A World Without Borders?

In this lesson, students step back from the debate over a "border wall," and consider the moral arguments for and against “no borders." 

To the Teacher:

Americans have been having a ferocious debate over President Trump’s proposal for a “border wall.” But underlying this debate is a more fundamental question: Why do we have borders at all?

This lesson takes a step back from the current news cycle and instead explores a wider discussion about borders and immigration. Acknowledging that America is a nation of immigrants and celebrating the nation’s diversity, what might be the argument for having border control? In contrast, what might be the argument for having no borders at all?

This lesson has two readings, one about the moral arguments for “no borders” and the arguments against this position. The second reading takes up some more practical questions about border control and security. Questions for discussion follow each reading.



Reading One:
What Are Borders? Do We Really Need Them?

Americans have been having a ferocious debate over President Trump’s proposal for a “border wall.” But underlying this debate is a more fundamental question: Why do we have borders at all?

Many people have come to think of borders between countries as if they were natural features of geography—like mountains or rivers. In fact, as University of Hawaii Professor of Geography Reece Jones argued in a May 22, 2017, interview with Vice.com, borders are relatively recent inventions. Moreover, they are fundamentally political and economic constructions. As Jones explained:

We tend to think of borders as if they are these natural things that have always existed. But of course the idea of borders and the idea of having countries is a very recent phenomenon. It's something that's emerged really in just the past few hundred years, and in a lot of the world, the last 50 years or 75 years since World War II. It's really a new and somewhat radical experiment for thinking about the relationship between people and land….

[A]fter World War II, the idea of the United Nations is to create what is essentially a global clearinghouse to systematically establish the borders of all of the countries around the world. When a state joins the UN, they have to agree to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all the other member states: It essentially forces all countries to respect each other's borders. After WWII and after the period of decolonization that followed through the 1970s, borders have been really quite fixed.

Primarily, a system of borders is a system for controlling resources, it's a system for controlling people, and it's particularly a system for excluding other people from access to those resources. It protects some sort of privileges that have accrued in a particular place—whether that's control of the resources, wealth, or a set of cultural or political practices in that place—and it excludes other people from the ability to have access to it.


In this context, some argue for open borders from a moral and human rights perspective. Since we do not choose the place or conditions of our birth, they argue, why should our freedom of movement be restricted by arbitrary political and economic boundaries? As economist Alex Tabarrok wrote in an October 10, 2015 article for The Atlantic:

Not every place in the world is equally well-suited to mass economic activity. Nature’s bounty is divided unevenly. Variations in wealth and income created by these differences are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry. Closed borders compound these injustices, cementing inequality into place and sentencing their victims to a life of penury.

The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants want little more than to make a better life for themselves and their families by moving to economic opportunity and participating in peaceful, voluntary trade...

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other,” but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

Freedom of movement is a basic human right. Thus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belies its name when it proclaims this right only “within the borders of each state.” Human rights do not stop at the border. Today, we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let their people exit. I look forward to the day when we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let people enter.

Acknowledging that borders are political and economic constructions, we can think about them in new ways. We can even ask the most fundamental question: Are borders morally justifiable, or is the “no borders” position more ethically sound?


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, borders are a relatively recent invention. What do you think is the purpose of having borders?
  1. Why do you think that borders have become increasingly well defined over the past 50 to 75 years?
  1. What is the moral argument for “no borders” or “open borders”? Do you find this argument convincing?
  1. In contrast, what might be some moral or philosophical arguments in favor of borders? Are these more or less justifiable than an “open borders” position? Explain your reasoning.




Reading Two:
Could Open Borders Be Practical?


While advocates of open borders make a strong moral argument that a person’s life chances should not be determined by the accident of where they are born, there are more practical arguments about borders to consider. Even among those who celebrate America as a nation of immigrants and reject nativist arguments, there are many who many raise questions of practicality.

During his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—who describes himself as an advocate of immigrant rights—nevertheless argued against an open border policy. Open borders, Sanders said, are a dream of big business, which is always in search of a highly exploitable labor force. As David Weigel reported for the Washington Post, on July 30, 2015:

"There is a reason that Wall Street likes immigration reform," Sanders said. "What I think they’re interested in is seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor into this county."

Sanders, who supported the 2013 version of immigration reform, had already waded into a moral and economic fight inside the Democratic Party. The latest round began with an interview with Vox's Ezra Klein, who asked if Sanders could favor "sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders."

