Opinion

What is the Left case for open borders?

With responses from: Tithi Bhattacharya, Joseph Carens, Harald Bauder, Parvathi Raman, Viewpoint Magazine Editorial Collective, Sandro Mezzadra, Céline Cantat, Justin Akers Chacón, Carol Farbotko, Christine Leuenberger, Paolo Novak, Dalia Abdelhady, Alex Sager, Michael Huemer and Nandita Sharma.

One Question is a monthly series in which the leading thinkers are asked to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month’s question: What is the Left case for open borders?

Tithi Bhattacharya

Professor of History at Purdue University. She is the editor of Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (Pluto, 2017) and along with Nancy Fraser and Cinzia Arruzza the co-author of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (Verso, 2019). She is a national organiser for the International Women’s Strike.

Borders exist in order for capital to

(a) control the global distribution of labour power and

(b) ideologically shore up the nation state for the ‘native’ working class, thereby legitimising and reinforcing that control.

Any support for border control, no matter how minimal or provisional, is a support for this set of political technologies.

If it appears, then, that the case for open borders is an easy one for the Left, this is far from the truth. Historically, the organised Left, in both its social democratic and Stalinist iterations, has had a murky record on border control and support for migrants. And today, as neoliberalism falters ideologically after the crash of 2008, several social democratic regimes across Europe have made anti-migrant rhetoric their distinct political signature.

In Greece, Syriza, who had promised to close migrant detention centres, now oversees such centres where migrants lack basic resources to battle hunger, harsh winters and social isolation. This in addition to the government doing a deal with neighbouring Turkey to stop the flow of migrants into Europe. In France, the leader of the radical Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has long been opposed to free movement even within the EU. Events in Germany perhaps best distil this political tendency. In September 2018, Sarah Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, prominent left-wing politicians of Die Linke, with support from sections of the international Left, launched Aufstehen, a movement openly committed to imposing immigration controls in the name of prosperity for German workers.

It is not my purpose here to produce a list of betrayals by various traditions of the Left. Rather, it is to contend that for an anti-capitalist Left, the question of open borders is not one issue amongst many. For instance, one cannot be advocating for universal healthcare for a section of the global working class, marked as ‘citizen’ simply by geographical accident, while denying that same provision to the rest of the class.

The Left must hold to all people’s inherent right to free movement because borders only exist to assist capital accumulation. Sometimes just crossing a border is a political act of defiance.

Anyone who has crossed international borders knows that leaving home is not an easy or trivial decision. Most people seeking refuge in Europe have been forced to do so because of the numerous violent wars Europe has waged on their homelands. In the United States, it is families from Latin America, ravaged by dictatorships backed by the US, or devastated by economic policies of the IMF and World Bank who are forced to seek out a better life across the border.

If these families are at the borders of countries whose governments have colluded to deprive them of a life of dignity, then the borders should be opened wide, not because the West needs to be compassionate – but because it is the right of these families to demand from western governments what was taken from them.

In the coming years, capitalist ravages upon our planet will force more people to leave their homelands as the very air and soil turn against them. Migrants cannot be welcomed on liberal grounds because they bring fresh labour or creativity to the West. That is capital’s logic predicated upon regimes of work. The Left must hold to all people’s inherent right to free movement because borders only exist to assist capital accumulation. Sometimes just crossing a border is a political act of defiance.

Transeuropa Festival 2017, photo by: Till Gentzsch

‘Workers of the world, unite’ is not a meaningful political call unless it is filled with practical solidarity between all workers. While capital erects barbed wire fences, miles long border walls and militarises the waters, it is the task of the Left to dismantle – above all the hostile tension between the ‘immigrant’ and the ‘worker’. A migrant caravan is a working class on the move. Active support for free movement is therefore a strategic disruption of capital’s narrative.

Open borders is not a ‘blind spot’ that can be ignored, it is what restores sight to the Left, allowing us to see the mechanisms by which capital hierarchises abjection.

Joseph Carens

Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He has written four books, including The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Immigrants and the Right to Stay(MIT Press, 2010). He has also published two edited books and more than 90 journal articles or chapters in books.

At the level of principle, the left-wing case for open borders seems clear. In the world today, discretionary control over immigration mainly serves to protect the interests of those living in rich states. Real freedom and equality for all human beings will be possible only in a global order in which the economic differences between and within political communities (however those are constructed) are greatly reduced, and no one suffers from political oppression.

In such a context, open borders would serve to protect an important human freedom (as we recognise in treating free movement within political communities as a basic human right), but open borders would not lead to vast social dislocation because most people would not seek to move if they had a chance at a decent life at home. There might be occasional cases when constraints on entry were not designed to protect privilege and an exception to a general rule of open borders was justified. For example, indigenous communities might be entitled to restrict settlement on their territories.

When making political choices, we should always take into account the risks, probabilities, and consequences both of what we are recommending and of the likely alternatives.

