Aviva Chomsky on open borders: weak on economics, stronger on politics and history

I recently finished reading Aviva Chomsky’s They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Amazon ebook). Like co-blogger Vipul, I did not find the book on the whole convincing. Chomsky’s grasp of economics is questionable at best, and her suggestion that poor countries became or remain poor primarily because of oppression from the rich world may be true in some cases, but is likely not a good general principle of development economics. She also unwittingly trivialises the place premium by accepting the mistaken belief that the only thing keeping firms in developed countries from paying their employees developing world salaries are things like minimum wage laws. In spite of this, I would actually recommend Chomsky’s book to the critical reader with an open mind: her grasp of economics may be weak, but her social and political history is on stronger footing — and the political arguments she makes from historical backing are worth considering.

One of the important issues Chomsky raises is the question of suffrage and enfranchisement. She notes that historically in the US, non-citizens have been entitled to vote, and this generally held true until the advent of closed borders in the early 20th century. She does not dive into this in detail, but it’s also noteworthy that this remains true in some countries today. Citizens of the Commonwealth (such as myself, by virtue of my Malaysian citizenship) are entitled to vote and sometimes even stand for elections in the UK and in a number of other Commonwealth countries, provided we meet certain relatively loose residency requirements (I know plenty of Malaysians who voted in the UK simply because they were studying there).

Chomsky argues that immigrants should of right be entitled to the vote, because in a democratic society anyone who enjoys the rights and responsibilities of residence should also enjoy the rights and responsibilities of the ballot. If you are a stakeholder in the policies of your community, it seems foolish to disenfranchise you because you happened to have been born elsewhere. I can see the appeal of this argument, even though it is not one that I would necessarily embrace.

Unlike Chomsky, I don’t place a huge priority on voting rights for immigrants. It seems to me that each society should be entitled to decide who should be able to vote, and it’s up to the US, as well as its individual states and localities, to decide which foreigners, if any, should be entitled to vote. A political right is not a fundamental human right. I accept Chomsky’s argument that we should not arbitrarily tie the vote to citizenship, but it doesn’t seem to me that the disenfranchisement of non-citizens is even close to being the worst thing in the world. It isn’t hard to see why even a liberal-minded person would be skeptical of allowing anyone from anywhere to vote in their jurisdiction (though I suspect most attempts to use immigration policy to address this are trying to tackle the problem with a very blunt instrument).

I do think it is harmful to perpetuate the disenfranchisement of non-citizens who indicate a strong commitment to their adopted society. One can demonstrate this commitment in many ways; military service, lengthy residence, marrying a citizen. It would seem arbitrary and unjust to me to declare that because you happened to be born a non-citizen, you can never aspire to become a citizen. Immigrants should be able to expect greater political rights as they integrate into their adopted societies. But again, though I would place great importance on there being a path to citizenship, it is not the most important thing.

Where I think there is a higher bar, and where societies need to be absolutely transparent in how they decide their rules, is the simple act of immigration. Morally, a society is more or less entitled to decide in any arbitrary way it wants who gets to vote in its elections. But morally, a society is not entitled to decide in any arbitrary way who gets to be with their family, and who doesn’t. It is not entitled to decide in any arbitrary way who gets to seek gainful employment, and who doesn’t. It is free to restrict these rights, but it needs to explain itself when it does so.

The other interesting point which Chomsky brings up is the importance of equal protection under the law for immigrants. A recurring theme is how whether explicitly or implicitly, US law has denied non-citizen workers certain rights which citizen workers take for granted. In many cases, because the immigrant workers are unlawfully present, their employers refuse to pay them the legal minimum wage or offer them other forms of compensation (e.g. safety equipment, etc.) which citizens might expect. Immigrant workers are also often limited in their “exit options” — either they keep working with their current employer, or they go home. This is often true not only of illegal immigrants, but legal ones as well: most US work permits, including the H-1B visa for professionals, link immigrants to specific employers, and have a lengthy process (if there is one at all) for the immigrant to change their employer.

Chomsky and other leftists deplore this as yet another instance of the capitalist class oppressing the weak and needy, but one does not need to be an all-out Marxist to see the injustice in this situation. One very understandable fear many activists have when it comes to keyhole solutions such as guest worker programmes is that by tying immigration status to a specific employer, a country would effectively legalise indentured labour. I think most open borders advocates would agree: we cannot meaningfully call an immigration policy one of “open borders” if it really is “you can cross the border, only as long as you work for this specific employer”. That may be an improvement on the status quo, but that speaks more to the foolishness of the immigration policy status quo than anything else.

The other points Chomsky makes are interesting, but certainly open to question. A major pitfall of the book is that although its primary focus is immigration, a secondary focus seems to be attacking almost any non-leftist political ideology. Chomsky is prone to digress into tangential topics which aren’t totally relevant to the subject at hand, and the connections she draws seem tenuous at best. She is strongest when she discusses the sordid history of immigration law in the US, and explicitly articulates the reason for attacking specific policies; even if I disagree with her, I can understand where she is coming from and why her views are important. For this reason, I would recommend Chomsky’s book to the interested reader, subject to qualifications I’ve discussed here.

Addendum: I am currently reading Teresa Hayter’s Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls, which makes arguments similar to Chomsky’s from a left-liberal British standpoint, but with a much tighter focus on immigration — especially on the issue of refugees. I intend to review Hayter’s book as well when I am finished with it.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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