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?

1920

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

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.)

2020

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. 

Trump Critics’ Flawed Pronouncements on Immigration Policy

Donald Trump and his administration are abominable. At the same time, some of his prominent critics have made statements on immigration policy that are flawed. These critics include the editorial page of The New York Times, many of the Democratic presidential primary contenders, and Andrew Sullivan, a conservative commentator.

My criticism of the Times and the Democrats stems from the fact that it is impossible to have humane immigration restrictions, contrary to what they suggest. In Sullivan’s case, I challenge several of his policy positions. Moreover, they are all apparently opposed to open borders, disregarding solid arguments for this policy.  

The Times’ July editorial, entitled “The Immigration Crisis Is Corrupting the Nation,” decried the cruelty of the administration’s immigration enforcement, highlighting the mistreatment of immigrant children in detention facilities. It concluded that “… only a desensitized nation could continue to permit the separation of children from their parents — and detaining all of them in atrocious conditions — as a morally acceptable form of deterrence.”

While I support condemnation of the administration’s immigration policies, the implication of the editorial, including its title, is that the country’s current immigration policy has passed a line separating humane and inhumane policies. Unlike the policies of previous administrations, the editorial seems to be saying, the Trump administration’s policy is making many Americans callous about the impact of enforcement on immigrants; the policies of previous administrations were not so cruel as to “corrupt the nation.”  

However, there is no line separating humane immigration restrictions from inhumane ones. This reality was suggested by the organization No One is Illegal in their 2003 Manifesto, which states that while “many of those critical of (immigration) controls believe that such controls can somehow be sanitized, be rendered fair… the achievement of fair immigration restrictions… would require a miracle.”

Ever since the federal government began restricting immigration in the late 19th century, the effect has been uninterrupted suffering by people seeking to improve their lives through migration. Beginning in 1882, immigration laws targeting Chinese immigrants led to denials of entry into the U.S., long detentions, and separated families. Laws enacted in the 1920s significantly reduced immigration from Europe, which prevented many from fleeing the horrors of the Nazism. In the 1930s the U.S. deported more than a million people of Mexican heritage, most of whom were U.S. citizens, and in the 1950s hundreds of thousands more were deported, again including American citizens. According to one journalist, in the 1950s operation “… tens of thousands of immigrants were shoved into buses, boats and planes and sent to often-unfamiliar parts of Mexico, where they struggled to rebuild their lives. In Chicago, three planes a week were filled with immigrants and flown to Mexico. In Texas, 25 percent of all of the immigrants deported were crammed onto boats later compared to slave ships, while others died of sunstroke, disease and other causes while in custody.” 

Immigration enforcement continued to harm people during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. In the 1980s and 1990s tens of thousands of Haitians fleeing violence and poverty in their country were intercepted by the U.S. government at sea and sent back to Haiti. In addition, thousands of immigrants have died trying to enter the U.S. due to a border enforcement strategy implemented in the 1990s, as explained by Wayne Cornelius of the University of California, San Diego, in 2006: “By forcing migrants to attempt entry in extremely hazardous mountain and desert areas, rather than the relatively safe urban corridors traditionally used, the concentrated border enforcement strategy has contributed directly to a ten-fold increase in migrant fatalities since 1995… Since 1995, more than 4,045 migrants have perished from dehydration in the deserts, hypothermia in mountainous areas, and drowning in the irrigation canals that parallel the border in California and Arizona.”  The George W. Bush administration executed large scale raids at businesses that led to the detention and deportation of thousands of immigrant workers in the 2000s, including one raid which resulted in “… children who had no idea their mother or father was not coming home. The children went significant periods of time alone and uncared for.” 

Consider also immigration enforcement under President Obama.  During the last five years of his administration, the U.S. and Mexico sent close to a million migrants from Central America back to their home countries. As Nicholas Kristof observed in 2016, “… we help pay for Mexico to intercept them along its southern border and send them — even children like Elena — back home, where they may well be raped or killed… Nobody knows exactly how many people have been murdered or raped after deportation because of this American-Mexican policy, but there’s no doubt many have been. I heard of one Salvadoran man who was shot by a gang within hours of being deported by Mexico. Indeed, by some accounts, the gangs keep an eye on the buses arriving in San Salvador and unloading deportees, who become sitting ducks.”

