Open Borders

Road to Resilience


Republicans try to scare voters away from Democrats by telling us that Democrats are for “open borders”—something the Democrats then strenuously deny.  It seems to me that a “knee-jerk” reaction to something usually means that an idea is rejected way before it arrives at the frontal cortex.  I think it deserves at least some consideration.

The idea of borders was coincident with the formation of nation-states.  It was pretty straightforward:  the more territory you have, the more people and resources you command, and the more powerful the leader of that nation is.  Since more people meant bigger armies and more work getting done, they may have been more worried about people leaving than coming in.  In my reading for this article, one author said that borders were generally pretty porous until after WWII.  Today, border security is higher than it has ever been.

Ironically, it may have been the establishment of the “country of immigrants,” the USA, that caught the imagination of people from all over the world to seek a better life here.  The massive influx of people in the nineteenth century were mostly objected to for the cultural and ethnic differences with what was seen as the “American” culture, that is, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and English speaking.  Those immigrants from Europe were soon assimilated while those of other racial types, especially the Asians, were rejected and, in some instances, actually exiled.  As late as 75 years ago, we had the Japanese internment camps.  Blacks, Latins, and Native Americans (what irony!) are still knocking at the door.

Our concern now is the rise of Latin American immigration from the south.  The primary objection is said to be economic—that they are taking jobs away from American citizens.  I think the real objection is that they are bringing in a cultural/ethnic influence that many are afraid will dilute and change what is seen to be White European (mainly British) culture. However, our unique American culture is already a heady mix of strains from all over the world.  What some think of as white and European is also jazz, salsa, yoga, pizza, chow mein, and burritos.

We are now on the forefront of a world culture that is evident in all the cosmopolitan places in the world.  While language and material cultural artifacts are wonderfully different from one place to the next, there is a clear cultural affinity we can recognize that is ours as well as theirs.

According to Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, migration makes economic sense.  For reasons most economists can’t explain, moving a worker from a low wage economy to a high wage economy greatly enriches the economy as a whole.  There are many different kinds of immigrants, and while it would be unseemly to generalize, there are numerous success stories.  Zenophobia remains, in my opinion, the biggest stumbling block.

There are still reasons for borders.  Having no borders implies a global authority, and we have good reason to fear further concentration of power.  Economic and political inequality in the world is so great that open borders would create far more movement and chaos than we have now.  If we transferred enough wealth and aid to the struggling countries, there would be much less need to contemplate pulling up stakes and heading to an unknown land.  Everybody doesn’t have to have exactly the same wealth.  We just need an even playing field and equal opportunity.  We already know that people in the poorer states, both in the US and the EU, are not swarming into the wealthier states.  If we are in the same ballpark, most people will prefer to stay where they are.

Some cultural differences, as well, are so extreme that allowing people to move freely could create widespread civic unrest, and creating a uniform legal system across the world would be some time in coming.  Not to mention the disaster of allowing people who are avowed enemies to freely enter a country.  Global unity is a dream— we aren’t there yet.  Better to maintain a federation of governments and move piecemeal toward more open borders.

Right now, we can work toward creating more economic and political equality in the world.  In my mind, that is ultimately the source of all global conflict.  We can once again allow temporary economic visa programs to help transfer wealth to poorer countries while enriching the host countries as well.  We can decrease zenophobia by sending our people for extended visits in poorer countries.  Familiarity breeds trust (and love).

I’m not qualified to make a recommendation, but Michael Clemens offers this,  “The world impoverishes itself much more through blocking international migration than any other single class of international policy. A modest relaxation of barriers to human mobility between countries would bring more global economic prosperity than the total elimination of all remaining policy barriers to goods trade—every tariff, every quota—

plus the elimination of every last restriction on the free movement of capital.”

A world of open borders is possible, and we can start working on it now.