Acton Institute Powerblog

A modest, utopian proposal for the border crisis: commerce

The Democrats had their first presidential primary debate last week, and immigration was a central focus both nights. Poor conditions of refugees and others detained crossing the southern border have been in the news all year.

The influx of immigrants in the last year has been so constant that detainment facilities are grossly overcrowded, to the point that the Trump administration has had to fly people to facilities in other states, according to one report this May.

Indeed, while details of what to do about the crisis are debated, Congress approved and president Trump even praised a bipartisan bill to send $4.6 billion in aid to improve conditions at the border for families fleeing their homelands in Central America to seek a better life in the United States.

So despite the heated disagreement (often along party lines), agreement is at least widespread that there is, indeed, a humanitarian crisis at our border. It should go without saying that Christians should care about alleviating humanitarian crises, and on that account we can be thankful for this bill. And Christians should care about immigration in particular. As Jesus himself taught, at the end of all things, “the King will say to those on His right handI was a stranger and you took Me in …” (Matthew 25:34-35).

Many of the Democratic candidates — who in general oppose president Trump’s restrictionist immigration policies — singled out private, for-profit detention centers. Kamala Harris, for example, pledged,

I will also immediately put in place [an] immediate process for reviewing the cases for asylum. I will release children from cages. I will get rid of the private detention centers.

This makes for a good sound-bite, but it obscures the incongruity of these statements. As already mentioned, detention centers are overcrowded. The left-wing organization Freedom for Immigrants, which wants to abolish “the detention system in its entirety,” reports, “According to federal government data [from 2018], over 60 percent of people are held in privately-run immigrant prisons.” If conditions are terrible due to overcrowding (and much worse since 2018), how will reducing the number of detention centers by more than half help solve that problem? More likely, it would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis worse than what we’re currently witnessing.

Nevertheless, I don’t write to defend the detention system in general nor private facilities in particular. My point is simply that good intentions make for great slogans, but pace Marianne Williamson, someone is going to need a coherent plan at some point.

Of course, many candidates have detailed plans, but detail is not the same thing as coherence. I have critiqued Julian Castro’s plan on this blog in the past, for example. I tried my best to be charitable in doing so, however, because criticism is much easier than crafting constructive policy. Kudos to anyone for trying, as far as I’m concerned.

That said, increased detention and border policing has not proven to be enough. Our immigration laws, as they are currently written, do not seem to be enforceable. So some reform of our immigration laws — and much has been proposed — is likely needed in order to ensure the rule of law, not to mention treating everyone involved with basic dignity and respect.

Neither, for that matter, do I think the recently approved financial aid will be enough. Aid is great for emergencies. Hopefully that which was recently approved will alleviate some of the immediate needs of those detained at the border. Nevertheless, the most recent increase in asylum-seekers and other immigrants crossing our southern border has been going strong since January. It is not as if a hurricane wiped out local infrastructure in some region, and all that is needed is clean water, food, clothing, and so on for a month or two until everything gets fixed and the economy gets running again. There is nothing at border facilities and camps to be fixed, no economy to speak of at all.

And that, I would submit, is my challenge for this debate. Admittedly, it is a meager contribution to a complex discussion, but it isn’t something I’ve seen anyone else mention or propose. So I’ll offer this as my widow’s mite: Until we reform our laws so that they can be consistently enforced, and so long as the influx of desperate families crossing the border continues, we need to find some way — other than for-profit detention centers — to introduce commerce into these camps.

The economist, peace activist, and Quaker poet Kenneth Boulding distinguished between markets, which he called “exchange systems,” and the grants economy, which consists of what he called “threat systems” and “integrative systems.”

Exchange systems follow this logic: I’ll give you good thing A that you want, if you give me good thing B that I want. When goods are exchanged, both parties consider themselves to be — and typically actually are — better off. This is how the production of new goods and services produces new wealth through exchange. Every market, then, is a further extension of the benefits of the division of labor. It is a positive-sum relationship.

Threat systems follow this logic: Give me good thing A that I want, or I will give you bad thing B that you don’t want. Threat systems are zero-sum relationships at best. That might sound bad, but there is nothing inherently good or bad about any of these systems. The law is a threat system, and all societies need and have laws in order to uphold justice. The detention center and deportation systems are threat system approaches to the border crisis. Currently, this approach may be necessary, but so far as I can tell (and so far as Congress and even president Trump make clear with the recent aid bill), it is also grossly inadequate to the scale of the crisis.

Integrative systems follow this logic: I will give you good thing A, and I will expect nothing in return. Aid is an integrative system. As I already mentioned, there are circumstances where aid is needed, and I am glad Congress approved the aid that it did. But aid — in economic terms — is a zero-sum relationship too. That’s why Boulding included both under the heading “grants economy.” They are important and too-often overlooked aspects of our economies. But they are neither the only important parts nor are they sufficient. Every economy needs markets. The wealth that is redistributed in the grants economy first comes from commerce in the exchange economy.

Thus, I contend that we need more commerce at the border. But what might that look like? If I may, for the sake of sparking imagination, run the risk of a utopian proposal (utopian due to political improbability more than its economic viability), perhaps what is needed is something like a network of simple towns along the border or other designated neutral areas, where people can come, find basic shelter and employment, create an economy, contribute to our national economy, pay taxes, and provide for themselves.

Make the rules clear and strictly enforced: Allow people to come and work — only if they so choose (forcing people to work is slavery) — in these towns while they await an answer to their request for asylum or other legal immigration status. If they try to go beyond these towns or if they commit any crimes, their application gets automatically rejected and they get deported. This would allow for a more welcoming approach to the crisis while simultaneously still insisting on (and perhaps better enabling) the enforcement of our immigration laws.

The strength of economies comes from the labor and creativity of people. Right now, hundreds of thousands of people are crossing the border and instead of creating economies in their communities and contributing to our national economy, people full of God-given creativity are reduced to mere recipients of aid at best and no better than prisoners at worst.

Instead, I would propose that we invite American companies to open stores, factories, and so on — at nationally competitive wages so as not to create a perverse incentive just to relocate from the rest of the country instead of making something new — so that (1) those attempting to immigrate to the United States could enjoy improved conditions and some experience of American life, but also so that (2) in the cases where their applications are able to be accepted, assimilation would be that much easier. Furthermore, this presumably would abate the worry of some that immigrants coming here are simply hoping to live off government welfare. They would already have the experience of abiding by the law and providing for their own needs by holding jobs and contributing to the American economy. They would have job histories and references, under their own names.

Like any utopian idea, I’m sure that I’m missing all sorts of issues here that would make my proposal far less practical. But if this idea simply gets people to expand their imagination to consider what role commerce could contribute to alleviating the crisis at our border, I’ll welcome whatever criticism that costs.


Image credit: screenshot of Imagery from the Central Processing Center in McAllen, TX media tour on June 17, 2018 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs – Visual Communications Division

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.