At the level of practice, we need to be more cautious. When making political choices, we should always take into account the risks, probabilities, and consequences both of what we are recommending and of the likely alternatives. In politics, it is almost never enough to focus only on the intrinsic merit of a course of action.

So, here are two worries about open borders and practical politics. First, some on the Right (e.g., the Wall Street Journal) favour open borders because they see free movement as a way of undermining existing social protections. We should consider the short and long term consequences for economic equality of proposals to increase openness to migration. For example, we should be wary of proposals to increase the number of migrant workers who are admitted if they are admitted only on a temporary basis, without normal labour protections, and so on.

Second, it is not an accident that Donald Trump says that Democrats who oppose his border wall are in favour of open borders (although they are clearly not). Most people in Europe and North America do not accept the idea of open borders, even in principle, but many of them are opposed to religious discrimination in admissions (e.g., Trump’s Muslim ban), have some sympathy for the idea that refugee claimants should be given a fair hearing, and so on. In that context, it is both an intellectual and a political mistake to connect moderate ideas for helping migrants with the idea of open borders.

Harald Bauder

Professor of Immigration and Settlement Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, and Senior Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, Germany. He is the author of Migration Borders Freedom (Routledge, 2017) and Immigration Dialectic: Imagining Community, Economy, and Nation (University of Toronto Press, 2011), and the editor of Putting Family First: Migration and Integration in Canada (UBC Press, 2019), and co-editor of Sanctuary Cities and Urban Struggles (Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

The idea of ‘open borders’ must be distinguished from the call for ‘no borders’. While both concepts can be associated with the political Left, they are based on fundamentally different assumptions.

‘Open borders’ assumes that the surface of the earth is divided into mutually exclusive national territories, and that the borders between these territories are open so that people can move freely between countries.

Support for open borders comes from across the political spectrum. On the political Right, free-market advocates sometimes lament that the production factor ‘labour’ is not completely free but that its mobility is constrained by international borders, thus introducing economic distortions and inefficiencies. More in the political Centre, liberal thinkers are rejecting birth-privileges and suggest that open borders would enable people born in countries with unfavourable conditions to level the playing field with those born in rich, secure, and democratically-governed countries.

The Left case for open borders is thus a pragmatic step towards global social justice.

On the political Left, open-border advocates see the nation state as an agent of capitalist exploitation and ongoing colonialism that uses its territorial borders to preserve the privileges of the ruling elite. In this context, borders divide the global labour force and pit workers in different countries against each other; unequal visa practices facilitate the global mobility of the rich and privileged, while they deny mobility to the global poor; and borders maintain a colonial system of global rule. Free cross-border migration would mitigate these global injustices by enabling people to escape from war, hunger, environmental destruction, and economic despair imposed by capitalism and colonialism.

‘No borders’ is a much more radical idea. The ‘no borders!’ call advocates for a fundamentally different world in which borders themselves no longer exist. This call challenges the prevailing territorial organisation of the global population into nation states and the practices of racialisation and colonialisation that divide people along the lines of citizenship and status.

Although open borders and no borders positions seem incompatible from a theoretical perspective, the Left’s political practices often combine both positions. While a radically transformed way of life and politics may be the ultimate aim, it is also important to act progressively in the context of the existing political circumstances, in which territorial states are a fact. The Left case for open borders is thus a pragmatic step towards global social justice.

Parvathi Raman

Founding Chair, SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies. Her many publications include the co-edited volume Enduring Socialism: Explorations of Revolution and Transformation, Restoration and Continuation (Berghahn, 2008).

Talk of a ‘migration crisis’ is in reality a political debate about who has the right to move. A global elite enjoys a mobility largely unimpeded by border controls. But as a transnational world becomes more connected, it is done at the price of growing inequality, and increasing restrictions on the movements of the world’s ‘others’, most often its racialised ‘others’. As currently exercised, border controls for the world’s ‘others’ simply do not work. The international ‘migration regime’ is a brutal and violent business, and makes the world a more dangerous place. It also fuels a growing trade in smuggling.

The belief that we in the West have the right to decide who has the right to move, and to where, is perhaps one of the most hazardous myths of our times, endangering thousands of lives, and making some lives more worthy of saving than others.

Open borders are already a reality, not some future utopian dream; but at the moment only some are afforded the luxury of being able to move safely, whilst others have to face making clandestine, expensive and dangerous journeys.

A common myth asserts Europe ‘cannot cope’ with the numbers of migrants coming to its shores. A certain hysteria was evident when around 44 migrants recently attempted to cross the English Channel over the Christmas period. In reality, the dominant European powers are pushing the ‘crisis’ to the European peripheries and beyond. The countries that bear the brunt of people fleeing from wars, instability and the consequences of climate change are places such as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Pakistan. In particular, Turkey has been targeted to take on more of Europe’s ‘dirty work’. It already hosts over 2 million Syrian refugees, and has also agreed to stop migrants crossing its western borders into Europe.

Open borders are already a reality, not some future utopian dream; but at the moment only some are afforded the luxury of being able to move safely, whilst others have to face making clandestine, expensive and dangerous journeys. We need to afford everyone the right to move safely. For that, we need to rid the world of a highly discriminatory approach to immigration.

The ‘migration crisis’ is Europe’s ‘constitutive outside’, an image reflecting back its colonial past, its contradictory economic base, its foreign policies, and the hierarchical and power-laden foundations of its claims to equality and freedom, which are raced, classed, and gendered. In the Europe of today, just as in the historical past, the freedoms of the few continue to be won at the expense of the many. The Left need to unequivocally support the call for transnational freedom of movement. Everyone has the right to move.

Viewpoint Magazine Editorial Collective

Viewpoint is a militant research collective that aims to understand our conjuncture, reconstruct radical histories, and help reinvent Marxism for our present. On the theme of migration, the collective has recently published a translation of Etienne Balibar’s ‘Lenin, Communists, and Immigration’, and an original piece entitled ‘The Border Crossing Us’.

Capitalism creates competition among workers. Going back to Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, the revolutionary Left has always taken this tendency not as an irredeemable fate, but a starting point. Proletarian organisation ‘is continually being upset again by the competition between workers themselves,’ the authors of the Manifesto note, but those who would call themselves communists must ‘point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.’ We take this to mean that in opposition to all partial and conflicting demands, all opportunism, competition, distraction, and deviation, the hope for revolution lies in overcoming the divisive conditions of capitalism – including that of national competition – through political struggle.

Shall we accept the political division between citizen and foreigner, which can only exclude? Or shall we take this division among working class people as something deleterious, a burden that disorganises and exploits, to be overcome in practice?

In our contemporary capitalist landscape, then, we cannot accept the imposed division of the border. The border, as we see it, is not only a question of state policy, but of fractured worlds, the fragmentation of shared spaces of possibility. Shall we accept the political division between citizen and foreigner, which can only exclude? Or shall we take this division among working class people as something deleterious, a burden that disorganises and exploits, to be overcome in practice? If we indeed have a world to win, then instead of just using the levers of state power to ensure that some sections of the labouring classes have a greater share of capitalist wealth, the answer can only be the latter: politics as a means to cross the borders that would separate us from each other.

Transeuropa Festival 2017, photo by: Till Gentzsch

Displacement through violence and threat of hunger is another constant within capitalism. As Alain Badiou recently remarked, to speak of ‘migrants’ today may mask this fact; what compels most to move – across borders or within them – is that which has always defined the proletariat: existential dispossession, having nothing to sell but one’s labour power. As capital does its work of destroying the old, it therefore also breeds the new, throwing multitudes of people into relation with one another for the first time. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the perhaps optimistic assessment in the Manifesto, national antagonisms do not appear to be ‘daily more and more vanishing.’ Yet a movement for universal emancipation must reject the choice such antagonisms imply. The future of our movement – for which Marx and Engels hold ‘the communists’ responsible – is one beyond borders.

Sandro Mezzadra

Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna. He is currently part of the ‘Mediterranea’ project, whose publications include: In the Marxian Workshops: Producing Subjects (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). He is also author, with Brett Neilson, of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013).

‘Open borders’ is not the slogan of the day. Rather, from the US to Europe, from India to Brazil, the claim for sovereign control on borders is shaping rhetoric and politics in the global conjuncture we are living through. Nationalism and authoritarianism take ‘porous borders,’ to recall a phrase often used by critical border scholars over the last two decades, as a symptom of a kind of lack in the nation’s body, as a wound that has to be healed through walls and barbed wire. Even within the Left there is no shortage of arguments and positions that aim at ‘occupying’ the signifiers of nationalism, taking stable borders as conditions for protecting the ‘welfare’ of native working and popular classes. Meanwhile, migrants continue to challenge borders in many parts of the world, often risking their lives in the process.

Arguments for ‘open borders,’ and even more radically for ‘no borders’ are often predicated upon normative assumptions, working the boundary between liberalism, human rights discourses, and anarchism (while one has to remain aware of the fact that there are libertarian cases for ‘open borders’ from the Right). I tend to take a critical (although sympathetic) distance from such arguments and to focus on the materiality of the challenge I just mentioned, as well as on the (equally material) hierarchising effects of the operations of borders both at the border and within the bounded spaces it is supposed to delimit.

Opening borders should be understood as a pressing goal and as a result of such struggles, which more generally challenge the relations of domination and exploitation crystallised and reproduced by borders.

Borders are indeed multiple and heterogeneous, they play crucial roles in shaping and enabling relations of domination and exploitation, they crisscross social spaces and labour markets. It is from a careful investigation of the struggles surrounding these multiple borders that the Left can draw inspiration for forging a border politics that is urgently needed today.

