In his column published in April this year in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman claims that “We Need a High Wall With a Big Gate on the Southern Border.” He is wrong. This column by one of the most respected opinion writers in one of the most revered national newspapers is a telling example of misinformation in the mainstream media. It has consequences: A misled public supports policy concepts that never worked and never will.
A sage by virtue of being
Mr. Friedman assures us he has read as much as he could about the latest surge of illegal immigration. But it looks like he did not read enough because he admitted it is not clear to him what is going on. The NYT editor did not reject this column and did not ask the author to find out before resubmitting it. We may only speculate why it did not happen. Still, it seems typical; in the major news outfits, we have a gallery of pundits authoritatively expressing opinions on issues they do not know. Mr. Friedman did not disclose what he was reading, but it could be other pundits writing about immigration with the same level of knowledge as he has, or — being precise — he lacks.
Questions not asked
Mr. Friedman does not approach our ongoing immigration conundrum with the mind of a troubleshooter who tries to go to the root of the problem, correct it, and fix the damage caused by it. He is not like a doctor who tries to determine if the pain in a patient’s leg is caused by a local injury or by cancer on the nerve cells somewhere up the spine. He has fallen in love with his catchy “high wall with a big gate” phrase, repeats it on every occasion he can, and writes about it more than once.
In his earlier column “High Fence and Big Gate,” published in the NYT in 2006, he casually writes that this is his personally favored solution to our immigration dilemmas. Why is it better than the conclusions of people like me who look for relevant data and analyze it systematically? The editors at the NYT did not ask this question when accepting his columns. Three times.
Whose job is it to tell us the way it is?
One may say that my efforts to go to the bottom of our immigration mess are admirable, but my conclusions have no chance of being accepted in today’s climate. On the other hand, Mr. Friedman’s approach accounts for political reality; hence, he might be more realistic despite not being perfect.
I cannot accept this argument because the current political climate is a product of decades-long systematic misinformation in media. Major outlets such as The New York Times are among the culprits that lured Americans into believing that our immigration policy can make 2+2=5. In that bizarre reality, which the United States has become, people insisting that 2+2=4, like myself, are perceived as weirdos. Mr. Friedman cannot ignore reports from the border proving the nonsense of our immigration policy regardless of which president is in charge. Instead of facing the blues, he is going into an enchanted dance with the truth. He is selling us his wisdom of compromise, implying that we can settle at 2+2=4.5. In his reading, he has not yet reached the part that there is no compromise with the truth.
Throwing everything into the mix to impress
In 2018 Mr. Friedman wrote again that “We Need a High Wall With a Big Gate.” At that time, he was advising Democrats before the upcoming election. The current administration’s inability to confine the chaos on the Mexican border indicates that Democrats listened to the advice of the NYT pundit.
In that column, Mr. Friedman tried to bring a broad social and political context to support his favored solution. He mentioned the Ku Klux Klan (twice) and the NeoKlanists. Then, he brushed at ICE, Customs and Border Protection, as well as the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Peace Corps, and Space Corps. Connections with World War II are brought as well, and he mentions his theory about small and big nations, which is as scientifically solid as his “high wall with a big gate” mantra.
Mr. Friedman did not impress me by mentioning 18 countries, four regions, and the U.N. Adding climate change to the mixture might impress some of his readers, but it had the reverse effect in my case. I know better; I did my homework.
We know that today all these things are somehow connected. Some are critical, others marginal in case of the immigration issue in the United States. Sorting out the data so the NYT readers could make some sense out of the world is not the specialty of Mr. Friedman. He scares his readers with the picture of chaos to offer “a high wall with a big gate” as a solution. There is no data nor coherent logic behind it.
We already have a high wall with a big gate
If Mr. Friedman had checked the data before touching a keyboard, he would have found out that, since 1917, we already have an immigration policy based on his favored concept. For more than a century, we have had a very restrictive immigration policy with a high wall. We have a gate as well. Mr. Friedman asks for a big one but does not understand that the size of the gate does not matter; the whims of the gatekeepers do. At first, the barriers were legal ones, but as these did not work, Americans began building physical walls, which do not work either.
Advocating for a high wall with a big gate, Mr. Friedman and the NYT leadership joined the century-old club of those Americans who, with the determination worth a better cause, keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If Mr. Friedman read about it, he did not connect it to his favored concept.
