THE BLOG
12/19/2015 04:32 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2016

Bernie and Immigration: Reclaiming the Concept of "Open Borders"

Terry Vine/J Patrick Lane via Getty Images

To hear Bernie Sanders speak, you'd think that merely espousing the notion of "open borders" immediately pegs one as some kind of right wing libertarian zealot. In a Vox interview, the Democratic presidential aspirant declared that open borders was equivalent to a "Koch brothers proposal." Influential Charles and David Koch have been prominent donors to the Republican Party in recent years, and have sponsored libertarian initiatives. However, these two infamous members of Bernie's "billionaire class" are also supportive of immigration reform.

Wait a second, that's a little odd: a self-styled Vermont "socialist" is taking what sounds to be a more hard-line posture on the border question than a bunch of Republican donors? When pressed on whether a democratic socialist should support "a more international view" on immigration, Sanders held to his guns: "that's a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States."

When pressed again on whether relaxing immigration controls might help the global poor, Bernie refused to give in. Opening the border, Sanders declared, "would make everybody in America poorer --you're doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that." The Senator from Vermont added "what right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour. That would be great for them. I don't believe in that."

He's No Donald

To be sure, Bernie is certainly no Donald Trump on the border question and the Senator has been generally fine when it comes to the issue of immigration. Sanders voted for the 2010 DREAM Act, for example, and he has also criticized Obama for delaying executive action on immigration reform. Indeed, in some ways Sanders has recently superseded the president by calling for ending the deportation of not just children who were brought to the U.S. but also their parents. In addition, Bernie voted for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, and to his credit has received poor ratings from anti-immigrant groups.

Furthermore, as a presidential candidate, Bernie has unveiled very forward-looking and progressive immigration proposals within the confines of our current political debate. In a frontal assault on the likes of Trump, Sanders remarked that border security could be improved by investing in novel technologies in contrast to "boondoggle walls" which would set the stage for further militarization. Rather impressively, he also called for ending contracts with private detention centers and said he would do his utmost to eliminate ethnic profiling and discrimination at the border. Meanwhile, the Vermont Senator declares that if he is elected he will map out a "swift legislative path" for 11 million undocumented migrants.

Bernie Interview with Lou Dobbs

Despite such recent developments, there's enough in Sanders' record to give one pause. In an article appropriately titled "Bernie Sanders and Immigration: It's Complicated," Politico charts Bernie's ironic legislative evolution. According to the piece, "Sanders was part of the charge from the left to kill an immigration overhaul bill" back in 2007. A little bizarrely, Bernie teamed up with Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley - and against Ted Kennedy -- to craft a restrictive immigration amendment. At the time, Bernie argued that the bill would drive down wages for lower-income workers. But by taking such a position, Sanders echoed the arguments of hard-liner immigration reform opponents. According to Politico, Bernie's attitude towards the legislation was informed by his ties to organized labor and key unions which opposed the legislation.

Somewhat questionably, Sanders even went on CNN's Lou Dobbs show to discuss immigration and the issue of guest workers. One wonders whether Bernie had second thoughts about sharing the stage with Dobbs, a right wing xenophobic nativist who later moved over to Fox Business channel. In the interview, Bernie did nothing to challenge Dobbs' objectionable rhetoric on immigration or separate himself from rabid nationalist sentiment. In the end, a strange coalition of conservative Republicans, union-friendly liberals and centrist Democrats effectively killed immigration under George W. Bush.

Opening Pandora's Box

So just what should progressive-minded folk make of Bernie Sanders when it comes to immigration? Sometimes, Bernie sounds somewhat nativist and parochial. Speaking on MSNBC, Sanders said that opening borders would substantially lower wages. Sanders' statements, however, have fallen flat with some immigration advocates who perceive the Senator's rhetoric as divisive. "Sanders continues to align himself more closely with Democratic positions of the past," notes the progressive Center for American Progress [perhaps the outfit is referring to a certain pro-nationalist labor wing of the Democratic Party which tends to bash free trade agreements like NAFTA while sticking up for "American jobs"].

