Sal Rodriguez: America is the land of the free. Open the borders to those seeking a better life.

Editor’s note: This commentary was originally published in print on May 14 as part of a pro-con debate page. To read the counterpoint, click here.

Should the United States have an open borders system?

Of course. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity. What better way to back that up than to give more people the opportunity to be Americans?

I have to agree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she said of immigrants to the southern border, “Rather than … talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit and then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they go back. And they can cross — and open the border both ways.”

Oh, wait.

No, that wasn’t AOC.

That was Ronald Reagan, back in 1980. What he said more than 40 years ago still makes sense today.

A system in which people are able to lawfully come to the United States through regular ports of entry, present identification, go through common-sense checks (like making sure they aren’t murderers or have ebola) and go about their merry way to live, work and become productive contributors to American society makes sense to me.

That sort of simplified system would be a vast improvement over the slow-moving and restrictive immigration system we have today. Why do you think there are so many people willing to undertake risky and even deadly trips to try to come to America? Because for a lot of people it’s practically impossible to come here legally and their circumstances are so bleak that it’s worth giving it a shot.

Want fewer illegal border crossings? Make it easy to come here legally. Concerned about undocumented immigrants? Then let them become documented immigrants. Simple.

Here’s a straightforward illustration of how creating broader legal pathways reduces some of the disorder at the border. Consider that after the U.S. made it easier for people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the country for two years, illegal border crossings from those countries plummeted 97%, reported the Associated Press in January. It’s not magical — it’s just logical.

As we all know, just being here is no guarantee of success. People who come here still have to put in the work. And they’re generally willing to do so. After all, people willing to uproot themselves to go to another country where they may not know anyone or even speak the dominant language to work very low-wage jobs tend to have really laudable reasons for doing so. They want a better life for themselves and their families.

Plus, America needs people. Declining birth rates and an aging population make for some serious long-term economic and social challenges. There are plenty of potential immigrants out there who are willing to solve that problem, people with talents and skills that will either end up benefiting other countries or going to waste.

I know the objections to what I’ve said.

The first is always the funniest to me, the idea that we already have open borders. We do not have open borders, no matter how many times right-wing pundits say so. We have tightly controlled borders with an outdated and restrictive legal immigration system. Over two million migrants were arrested last fiscal year by the border patrol at the southwest border. Does that sound like open borders to you?

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Someone is sure to invoke the welfare state. Well, what about it? It seems perfectly reasonable to me to continue restricting access to welfare benefits to new immigrants, as is done now, both to preserve existing welfare systems and to reduce any incentive to enter the country seeking such benefits. Wall off the welfare state, not the country.

Then people will pull the classic, “What about our jobs?!” Well, immigrants are rational people. They’ll come when there are jobs and they won’t when there aren’t. That’s how it works. If there’s a need for their labor, they’ll find it.

Then there are objections like, “What about our culture?!” It’s a classic bit of pearl-clutching which America has seen time and time again. “No Irish need apply.” But the fact is assimilation is the norm and within little time the descendents of immigrants become virtually indistinguishable from other Americans.

Of course, I don’t expect to see an open-borders system in my lifetime. But it’s an ideal worth striving toward.

People deserve a chance to make the most of their lives, and government shouldn’t get in the way of that.

Sal Rodriguez can be reached at

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