A Case for Open Borders

Following Congress’ failure to fund a continuous wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, President Trump declared a state of national emergency for what he claims is an immigration crisis. This follows the 35-day government shutdown in December and January over the same border security proposal — a shutdown that jeopardized the livelihoods of Americans working for the government. Instead of debating building a southern border wall, we should be discussing reforming our outdated immigration policies. The U.S. should open its borders to new immigrants and grant amnesty to the 10.7 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country. According to Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans believe that immigration strengthens the U.S. Given the support for immigrants by the majority of Americans, I think it is time to discuss changing our immigration policies.

The U.S. has a long history of xenophobia-driven immigration policy. This xenophobia originates from the United States’ foundation as a settler-colonial state. We’ve seen xenophobia more blatantly in recent years through the rise of Islamophobia following 9/11, the resurgence of white nationalism, and the rise of Russophobia following the 2016 election.

Xenophobia has shown itself through the passage of racist immigration policies in the past. Before the enactment of laws such as the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that excluded Chinese immigrants, the borders were open and people were free to immigrate to the U.S., though access to citizenship was limited based on race. The next major change in U.S. immigration policy was in the 1920s with the Emergency Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act. The Emergency Quota Act capped the number of immigrants admitted from any country at just three percent of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of 1910. The Johnson-Reed Act restricted immigration to 150,000 people per year and established a national quota system based on two percent of the 1890 U.S. census. Then, in 1965, the Hart-Celler Act abolished national origins quotas in favor of hemisphere-based quotas. The main impact of the Hart-Celler Act was an increase in the number of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern immigrants. Over the last five decades, the general framework of these hemispheric quotas has remained in place. Despite the demographic shifts we have seen due to the Hart-Celler Act, the act itself was quite conservative in terms of configuring a system that was intended to preserve the general demographic makeup of the U.S. I argue that we can do better by opening our borders.

In her recent election campaign, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called for the abolishment of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security created after 9/11, which has become notorious for separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Indeed, we must abolish I.C.E., but we must also demilitarize the border, decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, and grant amnesty to those illegal immigrants already living here. By granting amnesty and decriminalizing the border, the phrase “undocumented immigrants” will be an artifact of the past. Opposition to these policies usually comes from a place of fear. I will attempt to address the most common fears.

Contrary to what some believe, the labor market is not a zero-sum game. In other words, immigrants are not going to take jobs away from people. Instead, people become unemployed for other reasons such as the outsourcing of jobs to other countries driven by a neoliberal globalization agenda that empowers corporations over communities. The problem is not with immigration. The solution is to address these real concerns, not to fear monger about immigrants.

There is also the deep-seated fear that the cultural fabric of America is changing in part due to immigration — that fear has helped drive President Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.” His campaign began by declaring that immigrants are criminals. Because undocumented immigrants are framed as a racialized other, it is easy for people to believe this false statement. Statistically, this simply is not the case. People born in the U.S. are twice as likely as immigrants to be behind bars. While I believe cultural change is not to be feared, President Trump’s rhetoric neglects the fact that immigrants are choosing to come to the U.S. While they bring their own cultural baggage, they also adopt American values and customs. With legal status, immigrants would pay taxes and their children will, for better or worse, assimilate into the social fabric.

There is the worry that immigrants would overwhelm social services; however, immigrants are a small but real net positive for the economy and the government. Immigrants are primarily coming to work. Additionally, borders do not stop immigrants from coming here illegally. By refusing to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, we make it easy for would-be undocumented immigrants to contribute to funding government goods and services. Our current system forces some undocumented immigrants to work in the shadows, preventing them from contributing in the form of taxes.

Not only are there benefits for the government, but some economists claim dramatic boosts to GDP as a result of open borders. This is because productivity depends on location more than skill; the same job adds more value to the economy in a developed country than a developing one. While economic growth is not everything, allowing greater immigration through opening the borders is an easy way to boost GDP. Through policy, we can make sure that these benefits are shared by the vast majority of Americans.

Ultimately, I am arguing for open borders because it is the best solution to the problem of illegal immigration. The benefits to GDP and government coffers are low-hanging fruit we must seize. Open borders reject the racism that has fueled our immigration and citizenship policies in the past. Instead of blaming immigrants for the economic troubles brought to us by neoliberalism, we ought to embrace opening our borders.


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