Tag Archives: history of borders

Abe Lincoln would be a Russian now

The subject of 19th-century immigration almost inevitably comes up in open borders debates. Open borders advocates see a lot to desire and emulate in the 19th century approach to immigration — namely:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The 19th-century-related counter-example I’ve seen here from restrictionists is “Where are the Native Americans/other aboriginal peoples of the world now?” A related, more specific, example is how Mexico’s open borders allowed whites from America and Europe to enter their state of Texas, and eventually secede altogether from the country. These aren’t very convincing examples for many reasons, but the biggest one I can think of is that 19th-century contemporaries, by and large, took cognisance of these problems, and nevertheless agreed that keeping borders open remained the just, humane thing to do. Continue reading “Abe Lincoln would be a Russian now” »

America, the Roman Empire, and “Barbarian Invasions”

One of the most inapt historical analogies you will ever hear is that which compares illegal immigration to the United States to the “barbarian invasions” which were the most proximate cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. First, Mexican illegal immigrants are not barbarians: they are civilized. They come from a literate civilization. Rome had absorbed many settled, civilized people into its empire. The trouble with the Germans was that they were illiterate tribal nomads. Mexicans are not.

Second, by the time the western half of the Roman Empire succumbed, it had already been five centuries since Rome’s republican consistution had given way to a new system called the empire: Rome in its republican heyday had never had much to fear from the Germans in their northern forests. Rome had experienced many civil wars, dozens of succession crises, tyrannical and crazy emperors, multiple emperors, interregna, and so forth. America’s constitution and polity is far healthier than that.

Third, the peaceful migration of Germans as individuals and families, comparable to Mexican immigration today, had gone on for a long time without destroying the Empire. It is a rare half-truth, in an article by Timothy Birdnow that otherwise gets most of its facts wrong, that:

The Germanic invaders of Rome, who would eventually overrun the Empire and usher in the Dark Ages… did not come as warriors so much as peaceful immigrants — some legally, most not.

Concerning the legality I cannot comment: this is a subject I would like to know more about. My impression from a variety of sources is that the Roman Empire just didn’t have immigration laws in our sense: to prohibit peaceful migrants from crossing the empire’s frontiers is just not the sort of thing that it had ever occurred to anyone they might have a right to do. This particular bad idea is a modern invention. I highly doubt that the legal/illegal immigrant distinction could be applied to ancient Rome in anything but a highly anachronistic way. This may be the kind of questions historians could not answer with confidence; at any rate, I cannot. (The Romans did build Hadrian’s Wall but this is the exception that proves the rule: it was only one, particularly dangerous, border where it was built, the motives seem to have been mainly military, and Roman power often extended beyond it.)

But as to the point about warriors vs. peaceful immigrants, the Germans who came as peaceful immigrants strengthened Rome. Problems began only in 376 AD when the Romans allowed the Visigoths, as a united tribe, to settle along the Danube as refugees from the Huns, and even then only because Rome seems to have broken its promise to provide land and food for a people whom it hoped to use to defend the imperial borders. If Rome had kept its word to them, the Visigoths might well have done just that. At any rate, peaceful German migrants were never a problem. On the contrary, the last greater defender of Rome was one of them: Stilicho, son a Vandal father, whose impressive campaigns thwarted Alaric the Visigoth for many years, before Stilicho’s murder paved the way for Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 AD. Wikipedia mentions Stilicho’s “mostly barbarian troops” in his campaigns against Alaric in Illyria, and that he scraped together “a coalition of Romans, Alans, and Huns to defeat Radagasius at Ticinum in 406.” Stilicho managed to fight as far away as Britain, yet Rome fell in AD 410. What happened? Well, not only was Stilicho himself murdered– and Rome had no comparable general– but “in the disturbances which followed the downfall and execution of Stilicho, the wives and children of barbarian foederati throughout Italy were slain by the local Romans.” Naturally, then, some of those barbarian soldiers joined Alaric, and Rome could offer hardly any resistance to Alaric. I’m not sure whether much is known about this “thoroughly co-ordinated coup d’état organized by Stilicho’s political opponents,” but one wonders, especially given this ethnic cleansing aspect… might it have been planned and carried out by nasty Roman nativists, the 5th-century counterparts of Tom Tancredo and Russell Pearce. In short, it looks like Rome fell because nativist know-nothings murdered a talented immigrant general and his immigrant troops, who were doing the jobs Romans wouldn’t do, namely, defend Rome.

However, I want to focus on something different. Continue reading “America, the Roman Empire, and “Barbarian Invasions”” »

Metics in Ancient Greece

Did ancient Greece have open borders? Yes, I think, in the limited sense that there was no passport regime. But Wikipedia’s article on “Metic,” the ancient Greek word for “resident alien,” suggests that the link between democracy and immigration restrictions goes back to the very beginning. Still, Athens seems to have had a regime closer to open borders in most respects– not all: no birthright citizenship– than the contemporary United States, and it set several precedents, such as the metic poll tax, which might be useful. In view of the prestige of democratic Athens as the world’s first democracy, I would suggest that the term “metic” could be introduced for legal purposes to refer to immigrants invited by citizens and admitted on an otherwise non-discretionary basis, subject to a special poll tax.

The bulk of this article pertains to Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC during the Athenian democracy, which encouraged foreigners to settle in Athens, on account of the part which they took in trade, industry, education, and of which period we have primary sources about the specific legal status of a Metic, as reported by the Attic orators. However, the history of foreign migration to Athens begins earlier with Solon, who is said to have offered Athenian citizenship[2][3] to foreigners who would relocate to his city to practice a craft; indeed, in the period of Solon, Attic pottery flourished. In other Greek cities (poleis), foreign residents were few, with the exception of cosmopolitan Corinth, of which however we do not know their legal status. In Sparta and Crete, as a general rule with few exceptions, foreigners were not allowed to stay (Xenelasia). There are also reported immigrants to the court of tyrants and kings in Thessaly, Syracuse and Macedon, whose status is decided by the ruler. So for a number of reasons the legal term metic should be associated with Classical Athens. At Athens, the largest city in the Greek world at the time, they amounted to roughly half the free population. The status applied to two main groups of people—immigrants and former slaves. As slaves were almost always of foreign origin they can be thought of as involuntary immigrants, drawn almost exclusively from non-Greek speaking areas, while free metics were usually of Greek origin. Mostly they came from mainland Greece rather than the remote parts of the Greek world.

Note well: half the free population of Athens were metics. So in that sense 5th-century Athens was far more open than America today or at any time in its history. Of course, Athens was a city-state and the metics were mainly other Greeks, so the comparison isn’t entirely apt. On the other hand, Athens was an independent state, so in that sense it is comparable to half the free population resident in America being foreigners. Continue reading “Metics in Ancient Greece” »

The Old Testament on Immigration

It goes without saying that a passport regime such as we have today is unbiblical, in the sense that nothing like it is endorsed by either the Old or the New Testaments. Comprehensive control of entry and exit was not something states typically aspired to or even, I think, conceived of, before the 20th century. Such things weren’t around to endorse, or for that matter, to denounce. I would like to know the precise history of passport regimes and border controls better than I do, but I think I know it well enough to say that at least as far as controlling all points of entry is concerned, the migration policies of America in the 19th century (when no attempt at comprehensive control was made) were roughly typical, whereas 20th-century passport control (unfortunately universal today, at least as an aspiration of sovereign governments) is anomalous. In that lame sense, it would hardly be necessary to read the Bible to deduce that it supports open borders.

Critics would be right to find this argument unpersuasive. While past societies did not have comprehensive passport controls, they also lacked the fluid, prosperous economies, social tolerance, legal respect for rights, and general nonviolence that prevails in the democracies of the contemporary West. So while immigrants might enter a Greek polis or the Persian or Egyptian or Roman Empires without being prevented by the state, once there, they would be less safe from private violence, and might have trouble making a living, or integrating socially with the host society. There were no, or at most few, borders in the modern sense of invisible lines slicing up the world’s land which it was illegal for humans qua humans to cross without permission. But one’s rights and physical safety usually depended on being embedded in a physical kin-group or city-state, on having people who, so to speak, “got your back.” Migration wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t safe either.

It is in this context which the Biblical texts on this topic in Deuteronomy must be read. We could deduce that foreigners could come and reside in Israel physically, as a side-effect of the lack of a passport regime before modern times, but this is also amply confirmed by the Biblical texts, which routinely refer to “resident foreigners” and explain how they should be treated. But the Law of Moses also insists that resident foreigners be treated justly and fairly. Minutemen, e-Verify, and deportations are practices clearly forbidden by the Law of Moses. A textual study may start with verses like these:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. (Leviticus 19:33)

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless   of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:17) Continue reading “The Old Testament on Immigration” »

Are Open Borders Utopian?

I can’t remember if anyone has ever actually responded to my advocacy of open borders by calling them “utopian,” but they often seem to be thinking it. Are open borders utopian? It would be truer to think of them as “back to normal.” The attempt to control migration through a comprehensive passport regime is a 20th-century innovation. The late 19th century was a kind of golden age of open borders, when passport regimes were removed and the world’s leading countries accepted immigrants with few or no restrictions, but even before that migration was restricted only in certain places and for certain groups and not very rigorously. Certain countries– England in the Middle Ages, Spain a couple of centuries later– expelled the Jews, but you didn’t need a visa to travel from Rome to London.

That said, for most of history, no one, native or foreign, enjoyed the degree of protection of human rights that people in the advanced nations of the West take for granted today. Much of the history of civilization was dominated by absolute monarchs of one kind or another, who were above any law. Often, too, aristocratic castes had the de facto power and/or the de jure right arbitrarily to violate the property or persons of their social inferiors. Courts have tended to be more arbitrary and corrupt than in the contemporary West; and crime rates were higher. Economic opportunity was limited and more dependent on scarce resources, which gave people more valid reasons to see a migrant as a security threat. (How will he survive, unless by stealing our cattle?) Literacy was less widespread, and there has never been a lingua franca with a reach comparable to that enjoyed by English today. For all these reasons, the practical opportunities for safe migration have surely been limited for most of historical mankind, even if passport control was not among the obstacles.

So if we were to abolish passport controls today, we would be giving rise to something rather new under the sun. Relative to the late 19th century, freedom of migration has been politically restricted but technologically and socially enabled. It’s hard to get a visa, but once you do, you can hop on a plane, arrive speaking English, and are unlikely to encounter racism. If we were to remove the passport controls, human beings worldwide would be born with a far greater prospect of practical mobility than ever before in history. Considering that (a) it’s always presumptively good to give people more options, and (b) a glance at the global distribution of income makes it clear that some people could benefit a lot by moving, that’s a very good thing. Is it too good? Are open borders utopian? Continue reading “Are Open Borders Utopian?” »