Oh, the absurdity of thinking that open borders demands open citizenship

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter in discussing open borders is the casual conflation of open borders with open citizenship. For something I consider an incredibly elementary distinction, this apparently eludes plenty of intelligent people. For example, here is EconLog blogger Art Carden casually saying:

An answer to Bryan’s question about how the government should spend a billion dollars. I’m going to take “give it back to the taxpayers” and “print a few hundred million US passports for prospective immigrants” off the table.

Bryan Caplan is one of the most famous and vocal open borders advocates around; he is Carden’s co-blogger. And yet it apparently seems to have escaped Carden that Caplan has never suggested printing US passports for foreigners. Caplan and the rest of the open borders movement want people to be free to move across borders. And you don’t need a US passport to cross the US border! You just need a valid US visa.

People worried that immigrants are going to abuse their welfare system or cast uninformed votes if we open the borders completely ignore that there are millions of foreigners today who legally cross borders whose access to welfare and the vote are curtailed, if not eliminated, by their visa restrictions. This is true in the US, and it is true in virtually any other country you care to name.

This is why I find the pervasive belief that it’ll be impossible to keep citizenship out of the hands of foreigners so puzzling. Surely people realise that in the US, as in most countries, you don’t need to be a citizen to work or settle now. Why would this change under open borders?

The distinction between open borders and open citizenship is critical. If you assume the first implies the second, you still need to clarify why exactly you believe allowing people to move to your country means you would be forced to give them citizenship. When I raise this distinction, I encounter two types of responses:

  1. A total avoidance of the distinction (i.e. the person persists in assuming you need to be a citizen of a country to live there)
  2. A confident certainty that either:
    1. Immigrants would rise up politically to demand and then acquire citizenship
    2. It would be simply immoral to admit a lot of immigrants and not give them citizenship

For scenario #1, I confess I am lost. It’s possible the fault lies with me in failing to communicate the distinction between passports and visas, between citizen and legal immigrant. But how can we best communicate this distinction? Any ideas?

For the scenarios in #2, let’s use US data, because it’s most conveniently at hand (thank you, my Dartmouth classmate Harry Enten!). In general, only 60% of US legal permanent residents naturalise. For those who were given legal immigrant status by the last major US amnesty, in 1986, only 40% naturalised. In short, almost 1 in 2 legal US immigrants don’t really want citizenship.

And right now, it’s fairly straightforward to acquire US citizenship once you’ve met the simple residency requirement of 5 years; the hardest parts tend to be learning English (if you don’t speak it), learning the material on the citizenship test (a bore, but certainly a doable challenge for most), and putting together the necessary paperwork to show you’re not a criminal, etc. It seems highly questionable to me to claim that these people would have rioted if they’d been admitted legally but under a different, stricter residency requirement.

And on that point, I don’t see any moral reason why the requirement for naturalisation has to be 5 years; it could easily be 15, or even longer. The harm to immigrants from this is minimal. Other than the vote and welfare, most people in the US, lawfully present or not, have identical rights and responsibilities. In fact, the only meaningful harm I can think of is that non-citizens can be deported and citizens can’t be. But the whole point of open borders is that, barring evidence that you are a danger of some kind, you should be able to go where you like. Once we protect non-citizens from arbitrary deportation, the moral harm of raising the bar for citizenship seems almost non-existent. It certainly pales in comparison to the moral harm of keeping people out of your country at gunpoint because you’re afraid letting them in might morally obligate you to throw a blank passport at them.

The question of whether such a moral obligation exists is something worthy of a whole book. But I don’t see a reason why crossing over an arbitrary line should suddenly make people on the other side of that line obligated to give you the vote. Citizenship is fundamentally related to who you are, not where you live, although the two are clearly related. I think most people intuitively understand this, since I don’t see anyone seriously demanding that every person on a student visa or a work permit in a foreign country be permitted to vote there. And I think it shouldn’t be hard to intuitively see that something is wrong with us if we insist on forcefully keeping people jobless and starving because we’re afraid the only alternative is giving them the vote. You don’t need to be a voter to hold down a paying job or rent your own home. So why impose that absurd and arbitrary requirement on someone else?

I am for open borders. I am not for open citizenship. There is a difference, and let’s be clear about that. One is about the fundamental human right to live and work without needing to beg any government for permission to stay in your own home or work for your employer. The other is about the less fundamental political right to cast a vote. The two are not the same, and blurring the difference between them does not serve us well.

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.


14 thoughts on “Oh, the absurdity of thinking that open borders demands open citizenship”

  1. “Other than the vote and welfare, most people in the US, lawfully present or not, have identical rights and responsibilities.”

    In the US, I think only citizens are eligible for jury duty.

    Also, only citizens and permanent residents need to register for selective service.

