Open borders is a tough sell in Western countries. Generations of closed borders and anti-open borders propaganda has led most Westerners to conclude that having open borders is reckless and potentially disastrous for receiving countries. My fellow bloggers and I have worked hard to reverse this current of thought, but much work still needs to be done to help realize our goal. So why burden ourselves by also pushing for reparations for immigrants on top of open borders, as I advocate in this post? Because it is morally warranted. (See here for my post that outlines why open borders itself is warranted. In this post the focus is on open borders plus reparations in the U.S. context, but the same arguments apply universally. )
In the United States, reparations for harm committed against certain ethnic groups by the government have periodically been considered. Decades after the government interned over one hundred thousand Japanese-Americans during War II, the U.S. provided monetary reparations to former internees. Reparations for African Americans and Native Americans have also been debated, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent article “The Case for Reparations” concerning African Americans.
The malign actions committed against these groups by the government and European American citizens have been horrific. Forcible relocation in the case of Japanese and Native Americans. Wars of aggression against and theft of land from Native Americans. Slavery, Jim Crow, de facto slavery after the Civil War, theft, unpunished murder, federal redlining of African American neighborhoods, and the mass incarceration of African Americans. The fruit of this oppression, in the case of African Americans, has been a huge wealth gap between African Americans and the rest of the country, as well as high incarceration rates.
Actions by the U.S. government against would-be immigrants have also been devastating. Millions of individuals have been deported from the country over the years, leading to immiseration, family separation, and sometimes death. (While not strictly a case of deportation, 254 refugees from the ship St. Louis, which was denied entry into the U.S. in 1939, died in the Holocaust. More recently, a man deported in 2012 to El Salvador, “dubbed by the United Nations as one of deadliest countries in the world,” was murdered earlier this year by assassins hired by a disgruntled former tenant. A forthcoming study shows that close to one hundred deportees to Central American from the U.S. have been murdered over the last two years.) Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people have been detained each year and others harmed, even killed, by immigration agents. In addition, thousands have died in deserts trying to evade border enforcement along the southern U.S. border, while others have suffered abuse by non-government entities in transit to the U.S. or after arriving in the U.S. due to their undocumented status.
Furthermore, immigration restrictions on would-be immigrants have kept many in the developing world from escaping poverty. Restrictions prevent would-be immigrants from benefiting from the place premium, which allows a person from a disadvantaged country to earn much more in an advanced country, even without an increase in the person’s skills. A paper by Michael Clemens and others concludes that “simply allowing labor mobility can reduce a given household’s poverty to a much greater degree than most known antipoverty interventions inside developing countries.” Restrictions also have blocked would-be immigrants access to a decent education in the U.S., which would increase their earnings potential.
In addition to locking would-be immigrants into poverty in the developing world, restrictions force them to work for low wages in dangerous conditions in sweatshops they would otherwise avoid by migrating. Some commentators have argued that having sweatshop jobs in poor countries is preferable to not having the jobs available at all (Nicholas Kristof: “… the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they fail to exploit enough.”). However, they fail to acknowledge that the fact that there are only these two alternatives is due to, as John Lee argued in a 2013 post on Bangladeshi sweatshop workers, “laws that ban Bangladeshis at gunpoint from working in our countries.” John’s post was published in the wake of a factory fire in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 people, some of whom might have migrated to the U.S. under open borders rather than toiling in the unsafe factory.
Consider also women living in countries where they are mistreated who might escape to the freedom of the U.S. under open borders. It is difficult to determine the number of women who have been forced to endure misogyny in other countries because of restrictions, but it may be many.
The harm that our immigration laws have visited upon would-be immigrants is cumulative. They not only prevent today’s would-be immigrants from improving their economic lives (not to mention that they kill and enable the abuse of some of them), they have been doing the same to their ancestors, leaving today’s would-be immigrants much less well off than they might have been had their ancestors been able to migrate to the U.S. People in each generation who are barred from migrating are prevented from accumulating the wealth and educational capital to pass down to the next generation, and so on. The poverty one sees in developing countries is often largely the result of an inability of multiple generations to have accessed the advanced U.S. economy. This parallels the African-American predicament: An African American man told Mr. Coats that “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now… It’s because of then.”
The American government, and the people who have elected it, have caused immense harm, economic, physical, and psychological, to many immigrants over many years. Not only must we open our borders, some reparation is due to all immigrants. (Since most would-be immigrants have probably been negatively impacted by restrictions in some way, either directly or through their impact on their ancestors, reparations should be provided to all immigrants.) Determining the amount and nature of the reparation is complex, especially for those who have been killed or abused due to restrictions. As Mr. Coates suggests with regard to reparations for African Americans, “perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed.”
Nonetheless, here are some ideas for reparations for immigrants under open borders. Part of a reparations package would be to grant immigrants immediate, full access to the American welfare state: Obamacare, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, TANF, job training, Pell Grants, federal student loans, housing assistance etc. For those concerned about elderly immigrants arriving to our shores and claiming benefits to which they have never contributed, remember that they would have happily contributed earlier had open borders been available when they were younger, and besides their personal finances have often been decimated for years due to immigration restrictions. With a center-left perspective, I believe some of these investments could reap later rewards, such as making it easier for new immigrants to attend college, which would in turn enhance productivity.
Moreover, new immigrants would be provided a set amount of money (maybe $5000), the services of cultural counselors and English teachers to help them get settled and oriented in the U.S., and low cost housing, services similarly provided for refugees today. These measures could smooth the country’s transition to a significant increase in immigrants under open borders and bolster the economy by spurring construction of new housing and consumer spending. Finally, for those migrants who don’t have resources to finance their travel to the U.S., travel assistance could be provided. (With regard to voting, I would continue to limit the franchise to those who have lived in the U.S.for a number of years to ensure that they fully understand the democratic foundation of our country before voting.)
Admittedly this all may be difficult for most people to accept: open borders and instant access to the welfare state, a cash allowance, low cost-housing, and travel assistance. Open borders plus reparations may not be popular even among many of my fellow open borders advocates. For example, it differs greatly from Nathan Smith’s DRITI open borders plan, which burdens new immigrants with higher taxes than native-born Americans.
Mr. Coates has written about the deeper value of advocating for reparations (in the case of African Americans): “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced… An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” Similarly, providing reparations for immigrants entering under open borders could eventually help instill the idea in Americans’ hearts and minds that restrictions have constituted a great sin against a large portion of humanity, hopefully incubating Americans against reverting back to immigration restrictions.
- Reparations are not a sound basis for making immigration policy by John Lee, that argues against using reparations as the basis for liberal migration policies.
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