What are we to make of such controversy? There's some debate among experts about the relative economic benefits of open borders. Some Bernie partisans like to cite work which purports to bolster the Senator's economic arguments while other experts argue that opening borders would actually double global GDP. Whatever the case, Sanders seems to have opened Pandora's box through his comments, eliciting criticism from some groups that might have otherwise been in his quarter.

"Left at the Altar"?

Take, for example, Greisa Martinez of United We Dream who remarked that Sanders' "talking points" were the same ones used by Republicans "to drive a wedge between Latinos and the African-American vote, saying, 'they're coming to take your jobs.' That at its core does not resonate and does not set him apart from the Republican Party." Center for American Progress, meanwhile, declares "There's just overwhelming information about how immigrants contribute to our economy and to our communities, and that's something that should be part of the conversation instead of the frame of mind that immigrants can take jobs, which is incorrect."

To be sure, Bernie has at certain times taken great pains to explain some of the more subtle nuances to immigration which tend to get lost in the media frenzy. Specifically, the Vermont Senator claims that "guest worker" programs lower wages. When asked on CNN whether he had "left Latinos at the altar" in 2007, Sanders indignantly defended himself. "I didn't leave anybody at the altar," Bernie replied. "I voted against that piece of legislation because it had guest-worker provisions in it which the Southern Poverty Law Center talked about being semi-slavery." The presidential candidate added for good measure "I was not the only progressive to vote against that legislation for that reason. Tom Harkin, a very good friend of Hillary Clinton's and mine, one of the leading labor advocates, also voted against that." Somewhat coyly, CNN's host responded, "Tom Harkin isn't running for president. You are."

Ignoring Vital Border History

Even if Sanders is trying to draw subtle distinctions on the immigration debate and guest worker programs, his recent statement about open borders is still a little jarring. To be sure, advocating for open borders, particularly in the present climate clouded over by terrorism, is an extremely risky bet and that is putting it mildly. Bernie would probably sabotage his entire candidacy by endorsing such views. On the other hand, since when do loony libertarians enjoy a monopoly on the concept of open borders?

One need not endorse the Koch brothers and untrammeled exploitation of migrants to support internationalist aspirations. What's more, for someone who calls himself a socialist, Bernie is a little out of step with his movement which historically pledged to consolidate and build upon international class and social solidarity. In addition, the entire political debate in this country ignores vital border history which has essentially been blocked out.

In fact, up until fairly recently the Mexican border was pretty fluid. The Boston Globe remarks "For better and for worse, America's borders have always been highly porous, and to imagine a secure line around the country is to be falsely nostalgic for a past that never existed." The paper continues, "Formal, legal entry was complicated, but crossing the border illegally was relatively simple and largely ignored. Strict controls against Mexicans crossing the border were widely perceived as neither viable nor desirable." Initially, Mexicans "moved north at will," and almost a million migrants fled into this country following political upheaval associated with the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The U.S. Border Patrol meanwhile only dates back to 1924, and the first inspection stations were only established in the late 19th century.

Reclaiming the Concept of "Open Borders"

It's only within the narrow-minded context of U.S. politics that the issue of "open borders" gets an unfair hearing or gets shanghaied by the right wing fringe. Across the Atlantic, however, activists have reclaimed the concept for themselves by launching daring political protest. Just two months ago, for example, an activist outfit called "No Borders" attempted to storm a London railway station so as to highlight the plight of migrants based across the Channel in Calais. Anarchists sought to enter the station, which serves as the UK terminal for the Eurostar, to call for a relaxation of border controls.

Events in Europe highlight the utter lack of a combative or visionary political left in the U.S. Even if Bernie Sanders demonizes the concept of open borders, that doesn't mean his followers can't espouse greater border solidarity so as to break free of a zero-sum, "us vs. them" narrative. It is to be hoped that in the long-term, Bernie's "political revolution" will give rise to a more inclusive and internationalist spirit, thus challenging the limited confines and debates which have so recently clouded meaningful discourse.