Tell Dems to Demilitarize the Border

The status quo, with or without Donald Trump, is killing people.


Editor’s note

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I think the Democrats should take the position of demilitarizing the border. I think the Democrats should take the position of decriminalizing border crossings. (Only Elizabeth Warren embraces the latter.) They should do this now. They should do this because the status quo, with or without Donald Trump, is killing people. The status quo has long been untenable. With the deaths of children, I hope that’s now clear.

The Democrats should do this without worrying whether the president will accuse them of wanting “open borders.” The Democrats should take these hard and clear positions now, and find concrete ways to compromise and negotiate later. There are no good-faith intentions to this president or his Republican Party, so the Democrats shouldn’t take their claims about them into account when deciding the right thing. Demilitarizing the border and decriminalizing border crossings are the right thing. 

Getting rid of Trump in 2020 won’t solve the problem. To be sure, the president has issued policies that belie federal law and deny the right to asylum. This administration is solely responsible for taking infants from mothers as a grotesque form of deterrence. This administration is solely responsible for abandoning morality and decency in taking custody and care of children. All of these horrors can and must be reversed.


The Republicans say strengthening the border strengthens America. It’s the reverse.


But people were dying by the hundreds every year long before Trump was elected. People died by the hundreds from trying to cross the southern desert, and they died trying, because the southern border is militarized and federal law is too punitive. Anyone who wants to be an American should be allowed to. There should be a deliberate legal process by which immigrants are aided in earning that blessing. This isn’t just a moral view. This is a political view with an eye on the rest of the century.

As I argued yesterday, the Democrats are complicit in the creation of concentration camps and the deaths of at least a dozen children (that we know of), because the Democrats have for years negotiated from the GOP’s position, which is that the border can never be secure enough and that anything smacking of reform smacks of amnesty. 

These were and are impossible positions to realize in government policy, but the Republicans have no incentive to change position because the Democrats have been so accommodating, and have thus contributed to, as Manlio Graziano has said, a false political solution to a real political problem that is making things so much worse

The real political problem, as Graziano wrote, is that the great powers are no longer hegemons able to dictate the terms of the international order. He wrote in 2017’s What Is a Border?: “A process has been triggered that will lead, barring greater catastrophes, to the loss of the old dominant powers’ preeminence and therefore, above all, the loss of some of the benefits and privileges that derive from being dominant.” 

Authoritarians like Donald Trump specialize in false solutions to real problems. Taking an untenable border situation—people were dying before Trump was elected—and whipping it into a humanitarian crisis is easier than addressing our unwillingness to adapt to, as Graziano wrote, a new order in which the US is “losing portions of its power to new players that have appeared on the economic scene.” The thing about authoritarians is that they are so very lazy. It’s less work blaming scapegoats—e.g., “criminal” immigrants. It takes real work reinventing American world leadership.

The impulse, when a great power is in decline, is to make a fetish of its borders in the mistaken belief that strengthening borders will strengthen the nation. But the reverse is almost always the case. Borders do not define a nation. They reflect a nation. So strengthening borders actually weakens the nation, and the more the nation tries, the worse things get. As Graziano wrote in What Is a Border?: “There will inevitably be new and more serious problems, setting off a dangerous downward spiral.” It’s safe to say children dying as political prisoners in US concentration camps is a case in point.

But the right isn’t only to blame. The left reacts to the right’s fetish with fetishes of its own. That’s why you hear calls, on social media, to “#abolishICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that enforces immigration law). That’s why you hear so much about “abolishing concentration camps.” While that might help, that doesn’t help solve the problem. Oscar Ramírez and his 2-year-old daughter Valeria (pictured above) did not die due to ICE. They did not die in concentration camps. They died because Republicans and Democrats have increasingly militarized the border.

That’s why the Democrats should, right now, take positions demanding the demilitarization of the border and the decriminalization of border crossings. I don’t know if they will ever realize such demands, but just taking them will yield positive outcomes, I think, by reorienting our attention, pulling it away from the border and toward the needs of the nation. Borders do not define a country. They reflect it. Strengthening borders actually weakens a nation. It’s time for the Democrats to reverse this dynamic, for the sake of morality and decency, and for the sake of the country.

—John Stoehr