Tag Archives: open borders

A rose by any other name: open borders, freedom of movement, and the right to migrate

In our welcome blog post, we state:

This website is dedicated to making the case for open borders. The term “open borders” is used to describe a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.

Many of our leading influencers and those associated with the open borders movement in some fashion spurn the label “open borders”, however. A good example is economist Michael Clemens. Clemens’s chief contributions to open borders are his work summarising the economic literature suggesting free migration would double world GDP and his analysis of the place premium showing the vast wage discrimination effects of the borders status quo. Clemens’s “double world GDP” is literally our website’s motto, yet in an interview with economist Russ Roberts, he states:

People often ask me if I am in favor of open borders. And I take an agnostic approach to that question. That’s kind of a strange term but by it I mean that I think the question is ill-posed. I don’t understand what people are asking when they ask it.

Do they mean anyone from everyone in the world should be able to freely move to every other spot on the world? Well, I don’t have that right right now. I don’t know of anybody who has ever had that right, actually. I can’t walk into your house. I can’t walk into a military base. I can’t go sit on the street–police would remove me after a while. My movements are tightly regulated. Property markets are regulating where I can pitch a tent and live.

If open borders means absolutely free movements then we certainly don’t have that in this country. If open borders means anybody can come get immediate access to any public service no matter whether or not they’ve paid into the system, that’s not something that I enjoy either. I don’t get to take Social Security money out unless I put money in. That’s also true for immigrants, by the way–you can’t get any money out of Social Security until you have paid into it for at least 40 quarters, that is a minimum of a decade of work or more. If open borders means absolutely free movement of people without any sort of tracking of who they are or any sort of concern for free riding in public services or any concern for trespassing on private property, then, no.

Open borders doesn’t exist in any space that I’ve ever seen. I don’t really want it to exist. Before we talk about open borders, I need to know what that means. Usually people mean something like a great relaxation to the policy barriers that people face right now.

Clemens quite clearly wants a “great relaxation” of barriers to human movement, which is how he ultimately winds up defining what people mean by “open borders”, yet he spends almost hundreds of words denouncing the label.

Take too philosopher Kieran Oberman, who supports the concept of a human right to migrate:

Commitment to these already recognized human rights thus requires commitment to the further human right to immigrate, for without this further right the underlying interests are not sufficiently protected.

Does this mean immigration restrictions are always unjust? On the view of human rights adopted here, human rights are not absolute. Restrictions might be justified in extreme circumstances in which immigration threatens severe social costs that cannot otherwise be prevented. Outside these circumstances, however, immigration restrictions are unjust. The idea of a human right to immigrate is not then a demand for open borders.

Rather it is a demand that basic liberties (to move, associate, speak, worship, work and marry) be awarded the same level of protection when people seek to exercise them across borders as when people seek to exercise them within borders. Immigration restrictions deserve no special exemption from the purview of human freedom rights.

Oberman too rejects the label of “open borders”, but he clearly believes that there is a human right to cross international borders that can only be restricted in the most extreme of circumstances. In other words, he accepts the presumptive right to migrate which we at Open Borders: The Case consider the clarion call of open borders, but rejects open borders!

On the flipside, consider philosopher Phillip Cole, who endorses a set of views virtually identical to Oberman’s in his defence of open borders:

…the right to cross borders is embodied in international law, but only in one direction. Everyone has the right to leave any state including their own. This is a right that can only be over-ridden by states in extreme circumstances, some kind of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation. What we have is an asymmetry between immigration and emigration, where states have to meet highly stringent tests to justify any degree of control over emigration, but aren’t required to justify their control over immigration at all.

In effect all I’m proposing is that immigration should be brought under the same international legal framework as emigration. Immigration controls would become the exception rather than the rule, and would need to meet stringent tests in terms of evidence of national catastrophe that threatens the life of the nation, and so would be subject to international standards of fairness and legality. This is far from a picture of borderless, lawless anarchy.