Many who made it to the U.S. experienced mistreatment by the government under Obama. In 2015, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission reported that “‘while these immigrants migrate to the United States to escape harsh living conditions, once they cross the U.S. border without authorization and proper documentation, the federal government apprehends and detains these individuals in conditions that are similar, if not worse, than the conditions they faced from their home countries.’”

During the Obama administration there was a devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Following the disaster, a U.S. Air Force plane flew over Haiti broadcasting a message from the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., who said in the message, meant to dissuade Haitians from fleeing to the U.S. on boats, “’If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.’” The Coast Guard patrolled Haitian waters, ready to intercept anyone trying to escape. Many lined up outside the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, hoping to be allowed to flee Haiti, but only those with U.S. passports were to be airlifted out of the country

Raids, detentions, deportations, dangerous attempts to evade border controls, forcing would be immigrants to remain in perilous situations in other countries, and mistreatment by government agents and others have all been characteristic of immigration restrictions for over a century. The Times itself recently noted that “every person who assumes the title of president of the United States also takes on the role of deporter in chief.” Even if U.S. immigration policies revert to the status quo ante Trump, they in no way could be considered humane.

Like the Times, several Democratic presidential primary contenders apparently subscribe to the concept of humane immigration restrictions. Julian Castro proposes decriminalizing crossing the U.S. border without authorization. (See also here. ) A number of other contenders also have signaled their support for Castro’s proposal.  Some commentators (see here and here) claimed that Castro was advocating open borders, which he denied. He stated that “we can maintain a secure border, but we can also treat people with basic respect and compassion and common sense.” While decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings would deny the government one less tool to torment immigrants, it would leave the fundamental restrictionist infrastructure in place, as Castro himself acknowledgedThe inhumanity of restricted immigration would continue.

Sullivan, a conservative who demonstrates his anti-Trump boni fides by noting that “for Trump, lying is central to his disturbed psyche,”   doesn’t claim that immigration policy can be made humane, but several of his views on immigration warrant criticism. To begin with, Sullivan advocates a reduction in the number of legal immigrants allowed into the U.S., as well as “a new focus on skills.” He wants “to slow the pace of this country’s demographic revolution” in order to weaken white supremacy, among other goals; he suggests that mass immigration “was the single biggest reason why Trump was elected president.” While it is true that Trump tapped into white nationalist sentiment to help him win the 2016 election and while I applaud Sullivan’s goal of weakening white nationalism, I have argued the opposite: increasing immigration levels may be a good way to marginalize white nationalism.  

Sullivan also writes: “In the U.S. in the 21st century, should anyone who enters without papers and doesn’t commit a crime be given a path to citizenship? Should all adversely affected by climate change be offered a path to citizenship if they make it to the border? Should every human living in violent, crime-ridden neighborhoods or countries be granted asylum in America? Is there any limiting principle at all?” These are rhetorical questions for Sullivan, who clearly has a narrow conception of whom should be allowed to immigrate to the U.S., but based on the solid arguments for open borders, my answers to the first three questions are “yes,” and the answer to the last is “yes, but…”  

The “limiting principle” is one articulated by Joseph Carens and Michael Huemerand while it is not easily dismissed, it should not block the implementation of open borders. The principle is that extremely harmful swamping (huge migration flows in a short period of time under open borders) could override arguments for open borders. It is difficult to predict what migration flows might look like with open borders or what the impacts of swamping might be. Some researchers suggest an overall positive result for both immigrants and receiving countries if there are huge numbers of people who end up migrating. In the end, it is necessary to accept uncertainty when making radical policy changes that are morally warranted. (See here for a more in depth discussion of swamping.) 

Another issue is Sullivan’s traditional view of whom should be considered a refugee. He subscribes to the longstanding legal definition that asylum should only be granted to those who are fleeing certain forms of persecution. He rejects those fleeing climate change, violent conditions, or poor economies as worthy of admittance into the U.S. on those grounds.

