The Left Case for Open Borders

Read this important piece from John Washington in the Nation to understand not only the Left case for open borders but why open borders is the immigration policy framework most consistent with the stated principles and values of the Left. Washington argues that borders don’t just reflect divisions among societies, they create and reinforce gaps in wealth, security, political power, and cultural understanding:

The oft-cited and oft-exaggerated comparison of El Paso as one of the safest cities in America and Juárez as suffering from uncontrollable violence is not because the border wall protects El Paso from the violence or poverty of Juárez. The wage gap and security disparity are because of the border wall: transnational corporations drawing massive numbers of nearly starvation-wage workers to Juárez and exploiting a paucity of labor protections. And with US illicit-drug demand constant over the years, a hardened border makes trafficking and smuggling more lucrative for the paramilitary cartels and the corrupt state agencies they work with, entrenching their stranglehold on the population. More than marking the difference between people, therefore, borders make the difference—imaginary lines fissuring families, cultures, and ecosystems.

Borders do not enhance security or communal ideals; rather, they are exploited by demagogues to gain, maintain, and expand power:

[A]s the historian Greg Grandin writes, borders “announce the panic of power.” It’s a point that seems abundantly evident as Trump, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other authoritarian leaders try to grip power by inciting panic at the fraying edges of imaginary ideals.

Washington articulates what is often lost in discussions about immigration policy: that immigration restrictions not only limit freedom of movement but represent a pervasive and unjustifiable formal impediment to fair and equal treatment under the law. Immigrants are excluded from access to basic rights and freedoms in a structured way that defines the parameters of citizenship, mirroring the tradition of legal and social exclusion of Black Americans, from slavery to the carceral state. Immigrants can’t vote but are scapegoated by elected officials, are required to pay taxes but are excluded from social programs funded by those taxes, are precluded from working legally yet lauded for “doing the jobs Americans won’t do,” and they work in unsafe low-wage occupations but can’t access basic health care. Immigrants live in a state of perpetual contingency, at risk of being imprisoned and exiled at any time. The U.S. government is creating a kind of totalitarian state for immigrants, encouraging people to call ICE out of civic duty, deputizing anyone with prejudice and a grudge to participate in state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. We’ve seen this all before, but somehow can’t draw the historical connections. For basic rights to matter in a system where millions of people are embedded in society and/or seeking refuge from economic or political repression but are never able to become citizens, rights must be disaggregated from citizenship:

To be a true freedom, the freedom to move across borders, therefore, must be accompanied by the ability to access all the rights that native-born residents enjoy: The right to pay into social programs and to ultimately benefit from them. The right to be protected by labor laws, to access minimum wages, overtime protections, and more. The right to unionize and to collectively bargain without fear of reprisal. The right to live free from fear of being hounded by police or immigration officers. The right, perhaps after a period of residency, to vote in your new home and have a say in its future. There’s no real reason for these rights to be tied to citizenship, and, as the above has hopefully shown, ample reasons for them not to be—all that remains is to work out how we get there.


Finally, Washington interrogates the flawed premises underlying most liberals’ current preferred immigration policy: a tragically unworkable “comprehensive immigration reform” that would trade a partial and burdensome amnesty for additional border restrictions and immigration enforcement. Yet even this flawed and partial solution has remained perennially out of reach, pushed off to the next election, and then the next, and the next. There is an urgent need for a proactive, rights-based immigration policy framework on the Left, but the shortcomings of the current approach remain invisible to the broad spectrum of elected officials on the left and the advocates who tell them what to think and say about immigration. Washington poses the question: 

Is it time to seriously work through what a world would be like that allowed any people to leave their country and enter a new one freely, without penalty, and without forcing them into underground economies or worse? Is it time to envision a transnational movement that advocates for equal rights for all people, regardless of birthplace? Is it time, in other words, for us to open the borders?
. . .
It’s typical when defending open borders to go straight to the counterarguments—why there wouldn’t be an overwhelming influx of migrants, why wages wouldn’t plummet, why there wouldn’t be a paralyzing run on government services, and why crime wouldn’t increase, all of which are likely true. But policies are rarely won with defense—allaying imagined fears can solidify those fears—and the affirmative argument for opening borders is the more compelling: how a borderless world would lead to more freedom, more equality, and more justice. As [Harsha] Walia writes, “All movements need an anchor in a shared positive vision, not a homogeneous or exact or perfect condition, but one that will nonetheless dismantle hierarchies, disarm concentrations of power, guide just relations, and nurture individual autonomy alongside collective responsibility.”

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