All posts by Alexander Sager

Alex Sager is Associate Professor of Philosophy and University Studies at Portland State University. His edited collection The Ethics and Politics of Migration: Core Issues and Emerging Trends (Rowman & Littlefield International) appeared in October. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @aesager.

Bureaucracy and Domination: An Indirect Argument for Open Borders

People support open borders from very different – and possibly conflicting – philosophical and ideological perspectives. Anarchists such as David Graeber and libertarians such as Bryan Caplan tend not to cite each other. Readers of economist Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come or Michael Clemens’ “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?”  usually do not read geographer Reece Jones’ Violent Borders or activist Natasha King’s No Borders. There are even schisms within disciplines so that liberal philosophers such as Joseph Carens operating in very different idioms from philosophers inspired by continent figures such as Thomas Nail.

The lack of dialogue among open border camps is unfortunate as it isolates potential allies behind disciplinary silos and impoverishes debate. Moreover, there are strong reasons to support open borders – or at least much more open borders – even if we are not convinced by philosophical arguments about freedom of movement or equality. Even a superficial glance at the violence used to enforce border controls should give conscientious people pause.

Border walls and barriers have proliferated in recent years around the world, often with lethal consequences. Border controls have forced migrants to hire smugglers to take increasingly risky journeys to flee violence or seek opportunities. In 2016, nearly 5000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean and hundreds perish each year attempting to cross the US border.

The Obama administration deported over 2.4 million people and, as Stephanie Silverman has recently noted, immigrant detentions in the United States have grown from 70,000 people in 1996 to around 400,000 people today with a 34,000 “bed mandate” for detainees – which include asylum seekers and children.

My article “Immigration Enforcement and Domination: An Indirect Argument for Much More Open Borders” calls attention to one particular problem with immigration enforcement: bureaucratic domination. Immigration bureaucrats have enormous power to reject applications to immigrate (often giving no explanation at all for their decisions), denying opportunities and separating families. They can deport and detain, often at their discretion with little accountability to migrants or to anyone else.

“Immigration Enforcement and Domination” brings together ideas from political philosophy and from critical border studies.  From political philosophy, I draw attention to the problem of bureaucratic domination and analyze it using neo-Republican theories of freedom developed by philosophers such as Philip Pettit and Frank Lovett (and applied to immigration by scholars such as Iseult Honohan, Sara Fine, and Meghan Benton). Neo-republicans understand domination in terms of arbitrary interference and argue that interference with people’s lives can only be justified if those affected have a genuine opportunity to shape and contest decisions and policies. Typical mechanisms to shape and contest decision include participation in democratic politics through voting, lobbying, and public demonstration and using the legal system.

Bureaucratic domination is a problem for everyone living in complex societies and it can never be entirely overcome. One reason for this is that bureaucrats require considerable discretion to do their jobs and this is often beneficial to the people they serve then they are professional, well-trained, and committed to fulfilling legitimate public goals. Nonetheless, domination can often be mitigated by civil society, legal recourse, and democratic politics to ensure that bureaucracies are accountable to the people they serve.

The more power bureaucracies have over people’s lives, the more important these mechanisms to contest and shape policies become. Bureaucrats enforcing immigration policy have extraordinary power: they can send refugees back to torture or to death. They can separate young children and parents for months or years. They can indefinitely incarcerate people who have committed no crime. To avoid bureaucratic domination, it would be necessary to have strong means for migrants to contest decisions.

Unfortunately, migrants do not have resources that would allow them to adequately protect themselves from bureaucratic domination. In most jurisdictions, immigrants do not have political rights such as the right to vote, allowing most politicians to ignore their plight. Furthermore, they are vulnerable to deportation if they do not have legal status or to non-renewal of their visas. Immigrant populations are often racialized and suffer discrimination, exacerbating their vulnerability.

Moreover, the very nature of immigration enforcement makes it highly unlikely that these avenues could be created. Critical migration scholars such as Ruben Andersson, Josiah Heyman, Sandro Mezzadra, William Walters, and many others have examined how immigration policy is implemented. In popular imagination, borders are thought of as natural lines demarcating pre-existing national territories. In reality, they are not simply barriers preventing entry, but rather shape migration flows (often violent results) and create classes of people with different juridical and social statuses (“illegal immigrants”, temporary workers, family-class migrants, refugees, etc.). Borders are the result of political decisions and actively shape reality.

Critical migration studies draws attention to three aspects of border controls: dispersion, externalization, and privatization. First, immigration enforcement is dispersed, i.e., carried out by multiple actors around the world including airline carriers, private security companies, employers, schools, universities, and NGOs – along with national and foreign governments.

Second, enforcement is externalized, taking place outside of states national territories. In one of the most notorious examples, Australia has sought to deter asylum seekers through mandatory detention in offshore facilities which have been repeated condemned for human rights violations. Europe cooperates with third countries such as Libya to stem migration despite well-documented violence including torture and sexual abuse.

Third, much enforcement is carried out by private organizations such as for-profit prisons. One mechanism for preventing people from claiming asylum is the practice of fining airlines through carrier sanctions  if they allow people without visas to board their flights, forcing asylum-seekers to resort to smugglers.

Together, dispersion, externalization, and privatization make it impossible to overcome bureaucratic domination for immigration enforcement. Not only are the many agents engaged in preventing immigration unaccountable to any democratic republic, but it is often impossible to determine who they are. Despite daily reports around the world of appalling abuse against migrants, abusers are almost never held responsible or sanctioned. Indeed, the dispersion, externalization, and privatization of immigration controls is a strategy allowing governments to abjure responsibility for the brutality of their practices – in many case, they are adopted in order to flout their own laws and to avoid democratic oversight.

The result is that even if there are philosophical reasons for why states are not obligated to open their borders, the nature of enforcement makes most border controls morally repugnant. The only way to avoid the injustice of bureaucratic domination – and a great deal of human suffering – is much more open borders.