Opening borders should be understood as a pressing goal and as a result of such struggles, which more generally challenge the relations of domination and exploitation crystallised and reproduced by borders. This is valid both regarding internal borders that fragment and divide the contemporary composition of labour, and regarding international borders that hierarchically frame and separate spaces of life, social cooperation, and production. A border politics predicated upon the potential of border struggles is therefore today a fundamental aspect of labour politics and it is at the same a crucial tool for the reinvention of internationalism. It should be part of the ‘core business’ of any Left.

Céline Cantat

Research Fellow at the CEU in Budapest currently working on a project looking at pro-migrant and migrant-led activism in Southeast Europe. Her research interests include globalisation and migration, migration solidarity, racism and exclusion in Europe, and state formation and dynamics of mass displacement.

Borders play a key role in sustaining the idea of the nation – at the symbolic level, they signify a separation between those deemed to belong to the national community, and those seen as not belonging. At the material level, they operate a filtering and hierarchising function, treating people differently based on racialised, gendered and classed perceptions of whose presence is legally desirable, and whose may be made illegal, often for the purpose of labour exploitation.

Borders were not always strictly enforced. In particular, looking back at the rise of industrial capitalism sheds light on how borders gained significance in relation to capitalist social relations. In order to maintain a social and economic order based on the disciplining of emerging working classes, ruling classes turned to ideologies of the nation and national belonging. The idea of the nation, understood as a community of interests defined on the basis of putative common historical and socio-cultural features, became a key ideological resource for the neutralisation of class struggle. People with different interests, and indeed class positions, were encouraged to imagine themselves as a community. Territorial borders came to signify these imagined national communities, identified against various (national but also domestic) ‘others’, while the exercise of their control provided a stage for the display of states’ authority as defenders of the ‘nation’.

Normalising national identities demanded concerted efforts from ruling classes of these Western European nation states. This often involved coercion, as the production of (an appearance) of national homogeneity required the suppression of local and regional differences and the identification and exclusion of those deemed as not belonging. As noted by Philip Marfleet, the enforcement of national borders also brought about a key contradiction: while nationalism sustained capitalist interests through the neutralisation of class struggles in the name of national unity, capital’s expansionist drive and its need for labour did not always match border delineation. This contradiction continues to this day.

The Left today needs to fight divisive notions of national allegiance. It needs an internationalism that understands the role of nation states and their borders in the maintenance of capitalism and exploitation, and that stands in solidarity with workers across borders.

Consequently, borders are always activated in particular political economic configurations. Their opening and closure reflect capital’s need for labour and the extent to which nationalist sentiment is mobilised as a political resource by governments at given moments in time. Even when nationalism is strongly referred to in political and public debates, leading to demands for border closure, successive Western European governments have shown tolerance towards undocumented workers. Illegalised and vulnerabilised by and at the border, these migrants are greatly attractive to employers.

Today, faced with cyclical crises of the global capitalist economy, governments are again using the figure of the migrant outsider to displace responsibility and distract attention. Recently, in response to demands for social and economic reforms in France, President Macron replied with a promise for the introduction of ‘migrant quotas’ in a patent example of the instrumentalisation of migrants to diffuse popular anger aimed at the ruling classes.

Such border politics have resulted in human tragedies on a huge scale, with tens of thousands of people meeting brutal and avoidable deaths on unsafe dinghy boats, in the back of lorries, in detention centres, at the hands of deportation personnel, over the last few decades. The Left today needs to fight divisive notions of national allegiance. It needs an internationalism that understands the role of nation states and their borders in the maintenance of capitalism and exploitation, and that stands in solidarity with workers across borders.

Justin Akers Chacón

Professor of Chicana/o Studies based in San Diego, California. His recent publications include Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class (Haymarket, 2018) and No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the US-Mexico Border (co-authored with Mike Davis) (Haymarket, 2018).

The most immediate case for opening the US-Mexico border is humanitarian. The militarised border includes 600 miles of physical barrier reinforced with war-theatre technology pushing migration into distant and deadly terrain away from safe established points of entry. It is patrolled by thousands of armed agents that kill and harass with impunity. The partially-closed border system exists only for poor and working-class migrants, as capital and people with wealth cross freely, and is responsible for the deaths or disappearance of thousands.

Open borders also requires the disbanding and abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the second, interior arm of repression. 20,000 ICE agents operate as migrant-hunters across the country akin to modern day slave-catchers that snatch people off the streets, from workplaces, and from homes. They purposefully target political activists within undocumented communities, and funnel captives into a highly corrupt, for-profit detention industry. A revolving deportation machine uproots and separates families, destroying lives daily.

