Republican presidential candidates have coalesced around one idea with little dissent: brutally militarizing our border policy. The Joe Biden Administration’s failure to protect the border and its lax policies towards migrants who make it into the country are breeding a terrifying political extremism on the right, and candidates are stoking it for cheap political points.
Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are open about their desire to make our border enforcement more deadly. Applying failed War on Terror policies, including lethal drone strikes on the cartels ,has become the mania of the moment among this crowd. DeSantis has specifically stated that he wants drug traffickers shot “stone dead” at the border, with no concern about due process, human rights, or perhaps (most importantly) the literal impossibility of ensuring a person is carrying fentanyl without first capturing and searching that individual. If one shows any opposition to this flagrant brutality on social media, responses will be flooded with people who want all illegal migrants shot on sight; Human Rights Watch just accused the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of enforcing the that same policy against African migrants crossing from Yemen.
A person could be forgiven for thinking this is a “Hegelian Dialectic” where the government is intentionally engineering a conflict to get a result, but it seems more likely that it is as Montesquieu said in his commentary on the Romans, “What good princes do from virtue, bad ones can do from a desire to run counter to the conduct of their predecessor. And to this spirit of contrariety we owe many good regulations and many bad ones as well.”
Whatever the cause, the humanitarian crisis at our border, instead of generating sympathy, is making men gnash their teeth and lust for blood. They claim that most countries would give illegal migrants a bullet to the head when in fact no nation on earth admits to a policy of shooting civilians who cross the border on sight. For those of us who love liberty, these are terrifying developments.
Borders and immigration are a key issue about which libertarians are divided, as the philosophy does not provide a wholly satisfying solution. Most of all, there is the famous contradiction between open borders and the modern welfare state, and at what point the right to free movement turns into a “subsidized right to trespass.”
This situation is further complicated by the fact that libertarians support drug legalization and thus are not enthusiastic about police interdiction efforts. But it is also clear there is real harm being done and legalization is not on the table as a solution. One needs to take a practical approach about what is possible, especially recognizing the public’s capacity for reactionism. Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently described a visit to the border in an interview with Tucker Carlson, and though Kennedy has some bad policies, what he learned at the border is illuminating. Firstly, he makes the key point that while some people are driven to oppose immigration due to racism or xenophobia, in reality the current situation is itself causing a great deal of human suffering that any compassionate person should be concerned about. The most notable thing Kennedy learned is that few migrants coming across are from Central America and almost none meet any definition of refugee. Instead, they are primarily young men from all over the world who have flown into Mexico and paid cartels to traffic them across the border in search of economic opportunity. Migrants face horrific abuses at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers. While on a macro level this immigration is a problem, it is not the case that many of these men present an individual threat to our nation’s safety—and certainly not one great enough to justify indiscriminately killing them.
The emotional reaction that Americans have to the high rate of overdose deaths and seeing fentanyl zombies on their streets is understandable. But the very premise of stopping it by more brutal border enforcement is fallacious for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, a thorough 2022 report from the Cato Institute debunked the premise that a significant amount of fentanyl comes from those crossing the border illegally. The reality is the vast majority of seized fentanyl is smuggled by American citizens through legal ports of entry.
Critics argue that this is misleading, since it is only of what is seized. But fentanyl being as small as it is, especially in a pure form, it is less likely to be discovered in a large shipment of goods than on a person detained crossing the border illegally. Further, a lot of people are searched and a minuscule amount of them are carrying drugs. Regarding killing traffickers, a single backpack is an absolutely enormous amount of pure fentanyl powder, so this can’t realistically be differentiated from a man carrying a bedroll. Perhaps most concerning, at least in terms of escalating violence, is that any sort of policy for shooting suspected smugglers at the border seems just as likely to cause cartels to ambush American border guards before rushing across the border, whereas now cartels avoid U.S. law enforcement as much as possible. Such a policy is unlikely to have any impact on its primary goal of reducing immigration or fentanyl availability while causing other harms.
Immigration and border security are complex issues, and there is not an easy solution. The humanitarian crisis at our border is engendering terrifying rage, causing people to support policies which will have deadly consequences for American citizens and migrants alike. If the government can’t tell the difference between a terrorist training camp and a wedding party in Afghanistan, how could they possibly determine which vehicles are loaded with fentanyl while in a garage? Do we really want “signature strikes,” where a cell phone’s GPS is targeted, coming to our soil? It is clear that the Biden Administration’s border policies—which are probably just meant to be the opposite of Donald Trump’s rhetoric—are generating an enormous backlash. It is now difficult to explain to those consumed by hatred that there is a wide space between believing that border security is unnecessary and thinking the solution to the problem is to kill sketchy looking people on sight.
At this point I’m happy if I can get people to understand that due process is mostly to protect the innocent and that the families of people who have died from fentanyl generally want actual legal justice, not for government agents to murder random people who appear to be vaguely associated with criminal activity. It is crucial that all those who love liberty stand against this insanity while trying to work towards a viable and humane solution.