August 11, 2019

Immigration: Do Democrats Want Open Borders?

border fence

Suppose a country had a law that made it a crime to spit on the sidewalk. This was an old law that had been around almost as long as the country itself. Although it was still on the books, nobody had been arrested for it in years. Law enforcement had no interest in enforcing it, and politicians were happy to ignore it. Some brave individuals had even tested it by making a point of spitting on the sidewalk right in front of police officers. There were never any consequences for doing so. No arrests, no prosecutions, and no penalties.

What might we reasonably conclude about how the country described above views spitting on sidewalks? Does the fact that they have opted not to enforce this law mean that they want people to spit on the sidewalk? Does it mean that they wish more people would spit on sidewalks? It probably doesn't mean either of those things. It seems like a stretch to say that the fact that they no longer enforce this law means that they want more sidewalk spitting. It probably indicates that they have decided that spitting on the sidewalk is not enough of a concern to warrant enforcement. This could be a moral decision (i.e., spitting isn't worthy of punishment) or a decision based on resources (e.g., law enforcement has better things to do than spend their time on this). Neither implies that the country is now for sidewalk spitting.

Might we learn something from this odd hypothetical about some aspects of the debate over immigration? Suppose that a number of Democratic politicians running for office decided that the manner in which our immigration laws are enforced should be changed to become less restrictive. Does this necessarily mean that they are for open borders? I don't think it does. Some of them might believe that border enforcement is necessary but needs to be done differently. This is very different from proclaiming that there should be no border security or that anyone who wants to enter the country and remain here should be able to do so without restriction.

I have seen a handful of self-described liberals on social media who do claim to be for "open borders," but I have yet to hear any of the current Democratic candidates for president saying this. Most seem to think our border enforcement procedures should be more humane, some think the process of immigration should be at least somewhat easier, and at least a couple support changing the law so that illegal entry becomes a civil rather than a criminal issue. We can certainly argue about the effects these measures might have, but none of what I have heard the candidates propose amounts to "open borders."

Unfortunately, I am not sure any of this matters. The narrative has been written by the right that anyone who supports changes to immigration policy that do not make it more difficult for immigrants to enter or for those who are already here to stay here is for "open borders." This reminds me of the "tough on crime" nonsense Republicans pushed, Democrats fell for, and that is now prompting apologies from Joe Biden. I wonder if Democrats will ever decide to stop allowing the right to control the narrative?