Jason Riley makes the case for half-opening the US borders, but not a case for true open borders

A year ago, co-blogger Vipul briefly reviewed Mark Krikorian’s The New Case Against Immigration and Jason Riley’s Let Them In. I have not yet read Krikorian’s book, but I have finished Riley’s. Overall, I second Vipul’s sentiment that despite the radical book cover (the book’s full title is Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders), Riley’s book is incredibly weak because:

  1. It is overly focused on the US (I cannot think of a special reason why the US should be the only or first country to open its borders)
  2. It is overly focused on citizenist and territorialist arguments for immigration (while I think one can make a case for open borders using a citizenist or even nationalist worldview with appropriate moral side-constraints, the book does a poor job of confronting the inherently unethical tensions of these philosophies when they are used to justify closed borders)
  3. It really does not consider more than briefly the tremendous economic harm or moral injustice created by closed borders (Riley trots out the usual arguments about how immigrants benefit the US economy, but there is no reference to the true size of the closed borders problem — when closed borders is halving world GDP, this is a glaring weakness, although to be fair to Riley, I don’t think these estimates were available when he wrote this)

I don’t want to sound overly harsh; I actually would recommend Riley’s book if someone has already exhausted the most basic open borders literature. So if you’ve finished Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come (I would say that if you can only read one book about open borders, you need to make it Pritchett’s), maybe consider reading Let Them In. The main selling points for Riley:

  1. He comprehensively covers all the problems with current US immigration policy (its injustice from even citizenist and territorialist standpoints, its economic inefficiency, etc.)
  2. He does an excellent job of laying out the history of US anti-immigration activism (it will probably be news to many that Benjamin Franklin was complaining almost 250 years ago that low-quality German immigrants were refusing to assimilate and destroying the US)
  3. He uncovers some interesting historical facts about US immigration policy which really need to be widely known (for instance, he reveals that the problem of Mexican “illegal immigrants” in the US was virtually non-existent prior to the mid-20th century, because many immigration laws simply didn’t apply to Western hemisphere nationals until 1965 onwards)

In his conclusion, Riley states:

My primary goal in writing this book was to offer a rebuttal to some of the more common anti-immigrant arguments that I’ve come across while covering the issue as a Wall Street Journal editorialist.

Once I read this, I understood why Vipul and I felt the book had oversold itself as a case for open borders. Riley’s true intention was never to make such a broad case in this book. (In fact, Vipul goes as far as to characterise Riley as a political moderate — this is true of the book’s tone, but from its content, I would say Riley probably is pretty close to the liberal extreme on immigration.) If you’re looking for some good rebuttals to common mainstream anti-immigration US-specific arguments, I highly recommend Let Them In. But if you’re looking for the case for open borders, I would without hesitation point you to Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


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