It’s Time For A Reality Check: Hysteria About 'Open Borders' Is Just That — Hysteria

In this March 13, 2018, photo, officials stand guard near one of the border wall prototypes during a visit to San Diego by President Donald Trump, seen from Tijuana, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP)
In this March 13, 2018, photo, officials stand guard near one of the border wall prototypes during a visit to San Diego by President Donald Trump, seen from Tijuana, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP)

The United States has made itself vulnerable to attack with “open borders!”

I have that on authority from President Trump, who hyperventi-tweeted last week about a “caravan” of Central American immigrants bearing down on our southern flank amid Democrats’ support for “open borders, drugs and crime!” So vulnerable is our border with Mexico, allegedly, that Trump vows to secure it with National Guardsmen.

But when even Breitbart News cries pants on fire — its immigration reporter said most of that supposedly invading horde planned to settle in Mexico or else legally seek refugee status here — it’s time for a reality check:

We don’t have open borders. That designation means something different than what you probably think it means. And we aren’t going to adopt the idea.

First, the mandatory Trump correction: His claim that we must militarize the border to secure it is merely raw meat for his xenophobic base. Border arrests last year hit a nearly half-century low, partly because we’ve tightened security (that began before Trump took office, incidentally), and also because of population declines and prosperity increases in Latin America.

So our border is no more “open” than Trump’s voters are open to becoming Muslim. But is there a real threat that the border might become open? Answering that question requires knowing what “open border” means.

It’s true that the concept’s most extreme advocates lobby for, in one group’s words, “the opportunity for all people (with very few exceptions) to live in the country of their choice.” But as an analyst wrote in Salon, “The real-world political debate takes place within an overwhelming international consensus favoring almost completely closed borders. ...The most permissive country in the family of wealthy liberal democracies isn’t very open at all.

Even Scandinavian nations, those progressive heavens on earth beloved by Bernie Sanders and his Bros, have tightened their borders recently in response to immigration. The U.N. reports that during the first 15 years of the 21st century, 63 countries, including ours, saw their migrant population grow by just 2 percent annually — far below the 19 countries with 6 percent yearly growth.

In short, whether the prospect of open borders thrills or chills you, the notion that our immigration policy embraces it, or soon might, is held only by people who race into pizza joints to break up sex rings. Supporters of immigration reform (me, for one) would change entry criteria and let in more people, not declare olly olly oxen free.


There are responsible advocates of a form of open borders, under which we would liberalize entry standards based only on employment. “Workers become far more productive when they move from a poor country to a rich one,” and they’d turbo-charge global wealth if developed nations opened borders, The Economist magazine argues. ”Suddenly, they can join a labor market with ample capital, efficient firms and a predictable legal system.”

They recycle the expert consensus debunking fears that immigrants seriously depress native workers’ wages, noting that newcomers start new, innovative businesses that hire native-borns. They may “slightly” push down wages of native workers with similar skills but usually bring different skills, from medicine and engineering (which we need) to child and elder care (which Americans often disdain as too low-paying).

Such a policy “does not mean ‘no borders’ or ‘the abolition of the nation-state,’” the magazine says. “On the contrary, the reason why migration is so attractive is that some countries are well-run and others, abysmally so.”

I’m wary of the potential downsides, which the editors admit. They say space-crunched cities could house new residents by building up, but in the U.S., NIMBYs make that difficult.

While immigrants historically have improved U.S. culture (something Trump, descended from once-maligned German immigrants, ignores), those that come from authoritarian or homophobic cultures could stoke those already too-fiery tendencies in our country. (The Economist suggests we could buy time to assimilate them with, say, a waiting period before they could vote, which the editors deem kinder than denying entry altogether).

Anyway, in this Trump-ish and Brexit moment, open borders are going nowhere, which reinforces the main point: Populist, xenophobic hysteria about porous boundaries is just hysteria. Trump’s manipulating these fears to deploy the National Guard until he gets his stalled border wall means an expensive diversion of soldiers from more appropriate military work.

Throw in the fact that there are legal questions about what the military might do at the border, since it’s barred from direct law enforcement, and you’re left with an objectively dumb waste of taxpayer money.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.



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