As an attorney who represents asylum seekers, I believe our country has a moral duty to help those coming to us for protection. I also believe that we as a nation benefit from our asylum system. Aside from enriching our country with patriotic, hard-working individuals, the asylum system makes manifest our highest ideals--freedom of religion and speech, democracy, equality, and women's and minorities' rights.

Unfortunately, those of us who support a robust humanitarian immigration system have not convinced enough of our countrymen on that point. Indeed, a poll of Trump voters found that their #2 and #3 most important issues are more secure borders and a more restrictive immigration system (the #1 issue for these voters was preservation of individual rights). Contrast that with Biden voters, who feel less strongly about reducing barriers to migration (ranking "being open to immigration" as the #27 most important issue facing our country, out of 55 issues surveyed).

There is little doubt that these views find expression in the voting booth--President Trump based his 2016 campaign on anti-immigration themes and we know how that turned out. Also, a recent study of asylum seekers in Germany found that--

the presence of asylum seekers has a polarizing effect, increasing vote shares for both the right and the Greens [a left-leaning, pro-immigrant party]. For the right... the magnitude of this effect is independent of unemployment and disposable income. For the Greens, as unemployment increases or income decreases, the positive association between asylum seekers and vote shares abates, eventually becoming negative.

In other words, the presence of asylum seekers consistently motivates right-wing voters in opposition, but only garners support from left-leaning voters when the economy is good. While the German study may not directly correlate with voting patterns here in the U.S., it seems pretty clear that immigration policy--and in particular, border security--is more likely to bring anti-immigrant voters to the polls than pro-immigrant voters.

So what does this mean for our asylum policy at the border? And for our democracy?

First, as many commentators have suggested, today's Republican party sees winning elections as more important than preserving democracy. That is why they continue to entertain the fantasy that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election and, more generally, that any election they lose is suspect. In November 2022, we will see hundreds of elections in every state--for members of Congress, governors, and state and local leaders. If current trends hold, we can expect Republicans to challenge any loss as fraudulent. Democracy simply cannot survive if nearly half the voting population believes that the system is rigged (or pretends to believe that in order to achieve its goals).

It seems to me that the upcoming election is crucial, since a decisive Republican defeat might convince party members that their anti-democratic approach isn't working. Given the factors at play in this election cycle, such an outcome seems very unlikely. But this is not a foregone conclusion. Additional polling data "tells us that democracy and nonviolence are political winners, and that dabbling in political violence is a loser," and so the Republican embrace of January 6th-type violence may be a liability. It may also mean that middle-of-the-road voters could still be persuaded to vote for Democrats, and--given the slim margins in many races--sway the results in their favor.

The question for Democrats is, How can they win over persuadable voters? And that is where the border comes into play. Voters with very strong views about border security are likely unwilling to vote for Democrats, who they view as "soft" on national security. Republicans have exploited this perception to their advantage, often by lying about migrants--that they are criminals, gang members, and terrorists, and that they bring disease and take jobs. Lies or not, many Americans have been persuaded that immigration--particularly along the Southern border--represents a threat to our country and this influences how they vote.

Changing that narrative has proved very difficult. Advocates have quoted positive data related to migrants' contributions to the economy and the pandemic response (about a quarter of all health care workers are foreign born), and the fact that they commit crimes at rates lower than native-born Americans. All this has done little to convince anti-immigrant voters. Something needs to change, and it seems to me that resolving the situation at the border would prevent the Right from using the "crisis" as a means to bring people to the polls.

How, then, can we "fix" the border? Ideally, we would have a fact-based debate about who we want to protect, and then implement a policy based on consensus. This seems unlikely, in part due to the wide disagreement about immigration policy, but also because Republicans benefit from the continuing crisis at the border (since it motivates their voters).

Another approach--and one that I think we should be considering, given the imperiled state of our democracy--would be to simply end asylum at the Southern border for everyone. That would potentially require us to withdraw from international treaties related to protecting refugees. It would also create a humanitarian disaster at the border, at least in the short term, until migrants adjusted to the new reality. We could perhaps mitigate the damage by increasing our refugee admissions. We should also not agree to such a change without getting something in return, such as legalization for Dreamers and other undocumented people who are already in the U.S. All that would have to be worked out by Congress, and the window for such a deal is rapidly closing, as we approach the November mid-term elections.

To be clear, I do not think that ending asylum at the border is a good idea. However, I believe that it would take momentum away from Republicans and other anti-democratic actors in our country, and this will help fortify our democracy, which is currently in grave danger. So while offering asylum to people arriving at the border is important, in my view, it is outweighed by the need to preserve our democracy.

The border has been a recruiting tool for Republicans and the far right for too long. Pro-immigrant advocates have failed to change that sad fact. We on the Left now have to make a choice--continue banging our heads against the same wall, or accept that we can't get everything we want and that sacrifices are needed to help defuse the existential threat to our democracy. If we can reach an agreement to help undocumented people who are already in the U.S., and if we can improve the odds for Democratic (and democratic) candidates, ending asylum at the Southern border may be the least of the bad options available.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: