One of the most common misconceptions I encounter in discussing open borders is the casual conflation of open borders with open citizenship. For something I consider an incredibly elementary distinction, this apparently eludes plenty of intelligent people. For example, here is EconLog blogger Art Carden casually saying:
An answer to Bryan’s question about how the government should spend a billion dollars. I’m going to take “give it back to the taxpayers” and “print a few hundred million US passports for prospective immigrants” off the table.
Bryan Caplan is one of the most famous and vocal open borders advocates around; he is Carden’s co-blogger. And yet it apparently seems to have escaped Carden that Caplan has never suggested printing US passports for foreigners. Caplan and the rest of the open borders movement want people to be free to move across borders. And you don’t need a US passport to cross the US border! You just need a valid US visa.
People worried that immigrants are going to abuse their welfare system or cast uninformed votes if we open the borders completely ignore that there are millions of foreigners today who legally cross borders whose access to welfare and the vote are curtailed, if not eliminated, by their visa restrictions. This is true in the US, and it is true in virtually any other country you care to name.
This is why I find the pervasive belief that it’ll be impossible to keep citizenship out of the hands of foreigners so puzzling. Surely people realise that in the US, as in most countries, you don’t need to be a citizen to work or settle now. Why would this change under open borders?
The distinction between open borders and open citizenship is critical. If you assume the first implies the second, you still need to clarify why exactly you believe allowing people to move to your country means you would be forced to give them citizenship. When I raise this distinction, I encounter two types of responses:
- A total avoidance of the distinction (i.e. the person persists in assuming you need to be a citizen of a country to live there)
- A confident certainty that either:
- Immigrants would rise up politically to demand and then acquire citizenship
- It would be simply immoral to admit a lot of immigrants and not give them citizenship
For scenario #1, I confess I am lost. It’s possible the fault lies with me in failing to communicate the distinction between passports and visas, between citizen and legal immigrant. But how can we best communicate this distinction? Any ideas?
For the scenarios in #2, let’s use US data, because it’s most conveniently at hand (thank you, my Dartmouth classmate Harry Enten!). In general, only 60% of US legal permanent residents naturalise. For those who were given legal immigrant status by the last major US amnesty, in 1986, only 40% naturalised. In short, almost 1 in 2 legal US immigrants don’t really want citizenship.
And right now, it’s fairly straightforward to acquire US citizenship once you’ve met the simple residency requirement of 5 years; the hardest parts tend to be learning English (if you don’t speak it), learning the material on the citizenship test (a bore, but certainly a doable challenge for most), and putting together the necessary paperwork to show you’re not a criminal, etc. It seems highly questionable to me to claim that these people would have rioted if they’d been admitted legally but under a different, stricter residency requirement.
And on that point, I don’t see any moral reason why the requirement for naturalisation has to be 5 years; it could easily be 15, or even longer. The harm to immigrants from this is minimal. Other than the vote and welfare, most people in the US, lawfully present or not, have identical rights and responsibilities. In fact, the only meaningful harm I can think of is that non-citizens can be deported and citizens can’t be. But the whole point of open borders is that, barring evidence that you are a danger of some kind, you should be able to go where you like. Once we protect non-citizens from arbitrary deportation, the moral harm of raising the bar for citizenship seems almost non-existent. It certainly pales in comparison to the moral harm of keeping people out of your country at gunpoint because you’re afraid letting them in might morally obligate you to throw a blank passport at them.
The question of whether such a moral obligation exists is something worthy of a whole book. But I don’t see a reason why crossing over an arbitrary line should suddenly make people on the other side of that line obligated to give you the vote. Citizenship is fundamentally related to who you are, not where you live, although the two are clearly related. I think most people intuitively understand this, since I don’t see anyone seriously demanding that every person on a student visa or a work permit in a foreign country be permitted to vote there. And I think it shouldn’t be hard to intuitively see that something is wrong with us if we insist on forcefully keeping people jobless and starving because we’re afraid the only alternative is giving them the vote. You don’t need to be a voter to hold down a paying job or rent your own home. So why impose that absurd and arbitrary requirement on someone else?
I am for open borders. I am not for open citizenship. There is a difference, and let’s be clear about that. One is about the fundamental human right to live and work without needing to beg any government for permission to stay in your own home or work for your employer. The other is about the less fundamental political right to cast a vote. The two are not the same, and blurring the difference between them does not serve us well.