The “No One Is Illegal” YouTube video

A YouTube video by the No one is illegal group has been doing the rounds (if you have trouble playing the embedded video, access it on YouTube here). I’d like to thank John Roccia (here’s his blog) for sending me the link.

The video, which appears to have been shot in London, is set up as follows: the protagonist sets up an arbitrary barrier on a bridge and says that all those on one side of the bridge need to show their documents and prove their worthiness in order to cross over to the other side of the bridge, drawing on the idea that immigration restrictions are arbitrary and that there is a prima facie moral right to migrate. The people in the video whose bridge-crossing rights were denied seem to have been actual people, not stage actors, and there are some interesting verbal exchanges in the video.

Both sophisticated and unsophisticated restrictionists would be quick to scoff at the video’s arguably naive critique of borders. Certainly the video is not the final word on the matter, and there are any number of counterarguments that can be made to its implicit critique of borders. These counterarguments can be met with counterarguments, which can again be met with counterarguments … the game can go on indefinitely. In many ways, the video is a simplistic rendering of an argument that fails to acknowledge many complex issues.

Nonetheless, I think it is a valuable contribution as a beginning move in an argument for open borders. I believe that the right to migrate is presumptive, not absolute. But it is a presumptive right, which means that restricting this right arbitrarily requires a strong justification, a justification that should be at least somewhat stronger than a purely utilitarian/consequentialist argument. There are plenty of theoretical rights frameworks, such as Nathan Smith’s theory of the streets (details on the right to migrate page), that help make the case. This video, by blocking access on the literal street, makes Nathan’s point about the theory of the streets.

Moreover, while the counterarguments offered by restrictionists, mainly about the harms to immigrant-receiving countries, do offer some possible edge cases and exceptions to the right to migrate, they do not destroy the validity of the underlying idea of the right to migrate, which is put across well by the video. So, although the video is a simplification, it is still a simplification that is correct in essentials.

PS: Some commenters on YouTube and elsewhere have suggested that the protagonist of the video is an international socialist and/or holds other views that make him difficult to take seriously. I don’t know of the protagonist’s work in other areas (there’s only one other video on this specific YouTube channel, which seems to be on a similar theme) but my purpose here is to offer my thoughts on a specific video, not evaluate the protagonist’s overall political stance

2 thoughts on “The “No One Is Illegal” YouTube video”

  1. I think the video is an effective strategy at raising awareness of the wrongness of immigration restrictions.

    Any street demonstration is necessarily going to portray an issue in the simplest possible terms. What matters is that you convey the general idea, and the general idea here is that borders are arbitrary and that preventing people from crossing hurts them. We can worry about caveats to those ideas in longer discussions with people who want to engage us later. But the purpose of a street demonstration is to start a discussion, not to end one.

    In an analogous case, I’ve participated in anti-war demonstrations in which I held up a sign that read “Stop Torture.” I believe torture is so bad that it would be wrong in nearly every circumstance, with some extreme exceptions. But I don’t let those few exceptions prevent me from advocating against torture.

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