Open Borders: A Progressive Response To The Immigration Crisis

Above Photo: William Perez/Flickr

Why Migration

People migrate from one place to another for a variety of reasons. A good part of that migration has to do with international relations, national economies, and the increasingly globalized economy. Literally millions of people have moved from one geographic space to another in the twenty-first century, in most cases for reasons of physical fear or economic need. Two prominent causes that “push” people to leave their communities and homeland relate to “hybrid wars” and neoliberal globalization.

Hybrid wars refer to the long-term policies of imperial powers to systematically undermine political regimes that pursue policies and goals that challenge their global hegemony. Over long periods of time imperial powers have used force, covert operations, supporting pliant local elites, and funneling money to disrupt local political processes. If targeted countries still reject outside interference the imperial power uses force to overthrow recalcitrant governments. In the 1980s all these tactics were used by the United States to crush revolutionary ferment in Central America. Of course, the US hybrid war strategy has been a staple of United States policy in the region ever since President Franklin Roosevelt declared the policy of “The Good Neighbor.”

Neoliberalism refers to the variety of policies that rich capitalist countries and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization have imposed on debt-ridden poor countries. These policies require poor countries to cut back on public services, deregulate their economies, reduce tariffs that protect their own industries and agriculture, and in other ways insist that poor countries open their economies to foreign investment and trade penetration. The impacts of neoliberalism have been to impose austerity on largely marginalized populations. Their agriculture and industries have been undermined by subsidized agribusinesses from the Global North and global investors. Since the initiation of neoliberal policies in the 1970s gaps between rich and poor nations and rich and poor people within nations have grown all across the world, with a few exceptions such as China.

In sum, people everywhere have experienced the creation of repressive regimes and economic policies that have shifted vast majorities from modest survival to deep poverty. (Susan Jonas once wrote that the Guatemalan people lived more secure lives before the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the fifteenth century than ever since). The globalization of the economy, increased violence and repression within countries (largely involving United States interference), increasing income and wealth inequality and poverty, and the rise of repressive regimes everywhere, has led to massive emigration. Some estimates indicate that 37 million people left their home countries (some 45 countries) between 2010 and 2015 for humanitarian reasons.

One of the ironies of world history is that capital in the form of investments, trade, the purchase of natural resources, the globalization of production, and military interventions have been common and necessary features of capitalism since its emergence in the sixteenth century. But, paradoxically, and except for the global slave trade and selected periods of history, the movement of people has been illegal. (Sometimes branding migrants as “illegal” has been a device to cheapen their labor). The idea of national sovereignty has been used to justify categorizing some human migrants as “illegal.” If capital is and has been legal, the movement of people should be legal as well. It makes no sense, nor is it humane, to brand any human beings as “illegal.”

The Concept of Open Borders

This sketchy analysis of the “root causes” of emigration suggest the need to oppose imperialism, both in the form of hybrid wars and promotion of neoliberal economic policies. This traditional task of peace and anti-imperialist campaigns is ongoing and needs to continue. And the analyses of the deleterious effects of hybrid wars and neoliberalism should be linked to movements fighting against  cruel and inhumane immigration policies in recipient countries, such as the United States. In addition, drawing on history, law, ethics, and a humane and socialist vision of the universality of humankind, progressives should expand on a conversation raised by some about the concept of “open borders.”

The idea of open borders has not been sufficiently discussed as the immigration crisis in the United States and Europe has unfolded. The core concept, with much room for discussion of implementation, suggests that, as a recently endorsed Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) calls for, there should be an “uninhibited transnational free movement of people….and a pathway to citizenship for all non-citizen residents.”  The idea of open borders implies that no human being by virtue of her/his presence in any geographic space can be defined as “illegal” and that the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights apply to everyone, everywhere.

In a 2017 article Aisha Dodwell, Global Justice Now, wrote in defense of open borders (Aisha Dodwell, “7 Reasons Why We should Have Open Borders,”   New Internationalist, November 29, 2017, . Among her arguments are the following:

Borders are tools to separate the rich and powerful from the poor.

-Borders do not stop efforts to emigrate but exacerbate violence against already victimized people.

-Immigrants are erroneously blamed for declining employment and jobs when, in fact, it is the demonization of immigrants that divides workers from each other.

-Open borders would allow for emigres to return home when the brutal repressive and economic conditions that led them to flee were reduced.

