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Prior to 1965, there were no limits on immigration from Western countries. There were plenty of quotas placed on other groups, primarily for racist reasons, but not for neighbors to the South or North. In 1965 that changed. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act began the militarization of the Southern border. It provided amnesty for undocumented immigrants as it also beefed up border security and, theoretically at least, held employers accountable for hiring undocumented workers. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 further militarized the southern border, contributing to the “crisis” we have today.

I put the word “crisis” in quotes because it is entirely of our own making. It is an ideological crisis, one that refuses to acknowledge there are other ways of thinking about immigration and the Southern border. People on both the right and the left are stuck in a discourse they think is the immutable truth–we have to protect our borders. Protect the border from what, or from whom? The militarization of our Southern border as a result of the legislation acts of 1965, 1986, and 1996 has created this problem. It’s time to start asking questions about the assumptions most people take for granted. Why not just let them in?

Right now we treat terrorists, drug dealers, and general trouble makers the same way we treat people seeking asylum, employment, and a better life for their family: we criminalize them. Of course we shouldn’t let criminals come across the border, but is it so difficult to differentiate criminals from hard working people? President Trump doesn’t want to solve the immigration crisis–his campaign was and is based upon the rhetoric of building a wall. Democrats, it seems, aren’t interested in solving the crisis either. Many of them take for granted the belief that we can’t just let anyone (who’s not a criminal) come in to our country. Both republicans and democrats, for the most part, are caught in an endless argument based upon the assumption we must keep people from crossing the Southern border. What if we challenged that basic assumption?

Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, by conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, makes the case for letting more people cross the Southern border. He takes on the arguments against open borders, showing they don’t hold up. He writes this:

My primary goal in writing this book was to offer a rebuttal to some of the more common anti-immigrant arguments that I’ve come across while covering the issue as a Wall Street Journal editorialist. The received wisdom, courtesy of ratings-driven populists on talk radio and cable news outlets primarily, holds that immigrants cause more trouble than they’re worth. We’re constantly told that foreign-born workers are displacing native workers, that they’re crippling our welfare-state apparatus, that they’re criminally inclined, and that they aren’t assimilating. Yet time and again, my own reporting and research found these claims to be overblown when they weren’t counterfactual.

It’s time for a different approach to this issue. Let’s use our resources to build infrastructure that can accommodate more people crossing the Southern border. Let’s free up law enforcement to focus on stopping the bad people from coming into our country, not families seeking a better life. Let’s bring the employment of immigrants above board to improve working conditions and provide better pay. Let’s take this issue out of political campaigns and start working toward real solutions. It’s time to change the discourse.

(This essay was originally published at

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”


  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I appreciate the post. If anyone is interested in a podcast accounting of the history that Jason suggests and the ways in which this “crisis” is of our own making. Malcolm Gladwell offers a fascinating look back with this episode:

    Happy listening, if you desire.

  • William Harris says:

    Another useful book for understanding what went before on the southern border is Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented (Beacon, 2014).

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    Jason Riley may have his own research and experience but I have mine. My experience (in Salem, Oregon) is that when there is too much low skilled immigration in a particular area (like Salem, Oregon), it has a clear and significantly effect on (1) small business owners (or “would-be owners”) who encounter a great deal of artificially increased competition in certain kinds of businesses (e.g., roofing, landscaping, tree removal, etc), and (2) lower skilled workers (or “would-be workers”) who encounter a great deal of artificially increased competition for their labor.

    The net effect? Opportunities–for both would-be business owners in certain sectors and lower skilled workers–that would otherwise exist in a relatively vibrant economy don’t, and their income is significantly lower than what it would be.

    I’ll be the first to say that in an overall way, that is, in a macro-economic way, the US economy is benefited by a great influx of lower skilled workers. For that matter, a state like California desperately needs it (it keeps down labor costs and prices for lots of goods/services for middle and higher class groups. Still, a particular economic class of Americans get cheated, and that is the class that can least afford it–and has the least voice to speak out in protest.

    How do I know this? Some of those Americans have been my clients, my neighbors, my friends. This is not abstract research, not abstract conjecture. This is reality on the ground, people that I have lived with day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year.

    Do I hold this effect against those lower skilled folks who do come here from south of the border (and there are lots of them)? Nope. They are doing what is best for their them and their families, legal or (mostly) illegal. They too, frankly, have been my clients, and are my neighbors and my friends. I’m not “anti-immigrant,” or even “anti-illegal immigrant,” but I am insistent that we look the facts straight in the eye, and that we not merely repeat the mantra of “immigration is good for America!” but that we look straight in the eye of those Americans for whom too much immigration is not good at all and consider what is fair for them as well.

    That we have persistently not done, and that piece of the reality picture is missing from this essay.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Your points are well taken and not to be ignored. While I don’t like to take personal experience and extrapolate it out to the macro level, ignoring the individual is fraught.
      Again, I would encourage you to listen to Gladwell’s podcast on the issue. A quick summary offers that before the border was militarized and closed off, a relatively porous border allowed low skilled workers to come across for a season to work and then return home. Most workers had no desire to stay. Once the border was militarized the low skilled immigrant had no other choice than to come across and then stay. This more than anything created the dynamic you are describing across the country.
      I don’t know if we could ever go back. We are too gripped by fear, but understanding the truth might allow us to escape the grip in a new way.

      • Doug Vande Griend says:

        I’m not unfamiliar with Gladwell’s thesis, Rodney, and there is some value in it, but not so much. Mostly, I’m suggesting this question is quite complex and cannot be justly resolved with a simplistic “immigration is good for America” narrative (nor, CRC-styled, a “Immigrants are a Blessing and Not a Burden” narrative).