For the sake of discussion, let us assume that there might be a grain of wisdom in Mr. Friedman’s approach. Then, we arrive with a more detailed question: How wide should the gate be? With that, we open another Pandora’s box of Mr. Friedman’s writing about immigration.
Avoiding numbers that matter
If Mr. Friedman had checked recent opinion polls, for 36% of Americans, we already have a gate big enough. Only 34% want a wider gate, but 28% like it narrower. Meaningfully, the supporters of a reduced immigration policy disproportionately influence Washington, as the NYT reported. Yet, Mr. Friedman writes as though he does not know that. The influential Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, has its statutory goal to limit immigration to about 300,000 per year, which is about one-third of average yearly admissions for the past 20 years.
Hence, if there is any logic in Mr. Friedman’s approach, it boils down to where he stands on numbers. What does a big gate mean for him? Mr. Friedman seems sympathetic to an increase in legal immigration but keeps his lips numb on how much.
In the United States, immigrants, legal and illegal, are 13.7% of the population. In Canada, they are 21%; in Australia, 29%. In Canada the unlawful immigration is marginal. Suppose the U.S. would need a similar percentage of the population comprised of immigrants as Canada now has. In that case, it would mean that within the next decade, we would need that gate open wide enough to receive yearly double and maybe triple the number of immigrants we accept now. Mr. Friedman keeps us guessing whether he knows that and — if he knows — what he thinks about it.
Lack of historical perspective
As a professional troubleshooter of electronic devices, I always ask how the problem happened before touching anything. If Mr. Friedman took the same approach with our immigration policy, he would find out that we did not have any issues until the end of the 19th century. Thanks to immigrants, America became great the first time around. Hence, one should ask how it worked before and why it was changed.
For Europeans, there was no gate, and there was no wall either. They came and went as they pleased — those who prospered settled. It was tough. Getting a taste of a more prosperous life, about a century ago, Americans did not want to compete anymore with fresh waves of immigrants, eager to work harder for less. At that time, most of the new immigrants were from impoverished corners of Eastern Europe and Italy. Eugenic pseudoscientists were on hand to explain that those new immigrants were of inferior stock, not a worthy material for future Americans. The more numerous Italians and Poles were often the targets. Still, the limiting of immigration of Jews was the primary goal of the anti-immigration public sentiment at the beginning of the 20th century.
One can find it clearly stated in the Dillingham Commission Reports, published in 1911. According to Katherine Benton-Cohen, a history professor at Georgetown University, the Dillingham Commission invented our immigration problem. Nothing indicates that it was a part of Mr. Friedman’s reading.
About a century ago, pure racism got momentum on the populist belief that we need a wall and a gate to protect American jobs. Since then, many things have changed, but the same false theory that immigrants take Americans’ jobs is used as a smokescreen for the nasty racism behind the concept of the high wall with the big gate.
I suspect that glancing from the ivory tower of the NYT, Mr. Friedman is so far from reality that he and the editors there do not realize that they serve the evil they otherwise condemn.
The self-fulfilling falsehood of ‘the high wall and the big gate’ theory
Mr. Smith owns a business seeking employees, but he does not want to hire Mr. Jones, an unemployed living across the street. For whatever reason, Mr. Jones cannot provide what Mr. Smith needs. We have millions of Smiths and Joneses all over the country. By hiring immigrants, the Smiths can expand their enterprises. With an expanding business environment in the community, the Joneses can find jobs, but they may feel that immigrants got the better piece of a pie. Hence, they are canvassing to restrict legal immigration. When, short of legal immigrants, the Smiths hire illegal ones, the Joneses demand stricter laws punishing the Smiths.
The Joneses’ success in restricting the Smiths’ access to immigrant labor constrains business activity in the area. The Smiths move their businesses somewhere else, often abroad if it is an option. They may scale down their aspirations if they feel that they are financially secure. But in either option, they do not hire the Joneses. Local governments have less tax money to support the unemployed Joneses and the infrastructure needed to attract new businesses. The economy sinks; the Joneses suffer the most. Hence, if they see even one immigrant in the neighborhood, it is one too many taking a job they believe should be theirs. This is the self-fulfilling falsehood of “the high wall and the big gate” theory.
The concept of a high wall with a big gate is about limiting the freedom of enterprise of the Smiths with the irrational calculation that it would help the Joneses. We have fewer people working, but the government needs to tax them more to support the apparatus of oppression needed to enforce our immigration policy. Immigrants are the pawns in internal American politics. Everybody loses.
