Immigration is the New Drug War – But Not For Long

Never let a crisis go to waste.

In this case, the humanitarian crisis on the border will almost certainly be used to further expand the border patrol. Claims are already being made that the border patrol is “stretched thin” which has “serious implications for national security.”

This is despite with fact that, with over 60,000 border patrol agents, border patrol is now the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.  This includes ballooning administrative roles and executive salaries while the range of “Constitution-free zones” are expanded in the name of border security. All this with limited oversight and accountability.

All this shows the classic hallmarks of a “drug war:” criminalization of a non-violent offense and use of a temporary crisis to permanently erode civil liberties by expanding and militarizing law enforcement, all at the expense of a marginalized “Other” who can’t or doesn’t vote. Also like the Drug War, private prisons stand to profit off the increased criminalization of immigration.

Others, particularly in the libertarian community, have already sounded the alarm about immigration as the new Drug War. But not for long. A ‘War on Immigrants’ will likely last only a few years, not 30+.

And the reason is the two-party system. Bear with me, I’m actually going  to say something nice about the two-party system.

The Drug War, which drew much of its power from the  “tough on crime” movement, lasted so long because it was bipartisan.  Particularly after the Willie Horton campaign advertisement, in which Dukakis was blamed for releasing a criminal who later committed a horrific murder, being ‘soft on crime’ was a huge political liability for both sides. Long after public opinion changed, politicians still couldn’t take the risk of being “soft on crime,” because it would be thrown in their faces during campaign season.

Being “soft on immigration” does not have the same liabilities. It could, in fact, be a strength.

The major benefit of a duoply (one of few benefits, in my opinion) is that  it is easy for the voters to signal their dissatisfaction. By simplifying the political spectrum to a simple dichotomy, politicians know when people are dissatisfied, and why.

This is because only in a two-party system can you have a mandate or a unequivocal directive from the voters. Contrast this with a multi-party system, where it is very difficult to get a majority of voters to back any one policy. On the whole, I am in support of multiple parties and nuanced political systems, but in a case like this, clear signaling is very useful (the problem, of course, is if that both parties are doing something voters dislike, then voters have no way to indicate their displeasure).

What does this have to do with immigration? With immigration, there is a strong partisan divide over the importance of updating America’s policies, with Democrats advocating for greater and more tolerant change. Voters can clearly indicate whether they generally “pro” immigration (vote Democrat) or “anti-” immigration (vote Republican). Unlike being ‘tough on crime,’ there will be political benefits to endorsing more humane solutions.

Will this happen immediately? Absolutely not. The GOP is profoundly hard-headed. But even if it takes five, six, seven years to learn this lesson, that’s far less than the 30 years of the Drug War. Fortunately, any War on Immigrants (if it can be called that yet), is politically untenable for long, particularly with changing demographics in this country.