        The US cannot maintain strict consistency from the past as to immigration for the simple reason of history. Once upon a time, the US begged for immigrants to come — and for good reason. But history is dynamic and so changes circumstances. No, that doesn’t mean that the US should no longer allow immigration (or asylum) but it does mean that immigration law must change with the changing of circumstances. To date, both major political parties have refused to do that, seeming immigration law to be more preferred as a political football rather than something to actually regulate immigration law in a rapidly changing world and nation. That is the great regrettable here.

        But I will also say this: Gladwell’s podcast notwithstanding, were the US today to move toward an open border immigration policy, nothing short of disaster would follow, both for the nation as a nation and for many citizens of the nation as well, in many ways. Were the US to declare its borders open, the numbers of new US residents would probably swell to several or more million per year, maybe tens of millions. Despite the incessant national self-loathing American progressive politicians like to engage in, the US is still a very, very highly favored country that millions, no billions, of other people in the world would at least think about moving to. It was such a country in the past when making the trip was an incredible challenge (even danger) and when the social safety net was trivial compared to that which exists today. Now making that trip is possible at an unbelievable low cost in an unbelievable short period of time.

        Have you ever had people who needed help stay in your home for prolonged periods of time? My wife and I have done that over the 40+ years of our marriage. We would do it again (actually, still do), but doing that teaches you how much having “new people” in the house can change life. We can pretty much roll with those punches but not everyone (most actually) could. And we call always call an end to it (and have) when that needed to happen. Imagine if my wife and I said “the doors are open” on our house? Then imagine the parallel: if the Unite States said “the doors are open” to its territorial borders and the borders of each one of the fifty states.

        Just as “open borders” would dramatically change our house and our family (arguably in some ways good but inevitably in more ways bad), doing the same would change the United States (some good, mostly bad).

        It actually distresses me that so many these days who I would suppose can “think better than that” actually propose a US open borders policy (even if the proposal would exclude “criminals”). I think a decision to do would be naive in the extreme, would create much damage, including a pendulum swing reaction down the road against immigration (that’s how these kinds of decisions usually work, witness, e.g., Germany, Sweden and other EU countries and those stories aren’t even to their end), and once made, cannot be unmade So for me, fervently declaring “Let them in!” (see title of this article) or “Why not just let them in?” (a sentence int this article) is simply not a proposal for good (or just or wise) government.

        To my great consternation, Trump is perpetually hyperbolic about immigration (pretty much everything else as well). But what is as distressing is the reaction to him by the political “progressives” who become the same, even if in a different direction. It would seem that immigration is still playing the role of political football.

  • David Stravers says:

    I agree with the reply “that piece of the reality picture is missing from this essay.” I vote for Jason Lief’s proposal anyway, as a matter of priorities. We can figure out how to deal with the side effects.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Worth considering in this discussion (and not unrelated to Doug’s points) is the interplay of open/free immigration and the idea of a welfare state. NPR had and interesting discussion on that yesterday. Economists as varied as Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman contend that a welfare state and open borders are incompatible. To be sure, I expect there are others who differ from that line of thinking. The US is not a full-on welfare state, I don’t believe, but has many entitlements. And if the Democratic primary is any indication, there are significant forces aligning behind a significant expansion of the welfare state in the US, whether you take that for good or ill. Oftentimes we are told that the Scandinavian countries are welfare states that we should model ourselves after. However, one must then grapple with how the Scandinavian countries address immigration and the relative homogeneity of their populace. I’d love to see a world where people could move around freely with no restriction. If that could be done without collateral damage which ends up making local, national, and global situations worse on balance, I’d be the first to get behind such an idea. I’m not sure it’s that simple.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    So I listened to the podcast, and what I hear is a point of view that would happily support ending birthright citizenship and modifying e-verify so that we could better track the migrants. You would think an honest position would recommend such things as part of the initial first steps toward open borders. But to suggest these very modest proposals (after all, they’re just seasonal migrants!) is to brand yourself as a racist. Why is that?

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      It’s interesting that this is what you heard. I’m not going to argue, but if before the militarized border data suggests as much movement out of he country as in the country, immigrants flowing in to do work that Americans won’t do and then going home, why can’t we keep birthright citizenship (I don’t know where that came from) use e-verify, but let folks come to work and then go back home (as most wanted to do)?
      It’s obviously different in our current situation because the majority of folks approaching the border now are refugees, a completely different conversation than open borders or the other questions you raise.
      I wonder if we removed fear of the other, if sensible reform might be possible. We’ve spent so much time demonizing the other I’m not sure it’s possible, but it would be a much more interesting conversation. I don’t mean to accuse you of that Matt, just the general milieu of our approach today (Republicans and Democrats included).

    • MattHuisman says:

      When Malcolm Gladwell says economic migrants don’t want to stay, I say great – let’s advocate for policies/procedures that will help prove the point. I’m putting the burden on the open border side to compromise with the hardliners.

      They won’t, of course, because the hardliners are political chumps and it’s more fun to put out there that ‘fear of the other’ and ‘demonization’ are motivating factors on the right (like you’re doing.

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    Perhaps if we view this concern from a economical perspective-only we would greatly limit the number of immigrants coming in. However, we follow a Lord that values each individual and evaluates us based on the cup of cold water we give, or the times we gave to the hungry, or helped the naked. Will we someday stand before the Lord and hear His disappointment in us over these children we rejected?
    I ask myself this often.
    I also ask myself if I view this concern with immigration through His eyes?

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