The Vermont senator vehemently disagreed. "That's a Koch brothers proposal," he said. "What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that."  [The brothers Charles and David Koch, billionaire leaders of Koch Industries, founded and fund a number of right-wing organizations.]

Sanders does not oppose providing rights and protections to undocumented workers who are already here, and therefore his proposals stand in significant contrast with those of President Trump. Additionally, some businesses that advocate relaxing immigration laws would like “guest worker” programs, which do not grant immigrants any of the benefits extended to citizens, such as voting rights and access to the social safety net.

Apart from Sanders’s arguments, some other political commentators who celebrate the contributions of immigrants also stop short of advocating for completely open borders. They argue that extending a robust social safety net to citizens is not an offer that a country could afford to extend to all non-citizens. Economist Paul Krugman stated in an April 26, 2010, New York Times blog post: “[O]pen immigration can’t coexist with a strong social safety net; if you’re going to assure health care and a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global.”

In an April 27, 2010 article, The Economist expanded on Krugman’s argument:

The easiest interpretation of Mr Krugman's statement concerns the politics. Basically, strong social safety nets are difficult to establish and maintain in highly diverse societies, because there will be opposition to redistribution, real or perceived, from one group to another. We just had an excellent example of this, when the recent health care overhaul was nearly derailed over the issue of whether or not undocumented immigrants would be covered. The more it appears that one group (class, race, ethnicity) is paying to support another group, the more intense will be the opposition to extensions of the social safety net.

The more interesting question is whether there is any economic difficulty in combining immigration and a social safety net. At a purely theoretical level, there could be. If one assumes perfectly free labour mobility, then countries quickly run into an adverse selection situation. Generous welfare states attract workers who get more out of the system than they pay in and repel those who pay in more than they get out. This quickly leads to an implosion of the welfare state.

Whatever America’s border policy, a crucial element of creating a more just immigration system is addressing injustice in other parts of the world, so there is not as much pressure on people to leave their homes in the first place. That means that any open borders plan must be accompanied by foreign policy that makes migration a choice, not a necessity.

As photojournalist and immigration activist David Bacon wrote in a July 27, 2013 article for The Progressive, no amount of border enforcement will be able to stop desperate people from attempting to make the trip. Bacon wrote:

Growing poverty fueled migration. In 1990 4.5 million Mexican-born people lived in the U.S. In 2008 12.67 million did, around 11% of all Mexicans. About 5.7 million were able to get a visa, but another 7 million couldn't, and came nevertheless. If our families needed to eat and survive, most of us would cross borders too, despite the risks. In fact, this is what the ancestors of many U.S. citizens did.

And if walls could have stopped this wave of people seeking survival, they would have already. Instead, hundreds of people die on the border every year, a number that increases with the rising number of agents and walls.

The $47 billion for border enforcement in the Senate bill will boost income for contractors and companies selling drones and helicopters. Border Patrol agents will become a familiar sight in cities far from the border. But this will not stop migration, nor is it intended to….

[The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations’] alternative is to renegotiate NAFTA to end the causes of displacement. They would give residence visas to the undocumented already here, and end today's mass deportations and firings of thousands of workers. Future migration, they say, should provide visas to families, not labor recruiters for Wal-Mart or growers. "We want to be treated as more than cheap labor," Maceda says.

The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations is a unique organization because it's made up both of migrants in the U.S. and people in the towns from which they come. It held discussions in both places — among migrants here and migrant-sending communities in Mexico.

"We have to change the debate from one in which immigration is presented as a problem to a debate over rights," concludes Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a UCLA professor and former coordinator of the binational group. "We want rights for migrants in the U.S. and at the same time development that makes migration a choice rather than a necessity — the right to not migrate. Both are part of the solution."

Regardless of whether open borders is a policy that could be implemented immediately, those who argue for it contend that it is an important goal, and that we could begin to shape policy with this ultimate aim in mind.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, why does Senator Bernie Sanders oppose a policy of open borders? How does his position differ from that of the anti-immigration policies supported by people like President Trump?
  1. Economist Paul Krugman has said “[O]pen immigration can’t coexist with a strong social safety net.” What is the rationale for this position? Do you agree or disagree? Explain your reasoning.
  1. In order for open borders to become a reality, what other kinds of policies might be necessary? What role does foreign policy and international solidarity play in improving the immigration system?