Mi Casa Es Su Casa: A Case for Open Borders

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 [1]. 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” [2]. 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 [3].

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” [4]. 

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 [5]. Other research has shown that allowing high-skilled immigrants to enter bolsters innovation, increasing wages on the whole for higher-skilled American workers [6]. 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” [7]. 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 [8]. 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 [9]. 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 [5]. 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 [10]. 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 [11].

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 [12]. 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 [13]. 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 [14]. 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.”

Sources:

  1. https://news.gallup.com/poll/244367/top-issues-voters-healthcare-economy-immigration.aspx
  2. https://focusfeaturesguilds2018.com/on-the-basis-of-sex/screenplay/On_the_Basis_of_Sex.pdf
  3. https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1010&context=faculty_publications
  4. https://www.thenation.com/article/open-borders-immigration-asylum-refugees/
  5. http://davidcard.berkeley.edu/papers/new-immig.pdf
  6. https://www.bushcenter.org/catalyst/immigration/orrenius-too-many-immigrants.html
  7. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-anti-immigrant-invasion-rhetoric-was-echoed-el-paso-ncna1039286
  8. https://www.cato.org/blog/illegal-immigrants-crime-assessing-evidence
  9. https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/08/06/open-borders-economy-workers
  10. https://images.forbes.com/forbesinsights/StudyPDFs/Innovation_Through_Diversity.pdf
  11. https://www.smithsoniansecondopinion.org/immigration-america/are-immigrants-good-american-economy-180965177/
  12. http://www.welfare.ie/en/Pages/Moving-to-another-EU-Country_holder.aspx
  13. https://www.cato.org/publications/immigration-research-policy-brief/immigration-welfare-state-immigrant-native-use-rates
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5049707/
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Helaman Sanchez

HELAMAN SANCHEZ is a senior from Detroit, Michigan. He studies Economics and Political Science, and his passions include economic justice and the history of race. Helaman loves music, so he tries to practice guitar every day and aspires to have a band in his basement one day. He also enjoys reading, hiking with his wife and their Golden Retriever, and listening to podcasts on 2x speed. Proud of his nerdiness, Helaman is exactly the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to analyze his career options. He will work at a social impact consulting firm after graduating and is considering the eventual pursuit of an MBA or MPP.

Helaman Sanchez

HELAMAN SANCHEZ is a senior from Detroit, Michigan. He studies Economics and Political Science, and his passions include economic justice and the history of race. Helaman loves music, so he tries to practice guitar every day and aspires to have a band in his basement one day. He also enjoys reading, hiking with his wife and their Golden Retriever, and listening to podcasts on 2x speed. Proud of his nerdiness, Helaman is exactly the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to analyze his career options. He will work at a social impact consulting firm after graduating and is considering the eventual pursuit of an MBA or MPP.

5 thoughts on “Mi Casa Es Su Casa: A Case for Open Borders

  • October 30, 2019 at 5:41 am
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    The logic of this article would also apply to something titled “Why People with 73 IQs Should Be Admitted to Harvard” or “The Case for Free Stays at the Ritz Carlton.” His “moral case” for open borders is the logical equivalent of “the place Jim lives is better than where Susie lives so Jim is an immoral bigot for not letting Susie move in rent free.” This is to say that the author conveniently ignores that resources are finite and that a confluence of other factors (many of which his rather stupid proposal would undermine) led to the economic prosperity that he thinks the United States is morally obligated dish out to passing immigrants like candy.

    Another laughable choice was to hold up the EU as a the apotheosis of immigration perfection. The European Union is an unqualified mess full of ethnic and religious violence that stem directly from the EU’s ridiculous leniency toward illegal immigrants coming from Africa and the Middle East. Not only does he offer up an asinine self-own of an example in the EU, but then follows up with the “nation of immigrants” trope, ignoring all context as to the circumstances of previous immigration. America has been a nation of immigrants, but immigrants who came in small cloistered waves (limited windows of Irish & Italians being obvious examples) and then had decades to acclimate to American society and adopt American values.

