Open Borders, Without Apology

Supporting freedom of movement isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s a political winner for the left.

Khury Petersen-Smith February 21, 2019

Migrants mix with visitors as they walk along the beach after crossing the US-Mexico border fence from Playas de Tijuana to Imperial Beach in California, US, as seen from Tijuana in Baja California state, Mexico, on January 18, 2019. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

When Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump claimed in his State of the Union Address that wealthy politi­cians and donors push for open bor­ders, while liv­ing their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” it was his lat­est of count­less efforts to accuse Democ­rats and lib­er­als of being soft” on migration.

We are living in a time, not only of darkness and repression, but also political possibility.

Like the entire­ty of Trump’s speech, this claim was mis­lead­ing and out­right false on many levels.

The notion, for exam­ple, that lib­er­al elites” sup­port open bor­ders while a bil­lion­aire pres­i­dent defends the work­ing class from the migrant threat” is out­ra­geous. Among the many prob­lems with the argu­ment is that it ignores — or rather, inten­tion­al­ly obscures — the fact that the U.S. work­ing class itself is com­posed in sig­nif­i­cant part by mil­lions of migrants.

Far from immi­grants being out­siders who endan­ger the work­ing class of this coun­try, they are part of its fab­ric — far more so than Don­ald Trump, who was born wealthy, ever was.

But Trump’s main argu­ment, that there are those on the lib­er­al end of Washington’s polit­i­cal class who advo­cate for free migra­tion across bor­ders, is sim­ply a lie.

As the New York Times point­ed out last year, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has repeat­ed­ly and express­ly con­demned open bor­ders in word and sup­port­ed bor­der mil­i­ta­riza­tion in deed. In fact, Stacey Abrams dis­tanced her­self from the posi­tion imme­di­ate­ly after Trump’s speech in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic response, assert­ing that com­pas­sion­ate treat­ment is not the same as open bor­ders” and promis­ing that Democ­rats stand ready to effec­tive­ly secure our ports and borders.”

A gen­uine call for open bor­ders is vir­tu­al­ly absent from the debate between the White House and Capi­tol Hill, where the ques­tion has been not whether to mil­i­ta­rize the bor­der, but mere­ly how many bil­lions of dol­lars should be devot­ed to bor­der secu­ri­ty,” or what spe­cif­ic phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture it should buy.

But open bor­ders is more than an epi­thet for the right to attack its oppo­nents with. It is a legit­i­mate posi­tion, and the left should take it up as the only humane one.

Catch­ing up with capital

For decades, crit­ics of glob­al­iza­tion have point­ed out that the World Bank, Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund, World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion — insti­tu­tions that are shaped and dom­i­nat­ed by the Unit­ed States — have helped cre­ate a world where cap­i­tal moves freely, while human beings are stuck at bor­ders. Numer­ous free trade” agree­ments have accel­er­at­ed this trend. 

As asy­lum seek­ers at the bor­der con­front met­al bar­ri­ers, sur­veil­lance drones and armed guards bar­ring their entry, trucks, trains and boats bring a high vol­ume of ship­ping con­tain­ers into the Unit­ed States each day. Ports of entry have per­fect­ed clear­ing these goods through cus­toms effi­cient­ly, and pol­i­cy mak­ers have reg­u­lat­ed (and dereg­u­lat­ed) inter­na­tion­al com­merce to make the process as easy as possible.

If only the peo­ple migrat­ing from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and else­where were com­modi­ties instead of human beings, they would enter the Unit­ed States pain­less­ly, be han­dled with care by work­ers who are experts at trans­fer­ring goods quick­ly and care­ful­ly, and then trans­port­ed overnight to all cor­ners of the coun­try through exten­sive com­mer­cial dis­tri­b­u­tion networks.

Com­mer­cial goods aren’t the only things that move freely across bor­ders. The U.S. mil­i­tary car­ries out oper­a­tions all over the world with such reg­u­lar­i­ty that it’s not even con­sid­ered news­wor­thy in the Unit­ed States.

It’s bit­ter­ly iron­ic that Trump con­stant­ly describes migrants in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can Exo­dus as an inva­sion,” when the Unit­ed States has car­ried out so many actu­al inva­sions of that region — oper­a­tions which bear great respon­si­bil­i­ty for desta­bi­liz­ing those soci­eties and push­ing so many peo­ple to come north in the first place.

The right to movement

Sys­tems and gov­ern­ments that invest tremen­dous­ly in per­fect­ing the move­ment of com­merce and vio­lence across bor­ders, while invest­ing at sim­i­lar scale to stop the move­ment of peo­ple, aren’t being sim­ply hyp­o­crit­i­cal. They’re also vio­lat­ing a fun­da­men­tal human right.

Peo­ple have the right to move freely. Human migra­tion, and migra­tion par­tic­u­lar to the Amer­i­c­as, pre­dates the Unit­ed States or its bor­ders. Indeed, many of the peo­ple com­ing north from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca are Indige­nous, belong­ing to groups of peo­ple whose his­to­ries stretch far before that of the U.S. nation-state.

The right to free­dom of move­ment becomes only more impor­tant as grow­ing num­bers of peo­ple become uproot­ed and dis­placed. Con­flicts over con­trol of the planet’s resources, eco­nom­ic poli­cies that dev­as­tate peo­ple the world over, and cli­mate change — which cre­ates more dis­as­ters and makes parts of the world unin­hab­it­able for every­day life — are all increasing.

With those dynam­ics, the respon­si­bil­i­ty of gov­ern­ments to hon­or people’s free­dom to move only grows, too — as does that of ordi­nary peo­ple to defend that right.

New polit­i­cal possibilities

We are liv­ing in a time, not only of dark­ness and repres­sion, but also polit­i­cal possibility.

Medicare for All, pre­vi­ous­ly a mar­gin­al­ized demand in the Unit­ed States (though exist­ing in prac­tice through­out much of the world) is now a cen­tral demand of main­stream lib­er­al politics.

The slo­gan Abol­ish ICE” — first raised by grass­roots migrant jus­tice activists and lift­ed up by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca — has been brought into offi­cial U.S. pol­i­tics and even car­ried onto Capi­tol Hill by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez. The slo­gan has become so potent that the pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent have had to go out of their way to denounce it — some­thing Trump did again in the most recent State of the Union.

Mean­while, the major­i­ty of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States oppose Trump’s wall. And three-quar­ters of Amer­i­cans recent­ly told poll­sters they think immi­gra­tion is a good thing.”

These facts — evi­dence of a com­pli­cat­ed polit­i­cal ter­rain, but one that has much promise for pro­gres­sives and the left — show why sup­port­ing bor­der secu­ri­ty” rather than cen­ter­ing the rights of migrants in the con­ver­sa­tion about migra­tion is not only wrong. It’s also out of step with the pro­gres­sive trend in U.S. politics.

While demand­ing open bor­ders may seem like a mar­gin­al posi­tion in U.S. pol­i­tics now, keep in mind that build the wall” was on the fringe until recently.

The right wing has been auda­cious in upset­ting main­stream sen­si­bil­i­ties regard­ing the treat­ment of asy­lum seek­ers, call­ing for — and enact­ing through the White House — the sep­a­ra­tion of migrant fam­i­lies and mass deten­tion of migrants, all in high­ly pub­lic ways. It has also flout­ed U.S. law in using Mex­i­co as a hold­ing cell for asy­lum seek­ers, rather than hon­or­ing their right to enter the U.S. and to due process for asy­lum appli­ca­tions once here. And Trump has even called for the end of birthright cit­i­zen­ship, tar­get­ing rights guar­an­teed by the Four­teenth Amend­ment, won by Black peo­ple in the U.S. fol­low­ing the Civ­il War.

We should match — and go beyond — their bold­ness, in defend­ing the right to migrate as fun­da­men­tal to human­i­ty. We should be call­ing for open the bor­ders, with­out apology.

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Rat­ner Mid­dle East Fel­low at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Studies.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH