The Case For Open Borders

Journalist John Washington debunks common anti-immigrant myths and explains why free movement is a human right.

John Washington is a journalist with Arizona Luminaria, whose new book The Case for Open Borders rebuts common anti-immigrant argument and shows that a world in which people can freely move from one territory to another will not create a “crisis” but will in fact benefit everyone. Today he joins to discuss the bipartisan rhetoric about immigration being a disaster or crisis and to help us understand why militarized borders cause a lot more harm than they prevent. Washington argues that fears of immigration are overblown and that instead of moving toward greater “border security” we should be reforming the border to relax admissions. The photo above is of the Arizona-Mexico border circa 1899, when crossing from one country into another was as simple as crossing the street.

NATHAN J. ROBINSON 

Let’s say you get into a conversation with someone at a coffee shop, a bar, or a bus stop, and they articulate an argument that is now bipartisan: there’s a crisis at our border. People are pouring over the border. The border is a disaster. They’ve heard this from Donald Trump, but they’ve also heard Democrats increasingly say, we promise we’re going to get tough on the border and deal with the border crisis through new legislation.

What do you say when you hear that talking point, trotted out by a random person who very strongly believes in the notion of a border crisis?

WASHINGTON 

Well, I love those conversations in the bars and at the bus stops. I think, first of all, it’s important to talk about reality in accurate terms: we are not undergoing an invasion at all, and that is not the word for it. If you look up “invasion” in the dictionary, it just doesn’t apply to what we’re seeing right now. There are people who are migrating, who are fleeing for their lives, and who are asking for legally protected rights. That is really what we’re seeing.

I think that there is a humanitarian crisis at the border. All the things that both Democrats and Republicans are proposing to do to respond to that crisis—by failed policies and tactics—not only don’t address the causes of why we’re seeing increased numbers of people moving across the border, they actually make it worse. They often make more people cross the border, and then don’t respond to them in any humane way. They make the crossing more deadly; they make people suffer as they cross more, and they’re stripping people of rights. At the same time, I think a lot of these people who might stop me at the bus stop are primarily concerned with their own rights, wages, or jobs, or whatever is going on in the center of the country.

Actually, the people who are coming right now pose zero threat to them in those regards. There are a number of recent reports that came out just within the past few weeks that show that actually increasing the number of migrants doesn’t undercut wages and employment, and these people are a huge boon for the economy. Currently, there are unfilled jobs. People need other folks to be doing the work, and we have a willing, rather eager workforce coming to our country right now. It just makes sense to welcome them and treat them humanely.

ROBINSON 

Yes, I think you’re right to zero in on the question from such a person: how does it affect you? The difference between an invasion and migration, is that an army comes over the border with guns to seize territory, and migrants come over the border in order to, for example, take a job in a restaurant and send their kids to school. And also, the economy is built on work—people come over here to work, and when they do work, it’s good because we get more people doing more things. I wrote about the kind of cognitive dissonance between the argument that we need people to have more babies and the argument that we need fewer immigrants. Do you think that having more babies causes people to lose jobs because the babies take the job? No. You want more people because then you have a country that flourishes more.

WASHINGTON 

Right. We have it so backwards. One of the things I tried to do with this book, too, is also to have an international lens. I think there’s a lot we can learn from what’s going on in other parts of the world. For so long, it was Europeans who migrated. For centuries, Europe had a net outward migration flow. And now, when, in countries like Germany, France, Poland, and Italy, people are coming, all of a sudden, they’re promoting these enormous crackdowns. The United States is a little bit different in that regard, in that most of the people who left those countries that I was just naming came to the United States—some of those countries didn’t exist at that time, but they came to the United States, and they very much were invaders. They weren’t really migrants in the sense that we think of it today. They came, and they didn’t assimilate into the society that was already here. They eradicated that society.

ROBINSON 

Yes. It was very much about the conquest of the territory.

WASHINGTON 

Yes, they crushed, or tried to eliminate, those cultures—not entirely, but they succeeded in many regards. And now, for the people who are coming to the United States, there is a period of assimilation, of course, but there’s actually no real threat to the culture as it is in the United States. And there are many different cultures in the United States, and they vary vastly from region to region. But the people who are coming actually plug into the economies and the cultures and don’t overtake them. So, calling it an invasion doesn’t make any sense, in just the basic terms of it.

ROBINSON 

One of the strangest things is that the places in the country that have the largest immigrant populations, like New York City, people there don’t think it’s going to be a threat to their culture if there’s immigration because they know that the whole vibrancy of the city is built on its diversity.