A second, political dimension for the case for open borders flows from the first. As an immigrant workforce is essential to the US economy, repression has become a mechanism to not eject the undocumented as a whole, but to extract greater surplus value from their labour by policing their presence. This includes workers who cross borders without authorisation as well as ‘white-collar’ workers whose labour rights are tightly constrained by employer-controlled visa regimes.

Subjugation of the transnational section of the working class through exclusive policies of racialised citizenship prohibits their full democratic integration. The maintenance of an army of agents and a regime of laws that enforce marginalisation of the undocumented through systematic removal, has enabled capitalists to take advantage of their precarity to devalue their labour.

Political repression of immigrants functions as firewall against labour solidarity and unionisation.

This has ushered into existence a multi-tiered labour economy, with the lowest echelon a widening chasm of super-exploitation. Whole industries have profited from the administrative degradation of undocumented labour by further lowering the threshold for wages and working conditions.

Capitalists use the cudgel of enforcement to politically repress transnational labour, as they have historically (and currently) been the most active in resisting their conditions of exploitation. Migrant workers bring with them their histories, political viewpoints, and organising traditions. When nearly three million workers won their legalisation with the amnesty component of the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986, the US labour movement saw its greatest advance in recent times as immigrant workers joined unions en masse. Therefore, political repression of immigrants functions as firewall against labour solidarity and unionisation.

CentroCentro Madrid, photo by: Hana Grgic

Opening the border would help undermine the ideological function of imperialism, as the projection of military power internationally is predicated on the creation of external/internal threats through racial and xenophobic fear-mongering. The growth of border militarisation, the ‘national security state,’ permanent war, and a skewed right-wing political establishment are all anchored in the continued criminalisation and demonisation of subjugated racial and national groups – from the ‘enemy’ abroad to the migrant at our border.

Carol Farbotko

Member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Australia. She has written and co-written many academic papers and opinion pieces on mobility justice in a changing climate. Recent ones include: ‘A world on the move’, ‘No retreat: Climate change and voluntary immobility in the Pacific Islands’, and ‘Transformative mobilities in the Pacific’.

The Left needs to ask what problem(s) does the opening of borders attempt to solve? If borders became more open, would displaced people be more safe or welcome in new places? Not necessarily. Displacement and dispossession are arguably more fundamental causes of injustice than closed borders.

A case could made for opening borders to benefit those populations in low-lying island nation-states at risk of international displacement from climate change impacts, particularly coastal erosion and sea-water inundation. Many citizens in the Pacific Islands of Tuvalu and Kiribati, particularly the elderly and less educated, cannot access a permanent visa that would enable them to migrate internationally away from such impacts. Would opening of borders deliver much needed climate justice in this context?

Actually, advocacy by islanders is not directed towards opening borders. Nor are other solutions sought that might increase opportunities to move internationally, such as climate refugee status. Indeed, discussion about forms of planned relocation across international borders, often by well-meaning outsiders, is considered in these island nation-states to be insensitive to indigeneity, self-determination and culture. Tuvaluan and i-Kiribati people are most strongly pushing for solutions that will enable those who wish to stay exactly where they are: at home. Climate justice, according to islanders, is better served by reducing global greenhouse emissions than by open borders.

If borders became more open, would displaced people be more safe or welcome in new places? Not necessarily. Displacement and dispossession are arguably more fundamental causes of injustice than closed borders.

Yet this is hardly an isolationist politics. Tuvaluans and i-Kiribati are migrating to New Zealand, Fiji and Australia frequently, under specific, often quota, labour and education visa categories. These are limited to those of working age and employed status, or with high educational achievement, and their families. The imagined final destination, however, is Tuvalu or Kiribati. Migration is at least currently considered a temporary sojourn, a means to an end, even if it lasts many years or even generations. The freedom to dream of going back to the islands, back to the homeland, back to the place that is rightfully theirs, makes migration bearable. This freedom will disappear if the islands become uninhabitable.

An open border, allowing free movement to a place like Australia, could hasten a narrative of abandonment among outsiders; donors and polluters alike would have less reason to facilitate measures to protect the islands from further damage. Opening borders can, in some cases, do little to dismantle the often colonialist forces that dispossess people in the first place, and perhaps even exacerbate them. An open border may be just in some circumstances, but cannot ensure justice in and of itself.

Christine Leuenberger

Senior Lecturer in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University (Ithaca). She has published widely in various academic journals, books and popular news outlets. See, for example: ‘Crumbling Walls and Mass Migration in the Twenty-First Century’, in Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement (University of Georgia, 2019) and ‘Maps as Politics: Mapping the West Bank Barrier.

Policy makers and experts tend to agree: migration flows are here to stay. With populations on the move in the twenty-first century, developing policies and programs to integrate them effectively has become one of the primary challenges of the decade. Not only will political instability and economic inequality continue to drive migrants to safer and more prosperous countries, but climate change will displace people through floods, storms, rising sea levels, scarcity of food and water, and conflicts sparked as a result.