An irrational fear of open borders
Like many pundits, Mr. Friedman repeats that we just cannot let everybody in; we cannot have open borders. For the sake of argument, let us assume that after Trump, who was in favor of as narrow a gate as manageable, we had elected a president equally silly, but in the opposite direction — no wall and no gate; everyone is welcome.
Let us assume everyone showing up at the border, except known criminals, would get their passport stamped with a visa valid for 10 years and be allowed to work. They would be wished good luck and let in. What would they do next? We can guess that only very few would get a job right away. Knowing that they can come back, many would return home and wait for a message from family or friends that there is a job waiting for them. Even those determined to stay here would be kicked out by their hosts. Living under the bridge in the United States is as bad as in the home country, especially if someone ended up in Minnesota. Only those having jobs would stay, precisely as we have it now.
In his reading, Mr. Friedman missed reports from the European Union where they have open borders. After accepting new members, some of which were much poorer than a few original E.U. nations in Western Europe, they opened the borders between them as well. Within the past 15 years, several million migrants have moved across Europe in search of work. Despite the worries, after the dust settled, the data shows that everyone benefited.
Why do we have only 11 million illegal immigrants?
The media tell us that whoever wants to cross the border illegally eventually does. Mr. Friedman writes: “I wish we could take in everyone suffering in the world and give each a shot at the American dream.” They have already arrived without asking Mr. Friedman for permission. The question is, why do we have only 11 million of them, not 10 times more or 10 times less? The answer is that how many of them arrive and stay is defined by the jobs available, not by abstract political concepts. Hence, our policy should not impose artificial ideas on people but accommodate their natural desires to migrate.
A wicket works better
Not knowing the data, Mr. Friedman could not figure out what triggered the latest flood of immigrants and asylum seekers. The gate in the wall, regardless of how big, will never accommodate all possible human situations. Among those stopped at the gate, there always will be some about whom we feel bad that we did not let them in. Hence, after review, some are allowed to stay. Dreamers are this kind of group, and it looks like they are the closest to getting their legal status.
Seeing no other important changes coming, potential immigrants send their minor children, knowing that they have a shot at becoming legal residents within the next few years. This wicket works much better than the biggest gate. Other ways of coming here legally are bleak, and nothing indicates that this will change soon. Thousands at the border now act rationally to be at this side when the normal returns.
It is not about generosity; it is a contract
For Mr. Friedman, immigration policy is “a tough-minded balance between hardheartedness and compassion.” He is on par with Roy Beck, known for his anti-immigration video, who sees the purpose of immigration as “rescuing people from the Third World poverty.” Both of them are wrong; it is about money.
Immigration is a contract. Individuals from a less prosperous nation seek jobs in a more advanced place. They are willing to start with lower pay in positions below their aspirations. Employers take risks betting that foreigners will perform better than local workers. If it works out, immigrants soon make as much as locals would but provide employers a more valuable service than locals could.
In this contract, the employers are the first to benefit, advancing their businesses. Immigrants are the next. Then, with the increased business volume, the community benefits as well.
The immigration policy should not be about generosity; it should facilitate that profit-making mechanism.
One more victory for the accomplished master of deception
For heartless accountants, two plus two is always four, regardless of how one feels about it. In my cold logic, we do not need either a wall or a gate. We do not need compassion either. We should accommodate people pursuing their happiness the way they feel it fits them. For me, it is as obvious as two plus two equals four.
When reading the three above-mentioned columns by Mr. Friedman, one can see a strong influence from the famous video by Roy Beck, whom I call an accomplished master of deception. His demagoguery discreetly feeds on our atavistic fear of strangers. It is effective because, for about a century, Americans have been systematically misinformed about immigration. Beck’s arguments are all over media and politics, making an impression that his lies are a commonly accepted truth. The NYT explains how it happened, but it fails in repairing the damage.
It is Mr. Beck’s right to claim that two plus two is five. But it matters what The New York Times publishes, especially when it is written by someone who has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times. In Mr. Friedman’s reasoning, I see an ineptness in dealing with the Roy Beck-style propaganda. Finding Mr. Beck’s arguments in almost everything he reads, Mr. Friedman takes them for reality and seeks a compromise, ending with a pitiful conclusion that two plus two is 4.5.
The New York Times can and should do better than that.