-Open borders would lead to greater employment, increased earnings, rising demand for goods and services, and through income repatriation, more money sent back to families in countries the emigres fled. In short, open borders would be a stimulus for economic growth in both the country of origin and the host country of emigres.

-Open borders would mean the equalization of the rights of people to emigrate; thus avoiding the current policies that allow for immigration of certain populations (such as skilled workers) and not others.

-Historically, open borders have always existed for corporations, banks, the super-rich, tourists and other select populations who are beneficiaries of the global capitalist system.

Earlier Roque Planes, Latino Voices, (“16 Reasons Why Opening Our Borders Makes More Sense Than Militarizing Them,” Huffpost, September 2, 2014, ) adds to the list of reasons justifying open borders. Planes quotes an immigration expert who has argued that, with glaring exceptions such as Asians, open borders existed until the 1920s. “‘Legally’ meant something very different then than it does now. At the time, the United States accepted practically everyone who showed up with few restrictions other than the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and a brief health examination. The foreign-born share of the population, 12.9 percent, is lower today than it was during the entire period from 1860 to 1920, according to data published by the Brookings institution.”

Planes posited arguments pertaining to open borders:
-Today capital and goods flow across borders but not always labor.
-Rich people have the privilege of open borders.
-the US immigration system is broken.
-Open borders within the European Union, while increasingly volatile politically, did not lead to the collapse of European economies.
-‘Illegal’ immigration is a direct resultant of US policies. Planes sites overthrowing governments, financing militaries in poor countries, promoting policies that destroy domestic agriculture in poor countries, and, he could have added, the war on drugs.

-Open borders increase the possibility of immigrants returning to their homelands.

-Immigrants, in the main, are not the cause of stagnant wages in the United States. Using anti-immigrant and racist policies divert attention from the primary causes of economic exploitation.

-The broken immigration system has provided huge profits for the prison/industrial complex and large budgets for law enforcement agencies.

As to the last point, Todd Miller, Empire of Borders: The Expansion if the U.S. Border Around the World, Verso Books, 2019, argues that United States policy is “pushing out the border,” such that allies tighten their own borders to serve the needs of expanding imperial control. In addition, by pressuring other countries to tighten their own border security, the U.S. is expanding its border security apparatus, to include new special forces and expansion of State Department and other agency activities. A reviewer of Miller’s book, (Cora Currier, Pushing out the Border: How the U.S. is Waging a Global War on Migration,”  Portside, August 4, 2019, quotes Miller who writes that U.S. Customs and Border Protection “has trained new patrol and homeland security units for Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan borders.”

The reviewer points out from Miller’s study that “…the U.S. Department of Homeland Security can be found assisting border projects in the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, India, Poland, Turkey, and Vietnam.” In addition the Border Patrol has offices in Mexico and Canada and a presence in Puerto Rico to oversee the Caribbean. Quoting Miller: “Hundreds of millions in U.S. funds have flowed to Central American borders to turn them into U.S.-style defensible zones.” And soldiers from around the world are flown to the U.S. southwest to gain experience in border control. Clearly, Miller is describing a growing military/corporate/immigration complex. The ideological glue justifying this massive enterprise are claims about national sovereignty and presumed racist threats that people fleeing repression and starvation represent.

What To Do?

Along with the panoply of proposals for immigration reform, campaigns to combat racism, and the movements to provide sanctuary to desperate migrant peoples, progressives need to look at the history/ theory/ and practice of anti-immigrant policies. A central conclusion that needs to be raised is to call and work for open borders as suggested by the DSA resolution on open borders. 

In sum central elements of a truly radical and humane response to the immigration crisis in the United States and the world should include:

-Increased efforts to challenge imperialism everywhere in both its political/military dimensions and its intrusive neoliberal economic policies

-Rejection of the idea that people can be deemed “illegal.”

-Mobilizing around the concept of opening borders to people fleeing repression and economic deprivation, similar to the U.S immigration policies of the early part of the twentieth century.

-Using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a guide to law and practice all across the globe.

-Revitalizing programs of humanitarian assistance on a global basis including revisiting the possible value of instituting economic regulations of global capitalism that were once in the United Nations, referred to as “The   New International Economic Order.”

-Work to dismantle the military/corporate/immigration complex.

While these larger demands will be difficult to achieve, working for them and articulating a vision of the world where human beings are not deemed illegal will add clarity to the reasons behind more modest demands for reform.