While gut reactions to immigration policy tend to lean toward extremism, only moderate policies seem politically feasible.
Certain debates come along that define the way political discourse gets carried out for the next generation. In American history, the most prevalent examples are slavery in the early republic and government intervention in the market starting around the time of the Great Depression. The first tore the nation in two, and if the New Deal had not been enacted, the U.S. might very well have lacked the strength to turn the tide in the Second World War. Like these debates, the arguments surrounding immigration policy today could go anywhere in terms of policy, but their importance is certain.
Immigration is a global issue, but the plight of displaced populations the world over has forced the international community to begin approaching the issue with more urgency than before. The refugee crises in Syria, Sudan and Myanmar have sent refugee numbers skyrocketing to 25.4 million people. The number of refugees fleeing war, poverty and disease has impacted many nations, including the United States. The migrant caravan that we all saw endless video loops about before the midterms originated in Central America and was simply trying to get anywhere that was not their home country. Both in the U.S. and abroad, there have been numerous responses to the refugee crisis, but two of those responses should scare all invested in a stable and peaceful outcome. One of them comes from a vile place that we all are beginning to recognize is making a return, and the other is rooted in good intentions but lacks the kind of groundedness necessary to ever become reality.
The first knee-jerk response to the refugee crisis has been that borders should not be crossed except by those who are either citizens of that country or those brought in to do work there. Setting aside the fact that this violates the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951, this kind of argument is often disqualified because the politicians arbitrating to make it reality often have highly racist views about who constitutes the people in their nation to begin with. Its biggest solicitors in the current era (as opposed to its original version in the 1930s) have been Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.
However, there does exist a moderated version of it that accepts refugees and those brought in to a country against their own will, but still looks for somewhat strict immigration policies. This latter position has been taken by both Barack Obama and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
The second knee-jerk response comes via the open borders argument. The idea that the world should forget the concept of the nation-state and allow those who wish to move from country to country do so on their own volition without those countries’ governments being able to stop or slow them. This argument is not ill-intentioned like the first one that seeks only to racially homogenize its nation’s people. Instead, this idea’s supporters see all of the immigrant stories and refugee migration and want a world that could provide these people with a better place to live, an idea wrapped up in the American Dream.
I will not speak anything bad against the roots of this argument because we should all hope for the kind of world where every generation can live in better prosperity than the last. However, the result of trying to make a world without borders would cause catastrophe for the well-intentioned nations trying to enact such a global policy and worse for the very people it seeks to help.
It would have to be a global policy, because a world without any borders requires every nation in the world to draw back border security to next to nothing. The two major drawbacks to this would be the exploitation of the policy by terrorist groups and countries less inclined towards constitutional values. Conspiracy theorists already make claims about IS having camps at the Mexican border, but a world without borders would have to grapple every day with the kind of threat terrorist groups pose. Many refugees flee terrorist violence, but a world without borders means they would be under such a threat wherever they go. Additionally, the only countries not under threat from terrorists would be those that refused to comply with an open borders policy.
Europe is tightening its immigration and refugee policies as the crisis gets worse, and populist leaders have taken power in some of the countries closest to the Middle East such as Italy and Hungary. However, America has a chance to forge a better path; massive immigration reform in the United States could act as a beacon for other nations to follow and, as a result, save millions of lives.
What gives the Democratic Party a chance to win is that the Trumpian politicians in America are foaming at the mouth with claims of open borders and weak liberals. Those kinds of claims will seem disingenuous to the American people if Democrats recognize that we live in a world of borders, but also that no one deserves to live in fear of famine, war or persecution. Luckily, this is what the party has done, and if that kind of stance is taken by a candidate in 2020, it might be a vital component in the presidential election.