Opinion: It’s time for Biden to out-Trump Trump on immigration

Photo/Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The New York Times / A group of migrants waits inside a makeshift migrant camp to be loaded onto buses and be taken to be processed at a CBP substation in El Paso, Texas, on May 12, 2023. “According to news reports, the recent surge of migrants from Latin America flooding our Southern border is largely a result of the end of a Trump-era COVID policy. I beg to differ. Its the result of a new world,” writes New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman.

According to news reports, the recent surge of migrants from Latin America flooding our Southern border is 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 him.

In my view, President Joe 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-IQ 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.

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. 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 WTO 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.

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.

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 off immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally 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."

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. 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.

The New York Times