Though the concept of national borders is rejected by many, with some even denouncing the very idea of borders between nations as racist, at both principled and practical levels, however, secure borders are not only defensible, but essential.
More than any other single concept, the foundational principle of the American regime is the principle of natural equality. “That all men are created equal” is the first of the “self-evident truths” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. In his 1791 Lectures on Law, James Wilson explains that this equality does not extend to “to their virtues, their talents, their dispositions, or their acquirements,” but only that “the natural rights and duties of man belong equally to all.” This equality of rights originates in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”: it is inherent in our humanity, and not dependent on any regime or government.
The political corollary of the equality principle is the principle of government by consent. Abraham Lincoln describes this as “the sheet anchor of American republicanism” and “our ancient faith.” Precisely because all men are created equal, no man has the right to govern any other man, without that other’s consent. No one is inherently superior to anyone else in his right to govern. All legitimate political relationships between equal human beings must be on the basis of consent.
This principle of consent is directly applicable to immigration and border security. If borders are insecure, then people may enter into a country, without the consent of those who already comprise that country. It would be as if a homeowner had no right to prevent random people from simply walking in the front door, plopping themselves down on the couch, and claiming to live there now. A property owner has a right to control ingress into his property. A nation is the collective property of its citizens, who have consented to live with each other. If a random person could force himself on the people of a country, without their consent, then that is not a relationship of equals. It is instead tyranny.
Not only is a nation without secure borders subject to the arbitrary whim of whomever may choose to impose himself upon it, that nation also has no control over what comes across its borders. There is overwhelming evidence that huge quantities of illegal narcotics, such as fentanyl, have been pouring across America’s porous southern border. Other problems are known to occur such as increased rates of diseases like polio and tuberculosis. Finally, an insecure border is an invitation to engage in international human trafficking, and the practice is epidemic at the US-Mexico border. In short, a nation, which does not have secure borders, is not really a sovereign nation at all.
The power to protect the integrity of America’s borders is embedded in the United States Constitution in at least two places. First, Article I, Section 8 states that Congress “shall have power…to define and punish…Offences against the Law of Nations.” Borders, and migration of non-citizens across those borders, were understood by America’s Founders to be a law of nations issue and are thus covered by this clause. Second, Article I, Section 9, the infamous “Importation Clause,” creates a “negative pregnant,” implying that in the absence of one very specific set of conditions, Congress may regulate “migration” into the United States, not just the “importation” of enslaved persons as was being addressed by the Founders at the time of writing the Constitution. They wanted to continually reduce and end the scourge of slavery in the United States while preserving the Union and without fomenting war between the states over controversial issues.
With this understanding by the Founders, how would it be possible to maintain what makes America its own nation able to self-govern apart from any dictatorships that could take hold? As President, John Adams wrote “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” meaning that the nation of Americans possesses a specifically chosen cultural infrastructure, and the American people have historically adopted certain moral values, that make its system of constitutional self-government possible. This system, in turn, makes it possible for Americans to enjoy their natural rights. Other peoples, and other cultures, antithetical to that system of government, are thus a mortal threat to America’s political system and way of life, and Jefferson cautioned against a mass influx of peoples with opposing cultures and values, to those of America’s, in Notes on the State of Virginia.
The ultimate tendency of the obliteration of borders is the obliteration of the very idea of sovereign nations. In Federalist 10, James Madison argues for the viability and desirability of a large republic, but even this has its limits. The limits of communication and transportation cannot be completely overcome, and there’s more to a self-governing political society than that. The competing interests of society must have something to unite them; Madison also notes in Federalist 10 that “justice ought to hold the balance between them.” In order to constitute a true political society, a regime, they must share something fundamental, which Aristotle at the outset of The Politics calls the “good.”
The natural and inherent differences in people’s thinking about ideas such as what is good and just means that the peoples of the world will never agree on them perfectly, and they can thus never come together into one regime on principles of justice. The result will either be tyranny or anarchy, as philosophers as diverse as Leo Strauss and John Rawls have noted. The destruction of sovereign nations does not signify the dawn of universal justice; it rather heralds the establishment of universal tyranny.
Secure borders, then, are a necessary precondition of liberty and self-government. It allows us to distinguish between those who are members of our political community, and those who are not. It allows people who share conceptions of justice and the good to congregate into one political community and govern themselves according to those conceptions. Secure borders allow Americans to preserve the cultural infrastructure that makes the United States’ version of free self-government possible. The concept of secure borders is embedded in both American principles and constitutionalism. The destruction of secure borders would be a catastrophe for the American republic.
Kevin Portteus is Professor of Politics, Director of American Studies, and the Lawrence Fertig Chair in Politics at Hillsdale College.
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