Fabio Rojas has written that to convince the public to support open borders, advocates “need a simple and concise idea that undermines the belief that people from other countries must be forcibly separated from each other. This idea must subtly, but powerfully, undermine the distinctions that make people believe that only citizens have the right to travel and work without impair.” He suggests that this idea must appeal to “basic moral intuition” and that “lengthier academic arguments,” while persuasive, are ineffective. I propose the following intuitive, simple message to help convince people to favor open borders: Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives.
The content of this message is not original, although the wording may be. The content is borrowed in part from John Lee, who has implored, “… let’s not use birth as a reason to deny those less fortunate than us some of the same opportunities you and I had.” Similarly, R. George Wright of Indiana University has written, in “Federal Immigration Law and the Case for Open Entry,” how those with the “undeserved good fortune to have been born in the United States resist… accommodation of the undeservedly less fortunate.”
There are several reasons why this message may resonate with the public. First, it refers to “people,” not “immigrants.” Using Fabio’s language, this “undermines the distinctions” between those in immigrant receiving countries and would-be immigrants by emphasizing the common humanity between both groups. Second, at least for the American public, its emphasis on “control” taps into commonly held values of individualism and self reliance. Third, again at least in an American context, the idea that birthplace should not be permitted to negatively impact opportunity connects with the widely accepted notion that people should not be discriminated against based on congenital traits such as gender and skin color.
To humanize the message, examples of people constrained by conditions in their birth country must be provided. An powerful example would be the Dalits, or “untouchables,” of India. A report by two Dutch organizations explains the plight of this group: “The caste system divides people on the basis of birth into unequal and hierarchical social groups. Dominant castes enjoy most rights and least duties, while those at the bottom – the Dalits–in practice have few or no rights. They are considered ‘lesser human beings’, ‘impure’ and ‘polluting’ to other caste groups. Untouchables are often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial and hazardous jobs, such as cleaning human waste. Caste discrimination is outlawed in India, but implementation of legislation is lacking. It is estimated that in India there are around 200 million Dalits.” (page 9) A Mother Jones article on abusive conditions for girls who work in garment factories in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu describes the situation in a village where some of girls come from: “Most of the tea workers are from the lower castes and make about $3 per day; it costs a month’s salary just to outfit a child with books and a uniform for school.”
Another example of conditions ruling lives is provided by Luis Alberto Urrea in The Devil’s Highway, which chronicles the suffering of a group of Mexicans who crossed into the U.S. through the Arizona desert in 2001. Mr. Urrea notes the economic conditions at the time in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, where several of the individuals in the group came from: “The people were killing themselves working the ranchos on the outskirts. The fishermen couldn’t catch enough protein in the sea. The cane cutters couldn’t cut enough cane. The small peasant farmers couldn’t get good enough prices to cover the costs of planting and harvesting their coffee… Prices kept rising, and all families… were able to afford less and less. Food was harder to come by: forget about telephones, clothes, cars, furniture. Even chicken feed… was expensive. Pampers, milk, baby formula, shoes, tuition, tools, medicine… Between Americanized prices for their frijoles, and the unpredictable spikes in the price of tortillas, the Veracruzanos sometimes didn’t even know how they would feed their families.” (pp. 44-45)
Beyond poor economic conditions, there are also numerous situations to be cited in which people’s lives are controlled by unsafe conditions in their home countries, such as the civil wars in Syria and Central African Republic. Even without mass conflict, in many countries the average person has little protection from the violent whims of others. In a recent column entitled “The Republic of Fear,” David Brooks notes that in many countries, especially in the developing word, unless a person is part of a wealthy, powerful elite, he cannot “take a basic level of order for granted.” Mr. Brooks writes that “People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order.” As I have written previously, women especially have little protection from family members or strangers in many parts of the world.
Lack of control over one’s life is especially apparent in parts of the world where people cannot practice their religion, cannot choose what they wear, cannot marry whom they want, or cannot be openly gay. In western countries that value such freedoms, emphasizing the opportunity open borders would provide individuals to acquire these freedoms should particularly resonate with the public.
The message emphasizing control also must be accompanied by evidence that open borders would not negatively impact the lives of most people in immigrant receiving countries and that there would be mechanisms instituted to compensate those who might experience economic losses from open borders. (Vipul has summarized these mechanisms.) The Immigration Policy Center site provides more such evidence, as does this site (Here, here, here, and here).
It is true that no one has total control over their lives. Even in advanced countries, the family environment in which we were raised, our natural abilities, and our health often determine our options. The idea in the message Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives is to remove place of birth as a limiting factor.
Hopefully advocates will reach a consensus on a simple, powerful message supporting open borders that will resonate with the public. The message promoted here can be a starting point.