You have lived in the U.S. for 30 years. You’re speeding a little to get to work when you’re pulled over. First they realize you have no license. Then they realize you have no papers. You get thrown in jail. You need your wife, a U.S. citizen, to gather documents for you. But she is undergoing chemotherapy and her memory isn’t working right. After a few weeks, her phone number goes dead. Is she in intensive care? Was she evicted? You don’t know. You are trapped in prison and have no one else to call. You explain the situation to the judge and he gives you a few extensions. Then, finally, he says his hands are tied. You’ve presented him with no evidence. You are deported back to a country you haven’t seen since you were 10. You still don’t know if your wife is alive or dead.
You work in a factory where the boss won’t turn on the heat in the wintertime, where you aren’t allowed to use the bathroom, where you get paid less than the documented workers for the same labor. You and your colleagues take a list of complaints to your boss’s office one day. He greets you with a loaded gun. You are afraid to complain again after that. Then a SWAT team raids the factory and rounds you all up. You have young U.S. citizen children, so they don’t want to deport you immediately, because your children would become burdens on the state. But every day from now on, immigration is watching you. When they call you on the phone, you must answer. When they summon you to see them, you must go. Every few years, they slap an ankle monitor on you, and then take it off again, and then put it back on you, without explanation. Every so often, they threaten to make you buy plane tickets. They tell you they can deport you whenever they want. They have already deported several of your former coworkers who are in the same situation. You are always one slip-up away from being ripped away from your family. You can’t sleep at night. When you try to picture your future, all you see is a blind fog.
When we talk about enforcing immigration laws, it’s important to be quite specific about what we mean. Immigration enforcement is not words on paper. It is a constant, daily sequence of concrete acts. It is kicking down people’s doors, it is putting people in handcuffs, it is taking people’s photographs and fingerprints, it is locking people in cages, it is forcing people into cars and buses and planes. Some of these acts happen at the border, when the government tries to block people from entering. Some of them happen inside the country, when the government hunts down those with irregular status. Sometimes, this immigration enforcement is explicitly violent, like when Border Patrol officials unleash teargas (a chemical weapon banned in warfare) on toddlers, when they rip children from their mothers’ arms, when they kick women huddled on the concrete floors of border cells and scream at them that they are animals. Other times it’s something humdrum and largely invisible: the border guard who calmly tells an asylum seeker at a port of entry that there is “no more room” in the U.S., the judge who silently decides that the terrified person in front of them hasn’t done quite enough to deserve a favorable exercise of discretion, the police officer who has a funny habit of always stopping cars with Hispanic-looking drivers, the countless bureaucrats who review immigration applications and deny them without explanation. All of these acts, from the monstrous to the mundane, have real-world effects on individual people. They mean families separated, whether by deportation or by the hard border that keeps an undocumented breadwinner from ever again visiting the children he had to leave behind. They mean people dying horribly, because they are forced to return to life-threatening danger, or because they become ill in the U.S. and are scared to go the hospital for fear their lack of status will be discovered. They mean workers exploited, because the threat of deportation keeps them under the thumb of their boss, or because arbitrary territorial lines prevent them from seeking better employment conditions in another place.
Immigration policy in the United States cannot be discussed in the abstract. Unless we talk about what our immigration laws actually mean for people’s lives, we’ll have no way to sensibly evaluate them. There are about 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, and several hundred thousand arrested and deported annually. Beneath the statistics, there is fear and pain. Every choice of what laws to have and how to enforce them produces consequences: workplaces raided, kids pulled out of school, women being turned back to face domestic violence.
This context is important when we turn to Angela Nagle’s “The Left Case Against Open Borders,” recently published in American Affairs (formerly the explicitly pro-Trump Journal of American Greatness). Nagle confidently informs us that all mass migration is inherently tragic, and that incentivizing it with overly liberal immigration policies, although it seems kind, is actually cruel. The “open borders left,” Nagle declares, by embracing unrestricted immigration, is hurting the very people they are trying to help, and undermining the prospects for successful labor organizing and a restructuring of the global economic system. She goes so far as to argue that advocates of unrestricted free movement are the “useful idiots of big business,” because they are sanctioning the exploitation of imported laborers. Instead of addressing the root causes of economic migration, they have allied with the Koch Brothers in advocating “open borders.” This “open borders left” has a radically ignorant set of priorities, reacting to Trumpism by embracing Koch-ism, and ignoring the way that unrestricted migration serves the interests of the capitalist class by dividing workers and depressing wages.
