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.