Cole describes his argument as making the case for open borders from the basic principles of human rights — just as Oberman does! The two endorse the same logic, and yet one embraces the label of open borders, and the other rejects it.

Rather than affirm or reject any one of these views (partial as I am to Cole’s views, I would also endorse almost everything I have seen from Clemens and Oberman when it comes to immigration), I would say this points to the nascent nature of the open borders movement. Although suspicion and hostility to the stranger in our land has almost always been a feature of human nature, it is not until recently that anyone has felt compelled to defend the right to migrate; strong outbursts of nationalism in the late 19th century compelled civil rights activists such as Frederick Douglass to speak out for open borders. But even in that climate, German legislators took it for granted that borders were to be crossed at will in peace (their only debate was over whether governments could arbitrarily deport migrants), and Argentina had no problem entrenching the rights of immigrants into its constitution.

The development of borders that are closed by default — the closed borders regime, I like to call it — is a historically recent feature. Because closed borders are so young, the movement to overturn them is even younger. It should not be terribly surprising then that different opponents of the borders status quo have different ways of describing their views, even if all have the same end in mind.

Beyond that, there are pragmatic reasons why we might want to avoid the label of open borders. A good one, exemplified in Clemens’s wariness of “open borders”, is the usage of this term by closed borders regime advocates as an instance of what blogger Scott Alexander calls the Worst Argument in the World:

I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: “If we can apply an emotionally charged word to something, we must judge it exactly the same as a typical instance of that emotionally charged word.”

Immigration restrictionists frequently tar moderate immigration liberalisations with the label of “open borders” — never mind that giving a few million people a reprieve from deportation is nowhere close to literally tearing down border checkpoints or striking thousands of immigration laws off the statute books. The reason they do this, as Clemens alludes to, is that many people, intentionally or otherwise, conflate free peaceful movement across borders with something far more extreme or obviously undesirable such as:

  • the abolition of the nation-state
  • the abolition of national defence
  • free rein for criminals or infectious diseases to travel without inspection
  • abolition of any individual right to exclude others from one’s private property as one sees fit

“Open borders” is meant to be pejorative; it is meant to be a dogwhistle, striking an emotional chord with people who consider it an emotional article of faith that sovereignty can never co-exist with open borders (never mind that nation-states existed for centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia without closing their borders). If restrictionists get away with taunting moderates for supporting slightly-less restrictive policies because they amount to “open borders”, imagine the opprobrium and the closed minds we may encounter if we publicly proclaim our support for open borders! So I perfectly understand Clemens’s eagerness to demur here, and state he supports freer human mobility across international borders in lieu of saying he supports open borders.

But what happens if we try Oberman’s preferred formulation? What if we just say we are for a right to migrate? Does this clear up the confusion, since one cannot accuse us directly of wanting to undermine the peace and security of modern societies? Does this preemptively address the unfounded concern that we are out to abolish the right of private property owners to exclude foreigners from their own living rooms and dining tables? It would seem not; on more than one occasion (here and here), I’ve encountered people who allege the right to migrate infringes individuals’ right to keep strangers out of their own homes.

To be honest, it does not bother me much either way whether we call it open borders, the right to migrate, human mobility, freedom of movement, or just the right to be left alone in peace. Whatever you call it, like all those I have cited, I believe in a world where any person who wants to go somewhere for pleasure, family, work, or study, and is willing to pay the fare it will take to get him or her there, will be able to do so in peace. And I believe a major precondition for getting there is to abolish most of the immigration laws in place today.

As I wrote during the Ebola crisis of 2014, immigration laws aimed at quarantining and treating infectious diseases do not bother me. I am no more distressed about immigration laws that prevent terrorists from entering than I am about trade controls that prevent international trade in weapons of mass destruction. But beyond these, I believe most immigration laws are spurious, unnecessary, and aimed purely at excluding people who have done nothing wrong except being born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.

