An Argument for Border Control
with John McWhorter
Too often our debates about immigration get entangled in questions about race and racism that do little to clarify what’s really at issue when we talk about our nation’s borders. Try saying something online about the necessity of an orderly legal process for controlling and regulating who comes into US, and you’ll likely find yourself accused of wanting to keep brown people out of the country.
That is absurd. Do there exist racists who truly hate and fear Latinos or other ethnic groups? Yes, but they are rare. Far, far more Americans bear no racial animus toward anyone but do worry that opening the borders completely would put our communities at risk. It should be said that very few people who do come here—legally or otherwise—have any sort of nefarious intent. But that’s not the issue.
In this excerpt from my most recent conversation with John McWhorter, we try to put aside the inflammatory rhetoric that too often engulfs substantive discussion of immigration. I’m not against immigration at all, but that does not mean I think we should simply open the door to anyone and everyone who wants to come. I think that immigration, when done right, can provide tremendous benefits. However, we have a right and a responsibility to exercise discretion over how we allow immigration to change the composition of the country. And, yes, we have a right to use immigration policy to protect ourselves from the small number of people who would cause problems were they to be allowed in. There’s nothing racist about that, and we shouldn’t allow spurious accusations to shut down this crucial debate.
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GLENN LOURY: Let me try to change the conversation here a little bit, if I may, away from Tucker Carlson the personality to the question of, is it good for the country that we don't have control of the border and that people come in in the thousands and tens of thousands and ultimately in the millions without authorization?
So here's an argument that I don't think is a “swarthy hoard” argument. I am an American citizen. That's a very special endowment which I have inherited in virtue of my birth. This is my country. There are 330 million or so of us. We should get to decide what the future of the composition of our polity is going to be through legitimate democratic deliberation. That's what we elect representatives for. That's the purpose of law.
JOHN MCWHORTER: What do you mean “composition”?
What I mean is who comes into the country. That's something that we can legitimately decide about. If we don't have control of our border—and this is an argument. I understand that it echoes people like Donald Trump, because he ran for president and got elected for president, in part, on this kind of argument. And I'm inviting your response, because I think something very important is at stake for the future of the country.
If we don't have control, and we simply allow anyone who has the resources to get themselves to the Mexican side of that border and wade across that river into the country, we will look up in 20 years, in 50 years and find that we are a different country than we had been in ways over which we did not exert the legitimate discretion that is our inheritance as citizens of the country. And therefore what's going on on the border is something that we should all be upset about, and we should be intervening. If it's a wall, it's a wall. If it's enhanced border security forces, that's what it is. If it's sending people back to Mexico, if it's deporting, if it's changing the asylum process, that's what we should do. We need to get control of this issue.
Now, I'm asking you: What's racist about that? And the reason I ask is because I could see African Americans, who are disproportionately exposed to perhaps the adverse consequences of uncontrolled immigration coming in, whether it's through the labor market or through competition for public resources or whatever it is, saying, “Well, wait a minute. It's my country, too. And you guys who have just assimilated my historical argument,” this is African Americans, “I have a historical argument. It is: My ancestor had been enslaved, and then their descendants had been denied equal citizenship. There are legacy effects of that even into the present day. And I want a social compact that takes care of those concerns, the consequences of which are diluted by the admission of unrestricted people coming across the border, et cetera.” I stumble here a little bit because I know that I'm flirting with, you know, some of the unacceptably racist kind of language that other people are inclined to use.
But what concerns me is that the ability to deliberate, for us, over the legitimate question of what's going to be the composition of the polity is being washed away by all of this accusatory kind of commentary, which says, “If I want there to be a border, I don't want any brown people to come into the country.” That's not what I'm saying at all! I'm saying, we can stumble forward as a nation in terms of who is incorporated among us, or we can deliberate and decide as a nation as to who we’re incorporating among us. Other countries do that. For example, they have qualifications about immigration, which they regulate whom they're prepared to admit, grant visas to, and ultimately extend citizenship to based upon the extent to which those people who are the beneficiaries of that largesse are thought to be adding positive value to the collective enterprise of the country. Is that really a racist stand, to say that I want to exercise that kind of discretion over who comes into the United States of America?
Of course, it's unideal to have people wading in. Sure, you want control. But I sense a subtext in what you're saying, that there are certain people that we would decide we don't want to come. And I know that you're not saying that what would decide that is their being Latinos. That's not remotely what you're saying. But who are the ones who would be turned away who get in otherwise? Or are you saying it's just that there are too many (which seems to no longer actually be the case)? What criteria are not being applied?
Well, in the first instance, you violated the law of the country by entering without authorization. And we have a process here to vet your asylum claim. We call it “asylum.” It's asylum. It's not general openness to anybody who wants to come. You have to have a legitimate claim. We're prepared to vet it, and then we're going to set the rules about how we vet it. But the first order of business is orderly, legally authorized entry to the country.
So who I don't want to come? Anybody who doesn't have my permission to come. Beyond that, if you were to ask me, and there are more people who want to come than there are “places” for them to come, and we have to decide how many places we want to make available for people to come, I would say, people who are going to come and be a dependent on the rest of us for their support are less desirable than people who want to come and who are going to start businesses or bring skills or things of this kind.
So, for one, this is not asylum. I'm not talking about asylum now. I'm talking about discretionary admission of people who are not legitimately claiming to be seeking asylum, which claims will be vetted in our courts according to our rules. I'm talking about other people who want to come into the country but are petitioning for permission to do so. And yeah, I don't see any reason why I can't distinguish amongst them based upon what it is I think they're going to add to the net social benefit of the rest of the society.
Now don't you think that it would be more citizenly for certain highly influential media hosts to say something like this—in perhaps punchier, more accessible language—than to depict these people as swarthy hordes who are trying to push their way in, that they can just break down the dam and they're going to change the nature of our country because, and the implication is clear, they speak Spanish and they have different food? There's always this overhanging sense that they don't really want to work, that there's something wrong with them, that they're not what we real Americans are. Is that necessary? Because that's not what you're saying.
No, that of course is not what I'm saying. Their speaking Spanish or having different food is completely irrelevant. Now, what did Donald Trump say when he came down the escalator? “Mexico is not sending us their best. They're sending murderers and rapists and drug dealers. And I assume some are good people,” words to that effect. That's not what I'm saying. I am not categorically imputing drug dealership or whatever.
But if you turn to Fox News, you will see, amongst other things, a litany of reports about people who have entered the country, committed crimes, been deported, and then come back into the country by walking across the border and committed more crimes. That actually does happen. I don't want those people in my country. I'm not saying that they are all or even most or even a significant minority of the people who are coming across. But I'm saying there are such people, and I don't want them in my country.
You know that there's a little sideline on that. And I almost hate to say it, but it needs to be said. The good word now is that Trump called Mexicans rapists. That has always been a willful misinterpretation of what he said. He said, “They send us the rapists among them,” and I think it's a reasonable assumption that he thinks that there are rapists among all nations and people. The idea that what he said is that “To be Mexican is to be a rapist” is an athletic interpretation of what he said that people seem to almost enjoy lobbing around. I don't think anybody actually heard it that way. Or if they did, we need to listen to each other more closely, even when it means listening to Donald Trump. “Their rapists.” He didn't mean that all Mexicans are rapists. I always found that to be a lapse.
But still. Yeah, I understand completely what you're saying. I don't know how many of these criminals have come in. I mean, is it static? Is it just the occasional tail? Or is it a significant percentage? I don't know. And yes, it's not right that the second you have anything to say about immigration except “let them in,” you're a bigot. That's the same sloppy reasoning that creates people thinking that Donald Trump stood there on that escalator and called Mexicans rapists. But still, I sense a lack of civic responsibility in the way some people talk about these things, where people like this Buffalo guy can hear—again, he didn't happen to listen to Tucker Carlson in particular, but that whole way of discussing things. 4Chan, et cetera. I don't know. It worries me.