One of the biggest misconceptions in the immigration debate is the idea that border laws apply only to immigrants. But, in fact, most of what goes on at the border applies equally to U.S. citizens.
When you cross the U.S. border, you have to present a valid passport at a recognized port of entry. Whether you're an immigrant or a U.S. citizen, you can't just wander across into Canada or Mexico and back, you have to go through an airport or a border crossing that's run by customs.
And there are really good reasons for this. First is that you want to catch people who are terrorists or are involved in organized crime: people like drug runners and human traffickers, or even people who have outstanding warrants for domestic abuse or embezzling. A border crossing is a choke-point, a bottle-neck where criminals can be caught before they can escape justice for their past crimes or commit more crimes in the future, here or abroad. And that's true whether those criminals are immigrants or U.S. citizens.
Another reason you want people to go through the bottle-neck is to make sure anyone entering or leaving the country doesn't have a communicable disease. They may not be doctors or nurses, but border agents can spot someone who's jaundiced or coughing up blood. It's not perfect, but it helps to minimize the risk of an outbreak of disease.
In fact, one of the major functions of Ellis Island - the main hub for immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - was to spot people who were sick and quarantine them. It's been a long time since the world has suffered a pandemic like the Black Death or the 1918 flu outbreak. But diseases evolve and medicines become outdated, and one of the most effective defenses against pandemic is spotting those who are infected as soon as possible and quarantining them.
Hepatitis, tuberculosis, and other diseases don't care about nationality. Sick people can be either immigrants or US citizens, and if they sneak across the border illegally, they've thwarted one of the major safeguards to public health and safety.
But agriculture and the environment are also at stake. When you fill out a customs form on returning to the U.S., you're asked about any fruits, vegetables, and animals you're bringing with you. And you're asked to list what countries you went to and whether you visited a farm, because we want to make sure no one inadvertently brings in an invasive species or disease that could harm the U.S. environment or domestic livestock.
Of course, a customs form isn't perfect at stopping invasive species or illness. But even when it fails to stop them, it can provide information vital to containing them after the fact. If the government knows that most victims of an outbreak recently visited a certain country, they can look at the history of disease and vaccinations in that country and narrow down the culprit more quickly. And that could save lives.
The main consideration at the border that applies exclusively to immigrants is immigration quotas. We have rules about how many people come in at once, largely so that communities aren't overwhelmed by more newcomers than they can absorb, as we're currently seeing in places like Lynn, Massachusetts, regarding the influx of children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
But everything else - terrorists and criminals, public health and safety, communicable disease and the environment - all those considerations are just as much in effect for U.S. citizens as immigrants. U.S. citizens can be fined or jailed for breaking these laws, and there's no cry for "comprehensive border reform" to make the punishments they face more lenient.
Granted, most of the people who cross the border illegally - immigrant or otherwise - are harmless. They aren't disease-ridden terrorists carrying sacks full of kudzu and cane toads. But most teachers are harmless, too; you still make them all get background checks, so that you know they're harmless beforehand.
Border laws aren't something that we inflict on immigrants out of xenophobia. They apply to everyone, and for very good reason.
Alasdair Denvil graduated Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.A. in Philosophy, and attended NYU's graduate program. He has written for Facts on File and PolicyMic. Follow him on Twitter at @AlasdairDenvil.