Championing Both Open Borders and An End to the U.S. Drug War

Even advocates of open borders acknowledge that its realization is very unlikely for many years to come.  Similarly, campaigns for the legalization (or at least the decriminalization) of drugs face an uphill battle, although there have been successes in recent years in the U.S. and Europe.  Despite the challenge of realizing both of these radical causes, the legalization of drugs would complement some of the advantages of having open borders.

The failed war on drugs

Image source Failed drug war: U.S. and Mexico losing battle against cartels

Coincidentally some progress on both fronts has occurred this summer in the U.S.  The Senate passed a bill that would raise legal immigration levels by 50 to 70 percent within five years and legalize the millions of undocumented individuals already in the country, although the enforcement provisions of the bill are unwelcome.  On the drug policy front, the U.S. attorney general signaled that federal prosecutors would no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentence laws for some drug offenses.

Let’s begin with some background information on the war on drugs in the U.S. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness  Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs has placed many African-Americans and Latinos into a new “racial undercaste.” (p. 185) The latest version of the war on drugs was instituted because some politicians were trying to “…appeal to poor and working-class whites who, once again, proved they were willing to forego economic and structural reform in exchange for an apparent effort to put blacks back ‘in their place.’” (p. 186)  The war on drugs began being pursued in earnest during the Reagan administration (p. 49), and as a result over the next three decades there was a huge increase in the U.S. prison population. (p. 59 and p. 99) Ms. Alexander adds that “In the drug war, the enemy is racially defined… Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (pp. 96-97)  And even after those who have been incarcerated for drug violations are released, they “will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives–denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits… They become members of an undercaste–an enormous population of predominately black and brown people who, because of the drug war, are denied basic rights and priviledges of American citizenship and are permanently relegated to an inferior status.” (pp. 181-182)

Similarities Between Immigration Restrictions and the War on Drugs

Before exploring the advantages of ending both immigration restrictions and the the war on drugs, consider several similarities between American immigration restrictions and Ms. Alexander’s description of the war on drugs.  One is that both were created largely due to racial biases.  As we have seen, some politicians supporting the drug war were appealing to white insecurities about African Americans.  Similarly, the imposition of vigorous federal immigration restrictions was motivated by concerns about the race of certain immigrants.  In the late 19th century, Chinese were excluded by federal law from immigrating based on what Chris Hendrix calls “knee-jerk racism.”  Later, the 1924 Johnson-Reed immigration legislation, “the nation’s first comprehensive restriction law,” was largely propelled by racism.  (quotation from Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai, p. 3)  Politicians were concerned over immigration from southern and eastern Europe and the maintenance of America’s northern European “stock.”  John Higham, in Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925, notes that as the House of Representatives worked toward the 1924 legislation, its champions “now largely ignored the economic arguments they had advanced in behalf of the first quota law three years before.  Instead, they talked about preserving a ‘distinct American type,’ about keeping American for Americans, or about saving the Nordic race from being swamped.  The Ku Klux Klan, which was organizing a vigorous letter-writing campaign in support of the Johnson bill, probably aided and abetted this swell of racial nativism…” (p. 321)

Both systems also involve racial profiling.  In Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws, Kevin Johnson writes that “racial profiling in immigration enforcement… harms the dignity of persons stopped by immigration officers and stigmatizes U.S. citizens, especially Mexican-Americans, who are subject to immigration stops because they fit the ‘undocumented immigrant profile.’” (p. 108) Similarly, Ms. Alexander notes that “studies of racial profiling have shown that police do, in fact, exercise their discretion regarding whom to stop and search in the drug war in a highly discriminatory manner.” (p. 130)

Under both systems authorities have significant power to intrude on people’s lives.  Within 25 miles of international borders, Border Patrol agents have access to private land.  Even in a zone extending 100 miles from borders, their “authority extends beyond that of other law enforcment agencies,” and agents in that zone regularly ask bus and train passengers for identification and question them.  Similarly, Ms. Alexander notes that rulings by the Supreme Court during the War on Drugs have made “… it relatively easy for the police to seize people virtually anywhere–on public streets and sidewalks, on buses, airplanes and trains, or any other public place–and usher them behind bars.  These new legal rules have ensured that anyone, virtually anywhere, for any reason, can becom a target of drug-law enforcement activity.” (p. 62)

