Nick Gillespie: Keep America's Borders Open

"We should be building a wall around the welfare state, not the United States," Nick Gillespie argued at a recent immigration debate.


On April 11 in Dallas, I participated in a debate on immigration that was sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and The Free Press. The proposition was "America should shut its borders," and columnist Ann Coulter and Compact magazine cofounder Sohrab Ahmari defended it. The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur and I opposed the motion, while The Free Press' Bari Weiss moderated.

The full video is currently only available to Free Press subscribers (a monthly subscription costs $8 a month; go here for details), but I'm happy to share video and a lightly edited transcript of my opening statement, with relevant links embedded.

I went second, after Ann Coulter, and a few of my comments below directly respond to her opening remarks and require a bit of context. She drew a distinction between immigrants and their descendants who were in the United States before 1970 (good) and those who came after (bad).

Most pre-1970 immigrants came from Europe and had entered the country before ultra-restrictive immigration laws were passed in the early 1920s that were explicitly designed to reduce the number of Jews, Italians, and other undesirable groups allowed to enter America. The Johnson-Reed Act completely banned immigration from Asia (including India) and sharply limited newcomers from Europe based on their country of origin. Under the new law, for instance, just 4,000 Italians were allowed to enter the country each year, down from an average of well over 200,000 in each year of the preceding decade. Jewish immigration plummeted by 80 percent.

National origins would remain the basis of U.S. immigration law until 1965, when those quotas were abolished and replaced by a system that emphasized family reunification and labor force needs. Along with Sen. Philip Hart (D–Mich.) and Rep. Emanuel Celler (D–N.Y.), Sen. Ted Kennedy (D–Mass.) was one of the sponsors of the new legislation. Since 1970, the vast majority of immigrants have come from Latin American countries, especially Mexico, and Asia.

The following transcript has been edited for style and clarity.

I'm the token libertarian on the panel, and I know that means you probably think I'm going to talk mostly about economics and drugs. And you'll be right, I am going to talk most about economics and drugs tonight.

In 1902, the nativist publication, Judge, which I'm pretty sure Anne Coulter had a column in, ran a cover image showing a giant horseshoe magnet suspended from a rope titled "American Prosperity." And then all sorts of stereotypically "bad" immigrants—Chinese coolies, fez-wearing Turks, weird people who were probably Persian, French actresses (!), bomb-throwing Italians, Russian peasants, European-looking people who were just carrying bags that said filth on them—were being sucked into the magnet. And the caption of the magnet on the cover of this Judge issue just said, "The only bad feature of our prosperity."

We're a nation of immigrants, but we have never, ever, ever been comfortable with the ones currently streaming across our borders. So it's fascinating to hear Ann talk about how the Jews were pretty good as pre-1970 people. Jews were locked out of this country to such a degree that millions perished during the Holocaust because they couldn't emigrate to America, including Otto Frank.

That was the law that Teddy Kennedy amended. We've never been comfortable with the people streaming across our borders. It was true in 1902, it's true in 2024.

Last year, saw what the AP called a record number of illegal crossings into America from Mexico. And that's not even the whole story, since the majority of people in the country illegally don't bum rush their way across the southern border. They come here legally and then don't leave. That's why South Asian Indians are the third-largest group who are illegal in America. Is that your vision of an illegal immigrant?

But what's really strange about these invaders, these people who are rushing into our country and destroying everything, is what do they do when they get here. They break into our country…and then they pick our crops, prepare our meals, cut our lawns, clean our toilets, and babysit our children. What strange armies of the night!

At the same time that we are creating panic on the border—and we need to deal with that—we've made it harder and harder for people to immigrate legally. Over 9 million people are waiting to get green cards and the wait time has skyrocketed over the past few decades from "just a few months to years, possibly decades."

Immigrants want to come to America now for the same reason they did 100 years ago when my grandparents came here from shithole countries (to use a Donald Trump phrase), from Italy and Ireland. They come here because of American prosperity. And they don't come here to destroy American prosperity, they come here to enjoy it and expand it and make it rich and new again.

Contra Donald Trump, illegal immigrants are not bringing drugs or crime. Illegal immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. Legal immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. Immigrants have a higher labor-force participation rate, and they're more likely to start a business than native-born Americans. In fact, immigrants and their children started 45 percent of today's Fortune 500 companies. But they're stealing from us, aren't they?

Even anti-immigrant economists like Harvard's George Borjas, himself a refugee from Castro's Cuba, conclude that immigrants on net are a boon because they expand markets and fill labor gaps. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has said that the deficit going forward will be a trillion dollars less over the next decade because immigrants have expanded the economy.

So what should we do? We should create a system that allows more people to come here legally and enter through the front door. Nobody can shut the border. Peter Savodnik in The Free Press wrote recently that even Donald Trump couldn't shut America's borders. He slashed, and I'm quoting here, "he slashed legal immigration by making it harder to get a green card or visa," even as "he failed to stop migrants from crossing the border."

What people who want to shut the borders really want is Prohibition, this time for people. Prohibition was passed 100 years ago at the same time that the first wide-scale exclusionary acts against Europeans were passed, driven by the same thing, fear of un-American immigrants like Catholics and Jews from Central and Southern Europe. It was costly and ineffective. Within a couple of years, Americans were drinking more liquor than they had before Prohibition was passed. We get the same thing with border control. Costs have tripled since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The amount of money being spent on border security has tripled, and yet we seem to have less of it.

Let's create an orderly, regulated, and growing market for immigration just like we ultimately did for beer and booze. Let people who want to live and work peacefully here come and do so. We can vet them and have them apply in their own countries and then come here to wherever they want to be rather than getting clogged up at the southern border, or any one place in particular. Allow individuals, churches, businesses, and nonprofits to sponsor them. Immigrants are already barred from most forms of welfare, as they should be. We should tighten up that. But our national debt is out of control. We should be building a wall around the welfare state, not the United States.

We need to legalize immigrants pulled here by the magnet of our prosperity and get on with the business of building the future of our country rather than trying to restore a tattered imagined past.