WASHINGTON 

Except maybe for Mayor Adams and most of the NYPD police force. His arguments are really insulting to history, to the legacy that the current status of New York City as a city was really built by immigrants, or, going back to our last point, by invaders. Does he think that 170,000 people over a little bit more than two years is a threat? Actually, Adams has described it as an existential threat to New York City. It’s almost laughable, but it’s actually just stupid.

You can point back to so many different moments in New York City’s history and say, actually, the percentage of people who were coming at that moment in the early 20th century, and in the mid-19th century, 30 percent of the population was coming in a six-month period. Right now, it’s about 1 percent of the population coming over in a two-year period, to a robust economy. What’s going to change in New York City? There’s going to be some more stands in Queens—what is the actual change that we will see in New York? It takes some work to help orient people and to welcome them. But also, these people are barred from working right now—most of them are. Adams, to his credit, has actually addressed that point that we should give them work visas and let them actually do the work that they came here to do rather than trying to force them to rely on handouts.

ROBINSON 

One of the valuable things about your book is that you go into the history. In a time when there is a bipartisan consensus that having a militarized border is a normal and natural thing, that keeping people out of a territory by force seems like a natural idea, it’s so important to remember that it isn’t. What you do is to point out that this is all new. You have a remarkable statistic, something like up to the 1990s there were only about 15 walled borders in the world—something like that. And by that, I mean militarized borders where you can’t cross into this territory.

WASHINGTON 

Right. So, that number actually extends to the year 2000: there were less than 15 militarized borders throughout the world. And when I say militarized, I also mean just with wall infrastructure, and there’s less than 15 of them. Now it’s approaching 80, but it’s a little bit difficult to keep track because it keeps popping up. But yes, just look at the United States. Until the ‘90s, there was really no significant infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border at all. For the first 100 years of the United States existence as a country, there were zero federal immigration laws. And just think about ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). ICE did not exist for over 95% of this country’s history. And now, people say that without a wall—without a border—countries don’t exist. Did we not exist—

ROBINSON 

When did we start existing then?

WASHINGTON 

And also, this is, I think, a problem with status quo bias. Right now, we have just swallowed this idea that this is the way that things are, but they haven’t been like this for very long, and they continue to ramp up. The budget of CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and ICE put together is over $25 billion a year. How else could that money be spent? One of the things I think it’s really important to note here is that the way that we’re spending it isn’t really effective, and there are a number of ways you can understand that.

One is, let’s just look at the number of people who have migrated to the United States from Latin America over the past 40-plus years. In 1980, there were about 5 million people born in Latin America living in the United States. Right now, that number tops 30 million. That period pretty much precisely tracks the rise of border and immigration enforcement. So, we didn’t do what clearly these efforts were purporting to do. And then, you can look at a number of international examples, too. One of my favorite ones to look at is that in the years after the final implementation of Brexit, when the U.K. finally pulled out of the European Union, immigration increased in the two subsequent years to Brexit. So, what do these things surely achieve? That’s another very interesting question, and I think it’s mostly financial—we could get into that if there’s time—but what they don’t do is stop people from coming. They change the way people come—they make it more painful and deadly—but they don’t actually stop people from coming.

ROBINSON 

Every time I write about border immigration, I always try to throw in some pictures from the early 1900s of the border towns, where to cross into the country, you cross the street. I love that because, as you mentioned, there is this talking point that you don’t have a nation if you don’t have a border, but if you could cross the street and be in the United States on this side, or in Mexico on this side, what was that situation? I’ve only visited the U.S.-Mexico border once in California and passed across it. It struck me that the border was just so awful and unnatural. There are these massive lines of cars, and you’re just sitting there for ages and ages waiting to be checked and inspected. It’s just this huge infrastructure, like a scar through places that naturally would be one place. There are towns where if you look at them from a satellite, they look like one city, but they’re actually two cities—one in the United States and the other in Mexico—and there’s a big thing going through them where you can’t go from one to the other without a massive bureaucratic rigamarole.

WASHINGTON 

Yes. Juxtapose that early period you mentioned, where people just crossed the street to cross into a different country, to what it is now. The closest border to where I am is Nogales, and they’re sister cities—Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona—and it’s not for lack of creativity that one has the name of the other. It’s that they were, not very surprisingly, the same city for a long time and were cleaved in two by this now extremely militarized border wall.

So, what the border looks like now I think this is really important to note, too. There’s massive infrastructure along approximately 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. There are hundreds and hundreds of miles of wall— some 30 feet long—and for this border I just mentioned through Nogales, there are triple lines of razor wire and guards defending it. It practically looks like a scene from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) in some parts. And we’re speaking today on a bizarre day when both presidential contenders are visiting places that I think are really interesting. President Biden is arriving—maybe he just touched down—in or near Brownsville.

