Fourth-year priorities for Open Borders: The Case

As we celebrate three years since the founding of Open Borders: The Case, it’s a time to think more clearly and strategically about the next steps. Now that the site tops web search for open borders, gets a nontrivial amount of traffic, and has over 4000 Facebook likes, it’s time to work harder to improve the site’s quality and practical value to making open borders a reality. In this blog post, I describe some of my own priorities, as Open Borders: The Case founder, site administrator, and blogger, to help take the site and movement to the next level.

Complete the site revamp

A revamp of the site menus has long been in the works (the last update in the Open Borders Action Group was on December 28). There’s a lot of small things that need to be finished and cleaned up so that we can successfully wrap up the revamp. I hope to be done with the revamp in the next 2-6 weeks. Simplifying and improving the site structure can be crucial to attracting more people to it and helping them find content easily by navigating it.

Translation to Spanish

Noelia Rojo, who introduced herself to the Open Borders Action Group in December 2014, has agreed to work on a translation of the website into Spanish. She’ll begin working on the translation after I am done with the revamp. We hope to have it done by the end of this year.

More personal anecdote posts by people approaching migration from different vantage points, including people who don’t necessarily identify as pro-open borders

Some of our most popular posts have been our personal anecdote posts. Most of these posts have been written by one-time guest bloggers and occasional bloggers, rather than regular writers for the site. I’m hoping to expand to personal anecdote posts by people who may not themselves be migrants but have experience with other aspects of the migration system, perhaps as immigration lawyers or advocates or consular officers or enforcement agents, as well as people whose interaction with migration has been peripheral but who have nonetheless been influenced by their personal experiences to form opinions on the subject.

Move my own effort, as well as potentially that of other regular bloggers, to a deeper understanding of the status quo, the opportunity for marginal reform, and what these say about the long-term prospects for change

The personal anecdote posts by occasional and guest bloggers are part of a larger shift in vision that I outlined in an these two Open Borders Action Group posts. The upshot is that we are shifting to understanding hitherto undescribed aspects of the migration status quo, or exploring previously studied aspects from a new angle, with an eye to how change can be achieved in the short term, as well as the potential for laying the foundation for long-term change.

There are several types of exploration that fall within this broad category. Some that are most salient to me are listed below:

  • Exploration of current visa regimes, including regimes for high-skilled work visas, guest worker programs, family reunification, asylum, and the treatment of people in violation of immigration regulations. The high-skilled hacks series that I started earlier this year is an example. I also expect to do more one-off posts describing aspects of the de jure and de facto immigration regime similar to my posts on carrying Green Cards and the USCIS being funded by user fees.
  • Continued exploration of the “origins of immigration restrictions” series that co-blogger Chris Hendrix started in 2013 and began with a post on the Chinese Exclusion Act, and that I revived earlier this year.
  • A look at the efforts of philanthropic and advocacy organizations in the domain of immigration law and de facto practice. Our first post in this realm will be published fairly soon.

Related reading

I describe more of my own reasons for continued commitment to and interest in open borders in these posts:

These posts on open borders advocacy and what’s next for the movement are also relevant:

Open Borders Manifesto

Every year, we mark Open Borders Day on the 16th of March. We honour this day because, as Open Borders: The Case founder Vipul Naik puts it:

Open Borders Day is an occasion for us to step back from the status quo and imagine a radically different world. It’s a time for us to think not so much of the migrants in our midst, but rather, of the way our border regime shapes the world we live in, the moral argument for open borders, and how to get to a world with substantially freer migration.

This year, we are publishing a manifesto summarising the aims of our movement. The moral and empirical cases for free migration rest on a variety of premises and originate from a variety of worldviews. No document could hope to do all these justice in merely a few hundred words. Our intention in publishing this is to make our objectives clear, and set forth the principles that unite all of us who seek open borders — irrespective of our national, religious, ethnic, or ideological backgrounds.

We welcome signatories; if you would like to add yourself to the signatory list, please contact us (preferably via email: and provide your name, with professional or academic affiliations if applicable. The list of signatories published in this post will only be updated through the end of Open Borders Day, 16th March 2015. For an updated list of signatories after that date, refer to our Open Borders Manifesto page.

(If you are interested in the background of the manifesto’s drafting, you may refer to the following posts in the Open Borders Action Group: Nathan Smith’s on 6 March 2015, John Lee’s on 6 March 2015, Nathan Smith’s on 9 March 2015, and John Lee’s on 14 March 2015.)

Open Borders Manifesto

Freedom of movement is a basic liberty that governments should respect and protect unless justified by extenuating circumstances. This extends to movement across international boundaries.

International law and many domestic laws already recognise the right of any individual to leave his or her country. This right may only be circumscribed in extreme circumstances, where threats to public safety or order are imminent.

We believe international and domestic law should similarly extend such protections to individuals seeking to enter another country. Although there may be times when governments should treat foreign nationals differently from domestic citizens, freedom of movement and residence are fundamental rights that should only be circumscribed when the situation absolutely warrants.

The border enforcement status quo is both morally unconscionable and economically destructive. Border controls predominantly restrict the movement of people who bear no ill intentions. Most of the people legally barred from moving across international borders today are fleeing persecution or poverty, desire a better job or home, or simply want to see the city lights.

The border status quo bars ordinary people from pursuing the life and opportunity they desire, not because they lack merit or because they pose a danger to others. Billions of people are legally barred from realising their full potential and ambitions purely on the basis of an accident of birth: where they were born. This is both a drain on the economic and innovative potential of human societies across the world, and indefensible in any order that recognises the moral worth and dignity of every human being.

We seek legal and policy reforms that will reduce and eventually remove these bars to movement for billions of ordinary people around the world. The economic toll of the modern restrictive border regime is vast, the human toll incalculable. To end this, we do not need a philosopher’s utopia or a world government. As citizens and human beings, we only demand accountability from our own governments for the senseless immigration laws that they enact in our name. Border controls should be minimised to only the extent required to protect public health and security. International borders should be open for all to cross, in both directions.

Signatories, listed in alphabetical order by surname:

