December 24, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Borders Don’t Make a Country

They're just one thing that makes America.

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The president’s rationale, if you can call it that, for refusing to sign a bipartisan government funding bill that does not include money for a border wall is a familiar one. It goes something like this: “A nation without borders is no nation at all.”

Donald Trump does not mean we do not have borders. The president means, I presume, that control of our borders is currently so inadequate that we may as well not have them. And because controlling the border is in the national interest, not controlling borders with draconian means is undermining the national interest.

Or something like that. I’m not sure, and I’m not sure Trump understands what he’s saying beyond sloganeering (which is probably enough for him). He likely thinks that the national interest is a racially white interest. What I do know is I haven’t seen a good counterpoint to the claim that borders make a country, and that any compromise of that country’s borders is a comprise of the country’s national interest.

The first step in establishing a counterargument might be in looking to established federal law. In the years after the Second World War, it was clear that our racist posture with respect to immigration contributed to mass murder by the Germans. Put another way, we refused to admit enough Jews into the country. As a result, millions died. So Congress passed a new law reflecting our newfound leadership in the international community. It turned America into the world’s safe haven.

This is what the statute says: “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum in accordance with this section or, where applicable” (my italics).

The intent of Congress is crystal clear, and because it is so clear, the US Supreme Court refused to allow the Trump administration to block immigrants who enter the country illegally from seeking political asylum. The US Department of Homeland Security had issued a rule saying that if you didn’t come through an “official port of entry,” you couldn’t apply for asylum. A lower court said no, the law is unambiguous. In refusing to hear the case, the high court allowed that lower court’s ruling to stand.

Another step in mounting a counterpoint to the president’s view of the national interest would be challenging the president’s stated belief that borders are what make a country. For instance, if I’m not mistaken, that principle doesn’t apply to Ukraine. Russia invaded its Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Russian forces remains there today. When asked in July if Trump would raise this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty with Vladimir Putin, he said, well, Crimea is Russian. They all speak Russian there.

Getting most of the attention at that moment was the fact that Trump was parroting the Kremlin’s official line. Getting less attention, for good reason, was the subtext of Trump’s statement: that language, and by extension culture, are what define a country, not political borders. I don’t think the president believes this. If he did, perhaps his administration would not be committing criminal acts and human rights violations on the southern border. My point is to suggest that his words are hollow.

But the suggestion that borders make a country is almost equally barren. The most conventionally legalistic and widely recognized criteria for the creation of a state is whether it has an established institutional structure (I’m borrowing from Manlio Graziano’s What Is a Border?). If you have a constitution, a set of codes (laws), an army, a parliament (congress), a government and a border, you have a state. If you don’t, you don’t. I’d say America would be America whether our southern border is closed, open or regulated (as it is now). A border is not a definitive trait. It’s just one of many.

But that, too, misses something larger. Institutions typically don’t come first in state creation, Graziano writes. Something else does. “It begins with a struggle of various interests to define the common so-called national interest, around which institutions are then built.” I’m not a scholar of international affairs, but it seems to me that America figured this out a while ago when our founders agreed to sign the Declaration of Independence. For more than two centuries, our national interests have been rooted in the bedrock principle of equality and the rights to life, liberty and happiness.

Long after the federal government has reopened, the president is likely to trot out his vision of the national interest, which is that without borders, a nation isn’t a nation. And that’s going to arouse a lot of people who want to past to become the present.

It’s baloney. America will be America as long as our institutions are strong, our laws are just and the people have a say in how we operate in the world. An enterprising Democrats should recognize this opportunity, and remind America why it’s great.

—John Stoehr

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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