Can Americans have a not-racist conversation about border security?

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley delivers remarks during the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Simi Valley, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

I don’t understand the stripe of Americans whose first response to Hamas’ recent attack on Israel is “yeah, but ….” Hundreds of attendees at a music festival murdered. Children and elderly people taken hostage. Civilians shot dead in the streets. When it comes to war there are no angels, but there are demons, and what Hamas did on Saturday represents the latter — full stop.

However, I do understand the many Americans who see what Hamas did and think about the danger at our southern border — the Americans who are genuinely worried about the drug cartels’ growing influence in border towns and beyond. I do understand the part of America who saw Saturday’s horror and wondered how vulnerable we are to infiltration and attack, given the surge of asylum seekers and the U.S.’s inadequate systems for processing them.


I do not agree with Nikki Haley, the GOP presidential candidate and former ambassador to the U.N., on much. However, I found a lot of truth in her comments on Sunday.

“I have been terribly worried about the fact that Iran has said the easiest way to get into America is through the southern border,” she said on “Meet the Press.” “People are coming through; they’re not being vetted. … Israel is the front line of defense for the Iranian regime and terrorists that want to hurt us and want to hurt our friends, and we need to be honest with the American people about that.”

She’s right. This point is one reason conservatives are able to get elected by campaigning on immigration and border security despite offensive language. Pragmatism. They’re taking seriously the Americans who are motivated not by racism or xenophobia but by well-founded fears of a dangerous world.

After all, it wasn’t just Israel’s intelligence that missed what Hamas was planning. U.S. intelligence apparently missed it as well. It’s only pragmatic to ask what else we may be overlooking — and where. We just don’t have a great history of being able to answer that question without racism.

Incarcerating Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Rampant Islamophobia after 9/11, continuing right up through former President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Shameful chapters of wrongheaded overreaction. Can we show now that we’ve learned from those mistakes? The wave of migrants coming to the U.S. will test that.

This summer we saw Democrats across the country, particularly Mayor Eric Adams of New York, being critical of the Biden administration’s handling of asylum seekers. After announcing in August that the city had cared for more than 100,000 since April 2022, Adams said the issue “will destroy New York City.” Maybe that’s political theater.

Last month, the mayor of El Paso, a border town accustomed to receiving 2,000 migrants a day, said the city had reached a “breaking point” and could not continue to pay for shelter space and other services. Having received 8,000 migrants in a two-week period recently, San Diego County was similarly overwhelmed.

Desperate civilians in Central America and Mexico take great risks to escape the drug cartel violence swirling all around them, much like Iraqis and Syrians who fled Islamic State and other destabilizing groups in recent years — which is why Republicans in the House and Senate brought bills this year to designate cartels as terrorist organizations. The backers of the bills were war hawks mostly, and some of the proposed responses such as bombing Mexico are downright reckless. But the chaos of cartel violence, such as Hamas-style public kidnappings, looks familiar because it is. It’s terrorism.

That’s why Haley’s comments ring true for a lot of people, including me. Whether or not she uses her presidential campaign to guide a thoughtful conversation about border security remains to be seen. But I do know one needs to happen.