    Yes, Helaman, let’s get rid of the Westphalian system of nation states that’s been largely successful for several centuries and has led the United States to become the most prosperous society in humanity’s history because you wrote a poorly reasoned article. This article is incoherent and smacks of undeserved intellectual and moral arrogance.

    Reply
    • November 6, 2019 at 10:02 pm
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      “Do Better”, as one of Helaman’s fellow authors I can attest that he is well qualified to provide the analysis he has made in this article. While Helaman and I may not agree on everything (I do not support open borders) we both write for the Review because we can discuss such matters with civility. The tone of your comment suggests you cannot. Publishing an article such as this requires both intellect and articulateness. What’s more it requires the courage to attach one’s name to an opinion with the knowledge others may disagree.

      Reply
      • November 15, 2019 at 5:05 am
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        Colton, I think we both know that no student author is particularly “well qualified” to provide much analysis on anything. Additionally, the tone of my comment is perfectly appropriate given how ridiculous the piece is. The article is not particularly articulate, the ideas therein should not be taken seriously, and the arguments behind them are nonsensical. Quite frankly, there’s nothing uncivil about calling ridiculous, incoherent arguments out for what they are.

        Lastly, attaching your name to internet comment boards is never a good idea for a litany of reasons around security, privacy, and reputation. I wouldn’t attach my name to a comment on a feel good article about puppies let alone let alone a political issue that always seems to garner spurious accusations of racism. I’d much rather be prudent with my privacy than be quite as “courageous” as you, my oh-so-brave friend.

        Reply
    • November 17, 2019 at 12:11 am
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      Do Better,

      While I appreciate the time you took in reading and responding to my article, I have to agree with Colton (and I appreciate his kind words on my behalf) that your comment appeared to show a lack of willingness to consider my argument in good faith. I welcome any and all constructive dialogue that will help us all as we think about some of the most important and difficult issues of our day. So, leaving aside the tone of this and other comments you’ve made on Political Review articles, I’d like to respond to your concerns.

      You begin your critique by making a series of analogies to various things we do *not* leave open in our society. Your point is well taken—I certainly would not leave my car or home open for anyone to inhabit, change, or otherwise use. The key difference between the U.S. and a home or the Ritz Carlton is that our country is not private property and we don’t have the same rights to exclude people from it as we do for private property. Attempting to equate this country with private property would only lead to the conclusion that most of us who currently inhabit the U.S. should be kicked out, since the claims of our ancestors to this land (which they essentially stole from its original native inhabitants) were questionable at best, non-existent at worst.

      You then mention that resources are limited. Without being completely sure exactly what resources you are referring to, I would just mention that according to the EPA, over 95% of the land in the U.S. remains undeveloped. Other resources, such as consumer goods and access to capital, are not exactly limited, since as demand for goods/capital increases, firms will see opportunities for profit and create more of those resources. U.C. Berkeley economist David Card has concluded that certain conditions are necessary in order for a large influx of immigrants to not crash an economy, but to instead benefit it economically: the economy has to have a relatively strong economy, and immigrants need to be able to find jobs quickly. This suggests that policymakers need to be careful with the timing of such policies, but by no means that they would lead to disaster as you suggest.

      This leads me to your next claim, which is that the U.S. has only become prosperous because of its restriction of immigration. In fact, the first attempt to control our borders in the U.S. was the Page Act in 1875, which prohibited entry into the country by Chinese women. We didn’t experience immigration restriction to a level comparable to today’s until well into the 20th century. Thus, practically all of the American innovation and building of wealth from the 19th century and first half of the 20th century occurred in the context of a society that had been largely built by “undocumented” immigrants.

      Lastly, you take issue with my holding up of the European Union as an example of a way we could administer an open borders system. I don’t claim that the EU is a perfect system, but I do think you would be hard pressed to claim that it has had significant negative effects on its member-states. Several studies have shown that the Schengen Agreement has benefitted the citizens of member countries by improving trade relations and decreasing the cost of international travel. Additionally, the effects of this open borders agreement on crime have been negligent, appearing to actually slightly decrease crime rates.

      Sorry that I’ve pretty much written a second article, but I wanted to make sure to touch on all of your concerns with my original arguments. As I have already said, I would love to continue having substantive discussions on politics and policy, as long as we are both willing to approach them with respect and intellectual honesty.

      Helaman

      P.S. The Westphalian system, which has been around since the 17th century, has much more to do with the issue of sovereignty of states than with their borders or immigration policy. In fact, border control was not really common at all in the world at large until about the time of World War I, over 250 years after the Peace of Westphalia.

      Reply
  • November 17, 2019 at 10:20 pm
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    Helaman, I considered your argument in good faith (I just think it’s a ridiculous argument and conclusion). There are MANY intelligent people (and you seem to be a bright guy, genuinely) who put forward arguments that I would also label as “stupid.” That’s not personal, it’s a critique of the argument and not of the person. As to my comment on your “arrogance,” it’s probably unwarranted as we’ve never met and all I have to go off is your online writing (which, let’s face it, usually doesn’t tell the full story of a person’s character). I do, however, think you mistake my critical tone for one that’s not well-considered and willing to debate on the merits of the argument.

    As to your rebuttals, the distinction you draw between public and private property is just not correct. Private property is land that has been precluded from outside use by an individual or group of individuals (like corporations, NGOs, partnerships, etc.). Public property is the same, the only difference being that the group in control of the land is a government. A government, like a corporation, is simply a collection of private individuals. The government (and by extension the citizenry it represents) has every right to do what it will and admit who it will onto public lands. If it did not, I could get into national parks without paying a fee, waltz on and off military bases as I please, raid Area 51, or camp out on the White House lawn. I think you would acknowledge that both you and I are excluded from use of much publicly owned land (in our own country no less) and it would be odd to me to give a Canadian, a Russian, or a Guatemalan an exception here.

    In addition, equating a country with private property does not lead to the conclusion that U.S. inhabitants ought to be kicked out because they have no valid claim. In part, this is because the distinction you draw between private and public land is incorrect but also because you ignore history. Conquest (even if violent or immoral and whether you or I like it or not) has been legitimized for millenia as a means to gaining control of territory. If not for this recognition, many borders that I’m sure you would recognize as being legitimate today would need to be redrawn because of long-forgotten conflicts. In addition to this, it’s not as if native peoples did not participate in violent conquests themselves. If you were to say that the United States’ claim is non-existent, you would by extension imply that most of the native nations had no claim to the land as well.

    Resources are in fact limited and my comment primarily refers to direct and indirect welfare benefits accrued by immigrants. The harsh reality is that the United States already cannot afford its welfare spending as it is structured today and that the influx of low-wage, unskilled labor concomitant with an open borders policy would strain the system beyond its already unsustainable load.

    To say that I claimed “the U.S. has only become prosperous because of its restriction on immigration,” is a gross misread. I never mentioned policy restrictions on immigration, only that immigration levels in the past were lower (two very different things). While it’s true that we have more legal restrictions on immigration today, this is because they weren’t necessarily needed in the past. A good example of this is the Irish immigration I mentioned previously. The potato famine caused displacement in Ireland and led to a finite wave of Irish immigrants into the United States. The displaced Irish, who came in as a wave over a relatively short time span (as opposed to a steady stream on a consistent basis), were then able to assimilate to American culture and values.

    It is actually rather easy to claim that the EU’s system has had significant negative effects on member states. The most obvious example is Brexit. Immigration was the primary catalyst for the referendum vote in favor of Brexit (and the accompanying discord and financial turbulence it brought with it). Another major concern has been the influx of terrorist extremists from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Not only has this led to several attacks, bombings, and higher instances of radicalization among the EU’s native citizenry, but also a significant spike in anti-Semitic and misogynistic attitudes across the Eurozone.

    Lastly, to your point about the Westphalian system… to be sovereign is to have defined 1) who is to govern and 2) who is to be governed. Without some system to exercise control over the latter, the state ceases to be sovereign.

    Reply

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