Across the river from Brownsville is Matamoros, where, for years, there was what really could not be understood any other way than a refugee camp just across the border from the United States. There was, I think, a maximum of about 1,500 people living in tents in squalid conditions. There were some porta potties that they put in, but there was human waste littering the little makeshift alleyways. People were desperate to try to get in and would resort to swimming across a very dangerous portion of the river. That refugee camp was bulldozed last fall, and the tents were knocked down and people were forced to relocate yet again. The Mexican government did it in cahoots with United States backing to just basically clear up an eyesore. Whereas Trump right now is visiting, and I think is also just arriving at any minute at, Eagle Pass. Eagle Pass is across the river from another location, Piedras Negras, where I’ve done some reporting from, and there was a period where there was sort of a refugee camp where people were blocked up trying to get across the border.

The Mexican government, again, at the behest of the United States government, put them into an abandoned factory that used to produce body bags. That was where the people were corralled into as they tried to wait and find out when, if ever, they could make some sort of legal crossing, and almost none of them were able to cross legally to access their legal right to request asylum. And so, they again took desperate measures and tried to swim across the river, not too far from the scene where Border Patrol agents were whipping Haitian migrants a few years ago. The border has become the zone of rightlessness, where people who are forced to flee suffer kidnappings, death threats, rape, and extortion. All of that funnels into human smuggling operations and sometimes human trafficking migrations, which are backed and supported by these crackdowns. If these crackdowns didn’t force migrants into the arms of those organizations, they would be without a huge source of income. We’re creating this zone of death and suffering along this long, 2,000 mile strip, while people are trying to move because they want jobs, they can’t live where they are, or they want to reunite with their families.

ROBINSON 

The effect of the border—of putting this artificial barrier between what would normally be people’s patterns of movement—when you actually add up and think about the consequences, is that it tears families apart. If you care about families, maybe care about whether people can see their families. We’re told that migration brings in crime, but in fact, the border produces crime, as you point out in the book, through creating this human smuggling industry. I think once you start to see it as artificial, or as this attempt to, as you said, cleave places in two, you start realizing that it’s kind of crazy the effect that this thing has.

WASHINGTON 

Yes, and there was also some recent reporting, a study that was done, showing that the levels of crime in immigrant communities in the United States are far lower than in communities without high numbers of immigrants. There are outlying examples, as there are in any group of humans—some people will cause harm. And politicians, especially on the Right, like to make a lot of hay out of those examples. But they are outliers, and they are also inevitable because people will do these things. Germany is often held up as an example of a country that suffered because of migration, but actually, since recently high levels of migration in Germany, crime has actually gone down. So, there’s a study after study that disproves a lot of these wilder claims, but they’re very effective. That is how Trump got into office in 2016. That is the campaign that he’s running on again, and when there is a tragic circumstance or event and it makes the headlines, people get scared. Fear is an incredibly useful political tool, which is what border immigration politics is based on, really.

ROBINSON 

Well, and using single or small numbers of examples to stereotype entire groups and create fear of migrants is certainly nothing new in American history. Again, one of the values going back through the history is that we can see now that arguments like, European immigrants bring a bunch of anarchists over, look ludicrous to us in retrospect, but the same patterns of propaganda applied in our own time don’t appear similarly ludicrous, even though they are based on the same kinds of evidence. 

WASHINGTON 

You could pick any group of migrants when there was a surge of migration. There was so much pushback against German migration in the 19th century and into the early 20th century as well. They were branded as barbarians, and there were public campaigns to try to push them out. And then, of course, what’s more, there hardly exists the hyphenated German-American anymore—they’re just American, of course. And yet, we have kindergartens, we eat bratwursts—we subsumed all these German things. It’s neck snapping if you look at any response to any sort of migrant.

I think Chinese migration is particularly telling. In the 19th century, Chinese people were welcomed with open arms when we needed workers. When there was a slight downturn, or maybe a significant downturn, of the economy, they were reviled. They were subjected to pogroms and two deportations. The first version of the Border Patrol was actually called the Mounted Chinese Inspectors. 

ROBINSON 

Oh my god.

WASHINGTON 

For over half a century, people from China were officially blocked from coming to the United States. And now recently, for a while rather, they had some of the highest asylum grant rates. And now, again, especially from the right wing of American politics, there is push back against what they call Chinese nationals coming in through our southern border. They’re coming here to ask for asylum from a government that we’re obviously increasing tension with. So, it just doesn’t make any sense. It just goes back and forth. We just change our position as we please.