However, this narrow view of what constitutes a valid humanitarian claim to entry is untenable. Sullivan is of Irish descent, but applying his limited view of whom should be admitted to the U.S. to those fleeing the potato famine of the 19th century would have meant barring the entry of hundreds of thousands of Irish at risk of starvation. The Irish migration constituted, as Sullivan remarked about some of the migration from Central America, “classic economic immigration… that it has absolutely nothing to do with asylum.” Yet dismal economic conditions can lead to severe bodily harm and death, just as persecution can, and in 21st century Guatemala, some are also dying from crop failures, spurring emigration from the country. And what about Venezuelans who have fled their country because of a lack of food and medical care? 

With regard to Sullivan’s dismissal of living in violent, crime-ridden countries as grounds for admittance, he is disregarding the risk people are exposed to in countries wracked by war (Syria, South Sudan, etc.) or whose governments are unable to provide basic security (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, etc.)  (See here and here for further analysis of the shortcomings of the current refugee regime.)

Finally, for those who do make it to the U.S., Sullivan suggests that it is unlikely that they will ever be deported, calculating that annually two percent of undocumented immigrants are deported from the U.S.; for most of the undocumented in the U.S., “no consequences will follow for crossing the border without papers.” However, the two percent deported translates to hundreds of thousands people who are ejected from the country each year, and since most undocumented adults in the U.S. have resided in the country for more than ten years, many of the deportees’ lives are being shattered. In addition, there are other consequences beyond deportation for unauthorized entry, such as languishing in border detention facilities and/or being separated from family members.  Even immigrants who have been able to evade apprehension face the continual threat of arrest and deportation, causing immeasurable stress for them and their families, and their undocumented status makes access to decent jobs and college difficult. And many of those who make it to the U.S. have had to endure dangerous and expensive journeys to get here. 

It also should be noted that not many undocumented immigrants even make it to the U.S. There are currently between 10 and 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., which means that only about 3% of the people in the U.S. are undocumented out of a total population of nearly 330 million. Furthermore, compare the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to the over 150 million people worldwide who would like to move to the U.S. 

I do not question the intentions of those whom I have criticized in this piece, whether they be to reduce the cruelty of current immigration enforcement or to corral white nationalism. In addition, some of these individuals in their hearts may support a much more open immigration system than what they publicly advocate but are constrained by political considerations. After all, running for public office on a platform of open borders would be imprudent. I suggested as much in my last post. 

For those of prominence who do recognize that open borders is the only moral immigration policy and that it is impossible to have a restrictionist policy that is humane, they should publicly acknowledge these truths. At the same time, they also can concede that for now our society is not ready for such a transformation, while pushing for improvements in the system, such as Casto’s proposal to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings. That would be an honest and realistic stance on immigration policy .

 

Increase Immigration Levels to Weaken White Supremacy

White supremacists have expressed fear that Europeans and those of European descent in the U.S. and other English speaking countries will become minorities in their countries due to immigration. This has been termed “The Great Replacement” and apparently inspired the Unite the Right marchers at the University of Virginia in 2017 to chant “You will not replace us.” (See here, here, here and here.) The suspect in the murders at mosques in New Zealand titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement.”   

White supremacists also have conjured up conspiracy theories that liberal elites are orchestrating this “replacement.” While I have never encouraged immigrants to come to the U.S. (they have their own motivations to migrate), I am a liberal who welcomes high levels of immigration as a means to reduce the proportion of the population which self-identifies as white. This reduction could help diminish the influence of white supremacists and their fellow travellers by shrinking the proportion of the population from which they can draw recruits and influence the country’s direction.

Unfortunately, white supremacy has always been part of America’s fabric. While the Declaration of Independence supports universal rights, former white nationalist Derek Black notes that the first naturalization laws in the 1790s restricted citizenship to white people and states that

the United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today. Things have improved from the radical promotion of white people at the expense of all others, which has persisted for most of our history, yet most of us have not accepted the extent to which white identity guides so much of what we still do. Sometimes it seems that the white nationalists are most honest about the very real foundation of white supremacy upon which our nation was built.”

A 2017 article in The New Yorker echoes Black’s analysis: “… the Founding Fathers organized their country along the bloody basis of what we now tend to understand as white supremacy.” And Adam Serwer notes in the Atlantic that

“America has always grappled with, in the words of the immigration historian John Higham, two ‘rival principles of national unity.’ According to one, the U.S. is the champion of the poor and the dispossessed, a nation that draws its strength from its pluralism. According to the other, America’s greatness is the result of its white and Christian origins, the erosion of which spells doom for the national experiment.”