  • Thorvald Aagaard, Associate Professor, Director of Theater, Pacific Union College
  • Brian C. Albrecht, PhD candidate, Economics, University of Minnesota
  • Pedro H. Albuquerque, Associate Professor, KEDGE Business School
  • Jesús Alfaro, Professor of Law, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
  • Shanu Athiparambath
  • Ben Bachrach
  • Dave Barnes
  • David Bennion, Attorney
  • Daniel Bier
  • Niklas Blanchard, PhD candidate, Human Capital Management, Bellevue University
  • Luke Blanshard
  • Joseph Bonneau, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Computer Science, Stanford University
  • Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Sam Bowman, Deputy Director, Adam Smith Institute
  • Jason Brennan, Assistant Professor, Philosophy, Georgetown University
  • Steve Buller
  • Jason Lee Byas, Fellow, Center for a Stateless Society
  • Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Leonel Caraciki
  • Ryan Carey
  • Simon Cartledge
  • Richard Yetter Chappell, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of York
  • Grieve Chelwa, PhD candidate, Economics, University of Cape Town
  • Lars Christensen
  • Andrew Jason Cohen, Associate Professor, Philosophy, Georgia State University
  • Phillip Cole, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of West of England
  • Paul Crider
  • Christopher Dobrogosz
  • Bryan Joseph Dodson
  • Eli Dourado
  • Charles DuHadway
  • Robert Eckerson, Attorney
  • Margaret A. Elberson
  • Ross B. Emmett, Professor of Political Economy and Political Theory & Constitutional Democracy, James Madison College, Michigan State University
  • Mustafa Erdogan, Professor of Political and Constitutional Theory, Istanbul Commerce University
  • Bryan T. Fine
  • Nicholas Fletcher
  • Scott Freeman
  • Joshua Gans, Jeffrey S. Skoll Chair of Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Toronto
  • Giuseppe Germinario
  • Casey C. Glick, Graduate Researcher in Physics, UC Berkeley
  • Zachary Gochenour, Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics, Western Carolina University
  • Nathan Goodman, Lysander Spooner Research Scholar in Abolitionist Studies at the Center for a Stateless Society
  • Maithreyi Gopalan, Ph.D. candidate, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University
  • Manick Govinda, Visiting Artists Co-ordinator, Manifesto Club
  • Jameson Graber
  • Joe Green, Associate Professor of Political Science, Dixie State University
  • Priscila Guinovart
  • Jeff Hallman
  • Robin Hanson, Associate Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Mikael Hellstrom, Instructor, Political Science, University of Alberta
  • Christopher Hendrix
  • Javier S. Hidalgo, Assistant Professor, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond
  • Fergus Hodgson, Editor-in-Chief, PanAm Post
  • Jeffrey Horn
  • Steven Horwitz, Charles A. Dana Professor and Chair, Department of Economics, St. Lawrence University
  • Michael Huemer, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Colorado
  • Giancarlo Ibarguen, Former President, Universidad Francisco Marroquín
  • Tom Jackson
  • Peter Martin Jaworski, Assistant Teaching Professor, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University
  • Scott A. Jenks, Instructor, Department of Medicine, Emory University
  • Nathan Jones
  • Emmanuelle Baya Julien
  • Valdenor M. Brito Júnior, Attorney
  • Angela Keaton
  • Rick Kelo
  • William Kiely
  • Milo King
  • Gavin A. Kitchens
  • Thomas L. Knapp, Director, William Lloyd Garrison Center
  • Anna Krupitsky
  • Chandran Kukathas, Chair of Political Theory, Department of Government, London School of Economics
  • Michelangelo Geovanny Landgrave Lara
  • Daniele Latella
  • Mark LeBar
  • John Lee
  • Daniel Lin, Professorial Lecturer, American University
  • Anthony Ling, Editor-in-Chief, Caos Planejado
  • Raffaele Lo Moro
  • Ryan P. Long
  • Roderick T. Long, Professor of Philosophy, Auburn University and President, Molinari Institute
  • Ray Lopez
  • Trent MacDonald, PhD candidate, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University
  • Pedro Magalhães, Attorney and PhD candidate, Law and Economics, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
  • Akiva Malamet
  • Rafael Bortoluzzi Massaiol
  • Kevin McGartland
  • Jeremy McLellan
  • Justin Merrill
  • Jared Meyer, Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
  • Gary Miguel
  • Walter Morris, Director, Acton School of Ballet
  • Joe Munson
  • Darren Nah, PhD candidate, Politics, Yale University
  • Vipul Naik
  • Janet Neilson, Program Developer, Institute for Liberal Studies
  • Chad Nelson, Attorney and Fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society
  • Sebastian Nickel
  • Eric Nielsen
  • Joel Newman
  • Federico Oliveri, Research Fellow, Sciences for Peace Interdisciplinary Centre, University of Pisa
  • Yaël Ossowski, Programs Director, European Students for Liberty
  • George Pareja
  • Andrew Pearson
  • Alicia Perez
  • Graham Peterson, PhD candidate, Sociology, University of Chicago
  • Kaveh Pourvand, PhD candidate, Political Theory, London School of Economics
  • Shaun Raviv
  • Jose L. Ricon
  • Dylan Risenhoover
  • Fabio Rojas, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Indiana University
  • John Roccia
  • Trish Ruebottom, Assistant Professor, Goodman School of Business, Brock University
  • Antonio Saravia, Assistant Professor of Economics and Director, BB&T Center for Undergraduate Research in Public Policy and Capitalism, Mercer University
  • Paul Sas
  • Philip Saunders
  • Yaakov Schatz
  • Eric Schmidt
  • James Schumacher
  • Andrew Scobie
  • Hafiz Noor Shams, Founding Associate, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs
  • Joshua Shurley, PhD candidate, Politics, University of Manchester
  • Sarah Skwire, Fellow, Liberty Fund, Inc.
  • Ben Smith
  • Evelyn Smith
  • Nathan Smith, Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance at Fresno Pacific University
  • Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at the George Mason University School of Law
  • Piero Stanig, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Università Bocconi
  • Marilyn Steffen
  • Wouter Stekelenburg
  • Barry Stocker, Assistant Professor in Philosophy, Istanbul Technical University
  • Drew Stonebraker
  • Scott Sumner, Professor, Economics, Bentley University
  • Kyle Swan, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, California State University Sacramento
  • Alex Tabarrok, Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
  • Batur Talu
  • Laron Tamaye
  • Fernando R. Tesón, Tobias Simon Eminent Scholar, Florida State University
  • Bas Van der Vossen, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosopy, UNC Greensboro
  • Brian Wagers
  • Tyler Walker
  • Hansjörg Walther
  • Ladan Weheliye
  • Nicholas Weininger
  • Christoph Widenhorn
  • Michael Wiebe, PhD candidate, Economics, University of British Columbia
  • Samuel Wilson
  • Stephen Winkler
  • Barrett Young
  • Zachary Yost
  • David Zetland, Assistant Professor of Economics, Leiden University College
  • Matt Zwolinski, Associate Professor, Philosophy, University of San Diego

Reminder: The above list was current as of Open Borders Day, 16 March 2015. For the current list of signatories, refer to our Open Borders Manifesto page. If you are interested in attaching your name to this declaration, please contact us (preferably via email: and provide your name, with professional or academic affiliations if applicable.

Three years of open borders

Open Borders Day is held every year on March 16, to commemorate the founding of the site on March 16, 2012. Given the global nature of the website, celebration starts at the beginning of Monday, March 16, GMT+12, and ends at the end of Monday, March 16, GMT-12. That gives us 48 hours to celebrate the day. So officially, the day has already begun!

Since the last Open Borders Day, the site has grown considerably in content as well as in engagement.

  • In the last 365 days, Google Analytics recorded about 283,000 pageviews for the site, compared to 159,000 for the previous 365-day period.
  • Our Facebook like count has increased from about 1125 just before the last Open Borders Day to 4315 at the start of this Open Borders Day.
  • The Open Borders Action Group has grown from about 200 members to over 900 members. Some of our most popular posts hae been published in the last year, and some of our older content has continued to do well and acquire canonical reference status.
  • Since at least July 2014, our site has been the top search result for open borders.

The site’s status as the hub of the open borders movement makes these metrics particularly important as gauges of the growth of the open borders movement, but success is ultimately measured by more than engagement and pageviews. It’s measured by our ability to influence public opinion and policy. In the last year, we have started planning a shift towards covering more of the migration status quo and better understanding opportunities for marginal change that are aligned with a long-term vision of open borders. We’ll do a separate blog post soon about plans for the coming year.

As site founder and blogger Vipul Naik wrote a month back, Open Borders Day differs from the ostensibly similar International Migrants Day, in that the former focuses on a long-term vision of a very different world than today: a world where migration is unremarkable and largely unfettered. We are very far from this world, but the potential gains from such a move are large enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Stay tuned for more Open Borders Day updates! In the meantime, here are some links to check out:

If you’re new to the site …

Begin with:

Tracing the site’s growth

  • Site story describes the story of how the site grew internally (including the addition of each new blogger).
  • External coverage lists main external coverage of the site, starting from launch till now.
  • We’ve done monthly reviews since November 2014. You can see all our monthly reviews using our month in review tag.

The most popular site content

This stuff has been popular in the past, so it’s a good place if you’re looking for stuff to share. The stuff is not necessarily representative of the rest of our site.

Other stuff to check out

PS: If you’re interested in writing for Open Borders: The Case, check out our potential guest blogger contact form (you might want to read this blog post for some context).

Pure open borders and keyhole solutions: is the distinction semantically valid?

This post builds on my preceding post not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions. Although it’s not necessary to read that post first, doing so would provide better context for understanding this post.

The keyhole solutions page on our site dates back to the site’s inception, and discussion and comparison of different keyhole solutions has been an important part of our site and blog since then. The basic idea behind keyhole solutions: for any identifiable problem, try to find a solution that addresses the problem as specifically and narrowly as possible, while not forbidding or restricting other actions. For instance, if the concern is that immigrants’ use of welfare benefits will lead to fiscal bankruptcy, placing and enforcing stronger restrictions on immigrant welfare access would be the keyhole solution that allows migration, preserves the existing welfare state for existing users, and allegedly solves the alleged problem. More at the keyhole solutions page.

My co-blogger Nathan Smith had devised his favorite keyhole solution, Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It (DRITI), long before Open Borders: The Case existed.