ROBINSON 

Because I imbibe awful right-wing arguments, I was watching Tucker Carlson interview Brett Weinstein, who was talking about his trip to Central America, and he said something about camps for Chinese migrants heading north. His conspiracy theory about it was essentially implying that the Chinese government is funding this and sending migrants to Central America, where they all gather in a camp to try and infiltrate the United States and wreak havoc. He didn’t say that explicitly, but he said something about how the camp is very well-organized and very separate from all the others—clearly someone’s behind this. If you don’t like China, then maybe you should consider that if other people are leaving China, you would want them to come to the United States.

WASHINGTON 

Right. I missed that one in particular. I have not heard of that camp, but it just strikes me as wacky. But some of the things that people say with folks coming north through Central America and Mexico is to call them military age men. I think another more accurate term is working age men—to fill the jobs that we need. People claim they are on the terrorist watch list. We can get deep into the extraordinarily problematic nature of that watch list, but some examples that I’ve come across recently are people who have been threatened and extorted by FARC, one of the guerrilla groups in Colombia, and they were put on the watch list because they were extorted, as in they gave material benefits or material support to FARC because they were extorted, and that was how they got on the watch list. And what happened is, because of that, someone was separated from their 8-year-old child. So, these things are almost laughably inane, but they have effects. When you say that there’s an invasion, or they’re military aged men, you stoke fears among these militia-type folks in the United States. What happens is that people take up arms, go to the border, make threats, and they enact those threats sometimes. What happens when you have too wide of a net for something like the terrorist watch list and put people who are fleeing a guerrilla group on it, is that you take their child away from them. This shit is not just rhetoric. It has consequences, and its consequences are very real. They result in sometimes just absolutely tragic circumstances.

ROBINSON 

Yes. At the end of your book, you have 21 arguments for open borders. There’s really an argument for every one, with every particular concern for every particular persuasion. When I discuss this topic, I believe it’s important to be careful which arguments you deploy. I wanted to talk to you about the way that we can end up making not the wrong case, but a case that is not necessarily based on what principles we really feel are important. We can make the case, as you say, that, as a matter of fact, immigrants are of benefit to the U.S. economy. However, as a matter of morality, it doesn’t matter whether immigrants are a benefit to the economy, and I find myself not wanting to make the argument that they’re here to fill jobs that Americans won’t work or whatever. Because I worry that if the opposite turned out to be factually true, you’d lose your moral case. There’s the idea of making an argument based on self-interest, which is to say, you should admit immigrants to the United States because it is in our country’s interest to do so, rather than because we are humane and believe that every human being matters. I feel like we have to be careful even when we’re advancing arguments that might be even more persuasive. 

WASHINGTON 

Absolutely. I just do the kitchen sink approach in those 21 points at the end, but the point you made is really important to me. Immigrants are good for your GDP, but fuck your GDP. Honestly, that is a secondary benefit. The primary focus, I think, should be on the moral case, or the human argument, and I think there are two basic ways to make it. One is to talk about this border: where was it drawn, how was it drawn there, and who drew it? And if you look at pretty much any country in the world right now, and we can just stick with the United States for our current audience, the way that we drew this border line, and the reason we drew it where we did, is because we engaged in genocidal slaughter of the people who lived here before, we needed a train line running from the ports around Louisiana to the southwest coast, and we stole it through bloody conquest of Mexico. So, that’s how we drew this line that we now purport to say that is ours, and we can decide who gets to cross and not. And the second is, you can look towards any religion or any set of moral code in the world, and it says to help the aggrieved neighbor.

ROBINSON 

Yes, love thy neighbor. 

WASHINGTON 

Yes. Or maybe we can go back even to a more basic principle of do no harm. And, of course, we are doing harm throughout the world. If we look and start to pick apart why people are coming from where they’re coming, you will see that some are sailing forth on a little vacation or maybe just want to change their home, but in large regard, they have been displaced from their home because of policies—economic, military, or other—that we are currently implementing and have been implementing for centuries.

When you look at Haiti, Central America, different parts of Mexico, and different parts of Africa and try to understand why people are fleeing—you start to pick apart and scratch the surface a little bit—you realize that maybe we had something to do with that. So, if we destroyed someone else’s home, maybe we shouldn’t deny them the basic human rights to move and try to find a new one.

ROBINSON 

You persuaded me. You mentioned the “love thy neighbor” principle, which I think is important. But one thing that you push back on in the book is the frequent tendency to compare the United States to a house. “You wouldn’t just let anyone coming to your yard or into your living room.” This idea that we should conceive of the geographic territory of the nation as a house, for those who wish to migrate here, it would be equivalent to someone who wanders into your living room and rolls out a sleeping bag.

