Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times is catching flak for writing a column with this headline:

We Need a High Wall With a Big Gate on the Southern Border

Friedman, of course, has had enormous influence in shaping the public’s understanding of the globalizing world, and by his own suggestion, we’re entering a new and uncertain phase of this process, which will also need to be interpreted — by people like Friedman.

Given this fact, I’d argue there is a more productive way for Friedman to engage with what’s really happening at the border.

In short, Friedman boils the threshold political problem down to one all about border security — how to achieve it, and public perceptions of it. But the current problems just aren’t really about border security, and casting them that way confuses complex policy challenges.

Friedman intends his wall partly as a device — as a stand-in for “border security.” His argument is that if the public doesn’t perceive the border as governed by the rule of law — allowing in people who should be coming in, keeping out people who should be kept out — then the political space will disappear to facilitate legal immigration, which he sees as in our national interests.

The “high wall with a big gate” is a metaphor for combining “hardheartedness” on border security with “compassion” in the treatment of migrants and the expansive permission of legal immigration, which is the balance he hopes to see.

We have to ensure that “would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers need to get in line, ring our doorbell and enter legally,” Friedman writes. “Those who don’t should be quickly evicted.” Getting this right is urgent:

Because so many Americans will think that the border is open and out of control that they will elect leaders who will choke off all immigration, which is the lifeblood of our country. Have no doubt, a seemingly out-of-control border would be a godsend for the Trump G.O.P. — an emotional club … with which to beat Democratic candidates in the midterms.

In one sense, this is thoroughly uncontroversial. If the public thinks the border is out of control, they may well become more restrictionist. As Alex Nowrasteh details, research supports this notion.

But Friedman’s conceit is also a serious misrepresentation of the challenges we face — one that, paradoxically, could facilitate the demagoguery he fears and frustrate his own goal of achieving public tolerance for legal immigration.

That’s because much of the current situation is not a failure of border security.

Friedman cites the large numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the border, including the spiking numbers of unaccompanied children and the large numbers of single adults who appear drawn by improving U.S. economic prospects.

This poses serious challenges, but more border security can’t solve them. Asylum seekers actually are, by definition, “ringing our doorbell and entering legally.” They have the legal right to apply for asylum and get due process.

The problems, then, concern how we manage our legal and humanitarian obligations to give asylum seekers a fair hearing and humane treatment once they are here.

Those problems are as follows: We don’t have enough space to hold children and teens in Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities (where they wait to get transferred to a parent or guardian), so they are getting backed up in Border Patrol stations (where they are first held). That calls for building more ORR space and transferring kids to guardians faster, which the administration is racing to do.

Another problem is what to do about families who have applied for asylum and are awaiting hearings here. That calls for some version of reform that speeds up legal processing of claims and creates additional humane options for these people as they wait. There are legitimate questions about how to remove those who fail to qualify, but those have nothing to do with the border.

Friedman is right to highlight single adults, but that only further complicates his argument. The fact that so many are facing such economic privation strengthens the case for giving more aid to Central America (which Friedman admits is being done) and strongly suggests we should consider additional ways to make legal immigration easier for such people.

One gathers Friedman would support this. Indeed, that option will likely become especially important to take seriously, given that the causes of migration will likely grow worse in coming years for numerous reasons, as Friedman himself notes.

But if so, he should make the case for doing this as a way to pragmatically manage the fact that so many are seeking refuge here and will continue to do so. Instructing us to find the magical balance between “hardheartedness” and “compassion” doesn’t illuminate anything.

Friedman might explain to readers the truth: Border stations overflowing with kids and courts backlogged with adults and families seeking asylum are not a security problem, they are a management one, and a willingness to expand legal immigration should be part of our practical approach to it. Casting this as a security problem helps creates exactly the “club” the GOP wants to wield.

Let’s use Friedman’s own metaphor. A 100-foot wall spanning the entire border wouldn’t resolve the core moral, policy and political dilemmas we face on whether to increase legal immigration and how to rationalize the asylum system. Explaining and solving those dilemmas is the real wall we have to surmount.

Read more: