The national conversation around immigration in the United States is like a needle in the eye to anyone who has an interest in rational discourse. Nevertheless, I am taking a shot at it, and I’m putting some of my thoughts into words. Heaven help me.

The proposal has two parts. The first is to make immigration (or temporary residence) for economic reasons trivially easy: for instance, admitting anyone without a felony conviction, who had an offer of employment from an American company. The second is to take action to secure America’s borders: with a wall, or electronic surveillance, or lots of boots on the ground, or whatever.

Free migration—From the economic perspective

The economic situation is extremely straightforward. There are businesses in America that need labor. There are people in the world who are willing to do it at the wages offered. There is almost nothing more to say. I believe that the labor shortage is real. I do not know Americans who are trying to get jobs picking vegetables, or processing chicken. I do not believe that people who employ immigrants illegally would take the trouble to (1) work across cultural boundaries, and (2) break the law, if they had a pool of American workers willing to do the work for the same wages.

If there is work to be done and people who want to do it, the employers and the employees will find a way to do it; more on that below. If we’re going to try to disrupt that with the power of the state, we need to have some pretty compelling reasons to do so. I, frankly, cannot think of any reasons that are unique to economic migrants.

I wrote “that are unique to economic migrants” because the poor are always a politically problematic group. The challenge of economic immigration is that, aside from the case of highly skilled workers, more economic migrants means more poor people. America has not been very successful in having a conversation about taxation, income redistribution, and the social safety net. But until ability-to-earn-money starts being distributed around our society in some more equal way, we will have the poor with us. Our national inability to come to some sort of understanding with ourselves should not prevent us from having a sensible immigration policy. We should not hesitate to employ people, simply because they belong to a different class.

One possible objection to the above paragraph relates to taxation. We’re in a situation in America where half of the country pays no income tax. (Social security tax, Medicare tax, and sales taxes are of course paid by everyone.) In such a situation, our society has a clear interest in minimizing the proportion of the population who benefit from state services, but do not pay for them. That is to say, it’s not great to have too many people in America like me: people who have never paid income tax because they’ve never made enough money to do so. But once again, I diagnose this as a problem inherent to our current regime of taxation, not to immigration as such. If we low-income citizens are rightly judged to be freeloaders—and I would have to be pretty bold to say that I wasn’t, at least a little—then need to have that conversation, and change the law as necessary. It makes no sense to try to prevent the migration of poor people into this country, simply because we can’t come to consensus on a just way to treat the poor.

Free migration—From the moral perspective

It would be customary at this point for me, as an evangelical Christian, to quote some Bible verses about dealing justly with the poor and the alien. In the right circles, these verses are invoked only slightly less frequently than John 3:16 is at a football game. But I am writing about American policy, and as such I will mount my moral argument from Enlightenment principles. (Enlightenment principles are intellectual descendants of Christian moral teachings, so there will be overlap here.)

The general principle is that, all other things being equal, autonomous individuals should not be prohibited from entering into voluntary contracts. The application in this context is that if a person from another country wants to come to America to supply the demand for labor, we should not stop that person. If a person is willing to employ an immigrant to do a job, we should not stop that person.

Now the state appropriately proscribes certain transactions: prostitution, the drug trade, human trafficking, etc. To the extent that the state is permitted to interfere at all with the transactions of free individuals, that interference should be based on law; and in a liberal democracy, there should be a moral justification for the law. But clearly there is no moral argument for discriminating on the basis of nationality and citizenship. Indeed, if a United States business were to discriminate on the basis of nationality in employment, they would (justly) be subject to the penalties of the law. What then, is the moral difference between an Irishman born in Ireland and an Irishman born in the United States? (I use the social divisions of yesteryear to help keep the discussion abstract.) There is none. Discriminating on the basis of skin color is no less reprehensible than discriminating on the basis of passport color.

(The argument of the last paragraph implies that I do not believe that distinctions in citizenship can be brought to bear on moral judgments. This reflects my unease with statist politics in general. I do not have a coherent moral critique of moral states; my religious beliefs do not provide me with one. I offer my arguments here based on the assumption that a state’s law and practice can be more or less just, and that we’re better off in their being more just.)

Free migration—From the pragmatic perspective

The argument now moves from economics and morality to pragmatism. Although I have never driven much in wet or icy conditions, I still remember from driver’s ed what to do if your car starts to skid: turn in the direction of the skid. This is counterintuitive, because it means turning in the direction that you don’t want to go. But it’s crucial to regain traction, so we can exert influence on the situation.

Consider the analogy in relation to the present situation. With something like eleven million illegal immigrants, it is clear that America is operating with considerable autonomy from American laws. The country is skidding. If the government wishes to have any influence on the situation (which I think it should, for reasons I discuss below) then it is absolutely necessary to regain traction. Whatever distaste people might have for ‘amnesty’ and related terms, the fact is that the government has not enforced its own laws to this point. The only solution I can see is to adjust the law to reflect the reality on the ground, and then to gain control of the situation from there.

There is of course an entire moral argument for why laws need to be enforced. If there are laws on the books that are unenforced, it creates a very dangerous situation for people who are in violation of those laws. By neither legalizing nor deporting the eleven million illegal immigrants in our midst, we are leaving them outside of the protection of government. Police can threaten them with deportation; employers can abuse them, knowing that they have no legal recourse. I hope that such abuses are rare, but human nature is what it is; you don’t organize a society on the basis of an expectation of universal benevolence.

Transition to border enforcement—policy, not symbolism

I will now take up the issue of border enforcement: controlling who crosses the borders of the United States. Although I have argued above for a relatively open border, I believe it is equally important that the border be opened through the rule of law, and not neglect of the rule of law.

The first thing that observe is that building a wall is not the most welcoming thing for a country to do to its neighbors. The feeble maxim that “good fences make good neighbors” hardly counterbalances the symbolic power of the Berlin Wall, for instance. But the policy needs to be considered independently of non-substantive symbolic considerations. The security bubble around the President is not a shining illustration of democracy, for instance, but it’s necessary in the world we live in.

It’s also important to acknowledge that some people—perhaps most people who advocate building a wall, I don’t know—do so out of a genuine and misguided attempt to keep all immigrants out, rather than to ensure the rule of law. But the fact some wrongheaded people advocate enforcing the border has no bearing on whether it is in fact a good idea to secure the borders. To think otherwise is to commit a guilt-by-association fallacy. As I like to point out, Hitler was against smoking long before it was cool to be against smoking; it makes no sense to start smoking as a reaction against Nazism.

And lastly, I will observe that for the last ten or fifteen years, the message of half of the political spectrum has been, “They only want to build a wall because they hate immigrants.” Now, whether that is true or not—and it is not true in my case; I want more immigrants, if anything—we can hardly be surprised that, if a wall is built, our neighbors to the North and South will conclude that we built it because we hate them. This is one of those tragic results of the way that politics is conducted these days. We certainly need to show sensitivity. But again, this is not a factor that we can allow to arbitrate between various policy options.

Transition to border enforcement—being frank in what we’re pursuing

In this essay, I have made every effort to speak frankly: I advocate free economic migration, which should take place under the rule of law. I am trying to be explicit because my experience has been that often well-intentioned people will advocate for whatever policy seems nicer or kinder, to the detriment of a rigorous consideration of the issues. Thus I suspect that for some people, opposition to a border wall reflects their desire to be generous and welcoming people: to be on the side of America that is pro-immigration, and to be opposed to the anti-immigration side.

But I could wish that if people wish for there to be free economic migration, they would make that case directly, rather than latching on to issues that seem symbolically important. It’s unfortunate that they don’t because, as I’ve written above, I believe that the economic and moral cases for free economic migration are quite strong. As I write below, I believe that the moral case for border enforcement is quite strong. But if one can’t move beyond the idea of a border wall as a negative symbol, the moral case can probably not be appreciated.

Border enforcement—As a basic element of sovereignty

In the first place, it must be acknowledged that the idea of controlling borders is not some fiction dreamed up by anti-immigration activists as a way to express racist sentiment in a politically correct fashion. It’s one of the basic elements of state sovereignty. (There are various definitions, which you can research yourself, but you’ll see that control of movement across borders comes up again and again.)

It is easier to appreciate this if you think about traveling internationally by plane. Entering another country is a highly ordered process. It’s hardly as if they let you off on the tarmac and hope that you go through customs before leaving. It’s highly ordered and tightly controlled. If our land borders with the United States and Canada are loosely enforced, we can at least acknowledge that those two countries are the outliers among the nations of the world. We keep tight controls on the British, the Chinese, the Zambians, and the Chileans when they try to enter our country.

Border enforcement—From the moral perspective

All of my observations on the economic forces that drive migration—if they are true at all—are true irrespective of U.S. immigration policy. The United States will continue to exert a magnetic effect on the poor people of developing countries. In the current situation, substantial migration is accomplished through illegal means. This means that the government’s inability to control the situation on the ground is facilitating criminal activity.

Eliminating (or vastly reducing) illegal economic immigration will not of course eliminate drug trafficking or human trafficking. Border security remains important.

Now, it can be argued that controlling movement across borders is as unworkable as enforcing Prohibition was in the 1930s. But practically, the situations are not parallel. Defending a border is a much better defined task than controlling the possession of substance. It can be solved technologically. (Not that it’s at all parallel, or anything to aspire towards, but we’ve certainly had no problem controlling the border between North Korea and South Korea, for instance.)

By refusing to control the borders, we have made being “coyote” a profession. We are sponsoring human trafficking. In fact, we are baiting people into it, just as surely as the wet-foot/dry-foot policy baited thousands of Cubans into making a dangerous journey across the sea.

This is particularly where we need to consider whether the kind thing to do is indeed not to enforce the border. Hundreds of people die crossing the Sonoran Desert every year, on their way to America. Is the “kind” option really to facilitate that? Or it is better to provide a strong disincentive for illegal crossings, in addition to making economic immigration radically easier? This is why I feel that’s important to advocate for sensible policy positions (e.g., bringing U.S. law into alignment with reality), rather than for taking what seems to be the more generous side in one of the false dichotomies of the day.

It’s a sign of the quality of our political discourse, that as I finish this, I have to encourage myself to be contented at having expressed my thoughts, even if the current political climate precludes their being given a hearing by friends from one side or another.