Policy makers and experts tend to also agree on another matter: they concur that walling migrants out will not solve the challenges of the twenty-first century. Walls tend to divert the flow of people to more dangerous crossings and encourage illegal activities along borders. Yet, with the number of countries proliferating and borders hardening, calls for open borders ring hollow.

For politicians, the notion of open borders tends to be a political landmine, yet economists tend to favour it. The classic economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, already pointed out in his book The Nature of Mass Poverty in 1979 that, “Migration, we have seen, is the oldest action against poverty… It is good for the country to which they go; it helps to break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people so to resist so obvious а good?”

Opening up borders has always been an effective solution to enhance economic growth, address global inequality, and reduce global poverty. In fact, national borders impede economic growth. They trap human capital in locations where people’s talents and skills go unused, and they cement inequality in place. In contrast, the freedom to move in order to fill labour demands in more prosperous places could benefit both migrant-sending as well as migrant-receiving countries.

Opening up borders has always been an effective solution to enhance economic growth, address global inequality, and reduce global poverty. In fact, national borders impede economic growth.

Many argue that opening up borders – even just a little – would be a more effective antipoverty program than administering foreign aid. The remittances that migrants send back to their home country would contribute to its economic stability. Also, migrants who are free to move are less likely to resettle permanently, and more likely to become circular migrants, eventually returning to their sender country, bringing back skills and assets in the process.

In migrant-receiving countries, opponents to migration often assume that the size of the economy is fixed and migrants take jobs away from workers already there. Economies, however, grow in response to migration. Migrants often create jobs. They also tend to be young, have low medical expenses, and contribute to retirement funds – vital attributes in countries with an increasingly graying workforce.

Lastly, a global economy also entails moral imperatives. Some liken the elimination of limits on migration to the abolition of slavery and the recognition of the rights of women. In both cases, not only did the inherent inequality become unsustainable, but the economic integration of African-Americans and women spurred economic growth and enriched society. Increasing diversity boosts innovation and productivity. There is little doubt that migration is good for the economy and for society. And even if we would want to resist ‘so obvious a good’, we still have to face the fact that how we respond to populations on the move today will define the world we will live in tomorrow.

Paolo Novak

Lecturer in the Development Studies department at SOAS, University of London. His current research intervenes in debates at the intersection of borders and migration studies through an ethnographic study of the reception system for asylum seekers in Italy.

As constitutive territorial pillars of the interstate system, border lines (attempt to) order space and time. Spatially, borders classify people, places and things in relation to their location within the juridico-political units that they themselves delineate. They (attempt to) create false separations in the social totality that the Left should de-fetishise rather than embrace. Temporally, borders (attempt to) silence the struggles and histories of those subsumed (through inclusion, exclusion and/or subordinated differentiation) within those units. They foster nativist conceptions of the working class stained by colonial and imperial racial orderings, which the Left should struggle against rather than embrace. Capital is a social relation that thrives on borders, enclosures, divisions, distinctions, and differentiation. The Left case for open borders, in this sense, is about undermining the social order that borders attempt to define by restoring class-based understandings of differentiation within the social totality.

As functional lines that can be opened, closed, activated and relocated anywhere, borders provide the conditions for such abstract spatio-temporal order to concretely reproduce itself in the everyday. Borders are already open for the privileged, for investment, for powerful countries’ military forces and drones; while visa, humanitarian and citizenship regimes, walls and fences, and, again, military forces and drones, violently (attempt to) ostracise the movement of the dispossessed, the marginal, the ‘not-productive’. There cannot be a Left case that discriminates against the movement of some people vis-à-vis others.

Borders are already open for the privileged, for investment, for powerful countries’ military forces and drones; while visa, humanitarian and citizenship regimes, walls and fences, and, again, military forces and drones, violently (attempt to) ostracise the movement of the dispossessed, the marginal, the ‘not-productive’.

Further, most migrants in the world never cross a border. For them, like for the rest of us, national laws and institutions protect the powerful and undermine their collective power, while police forces and more drones (attempt to) quell their struggles. Border management concretely mediates processes of labour commodification and exploitation, articulating the law with classed, gendered, racialised and kin-based forms of oppression. Capitalism thrives on such articulation and the Left case for open borders, in this sense, is one against the inequality, dispossession, exploitation and violence caused by border management, both in movement and in situ.

Migrants all over, historically and today, have borne the brunt of the social order that borders attempt to re-produce, in its abstract and concrete incarnations. Their political subjectivities are always and necessarily in excess of the social order that defines them as migrants, and for this reason, historically and today, migrants are powerful agents of change. Workers of the world should unite and strive for a socialist and secular future beyond borders.

Dalia Abdelhady

Associate Professor in Sociology at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. Her work focuses on the experiences of different groups of migrants (and their children) in different national and regional contexts. Specifically, she looks at forms of identification, communal belonging, and cultural expression as aspects of migration trajectories.

There is no leftist case for open borders; there is only a human case for open borders. Daily examples from around the world remind us of the atrocities brought about by a system of national boundaries. These national boundaries discriminate and, oftentimes, they kill. In today’s world of nation-states, a person’s right to free movement is determined by their country of birth. Human rights are thus something that is linked to one’s citizenship, not to one’s humanity. If we learned anything from the various walls and refugee crises, we should know that national boundaries do not restrict mobility, they restrict rights.

National boundaries work according to a system of unequal social sorting in which sexuality, gender, race and class play a major role. Politicians and the media have us believe that the problem lies in the unwanted migrants, overlooking the fact that the problem is the national borders that humans created. These borders preserve global inequalities and injustices and they are one of the biggest myths that society has constructed and continues to preserve.

Here, I want to talk about one of the myths surrounding open borders: the impact of immigrants on the labour market. Living in Sweden, a country that is often lauded for its income equality, strong labour unions, and (until 2016) relatively welcoming policies towards refugees, there is a growing trend among workers to opposing more migration. The clear rise in right-wing nationalism across Europe (including Sweden) is partly based on the misconception that migrants contribute to wage cuts and increased unemployment.

There is no leftist case for open borders; there is only a human case for open borders.

Research from many European countries, however, shows that immigration leads wages for low-skilled jobs to rise and not decrease as some tend to believe. In addition, new jobs are created because the domestic population specialises to a greater extent. While capital benefits from the cheap and unregulated labour of immigrants, an overall increase in low-skilled wages brought about as a result of increased migration is clearly undesirable for business. Limiting migration through stricter border controls slows down this process and guarantees an army of unregulated, undocumented and docile workers that the capitalist system continues to benefit from. Labour unions work to protect their members the best they can. In the process, they find themselves aligned with capitalist enterprise to restrict the entry of others who may threaten the wellbeing of their members. A free movement of workers is beneficial for all workers, even those who do not move.

But for us to truly benefit from free movement, we need a radical rethinking of membership. A radical change does not mean opening the borders but rejecting the idea of borders altogether. Open borders can be closed again. Open borders are selective and discriminatory. They only allow those who are considered most useful and productive to pass. A truly egalitarian human society is one that takes care of those who are productive for the capitalist enterprise as much as those who are not. It is a society that respects the rights of people because they are humans and not only because they are workers.

Alex Sager

Associate Professor of Philosophy and University Studies at Portland State University. Recent publications include Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and The Ethics and Politics of Immigration (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). He is currently completing In Defense of Open Borders (Rowman & Littlefield, Off the Fence). More information: https://alexsager.com/

The rallying cry ‘No one is illegal’ encapsulates the Left case for open borders. ‘No one is illegal’ is a protest against slurs such as ‘illegal alien’; it is also a call for a world in which states do not illegalise people, assigning them lesser status based on their place of birth. The Left case for open borders is anti-racist and anti-caste. State border controls must be abolished because immigrant exclusion plays a pivotal role in assigning people inferior status to marginalise, exploit, and abuse them.

Transeuropa Festival 2017, photo by: Till Gentzsch

The Left case for open borders opposes liberal nationalist and statist arguments that see the violence of border controls as a regrettable cost of maintaining political, economic, and cultural sovereignty. Liberal nationalists and statists cannot escape complicity in the routine detention of immigrants (including asylum seekers), militarised raids on immigrant communities, family separation through deportation, and the deaths of migrants. Against considerable evidence, these liberals hold that the brutality of border controls could be mitigated through more humane legislation, policy, and practices.

The Left case for open borders also parts with the liberal case for open borders. The liberal argument for open borders is that borders violate human rights of mobility and opportunity. Borders are market distortions that sustain inequalities assigned through place of birth. The liberal case for open borders is not wrong, but it does not go far enough. It ignores how the dead and the maimed are only the most visible atrocities of a system of structural and symbolic violence.

The liberal case for open borders is not wrong, but it does not go far enough. It ignores how the dead and the maimed are only the most visible atrocities of a system of structural and symbolic violence.

The Left case for open borders maintains that ‘immigrant’ is a state-centred term, used to attribute people lesser status. This attribution is a form of structural violence. People are routinely illegalised to reduce their access to human rights. Immigrants are assigned contingent statuses, from workers whose docility is enforced by illegal or temporary status to comparatively privileged permanent residents who are nonetheless barred from the franchise and subject to deportation. Militarised police meet resistance with incarceration and deportation.

Structural violence combines with symbolic violence. The wall in the slogan ‘Build the wall’ is a symbol that has little to do with a wall and much to do with the affirmation that violence will be employed to maintain white supremacy. Its principal target is not foreigners outside of state territories, but racialised populations inside the state who dare assert their equal status and rights.

Renouncing symbolic and structural violence means seeking a world where no one is illegal. This in turn demands open borders.

Michael Huemer

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of more than 70 academic articles in ethics, epistemology, political philosophy, and metaphysics, as well as six books, including Ethical Intuitionism (Palgrave, 2005), The Problem of Political Authority (Palgrave, 2013), and Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism (forthcoming in 2019).

The most important argument for open borders is that border restrictions are harmful to potential immigrants. Worldwide, there are tens of millions of people who want to move to another country, many of them seeking to escape oppression or severe economic hardship. The overwhelming majority are unable to do so because of the enormous barriers erected by national governments. The situation is analogous to the following scenario:

A man is short on food and in danger of starvation. To obtain more food, he attempts to walk to a nearby marketplace, where there are people willing to trade food for something he has. Before he can reach the marketplace, I stop him, armed with an M16, and order him to turn around. I do this because my nephew is shopping in the marketplace, and I fear that this man might bid up the price of food. In addition, he has a different language, religion, clothing style, and other cultural practices from most of the people in the marketplace, and I fear that his arrival might influence the language, religion, or clothing style of the marketplace. As a result of my action, he returns home, where he starves.

Many people could avoid oppression, poverty, or other misfortunes by moving to another country and trading with the residents there.

In this example, did I harm this man? Obviously so. I did not merely refuse to help him, nor did I merely allow a harm to occur. I caused him to starve. I might in fact be guilty of murder, or something close to it. The harm is obviously not justified by my desire to limit economic competition or prevent cultural change.

That is a particularly dramatic case. We can imagine variations in which the man suffers lesser harms, such as malnutrition or general poverty. In these cases, I would be guilty of inflicting these lesser harms on him. The underlying principle is the same: by coercively preventing a person from avoiding a harm, we become morally responsible for that harm; we inflict that harm on the person.

That is analogous to restrictive immigration laws. Many people could avoid oppression, poverty, or other misfortunes by moving to another country and trading with the residents there. By coercively preventing these people from doing so, the government becomes morally responsible for the harms they suffer as a result. This is not specifically a left-wing argument, though it is compatible with left-wing values: anyone should be against forcibly inflicting serious harms on people without good reason.

Nandita Sharma

Associate Professor of Racism, Migration and Transnationalism in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. She is an activist scholar whose research is shaped by the social movements she is active in, including No Borders movements and those struggling for the commons. Amongst her publications is her book, Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers’ in Canada (University of Toronto, 2006) and a forthcoming book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University).

The only Left case regarding borders is to abolish them.

We live in a world that is defined by two inter-related forces of domination: a globally operative capitalism and a world system of nation-states. Capitalists seek to invest in sites where profits are the greatest. Competition for capital investment is organised by nation-states who have the legislative (and military) means to manipulate the cost of doing business (natural resources, taxes, and, most importantly, labour). Each nation-state seeks advantage by lowering the costs of production, especially the costs of labour. Meanwhile, capitalists use individual nation-states to do their bidding (e.g. by intervening militarily when profits are at risk).

The expropriative practices that define capitalism have left the vast majority of the world’s people dependent upon selling their labour power simply to survive. We are forced to find a buyer for our labour so that we can buy food, housing, clothing, medicine, and almost everything else. But our ability to do so is profoundly unequal. Finding and keeping jobs in the Poor World is more difficult than in the Rich World, wage levels there are far lower, and the quality of life is vastly poorer. This works for capital. A 2010 ILO study found that to hire a manufacturing worker for a day in Mexico costs 13% of what it costs in the United States.

Citizenship and immigration controls are an essential part of this system of global apartheid, so much so that knowing which national citizenship a person holds is the greatest predictor of life outcomes.

Citizenship and immigration controls are an essential part of this system of global apartheid, so much so that knowing which national citizenship a person holds is the greatest predictor of life outcomes. Immigration controls maintain the borders between Rich and Poor World and they legislate discrimination within individual nation-states by allocating differential sets of rights and entitlements to people based on whether they are ‘citizens’ or not. This makes workers classified as ‘immigrants,’ and especially those from Poor World nation-states, cheaper to employ and more easy to abuse.

But perhaps most perniciously, immigration controls destroy the global solidarity that is essential to defeating capitalism. Immigration controls depend on workers’ nationalism. Nationalism is founded on the idea that members of the cross-class ‘nation’ can live harmoniously together. Nationalism tells us that the only reason we don’t is because of the existence of ‘foreigners.’ But, nationalism can never produce liberty, equality and fraternity. Nationalism can only be used to put up ‘immigrants’ as a shield to conceal its work for capitalists.

We can do better. No Borders movements reject efforts to separate us from our co-workers. We reject identities of ‘citizen’ and ‘migrant’ used to pit us against each other. We reject ‘nations’ and their borders in order to create a world without class rule.

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This piece has been published on the State of Nature blog. It has been republished here with permission. 

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