Now, because Nagle (supposedly) cares about immigrants, she doesn’t want to see them teargassed at the border or hunted down by immigration police. What she does want to see is employers who employ undocumented workers being punished by the state, so that they don’t hire undocumented workers anymore. This is the only concrete policy proposal in Nagle’s entire piece, and at no point does she discuss what its enforcement would actually look like. That’s because the enforcement of this policy proposal would look pretty fucking monstrous. In fact, the “E-Verify” system Nagle touts as a humane alternative to ICE is a system that people like Ann Coulter and Kris Kobach have long been putting forward as the ideal immigration restrictionist policy. (Given such political bedfellows, by Angela Nagle’s logic we might accuse her of being the useful idiot of white nationalism. Then again, Angela Nagle’s logic is terrible.) E-Verify is the central piece of a slate of an anti-immigrant policies designed to encourage “self-deportation”: that is, making life so miserable for undocumented people in the U.S., making them so poor and desperate and demoralized and afraid, that they decide to leave the country of their own accord. As the anti-immigrant Center for Immigrant Studies describes, the goal of self-deportation is to “create ‘virtual choke points’—events that are necessary for life in a modern society but are infrequent enough not to bog down everyone’s daily business. Another analogy for this concept to firewalls in computer systems, that people could pass through only if their legal status is verified. The objective is not mainly to identify illegal aliens for arrest (though that will always be a possibility) but rather to make it as difficult as possible for illegal aliens to live a normal life here.”
The fact that a self-described leftist like Nagle would openly support E-Verify shows that she is, at best, so grossly uninformed about immigration policy that it was irresponsible for her to commentate on it. At worst, it might be that she genuinely does not give a shit about the suffering of immigrants and is perfectly happy to sacrifice them to political expediency. Either way, she is not a credible exponent of what “the left” ought to think about anything.
However, ideas like Nagle’s have proven persuasive to a number of people over the years, so it’s worth going through her essay and dissecting each of her claims. First, Nagle argues that “the left” has historically (and wisely) opposed mass immigration as detrimental to worker interests. Secondly, she argues that there are no compelling arguments in favor of open borders or free movement other than those put forward by “big business,” whose only desire to exploit cheap labor. Thirdly, she argues that using the E-verify system to target employers of undocumented workers, rather than the workers themselves, is a humane way to keep undocumented people out of the workforce. Finally, she argues that immigrants don’t truly want to migrate anyway, so we should block them from doing so, and in the meantime just go about fixing all the problems that caused them to feel they needed to migrate in the first place.
Let’s start with Nagle’s historical analysis of the relationship between labor movements and immigrant laborers. Up until the present, she says, unions were skeptical of immigration, because they knew it was a tool used by capitalists to hurt workers, and everyone from Karl Marx to Cesar Chavez knew that immigration divided the working class and harmed its interests. But let’s get our facts straight. It is not true, as Nagle argues, that “the transformation of open borders into a ‘Left’ position is a very new phenomenon and runs counter to the history of the organized Left in fundamental ways.” It’s only possible to think this if you don’t know much about the history of leftism. In fact, the libertarian socialist left has always been against state restrictions on movement (and on pretty much everything else, for that matter). For them, the vision of a stateless, classless, borderless world was fundamental. This notion was not just confined, as Nagle implies, to a smattering of extremist anarchists. Despite his shameful prejudices, even Eugene V. Debs recognized the essential conflict between left values and immigration restrictions:
The alleged advantages that would come to the Socialist movement because of such heartless exclusion would all be swept away a thousand times by the sacrifice of a cardinal principle of the international socialist movement, for well might the good faith of such a movement be questioned by intelligent workers if it placed itself upon record as barring its doors against the very races most in need of relief, and extinguishing their hope.
In the U.S., it was the most conservative trade unions that were the most anti-immigrant, and there was a major conflict between the narrow craft unionism of groups like the American Federation of Labor and the more radical, internationalist vision of the Industrial Workers of the World. As Jennifer Jung Hee Choi documents in her study of the IWW’s anti-racist politics, Wobblies were not unaware of the way bosses profited from cheap labor, but they “reasoned that excluding Asian workers or other foreign laborers from moving to the United States, entering the job market, or joining unions was not going to eliminate competition.” That’s because they believed that “so long as labor is bought and sold upon the market, its price being regulated to a large extent by supply and demand, so long will the master class bring these people in to compete with us as sellers of labor power.” The solution was to “do away with race prejudice and imaginary boundary lines; we must recognize that all workers belong to the international nation of wealth producers,” and “the only way to end competition between workers was to own the means of production.”
It’s true that the largest labor unions were xenophobic, though the change in labor’s position (which preceded Trump) came about in part through recognition that this was a deeply shameful and sordid chapter in its history. Union support for the Chinese Exclusion Act was a moral low point, and a failure of solidarity, not a model to be rehabilitated. (And while Nagle writes “admittedly, union opposition to mass migration was sometimes intermingled with racism,” this is an understatement. Xenophobia around the “Yellow Peril” included “anti-Chinese pogroms carried out by lynch mobs,” and it’s impossible to separate the push for restrictive immigration from the accompanying dehumanizing and racist ideas about immigrants.)
Nagle points out that legendary United Farm Workers organizer Cesar Chavez opposed the importation of Mexican laborers, which undercut the UFW. But as labor scholar Justin Akers Chacón explained in response, Chavez’s attitudes actually contributed to the failure of the UFW, because “this practice backfired, as most farmworkers had familial and other social ties to undocumented populations and resented collaboration with la migra” and “by the early 1990s, the UFW had become irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of agricultural workers, becoming a shell of what it once was, and it has failed to recover ever since.” Chavez’s attitudes were also far worse than Nagle implies: He called unauthorized border-crossers “wetbacks,” and members of the UFW went so far as to violently attack migrants. Chavez’s position was criticized at the time, and biographer Miriam Pawel reports that when Dolores Huerta said “the people themselves aren’t illegal,” “Chavez turned on Huerta angrily. ‘No, a spade’s a spade,’ he said. ‘You guys get these hang-ups. Goddamn it, how do we build a union? They’re wets, you know. They’re wets, and let’s go after them.’” It is a sign of both moral and strategic progress that the labor movement has abandoned Chavez’s position in favor of Huerta’s.
Nagle also downright fabricates the views of major historical figures. She cites a Karl Marx quote about the way Irish immigration was used by capitalists to divide English workers, suggesting that Marx’s “position on immigration would get him banished from the modern Left.” Needless to say, making the empirical observation that immigration is used to drive a wedge between parts of the working class is not at all the same as saying foreign workers should be kept out by force. She also says that leftists have ignored the warnings of figures like Frederick Douglass. Douglass, however, made it quite clear that he believed free movement across national borders was a universal human right, one so absolute as to be indestructible. It’s hard to misinterpret the following passage, in which Douglass says that even if open borders lead to the influx of millions of people, that creates no justification for restrictions:
I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would…. There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.
It’s important to be clear about the historical record, but in many ways these are the least important objections. Even if leftists of centuries past had been uniformly xenophobic, the argument against “open borders” would be no stronger. Many of Nagle’s arguments are variations on: The Koch Brothers are for it, and Karl Marx was against it, therefore leftists should oppose “mass immigration.” These arguments from authority are not persuasive reasoning. Nagle’s claim that “providing moral cover for exploitation” is the only reason anyone on the left could support open borders fails on a number of fronts. Firstly, “big business” writ large does not actually want open borders—at least, not in the sense that open borders leftists typically mean it, e.g., that any person should be able to move to a territory at any time and enjoy equal legal standing with longer-term residents. Currently, one of the chief reasons businesses are able to exploit immigrant laborers is precisely because they are illegal (or, in the case of visa workers, because their continued presence or path to future status is tied to their employer’s goodwill). Large companies do not, in fact, want open borders. They want free trade agreements like NAFTA, that allow them to easily relocate if their U.S. workers start expecting too much, and they want a “porous” border where a large supply of migrant laborers can be depended on. But it is also in their interest to have the presence of those migrant laborers criminalized. The more precarious and frightened they are, the better for business. If they were legalized, they wouldn’t be nearly as easily exploited. So, yes, it’s true, capitalists like that unauthorized immigrants are here, but it also benefits them to have a set of second-class citizens who can be threatened with deportation. As Akers Chacón writes for Socialist Worker:
The whole capitalist system has come to rely on the super-exploitation of immigrant labor through criminalization. Ramped-up enforcement has become a means not to stop immigration, but to disenfranchise and subjugate undocumented workers within the bottom tier of a segmented labor economy… Ironically, the approach of empowering employers to have more control over their workers to weed out those who are undocumented is the model that Nagle holds up as a success.
