THE BLOG
05/05/2017 02:57 pm ET Updated May 05, 2017

Weekend Roundup: If You Don’t Have Solid Borders, You Get Walls

Anti-immigrant populists seek to create a familiar space for their own kind in a world of tumult fomented by strangers.
Without boundaries that define who we are, any community is at a loss over how to secure its fate.
WorldPost Illustration
Without boundaries that define who we are, any community is at a loss over how to secure its fate.

Even if U.S. President Donald Trump never ends up building an actual wall along the Mexican border, it was the compelling metaphor of shutting out a menacing world and protecting his own tribe that won the day in the election last year. That such a message would so resonate in a nation founded and sustained by immigrants is a sign of just how disruptive the fluid flows of globalization have been to any solid sense of cultural and social cohesion.

Without boundaries that define who we are, any community is at a loss over how to secure its fate by navigating the constant churn and endless flux of today’s world. In the end, it is this sense of loss of control over one’s destiny ― whether as a result of technological change, globalization or the related issue of mass immigration ― that is at the root of the populist backlash. Identity politics is an effort to create a safe and familiar space for you and your kind in a world of tumult fomented by strangers.

The French philosopher Régis Debray saw the backlash coming. In his 2010 Éloge des frontières (In Praise of Borders), he understood that unlike the universalizing reason behind globalization, culture is rooted in the vernacular wellspring of emotional attachment and belonging. Debray argued that if borders don’t secure cultural affinity, walls will be erected in their place by insecure identities fearing contamination. “The border,” he wrote, is “a vaccine against the epidemic of walls.”

The Brexit vote, Trump’s victory and the strong showing of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the first round of France’s election ought to impress this lesson upon progressive political leaders searching for a way to reconnect with an electorate that marginalized them. Those with a liberal outlook surely must read the writing on Trump’s wall that every country has the right to control its borders and insist upon clear criteria for obtaining citizenship ― including language, knowledge of laws and acceptance of host country values and norms. 

Helen Clark writes from Perth that changes being proposed to Australia’s immigration policy would do just that — require an “Australian values” section in the test for citizenship. In 2015, Australia’s immigration authority defined those values in this way:

  • Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;
  • Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background;
  • The English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is right to argue that the diversity that comes with immigration is a core strength of society — it is linked to creativity, innovation and even security. Yet, as Paul May points out, immigration policies in Canada are based primarily on the skills and economic needs of Canadian society and not mostly family based as they are in the U.S. and much of Europe. “In the U.S., about two-thirds of permanent residents are admitted to reunite with family members,” May writes. “Less than 20 percent are admitted because of their professional skills. In Canada, by contrast, it’s almost the opposite: more than 60 percent of permanent residents are admitted via the economy class, and only a quarter are admitted because of family reunification.”

Bob Dane, the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, argues that the U.S. needs a more merit-based immigration policy ― perhaps like Canada’s ― as Trump has vaguely called for. “Our current immigration system fails to serve any identifiable national or public interests,” he writes.

Following Canada’s example, however, is not so easy for a country like the U.S. As May points out, unlike Canada, the U.S. has plenty of demand for low-wage workers and shares a long border with a largely impoverished nation whose laborers are hungry for work. Nonetheless, moving in the direction of such a system would go some distance toward recovering a sense of lost control over the American border and weaken the impetus behind the appeal of a wall.

Jerry Nickelsburg reinforces May’s point about the structural need in the American economy for lower-wage workers, particularly in agriculture. In an article titled “If You Want Strawberry Fields Forever, You Need Migrant Labor,” Nickelsburg offers an alternative to the present immigration quandary. “One option would be to normalize the status of undocumented farm workers, perhaps via a new version of the bracero program of 1942 to 1964 that permitted U.S. farmers to recruit temporary agricultural help from Mexico. ... It also would have the side benefits of reducing illegal border crossings — U.S. farms would not be providing jobs to newly arrived undocumented immigrants — and this would allow undocumented immigrants already here to come out of the shadows.” Among others, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has argued for a similar course.

Edward Leamer argues that, indeed, “aliens” are taking American jobs. But those aliens are legal robots, not undocumented immigrants.

Harvard Historian Calder Walton warns of the dangers of paranoid and conspiracy-minded leaders, whether Joseph Stalin or Donald Trump, making decisions based on raw intelligence.

Other highlights this week include:

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