institutions to ultimately destroy them. As xenophobia pushes increasingly violent and anti-democratic policies, the incompatibility between democracy and borders will become more transparent and the moral necessity for free migration will become more obvious. Perhaps that is why Bryan Caplan’s new graphic novel “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration,” the first book on the New York Times bestseller list to push open borders,35 has proven itself so popular – not in spite of but precisely because of the political era in which it has been released. 

Abolition of the current system will not come without a fight, which is another point not lost on Rosa Luxemburg, herself imprisoned and eventually murdered for her ideas. Our willingness to so publicly struggle will build momentum, and eventually, a movement. Waiting until the political terrain is right for border abolition ensures it will never garner further support. Rosa Luxemburg understood this. More of us need to. 

Creative Commons License Immigration and American Democracy in 2021 is licensed by Joel Newman under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.