How do we operationalise open borders? How do we enact the right to migrate into law, and guarantee freedom of movement to all people? The nation-state is not going away any time soon, and so the answer lies in getting our nation-states to change their laws. I am on-board with the liberal premise that the ultimate purpose of government is to protect individuals’ liberty to go about their own lives in peace — and so as sympathetic as I might be to the utopic vision of having no borders at all, I believe we should at least hold our own governments accountable for protecting the liberties of all who seek protection and peace within our borders.

Clemens notes that he tries to refocus the discussion not on the semantics of “open borders”, but rather on what operationally we seek to achieve. I think we in the movement, wonks like Clemens aside, often shy away from articulating a specific policy we would like to see. Part of this is because the legal and policy analysis necessary to enact open borders has rarely been done, and would vary significantly from country to country. Our goal is simply to place freedom of movement on the political agenda in the first place — to force citizens to reckon with the malicious wrongdoings of our own governments in persecuting people who have done nothing wrong.

But a further part of this is also because, just as our goal has many labels, it also has many possible routes — we’ve discussed these paths to open borders plenty in the past and intend to keep doing so. And I do think one appeal of the “freedom of movement” or “right to migrate” labels is that they are somewhat more agnostic about which of the options we have are the best or the appropriate route(s) to take.

Open borders tends to imply, just as it says on the box, borders that are open. This would suggest borders with no checkpoints (perhaps just a sign such as “You are now entering Germany”), or borders with checkpoints where very few are stopped — i.e., guards are posted, but they do not stop anyone unless the person appears suspicious, similar to how guards are often posted in airports or train stations, but they do not stop anyone unless that person fits a suspicious profile.

German-Austria border

You are now entering Germany; the Germany-Austria border. Original photographer unknown; image downloaded from The Lobby.

Meanwhile, freedom of movement and the right to migrate carry fewer explicit connotations about how our societies would in practice respect and protect these liberties. Of course, we could always abolish or minimise border controls, as literal open borders would suggest. But we could also simply offer visas to anyone who applies for them (subject to standard exclusions for people bearing diseases, weapons, or criminal intent of course). We could maintain checkpoints and inspect every traveller while still waving 98% of them through, as was actually done on the famous US checkpoint of Ellis Island in the era of open borders. Or we could even technically maintain more controls on immigration, while blatantly waiving most of these controls, as Argentina does.

But this potential semantic-implementation distinction does not bother me much either. After all, these days virtually every domestic traveller getting on an aeroplane at a regular port of travel is subject to a screening and document inspection of some kind. Beyond the most absolute of pedants, and a handful of laudable liberty-of-travel advocates, I think most of us would agree that this does not mean we lack internal open borders. The internal borders of our countries are porous to virtually all of us except those on government watchlists; our borders are internally open.

At the end of it all, I am less concerned about what kinds of checkpoints we have, or what screenings we may subject travellers to (as worthy a set of issues these might be) than I am about ensuring as many people travelling in peace are able to do so free from government agents standing in their way, preventing them from moving in peace with all the coercive force of the state. To my mind, it is a waste of taxpayer money, a danger to peace and safety, and worst of all abusive and discriminatory for law enforcement officials to be treating people seeking to visit friends and family or work for a fair wage as though they are dangerous criminals. It does nobody any good for our governments to consider peaceful, orderly movement a threat to the fundamental order of society.

It is this dangerous and unjust treatment of migration as a crime that I want to end. And I do not much care what we call our goal, or how we reach it. What I want is a world where my government, and every government, dispenses justice to every person seeking it from them. Where every government respects the right of individuals to go about their own lives and arrange their own affairs in peace, no matter their nationality or circumstance of birth.

A world with open borders; a world with freedom of movement; a world with the right to migrate. It matters not what we call it, but to all of us, it should matter very much that we achieve it. For as two German legislators rising in favour of abolishing deportation once said:

Liebknecht: A right that does not exist for all is no right.

Lasker: …it is a barbarity to make a distinction between foreigners and the indigenous in the right to hospitable residence. Not only every German, but every human being has the right to not be chased away like a dog.

The image featured at the top of this post is of graffiti in the city of Cardiff, the United Kingdom. Photo by David Mordey; original graffiti artist unknown.

I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion

To many, even those sympathetic towards it, I imagine liberalising immigration policy is just another pet bleeding heart cause — similar to saving the environment, helping battered women, aiding the homeless, etc. It can seem arrogant of open borders advocates to compare our cause to historical antecedents such as the abolition of slavery or apartheid. And I get these sentiments — in fact, I quite agree with them on a very fundamental level.

In the daily news, it’s rare to not come across a photograph or story of some activists fighting for an immigration-related cause. Sometimes it’s for the cause of allowing immigrants in the US to get in-state university tuition benefits; other times, it’s protesting the detention of asylum-seekers (whether in the US, UK, Australia, or elsewhere); most commonly, it’s a protest, somewhere in the US, demanding the cessation of deportations. Recently, the cause celebre has been, of course, the problem of children migrating to the US. Now, to be fully honest with you, I often look at these pictures and read these stories, and feel that I just don’t care.

Now, of course I do care very much about the issues at stake here: I spend a lot of time writing about open borders, for pete’s sake! So why do I read about immigration in the news and just go “meh”?

To add to the puzzle, this is actually a very personal and emotional issue for me. It’s impossible, actually, for me to understand migration without reference to emotion and personal experience. As a child, I lived for years knowing that my mother could be deported if she and my father were to separate, or even if she were to be widowed, thanks to my country’s immigration laws. As a student in the US, I wondered whether I’d ever be able to get a job here, with visa laws effectively banning me from taking a job outside investment banking or management consulting. And now as a US resident, I’ve seen my friends — and even my girlfriend — be forced to leave this country, thanks to its patently ridiculous laws.

So why then my disconnect from all these stories? My epiphany came when I read a story in the Washington Post about an American woman bidding her Bangladeshi husband farewell before his impending deportation. I’ve felt the same fears and worries they do and lived through similar frustration and farewells thanks to arbitrary immigration controls. I could put myself in their shoes.

Now this actually made me despair further: how can advocates of liberal migration laws win people’s hearts and minds with sob stories like these? Hardly any citizens will ever face the violent force of their own governments’ exclusionary immigration policies. How can citizens begin to care about the effects of their immigration laws, let alone be moved to support changing them? How, when even someone like me — one who deeply cares about immigration and demands open borders — can only be affected by a story that’s personally connected to my own?

Then, I read this comment on the Washington Post article:

Sorry, but she is making a choice here and it is not for her husband. If she is placing all these things before him, then it cannot be helped. If I were in her shoes there would be no way that I would not be on that plane with my spouse. I might miss Kansas, but I would make the necessary arrangements and I would be at his side.

Our actions reveal where are loyalties lie, and this lady appears to be more concerned with living in Kansas and the job she loves and all the rest, than in being with the man whom she married.

My reaction to this was anger. I fumed. To restate the cold logic here: “If the government forces your husband to live in a strange country where there are no jobs for you or him, and you choose to keep your job and the home you’ve both shared for decades, you clearly just love money and comfort more than your husband.” Pretty easy to say this when you’ve never had the government kick your partner out of the country — as has actually happened to me and to many of my friends.

After I calmed down, I asked myself why a commenter might react to the story in this manner. As a general rule, people are not randomly vindictive. So why the harsh reaction aimed at this woman and her husband? The obvious answer is that the commenter did not think to question the justice system’s decision to exclude someone; if the system has decided, the decision must be correct. Justice must be served.

But why is it that we don’t think to question the justice of this system? Why does this story not move us to ponder whether the law here was just? Why do the journalists and activists putting these stories out there not explicitly question the justice of an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth?

I’ve come to think that the reason I don’t care when I see pictures of hunger strikers protesting deportations, or picketers demanding immigrant access to certain benefits, and so on, is because these stories have always been framed in terms of compassion — not justice.