In addition, both legal systems produce an “undercaste.”  Like drug felons, undocumented workers in the U.S. live under a different set of rules than most residents.  They are legally barred from employment, cannot access many public services, and live in fear of detention and deportation.  Mr. Johson writes that “… a new, but often invisible, racial caste system slowly emerged in the United States.  Immigration law in the United States allows for labor exploitation along racial lines.  It is a new Jim Crow system.” (p. 129) (emphasis mine)

Finally, the behavior that both systems target is non-violent, often born out of limited economic opportunities, and often harmless.  Ms. Alexander notes that in 2005 most drug arrests were for possession and that most of those imprisoned for drug offenses do not have violent histories.  Many arrests are for marijuana possession, which is “less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.” (p. 59) Because of a decline in employment opportunities in inner cities due to globalization and industrialization, she notes that there are “increased incentives” to sell drugs. (p. 50 and p. 123) With regard to immigration, there is lots of information at this site and elsewhere showing that immigration benefits receiving countries and any negative consequences can be mitigated by keyhole solutions.  Immigration itself is peaceful and largely arises from a desire to improve one’s economic situation.

The Advantages of Ending Both Immigration Restrictions and the War on Drugs

There are several advantages to ending both immigration restrictrictions and the war on drugs.  First, much of the pressure on the border would be eliminated with these changes.  Along the U.S.-Mexican border, the Border Patrol focuses on illegal immigration and drug smuggling.  With the changes, these would no longer be issues for the Border Patrol, since immigrants would have no reason to sneak into the U.S. and, particularly if Mexico were to end their drug enforcement efforts and the U.S. didn’t regulate the flow of drugs over the border, the same would be true with the movement of drugs.  Border Patrol agents, who are officially Customs and Border Patrol agents, could focus more on customs matters at ports of entry, look out for potential terrorists, and address weapons smuggling.  In addition, landowners along the border who have endured drug smuggling, people smuggling, and/or individual immigrants coming through their property would no longer experience these intrusions.  Currently, in some rural border counties, “the threat of cartel-related crime, whether the smuggling of drugs or illegal immigrants, has caused people to arm themselves to an extraordinary degree and take other precautions.”  The undesirable impacts of border fencing could also be avoided.

A related benefit would be a weakening of criminal gangs that operate along the U.S.-Mexican border.  In Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, Philippe Legrain observes that immigration restrictions force some immigrants to rely on criminal gangs to smuggle them. (p. 38) Similarly, “organized crime, gangs and drug cartels have the most to gain financially from prohibition” of drugs.  Sometimes a criminal enterprise does both, smuggling immigrants and drugs.   For immigrants, according to an article in the New York Times, sometimes “… the only way to get across (the border) is to deal with gangs that sometimes push migrants to carry drugs.”  With open borders, immigrants wouldn’t have to rely on these groups to cross the border, and legalizing the drug trade would allow non-violent economic competition which would be detrimental to the groups.

Second, open borders and terminating the war on drugs would benefit African-Americans and Latinos in the U.S.  As we have seen, both groups have disproportionately suffered from drug enforcement during the drug war, from being subjects of racial profiling to going to prison to dealing with the harsh economic consequences of having a criminal record once released.  Latinos must deal with immigration enforcement as well; Latinos, whether citizens, legal residents, or undocumented, are subjected to profiling of them as undocumented individuals and, if they are undocumented, face exploitation by employers, detention, and deportation.  There are also many Latino mixed status families, all of whose members suffer if the member(s) who is undocumented is apprehended by immigration authorities.  Ending these types of enforcement would liberate African-Americans and Latinos from the terrible burdens associated with them.  (To help those convicted of drug crimes succeed, their records would have to be expunged, and they should be allowed to not have to reveal these convictions on applications for jobs and public benefits.)

