Open borders: what to do about it (part 2)

This is a guest post by Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Rojas maintains his personal webpage here and is one of the bloggers at the blog.

This guest post is the second in a three-post series on how one could achieve open borders. The series focuses on public opinion and immigration policy in the United States, but its insights may apply to other nations as well. The first post of the series can be found here.

Open Borders: Changing Public Opinion

Broadly speaking, fundamental policy change, such as creating open borders, is often the result of two forces, public opinion and organized action (“politics”). Open borders will become a reality when the public stops believing that immigrants are a threat and people who take the time to fight anti-immigration policies in the courts, legislatures and even in the street succeed. This essay focuses on one side of the equation – public opinion. Though I believe that all countries should have open borders, my comments are aimed at people in Western nations such as the US because my comments are based on what I’ve learned by studying social movements in relatively open nations. My comments don’t apply to nations that are authoritarian, such as North Korea, or countries that do not have some type of legal and political system that admits challenge. The next instalment will focus on politics, the “how to” of political change.

Framing the Issue

What should open borders advocates say to the public? In general, it is a mistake to offer highly technical arguments. Most people won’t be interested in subtle arguments about migration. Instead, open borders advocates should offer what social psychologists and linguists call a “framing,” a very general concept that allows people to succinctly identify a problem and think about the solution. A successful framing defines the way we see things and what we think is possible. A good framing appeals to some basic moral intuition, not scholarly argument. Scholars who study social change often find that framing among activist is something that often precedes broader change. (See Robert Benford and David Snow’s “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” in the 2000 Annual Review of Sociology 26: 611-639. Available on JSTOR).

Anti-immigration sentiment seems to rely on two frames. Among liberals, there is the “social problems” frame. Immigration is bad because new people require more resources such as jobs and government services. There is also a related view that immigrants will have problems assimilating into American society. They won’t learn the language and they can’t get educated. All these criticisms of immigration appeal to the idea that a nation is like a boat. The boat has only so much space and overcrowding will sink the ship. Immigrants are inherently bad. It’s just that low levels are preferable for technical reasons.

There is also a nativist framing that views immigration as a threat. Immigrants are viewed as outside the native ethnic group. They are impure and not really American. They are of lower moral character and are more likely to require charity and more likely to be criminals. From this perspective, immigration restrictions are needed to preserve native culture and keep out people who will drain resources and be a drag on the rest of society.

It is not clear to me that open borders advocates have articulated a compelling alternate frame, even though I find lengthier academic arguments to be persuasive. For example, many in the immigrant rights community draw attention to the suffering of immigrants. While I agree that immigrants unjustly suffer, this is an ineffective framing of the issue because immigrant rights activists rarely attack the premise that immigration restrictions themselves are unjust. In other words, as long as average Americans think that it is normal to restrict immigration, framings such as “immigrant rights” or “end the suffering” will not be effective.

It is worth mentioning that some writers have thought carefully about framing. The FrameWorks Institute, a group that studies how to make people think differently about policy issues, has issued two papers dealing with framing immigration (available here). They intuitively note that people are more receptive to immigration if mutual benefits of immigration are first discussed. While I agree that free immigration is beneficial, this is only a first step. A more comprehensive set of ideas must be developed that undermines the idea that immigrants are a “social problem” to be solved or that immigrants are of lower moral character than natives.

We need a simple and concise idea that undermines the belief that people from other countries must be forcibly separated from each other. This idea must subtly, but powerfully, undermine the distinctions that make people believe that only citizens have the right to travel and work without impair. This as yet undeveloped idea may turn out to be religious in nature, or it may draw from ideas already found in American culture, such as individualism and free enterprise. The exact framing of open borders will only emerge through a process of experimentation and discussion.

In concluding this section, I’ll briefly address one criticism of the “framing” approach to politics. It can be argued that framing is inherently misleading. One presents something that sounds nice but does not really describe the policy that we want. I have two responses. First, I would oppose any framing that is misleading. For example, while I think proposed legislation like the Dream Act to be an improvement, it would be a lie to call it reform because, as currently formulated, the legislation does not modify the massive restrictions on immigration. The proper frame for the Dream Act is amnesty, not reform. Second, most people reason using frames, not abstract principles. Most people will simply dismiss an idea unless it is formulated in terms that they are used to. Most successful political movements understand this basic point. It is not deceptive. Creating a frame is merely casting your argument in a way that will increase its chances of being accepted.

Targeting the Public

The “public” is complex. There’s a broad public made up of citizens and voters, and smaller “publics” focused in institutional arenas such as the law, the academy, and the media. Any movement for open borders should simultaneously attempt to reach all of these “publics” because they each have important roles to play in social change.  For example, there is the world of the law. This is a “public,” a group of people who openly discuss the law and the courts. The legal public includes lawyers, judges, and government officials – anyone who tries to shape perceptions of what the law should be and how it operates. In a book on conservative politics, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement (Princeton University Press, 2007 — available on Amazon here), political scientist Steven Teles argued that it was unexpectedly difficult for conservatives to have their policies implemented because courts would continually strike them down. Without a legal theory that justified conservative policies, liberal opponents routinely won litigation. The solution was to create a network of conservative lawyers who would help develop a new legal theory that would make it easier for judges to uphold controversial policies written by Republican controlled legislatures.