WASHINGTON 

This goes back to a couple of things I already mentioned, but it’s such a bad analogy. Let’s go with it for a second. So, if you’re a homeowner, did you buy your home from a willing seller? Because that ain’t what happened in history. I have a home, I lock my doors, but I bought and paid for my home, and it was a fair exchange with consent on both sides. And so, now I’m living here freely, and I can decide to lock my door if I want. And yet, if someone was needing to come in, maybe I would let them in. But also, the analogy of the house doesn’t work on another level as well. Most Western societies protect private property and give a lot of leeway to homeowners, and we basically let them be petty despots within their own homes. That’s just not the way that nations work. That’s not the way that democracies work. I have a 4-year-old child, and we’re not engaged in democracy right now—he just doesn’t get a vote in most of the way we run our household, and that’s for the best. But that’s not the way that a country should work, and that’s not the way that a diverse 300-plus million strong country could possibly function. The analogy just doesn’t hold up in any way you look at it.

ROBINSON 

We can’t go through all 21 arguments here, but you make the case that if we were to open the border, one thing that people fear, which is that suddenly the entire world moves to the United States, is probably not going to happen. People actually like their communities and their families; it’s just that they get squeezed out by certain kinds of pressure. But ultimately, immigrating is not something people are suddenly inclined to do. You debunk a number of ideas, like the ideas of brain drain and nationalism.

Let’s conclude with where we could realistically go next because obviously, you make a strong case for completely open borders, but we live in the real world. We know that within the next few years, that’s very unlikely to happen in the United States. But, we could start to move our immigration policy in that direction, rather than in the direction of increased militarization, as it is going in now. So, what would it look like to move immigration policy in the correct direction so that it is the on the trajectory towards ultimately having an open borders world? 

WASHINGTON 

I think that’s a great question. One of the things I tried to do with this book is to more clearly articulate what I think the Left could push for in terms of border and immigration policy. I think that for a long time, the Right has dominated the conversation, and the Left has become just reactive, defensive, and critical and hasn’t really postured its own clear vision of what we want. I think one key thing to seeing more justice, liberty, and less harm along border lines throughout the world is having a clear vision of what we actually want.

I was looking back not too long ago at some of the early memos put forth by the Biden administration, and they’re not bad. They’re not perfect, and not what I would do, but what they amounted to was rhetorical flourish. Where we’re at now is they’re trying to basically one up each other on crackdowns. Seemingly, the Democrats’ policy for this campaign is to out-Trump Trump, or to nearly do that. They talk in somewhat softer terms, but they have capitulated to this idea and this framing of we need “border security.”

So, I think understanding where we are, rather than just being on the defensive and trying to fight that fight, is a really slippery slope. If you say, what Trump did was bad—we don’t want to go quite that far down that road, but somewhere in the middle—that’s not really an actual policy view. So, I think clarifying terms, understanding that things like “border security” actually is just a fiction—the border is a make-believe line and doesn’t need to be secured or anything. We need to take care of humans, and we need to think in basic, factual terms of what migration does, who benefits (and how) from the current setup, which is not the common man, but really corporations—both tech and military corporations and also export or international corporations—and then I think we need to understand that it’s been a bipartisan problem for a long time.

Go back to Clinton, Obama, and right now with Biden—none of those administrations have delivered anything that they’ve said that they would or anything that the Left has demanded. So, winning another Biden term in November is not an actual win. I think if we fail to learn that from the last three Democratic administrations that have been in office, then we’re going to be in the same place four years down the road again. We need to push our electeds—we need to push the Left—to clarify our vision. We need to understand the benefits of freer migration. 

ROBINSON 

We need to pressure Democratic politicians not to make the argument that we believe far more in a secure border than the Right does, and for that, we will introduce smart walls, but rather, we need to make the arguments that you put forth here for increased migration, to make them unashamedly and proudly, and not to concede the premise that we discussed at the beginning, which is that the migration of people to this country is some kind of crisis.

WASHINGTON 

Right. Now, here’s a telling reality: where’s the Abolish ICE movement right now? There’s plenty of people I know in some organizations that are doing great work and still believe and are still fighting for something as much as Abolish ICE, but that ain’t a hashtag you see very much anymore since Biden came into office. ICE has not been abolished. They’re still around. 

ROBINSON 

The policies don’t change, but the reaction to them does, which is very strange. Obviously, we need to apply the same level of scrutiny because, as you said, the agency is still here. So, Abolish ICE.


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

 

 

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