  2. Hi John,
    I fully agree with you about the necessity to distinguish between open borders and open citizenship, but I think you too easily dismiss the potential political consequences. If non-citizens immigrated to the US to such a large degree that non-citizens outnumbered citizens 2-to-1, I think it’s possible there’d be much more pressure to provide an easier path to citizenship.
    I also feel that the real moral argument only extends to open borders, but others might not.


  3. I agree that open borders and open citizenship are often conflated. I do think a significant percentage of lawful permanent residents would naturalize if it were easier to do so. Learning a second language as an adult is difficult, especially if you don’t have time to take English classes because you work long hours or never had much education in your home country. I’m an immigration lawyer, and many of my clients have struggled to naturalize for one reason or another. Filing fees are $680 and attorney’s fees are typically at least that. Seemingly minor crimes can disqualify an LPR from citizenship and even lead to deportation. Some of my clients are not literate in any language or have trouble memorizing the civics exam questions.

    Unfortunately, there are significant differences between LPR status and citizenship, and between citizenship and other types of authorized status. LPRs can be deported–for shoplifting, staying outside the U.S. for too long, or accidentally registering to vote at the DMV, for example. It’s even easier to get deported if you’re not an LPR. Fear of deportation has pernicious secondary consequences, like functional exclusion from the protections of the criminal justice system and exploitation in the workplace. Most of my clients are poor and nonwhite, which situates them differently than middle class noncitizens with regard to many of these issues. I hope that someday authorized noncitizens in the U.S. will have “the fundamental human right to live and work without needing to beg any government for permission to stay in your own home or work for your employer.” Unfortunately, we are far from that ideal right now. I am in favor of expanding citizenship, or blurring the line between citizen and noncitizen, for reasons I won’t get into now because this comment is already too long.

  4. I see I misread your argument somewhat. You said: “the whole point of open borders is that, barring evidence that you are a danger of some kind, you should be able to go where you like. Once we protect non-citizens from arbitrary deportation, the moral harm of raising the bar for citizenship seems almost non-existent.”
    I agree that deportation is the primary problem. However, the conditions to which noncitizens are subjected are closely related to their inability to vote. They cannot hold policy-makers accountable for imposing draconian, discriminatory laws against them. For all the flaws in liberal democracy as it is practiced, policy can be driven by votes. Since access to citizenship and territory are closely related to class and race (a Malian has a much harder time visiting the U.S. or becoming a U.S. citizen than a Brit), people from poor countries are excluded from citizenship in wealthy countries and the cycle perpetuates itself. It is not so easy, IMHO, to separate open borders and open citizenship.

  5. I wonder whether some people think open borders demands open citizenship because of birthright citizenship. Even if migrants never gain new citizenship, their future generations will. So, over the long term, importing new groups of people leads to new groups of citizens.

  6. Once upon a time most people couldn’t vote, but they all gained the franchise eventually. Any restrictions that prevent large groups from voting are inevitably removed. The OP sites the English test as the reason that more Mexicans don’t become citizens, but literacy laws also tried to keep blacks from voting in the south and they were eventually done away with. Just as nearly everything has a “press 2 for Spanish” option today things like needing to know English to be a citizen will go away over time because someone will covet those votes.

    We’ve seen this play out time and time again with amnesty bills, each one is always the last one.

    A quick look at the last election tells the story. If you had the same demographics the US had in 1980, before mass Mexican immigration, Romney would have won by a bigger landslide then Reagen in his best year. Whether you think that is a good thing or not its certainly a huge effect on our politics.

    Moreover, the reason it would take a “whole book” is because having a large group of non-citizens in your country dramatically changes the political economy equilibrium even if they can’t vote. Policies that citizens want that can work in the world without the non-citizens may not be possible in the world with lots of non-citizens. Especially when those non-citizens are dramatically different people then the natives. Do you not think slavery had a massive effect on the nations political economy even though none of the slaves could vote? Do you not see how its having a dramatic effect today 150 years after the institution itself ended?

    Do you not see how immigrants fundamentally change the character of communities even if they can’t vote, thus affecting the body politic by their very existence? Certain kinds of societies are only possible if those living in them have certain characteristics. People are not fungible. You don’t just stick people X in system Y and get result Z. System Y was designed for people Y, if you try to stick people X in it you don’t necessarily get result Z. This is playing out all over the developed world. Go watch some “youths” riot and set some cars on fire and then tell me that everyone’s the same.

    I know you know this kind of stuff deep down because you spend most of your waking hours trying to make enough money to not need to have to live around the NAMs you doom everyone else in the country to have to live around. No, you keep those people out because you know what they will do to property values, but somehow can’t make the mental leap from NAMs = the value of my block goes down to NAMs = the value of my country goes down.

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