BIPP Insights

BIPP guest writer, Amy Collins ’18, gives her opinion on why border control matters.

Untangling the U.S. Border: How Immigration Policy Keeps America Intact

Although Trump’s “zero tolerance” illegal immigration policy has caused quite the outrage as of late, separation of families at the border is not an entirely new phenomenon. While no blanket policy was established during the Bush or Obama administrations to criminally prosecute parents, both administrations enforced the separation of families, and in some cases, children were separated from their families under the Obama Administration. While this phenomenon has simply been exacerbated under Trump. With increasing numbers of immigrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, the past few presidential administrations have implemented a stronger stance on illegal immigration through their enforcement of immigration policy. The hope, in respect to at least Obama and Trump, was that the seriousness and the nature of the prosecution would deter future illegal immigration. Now it seems to be Congress’ turn to address and solve this somewhat timeless issue.

Immigration policy in the U.S. has been a complex issue in domestic policy since its constitution in the early republic. After encouraging open immigration into the U.S. during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a surge in immigration led the Supreme Court to rule that “the regulation of immigration was a federal responsibility.”[1] With the Immigration Act of 1882, this newly recognized power became a tool for economic stability during a period of economic decline, requiring each immigrant to pay fifty cents for their citizenship (approximately thirteen dollars as of July 2018). This power also allowed the federal government to control who entered, blocking entry to “idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge.”[2] While this exercise of power may seem arbitrary and unjust at surface level, one could argue that it falls in line with the tenants our nation is founded on (see Second Treatise of Government by John Locke). In his work, Locke, whose political theory helped shape America’s government, argued that civil society was created for the protection of individual rights (to life, liberty, and property). To grow from this theoretical point into empirical evidence, a country maintains its legitimacy through the protection of these rights of its citizens. But what does John Locke’s Classical Liberalism have to do with border control?

A government achieves a significant amount of legitimacy through maintaining its border, because maintaining its border allows for governments to most effectively function, including carrying out fundamental tasks that ensure the rights of its citizens. A government’s legitimacy has several functions within civil society, for instance, ‘legitimacy’ is crucial for increasing democratic consolidation, or the likelihood in which a respective democracy will continue to be a democracy and not fall into autocratic rule. Of further significance, a nation, as defined, is “a community of people composed of one or more nationalities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government; a large area of land that is controlled by its own government.”

In analyzing these definitions, one can see how legitimacy plays a role not only in the consolidation and effectiveness of a government, but also how a national border contributes to the establishment of some of that legitimacy. Governments have the responsibility to provide both soft and hard security for its citizens. Without a border, however, mass immigration would occur, as it once did, potentially leading to major economic instability and political inefficacy, and certainly placing excess burdens on the state’s infrastructure and public services. Thus, these problems are exacerbated upon entry of illegal immigrants, particularly when government resources are being expended on these individuals in need, but these individuals are not paying taxes—in essence, the age-old “taxation without representation” becomes “representation without taxation.”

What binds U.S. citizens to their government and what serves as the foundation of American civil society is that citizens have entered into a “contract,” where some rights are exchanged for certain protections. Through the legal immigration process, individuals can achieve citizenship through “naturalization,” which requires allegiance to the United States in exchange for the government’s protection.[3] Thus, through naturalization, immigrants sign onto the “contract.” When placing notions of citizenship and governance into the context of illegal immigration, many conflicting notions of justice and fairness arise: It is inherently unfair for individuals to benefit from these protections when they have not agreed to sacrifice the same rights as their peers; It is inherently unfair to avoid tax burdens but to benefit from government services such as state-funded welfare programs, which are estimated to be utilized by illegal immigrants at a higher rate than lawfully present immigrants.

Not only is not paying taxes simply unfair and unjust in principle, it is also detrimental to American citizens. The act of illegal immigration has a severely negative impact on the nation’s taxpayers at the national, state, and local levels. In fact, illegal immigration costs U.S. citizens hundreds of billions of dollars annually. These estimates include taxes paid by a small fraction of illegal immigrants, which, as somewhat aforementioned, do not offset the costs of the many government services these individuals consume.

In conclusion, I assert that a nation is not a nation without control of its borders and what lies within, and citizenship becomes more of a source of financial exploitation than a privilege when other individuals pursue loopholes to circumvent the terms of the “contract” that binds citizens with their government.

[1] https://ivn.us/2014/02/21/a-brief-history-of-immigration-policy-in-the-us/.

[2]  https://www.uscis.gov/historyandgenealogy

[3] https://immigration.findlaw.com/citizenship/u-s-citizenship-naturalization-overview.html.

*The Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) is a nonpartisan institute. Guest writers’ views on public policy are not endorsed by the Institute.

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