This is why open borders advocates should directly target the legal public because of its special position in society. Courts are responsible for enforcing and interpreting the law. Contrary to popular opinion, judges do not apply the law in the same way that a baseball umpire calls “balls and strikes.” Instead, judges are influenced by what they learned in law school, in their time as practicing attorneys, and by political and social trends. That is why the open borders movement should target the legal public. If we can introduce a legal theory that supports open borders, then it will be easier for courts to uphold open borders policy and side with immigrants.

It may be argued that I am encouraging a sort of judicial activism that may be unpopular with the public. In one sense, I am. I am asking that the courts reverse their traditional understanding of immigration that many people approve of. In another sense, I am making a much more modest tactical proposal. The law is complex. Many statutes are vague, or admit multiple interpretations. Statutes may contradict each other. Even those that are fairly clear require a systematic way of thinking to help lawyers apply the law. By promoting a new legal theory, I am suggesting for open borders what is normally done within the realm of the law.

The academy, and the larger world of letters, has a different role. While it may appear that the writings of journalists and professors are ephemeral, that their impact if fleeting, that is not the case. Academics, journalists, and other intellectuals often set the tone for later political struggles. As different groups struggle for power, they treat the world of ideas as a toolkit that can be accessed as they develop their rhetoric and new policy ideas. Thus, the obscure academic debate of today may end up as the policy proposal of tomorrow. That is why open borders must be argued not only in terms of popular politics, but also rigorous academic research.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the public, the people that make up American society. Open borders activists must think of ways to change immigration in their eyes. Already, we have seen some effective ways to do this. One approach is to “normalize” immigration by simply talking about it in public. Gay rights activists have achieved much by simply coming out. Once people know that their brother, or cousin, or friend, might be gay, it is harder to openly sustain animosity towards gay people more generally. Another approach is to have referenda, which forces the public to debate the issue. Even if a pro-immigration referendum fails to pass, it will still serve the function of forcing the issue onto the public stage. These actions won’t change the minds of those strongly committed to anti-immigration policy. Instead, they will make immigration seem “normal” to a later generation of people.

The purpose of this essay isn’t to offer a single strategy for changing public opinion. Rather, it is to suggest that open borders will only happen when we experiment with multiple strategies. There are many roles to play in this struggle. Some will contribute by making academic arguments, while others will affect popular culture. The fundamental argument is that this work is important and must be done so that political actions, such as voting or lobbying, have a reasonable chance of success.

Post Script

My views on what open borders advocates should do is based on my reading of sociological research on policy change. Paul Burstein (1999) has noted that social movements are often ineffectual until the public agrees with their views. The need for a legal framework comes from my interpretation of Teles’ (2007) history of modern conservative legal politics. Most modern treatments of the Civil Rights movement focus on both public opinion, the infrastructure for protest and local action. Lee (2002) presents a ground up view of how protest and litigation helped foment public pressure for reform during the civil rights era. My model of society as a series of interconnected domains (e.g., law, academia, the state) comes from a number of sources and the most recent summary is A Theory of Fields by Fligstein and McAdam (2012). Full references below.

Burstein, Paul. 1999. “Social Movements and Public Policy.” Pp. 3-21 in How Social Movements Matter, edited by Marco Giugni, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. The article is available as a PDF here. The full book is available on Amazon here.

Lee, Taeku. 2002. Mobilizing Public Opinion: Black Insurgency and Racial Attitudes in the Civil Rights Era. The University of Chicago Press. Available on Amazon here and on the University of Chicago Press website here.

Teles, Steven. 2007. The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement. Princeton University Press. Available on Amazon here. An online book forum was conducted through a series of blog posts on here, here, and here. See also here.

Fligstein, Neil and Doug McAdam. 2012. A Theory of Fields. The University of Chicago Press. Available on Amazon here. The ideas of the book are discussed in this blog post on

Fabio Rojas is a sociology professor at Indiana University as well as an active blogger. See also:, a group blog to which he contributes
Fabio Rojas’ personal academic webpage
Page about Fabio Rojas on Open Borders: The Case

6 thoughts on “Open borders: what to do about it (part 2)”

  1. I agree! In particular, I agree that a theory of open borders is needed. That’s why I wrote Principles of a Free Society, to provide one.

    I’ve met a couple of times with a group of undocumented students at my campus, and they referred me to an entity called Evangelical Immigration Table, which offers the following Statement of Principles:

    Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America. Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at a tragic human cost.

    As evangelical Christian leaders, we call for a bipartisan solution on immigration that:
    ■Respects the God-given dignity of every person
    ■Protects the unity of the immediate family
    ■Respects the rule of law
    ■Guarantees secure national borders
    ■Ensures fairness to taxpayers
    ■Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents

    We urge our nation’s leaders to work together with the American people to pass immigration reform that embodies these key principles and that will make our nation proud.

    While I applaud the Evangelical Immigration Table and wish them success in their campaign to establish a path to legal status for immigrants, the clause “guarantees secure national borders” sort of spoils it. “That’s what we’re trying to do,” the other side will say. “And part of the way we’re trying to do it is to deport those who are already here but came without permission. That’s not desirable in every particular case, but it affects the INCENTIVES to come. If people know undocumented immigration will end in deportation, they won’t do it. Your plan to establish a path to citizenship or legal status for undocumented immigrants only STRENGTHENS the incentives for more people to come.” Yes. While it is possible to argue that non-deportation, in general or of people who have really settled and made their homes here, is a moral side-constraint but the goal of secure borders is still legitimate, by conceding that goal you open yourself up to a powerful counter-attack. If your basic desideratum is open borders, you can make a more internally consistent intellectual case for moderate immigration reform as well.

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