Since the 2016 presidential campaign, immigration has been a pervasive issue in American politics. We have seen countless controversies and scandals surrounding the Trump administration’s handling of immigration-related situations; the Muslim travel ban, the termination of DACA, the ramping-up of ICE raids, and the separation and detention of migrant children at the border, to name a few. Public opinion polls demonstrate that immigration is indeed very important to Americans: immigration consistently shows up in Gallup polls as one of the top three issues that voters care about . In approaching this topic, we need to take into account three major factors: the ethics of immigration, the economics of immigration, and the policy of immigration. By examining each of these in turn, we will see that opening up our borders is not only the right thing to do, but that there are viable policy pathways for an open borders policy that can benefit everyone.
First, let’s examine the ethics of immigration. The past fifty years have seen a dramatic shift in the United States in how we view individual rights against discrimination. Much of this shift comes from the basic idea that people shouldn’t be treated differently because of fundamental personal characteristics. As portrayed in last year’s historical drama On the Basis of Sex, Ruth Bader Ginsburg once argued before the Supreme Court that discrimination on the basis of sex is unlawful because “like race…[it] is a biological, unalterable trait” . Ginsburg makes the argument that it is wrong to discriminate based on gender or race because these are characteristics that each of us as inherit as if at random and outside of our control. The courts have since extended this logic to renounce discrimination on the basis of parental status, age, sexuality, gender identity, and religion; in short, it is the foundation of modern employment discrimination law .
However, there is one “unalterable trait” upon which we evidently still discriminate: country of birth. Someone’s country of birth seems just as immutable and arbitrary as any other unalterable trait. Why, then, do we still allow someone’s status as a citizen, which in most cases depends on her birthplace, to affect the way that we as a country treat her? Consider the hypothetical case of a couple who lives in Newark, New Jersey and is expecting a baby boy. Whether their child is born in Newark or in New York City has no bearing on his ability to live and work in New York if he so chooses, and rightly so. Similarly, thousands of people that live in towns on the U.S.-Mexico border commute across it every day for work. It is not implausible to think that there are some babies who are just as likely to be born in the United States as in Mexico. If state borders don’t change how society treats a person, why do national borders?
These cases are meant to demonstrate the moral arbitrariness of national borders. We could further observe their arbitrariness by examining the way current world borders have come about. As journalist John Washington puts it, “Our current borders are the result of imperial horse-trading, wars of expansion and conquest, and ragged lines cutting clumsily through ethnic areas, as statesmen have deftly minced up the globe seeking to settle scores and extract maximum gain” .
This is not to say that nationality does not matter. Indeed, many take great pride in their national origin and the history that it represents. What I mean instead is that my moral responsibility—and the collective moral responsibility of our society as a whole—to you should not depend on where you were born. Just like race, gender, sexuality, and a host of other things which people either cannot change or should not be expected to change, place of birth should not be the determining factor in whether or not someone is allowed to enter the country, choose for herself where she would like to live and work, and pursue opportunity wherever she may find it.
The economic consequences of open borders are also of critical concern to many Americans. Recent debates over immigration have surfaced several misconceptions about the economics of immigration that I would like to correct. The first is that by allowing relatively poorer and more desperate migrants into the country, they will “steal our jobs” by taking jobs for lower wages, therefore decreasing wages for working class Americans. However, economic research has shown that allowing low-skilled migrants into the labor force actually has no significant effect on wages for native low-skilled workers . Other research has shown that allowing high-skilled immigrants to enter bolsters innovation, increasing wages on the whole for higher-skilled American workers . As we can see, there have been no negative labor market effects from increases in either high- or low-skilled immigration. The second myth is loosely economic, but still very relevant to this debate. There is a misconception that, as Donald Trump put it, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” . Here again, the evidence points in the opposite direction. The Cato Institute, a think tank known for its conservative worldview, has published research indicating that crime rates for undocumented immigrants are about half of the crime rates for native citizens, and crime rates for documented immigrants are even lower . Thus, while these two misconceptions that support immigration restrictions may seem plausible at first glance, they simply are not true.
More broadly, loosening immigration restrictions would benefit everyone economically. Basic economic theory predicts that freeing up the international labor market should increase its economic efficiency. Several studies indicate that this is in fact the case. Some economists have even estimated that world GDP would double if every country had open borders . This economic benefit will be disproportionately felt by developing countries, as workers increase their productivity (and therefore their income) by moving to wealthier countries and send remittances back to family in their countries of origin. But the fact that developing countries will be disproportionately helped doesn’t mean that increased immigration is bad for our economy. The very fact that immigrants can earn higher wages here indicates that they add more value in our economy than they would in their own economy. Additionally, as immigrants are able to increase their own wealth, they cycle that wealth back into our economy in the form of consumption, benefiting everyone.