This is not to say I consider myself heartless or lacking compassion, although I am not in any place to judge myself. Rather, it is that when I read about stories which don’t directly affect me, it is simply difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. And when these stories try to engage me by asking me to feel compassion for those affected, I only feel a sense of weariness.

There are a million causes in the world, and almost all of them seem to be asking for my compassion when I open the daily papers. Today it’s genocide in Darfur; tomorrow it’s children being kidnapped in Nigeria; next week, it might be people rendered homeless in the wake of a natural disaster (tsunami? hurricane? earthquake?); next month, perhaps another school shooting. I don’t have the time or energy to be emotionally invested in every single one of these issues.

And to the degree that I might choose to invest my emotions, there’s no particularly compelling reason to choose immigration as my humanitarian cause du jour over, say, victims of domestic violence or poaching endangered animals. You can tell me all the reasons why I ought to care more about immigration, but if you have to give me a 21-point list of reasons why I ought to care — if your sob story cannot speak for itself — then you’re not likely to win me over.

It may strike one as galling to so baldly rank and prioritise humanitarian or compassionate causes, but this is exactly what all of us as citizens and individuals do all the time. Virtually every one of these activism stories pulls at the humanitarian, compassionate angle, but none of us has the time to devote to more than a handful of such issues.

Now, the compassionate angle I think actually works especially well for many causes. But I think for migration it seems singularly unlikely to work; if anything, it can easily become counter-productive. Unlike with a cause like animal rights or famine relief — almost everyone’s played with a pet or felt the pangs of hunger before — few of us have experienced the feeling of being persecuted by the state under the aegis of arbitrary immigration laws. You can’t count on your audience to share the emotional experiences you might have as a migrant, activist, or journalist who has personally seen the horror of arbitrary immigration laws.

When you play up the compassionate angle in the story of a victim of deportation, what are you asking for? Unlike with many humanitarian causes, you are not asking for charitable donations. Rather, you are asking people to demand a change or an exception to settled law.

Now, we can certainly demand that laws be changed on compassionate or humanitarian grounds. But how convincing is this? If people believe the justice system has found someone guilty of a crime, are they going to believe the criminal ought to get clemency simply because we ought to have compassion for the criminal? In an ideal world, this could perhaps be true. But in the real world, people believe that if you’re a criminal, you ought to pay the price set by the justice system.

As a result, the constant framing of immigration as a question of compassion perplexes me. This is like asking for a slave to be set free, not because laws permitting slavery are barbaric and need to be repealed, but because poor Uncle Tom really needs to be free, and oh isn’t it such a shame that in this case the law is irrationally separating him from his family?

I mean, yes, the law is inhumane and barbaric and evil — but that’s the whole point! Asking for compassionate special pleading on purely humanitarian grounds, without ever questioning the barbaric law that is in place, simply throws your entire case away. Somehow, this is the modus operandi in how immigration activists campaign for liberal reforms!

Put more bluntly, the case for more liberal migration laws, and yes, open borders, cannot rest on compassionate grounds. Yes, one can make such a compassionate case. But there are a million things needing our compassion. What makes immigrants so special?

The point is not that immigrants are special. No, the point is that immigrants are just like you and me. The point is that our law owes them justice, same as the law owes any and all of us. We cannot use the force of law to exclude people from society in an unjust manner. We cannot allow our government to perpetrate injustice and oppression in our name.

That’s what makes immigration and open borders so compelling to me. I don’t see immigrants as some group in need of special pleading or special compassion from me or the government. I see migrants as ordinary people who, same as anyone else, need to be treated justly. The reason I care so much about this issue is not because I feel immigrants need my special attention — although I think there is a case for more compassion towards those who are strangers in our land. I simply believe that immigrants, like all of us, are entitled to just treatment under the law.

Rohingya being deported from Bangladesh

Immigration reform and open borders are not about making life better for a special, deserving class of people. They are about abolishing systems of injustice which unjustly oppress ordinary people. The woman who loses her deported husband does not need our compassion; she does not need a special exemption from our irrational laws. What she needs, what millions of others like her need, is justice.