“Secure the border first” policy is irrational

Suppose you were the generous and altruistic owner of a restaurant that served delicious food and had practically unlimited capacity. Being generous and altruistic, suppose that every Wednesday you had a free-food day, where anyone from anywhere could come in and eat all the delicious food they could stomach without paying so much as a tip. Doggie bags allowed! Also, let’s say that the front of your restaurant is beautifully decorated and that you put really attractive people at the front door to greet patrons, like an Abercrombie and Fitch store but without making you want to make this face:

How I feel when I look at an Abercrombie and Fitch store

How I feel when I look at an Abercrombie and Fitch store

However, there’s only one catch: you refuse to serve anyone with the last name Smith. Perhaps random chance has had it that all the misfortune in your life has been directly brought upon you by bearers of this cursed surname. Hence, the attractive greeters at the front door check your ID to make sure you’re not a Smith, after which you are free to move about the inside unperturbed.

Now, suppose one sunny Wednesday you catch someone trying to sneak into your restaurant through the back door. Unlike the front door, this door boasts neither fine decor nor eye candy. Furthermore, reaching it requires traversing a mosquito-infested, briar-laden, doo-doo swamp. Given all this, what are the chances that the person you caught is a Smith? Seems rather reasonable to think that they’re very good. Sure, it’s not a 100% guarantee; this person could be an enthusiastic building hacker. However, it’s a great bet at even odds that this person’s ID will confirm his Smith-hood.

Why is it such a good bet? We have great confidence that the person we caught is a Smith precisely because our admittance policy is otherwise so liberal. If our restaurant denied service to a wide and arbitrarily-determined swath of people, we wouldn’t be able to infer anything interesting about people who try to enter illegally.

And this is why it’s practically impossible for the “secure the border first” attitude to make any sense. Liberalizing our immigration policy makes it easier to secure our borders against the few kinds of people we really want to keep out: criminals and potential terrorists. As it stands, the chance that a person sneaking across our border is a criminal is extremely small because there is a great reason why otherwise law-abiding people would want to enter illegally: that’s the only way to enter!

It’s important to keep in mind that even though I’m presenting extreme cases to make a point, this argument is robust against a broad array of beliefs about the benefits of immigration. Although I favor almost entirely open borders with respect to both skilled and unskilled immigrants, all I’m arguing here is that it makes no sense to make border militarization a precondition on reform. To make it explicit,

  1. Saying you want to secure the borders “first”, implies that you favor some kind of immigration liberalization. (If I ask you out to dinner and you reply that you want to “shower first”, you’ve implied that, yes, you want to go to dinner.)
  2. Favoring any kind of immigration liberalization means you believe that there are at least some immigrants we should let in but that we currently don’t
  3. Liberalizing immigration will cause at least some people to enter the country legally who otherwise would have attempted illegal entry. Hence, ceteris paribus, it will reduce the number of illegal immigrants
  4. For a fixed amount of border security resources, fewer illegal immigrants means that we can commit more resources to determining whether any given illegal immigrant is a criminal or terrorist, which in turn means that we’ll be more likely to catch criminals and terrorists who try to illegally immigrate
  5. Hence, immigration liberalization is a way to make the border more secure.

The only time “secure the border first” makes sense is if the person uttering it actually favors less immigration and is trying to sound nominally rational while forestalling actual reform.

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