Looking through the Overton Window: The Democrat’s Immigration Agenda and Open Borders

Looking through the Overton Window: The Democrat’s Immigration Agenda and Open Borders

By Jorge Paz Reyes '24; Image of President Biden addressing Congress about immigration by Doug Mills/The New York Times 

“Make it easier for somebody that is willing to work and willing to provide for a better future,” said Laila, a returned migrant, when asked what should the United States do to help the immigrant community during her interview with the oral immigration project Migration Encounters. “Just give them an easier way to be there legally, so they don’t have to live with fear.”

Like many of the other interviewees, Laila immigrated to the United States at a very young age and grew up in the typical American setting. Despite the limitations of her undocumented status, she was determined to finish school and go to UCLA for marine biology. But her dreams were crushed at 16 when her father got deported. She and her family returned to Mexico six months later.

The story of Laila and many other undocumented immigrants resonate loud with President Biden’s promise to “restore humanity and secure our values as a nation of immigrants.” Immigration was a big topic in his State of the Union address. He highlighted his presidency as a transitional period in American politics, calling it an “inflection point” in the nation’s history. His speech touched on the different accomplishments and challenges of his administration, as well as his desire to achieve compromise and unity for his immigration plan.

But bipartisanship has not seemed to be working for the Democrat’s immigration agenda. The Biden administration has not achieved any bipartisan action on any front. All immigration-related measures have been introduced exclusively through executive orders. In Congress, the bipartisan efforts have also proven futile. House Democrats have not introduced Biden’s comprehensive immigration reform, The U.S. Citizenship of 2021, for a vote; instead, they have focused on presenting small immigration bills, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, and the American Dream and Promise Act. But effective and permanent immigration legislation seems far from reality, especially with Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate. For the Senate to pass any legislation, Democrats have to either get 10 Republican Senators on their side or abolish the filibuster; both scenarios are unlikely to happen. In his speech,  Biden called on Senate Republicans to “end our exhausting war over immigration,” but in their response, Republicans called Biden’s legislative goals a “liberal wishlist.”

The unity and compromise approach of the Biden administration is too optimistic for the nation’s current political climate. The growing wave of white nationalism and political polarization have made compromising a far fetch goal. The moderate and negotiating approach of the president no longer works in the current political system where obstructionism and fanatical conservatism have taken over the Republican Party.

The only way for the administration to introduce any kind of permanent immigration reform is by engaging in the games of Trump’s Republican party. The present-day political field has been hijacked by extreme rightist views, so to balance the public perception on immigration, Democrats need to go big. The safest bet is the most radical approach, open borders.

Looking Through the Overton Window

Open Borders is without a doubt a radical concept in the context of the United States immigration system. Still, it can help create a path for ambitious moderate reform, such as The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.

In the mid-1990s, Joe Overton introduced a new way of understanding how the public’s perception changes over time. His model, now known as the Overton Window model, measures the nation’s political climate and helps us understand the factors influencing policy.

 To understand how the Overton Window model works, we first need to imagine a yardstick model with a sliding scale. The ideas inside the scale or window are the ones considered politically safe by the public, policies generally accepted by everyone. Ideas outside the window are considered unacceptable, and the further from the window, the more radical the perspective of the policy becomes. However, the core principle of the Overton model is that the window can be shifted right to the left depending on political and societal circumstances. Factors such as media, think-tanks, and crises tend to significantly impact the way the public’s perception evolves over time.

The Overton Window is not meant to function as a tactic but rather as a measurement of the current political context. But in the current political context, the Overton Window can help Democrats introduce what currently seems impossible. In plain sight, the Biden’s administration’s main obstacle is the Republican Party, but in a more broad context is the moderate public. Although Republican Senators have prevented any immigration legislation from passing, it is ultimately the public’s apathy that prevents actual change from initiating. However, if the Democrats introduce a more radical and ambitious plan, like open borders, the perception of immigration will shift from center-right to moderate to center-left.

The Trump administration is a clear example of this but in the opposite way. The way that he radically introduced a new way of politics completely changed the political standards of the presidency. His lies and blunt inappropriate behavior allow him to get away with drastic things that would have been heavily criticized in a typical presidential term. His radical approach mobilized a base that gave the electoral support and made the unacceptable the new norm.

The Overton Window allows the Democrats to set their goals straight, shift the political spectrum to the left, and change the conservative idea of radicalism by introducing a more radical approach.

The Case for Open Borders

In reality, the concept of open borders is only radical to our skewed perspective. In small but precise ways, the president’s immigration plan already introduces values inherently associated with open borders. His plans to end prolonged migration, welcome immigrant families, reform the immigration system, and further support asylum seekers and refugees already establish a foundation for an open-borders immigration system. However, for the most left Democrats, it seems like the most moderate approach, while for conservatives, it seems too radical even to exist.

That is why, for left-wing politics to gain support from the general public and shift the idea of radicalism, policies need to be introduced extensively and comprehensively. Fortunately, economic and ethical debates for open borders are already well established in academia.

Economist Bryan Caplan from George Mason University has authored an entire book discussing the positive economic and ethical impacts of open borders. In his book Open Borders- The Science and Ethics of Immigration,Caplan touches on the contributions to the economy that open borders would bring to the nation. Caplan argues that the influx of immigrants would improve the economy due to their labor and consumption. This sentiment is shared by British economist Philippe Legrain, who, in his book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, argues that immigrants bring new and complementary skills that “sparks faster productivity growth” (143). Caplan and Legrain also agree on the fiscal benefits of open immigration, with Caplan directly challenging Milton Friedman’s idea that open immigration cannot coexist with a welfare state. Both Legrain and Caplan explain how the influx of immigrants would only contribute to the general welfare, thus carrying their weight rather than being a burden (75).

In terms of ethics and political theory, open borders are the ultimate achievement in the immigration debate. Bryan Caplan briefly touches on how it makes sense in multiple ethical perspectives with Utilitarianism, Egalitarianism, Libertarianism, Meritocracy, Cost-benefit analysis, Christianism, and Kantianism, all arguing in favor of open borders in one way or another. At the end of the day, open borders are the most liberal and just approach in the immigration debate. Political scientist Joseph H Carens also makes a similar claim, focusing on how, through Nozickean, Rawlsian, and utilitarianism, one can understand open borders would ultimately reaffirm the liberal character of the United States and commit itself to the principles of justice (271).

How to Get There  

The path is clear: Biden and the Democrats need to go extensive and radical. Perhaps not to immediately open the borders but introduce comprehensive reform and create the path for the future with an actual open border-based immigration system.

Despite political polarization and partisanship, President Biden still has the chance to become the transitional president that he promised to be. He still has the ability to create a path for ambitious immigration reform, but ambitious in the context of a truly politically center society, not the center-right climate that we are. The radical left approach can shift the public’s perception of immigration and genuinely start the much-needed conversation for legislation that would benefit immigrants like Laila.

As Laila put it, “instead of pushing them away, the United States should be receiving them with open arms.”

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