Immigration Reform or Revolution?

The idea of unconditionally open international borders, and entirely free migration across them, faces a great deal of resistance. Resistance comes, not only from the right,1 but from those on the left who may support the notion, but fear that vociferous advocacy for border abolition will sabotage the hopes of incremental reform by stoking a xenophobia that empowers its opponents.2 It is true that if we advocate for the abolition of migration restrictions, we may fail to reach our goal. But if we refuse to advocate for them at all, we are certain never to. The surest way to kill radical change is to stay silent about radical ideas. Border abolitionism needs more than just sympathizers, it needs proponents unafraid to make themselves spokespersons. As Rosa Luxemburg, the nineteenth century Jewish-Polish Marxist, pointed out, it matters tremendously whether we voice support for reform or revolution.

In Rosa Luxemburg’s 1899 pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, she challenged the moderatism of Eduard Bernstein, a Marxist contemporary of Luxemburg’s who believed that capitalism could be overcome through incremental reform.3 Luxemburg’s chief admonition in the pamphlet was that reform, when accepted as the means to a revolutionary end, risks becoming the end goal itself. The danger of the revolutionary who embraces moderate incrementalism is that they become moderates who disavow revolution. 

Our program becomes not the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the system of wage labor, but the dimunation of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself.4

Those resisting any form of oppression, not just capitalism, should hearken to Luxemburg’s warning. It raises salient questions for those struggles against oppressive systems in which structural change feels further away than ever and there is anxiety about alienating moderates: should we engage with the project of that system’s reform, or should we endorse its abolition? 

Luxemburg’s question seems always to be hanging in the air for those of us who support the opening or abolition of national borders. Must we choose between incremental “immigration reform,” and a real right to migrate? A few have come forward as notable carriers of the open-borders banner, such as New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo.5 There may be many more who, though silent, have been asking themselves Luxemburg’s question— closet border abolitionists who would tomorrow protect migration as the inalienable right of all, but do not think it politically acceptable to say so today. That was the kind of socialist Luxemburg was speaking to in her pamphlet, and that is the kind of “immigrant rights advocate” I want to speak to here: the person who wants to endorse an open border, but fears doing so. I hope Rosa will give that person a reason to participate in an anti-border revolution that needs their voice.

Reform is Sisyphean

Consider Rosa’s point that reform is Sisyphean. Luxemburg characterizes efforts to reform capitalism, such as labor unions, as labors of Sisyphus in that the incremental changes they achieve are often rolled back by the inherent injustices in the capitalist system that remains despite reforms.6  Luxemburg acknowledges that reforms like unions, while necessary to saving lives, are insufficient to eliminate systemic oppression. 

The problem with reforming an immigration law is that merely changing the way we exclude people fails to challenge the notion that the state has the right to exclude people at all. This concession keeps the inherent injustice of exclusion intact, justifying future revocations of otherwise progressive reforms. As author Natasha King points out about amnesties, a reform commonly thought of by progressives as a step forward, they historically accomplish little more than justifying tighter restrictions after they are passed.7 The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was a progressive reform for its time (among other things, it eliminated explicitly racist grounds for deportation)8 but by 1996 a host of new exclusionary rules made the law much more restrictive,9 among them measures that would grow the migrant prison camp system under each successive President.10 In 1979, 2,000 people were imprisoned on immigration charges on a given day in the United States, a number that has risen steadily over the decades and is today over 52,000.11 In 2013 congress seriously debated an “immigration reform” bill establishing lawful status for millions living without it12 – but today it is debating bills taking away legal status from many who have enjoyed it for decades.13

Changes that allow some to enter but fail to establish an inalienable right to migrate for all, are only temporary. Within them lies the seed of their undoing because they reinforce the idea that the nation state has the authority to discriminate on account of birthplace and ancestry. Our unwillingness to identify an open border as our goal concedes authority to the lies that undergird the immigration system’s brutality – that the state has the right to exclude and that no one has a right to migrate. Without abolition, we lose the war before we can even win the battle. 

Borders are Anti-Democratic

The fight to destroy the border is the fight to save democracy. Luxemburg dismisses Bernstein’s notion that democracy and capitalism are compatible. “He who renounces the struggle for socialism, renounces both the labor movement and democracy.”14 Here, Luxemburg challenged the notion that inherently oppressive systems can coexist with the principals of equality and personal liberty that characterize democracy.

