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What if we left the border at the border?

Sean McElwee has an excellent essay in The Nation making the case for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in the US. The argument is not as radical as it sounds. ICE has only existed since 2003 and has clearly adopted an incredibly broad and draconian approach to its mandate. "Abolish ICE", in McElwee's telling, means something like: go back to the drawing board on immigration enforcement, and figure out something far less sweeping and intrusive that doesn't amount to an ungovernable deportation machine.

That lays the table for a worthwhile debate about what that enforcement should look like. And though I'm not sure it's actually my view about what should happen in the United States of 2018, I'm going to spell out an argument for really abolishing it: just not doing interior immigration enforcement, in any very deliberate way, at all. It is not that wild a position and deserves to be taken seriously as one pole of the debate.

A bit of stage-setting. ICE does not conduct checks on entrance to the US or patrol the border. Those functions belong with CBP, a different agency; ICE's role is to operate within the country, identifying people who don't have the right to be in the US and working to deport them. You could abolish this kind of interior enforcement without that equating to 'open borders'. It would meaningfully decrease the control the federal government exerts over immigrants in the country, obviously, but in the straightforward sense that entry points would still be tightly controlled, the borders wouldn't be open. In the open borders debate, the abolish-borders position really is very radical. I don't think that's true of not doing interior enforcement, which you can just about treat as a separate debate. 

Think about drink-driving. Drink-driving is enough of a societal problem that we dedicate some resources to stopping it happening: there are traffic police and breath-tests, and various degrees of punishment if you're caught in the act. What we don't do is have a separate agency that isn't interested in catching you in the act, but tries to hunt you down afterwards. Imagine police officers who noted who they'd seen driving on Saturday night, then went to check on Sunday morning if those people are hungover. That probably would reduce drink-driving, since they could check up on more people and you wouldn't be able to avoid punishment by knowing where the breath-tests had been set up. But putting that level of effort into enforcement effort into a DUI crackdown would strike most people as ridiculous, even though 10,000 people died in the US because of drink-driving in 2015. And it's clearly not true that opposing this enforcement policy is just equivalent to not caring about drink-driving at all.

Or here is another example, with a very different culture-war valence that makes the political choice here clear. The exact rules vary, but in general to buy a gun from a retailer in the US you're technically required to have some kind of background check. Some reasonable, not-too-NRA-ish conservatives might agree that those checks should be made more thorough and universal. But there's absolutely no way they'd agree that federal agents should be able to show up at your door and demand proof that you'd passed a background check when buying your gun. The two things don't go together and one is obviously more intrusive than the other.

Now I think that it'd be a good idea to have that kind of spot-check regime for guns, and that is basically the policy situation in Australia. But that makes clear what the underlying issue here is. I think that policy would be good because I think gun violence in America is an extremely serious problem. Democratic politicians today almost universally deny that the presence of irregular migrants in the US is a grave issue. If you think that, it should be open-and-shut that the current ICE regime is unjustifiable, and you should at least be seriously considering the possibility that dedicated interior enforcement of any kind isn't worth the cost.

I'm not sure this is the right approach for the US in its present situation to take, and I'm doubly unsure it'd be a smart thing for Democrats to endorse. So I'm not going to labour lots of details. But it's not too hard to imagine a situation in which irregular migrants get referred to deportation proceedings if they're apprehended by CBP or convicted of a serious crime, and otherwise life just goes on. You could have that and still have border controls and even, I suppose, a wall. It would be a big change, but it's worth thinking about.