Are Open Borders the Solution to the Refugee Crisis?

Activists and experts debate who really benefits from opening borders: migrants or corporations

Michelle Chen

A Syrian child holds on to a fence opposite Hungarian border police near the town of Horgos, Serbia, on September 16. (ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Around the world, borders are tightening as fast as they are dissolving. Even as thousands of desperate migrants from war-torn and impoverished parts of the Global South cross into the European Union, Donald Trump is vowing to build an invincible U.S.-Mexico border wall. Is it time to rethink borders? Or even to envision a world without them?

'Our response to the refugee crisis in Central America and Syria should be to greet people with open arms.'

Within the immigration reform debate, there’s been little serious grappling with the concept of borders, why we need them, and what, in a globalized world, the porous divide between nations really means for the people who happen to live on either side and for the families that are separated.

Why can’t people flow across borders as freely as goods and services do under global capitalism? The idea of open migration as the human analogue to free trade” disturbs unions that fear this would weaken protections for U.S. workers. Avowed socialist Bernie Sanders recently complicated his generally pro-immigrant stance by voicing opposition to open borders” as a threat to labor. Others on the Left, however, argue that free movement is a human right.

Whether you’re a refugee-rights activist, a labor organizer for low-wage workers, or a politician trying to calm constituents’ fears of newcomers, everyone is invested in the borders that both define and divide our identities and our communities — for better or worse. To explore open borders,” In These Times brought together Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Merced; John Lee, a blogger on the libertarian-leaning site OpenBorders; and Prerna Lal, an attorney and clinical instructor at the UC Berkeley School of Law’s East Bay Community Law Center who was formerly undocumented.

What would be a rational response to the current panic over immigration? 

CATHERINE: First, on either side of a border, as well as in transit, we absolutely need to respect and enforce the human rights of migrants, regardless of their immigration status, nationality or citizenship.

PRERNA: I take care of about 400 undocumented students. These students and their families all have different stories to tell and different places they come from. But there’s one thing they have in common, which is that somebody loves them enough to send or bring them here. It takes a lot of courage and conviction, a lot of love, to do this. Ideally we want people with this kind of courage in our countries. Our response to the refugee crisis in Central America and Syria should be to greet people with open arms.

JOHN: The refugee crisis in Europe could have been averted if these people were free to purchase plane tickets or train tickets to wherever they wanted. They can’t do that. They spend a lot of money on smugglers and other people who take advantage of them. The preexisting international border regime sees fit to restrict people’s movements in utter disregard of fundamental rights.

DANIEL: Part of the reason why people like the crazy things that Trump is saying is because they see companies like Disney replacing U.S. workers with workers on temporary visas who are paid some $40,000 less to do the same job, and they become rightly suspicious of how the system is managed. One of the solutions is to make sure that new migrant workers are being paid according to U.S. wage standards, allowing U.S. workers to have a fair shot at jobs and increasing transparency in the immigration system.

People fleeing Syria are typically called refugees,” while those fleeing Central America are typically called migrants.” What’s the distinction between migrants and refugees, and is it a fair one?

DANIEL: Most of the flows these days are mixed. In Europe, for instance, there are people coming from Albania, Serbia and Macedonia who are probably not refugees. Countries have to quickly distinguish as best they can. It is tough, and I think the international definition of who constitutes a refugee has to be updated. Lots of people in the current process probably don’t fit. They’re more like survival migrants,” as Alexander Betts at Oxford calls them.

And then there’s climate migration. It’s still an emerging area of the law. There was a big case recently in New Zealand of a guy from Kiribati who wanted to be a climate change refugee. He was saying that rising sea levels and the increased risk of disasters were making his home uninhabitable. The New Zealand Supreme Court rejected his case, but it might go to the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

JOHN: People forced to migrate — whether by a disaster like climate change, or a flood, or a military invasion — are the ones on the front covers of our newspapers, and their crisis is most dire. But there are also a lot of people who are denied access to opportunity, safe housing, safe infrastructure or safe healthcare, not because a disaster wiped out their country’s hospitals, but mostly because, by luck of the draw, they were born in a country that is undeveloped. Maybe that country was ravaged by colonialism. Immigration policy shouldn’t discriminate against these people, calling them illegal” migrants whose lives don’t matter. I support open borders not just for refugees, but for anyone who sees migration as a way to escape deprivation or simply empower themselves. 