A closed border, and the presuppositions that enforce its closure, must be called out as incompatible with democracy today. As other movements against other forms of oppression have recognized, excluding any group of people from an allegedly democratic order means we have no democracy at all. 15 The conventional view is that “democracy requires a bounded polity whose members exercise self-determination including control over their own boundaries.” 16 But some, like academics Nandita Sharma, Bridget Anderson, Cynthia Wright17 and Arash Abizadeh,18 have pointed out an inherent contradiction between maintaining a democratic order based on equality and personal freedom on the one hand, and the brutal social caste and deportation which the conventional “bounded polity” demands on the other. “Anyone who accepts a genuinely democratic theory of political legitimation domestically,” Abizadeh writes, “is thereby committed to rejecting the unilateral domestic right to control and close the state’s boundaries.”19 The only true democratic order is one in which no border exists to diminish the rights and liberties of some. This understanding is missing from most mainstream “immigrant rights” conversations, who limit themselves to practical or moral arguments against migration restrictions,20 and lack the insight of Luxemburg’s exhortation that the survival of democracy is itself on the line. 

Because democracy itself is endangered, Luxemburg’s other democratic point is that the fight against capitalism is not just about the liberation of workers. Similarly, the fight against the border is not just about the liberation of migrants. The right to migrate is no more reserved for those migrating than, say, the right to free speech is only for those speaking – like all rights if they are not ensured for those invoking them today, they will not exist for those who must call upon them tomorrow. “Immigrant” and “refugee” are identities assigned randomly by geography and time – any one of us could find ourselves tomorrow outside our state of citizenship fleeing violence, chasing work, or pulled by love. As they say, our liberation is bound up with the liberation of others. Border abolition is a fight for liberty itself, against the idea of caste itself, and none of us can be whole or truly free until that fight is won. 

Reform is for the Privileged 

Those of us who are safe have no authority to ask those in danger to wait for safety. Luxemburg describes Bernstein as out of touch with workers, and unfit to speak for them.21  She is reminding us that privilege is relevant to the moral authority with which one resists change. The privileged person who is not affected by immigration restrictions possesses questionable moral authority to oppose border abolition. I have no place asking those imprisoned because of where they were born to wait for liberty; I cannot ask the parent who seeks through movement to improve the lot of their children to wait for better lives; and it is indefensible for me, from my safe position, to ask those fleeing violence to wait for safety. 

The right to migrate is a right precisely because it commands with urgency a freedom which must be ensured now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., making the abolitionist argument against American apartheid, condemned calls to wait for farer political weather, reminding the privileged that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”22 The privileged citizen will advocate for the end of migration controls of every kind, or that person will ally themselves with the violence of deportation – but there is no middle ground. These are the high stakes Luxemburg is asking her readers to own.

Borders are not Sustainable

Closed borders are also not sustainable. One of Luxemburg’s primary reasons for rejecting Bernstein’s incrementalism was her disagreement with his view that capitalism could be improved upon, that is, made politically sustainable. Luxemburg believed capitalism was inherently self-destructive, no matter how much this or that reform allegedly softened its edges. Bernstein argued that capitalism could manage its own internal contradictions, and the modern acceptance of closed borders asks us to believe the same. But as discussed above, there is an inherent contradiction between maintaining a society in which democracy and equality are supposed to be bedrock principles and surrounding that society with a border that creates a sub-class of human beings who are not equal and cannot participate in that democracy. Eventually one of those forces begins to destroy the other. 

The unsustainability of these inherent contradictions of exclusionary institutions like borders, and even citizenship itself, is something Hannah Arendt pointed out in her 1954 work The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt argued that immigration and citizenship law inevitably create a population of rightless “stateless” individuals, who lack even the right to have rights.23 She wrote that the lack of status for members of this group inevitably becomes corrosive to the entire democratic integrity of the society.24 Arendt identified the rightless legal status of political refugees as among the conditions in post-First World War Europe that facilitated the rise of totalitarianism there: 

Once a number of stateless people were admitted to an otherwise normal country, statelessness spread like a contagious disease. Not only were naturalized citizens in danger of reverting to the status of statelessness, but living conditions for all aliens markedly deteriorated.25

The longer we have normalized and accepted closed borders, the greater danger they have posed to the liberty of both non-citizens and citizens alike, as Arendt predicted. 

The exclusionary treatment of non-citizens has only deepened from the time that exclusion was accepted as law. Closed borders are themselves an historically recent phenomenon barely older than Coca Cola – there were effectively no federal immigration laws in the United States prior to 1875,26 and not even any U.S. border patrol until 1924.27 As author Teresa Hayter reminds us of migration restrictions, “[f]ar from being a natural feature of the political landscape, they are a relatively recent and disastrous distortion of it.“28 Yet the first closed borders of the late nineteenth century have given us fortress Europe and the mass carceral-deportation machine of Obama and Trump. Where once people crossed painlessly from country to country, now thousands die annually attempting to cross the deserts of North America and the seas of Europe. The number held in prison camps only rises with the passing of time. By the time Reagan was president, the open door of Ellis Island was politically unimaginable, but by the time Trump was president the same could be said of Reagan’s 1986 amnesty. Each new brutality justifies the next, more severe incarnation of violence.  

But the liberty of citizens has also fared worse as the brutality against non-citizens has escalated. Today, citizens can be jailed for decades just for giving water or comfort to people who dare transgress the inviolable border.29 The history of the law that criminalizes such aid and comfort is demonstrative of this escalation – originally passed in 1917, it became a felony in 1952, and the penalty for its violation was increased in 1994, 1996 and 2004 respectively.30  It is difficult to ignore the correlation between harsher treatment of migrating people and the erosion of liberty generally. Consider how democratic institutions and independent judiciaries have been weakened in the United States, Poland, and Hungary by parties and leaders carried into power on the popularity of their xenophobic platforms.31 Just as Marxists warn that capitalism would in time collapse into greater suffering, borderism too is collapsing into an anti-democratic, illiberal order. 

From an Arendtian perspective, no reform can overcome these internal contradictions, so none can make the border sustainable. 

The Revolution

None of these insights mean, however, that settling in the abolitionist camp precludes support for reformist measures. Luxemburg acknowledged that we can and should pursue reform consistent with abolitionist goals, as long as revolution remains the goal and not mere reform.32 This is also how Angela Davis has positioned reform within the prison abolitionist movement, instructing that “[w]e support reforms that will make life more livable for prisoners, while we call for the abolition of prisons as the default solution for the social problems that prison presumes to solve but cannot.”33 The pursuit of revolution requires us to support reform measures whose goals and rhetoric are consistent with abolition, and with the understanding that incremental changes – like “comprehensive immigration reform” – are not goals. The end of those exclusionary forces that preserve privilege for some at the expense of others’ dignity – all migration restrictions, and yes, citizenship and nationalism as we know them today – are the kind of immigration revolution that is fit to be our goal. If the opportunity should arise to make, say, asylum less restrictive on the path to that goal, we should seize the chance to save lives, but only while acknowledging that justice is nevertheless delayed and denied. As No One is Illegal activist Harsha Walia put it, “[w]e aim for campaigns with short-term goals that are not fundamentally at odds with – but rather advance and strengthen – our long-term vision of naming and transforming the root causes of injustice.”34

Demanding revolution rather than reform also demands vocal advocacy. Borders have, through normalization, calcified into a hard boundary around our moral and political imaginations. Other progressives need your voice to hear that a borderless world is possible. Be open with friends and colleagues about your position, write op-eds, go on the record. When you’re told why a borderless world won’t work, do ask how well borders, and the countless lives they claim, are working today. Talk about the right to migrate like it’s real, and the borders like they’re fiction, because both are. Match the outrage your views will inevitably stoke in your opponents. You are right to lose patience with tinkering around the edges of the border’s brutality, and with groveling for crumbs of justice: Family-based visas reduce to a privilege for the few what should be the right of all, and asylum amounts only to exclusive access to freedom —the opposite of a right to migrate. Partial justice is not justice. Our tolerance of it only undermines progress and exonerates injustice. 

Many fear that unapologetic advocacy for border abolition stokes conservative or fascist backlash and some may even blame that advocacy for undermining democracy for this reason. Their fear may be justified, but their blame is misplaced. Xenophobia, like fascism, does not need provocation to fuel its lust for brutality, and it alone is to blame for its violence. Consider the popular far right labeling of any immigration policy that isn’t indiscriminate deportation as “open borders.” A “backlash” describes some aggressive rhetorical or political movement, and we are already faced with that. As I discuss above, despite decades of timid proposals like DACA, or perhaps because of them, the far-right’s escalation of violence against migrating people has only become more aggressive, and more popular, not less. Far right ideologies cannot be appeased or met half-way, that only emboldens and legitimizes them. They must be fought and resisted, and provocation is ideal for triggering confrontations in which this fighting can commence. Mohandas Gandhi’s quip “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” is a good summary of how social justice movements from Selma to South Africa have used the provocation of oppressive institutions to ultimately destroy them. As xenophobia pushes increasingly violent and anti-democratic policies, the incompatibility between democracy and borders will become more transparent and the moral necessity for free migration will become more obvious. Perhaps that is why Bryan Caplan’s new graphic novel “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration,” the first book on the New York Times bestseller list to push open borders,35 has proven itself so popular – not in spite of but precisely because of the political era in which it has been released. 

Abolition of the current system will not come without a fight, which is another point not lost on Rosa Luxemburg, herself imprisoned and eventually murdered for her ideas. Our willingness to so publicly struggle will build momentum, and eventually, a movement. Waiting until the political terrain is right for border abolition ensures it will never garner further support. Rosa Luxemburg understood this. More of us need to.