Does the site advocate keyhole solutions? Not officially, but it’s clear that we give them serious consideration as one of the alternatives to pure open borders as a way of liberalizing migration. In one of the first systematic explorations of the subject, I noted that there are six possible rank-order preferences one might have between “pure” open borders, open borders with keyhole solutions, and the closed borders-ish status quo. For any keyhole solution A, the three options being ranked are:

  1. Open borders without keyhole solution A (that one might loosely call “pure” open borders).
  2. Open borders with keyhole solution A.
  3. Closed borders and/or status quo.

This loose trichotomy (pure open borders, open borders with keyhole solutions, and closed borders) has been loosely endorsed by other bloggers on the site, such as Samuel Wilson in his discussion of moral intuitions and the euvoluntary principle in connection with open borders, myself in my discussion of the permissibility, desirability, feasibility, and stability of keyhole solutions, and Paul Crider in his critique of keyhole solutions. Paul offers a great summary of keyhole solutions before taking them down (which, in the above jargon, means endorsing (1) > (2) > (3) over (2) > (1) > (3)).

Implicit in this discussion is the view that some approaches to a more liberal migration policy are identifiable as (closer to) pure open borders whereas others are identifiable as keyhole regimes. Broadly, this is true, which is why my post, and Paul’s, make eminent sense. And I think that keyhole solutions are an important idea in the lexicon of people thinking about realistic regimes with substantially more liberal migration policies than exist today. However, I think that the distinction between pure open borders regimes and keyhole regimes is quite fuzzy. But first, a little detour.

Keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restriction

As I discuss at more length in my post not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions, there are actually three slightly different types of policy adjustments and compromises that often get put in the broad bucket of keyhole solutions:

  1. The first addresses the perceived problem at the intersection of migration status and welfare eligibility. Prima facie, this targets the problem most narrowly and is most deserving of the “keyhole solution” label. I’ll call this type of solution a true keyhole solution.
  2. The second addresses the problem but focuses on the broader issue of welfare use and welfare eligibility. Rather than focusing on migrants per se, it addresses a potential problem that is made more severe due to migration flow, but it addresses it in a way that does not per se discriminate on the basis of migration status. I’ll call this type of solution a complementary policy change.
  3. The third seeks to preserve the status quo as far as possible with respect to domestic policy, and addresses the potentially dangerous interaction with migration by forbidding the forms of migration perceived as risky. I’ll call this type of solution a blanket restriction.

Ceteris is not paribus: some mathematical background

(This section doesn’t strictly require, but can benefit from, broad familiarity with the concept of derivatives and multivariable calculus).

In economics and the social sciences, it is customary to consider questions of the form “ceteris paribus, how does a change in variable x affect variable u?” Here, ceteris paribus is understood to mean “other variables being left unchanged.” The concept of partial derivative is a particular encapsulation of this idea of trying to isolate the effect of one variable on another while holding the remaining variables constant.

Back when I taught multivariable calculus to economics majors, I used to emphasize the important fact that the concept of ceteris paribus is ill-defined, because the choice of “other variables” that you keep constant heavily depends on how you coordinatize the system (you can read more here, and also watch the embedded videos). The “real-world” example discussed on the page is quoted below (and isn’t directly related to migration, but will help illustrate the general line of argument):

Suppose a country’s military spending is determined by just two factors: its per capita GDP and its population. We want to study the relationship between per capita GDP and military spending.

There are two sensible ways (among many) of trying to do this:

  • Study the relationship between per capita GDP and military spending holding population constant. In other words, take the partial derivative with respect to per capita GDP holding population constant. In this case, we are thinking of military spending as a function of the two variables: per capita GDP, and population.
  • Study the relationship between per capita GDP and military spending holding total GDP constant. Prima facie, this is similar to the previous one, because total GDP is just a product of per capita GDP and population. However, what we have done effectively is consider a partial derivative of the function in a new coordinate system, where the two variables of interest are: per capita GDP, and (per capita GDP) times (population).

The point is that the partial derivatives will have different expressions depending on what we hold constant.

Ceteris is not paribus: the problem of distinguishing between “pure” open borders and a compromised solution

In the simplest telling, pure open borders refers to a situation where we “just open the borders” and keep all other policies essentially unchanged. Keyhole solutions (viewed broadly) involve opening the borders but making some changes to policies. These changes could be true keyhole solutions (operating at the intersection of migration and the relevant domestic policy), complementary policy changes (such as changes to general rules for welfare eligibility or changes to the minimum wage), or blanket restrictions on some types of migration.

However, this raises the question: what are those other things that we hold constant? If nothing else, open borders will lead to changes in the size of the population in many countries, and sometimes quite significant changes. What would it mean, for instance, to say that we open the borders without changing any policies or rules related to the welfare state? There are many possible interpretations:

  • The rules for welfare eligibility, and the size of welfare benefits per capita for recipient, remains the same.
  • The total size of the welfare state (i.e., the amount of money allocated to pay for welfare benefits) stays the same, or stays the same relative to the population, or stays the same relative to the size of the economy.
  • The total number of welfare recipients remains the same, or remains the same relative to the population size.

These are all different senses of “staying the same.” In most contexts, these differences don’t matter much (or at least, don’t appear to matter much) because the overall global changes to the relevant quantities aren’t very large. However, if open borders is going to be a big deal, then it likely won’t be possible to hold all of these constant or even close to constant. Once we concede that not all aspects of existing policy regimes can be held constant, the conceptual distinction between pure open borders and keyhole solutions becomes more tenuous. Both “pure open borders” and “keyhole solution”-type policies offer plausible descriptions of a world with more liberal migration that nonetheless preserve or inherit some features from the status quo. Calling one set of policies “pure open borders” is mostly about exercising a value judgment regarding which features are central to and represent the essence of the system.

Similarly, consider minimum wage policies (the minimum wage is a topic that has been discussed extensively in the Open Borders Action Group, and we intend to do blog posts about it). Again, there are many different ways in which we can consider minimum wage levels:

  1. We can think of them as associated with specific currency units, not adjusted for inflation. So a minimum wage of $8/hour remains a minimum wage of $8/hour even if the dollar depreciates significantly in value.
  2. We can think of a minimum wage in terms of the associated consumption basket, i.e., indexed for cost of living.
  3. We can set the minimum wage in relation to median wage levels.
  4. We can set a minimum wage threshold based on the maximum amount of unemployment we are willing to tolerate.

There are arguably many different ways of thinking about the appropriate level of a minimum wage (and whether there should be a minimum wage at all). Our choice of preferred rationale for justifying the status quo will determine what sort of minimum wage regime we’d like to see in an open borders world.

For those who simply think of the minimum wage in terms of a currency unit, little head-scratching needs to be done. For those who associate minimum wages with consumption baskets, median wages, or tolerable levels of unemployment, however, the nature of changes under open borders could be quite different. Migration can change the cost of living structure by making some services cheaper and others more expensive. Thus, cost-of-living calculations could change quite a bit. Median wage levels could change both because the wages of existing residents change and because of compositional effects arising from inclusion of the new migrants. Finally, given differences in the skill level of migrants compared to natives, the minimum wage would probably need to be reduced to maintain a similar unemployment rate to the status quo.

With all that said …

I don’t want to exaggerate how dramatic open borders would be. I think a fairly liberal migration regime is fairly consistent with the nation-state roughly as we know it, and while it might push the world to a “no borders” condition over the long run, that won’t happen in short order. But a lot of the specifics will change, in ways that are somewhat but not entirely predictable, and in some cases not pretty. Thus, the concept of “pure” open borders (“just open the borders and don’t touch anything else”) is not as clear-cut as we might naively presuppose. At the end of the day, a policy implementation has to consider many other existing policies in conjunction with changes to migration levels.

With that said, it is still possible to advocate purely for open borders, without advocating for the concept of pure open borders. When I say “advocate purely for open borders” I mean advocate for change in the direction of open borders, without being picky about the specifics, and being flexible about the selection of specifics based on more detailed context-specific empirical analysis. This might mean advocating for changes that could go in directions you consider more “pure” versions of open borders, or advocating in directions you consider more like keyhole solutions or open borders with complementary policies.

Related reading

In addition to inline links within the blog post, check out:

How my day in Wagah led me to rethink borders

This post continues the personal anecdote series on the site. The series includes pieces both by people who are active supporters of open borders and by people who aren’t directly involved but have formed opinions on the issue informed by their personal experience. This blog post is of the latter kind. The author is a middle-aged female who has lived all her life in India, and the post is being published anonymously at her request.

