Open borders: what to do about it (part 1)

This is a guest post by Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Rojas maintains his personal webpage here and is one of the bloggers at the orgtheory.net blog.

This guest post is the first in a three-post series on how one could achieve open borders. The series focuses on public opinion and immigration policy in the United States, but its insights may apply to other nations as well. The second post in the series is now available here.

Vipul has graciously asked me to contribute to the Open Borders website. As an enthusiastic advocate of free immigration, I immediately agreed. There has been some discussion on this site about why open borders are desirable and about what open borders advocates want. My goal in this series of posts is to address the related question: “How do we get there?” What can we do to make open borders a reality? I think that I have some valuable insights because I am a sociologist who studies social change. Sociologists have spent decades thinking about the factors behind social change. There has now been decades of research focusing on issues such as public opinion, policy change, and political mobilization.

A personal note

Before, I get into the question of “how do we get there,” I’d like to take a few moments to discuss “how did I get there?” In other words, why do I believe in free immigration and open borders? As with John Lee, the answer for me is a mix of biography and argument. First, my parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. They were school teachers and came to study at New York University. Eventually, they landed jobs in American schools. Thus, my experience of immigration was fairly positive. By moving to America, my mother was rescued from poverty. My father came from a middle class family and was able to study science at a leading university. I immediately knew that immigration was good. If you were stuck in a bad situation, you could always move. My father used to tell me, “Everyone in the world is a citizen of two countries – the place where you were born and America.” I was grateful to be in America.

As I grew up, I came to realize that not everyone viewed immigration in such positive terms. A lot of people were personally hostile towards immigrants. Many people wished to limit immigration to very low levels. Some people were even violent towards immigrants. This led me to ask, “What was so bad about immigration? What had my parents done that was so horrible, so threatening that they deserved the scorn of others?”

Over time, I realized that there weren’t very good answers to these questions. Immigrants were simply people who wanted better jobs, to be left alone by their government, or simply didn’t like where they were living. These are the same things that motivate people to move within their country, but we have few barriers for migration between cities and states. Is a man who moves from Tijuana to San Diego more of a problem than the man who moves from Oklahoma City to San Diego? This question appeared more absurd when I read my history books in school. Until the early 20th century, America had relatively unrestricted immigration. Millions upon millions came to America. There were contentious arguments about immigration, about how immigrants would undermine this country. Yet, America continued to be a great nation. Surely, immigration was not the threat that it was made out to be.

As an adult, I earned my doctoral degree in sociology and I was more able to assess anti-immigration arguments. There’s little evidence that the mass migration of the 1800s made Americans worse off, or that the influx of immigrants in the 1960s was such a bad thing. Much sociological research shows that the children of most immigrants assimilate very quickly into American society. They speak English, they get jobs, they go to college.

What to do about it

The purpose of this essay is not to comprehensively argue that immigration bans are wrong. There are many other essays on this website that make the case for free immigration. Instead, this essay is aimed at those who are already accept that immigration restrictions are cruel. This essay is for people who believe that building a massive wall for the purpose of preventing someone who crossing the border to work in a restaurant is crazy. This essay is for those who say, “What do we do now?”

I have good news and bad news for these readers. The good news is that I honestly believe that there is an effective and rational path to much freer immigration policy. The bad news is that social change of this sort is usually slow, incremental and difficult. Open borders will not appear simply because an economist has shown that immigrants don’t put people out of work. Rather, social change of this sort happens when there is a concerted effort to change public opinion coupled with an organized attempt to change policy through electoral politics, litigation, and protest. The formula is “public opinion + politics = success.” It’s hard to pull off, but it can be done.

In two more posts, I’ll outline some concrete strategies for change. For now, I’ll describe the way that sociologists tend to think about social change and how that can help us think about undermining anti-immigration sentiment in America. First, a policy, such as immigration restriction, is based on public opinion. Public opinion is what “the people” think about a topic. As a rule of thumb, government policies follow public opinion. Thus, any attempt to create open borders must start with a strategy for making the public more tolerant of immigration.

Second, institutions are a big factor in public policy. Even if a policy is unpopular, someone has to take the time and effort to write a new law, fight for it, and defend it in court. Often, there are people who benefit from bad policies. There are many law enforcement officers, for example, who take pride in border control and whose livelihood depends on the fences that separate people. People with vested interests will often vigorously fight for the status quo. That is why you need political work to end bad policy. You need to lobby public officials, you need to file lawsuits, and you need to protest. Somebody has to work “the system” to make change happen. If you don’t do that, vested interests will win the day. In other words, after you change public opinion, you then have to “do politics.”

Transforming public opinion and building the infrastructure for politics is long, hard work. It is often selfless and unrewarded. However, it is often the only path that may be successful. The next two posts will explain how open borders advocates can build a movement for change. My ideas are drawn from my own reading of research on political change and social movements. The next post will discuss public opinion and how open borders advocates can create the intellectual climate needed for open borders. My last post will discuss the nitty gritty of politics.

2 thoughts on “Open borders: what to do about it (part 1)”

  1. I look forward to reading parts 2 and 3. I think that one issue you should address when you get to Part 2 is the difficulty of how exactly to reconcile the differences within the open borders camp and people somewhat sympathetic to open borders. The controversies over keyhole solutions, and whether they should or should not be included as part of the open borders package, are what interest me most.

    John Lee’s post what do open borders advocates really want? lays out some generally agreed things among open borders advocates, and my post on six possible positions on a specific keyhole solution goes into some detail on the various positions of open borders advocates and non-advocates on various variations of open borders.

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