America’s open border policy
Despite its proclamations, laws and official statements to the contrary, America has an open border policy, albeit a de facto one.
The U.S. open border policy with its tolerance of illegal immigration, the presence of millions of unauthorized migrants and the new administration’s more welcoming approach is common knowledge among potential migrants, their family members, smugglers and traffickers. It is also widely known among government officials in migrant-sending countries, which benefit from the substantial remittances sent back home by workers.
Of course, the U.S. government periodically offers official messages on immigration that stress sovereignty, borders and laws. The Biden administration recently made statements indicating that while America is a nation of immigrants, it is also a nation of laws. For example, besides emphasizing that the U.S. was strictly enforcing border laws, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said, “The border is closed to irregular migration.”
However, with U.S. border agents being overwhelmed by a migration surge, nearly 1,000 people per day have recently been entering the country unlawfully without being identified or taken into custody. In April alone, 179,000 people were encountered by border agents, the highest number in 20 years.
Moreover, as the new administration contends with growing numbers of unauthorized migrants, border agents along the Rio Grande Valley have been authorized to release adult migrants and families from custody without being given dates to appear in court. The apparent reason for this was because neither Mexico nor the U.S. can process them.
America’s de facto open border policy is also attracting unauthorized migrants from a far. Men, women and even children are traveling long distances, including from India, Brazil, Venezuela and African countries, to reach the United States southern border and then walk through gaps in the border wall.
Many of the entering unauthorized migrants approach border agents, surrender and claim asylum, certain that they will be permitted to remain in America. Most of them are released to await immigration hearings, which typically take years, and if their claim is eventually rejected, many fear returning home and choose to remain in the country alongside the millions of unauthorized migrants.
In addition to now hosting nearly 11 million unauthorized migrants, U.S. policies openly tolerate the presence of migration unlawfully resident. The country is lax and slow-moving in enforcing laws relating to repatriation and rejected asylum claims.
The new administration called for a 100-day moratorium on most deportations, which subsequently was indefinitely banned from enforcement by a federal judge. Unless unauthorized migrants commit a serious crime, local, state and federal authorities generally do not seek to repatriate them.
Moreover, as has done periodically in the past, the Biden administration with the support of many in Congress has proposed an amnesty or a path to citizenship to millions of those who are unlawfully resident in the country. The majority of Americans, some 60 percent, support providing a path to citizenship for migrants unlawfully resident.
The business community, which is largely pleased with the de facto open border policy, facilitates it by employing millions of unauthorized migrants and promotes the message that the country has a worker shortage. Those millions of unauthorized migrant workers provide businesses additional low-wage labor and also attract others from abroad to come and work in the country.
In the recent past the U.S. has welcomed more than a million authorized immigrants into the country. Of the 333 million people living in the U.S., an estimated 45 million, or almost 14 percent, are immigrants, with approximately 75 percent of them being lawfully resident.
Given the immigration roots of Americans, many are sympathetic and can easily relate to the formidable challenges faced by unauthorized migrants. Many are reminded of America’s immigrant heritage by the famous words penned by Emma Lazarus in 1883 that are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Furthermore, many Americans find it difficult to support enforcement laws that return unauthorized migrants back to difficult living conditions. This reluctance to support repatriation, which has contributed to the rise of sanctuary places, is especially evident with respect to unauthorized migrants who have settled, raised families and established themselves in communities over many years.
Legitimate questions concerning U.S. immigration have often been raised, such as how many immigrants should be admitted annually, how those immigrants should be selected, what should be the consequences for unlawful immigration, what are immigration’s environmental consequences and how long should immigration continue into the future. However, those queries are typically avoided or answered in vague terms due in large part to the lack of a political consensus regarding immigration policies and programs.
The number of people who indicated a desire to migrate to the U.S. in a worldwide survey in 2018 is about 158 million adults. If all those people with their immediate families were able to achieve their migration desires in the near future, America’s population would increase to more than a half billion people.
Addressing the unauthorized migrant population is made more complicated by the 14th Amendment, which provides citizenship to any child born on U.S. territory irrespective of parent’s immigration status. As a consequence, nearly one-third of the unauthorized migrants are the parents of U.S. born children. Fears and attempts to repatriate those unauthorized migrants have serious repercussions on the physical and emotional wellbeing of those American children.
America’s de facto open border policy has created a major divisive political issue across the country and has gravely divided Americans on the important matter of immigration. The longer America has a de facto open door policy that contradicts its official border policy and laws, the longer the nation will be seriously challenged and disunited on the vital issue of U.S. immigration.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”