As a young schoolgirl growing up in India, I assumed borders were fixed and necessary. In geography classes I drew them on maps as dark lines and then shaded and labeled the two sides in different ways. I considered foreign countries as the “other,” especially Pakistan, because I had lived through two Indo-Pak wars. Soon after the 1965 war, when my father was transferred to a military station not far from the border, neighbors showed us a bombed church and the cellars they had used during air raids to stay safe. During the dramatic 1971 war that split Pakistan, I was older and living in Delhi. I remember rushing around putting off lights when the siren sounded. And huddling over a small transistor radio all day to get updates. Later, I was one of the school kids who lined the road to welcome the leader of the newly formed Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman when he arrived in Delhi to meet the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Even otherwise, life was full of comparisons with Pakistan, and quarrelling kids would be told not to fight like “India-Pakistan.”

It took a trip to Punjab with my parents to get me thinking about what borders mean.

I was in my teens and visiting Amritsar with my parents when my father suggested going to Wagah (on the border with Pakistan) because he had some work there. This was just a few years after the 1971 Indo-Pak war and I asked my father whether it would be safe. He laughed.

By Kamran Ali
The evening flag lowering ceremony at the India-Pakistan International Border near Wagah. Taken from the Pakistani side. By Kamran Ali. Source. Licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0

My mental image of what a border should be like was vague and uninformed—something impenetrable, something clearly separating two countries that had fought wars. The border I saw the next day was so commonplace that I can’t remember any details. What remains in my memory is my utter disbelief that the land on the other side of the gate, so nearby and similar, was Pakistan. Men from the two sides were exchanging mail bags in a normal, everyday manner.

My mother noticed my surprise. Half-exasperated, half-amused, she asked, “What did you expect?”

I felt downright foolish. What difference had I expected to manifest itself suddenly across a border? But surely a border should be more secure. I asked her why we didn’t have tall walls with barbed wire and broken glass and with the army guarding the entire length of the border. She asked me if I had thought about how very long the border was and whether that would be practical (It’s 2900 km, according to Wikipedia).

On the way back, and for the weeks that followed, my mind kept slipping back to that glimpse of the Wagah border.

All our relatives and friends were from North India and had been affected, in small or big ways, by the 1947 Partition of India but they rarely talked about their tragedies and losses except in hushed tones when they thought the children were not listening. My mother, for example, had spent part of her childhood in a city now in Pakistan. I knew many families that had hurriedly migrated to India during the Partition. I tried imagining a village getting split into two because a border now ran through it, families either divided across countries, or forced to leave their homes, abandoning most of their belongings and objects gathered over generations. The tragedies depicted in fiction based on the Partition moved out of the pages of story books and into my heart.

Back then, in the 1970s, we had no Google search or Wikipedia pages to satisfy our fleeting curiosity. We had to scout around for relevant books and articles, or pester elders, and our curiosity had to cross a threshold to make such perseverance worthwhile. Yet, even though I moved on to other areas of interest, there was a shift in how I thought, not just about Pakistan, but about countries, borders, immigration, and patriotism in general.

I began realizing that nations may be created overnight based on emphasizing some aspects of identity (such as language spoken, religion, borders of older kingdoms, geographical features like mountains, rivers, and seas) through hastily re-arranged populations and enforced borders but the emotions of people are not so easy to change and that a lot of the silence or rhetoric around that division is based on frustration, bewilderment, pain, and loss. Citizenship began seeming more like chance, a combination of history and time and space, rather than a person’s intrinsic characteristic, and while I appreciated that countries needed borders and laws around them, I started thinking of the rigidity and emotional fervor around the sanctity, shape and impenetrability of borders as excessive.

I had changed in small ways. For example, while watching a match of cricket, a sport passionately followed both in India and Pakistan, I cheered more often based on the quality of the game rather than the country playing. India’s performance in a match did not seem tied to my core identity. I no longer felt either “proud” or “ashamed” of being an Indian. My being Indian was just a fact of my life. There seemed no logical reason to believe that my country was better than others merely because I was born here. Paradoxically, I was more open-hearted in my appreciation of significant Indian milestones because that was based on genuine evaluation rather than pre-scripted loyalty.