The “radical promotion of white people” has had devastating consequences for millions. Native Americans were massacred and forced off the land they inhabited. African Americans endured centuries of slavery, followed by the oppression of segregation, disenfranchisement, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, “slavery by another name,” red-lining, police brutality, mass incarceration, and other forms of discrimination. Asian immigrants suffered violence and discrimination, particularly in the 19th century. Hundreds of thousands of Latino Americans were forcibly pushed out of the U.S., while others experienced mob violence and endured segregation.  Racist ideology directed against eastern and southern Europeans also led to the restrictive immigration legislation of the early 1920s, which ultimately blocked many Jews from fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. (See also here and here.)

In recent decades, overt white supremacy in the U.S. has weakened.  Research based on 2016 data suggests that less than 6% of non-Hispanic whites support the promotion of white interests over those of other groups. In addition, a 2017 poll, which apparently included respondents from a variety of racial and ethnic groups, found that strong majorities agreed that all races are equal and that all races should be treated equally. Moreover, the American public appears to be increasingly comfortable with diversity.  

However, the 2017 poll revealed that “while only 8 percent of respondents said they supported white nationalism as a group or movement, a far larger percentage said they supported viewpoints widely held by white supremacist groups.” The 2016 study also suggests that millions of European Americans think like the alt-right. (See also here. )

One implication of the resilience of white supremacist beliefs among many Americans has been hate crimes. Examples include the 2018 massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh, the violence in 2017 in Charlottesville, the 2015 massacre of African Americans at a South Carolina church, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Hundreds of people have been killed in recent years by white supremacists and members of the far right. Assaults, intimidation, and vandalism are other manifestations of this hate. 

Another implication of the continued existence of white supremacy in the U.S. has been the elevation of a demagogue, Donald Trump, to the presidency. Vox notes that “study after study has shown that Trump’s primary and general election victories were driven by the racial resentment and demographic panic he activated among white voters.” Adam Serwer also writes that “the specific dissonance of Trumpism—advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated—provides the emotional core of its appeal… As the president continues to pursue a program that places the social and political hegemony of white Christians at its core, his supporters have shown few signs of abandoning him.” The columnist Charles Blow has similarly stated that “Trump’s central promise as a politician has been the elevation, protection and promotion of whiteness, particularly white men who fear demographic changes and loss of status and privilege.” (See also here.)

Trump threatens our liberal democracy and encourages violence against his political opponents. Some his prominent supporters such as Steve Bannon, who has described himself as a “Leninist,” also apparently have little respect for liberal democracy. Moreover, his administration has exacerbated the suffering of immigrants through its draconian policies. And his resistance to tackling climate change threatens the future of all of humanity.

Accelerating the rate of immigration into the U.S. could help prevent the emergence of future politicians who use racist demagoguery to persuade a substantial share of the white population to vote for them. With more immigration, the portion of the electorate made up of those voters will diminish faster.

Unfortunately, this approach to squelch white nationalism has its risks and uncertainties. To begin with, increasing immigration levels to transform the country’s demographics faces headwinds. Some assume that the demographic status quo, even with no change to current immigration levels, will eventually produce an America with a diminished white population, given Census Bureau predictions that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of the population in the next two decades. However, the sociologist Herbert Gans posits that “… the ‘minority-majority’ forecast, as it is commonly interpreted, is likely to be proven wrong. Not only could whites remain a majority well past midcentury, but they will retain political, economic and cultural control of the country long after that.” He describes a “whitening” process whereby the offspring of intermarriage between individuals of different races often self-identify and are identified by others as “white.” He also notes “the long history of the whitening of populations previously labeled nonwhite,” such as immigrants from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe. Consider Stephen Miller, Trump’s ferociously restrictionist advisor, who also happens to be Jewish. 

Furthermore, elevated levels of immigration might push more white Americans towards nativism and white nationalism. While Americans are increasingly supportive of immigration to the U.S., with a large percentage believing immigrants are beneficial for the country and growing percentages supporting increased levels of immigration, more whites might feel threatened by greater numbers of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Indeed, most Americans either want to keep immigration at current levels (38%) or reduce the levels (24%). In fact, the political commentator Andrew Sullivan has argued that the Democratic Party must become more restrictionist to prevent Trump from winning re-election. 

