Staff Columnist

Bernie Sanders reminds Iowans that he loves borders

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) takes the stage at a campaign rally i
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) takes the stage at a campaign rally in Concord, New Hampshire, U.S., March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Many Republicans and Democrats in Iowa agree that immigrants will play a role in addressing the state’s workforce shortage. The most visible candidate for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, however, recently reminded Iowans his views are more complicated than that.

At a campaign event in Oskaloosa, an audience member asked Sen. Bernie Sanders how the federal government would pay for social services under an open borders immigration policy. Sanders corrected the questioner to say he supports comprehensive immigration reform, but not open borders.

“My god, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it,” Sanders said in a video posted online by the Hill.

To be clear, hardly anyone in public life is seriously advocating for open borders. Sanders, though, has repeatedly opposed measures to make it easier for people from other countries to legally work in the United States, arguing such policies are bad for native-born workers.

No, Sanders is not an ardent anti-immigrant crusader. He supports a path to citizenship for people already living the country illegally, and opposes building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. He has hired immigration advocates on his campaigns, and his positions on some issues have evolved in recent years.

Sanders’ long-held opposition to mass migration seems to come not from outright xenophobia, but instead from misguided economic anxiety.

In 2007, Sanders opposed an immigration bill that failed. He said then, “If wages are already this low in Vermont and throughout the country, what happens when more and more people are forced to compete for these jobs?”


Sanders has alleged migrant worker programs are a right-wing conspiracy. During a 2015 interview with Vox, he called open borders a “Koch brothers proposal.”

Interviewer Ezra Klein challenged Sanders, saying open borders would make the global poor richer.

“If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people,” Sanders rebutted.

In Sanders’ worldview, it seems, there is something sacred about nations and the imaginary lines humans have drawn around them; people born on this side of the border have a more legitimate claim to the United States’ enormous prosperity than people who happened to be born on the other side.

Sanders’ stance will prove frustrating to the many Iowans who are working hard to persuade politicians about the economic and humanitarian necessities of easing immigration restrictions.

Immigrants come to this country seeking work and a better quality of life, while their contributions greatly enrich our economy and our culture. It is, no doubt, a mutually beneficial relationship.

The reality here in Iowa — sluggish population growth and a low unemployment rate — does not square with Sanders’ outdated views on human movement.

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