Many of my peers had started going abroad for higher education and jobs driven by practical factors like available opportunities and quality of life. They were opting for resident status outside India, things like green cards or citizenship. I wondered how they felt while taking the oath of citizenship of another country and how they emotionally reconciled it with a childhood spent singing the Indian national anthem, and expressing pride in India’s culture and heritage.

Much has changed in the four decades since I saw the Wagah border. Information is more easily available. Borders seem superfluous when surfing the Internet, except when countries ban certain sites, a rude reminder of reality. We know far more about life in other countries than we did a few decades ago, and many prominent products and brands are available in all countries. International travel is easier and more common, and many families are scattered across the globe. When my peers express fears that their children may not return to India, I tell them that our children’s generation does not view moving between countries and settling in one country as against another as a major emotional decision. They choose their location based on multiple factors that include quality of life, type of jobs, convenience, and so on. That they were born or brought up in a country is just one of the several criteria.

The hitches in mobility across borders jar more in this interconnected world. Time and again I hear of persons working outside India being tense because their stay abroad depends on that country’s rules and quotas rather than on their productivity and contribution to its society.  That seems a suboptimal way for the world to run, maybe suboptimal even for the country enforcing the rules.

To me, borders seem somewhat arbitrary, whether of countries or smaller geographic units. Once, on a visit to a small and beautiful hill station (in North India) I saw large notices declaring that “outsiders” could not buy land and build in that town because that would involve chopping trees and clearing land, thus spoiling the natural beauty. Interestingly, the officials in the town’s governing body had moved to that town just a few decades ago, and had bought and cleared land there to build their elaborate houses. It seems self-serving when current residents of a place label future migrants as outsiders, although they, too, are migrants.

Borders don’t just demarcate and divide and keep people out, they are the cause of simmering or outright conflict. Reminders of their existence pop up at unexpected times, even for persons like me who rarely cross borders.

Recently, when preparing a presentation for an international conference, I was looking for a map to illustrate country-wise data. I had often read of some issues of international magazines getting banned in India because they depicted the Indian map wrongly. On surfing the Internet I realized that this (‘wrong’) depiction was the one used all over the world. If I selected a map consistent with what my fellow-countrymen expected, the map would not match what persons from other countries expected, especially those from neighboring countries. And if I used the one that the international audience was familiar with, the Indians would be uncomfortable.

On a somewhat philosophical note, it puzzles me that people assume that borders are a given, that they must exist, and that the only debate is on who can cross them and when and how. My attempts to discuss issues around borders with peers have resulted in my being stared at as though I were weird, maybe even (gulp) unpatriotic and thus a bad person.

Many countries, especially democracies, have legislations prohibiting discrimination based on race, age, religion, and gender. Discussions on topics like gender-discrimination, racism, ageism, and communalism can be openly found–some emotional and even confrontational, and others well-reasoned and insightful.

But discrimination based on place of birth and citizenship is accepted as reasonable, moral, and good. Each country wants to guard its resources and therefore promotes patriotism and pride in one’s country through the education system, laws, and other mechanisms. Society promotes this. As a result, we consider the welfare of our country more important than that of the world as a whole.

I am now in my fifties and I have not been outside India except for a few, very short trips. My current day-to-day life is not particularly affected by the existence of borders or the rules around them. I do not know enough about “open borders” to take a position on their desirability or wisdom. This is not one of the causes that I am active in. But I consider this area important enough for serious discussions, and not just confined to activists or people directly affected by immigration. Such discussions could be part of developing systems that work for what is better for the world as a whole.

Related reading

This section was added by the Open Borders editorial staff to provide more background for readers interested in the material,
See more posts in our personal anecdote series.

Other posts related to themes touched on in the piece:

Some related site background pages:

  • We use the term citizenism (coined by immigration critic Steve Sailer) to describe the idea that government policy, particularly immigration policy, should favor the interests of current citizens.

For more on how the Indo-Pak border was actually drawn, check out Wikipedia’s page on the Radcliffe Line.

Here’s an advertisement by Google Search intended to highlight the power of technology to help people reunite across borders:

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