Despite these uncertainties, accelerating the rate of immigration to combat white nationalism is a risk worth taking. With regard to the “whitening” process, the children and grandchildren of interracial intermarriage will likely be less receptive to white nationalism, given that they have familial connections to people who are racial minorities and that families with a history of intermarriage presumably hold more tolerant attitudes. This tolerance should coexist with a white identity. For example, as The Washington Post reports, some demographers “note that many Hispanics already identify as white and yet still vote like a minority group.”

As to the risk of driving more whites into the supremacist camp by increasing immigration, one should begin with the assumption that the Republican Party is a party of white nationalists and others who are comfortable making common cause with the nationalists, even though there is a minority of Republicans and Republican leaning leaning independents who support increased immigration levels. Therefore, the focus should be on whether some Democrats and Democratic leaning independents might defect to the Republicans if immigration levels are increased. A third of Americans apparently support an increase in legal immigration into the U.S., with 40% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents supporting the increase. Will increased immigration make many of the 60% of Democratic supporters who don’t endorse the increases receptive to white nationalism and/or greater immigration restrictions?  

Probably not. A political scientist has observed that “the Democratic Party is increasingly a coalition of professional-class whites and members of ethnic and racial minority groups.” Given the general cosmopolitanism of the Democratic Party, most of its supporters who don’t support increasing immigration levels likely would never support white nationalism and the Republican Party associated with it. In addition, most voters probably do not make electoral decisions based on a single issue. It therefore seems likely that most Democrats would swallow increased immigration levels while continuing to oppose the Republicans. A Washington Post columnist recently posited that “there’s virtually no evidence that support for more immigration is a political liability… At worst, an immigration supporter will lose the 30 percent of voters he or she would have lost anyway.”   

In fact, increasing numbers of Democrats may be persuaded to accept more immigration if that means preventing future demagogues from becoming president. It should be emphasized to Democrats that Trump is the catastrophic consequence of having an electorate with a large proportion of racist whites. Changing that electorate through accelerated immigration flows could be promoted as a way to vaccinate society against future demagoguery.

The vitality of jurisdictions with diverse populations should also be highlighted, including those with “majority minority” populations.   An article in Axios points out that “non-white Americans are now the majority of the population in four states, as well as in the most prosperous and powerful U.S. cities.”

One of these cities is San Antonio. Referring to white fears about America becoming a majority minority country, a journalist and San Antonio resident writes that

“… I’m here to calm those fears. Hear me out. I have seen the future and it is … San Antonio.  When I came to San Antonio to attend college in 1964, non-Hispanic whites, aka Anglos, were in the majority. It was about the time I left, in 1968, that this status changed. The 1970 census put us at 48 percent.

Anglos have been in the minority fully 50 years. Now we’re at just over 25 percent. Latinos are 63 percent and blacks 7 percent.

So how are things going for us Anglos now that we make up only one-quarter of the nation’s seventh-largest city? Has the city stagnated in a sea of corruption? Have our fellow Anglos fled after being subjected to discrimination and abuse?

The reality is that San Antonio cannot be compared with the stagnant, overgrown town it was is in the late 1960s when we Anglos were in the majority…

San Antonio showed little ambition and a well-earned inferiority complex. Its national image was such that outsiders were often surprised to learn that the city had an airport…

Fast forward 50 years to today. San Antonio is thriving as one of the U.S.’ fastest-growing cities – 1.5 million and counting. Its economy is humming and diversifying, with cybersecurity as a key growth industry. Downtown, previously almost abandoned to tourists, is booming both as a business center and residential magnet.

I’m not suggesting Latinos alone lead to the city’s economic growth. Anglos still dominate the business sector. But Latinos certainly contributed to that growth, both politicians – led early by Henry Cisneros – and business leaders.

Our 11-member City Council has been made up of at least five Latinos and one black member since 1977, with only a few years excepted. Cisneros was elected the first Hispanic mayor of modern times in 1981, but there have been only two Hispanic mayors since. Ivy Taylor served as the city’s first black mayor from 2014-2017.

That is partly because the Hispanic population doesn’t vote as vigorously as Anglos and blacks. It is also because Latino voters are discriminating – in the best sense of the word – but don’t discriminate, in the word’s worst sense.

