On the Morality of: Open Borders

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My recap of the Maryam Namazie-Sam Harris exchange spurred a debate about open-border policies, so I wanted to write a post focusing on that topic. Unfortunately, I believe this is only going to become more relevant, not just because of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, but because it’s likely that the next few decades will see millions of people forced to migrate by climate change.

On a first pass, it’s hard to see what argument could be made against open borders. Shouldn’t travel be a basic human right? (It is, according to the United Nations.) Why shouldn’t I, or any human being, be able to move freely and to live wherever I choose? It strikes me as indefensible – another form of segregation, really – to say that there are some parts of the planet where I can never go, just because of where I was born.

This argument is even stronger if I’m a refugee fleeing war, disaster or dictatorship, or if I want to emigrate to escape persecution over religion, race, sexuality, or political views. Simple compassion suggests that when this happens, the other nations of the earth ought to throw their doors open wide to help those in need, just as we’d want to help anyone else who was suffering unjustly, and just as we hope we’d find similar welcome and refuge if we ever needed to flee our homes. This is what I said in my sermon from last year about xenophobia over Middle Eastern refugees.

An argument made by Sam Harris and others is that some percentage of emigrants aren’t seeking asylum from persecution, but are moving for purely economic reasons. Harris implies that people moving for this reason should be treated differently, but I don’t think so. If the desire to escape persecution is morally legitimate, the desire to escape poverty and to seek a better life for yourself is surely no less legitimate. Both are founded in the same basic motivation, the desire for greater well-being and happiness, that’s fundamental to any moral evaluation.

The stereotypical fear driving anti-immigrant hostility is that immigrants will end up “taking jobs” which, allegedly, are the rightful property of people who are already citizens. I’m not unsympathetic to fears that a flood of labor competition will create a debilitating race to the bottom. But if this is a problem, I’d argue, the solution isn’t to cut off immigration, but to do a better job of enforcing minimum-wage and labor laws so that everyone competes on an even footing. If anything, what undercuts wages is when people have to enter a country illegally and live in the shadows – because employers know full well that they can underpay and mistreat workers who don’t dare complain to the police. An open-immigration policy would take away this leverage.

Besides, the concern about immigrants taking jobs that’d otherwise go to Americans seems to be overblown. When the state of Georgia passed a harsh anti-immigrant law designed to discourage migrant farm workers, those jobs weren’t taken by Americans; they just went unfilled, and crops rotted in the fields.

The outcome in Georgia and states with similar laws show that, as often as they’re feared and reviled, immigrants produce an economic benefit in the long run, whether it’s by filling service jobs or founding Fortune 500 companies. America is the world’s economic superpower because of our historically generous immigration policies, not in spite of them. It’s successive waves of immigrants who built this country into the economic powerhouse and thriving multicultural tapestry it is, even despite the racism and xenophobia that’s often impeded their way. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” isn’t gauzy idealism, but polished-metal truth. Japan and many European countries grappling with low birthrates and shrinking populations could badly use some immigration of their own to give their economies a shot in the arm.

Now obviously, there are some practical limits to this. No country can take on an unlimited amount of immigrants. Natural resources are finite; there’s a limit to how many people any region can sustainably support. Even beyond the ecological limits, it can’t be denied that absorbing immigrants causes short-term social and economic strain. A sudden, huge influx of people could be destabilizing, even in a rich country, and most countries aren’t rich. There has to be an orderly process, but it should be fair and open.

However, the biggest quandary – the one Sam Harris was fixated on – is what to do, in a democratic and secular society, about potential immigrants who may not share those Enlightenment values. Harris raised this point with reference to immigrants from Islamic regions who he fears would vote for sharia law, but it could apply to any group of people from traditionally conservative, patriarchal, or highly religious societies. I’d argue that ultra-Orthodox Judaism, for example, is associated with similar support for theocratic government.

I acknowledge this argument isn’t completely without merit. (I cited it in 2008 as a reason to oppose a global, one-world government.) Democracy shouldn’t be a suicide pact, as the cliche goes; and if it were true that there were people who wanted to become part of our society only to destroy it from within, there’d be a plausible argument for refusing entry to them. But we don’t live in such a black-and-white world, and real human beings can’t be divided into the deserving and the undeserving so neatly. Even for immigrants who come from undemocratic societies, it’s conceivable that if they settle here, they’ll see for themselves why democratic and secular liberties are so precious and come to appreciate them. (Do the anti-immigrant campaigners have so little confidence in the American experiment that they think it’s incapable of demonstrating its value to skeptics?) Besides, there are millions of Americans who don’t value our freedoms as they should, but no one’s ever proposed making them turn in their passports.

However dangerous any belief system may be, giving the government power to single people out and punish or exclude them merely for their views is far more dangerous. I don’t think that’s a power that government can or should be trusted with. If you’re going to say that certain beliefs constitute grounds for turning someone away at the border, you have to answer the two most important questions: which beliefs, and who decides?

When the religious right was in power in America, should they have been able to deny asylum to LGBT people – or atheists – who were being persecuted by the conservative societies they came from? Before same-sex marriage was a national right, should we have barred people who advocated it?

Even if you have total trust in government officials to use such a power wisely, or if you think the need to keep out bearers of destructive ideologies is so urgent that it overrides all other considerations, there’s a further problem: borders don’t stop ideas. Here’s how I put it in a comment:

If your argument is that Islamism is an unstoppable political ideology that can’t be overcome through peaceful debate or persuasion, then our democracy is doomed already. Even if we were to adopt the desperation move of trying to screen out all immigrants who hold those beliefs, they could make their case to people who already live here, with the same ultimate result.

In the long run, the only thing that defeats a bad idea is a better idea. Bloodshed doesn’t do it; repression doesn’t do it. Malignant ideologies only fade away when they’re brought into the light and exposed. This applies with special force to this situation, where Islamists want to feed the narrative of the West as an empire at war with the entire Islamic world. Giving in to paranoid, xenophobic fear and trying to impose a blanket ban on all Muslim immigrants only plays into the fundamentalists’ hands. Proving by example that we’re not the evil empire they make us out to be will do far more to win us allies and turn the tide in the conflict between civilization and violent jihadism – as well as satisfying the moral obligations we have toward our fellow human beings.

Image: People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate, November 9, 1989. By Sue Ream, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY 3.0 license

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