America has “bad-faith open borders.” We limit immigration but we enforce those limits only sporadically. Fred Bauer argues that this “is a distorted hybrid of the United States’ tradition of ordered borders and of the transnationalist aim of entirely open borders.” The distortion is real, but it is not rooted entirely in transnationalism. It is also rooted in a certain kind of American exceptionalism that has a history on the right, but that conservatives don’t talk about very much. Getting past “bad-faith open borders” will require rejecting romanticism and looking to the facts of the American present.
The following is from a 1952 college commencement address about America’s place in the world:
It was set here and the price of admission was very simple; the means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated. Any place in the world and any person from these places; any person with the courage to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt to dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel half across the world was welcome here.
The man who voiced those open borders sentiments was Ronald Reagan, as recorded in Lou Cannon’s excellent biography. Granted, Reagan was a younger man and a Democrat when he gave that speech. He had not even begun his career in elected government office. The open borders sentiments are in the past tense. But even as a practiced politician, Reagan didn’t really change his pitch:
And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
That is from Reagan’s Farewell Address.
None of this means Reagan was for open borders. He was articulating sentiments rather than proposing a set of policies. When this romantic open borders sentiment meets the reality of the US wage premium over what is earned by billions of people, then things get very complicated very quickly. The result is a kind of division of mind within the right. Jeb Bush might be called the heir to Reagan’s utopian open borders sentiment, and the 2012 “self-deport” edition of Mitt Romney might be called the heir conservative open borders skepticism. The mean between these two extremes has not proven to be a desirable compromise. It’s a conservative stalemate that Bauer rightly calls “bad-faith open borders.” Conservatives must move beyond both Bush and Romney.
America can’t be some open-bordered paradise, nor will our immigrants “self-deport.” The real America is one with a bimodal distribution of social capital. Higher-skill Americans are having an easier time holding on to jobs, maintaining cohesive families, and educating their children, while lower-skill Americans are finding it much tougher. America’s low-skill population needs help. This means that, given the economic and social circumstances of contemporary America, future immigration should flow to the sectors of the economy where wages have been rising rather than in those sectors where wages have been stagnant.
But there is more to reality. If Jeb Bush’s romanticism does not fit reality, than neither does the kind of skepticism that Romney showed in 2012. There are over ten million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. Many have been living here for many years and are part of mixed-status families. They are not going to be deported and they are not going to self-deport. They are part of our country’s future and their children are our fellow citizens.
Immigration reform needs to be part of an agenda for helping our current population of less-skilled workers. Moving beyond Bush’s romanticism and Romney’s skepticism means making sure that internal immigration enforcement (especially universal job verification and a visa tracking system) is put in place first and that, after such a system is institutionalized, long-standing unauthorized immigrants get both legalized status and a relatively quick path to U.S. citizenship.
It also means that Republicans can’t be pro-working-class on immigration and then, like Mitt Romney, mock low-wage workers as entitled dependents who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. Being pro-working-class also means making the tax code more favorable to working parents and reforming health insurance so that free market reform also means affordable access to quality medicine.
There are political beneficiaries of our current regime of “bad-faith open borders.” Businesses that depend on low-wage labor get more leverage over their employees. The left gets to agitate on behalf of a population that is legally excluded from the welfare state and lives a legally precarious existence. If those interests are going to be overcome, conservatives will have to propose an inclusive vision of immigration reform that focuses on helping and integrating our low-skill population (both native and foreign-born) while increasing the average skill level of the economy.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.