It’s therefore bizarre to suggest that it’s good for immigrants to increase rather than decrease restrictions, and as Organizing Work writers Nate H and Marianne Garneau put it, “the inhumanity of Nagle’s approach is her belief that the solution lies in restricting immigration, rather than in empowering migrant workers to prosecute their full legal and political rights.”
Nagle’s belief that the left ought to advocate increasing the artificial division between the immigrant and non-immigrant working classes, rather than seeking to remove those barriers, is perverse. It’s worth mentioning, briefly, that Nagle’s claim that undocumented laborers depress wages for the entire workforce is hotly disputed. Nagle says that those who think immigration is a boon have swallowed “Cato Institute propaganda,” and cites the conservative economist George Borjas. But because it’s difficult to actually isolate cause-and-effect here, there are no definitive empirical answers to the question of what immigration does to wages. (Even Borjas, one of the most skeptical commentators, only thinks that undocumented labor depresses native wages by 2.5 percent). More importantly, though, this is the wrong way to frame the question. If the presence of undocumented laborers does depress wages, then surely this has something to do with their inability to secure the full benefit of labor protections due to their precarious status, and with the difficulties of labor organizing (already a tall order under the best of circumstances, given the collapse of unions) within a mixed-status workforce, when some members of that workforce can be rounded up and thrown in immigration jail at any time. (Note the recent ICE raids on 7-11s, which were a direct attempt by the company to punish rebellious franchisees.)
In addition, the extent to which immigrants may or may not affect wages also has to be weighed against the moral case for free movement, because the left does not usually favor restricting basic human liberties just because it satisfies a cost-benefit analysis. It’s worth thinking about how these questions sounded in other contexts. White laborers in the North resented the migration of Black Southerners, because they felt that desperate Black people would undercut their wages and take their jobs. Many tried to keep their workplaces from integrating, sometimes with violence. In response, one could say that Black workers had no effect on white wages. But if they did, so what? This would in no way make a case for restricting Black migration. Instead, sensible anti-racist voices in the labor movement have always said the same thing: It’s a mistake to identify competition from fellow workers as the problem. Workers of the world must unite and face their real enemy: the capitalists who enrich themselves at workers’ expense. Yes, it may be true that the influx of new laborers led to a drop in wages, but that’s because capitalists are always trying to pay the lowest wages possible, and if you had strong minimum wage laws and labor unions, if laborers had the power to keep capitalists from finding the “most exploitable” worker, this wouldn’t happen. Nagle writes that “Immigration policies should be designed to ensure that the bargaining power of workers is not significantly imperiled. This is especially true in times of wage stagnation, weak unions, and massive inequality.” But why design immigration policies this way? Why not craft better labor policies and advocate for them to applied to all workers regardless of status? (It’s also interesting that when Nagle writes about “the bargaining power of workers,” she doesn’t seem to think that undocumented people count as “workers”!)
The idea of restricting Black migration within the country strikes us as absurd, racist, and depraved, and based on a thoroughly mistaken analysis of the causes of workers’ misery. Yet international borders aren’t actually much different. Most cases against open borders simply assume that militarized borders are inherently legitimate, that the voting populace of the United States is allowed to determine who gets to reside within a certain set of geographic boundaries. That is not self-evident. There is a strong case that “free movement” should be treated as the default, since the earth belongs to all human beings in common, and that there should be a high threshold to justify artificial boundaries that restrict people’s freedom on the basis of where they happened to be born. The question of whether the United States should have “open borders” assumes that we have the right to decide who should be allowed to enter a large, well-resourced, mostly empty swath of land, all of which—if we want to get into the niceties—was rather recently stolen from either Indians or Mexico (which was itself stolen from Indians). Borders are threats of violence—if you cross this line, the state may detain and expel you—and threats of violence must be justified. In order to make any case against open borders, you first need to explain why it would not have been acceptable for Illinois to ban Mississippians from immigrating and seeking jobs, but it is acceptable for the people of the United States to keep out anyone born in Honduras or Guatemala. Sure, every given territory has absolute resource constraints at the end of the day, and these could, purely hypothetically, provide a compelling reason for residents to collectively seek to bar additional people from settling there. But the United States is the world’s third-largest country by landmass and clocks in at 135th by population density. No one can convincingly say we don’t have the room.