Today’s seven-member “minority” majority on City Council is hardly lacking in qualifications. Every one has a graduate degree, even though most come from modest backgrounds. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) has a degree in chemical engineering from MIT, a masters in civil and environmental engineering from Stanford, and a masters in public health from Harvard.

Like all American cities, San Antonio has serious problems: severe economic and racial segregation, many underperforming schools, environmental challenges, a severe lack of adequate mass transit, and more. But we’re working on it together.

White folks who are frightened at becoming a minority need to understand the U.S.’ amazing power of assimilation. San Antonio has thrived under a City government that for 40 years has been governed by racial and ethnic minority councils, mostly the children and grandchildren of Mexican immigrants…

White Americans should not be afraid of such successes. They should be proud of them.”

Houston, another Texas city with a majority minority population, has been deemed the most diverse U.S. city. Like San Antonio, it has challenges, but a Rice University sociologist argues that ethnic tensions in the city have eased over the years and states that “’No city has benefited from immigration more than Houston, Texas.’” 

In addition, immigration supporters can point to small American towns that have succeeded while ethnically diversifying. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes about Willmar, Minnesota, population 21,000. It “is now nearly half Latino, Somali and a Noah’s ark of other East African and Asian immigrants. The languages spoken in the high school include English, Arabic, Somali, Spanish and Karen (spoken by an ethnic group from Myanmar).”  According to Friedman, the town has welcomed its immigrant workers, who fill jobs in a local economy with almost no unemployment and without enough “white Lutheran Scandinavians” to fill them. The town’s mayor, who favors helping immigrants integrate into the community, was elected convincingly when he ran against an anti-immigrant candidate.

Thriving Canadian cities also demonstrate the success of diverse societies in North America. Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them highlights Toronto, Canada as successfully integrating its ethnically diverse population. At the same time, the city has been highly ranked for its quality of life. About half of its population consists of “visible minorities.” (See also here, here, and  here.)

As a political matter, pushing for increasing immigration levels is probably a better approach to diminishing the influence of white racism than pushing for open borders. While open borders is the best policy choice from a moral standpoint, most Americans would be very uncomfortable with open borders, and calling for just an increase in immigration levels would be more palatable for voters than the radical approach. 

How much of an increase should be championed? In 2013, the U.S. Senate approved legislation which would have raised legal immigration levels by 50 to 70 percent within five years, which suggests a politically realistic goal. A more ambitious campaign would promote an annual immigration flow of between 6-7 million people and would cite the Israeli experience of successfully absorbing a comparable flow in the 1990s.

It is acknowledged that there is no easy solution to individual acts of violence and other harassment based on hatred toward a particular ethnic or racial group. But preventing future nationalist demagogues from attaining power means that there would not be people in power provoking individuals to act out their worst instincts.

While pushing to transform the nation’s population for political ends may seem brazen, the nationalists are not timid about realizing their own version of social engineering. While Trump’s recent proposal to overhaul legal immigration apparently would not change immigration levels, just last year he proposed changes which, according to The Washington Post, “could cut off entry for more than 20 million legal immigrants over the next four decades.” Michael Clemens noted that “’By greatly slashing the number of Hispanic and black African immigrants entering America, this proposal would reshape the future United States. Decades ahead, many fewer of us would be nonwhite or have nonwhite people in our families… Selectively blocking immigrant groups changes who America is. This is the biggest attempt in a century to do that.’” Dana Milbank of The Washington Post similarly summarized the intent of the legislation: “… the Trump-backed immigration proposal, combined with other recent moves by the administration and its allies — support for voter suppression, gerrymandering and various other schemes to disenfranchise minority voters — could extend the white hegemony that brought Trump to power and sustains Republicans.” Trump also  revealed his preferences for whom should immigrate when he infamously asked last year “… why we want people from Haiti and more Africans in the US and added that the US should get more people from countries like Norway.”

White supremacy has been a blight on America, from its origins up to the present, and its marginalization is long overdue. Allowing higher levels of immigration into the U.S. could be an effective way to erode its influence, and increasing immigration levels should be promoted by those who hope for a more tolerant and better governed America.

 

Creative Commons License Transforming America’s Policing and Immigration Systems is licensed by Joel Newman under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.