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David Cook-Martin Headshot

Secure Borders Hype Gets It Wrong

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Iowan Senator Chuck Grassley linked last week's Boston bombing to the weaknesses of our immigration system. The system has weaknesses, but border security is not among them and acts as a red herring. Border security is at its most effective since the founding of the republic. The Obama Administration is on track to deport more unauthorized immigrants during its tenure than all immigrants deported between 1892 and 1997. Moreover, increased mortality among border crossers suggests that strong border enforcement in some areas has deflected crossings to the most dangerous areas.

Border security seems lax only if you expect immigration control to work like a light switch that you can toggle on and off. It never has and likely never will work this way if we continue to be a democratic country. Even authoritarian governments, however, have been unable to exert the kind of absolute control to which some politicians aspire. During the Cold War, East Germans escaped to West Berlin using fake papers (including Playboy Club passes that resembled passports), a tight rope, a hot air balloon, a military disguise, and tunnels. For every wall built to keep immigrants out, people have erected even taller ladders.

The case of the brothers Tsarnaev is about immigrants who got in line and followed the rules, as anti-immigrationists like to say. It says nothing about the weaknesses of our immigration system. Their father came to the United States following refugee laws. Nineteen year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a U.S. citizen after following the legally prescribed naturalization process. Unlike Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report, we do not have a computer to predict crimes with certainty. We certainly can't predict which immigrant who enters as a child or teenager will commit a crime, no more so than we are able to predict crime among Americans at large. The homicidal actions of Adam Lanza in Newtown attest to this.

Our immigration system is not lacking in effective border security, but is short on ways to positively engage newcomers within our borders. We have a system in which unauthorized immigrants have no legal status or a voice, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Through laws and practices we relegate immigrants to the shadows. We squander valuable human and cultural capital when in another time and place the unauthorized would have been citizens simply because they live and contribute to our common life, and have ties to American citizens. That's what's wrong with our system.

Grassley fears that if we reform immigration policy, we will replicate the supposed errors of 1986 and that yet another wave of immigrants will come. Demographic and economic realities say otherwise. Fertility rates in Mexico have been declining for decades and they will soon be at or below replacement rates. That means a smaller population of people who might go North. In addition, while the U.S. economy shows sluggish growth, Mexico's is growing at a brisk rate. Chances are, migration will slow and the U.S. will face another issue: a scarcity of workers willing to do low wage and service jobs. Grassley's Iowa exemplifies the risks of rapid population decline: a scarcity of low-wage workers and less political representation in Congress. Iowa would do well to compete for immigrants rather than driving them away. Senator Grassley and other anti-immigration politicians should foster hope and acceptance, over fear and xenophobia.