Halfway measures towards open borders

Full-fledged open borders seems far off to the point of being utopian, but there are several principles/programs short of open borders that might be easier to achieve, and which would bring some of the benefits of full-fledged open borders while bringing it closer. These are a few:

1. The right to invite (see here). People benefit by being able to invite others, and this is something they might demand more of from their governments. It exists with fiance visas and family reunification visas. California growers lobby for the right to invite guest workers into the country. What if professional women agitated for the right to import maids and baby-sitters? What if the elderly agitated for the right to import drivers? Zuckerberg’s immigration advocacy group might be thought of as agitating for the right to invite high-tech workers on H1-B visas. An unlimited right to invite would be almost the same thing as open borders, but even if, say, every US citizen could sponsor a couple of guest visas per year, that would loosen things up a lot.

2. The right to emigrate. Rich countries should feel a lot guiltier than they do about the fact that their immigration policies make them complicit in some of the world’s worst regimes by not giving people a way out. If the world took human rights seriously, one of our top priorities would have to be the worldwide establishment of a right to emigrateif one’s home country provides very inadequate freedoms or economic opportunities. That is, rich countries would seek to make sure that everyone had somewhere half-decent that they could go. IMPALA may help with this, by making it possible to quantify the extent to which probably billions of people are imprisoned in destitute and/or unfree countries today. The pursuit of a global right to emigrate might involve using aid money to incentivize some countries to become haven or refuge countries, while other rich countries did their part by providing this aid money. By the way, this needn’t be done out of altruism. It might be in the geopolitical interests of the United States or Europe to ensure that Russian young men of an age to serve in the army have some place to run away to, or to facilitate the voluntary depopulation of Iran. Emigres might even provide a useful pool of volunteers for a Foreign Legion eager to liberate Iran with American guns and air support, but without American boots on the ground.

3. The rights of the “larger body.” I picked up the phrase “larger body” from C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves; it means that the experience of being an incarnate being extend beyond the actual organism under our control to include many objects of our natural loves, including wives, husbands, children, parents, brothers, sisters, pets and other animals, and friends. US immigration policy, which to some extent accommodates family reunification motives, gives some de facto recognition to the rights of the larger body, but what is missing is a definite legal and moral doctrine that the state cannot justly separate families or close friends, and must accommodate the needs of this important aspect of human nature. This falls short of open borders since, of course, not every aspiring immigrant is part of the “larger body” of any US citizen. It is different from the “right to invite,” above, because I mean by the right to invite, not a fundamental human right, but a positive right which governments would establish to please or pander to citizens rather than from a sense of inexorable duty.

4. Citizens’ right to interact with, hire, sell to, rent apartments to, illegal immigrants. When citizens have to check the papers of potential employees, contractors, tenants, customers, or whatever, that’s inconvenient, and also a little scary, since presumably some punishment awaits if they make a mistake. The defense of a small businessman’s right to hire without verifying papers, or better yet without papers at all, or the landlord’s right to lease a house without papers, would ease the way for immigration, too. For that matter, I would insist that the state acts unjustly if it refuses to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, because its authority to police the roads can properly be exercised as a means to the safety of motorists and pedestrians, which is not jeopardized by an illegal immigrant as such being on the road, but, on the contrary, is jeopardized when illegal immigrants can’t get driver’s licenses and so, if they feel it necessary to take the risk or driving for economic or personal reasons anyway, will be under particular temptations to hit-and-run if they get in an accident. If an illegal immigrant hits a pedestrian, then runs instead of helping, because if he helps he’s afraid he’ll be deported and never see his family again, and the pedestrian dies, the illegal immigrant is probably to blame, but the state is certainly culpable in the pedestrian’s death for gross negligence in its duty justly to police the streets. Establishing this principle would help the open borders cause.

5. International migration negotiations. On the analogy of international trade negotiations, meaning that one state agrees to admit the citizens of another state in return for like privilege being granted to its own citizens. For example, what if the US and the EU made an agreement whereby Europeans could migrate to the US and work freely, and Americans could do the same in Europe. I would anticipate large gains on both sides, as Americans would benefit culturally from access to Europe’s treasury of ancient, beautiful cities, while Europeans would benefit economically from access to America’s relatively more prosperous and dynamic economy. The politics of such a deal would be very different from those of allowing mass immigration from developing countries. Once the precedent was set, it could spread.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

10 thoughts on “Halfway measures towards open borders”

  1. A really outstanding post – pragmatic and much of what you propose is doable. I particularly like the “right to invite” and it’s the first time I’ve heard it put that way.

    A couple of comments:

    The right to emigrate is enshrined in international law but there is no one to enforce it. States can be very sneaky when it comes to discouraging people from leaving. Even developed nation do so with exit taxes, diaspora taxes and onerous renunciation procedures. And as you point out the right to emigrate is contingent on having somewhere to go.

    International migration agreements. These already exist for some. I believe that Spain has a special program for people from some Latin American countries. I agree that an arrangement between the US and the EU could be very profitable for both sides. I understand that the number of Americans in France is roughly equal to the number of registered French citizens in the US (around 100,000). Americans have had a continuous presence in the Paris region since before the American Revolution. If I walk toward the center of my city, Versailles, I can stand where Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers stood a few hundred years ago. 🙂

  2. The real problem is that most Americans are against immigration in general. In the recent poll, http://www.pollingreport.com/immigration.htm , 55% of voters are against increased legal immigration, and only 28% are for increased immigration. We have so many illegal immigrants due to restrictive legal immigration. Resolving the status of presently undocumented immigrants is the easy part. Unless, we increase meaningfully legal immigration, nothing can be resolved. The border protection as envisioned by immigration opponents and adopted by the Gang of 8 is laughable. By policing the border they will be able to prevent illegal border crossing as much as the government was able to stop production and distribution of alcohol during Prohibition. As long as jobs will be here, people will find the way to cross the border illegally. If physical protection will be perfected, bribing people we hired to guard the border will become the most common way to cross the border illegally. More:

    The subject can be well supplemented by my review of the book about immigration written by Jeb Bush and Clink Bolick:

    We need Freedom of Migration, http://www.freedomofmigration.com , or on this brief video presentation:

    1. 1. Proper borders would reduce the illegal immigration to a small fraction of the current value, 2. Sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants would cut off the work-incentive for the remainder, 3. Cutting off free medical for non-citizens, voting identification etc etc.

