As the immigration reform debate in Washington heats up once again, a constant refrain is the necessity of “securing the border.” Many policy makers insist that we cannot deal with immigration until we come to grips with our porous borders, especially the 2,000-mile-long line dividing the United States and Mexico, which has for decades been the most important gateway for unauthorized entry. Implicitly, that porousness is treated as abnormal and unusual—and fixable. It’s easy to assume our borders were once a genuine barrier, and could be again.
History suggests otherwise. For better and for worse, America’s borders have always been highly porous, and to imagine a secure line around the country is to be falsely nostalgic for a past that never existed. The unauthorized movement of people is an American tradition, one that goes all the way back to the country’s founding and which originally fueled its settlement. Millions of people—not just of Latin American origin but also those whose ancestry is European, Slavic, Jewish, and Chinese—have forebears who broke some law in the process of settling in this country and becoming Americans.