Abraham Lincoln was our first Republican president. By taking on the mission of preserving the Union and eventually destroying slavery, the Republican Party’s central value was preserving and enhancing individual freedom and civil rights. That central value was eloquently expressed in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
When I witness the looming candidacy of Donald Trump, I lament how far the Republican party has strayed from that central value. Consider this hate-filled quote from Trump: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
The Party of Lincoln, the party founded on valuing the dignity of all people, would counter Trump’s hateful harangue by saying, “It’s not just “some” of these Mexicans but almost all of them who are good people. They are seeking opportunities for a better life, not for themselves but for their children.”
That value was beautifully expressed in a letter from a scholarship applicant to Chapman: “My parents saw that there was much more opportunity for their children if they came to America. Leaving Mexico and all that tied them to it was not easy. But they made sacrifices for their children, of whom I am one. I love my parents for many reasons, but I love them most because of this.”
Yet, when watching the Republican presidential debates (sans Trump), the candidates seemed to fight vigorously for airtime to deliver the message: “Vote for me since my opponent is a wimp on immigration policy.”
Rather than these wanna-be presidents doing all they can to position themselves as tougher than their opponents on immigration policy, they should be arguing for something else, something consistent with the founding values of the Republican party. That something, I would argue, would be to open our border with our neighbor, Mexico, and allow the free movement of people. In my mind, that would truly represent a new “birth of freedom.” I’m not arguing for guest worker privileges where Mexican nationals are allowed to stay in the U.S. temporarily before being forced back. I’m arguing that people – both Mexicans and Americans – be allowed to cross the border and stay as long as they want.
It would be a simple, straightforward system that would allow workers and their family members to enter the U.S. after some reasonable time to apply for U.S. citizenship without the indecipherable rules and regulations and dehumanizing waits and delays that characterize our current system.
To those who argue that this free market/open border policy would take jobs away from current citizens, I argue that new immigrants create new job opportunities by making it possible for U.S. companies to compete better in an increasingly competitive global economy. Wouldn’t it be better to create more jobs for all Americans, including new ones, instead of outsourcing them to Mexico or other nations?
What about the possibility that this free market/open border policy will lead to a mass exodus of Mexicans into the U.S., overwhelming our economic system? Not likely. Wage rates will eventually settle to a point where all the benefits and costs to an immigrant living in the U.S. versus their native Mexico are about the same. Don’t forget that Mexico’s economy is strong and growing rapidly.
What about the possibility that all these new Mexican immigrants will overload our social welfare system? Again, not likely. Most economic studies show that legal immigrants pay more than their share of public costs. Consider also the economic and social gains to our nation that would occur when millions of undocumented workers became citizens. No longer will they have to take illegal jobs where they pay no state and federal income taxes. Instead of our current system that incentivizes decent and hardworking people to leave their children and families behind and risk – and sometimes lose – their lives to improve their lots in life, a Republican presidential candidate should offer a humane policy that recognizes that the true wealth of nations is based not on land and capital but on people.
This reminds me of a friend of mine who immigrated from Iran. He told me that when he permanently left Iran with his family to immigrate to the U.S., a petty government bureaucrat entered the plane to take back any “valuables” they were wearing. When that bureaucrat saw the diamond ring that my friend’s father had given him, that “official” demanded it back “for the sake of Iran.” My friend took his ring off and placed it in the palm of the bureaucrat, and said, “Take this. It’s worth a lot less than these kids of mine who are leaving our homeland with me.”
Another benefit of open borders is that it gives the U.S. leverage with Mexico to establish agreements that allow for common land ownership in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as legal protection in securing land title. An open border policy can be tied to adopting common environmental and anti-corruption laws and the enforcement of tough drug laws against illegal drug trade and distribution networks.
Such an open border policy like the one I’m proposing is not new. The European Union has already done it with great success. A European Commission report concluded, “Practically all of the available evidence suggests that the overall economic impact of recent intra-EU mobility has on balance been positive and that it has not led to serious disturbance in the labor market, even in member states which have seen a large inflow of workers from the new member states.”
Consider also the positive impact of immigration on U.S. population growth. Without immigration, the population in the U.S. would now be on the decline. Even at current immigration levels, the population is projected to increase, on average, only 0.3 percent over the 2023 to 2053 period. More worrisome is that the growth of the population over that period of those over the age of 65 and older will outpace the growth of younger age groups. That imbalance will place downward pressure on economic growth. While it’s well-nigh impossible to legislate higher birth rates or lower death rates, immigration rates can be increased. Without higher immigration, the U.S. economy will begin experiencing the kind of stultifying economic pressures hitting nations now suffering from negative population growth.
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But the central argument for opening our border to Mexico is not about population or economics; it’s about morality. It’s an argument based on the belief that people at heart are good and add worth to society. Indeed, our nation – the greatest on this earth – was founded on that ideal.
Not long before she died, my mother and I visited Ellis Island. It was her first visit there since she immigrated from Italy to this country as a young girl in 1924. When I asked her what she still remembered most from that visit, my Ma said, “I’ll never forget seeing the sight of the beautiful Statue of Liberty. It seemed like she was looking right at me and saying, “Welcome to the free land of America.”
Where is that Republican candidate who can present the moral significance of welcoming Mexican nationals to our nation as my mother was welcomed so long ago? Where is that candidate who is able to articulate a new birth of freedom for the millions of undocumented workers who are, in reality, our fellow Americans? Where is that candidate whose vision of our nation is based on kindness and inclusivity rather than meanness and exclusivity (aka Donald Trump)? And where is that candidate who proclaims with compelling conviction: “Come home, Republicans. Come home to the Party of Lincoln.”
James L. Doti, Ph.D. is President Emeritus and Professor of Economics at Chapman University.