Politicians, Border Security Isn’t an Immigration Policy

Perhaps it would give me some rest, as an avid follower of politics in an election year, to simply accept that from now until November in the midst of all of the campaign speeches, sound bytes, debate answers, newsletters, and interviews, only a fraction of what is said will consist of real, substantive offerings of new ideas and policy directions. Despite all acculturation to the processes, however, I cannot come to terms with it.

Having spent a measure of time in and around the campaign circuit, I know that part of candidates hesitancy to come out with bold new proposals derives from a fear of the criticisms they might incur and the quiet hope that maybe, just maybe, they can ride out another month of the election cycle promising everything to everyone without having to stand for anything in particular.

One part arises from strategic consideration: “Should I announce my big tax plan early or wait until closer to Election Day for maximum effect?” Another arises from more devious considerations: “What if the things I must promise my constituents to get elected aren’t what I want to do once I get in office?” Sadly, yet another comes from simply not having the ideas to begin with. In the end, though, it is the voters—not to mention the country—who suffer from a superficial discussion of issues by the candidates they must choose between.

Never is this truer than right now with regard to immigration policy. Speaker Boehner announced yesterday that he intends to lead the House in passing meaningful immigration legislation by the end of 2014. However, despite all of the back and forth in the last year over immigration, real and meaningful proposals for reforms and improvements in US immigration policy are scarce. What’s more: politicians on both left and right (although I will say Republicans are far guiltier of this charge) are pretending to discuss immigration by changing the topic at every opportunity to border security.

The quote, in some paraphrased form, can be attributed to nearly every Republican candidate and office holder across the US from Charles Grassley to Rand Paul to Paul Broun and to many Democratic ones: “The first step this country needs to take on immigration policy is to secure our borders.” To say that we need to act firmly to prevent terrorists, violent criminals, foreign spies, and drug and human traffickers from crossing our borders at will says nothing about how to address the issue of peaceable individuals wishing to gain legal residence in the United States, integrate into our economy, build a life for themselves, and gain citizenship. To conflate the two issues is the equivalent of saying ‘The first step this country needs to take on tariff negotiations is to stop the illegal trafficking of narcotics.’

More than a false equivalency, politicians treating border security and immigration as the same issue is an evasion. It is a smoke screen devised to let them escape tough questions on immigration policy while striking a nerve still raw from the War on Terror.

Border security, while undoubtedly related to immigration, is a national security issue. It deals with the question of whether individuals entering the United States pose physical threats to American lives and property and how to ward against those who do. No rational person could argue against the idea that the protection of the United States’ borders is primary and essential.

Immigration policy, though borne upon by considerations of border security, deals with the question of to what extent the United States government permits individuals who have been neither accused nor proven of wrongdoing to enter this country—how many, for how long, and under what terms. It is, in essence, a form of regulation.

It is no surprise that the issue of immigration should prove tricky—particularly to a country under today’s cultural and philosophical influences. Though immigration policy is not security policy, they bear upon one another. Though it is not cast in with general discussions and debates of economic policy, they are deeply interrelated. And just as those subjects have fundamental questions of their own, so does immigration.

Perhaps therein lies the difficulty for today’s politicians in addressing immigration issues: they have not addressed directly, for themselves, its most basic questions—“By what standard are individuals to be included or excluded from American society? On what terms? By whom? By what right?” Unfortunately, in answering these questions, today’s politicians are likely to run up against their own contradictory principles, as the most eager economic regulators wax poetic about the pursuit of happiness and conservative defenders of the free market show their latent collectivism by talking about how the country ‘belongs’ to those who were born to it. At least then, though, Americans might hear a genuine (though deeply flawed) discussion about immigration and not another congressman hiding behind a soundbite about border security.


[Incidentally, I do support the notion that US borders should be strictly controlled, even under a freer and more accommodating immigration policy. It is not only feasible to say that a rational immigration policy would both require strictly controlled borders and allow more peaceful, non-criminal workers to enter the country; the two stipulations are complimentary, as both ensure for the protection of individual rights–both from foreign threats and domestic abuse by government. I recommend Ari Armstrong’s writings on the subject in The Objective Standard and second all that he writes in “Myths and Facts About a Rights-Respecting Immigration Policy“]

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