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Few Americans Want Open Borders— Democrats Included

Trump and his supporters often label his critics as believers in “open borders.” Most aren’t.

Robert A Stribley
Feb 22 · 8 min read
Protestor at a rally in Brooklyn, NY. Trump and his supporters often conflate criticism like this with a belief in “open borders.” Photos: Robert Stribley

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The reaction is now predictable: Argue for treating undocumented immigrants humanely on American soil and you’ll find yourself accused of believing in “open borders.” As if it’s a binary, either/or position. You either believe in building Trump’s “Great Wall.” You believe in separating children from their parents at the U.S. border. You believe in removing undocumented immigrants from the country who have lived here for decades. Or you believe in “open borders.” It’s a blunt rhetorical trick. It’s crass. But it works. So it’s employed by everyone from the current president down to the many supporters and trolls who carry his water on social media.

Fear mongering, of course, lies at the heart of this accusation. The implication being that critics of Trump’s policies, Democrats in particular, don’t care about safety. They don’t mind who comes into the country. And in turn, that accusation comes coupled with insinuations that those immigrants sneaking across our borders are scary, violent people.

In fact, the vast majority of Americans—including most Democrats—don’t believe in so-called “open borders.” That’s not to say that no one believes in open borders. Certainly, there are people who do. But most don’t. And open borders is not a policy the Democratic party supports; it’s not part of their platform. Regardless of how many times Trump and his supporters may claim otherwise.

Trump’s statements about Democrats and open borders, whether on Twitter or elsewhere, are pretty much the same. He trots out a claim that “Democrats do not care about Open Borders.” An unsupported claim that even seems to imply that we have open borders right now. But we don’t have open borders. We have visas and passports and crossing stations and Border Patrol and ICE checkpoints and over 650 miles of fence at the U.S./Mexico border.

Trump repeatedly claims that Democrats “want open borders.” But nobody in leadership on the left promotes open borders. Nobody. Let’s clarify: not one or two people. Zero percent of the elected leadership of Democrats or independents have suggested the U.S. should have open borders. And there’s certainly no policy of open borders embraced by the Democratic Party.

In reality, both primary political parties embrace pretty strict immigration policies. And neither promotes anything remotely like “open borders.”

Barack Obama certainly didn’t believe in open borders. By 2015, President Obama had deported some 2.5 million people with time remaining in office. That was already half a million more than George W. Bush deported his entire time as president. Some human rights groups referred to Obama as “The Deporter in Chief.” True, those higher numbers can partly be attributed to a change at the time in how we defined a “deportation.” Still, that’s hardly an administration characterized by open borders.

In 2010, Obama signed a bill designating $600 million to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors, and law enforcement officials along our border with Mexico. He ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the border. And he oversaw the development of a virtual fence, utilizing surveillance sensors, radar, cameras, and drones, which would span 1,300 miles of our border at a projected cost of almost $7 billion. The Department of Homeland Security ended that effort after $1 billion was spent and the results deemed ineffective and too expensive.

These are hardly the actions of an “open borders” president.

Hillary Clinton certainly never embraced open borders as an immigration policy for the United States.

Shortly before Election Day in 2016, when Wikileaks generously ladled out leaked emails for Clinton’s critics to pore over, right-wing pundits crowed that they had unearthed a “gotcha” moment, when Clinton embraced an open borders policy for the United States.

In March 2013, Clinton told employees of the Brazilian bank Banco Itau, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, sometime in the future with energy that’s as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.”

“If that is indeed her dream,” intoned John Kass in the Chicago Tribune after the leak, “then she dreams the internationalist dream that would end America.”

Of course, Trump would stretch what Clinton actually said even further. He told supporters at a Pennsylvania rally, “Hillary Clinton’s radical call for open borders, meaning anyone in the world can enter the United States without any limit at all, would end the United States as we know it today.”

Never mind that Clinton described this as her “dream” about some ideal market “sometime in the future” and made her comments in the context of trade and green energy. She would be clobbered with this quote ad nauseam to claim she believed in “open borders.”

Shortly after the leak, Clinton tweeted, “On both sides of the Atlantic, we need reform. Not open borders, but immigration laws enforced with fairness and respect for human rights. We can’t let fear or bias force us to give up the values that have made our democracies both great and good.”

More importantly, to believe this was Clinton’s policy statement on current immigration in the United States, you’d have to ignore her actual stated policies and her voting record. That same year, Clinton supported putting billions of dollars toward border enforcement, updated surveillance equipment, and 20,000 more border agents. Does that sound like an “open borders” policy? She did support paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That’s still not an open borders policy.

And while running in 2016, Clinton’s policy was explicitly to maintain border security. She even remarked that both she and Bernie Sanders supported border fencing in contrast to Trump’s proposed “wall.” She also highlighted the fact that “we have the most secure border we have ever had.” She then pivoted to immigration reform. At no time did she suggest that we should embrace “open borders.”

Politifact, a bipartisan nonprofit, concluded that Trump’s attempts to paint Clinton’s position as one of open borders “mostly false.”

Three scenes from our not-so open border near El Paso, Texas, Ojinaga, Mexico, and San Diego, CA.

Recently, some conservatives pounced on a poll that said that 32 percent of Democrats believed in “basically open borders.” A few things to note: 1) These were not elected Democrats; they were voters, so that does not reflect the Democratic platform. 2) That figure still means the majority of Democrats polled were not in favor of open borders. 3) The question was vaguely, even poorly, worded and did not offer any particular definition of “open borders.” Including the word “basically” further muddied the waters. We don’t know how these respondents interpreted the term “open borders.” It’s entirely possible that upon further questioning, many respondents may have said they believe “basically” in open borders, but also in border protection and a fence. We don’t know.

Either way, right-wing publications fulminated and hyperventilated over a poll that revealed that the overwhelming majority of unelected Democrats do not believe in open borders. If “hyperventilated” sounds like hyperbole, see the Daily Caller’s article, which completely misrepresents the data and claims the Democrats’ level of support for “open borders” is “terrifying.” Terrifying? Really? Really?

You might suppose that libertarians would be big proponents of open borders, right? Live and let live. Legalize it. But when it comes to open borders? Not necessarily. Turns out that positions on open borders follow a spectrum among our libertarian friends. Consider some positions published by the CATO Institute, probably the United States’ best-known libertarian public policy organization.

Jeffrey Miron, CATO’s director of economic studies, suggests the United States should maintain open borders for all but terrorists and people with certain diseases, which I’d suggest is about as close as we’d ever get to seeing truly “open borders.” In another CATO piece, however, Steve Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins, suggests we shouldn’t have open borders, except in the economic sense—possibly reflecting his own Ayn Rand strain of libertarianism.

Interestingly enough, not all conservatives forecast dire outcomes if the United States were to embrace open borders. Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Matt Winesett and Amelia Irvine conclude that “Fears of the U.S. being overrun with immigrants should we liberalize our immigration laws seem overstated.” They share Gallup studies finding that about “one in five potential migrants—or about 147 million adults worldwide—name the U.S. as their desired future residence.” But they argue that “surely far fewer than 147 million would actually show up even with open borders.” To be fair, they also conclude that “the long-term economic benefits of doing so might be less than promised as well.”

Still. I had to check the “About Us” page to confirm I really was on the website for the American Enterprise Institute, probably D.C.’s most famous conservative think tank for research on government, politics, economics, and social welfare.

Donald Trump declared a national emergency to secure his “Great Wall.” He could have compromised. Depending on your perspective, lately, he has either attempted to compromise (without losing face) or simply moved the goalposts to redefine his wall as pretty much whatever actually ends up getting built.

The Democrats could compromise by signing onto fence repairs and possible additions to the existing fence where needed. In fact, that’s exactly what they did in their bill with the Republicans, which finally passed. And Trump signed it.

Unfortunately, however, Trump’s wall has become a metaphor, a metonym for something well beyond any sensible border policy for the U.S.—something more to do with Trump’s towering ego and his irrational, fearful, and punitive immigration policy.

So Trump will keep complaining that the Democrats won’t support his wall and that they “want open borders,” even as they enact legislation providing border protection. Yes, it’s disingenuous of Trump. You might even say, he’s lying. No doubt, however, he’ll continue to do it.

You don’t have to believe in open borders to believe wrenching children from their parents’ arms is wrong. You don’t have to believe in open borders to believe that deporting people who have lived here for decades is wrong.

Personally? I have no problem enforcing laws at our borders. I have no problem sending people back if they’re caught crossing the border illegally. I also have no problem defending undocumented immigrants from American citizens who seek to mistreat and vilify them.

Arguing that someone must be “unAmerican” or favor open borders simply because they defend undocumented immigrants against mistreatment really only highlights one’s own tribalism, as well as an inability to make fair and accurate inferences about other people’s beliefs. Or to think imaginatively.

I see open borders of the sort you’d encounter in the European Union as an eventual ideal for the U.S. and Mexico. Just like “world peace” is an ideal. It won’t happen overnight and there are many practical reasons for maintaining our current border. It may take many decades to address those issues and to approach something like open borders between the United States and Mexico. Of course, I expect to be taken out of context on this position.

Yeah, I’ll definitely be misquoted on that.

Robert A Stribley

Written by

Writer and photographer with interests in immigration, privacy, security, culture and digital design. Day jobs in UX at SapientRazorfish and faculty at SVA.

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