      The only reason these effective means of stopping illegal immigration are not implemented already is that the Democratic Party is busy electing a New People. Reference California – home of Reagan and Nixon – which will never elect another Republican administration.

  3. On international migration agreements, Tim Hatton’s work is excellent at setting out why this is difficult to do. I agree with him that bilateral agreements are currently a better method to facilitate people movement. Unfortunately, the smaller the coverage, the more likely the success.

    Here in Australia, the previous Howard Government, through the negotiation process of the United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004, carved out a special visa category for Australians to work and live in the US, the E3 visa. The current cap (20,000) is more than enough to cater for the demand, I believe only 10,000-12,000 get taken up every year. More promisingly, unlike the standard H-1B category, I think spouses are entitled to work.

    This is because under standard Australian immigration, all temporary foreign workers can bring spouses and children who have free work and study entitlements. The USAFTA process basically created reciprocal access for Australians.

    As a side note, the 457 visa program (H-1B equivalent) is currently a part of the public discourse at the moment in Australian politics. Last year, there were a total of 125,070 visas granted (including family members) for a labour market of about 11m. The current Government sees this as too many. The latest statistics can be found here: http://www.immi.gov.au/media/statistics/pdf/457-state-territory-summay-report-mar13.pdf

    Thanks for the great website, I discovered it through the Atlantic article.

  4. By the way, this needn’t be done out of altruism. It might be in the geopolitical interests of the United States or Europe to ensure that Russian young men of an age to serve in the army have some place to run away to, or to facilitate the voluntary depopulation of Iran. Emigres might even provide a useful pool of volunteers for a Foreign Legion eager to liberate Iran with American guns and air support, but without American boots on the ground.

    Given that possibility I think we can safely rule out the right to emigrate going through the UN or any organization with a Russian veto. But perhaps foreign aid agreements with those decent countries could be sold domestically in the developed countries on reducing the demand to emigrate to them. The sticking point to using aid as a carrot here is that we’re living in a world where Chinese aid is increasing and the conditions for that aid might be less politically onerous than what you’re proposing Nathan. Unless we could co-opt China to join in on this attempt but I’m not sure why they’d care (after all according the the CIA China is still sending out more immigrants than it receives).

  5. I can’t see a “Harms to Immigrant-Sending Countries” section. Is the loss from poor countries of their best and brightest – the most likely to be able to immigrate to first world countries – not a concern?

    1. This is a subsection of the “Other harms” section: http://openborders.info/harms-to-immigrant-sending-countries/

      I think the harms of brain drain are overrated. (This may be personally biased as I am a contributor to my home country’s brain drain, but this is also an issue I and many I personally know have grappled with.) For me to believe that brain drain is a problem, I would have to be convinced that if you could have somehow coerced emigrants into staying home, their presence would have drastically improved the political/economic institutions there. From looking at the countries I have personal experience with (Malaysia and the Philippines) I am thoroughly unconvinced that this is the case.

      I do think brain drain is a problem that developing countries’ governments ought to worry about — but they should be looking to fix the “push” factors that they can (i.e. upgrading the quality of their institutions) instead of trying to coerce their citizens into staying. I do not think it was or is wise development policy to shoot emigrants. The pull factor of higher wages is I think an artificial problem created by closed borders. Lant Pritchett, Michael Clemens, and various economic historians have shown that the wage gaps between countries which exist today are unsupportable under open borders, because the unification of labour markets ensures a fair price for one’s labour anywhere.

      Finally, I can’t think of any coherent mainstream political ideology (left liberal, right liberal — i.e. conservative in the Western world, or libertarian) that would endorse suppression of the citizen’s fundamental personal rights for the benefit of the greater good. I would also add that the right to emigrate is explicitly enshrined in international law.

      1. We also have a page specifically on brain drain, linked to from the page John provided:


        The reason why the “harms to immigrant-sending countries” are not linked so prominently is empirical: most opponents of immigration we have encountered focus on harms to immigrant-receiving countries, and with limited menu space, we decided to give the harms to immigrant-receiving countries greater prominence. The “harms to immigrant-sending countries” concern seems to be restricted to people primarily concerned about global development, not mainstream critics of immigration. If, however, many people express the same concern that you did about not being able to find the information, we might reconsider our menu structure to make these pages more easily discoverable.

        Thanks for the site structure feedback.

  6. I think Americans don’t know what they really think of immigration. When asked about a particular policy they will respond one way but ask them about the immigrants in their communities and that is an entirely different matter. My husband was for a few years a Green Card holder and his experience was overwhelming positive though not enough to convince him to stay in the US long-term.

    Concerning the “right to invite” Canada has a very interesting take on this which is called the Provincial Nominee Program which has already been mentioned on this site and inspired me to write about it as well: http://thefranco-americanflophouse.blogspot.fr/2013/04/canadas-provincial-nominee-program.html

    I personally think that the pros of this local decentralized approach to migration far outweigh the cons though one of the comments left by a former Canadian government official points out what he sees as a major flaw. “There is some evidence that while the provincial nominee program has better short-term outcomes in terms of income etc, the longer-term outcomes are not as strong as those selected from a more general human capital perspective.”

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