Open borders: what to do about it (part 3)

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 blog.

This guest post is the third 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 first two post of the series can be found here and here.

This is the last installment of a three part series on open borders. My initial post offered some personal thoughts on why I believe in free movement between countries. The second and third posts focus on how open borders might happen. While there is much to be gained in discussing the merits of open borders, it is just as important to think how we can pursue change in concrete terms. I argued that open borders proponents should think more carefully about how we frame, or talk about, open borders. Free migration will require massive social change and advocates should develop ways of presenting their ideas that would appeal to many people, as well as more specific groups, such as jurists, who influence how laws are made and enacted.

Even more important than framing is politics, which simply means the effort that we expend to influence other people and reform our institutions. In writing this post, I do not assume that there is a single way to promote change. History shows us that change happens in many ways and that it is impossible to know in advance how things will change. What we can know for certain, though, is that history favors those who are prepared. The purpose of this post is to describe what open borders advocates might have to do if they want to see their ideas turn into practice.

My discussion is drawn from a recent book, The Making of Pro-Life Activists by Ziad Munson. This scholarly book contains a succinct analysis of the different branches of that movement. Munson notes that most activists focus on one of three activities: public outreach, electoral politics/lobbying and “direct action,” which denotes protest and other actions designed to prevent abortions from being performed in medical clinics. Similarly, the “political” side of open borders will have to address public opinion, elected officials, and forms of protest. Each has an important role that I discuss below.

Public Outreach

I’ll begin with “public outreach” because it is important and relatively easy to do. Public opinion is extremely important because politicians in a democracy won’t promote a policy if they know that the public opposes it. Academic research on social changes has often found that public opinion often changes before the government enacts major new legislation. For example, see Taeku Lee’s book on the civil rights movement. Savvy politicians know that they exploit shifting cultural currents and rarely initiate major change by themselves. That is why open borders advocates should think about the ways to change hearts and minds.

We should look to other movements for ideas about promoting open border to the public. The gay rights movement, for example, found that if enough people “come out of the closet,” then everybody will recognize that gay people are a group, even those that dislike them. Eventually, the presence of this group may be viewed as normal. If the hidden group can achieve some degree of “normality,” then they can become part of a broader social conversation. If enough gay people come out of the closet, then others will realize that their children, or parents, or friends might be gay. It is very difficult to sustain open bigotry if your relatives are openly gay. The lesson is that there is safety in numbers.

Open borders advocates should consider some version of this strategy. At the very least, we should develop a symbol, like the pink triangle for gay rights, that represents our view that people should be free to move as they wish between countries. This is a form of branding and it is important. Another possibility is that we should openly support people who are victims of anti-immigration law. If we have a friend, or relative, who has been deported, or stopped at the border, we should denounce that action. In other words, open borders activists should be a reliable choir for free movement, much in the same way that parents and friends of gay people denounce anti-gay bigotry.

This may sound like a modest, even trivial, proposal. The opposite is true. Currently, the public has no idea that there are other people who even believe in the concept of open borders. Political debate focuses on whether a few lucky persons might get amnesty, not whether we should make our borders open. That indicates to me that the average person doesn’t appreciate that open borders is even a position that one might consider. That has to change.

Working Within the System

A second issue is “institutional politics.” I use this term to denote the many different ways that the state is set up to allow people to influence its policy. In other words, institutional politics means “working within the system.” This includes activities as varied as voting, lobbying, electioneering, or petitions. So far, institutional politics has been a failure for proponents of open borders. While the United States began as a nation with very open borders, things drastically changed in the 1920s, when the federal government restricted immigration. There was some degree of liberalization in the 1960s, but the Federal government continues to prevent the peaceful movement of people.

One might be tempted to argue that institutional politics is useless. My view is different. Institutional politics rests on a foundation of public support. As long as the public views immigration as a problem, the government will treat immigration as a problem. That is why framing and branding the open borders movement are important. These are preconditions for successful institutional politics. Once public opinion shifts, institutional politics becomes very important. Those who have spent the time to develop the tools needed to shape and mold government will determine the future. This is true for any issue and especially for immigration.

In the short term, even before the public shifts, institutional politics may matter in important ways. There are “soft spots” where the application of political pressure may yield tangible consequences. For example, there may be a state where it may be relatively easier to pass some law that liberalizes immigration. It has been argued by some social scientists that this is an important source of social change. Small, incremental changes in policy eventually yield a new landscape.

So what, exactly, should open borders advocates do in the realm of routine politics? First, I suggest that the most dedicated among us consider running or voting in primaries. The primary election is one of the few places where a small group, like open borders activists, could have a notable impact. Primary elections are determined by thousands of voters, not millions. Most politicians are not accustomed to fighting primary battles and find the process very painful. Thus, even if you lose, you still win. You increase the cost of holding a closed borders positions, which means it is a harder position to hold. Once in a while, you might win the election.

Second, I suggest that open borders advocates contact elected officials because they are sensitive to public opinion. Politicians keep track of how many people call them. They know that most people don’t vote but that people who vote tend to make a lot of noise. A simple tactic, but one with a modest, but tangible, impact.

Third, I suspect that litigation is an untapped opportunity for open borders activists. Many social movements have succeeded by pursuing actions in court that either increase the cost of a policy or slowly undermine its legitimacy. For example, the Civil Rights movement began not with a complete argument about desegregation. They started with a much more modest argument – that separate but equal actually meant equal schools and facilities. Only later were Civil Rights lawyers able to argue that blacks and whites should be schooled together. Open borders activists should pursue some sort of strategy aimed at curtailing restrictive immigration law by slowly eroding the legal foundation of the whole system.

Protest and Other Disruptions

In the world of politics, “direct action” means things like protests, sit-ins, and other disruptive tactics. Direct action has both immediate and long term indirect effects. For example, the Civil Rights movement used boycotts to directly desegregate buses. Boycotts also had a more indirect effect – drawing the public’s attention to the general cause of equal rights.

Direct action is a relatively unexplored strategy for open borders advocates. There is a tradition of pro-immigrant rights marches and rallies, but not much else beyond that. For example, there are few boycotts aimed at people or institutions that support anti-immigration policies. One important exception is a boycott of Arizona that some groups announced in 2010 in response to the state law that required immigrants to carry papers or face misdemeanor charges. However, that boycott was limited in scope and seemed to have little effect. I believe that there is great potential in boycotts. If focused and coordinated, they do have an impact.

A more radical approach would be to develop an “underground railroad” for immigrants. Much in the same way that 19th century Americans harbored people who escaped slavery, open borders advocates might shelter people who are subject to the punitive rules against immigration. Other forms of radical direct action may include the non-violent disruption of deportations or actions designed to make immigration policy extremely difficult to carry out. These tactics should only be used if they appreciably promote the broader open borders cause in a non-violent way.


The point of my essay series is to get beyond argument and move toward action. While it is crucial that we question our assumptions, it is equally important to actually promote the change that we want to see because social change doesn’t by itself. Laws don’t write themselves and good intentions don’t win court cases. Rather, the political system only does the things that we force it to do. That is why it is vitally important for open borders advocates to think about action with the same level of care that they think about the abstract arguments for free migration.

Open borders will require a lot, not just creative blog posting. But that doesn’t mean that all of us need to get arrested at a protest. Some may do something as simple as wear an “open borders” badge, or give money to a group pushing for open borders. Other may choose to vote for a candidate. Others will desire a higher level of participation. They may run for office or even participate in protest. Whatever we choose to do, we should do it in a way that is thoughtful and geared towards realizing the specific goal of open borders.

6 thoughts on “Open borders: what to do about it (part 3)”

  1. What about direct action at border checkpoints? Put simply, whenever you happen to be returning to your own country after a trip abroad, rather than meekly handing over your passport, do something to disrupt the process. This could be as simple as telling the border guard (loudly, so the other people in the queue hear you) that you think what they are doing is immoral, right up to the sort of stunts and protests that are traditionally associated with the phrase “direct action”.
    As an example, IIRC the No Borders UK group tried producing a passport stating “This person is a human being, you should let him/her through” which members would then hand to border guards instead of their own passport.

    1. I like the UK group’s idea. How about calling it the “Human Passport.” It could look like a state passport, but instead of a country name, it would have “The Human Race” on the cover, and on the inside a photograph and other identifying information, plus an open borders manifesto.

      I also like the idea of running primary candidates. I wonder if it would be possible, in the 2014 elections, to organize a campaign to run a pro-DREAM Act primary candidate to run against every House GOP member who voted against the DREAM Act.

      Bumper stickers might also be a cheap way to spread the word. Maybe Open Borders: The Case should start a bumper sticker campaign?

      1. “Bumper stickers might also be a cheap way to spread the word. Maybe Open Borders: The Case should start a bumper sticker campaign?”

        This should be easy to do; allows you to order almost any design on almost any type of souvenir (T-shirt, mug, bumper sticker, you name it). BTW, I did a quick search and found that virtually every open borders-related accessory on CafePress is restrictionist.

  2. Here’s another practical idea. It would be an attempt to start a new American tradition. On the 4th of July, organize the erection of large papier-mache Statues of Liberty at all or many sites where firework displays are occurring. At the base of it, hand out pamphlets with names like “Nation of Immigrants” and “It’s Time to Remember What Freedom Means” and have musicians singing songs about immigration, and maybe choruses of “We Shall Overcome.” Ideally, the people standing around the base would be undocumented immigrants, ready to tell their stories.

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