Furthermore, increased immigration under an open borders policy could help African-American communities get back on their feet after enduring decades of the drug war, deindustrialization, and other negative factors.  A summary of a study released in June by the Immigration Policy Center and conducted by Jack Strauss of St. Louis University demonstrates how immigration helps these communities:   “A comprehensive analysis of Census data from hundreds of U.S. metropolitan areas indicate that immigration from Latin America improves wages and job opportunities for African Americans. This analysis serves to dispel the common myth that African Americans are negatively impacted by the immigration of less-skilled workers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America… The positive economic impact of Latino immigration is related to population. Many metros, particularly in the Midwest, including Cleveland, Dayton, Detroit, and St. Louis, are not experiencing vibrant population growth. Instead, aging baby boomers and negative net migration are leading to a hallowing out of cities, declining school revenue, falling housing prices, big businesses moving their headquarters, and a dearth of small businesses. St. Louis, for instance, has experienced a sharply declining population, and at the same time, very little Latino immigration. As a result, Saint Louis has closed more than a dozen schools in recent years, which has cost the jobs of hundreds of African American teachers, administrators, and staff. Our research shows that an increase in immigration from Latin America would have sustained St. Louis’s population, tax base, school enrollment, and most of the lost African American jobs. Further, it would have reduced crime among young African American men by giving them more economic opportunities.

“Why are population size and composition so important for economic development? Edward Glaeser and Joshua Gottlieb argue that larger cities are successful because they have thriving clusters of people and companies working together. More people from Latin America increases the vibrancy of a city, its culture, and the opportunities it offers. Further, research shows that specialization by encouraging different skill patterns leads to higher wages and more jobs.”

Third, ending both immigration restrictions and the war on drugs would allow the U.S. to avoid the expense of incarcerating huge numbers of individuals and would free up law enforcement and the courts.  According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in the U.S. more than $50 billion is spent annually on the war on drugs and more than 1.5 million people were arrested in 2011 on nonviolent drug charges.  The tab for immigration enforcement is close to $18 billion, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants are apprehended and/or deported each year.  Over three hundred thousand people were in prison for drug offenses at the end of 2011, and a similar number are put in detention each year by immigration authorities.  Many immigration violations have become criminalized, and Kevin Johnson notes that “as it did during Prohibition, the criminalization has created a caseload crisis in the federal courts.” (p. 179)  Many drug and immigration cases have reached the Supreme Court, and Mr. Johnson states that federal courts of appeals have been flooded with immigration cases. (p. 179)

So what about all of the money that would freed up from ending the expensive enforcement associated with the drug war and immigration controls?  (Even more money would be availabe with the legalization of at least some drugs, which would allow the government to tax the trade.)  Some of the money would have to continue to go toward border monitoring: customs enforcement, controlling weapons flows, and keeping watch for terrorists.  Ms. Alexander notes that many Americans are financially vested in the war on drugs, including rural communities where prisons are build to house offenders, prison guards, private corrections companies, and others, so some of the money could be spent on helping some of these individuals adapt to an America with far fewer prisoners.  Some of the money could go toward additional drug treatment and prevention programs, even if drug use rates do not significantly change.  The remaining money could be used to help inner cities that have been devastated by the drug war and to help Americans who might be adversely affected by rising immigration under open borders.  In effect, ending the drug war could be a keyhole solution that would help ease the transition to open borders.

Finally, from a libertarian perspective, these radical changes would end government intrusions into the lives of millions of people, including those who have no involvement with drugs or immigration.  For those wishing to immigrate legally or possess drugs, it would be a dramatic expansion of individual liberty.

Based on how the outcomes of ending these two oppresive systems of enforcement could complement each other, should open borders advocates also vocally begin calling for an end to the drug war?  It might alienate some, although I suspect that many who would be receptive to open borders would also be supportive of ending drug enforcement.  The case for open borders also might receive more support from the African-American community if it were paired with ending the drug war.  American open borders advocates should consider attaching the campaign to end the drug war to their efforts to change immigration policy.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel