For Open Borders—by Peter Eisenstadt

For Open Borders
Peter Eisenstadt

One of the biggest domestic stories of the past few weeks has been the presence of some 60,000 Central American refugees and immigrants on the US border with Mexico. And no doubt the biggest stories in the world these past few weeks has been the latest Israel-Gaza War, and the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over rebel-held territory in Eastern Ukraine. What all of these stories have in common is that they are all, in one way or another, about borders, and the right of people to cross them.

The problem with the sudden influx of Central American migrants to the US is that they arrived too quickly and too numerously to be easily absorbed by ICE and their holding facilities, a decision scandal-mongered by the media into a huge “crisis,” calls for their immediate return to their country of origins, and changing the law that the US Congress, in an absent-minded fit of generosity, made in easier for young immigrants to remain in the United States. One of the main causes and provocations behind the three Israel-Gaza wars since 2008 is the reality that Gaza is sealed, by Israel and Egypt, and that entrance and egress of people and goods has been severely limited. There are the usual arguments on both sides about who did what first, which I won’t go into here, but the reality that Gazans in the current conflict can’t even become refugees, since there is nowhere to go. And the Russian rebels, like any self-respecting statelet, demonstrated its quasi-sovereignty and determining who was allowed in, and who wasn’t.

There are few more complex and sensitive questions for modern nations than determining their immigration policy. Up to about a century ago, most countries had an open immigration policy; certainly the United States did, during the heyday of European immigration, until the 1920s, more or less anyone who wanted to come, if they could afford steerage passage. This changed in 1924, with the passage of the National Origins Act, the most nakedly anti-Semitic major piece of legislation ever passed in this country. (And one that, in the run-up to World War II, contributed to the deaths of countless thousands of Jews.) Since 1965 the law has been less overtly racist, but it continues to be a damnable calculus of how is allowed in, who isn’t, what sort of people would benefit the US, and what sort wouldn’t, and making “illegal” many millions of immigrants to the US who fall outside one of the tightly restricted favored categories.

Israel and Palestine have an even more complex history of immigration restriction, dating back to at least the British “white paper” of 1939, population expulsions and exchanges, and generally, since 1948, hermetically sealed borders, perhaps reaching its apex in Gaza since 2007. Let me make a brief, utopian suggestion, never to be realized (at least not in the lifetime of anyone reading this)—let us recognize, as a basic human right, the right to move from one country to another at will. I don’t want to write an extended policy piece, but let me deal with a few obvious objections.

If we did this, I don’t think America would be “overrun” with immigrants. In this case, I would trust the free market; people move to where they are welcome and where there are jobs. Just as all Americans do not move to Manhattan and San Francisco and other wealthy areas, I don’t think people would come to unsustainable numbers to the US.

An open borders policy, it is true, would make it easier for persons living in less developed nations to make their way more easily to their richer neighbors. I think this would be all to the good. Immigration has always been the world’s greatest anti-poverty program. If rich countries are scared because there are too many poor countries in the world, they only have themselves to blame.

And immigration restriction has always been about maintaining racial balances. I would not argue that some sort of national preferences are always unethical (although it’s a close call, and this is a very vexed issue), but I would maintain that using immigration to achieve a particular racial, ethical, or religious mix is always immoral. And this remains, far more than its economic implications, the reason why the recent immigration from Central America has become a top political issue.

One argument that one often hears is that one’s nation or people is a family, and that like in any family, your own family members come first. The use of the family metaphor to understand public policy has severe limitations, and the reason why there are governments is because it was recognized that if families only were concerned with their own interests, while being indifferent to everyone else’s, the result would be chaos. In any event, most of those screaming the loudest to keep out or return the Central Americans don’t give a crap about poverty at home. There is no evidence that keeping out immigrants depresses wages or takes jobs from natives. Immigration restriction is the economic egalitarianism of fools. Being part of a family means you help your own, but not at the expense of others, especially your neighbors.

Those of us who live in America, and those of us who, through no effort of our own, were lucky enough to be born in America, and who take for granted our ability to move great distances, have no idea of the importance of the right to move freely. Two years ago, when my wife and I moved from New York State to South Carolina, we did not have to notify New York officials that we were leaving, or South Carolina officials that we were arriving. My wife, Jane, did have to get a South Carolina nursing license to teach nursing in the state (this was basically a transfer of her New York State license.) After a few weeks we had to change our driver’s licenses (which function as America’s internal passport) from one state to another, and relinquish, our New York State license plates. Why should the move from El Salvador to Texas be any more complicated?

I remember well marching in Manhattan, to demand the freedom of Soviet Jews, and the right of Jews, and others, to freely leave the Soviet Union. No one should be trapped in the country of their birth or residence against their will. And I think, following from that, everyone should have the right to move to any country of their choosing. Israel and Palestine, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, are defined by borders and border crossings and checkpoints. It is perhaps the last region in the world that would ever adopt a policy of open borders, but probably no part of the world needs it more desperately.