Opinion | It’s Time for Biden to Out-Trump Trump on Immigration

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By Thomas L. Friedman

Opinion Columnist

According to news reports, the recent surge of migrants from Latin America flooding our southern border was largely a result of the end of a Trump-era Covid policy. I beg to differ.

It’s the result of a new world.

And this new world is going to challenge both traditional Republican and traditional Democratic views on immigration. As I’ve argued before, there is only one way to deal with the waves of migrants who will continue to come America’s way. And that is with a very high wall with a very big gate.

Democrats don’t want to hear about high walls, and Republicans don’t want to hear about big gates. Too bad. We need both.

Donald Trump was a fraud on immigration. He never wanted to solve the problem. He exploited the fears of an uncontrolled border to stop immigration and appeal to racists and white supremacists in his base. And stoking those fears worked for Trump.

In my view, President Biden should out-Trump Trump. Do everything possible to secure the border like never before — more walls, more fences, more barriers, more troops, the 82nd Airborne — whatever it takes. Make Democrats own border security. But not for the purpose of choking immigration: for the purpose of expanding it. It is good policy and good politics.

If we are going to thrive in the 21st century and compete effectively with China, we need to double down on our single greatest competitive advantage: our ability to attract the most high-aspiring migrants and the most high-I.Q. risk takers, who start new businesses.

Best I can tell, God distributed brains equally around the planet. What he didn’t distribute equally was which countries would most welcome the highest-energy, highest-intellect immigrants. It has long been our singular competitive advantage that we were No. 1 in this category. If we throw that advantage away, as a country we will revert to the global mean.

But we simply cannot have a rational discussion about expanding immigration to serve our interests — and about how to create a fair pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, as well as for their children born here — if too many Americans think our southern border is out of control.

And we need that discussion today more urgently than ever, because here’s a news flash: The 10,000 migrants a day who surged across the Mexico-U.S. border in the few days before the Trump restrictions were lifted — the highest levels ever — were not an aberration, even if those levels were reduced in recent days to less than the chaotic levels Biden feared. They’re the start of a new normal.

Why? Because the first 50 years after World War II were a great time to be a weak nation-state, particularly in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. There were two superpowers out there throwing money at you, sending you wheat, giving your kids scholarships to study at their schools, generously rebuilding your army after you lost wars (see Egypt and Syria) and generally competing for your affection.

Also, climate change was moderate. Population growth was still under control. No one had a smartphone to easily compare their conditions or their leader with that of the nation next door or in Europe, and China was not in the World Trade Organization, so it was much easier to compete in low-wage industries like textiles.

All of that started to flip in the early 21st century. Now no superpower wants to touch you because all they win is a bill. (See America in Afghanistan.) Climate change is pounding countries, particularly their subsistence farmers. Populations have exploded. More than two-thirds of the world has a smartphone and can get information — and misinformation — faster than ever, as well as easily connect with a human trafficker online. And China is in the W.T.O. and has dominated many low-wage manufacturing industries.

As a result, more and more small countries (and in the case of Venezuela, Sudan and Ethiopia, larger ones) are starting to fracture, descend into disorder and spill out migrants who want to leave their World of Disorder and come to the World of Order. That’s us and the European Union, among others.

It is no accident that the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration stated, “Today more people than ever live in a country other than the one in which they were born.”

The Berlin Wall symbolized the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the post-Cold War. And the Rio Grande, filled with families trying to get out of the World of Disorder into the World of Order, symbolizes the post-post-Cold War.

In this era, it is going to be increasingly difficult to sort out the difference between economic migrants, trying to get into America just to get a decent job, and those legitimately seeking political asylum.

Since World War II, we have blessedly offered asylum to those with well-founded fears of persecution on the basis of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

But if more and more nation-states fracture and leave their citizens to the tender mercies of warlords and gang leaders, half the world will be able to potentially seek political asylum in America. So many migrants have done this over the past decade that it has completely overwhelmed America’s antiquated and underfunded system for sifting out genuine from bogus asylum claims — with more than two million immigration cases pending in courts (up from around 100,000 a decade ago) and with the average time for an asylum determination ballooning now to more than four years and often far longer.

So we need a rational discussion in this country about how we maintain a safe haven for the truly persecuted and attract the immigrants we need to thrive in the 21st century — both the high-energy, low-skilled immigrants and the high-I.Q. risk takers — and ensure that the flow of immigrants into America is happening at a pace consistent with our economic needs and our ability to assimilate those migrants culturally and socially.

We have no hope of having that rational discussion if so many Americans feel that the southern border is out of control. It can happen only if people feel the border is under control and if you have to ring our doorbell if you want to come in.

The best evidence that a strong border can lead to a more rational debate is California. And the person who taught me that was Seth Stodder, a native Californian, who served as President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of homeland security for border, immigration and trade policy and now teaches law at the University of Southern California.

“Nearly a quarter of America’s undocumented population lives in California,” Stodder told me, “and most of us are fine with that. At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, we even passed a ‘sanctuary state’ law to protect otherwise law-abiding people from deportation.”

But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1994, California voters, by a wide margin, passed Proposition 187 — cutting undocumented immigrants off from public benefits. Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, had campaigned for it, said Stodder, and won re-election “with menacing ads featuring grainy video of immigrants running across the border and filtering through traffic into San Diego, with scary music in the background and a deep voice intoning, ‘They keep coming. Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border — yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.’”

So how did California flip from Prop 187 to being a sanctuary state? Lots of reasons, Stodder explained. “But a big one is that, in the wake of Prop 187, the Clinton administration finally got control of the border between San Diego and Tijuana — strengthening the Border Patrol and constructing a 14-mile double- and, in some places, triple-layer fence along the border. Did this stop illegal immigration into the U.S.? No. The flow shifted east, to Arizona and Texas. But it got control of the border here in Southern California. Californians were no longer confronted with immigrants rushing at their cars or dodging traffic on Highway 5. The fence got illegal immigration off the nightly local news, and Californians were able to exhale and focus on other things.”

It gave many Californians “the emotional space to feel accepting of the millions of undocumented migrants who live in our state,” Stodder said, “seeing them less as a threat and more as our neighbors, friends, family and as fellow Californians.”

If you want a big gate — as I do — you need a high wall.

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