Nagle does not actually deal with the rights-based case for free movement; she apparently is not troubled by the idea that groups of armed men should be able to control who settles where, and does not think it is worth engaging with. (This is interesting, given that so many people on the left, whose opinions she dismisses en masse, spend the majority of their time trying to draw people’s attention to this very problem.) Instead, she says that it’s better for both the migrants themselves and American workers if migrants are kept out. As we’ve seen, the case that it harms American workers is only valid if you arbitrarily single out immigration (rather than the imbalance of power between capitalists and workers) as the source of workers’ troubles, a tendency that divides workers and prevents them from recognizing their common interests (the very point Karl Marx was making in the quote Nagle misinterpreted).
In fact, Nagle, despite apparently knowing very little about how immigration and labor relate to each other at all, vigorously advocates for a policy that would be devastating to undocumented workers in the U.S. and their families. Nagle makes the claim that there are humane and inhumane ways to restrict immigration, and that the humane way is to choke undocumented people out of the workforce through a program called E-Verify. E-Verify is a program that requires employers to verify the immigration status of all their employees, and can be used as a tool to punish employers with sanctions and fines if they hire unauthorized workers. Nagle’s argument is that because this program punishes employers for hiring undocumented people, not undocumented people for seeking work, it’s not “targeting and victimizing” undocumented people. Nagle cites it as an example of the kind of policies she thinks are compatible with left values, and that we should advocate for. (She even laments that Donald Trump “has done virtually nothing to expand the implementation of E-Verify,” which is actually one of the only things that can be said in his favor.)
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we are living in the fantasy world where the government would actually only use E-Verify to go after employers and not use the database to round up and deport unauthorized workers—which they totally would, whenever it suited them. But okay. Let’s pretend. Imagine a version of our country, with its 11 million undocumented people, where businesses can be punished for hiring undocumented people and have to affirmatively prove that all their workers are legal. All those undocumented people will get fired, or not hired. The workers do not, at that point, immediately evaporate into thin air. No: They have to find new work, in ever more precarious conditions, retreating deeper and deeper into the black market, where trying to avail themselves of labor protections is increasingly risky, where they may be asked to do ever more dangerous or illegal things. Many workers don’t have savings, and losing a job can inflict terrible hardship. If they have to stay on the move, trying to evade immigration, their children’s lives are destabilized, schooling and friendships are disrupted, with lifelong effects. No details about the lives of unauthorized immigrants appear in “The Left Case Against Open Borders.” They can’t, because the moment we begin to think about these lives, we realize how even seemingly “mild” enforcement measures can inflict cruelty on millions of people.
E-Verify would be an unmitigated disaster for undocumented people, and many real-life undocumented people—if you were to bother actually talking to them before writing an article about policies that affect them—fear E-Verify far more than they fear the expansion of the physical wall at the border. Nagle thinks it’d be a good idea to have a big integrated database floating around cataloging the immigration status and identifying information of anybody who’s trying to seek work in this country, because apparently, there’s nothing more “left” than a massive expansion of the surveillance state. Right now, E-Verify uses data from I-9s, but because many people share the same names and similar characteristics, we can imagine that eventually fingerprints and other biometric data will be logged to make the system more accurate. Mistakes will still occur, of course: Workers who do have status will be blacklisted because their file has gotten mixed up with someone else’s, the same way the government fucks up and deports U.S. citizens on a regular basis. A system like this will be a nightmare for poor people generally, who have more trouble obtaining documentation to prove their identities, and most nightmarish of all for undocumented people, who will see all their employment opportunities vanish at a stroke, who run the risk of the government finding them and deporting them anytime they get desperate enough to try to apply for a job. The goal of a program like E-Verify, which Nagle does not explicitly state, but which other fans like Ann Coulter will happily explain, is to force people to leave the country of their own accord because their lives in the U.S. become too unbearable. Of course, some people can’t leave, because they have U.S. citizen children, because their whole life has been built here, because there is nothing waiting for them back in their country of origin. Those people will stay, and take increasingly awful and illicit jobs. (Others might just kill themselves, of course, which also ensures their convenient exit from the workforce.)