PRERNA: We haven’t seriously acknowledged the inequities that compel people to come to the United States and other countries. The next big migration is the 200 million people who could migrate due to climate change. That’s a huge amount of people to take in, but we do have to take them in, because that’s our responsibility.

What’s the logic behind current immigration policies?

PRERNA: Historically, immigration policies have been driven by national interest and markets.

CATHERINE: Managed migration” has come to dominate the international discourse. It’s the catchword for letting migrants move temporarily to fulfill market-driven demands. It’s all framed by the paradigm of globalization and by the trade policies that create very unequal economic relationships between developed countries and developing countries.

JOHN: Yes, and that’s the wrong way to frame the issue. Immigration policy primarily plays to populist xenophobia, enabling the abuse and exploitation of immigrants. We should be asking: Why shouldn’t anyone be able to apply for a visa to the United States?

CATHERINE: Those opposed to a more generous system of immigration are using the national security argument to further fuel xenophobic and restrictionist views. But in that view, who would be considered more of a national security risk”: an undocumented person crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on foot, or someone who receives a million-dollar-investor visa?

Say we do dismantle the system and start from scratch. What would a border-free world mean to you, either positively or negatively? 

DANIEL: It is important to note that no elected official or candidate that I know of supports open borders under any reasonable definition of the term. That should tell you something, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be engaging with the idea of it. Open borders” in the United States means an expansion and deregulation of the temporary foreign worker system. It would be what employers have been lobbying for for years: the ability to hire anyone from anywhere, at any time, and without having to pay a certain wage level. Or, if it means no border restrictions at all, does that mean we abandon screening procedures and let in ISIS members?

PRERNA: People who believe in open borders believe that arbitrary political boundaries should not dictate people’s real political and human rights. Much of the European Union follows an open borders system already. If it’s possible in Europe, then it should be possible in the United States. Certainly we can move toward systems where political demarcation does not mean people lose their rights or their ability to move freely.

JOHN: Obviously, in the short term, this is not on the table — no one’s proposing open borders. We have to ask ourselves: Why not? What’s keeping us from putting it on the agenda?

How do we address border policy within a larger framework of global inequality? 

CATHERINE: We need to have a realignment within the movement, so we have a better understanding, and certainly a better set of values, regarding the centrality and significance of border policy. What can we do to ensure that we are protecting the rights of those who are crossing international borders and making passage safe?

DANIEL: It’s important that countries have labor migration systems that are as generous as possible. But they should also have at their core a strategy to add value to the economy by using immigration to raise wages and labor standards for the immigrants coming in and the workers who are already in the receiving country. When it comes to accepting humanitarian migrants, the United States should take in a fair and sizable share because we’re at fault for many of the current crises. We should stop bombing and start working on durable political solutions that don’t involve military intervention, because armed conflicts are causing most of these migrant flows.

PRERNA: The biggest problem I see is the U.S. media scapegoating of immigrants. We could shift that blame from the immigrants to the corporations that are actually looking for and hiring low-wage workers, who then can’t organize for their own rights. It’s not the immigrants that need to be blamed for this. It’s the big corporations.

JOHN: We have to stop the demonizing of migrants’ right to pursue their dreams. We must ask ourselves why we see fit to use our rights to deprive people of the right to apply for the same job that we would apply for. We need to recognize that the way the world works is one that allows our governments to simply discriminate against people because of where they were born. Everyone has a right to a safe home. Everyone has a right to a job if they qualify for it.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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