Lately I've had borders on the mind. There's been a lot of discussion around this new immigration law in Arizona, and it's forced me to begin articulating my position on border policy. At one time I was an avid supporter of strict border policy enforcement and was the sort of person who would half-joke around about the need for a wall or fence or something at the border.
Over the last few years, as I've thought more carefully about the matter, I've kept rather quiet about the matter, and over time, I've come to an entirely different conclusion. I've come to believe that what we need is not stricter laws, or better enforcement, but open borders. Why? Because I've looked closely at all my arguments for controlling borders, and behind the surface of all the political lingo I've found mostly hatred and unfounded fear.
So I want to give a full account of why I've come to this conclusion. It won't be a complete argument (such would require a book). But I hope to at least provide a thorough account of why I think what I do about border policy. Though it's something I've been thinking a lot about lately, it's not something on which I'm some sort of expert, so please do add your two cents in the comments, especially if you disagree with me.
Jobs, Borders, and Nationalism
A huge concern people often express about opening up borders is that immigrants "take American jobs." Immigrants come and work cheaper (and often harder, it seems to me) and take jobs that Americans would have taken. I know. It's hard to lose a job. But think: the immigrant coming here needs a job too! He and his family have to eat, just like any American family. Why should the American get the job? Why should we favor the needs of someone born in Arizona over the needs of someone born in Mexico? What's so great about Americans? Do Americans, as Americans, have special rights that every human being doesn't have?
The notion that "American" jobs belong to "American" people is a nationalistic one. And nationalism, it seems to me should be to as scary a word as racism. Their similarity is striking. Both involve the denial of rights to people on the basis of some artificial distinction. We must be willing to admit the simple truth: nationality is as artificial as race. And we have to ask ourselves: do rights belong to human beings as human beings or only to certain human beings due to their nationality?
Roderick Long made this point well a few weeks ago, when he pointed out the conflict between two claims American conservatives often make:
Our constitutional rights aren’t granted to us by government. Our rights come from God, and the Constitution simply recognises them.
Illegal immigrants and terrorist suspects don’t have constitutional rights because they’re not American citizens.
At first glance, this seems to be almost a plain contradiction. But, as someone points out in one of the comments, there is a way to reconcile these two statements. The problem is that it requires a rather disturbing synthesis statement, like the one that one commenter suggests:
Only American citizens were created equal, because God only cares about Americans.So, if we say that rights are granted by God, and then we say that certain people don't have them because they're American, then we are effectively saying that God hasn't granted them certain things because they aren't American. The same thing goes for any similar formula without God. If we say human beings have rights as human beings, and yet that there are certain rights immigrants don't have, then we are effectively saying that they are somehow less human because they aren't American. And this is exactly the spirit of nationalism: to make people of one nationality out to be better, in terms of the rights they deserve to have respected, than people of other national origins. And that is as morally reprehensible as racism.
I'm not saying, of course, that immigrants should receive any special favors. I'm not suggesting anyone get a leg up on everyone else. I just want to give people an equal chance to compete for a job. America ought to be the land of opportunity, not of entitlement. And yet, it is the self-professed opponents of entitlement, the conservatives, who are most vocally opposed to freeing up our borders. But what is the claim that American jobs are for American people except an insistence upon an entitlement of Americans to certain jobs!?
And consider the economics of the matter: producers will go where the cheap labor is. You can't stop companies from going to other countries where labor is cheaper. And this is exactly what they're doing: outsourcing. Keeping cheap labor in other countries will not prevent employers from taking advantage of it. It will simply cause those employers to go elsewhere. So, on top of being morally reprehensible, preventing foreigners from competing for American jobs is impossible!
The other major concern people have about open borders is a matter of security. "Immigrants commit crimes." People claim. "After all, they're willing to break immigration laws, why not other laws? Immigration is a threat to our safety and security!" Not quite. This worry about crime and security, as it turns out, is simply not based in fact. The evidence (see here and here) actually shows increased immigration is correlated with decreased crime!
All of this said, I should point out that opening borders might exacerbate the effects of existing bad policies. This, however, is not a reason to write off open borders, but a reason to ask tough questions about these policies. Often people seem to use this as an argument against open borders. It seems to me that this should rather be an argument about those policies. There are two such policies of particular importance: welfare transfers and minimum wage.
One common concern about immigrants is that they take advantage of our welfare system. Opening up the borders, it seems, would likely make this problem worse. More poor people would come across the border and take advantage of various programs designed to help poor people. This, of course, would be expensive. No matter what one's position about such programs is, however, this problem cannot be one for open borders. If one is an opponent of welfare transfers generally, or even for the most part, it seems to me that the problem is with the welfare transfers. They, not border policy are the problem. On the other hand, if one is an advocate of welfare programs, I don't see how one can be disturbed by immigrants receiving benefits without invoking the very sort of nationalism I criticize above. If poor people have rights to the provision of certain goods, why not poor immigrants? Either way, I don't see how the problem of immigrants benefiting from welfare programs is a problem for immigration rather than for those programs.
Another important policy issue in regard to immigration is minimum wage. Any opening of the borders, it seems to me, really ought to coincide with the removal of minimum wage. This is simply the flipside of what I've already asserted: America should be the land of opportunity, not entitlement. Minimum wage both destroys opportunity and increases a sense of entitlement. On one hand, it reduces the number of jobs available at a low wage, by making it higher. At the same time, it encourages a sense among people that they are owed a certain wage. Both of these, it seems to me, are wrong in themselves and bad for immigration policy. The wonderful thing about many immigrants is that they are willing to work hard and to do so for prices that are affordable for employers. The existence of minimum wage discourages the virtue of hard work by breeding entitlement, and limits the benefits to employers (and thus to consumers, for whom prices can be lowered) of the willingness of many immigrants to work for less than their American competitors.