There is no world in which terrorizing people like this comports with left values. A “left case for E-Verify” is like a “left case for mass incarceration” or a “left case for Trump.” You could make one (Stalin made a left case for the former, and “accelerationists” have a left case for the latter), in that you’re invoking left rhetoric (pro-workers, anti-Kochs). But if we ask ourselves what the “left” should stand for, how can we possibly think E-Verify is compatible, let alone compelled? As Nate H and Marianne Garneau write in Organizing Work:
E-Verify brings a host of negative effects along with it, including increased racial discrimination against those presumed to be immigrants, an increase in off-the-books employment, where workers are more vulnerable, and denial of lawful employment due to database errors. Migrant workers, it is well documented, are subject to rampant abuse ; the above report argues, from evidence, that more E-Verify will intensify and exacerbate that.
Sure, there’s no denying that some employers who use undocumented labor urgently need to be prosecuted—for labor rights violations, not for hiring people who have the wrong words on their birth certificate. Many people on the left are tirelessly engaged in trying to hold the employers of undocumented laborers accountable for things like stealing wages and failing to ensure worker safety. Their efforts are often severely hampered by ICE enforcement, and how comparatively easy it is to blacklist employees whose opportunities for employment are limited by their immigration status. Nagle’s proposals would only make their efforts—their real-life efforts on behalf of actual workers—that much harder.
All right, all of this pertains primarily to how the kinds of policy Nagle favors would affect the undocumented people already in the country. But Nagle is also thinking about the people who are currently coming to the U.S., and who could come in the future. She puts down a lot of words about mass migration generally, how it’s not only bad for U.S. workers to have to compete with immigrant workers, but how immigrant workers themselves are worse off when they immigrate:
Advocates of open borders often overlook the costs of mass migration for developing countries. Indeed, globalization often creates a vicious cycle: liberalized trade policies destroy a region’s economy, which in turn leads to mass emigration from that area, further eroding the potential of the origin country while depressing wages for the lowest paid workers in the destination country. One of the major causes of labor migration from Mexico to the United States has been the economic and social devastation caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta). Nafta forced Mexican farmers to compete with U.S. agriculture, with disastrous consequences for Mexico.
What should we make of these claims? The cycle Nagle identifies is certainly real, and open borders advocates like Aviva Chomsky, for example, have written a great deal about how lopsided trade agreements like NAFTA have destroyed domestic industry in partner countries. But it is an extraordinary and irrational leap from “forced migration is bad” to “so everyone should be forced to stay put where they are.” (We might also briefly note the interesting fact that an “Irish author based in New York” believes that she should have the right to come here but that someone from Guatemala has no right to leave Guatemala! Has not Ireland lost a precious commentator on Pepe the Frog memes? Is there not, no doubt, some native-born U.S. writer of poorly-thought-out immigration articles who has been outcompeted by Nagle for a 3-minute spot on Fox News? Has she no shame? But perhaps Nagle wishes deep down that strict U.S. immigration laws had forced her to remain in Ireland, turning her back the way it turns back countless Central Americans. Sadly, because she is a white European, Nagle can move pretty much anywhere in the world she wishes.)
Nagle’s preferred solution seems to be “let’s implement our top-secret plan to eliminate all the push factors for forced migration, and just have everyone in struggling countries sit on their suitcases till it’s done.” But this is a bizarre false binary. All left open border advocates agree that international policies that wreak devastation on poor nations should be changed, and we want to work towards a future where people can choose to relocate for reasons that aren’t tied to economic desperation. Open borders leftists just don’t think that governments have the right to tell people in poor nations that they’re not allowed to leave in the meantime! Not only does denying people the right to migrate cut against basic human autonomy, it’s an especially cruel thing to insist on, given that Nagle knows full well that many of the countries currently sending us high levels of immigrants are trapped in ongoing cycles of violence and have very little realistic chance of being revitalized within our lifetimes, to say nothing of the next few years, which is the timescale most individuals are actually forced to live in.