There are two other ways in which immigrants can be seen as an investment in our economy rather than a burden on it. First, research shows that immigrants tend to have increasing contributions to the economy throughout the generations. For example, although first-generation immigrants have, on average, lower education and lower wages than native workers, the children of those immigrants have, on average, higher education and wages than the children of natives . Even the least-educated group of immigrants closes the education gap by the second generation. The second way that immigrants benefit our economy in the long term is through increased innovation. There is an abundance of research describing how diversity in the workforce spurs companies to innovate and become more competitive . Considering these two factors and the other elements mentioned above, it’s easy to see why so many researchers and policymakers consider strong immigration flows essential to the long-term growth of our economy .
So far I’ve made a moral and economic case for open borders. The last important factor to consider is whether it is practical to have an open borders policy from a policy and implementation perspective. It can seem daunting to make so fundamental a change to our immigration system, even impossible. But opening our borders does not necessarily mean tearing down the physical barriers between us and our neighbors to the north and south, nor does it mean getting rid of Customs and Border Protection. We obviously still need to keep thorough records of the residents in our country, and we will still have the right to uphold our national security by excluding individuals who are known to have violent histories. What it does mean, however, is that we will no longer deny people access to our country simply because of their country of origin.
So, what could an open borders system look like? For those to whom the idea of open borders still seems a little too far-fetched, look at the European Union (EU). In the EU, citizens of any member country can travel, live, and work freely in any other member country . Instituting open borders in the United States might involve making similar agreements with our neighbors and allies, allowing for cooperation on both trade and immigration. In fact, a simple first step would be to expand the immigration provisions that have already been in place for decades with Canada and Mexico under NAFTA and its successor, the USMCA. Whether we adapt this new system in steps, with subsets of countries getting phased in as we iron out the diplomatic and administrative wrinkles, or all at once, we could allow individuals to enter, visit, live, and work simply by virtue of their being a world citizen. We could continue to have a process by which permanent residents who meet certain conditions can become full-fledged citizens and members of society, while allowing all others to remain as welcome guests. We could allow immigrants who are currently undocumented to join the ranks of world citizen guests in our country, giving them the chance to see the benefits of being an official, recognized member of society.
Of course, reasonable people can still have valid concerns about open borders, even after considering the ethical and economic benefits. Here I’d like to address two of the most common concerns. First, people may be concerned that opening our borders would lead to a flood of poor immigrants who want to take advantage of the United States welfare system. People who have this fear may be relieved to hear that immigrants are both less likely to be on welfare and, when they are, they tend to receive lower amounts of welfare payments than do native-born American citizens . Additionally, our current welfare system has in place a number of restrictions in place to keep people from immigrating to the U.S. for the sole purpose of receiving welfare benefits. One example is the requirement that immigrants must live in the U.S. for at least 5 years before being eligible for federal welfare programs. I think that keeping these regulations in place would be a fine way to prevent our new open borders policy from creating perverse incentives.
A second major concern that people might have is that too much immigration erodes American culture. Ironically, stricter enforcement of our southern border has actually contributed to the rising number of Latin American immigrants in the United States. Researchers from Princeton and the University of Guadalajara discovered that before it became too risky for undocumented immigrants to come back and forth, most migrant workers used to travel seasonally between their homes and the U.S. to work. After the ramping-up of border enforcement, many of these workers decided instead to stay permanently in the U.S. and bring their families with them . Thus, seemingly counterintuitive for those who are concerned about the erosion of American culture by immigrants, open borders may actually be the best policy. But regardless of whether open borders would increase or decrease the number of permanent immigrant residents, I believe that opening our arms to people of all backgrounds of nationalities would not represent a threat to our culture, but rather an amazing opportunity. America is, and has always been, a nation of immigrants. We are defined in large part by the rich cultural fabric that diverse people from all over the world have woven as they have united in their common quest for opportunity and freedom. By turning away the future generations of weavers of that cultural fabric, we would only be doing ourselves a disservice.
Making the transition to a system of open borders will not be simple, but it will be well worth the investment. By taking this step, we will bring our immigration system into harmony with the values of equity and fairness with which we seek to treat all people. There is also potential for tremendous economic benefit in such a system—as much for hope-seeking immigrants as for our own domestic economy. By exploring ways to make this possibility a reality, the U.S. will show the world that it truly is still the “land of opportunity.”
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