Now, Nagle is certainly correct that some people who advocate for liberalizing immigration policies make bad arguments about why migration is good and more migration will solve everything. They gush about “complementarity” and how immigrants “do jobs Americans won’t do,” as if this were a positive trait rather than a worrying sign of bad labor conditions going unaddressed. They act as if moving to a country like the United States is always an exciting opportunity, as opposed to, in some cases, a tragic necessity; treating the influx of immigrants as a unmitigated boon to the U.S., even when it comes at the expense of the lives immigrants might have chosen for themselves in their home countries if they’d had the ability. But the mere fact that immigration is not always a happy thing is not a good argument for denying people the ability to immigrate: Indeed, we should trust in the judgment of the individual immigrants who make this difficult calculus over the distant pronouncements of elites who want to tell them what methods they are and aren’t allowed to use to alleviate their desperation. For someone who rails so much against the “imperial mentality” and “noblesse oblige” of open borders advocates, Nagle’s attitude towards immigrants is extraordinarily patronizing.
You also don’t need to believe that immigration is a panacea for all the world’s evils to see that it is, in a limited but real sense, a form of international wealth redistribution. Remittances sent back to families in the home country represent a piece of the U.S.’s greedily-hoarded resources being given to people who often need it pretty badly. What is actually most tragic about this situation is that people end up trapped in the U.S. precisely because our immigration policies are so draconian: Their families need the money, and the militarized border means that every time you exit the country, you run a huge risk of not being able to get back in. People end up going years without seeing their families, friends, and children; they constantly defer any impulse to try to move back home because they know how high-stakes a decision this would be. In a world where people could actually move freely back and forth across borders, these stakes would be lessened. People could work in the U.S. and return home in the off-season, or for visits. They could save capital to start a small business in their home country, knowing that, if it doesn’t work out, they can return to the U.S. to work again if they need to. Open borders is not a silver bullet for solving global poverty, but it is an essential component of any slate of policies designed to ensure global equality: The ability to leave environments of mistreatment and deprivation, to physically travel to places of higher resource density and claim your share, is always going to be a necessary failsafe, given that it’s hard to imagine a future where every corner of the globe is in a state of perfect equilibrium at all times.
So should the left be for “open borders”? Yes, we should. Frederick Douglass was correct: Migratory rights are fundamental. Not only should we oppose measures like E-Verify, but we should believe strongly that the world ought to have no borders in it, that in our “utopian society” people can move where they please without being stopped by militaries. What does this mean for policy, given that we can’t simply tear down the walls overnight? Well, it’s like prison abolition: You combine utopianism with pragmatism. In “Can We Have Humane Immigration Policy” and “What Would Humane Immigration Policy Look Like?” Brianna has thought at some length about how to negotiate the difficulties of being pro-free movement in a world where this isn’t yet politically possible. Nagle seems to believe that migration is such a divisive issue that supporting fewer restrictions on movement is suicidal: “any political party wishing to govern will either have to accept the will of the people, or it will have to repress dissent in order to impose the open borders agenda.” But here she misrepresents the evidence, which shows that Americans have actually become far more sympathetic to immigrants over the past few decades. Of course, that’s not to say that immigration can’t be turned into a wedge issue, as the Republicans have been doing with mixed success over the past few years. Turning workers on workers by deploying racial stereotypes is one of the oldest tricks in the boss’s book. The left can vigorously combat this, by showing that all workers have interests in common and that immigration status is something artificially imposed by the state—or they can play directly into the right’s hands, as Nagle does, by reinforcing Tucker Carlson’s anti-immigrant talking points with a cursory sympathetic gloss.
Any humane and rational left has to reject artificial dichotomies. The choice is not “brutal immigration policies or Koch brothers capitalism.” Neither is necessary, both are the products of a global political and economic system structured to exploit the weak to and enrich the wealthy. Whatever practical compromises we may be forced to make on the route to “free movement,” we should always insist upon it as a core value, and we must never repeat the mistakes of the bigoted, conservative parts of the labor movement, which were self-destructive and misidentified the causes of working people’s suffering. The best and most noble radical traditions have always been fueled by immigrants, welcomed immigrants, and upheld the central left slogan that must always continue to guide us:
Workers of the world, unite!