In defense of open borders

With non-state actors replacing traditional nation-boundaries, it's time to rethink individual and societal rights

Topics: Jacobin, Immigration, Borders, NAFTA, Citizenship, Civil Rights, Human Rights, ,

In defense of open bordersA young boy watches his migrant worker motherwhile she picks grape tomatoes in Rocky Point, N.C. (Credit: AP/Jeffrey A. Camarati)
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.


Eric Hobsbawm called the 19th century “a gigantic machine for uprooting countrymen.” He believed that the reason for mass migrations of people was straightforward. For the immigrants of the 1800s, the United States “was not a society but a means of making money,” often in the hope of “returning home, rich and respected, to their native villages.”

Those immigrants began their American lives by and large doing low-wage, back-breaking, monotonous manual labor and domestic work, which was still better than what was available from in their homelands. In the old country, they’d starved; in the new one, they’d strive. The United States was to forge a national identity out of the collective national identities of millions of foreigners.

In the age of globalization, however, the nation state has retreated as the locus of world power. Multinational free trade agreements, supranational financial institutions, and transnational corporations ensure that capital can float between nations with all the ease of a monarch butterfly. Labor, on the other hand, remains under the jurisdiction of border-obsessed states.

So as Washington begins what is likely to be a long and frustrating debate about the right of immigrants to acquire a new nationality and nations to designate which foreigners merit entry, we need to scrutinize our anachronistic understanding of nations, rights, and immigrants. The emphasis on “strengthening the border” should be tempered by an understanding of the political and economic decisions that have altered that border’s characteristics

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) marked the greatest shift in Mexican-American relations since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. When NAFTA went into effect in 1994, the entire continent’s political-economic calculus was irreversible altered, including the contours of Mexican, Canadian, and American sovereignty.

Tariffs lifted, American companies, especially in the automobile and electronics industries, began moving their production centers south of the border, where labor was cheaper and fewer environmental regulations limited the pace of profit accumulation. NAFTA also undermined Mexican agriculture. Since there were no tariffs and the U.S. subsidizes agriculture production inside its borders, crops came flooding into Mexico below market price, and more than a million Mexican farm workers saw their jobs evaporate. Facing starvation, Mexicans did what starving Europeans had done 150 years earlier: they came to the U.S.

In the two decades since NAFTA’s enactment, the U.S. has erected a border security regime of staggering proportions. In 2012, the federal government allocated $18 billion to the immigration restriction system, roughly a quarter more than went to every other U.S. law enforcement agency combined. Laws like Arizona SB 1070 codify street harassment, racial profiling, and the xenophobic credo: “You have no right to be here.”
But what exactly constitutes “the right to be here” in the first place?

Rights are ontologically slippery things. Amartya Sen contended that “an assertion of a human right” is no different from “other ethical proclamations, such as ‘happiness is important,’ or ‘autonomy matters,’ or ‘personal liberties must be preserved.’” It is difficult to formulate a definition more specific than that without tumbling into a world of philosophical jargon.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of rights at play in the immigration debate: the right to something the nation can provide, like health care, and the freedom from something the nation can impose, like the deportation process. In both cases, the nation is the designated guarantor of the right. To some, this is an attractive framework, since, at the very least, each has fiscal implications: it would cost the state money to provide health care to millions of immigrants, and it would save the state money to relieve Immigration and Customs Enforcement of its enforcement burden.

The problems with defining rights with respect to the nation-state, however, are many. For one thing, most people consider rights more eternal than laws, which are merely expressions of momentary social attitudes. Wouldn’t we say that enslaved black Americans had a right to freedom even before legal emancipation? And wouldn’t we say that slaveholders had no right to own black Americans, even though the law contradicted that view?

Here, then, is a second important distinction for rights-based discourse: rights that are merely claimed, versus rights that are backed up by coercive force. The metamorphosis from the one to the other – that is, the process by which rights are consecrated – is essential since rights cannot be enforced by moral suasion alone.

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In the pre-modern era, with its feudal property structure and monarchic political system, God was viewed as the consecrating agent, sanctioning tithe extraction, bestowing on regents the divine right to rule, blessing knights’ conquests, and so forth. The rights regime of the Middle Ages relied on metaphysics and self-evidence the same way belief in God does.

Even Enlightenment thinkers, whose explicit project was to break with this tradition, couldn’t quite do away with that idea. Thus, the Declaration of Independence holds certain truths to be self-evident, including the endowment of all men by their creator with certain inalienable rights. To these natural rights, the modern understanding added a new category: civil rights. Insofar as this tendency espoused nationalism, the rights of the citizen were emphasized, but insofar as the new nations were organized along a capitalist mode of production, individual rights superseded even these.

Both of these categories drew criticism from the socialist left. Karl Marx objected to individualism’s implicit depiction of society as “a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence,” since, in the resulting view, “it is not man as citoyen, but man as bourgeois who is considered to be the essential and true man.”

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that the conceptual framework of nationalism and exaltation of citizenship served to mask crucial divisions beneath national society. “There exist within each nation,” she wrote, “classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights,’” such that the ownership and working classes “[never] appear as a consolidated ‘national’ entity.” Indeed, national leaders, always and everywhere, have invoked those rights which reinforced their power.

Therefore, leftists have often preferred to view rights not as commodities possessed by citizens, to be deployed as needed to advance individual claims, but duties people have to one another. And rather than being confined in scope to national citizenship, Hobsbawm says, “The political project of the Left is universalist: It is for all human beings.”

The erosion of national power provides grist for the universalist view. In the age of NAFTA, the duties we have to one another cannot extend merely to American citizens, since Americans are not the only group under NAFTA’s jurisdiction. In other words, Mexicans and Canadians, including migrants between their countries and this one, join Americans as citizens of NAFTA. When post-national North American capital created the conditions that made mass migration inevitable, it entered into an ethical contract with the migrant victims of its wealth accumulation scheme

The ethical duty remains unpaid. There is no agent in place to guarantee universal mutual duties. A Universal Declaration of Human Rights exists, but it lacks coercive force. Free trade agreements like NAFTA were famously negotiated with no mechanism for ensuring rights; hence then-candidate Obama’s wholly disingenuous promise to renegotiate NAFTA’s terms.

What then is to be done?

Migration is as inevitable among human beings as among other species, and not necessarily more permanent; the chief difference is that human migration is impeded by arbitrary national boundaries. Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, the face of American xenophobia, was able to migrate across borders to get to Arizona from his native Massachusetts because state borders are open. If the EU’s constituent countries can open their national borders, NAFTA’s constituent countries can do the same.

The populist reactionaries of the world – Ron Paul, Marine Le Pen, and others like them – propose to re-nationalize capital, which is a complete impossibility. It is for the Left to square the circle the other way, by globalizing labor; that is, eliminating borders.

When the Right charges the Left with advocating amnesty, we should show them to be correct. No penalties, no electric fences, no drone surveillance, no papers, no fear. Instead, universal human rights, consecrated in struggle, enforced by solidarity. The unification of the world’s workers demands this.

J.A. Myerson (@JAMyerson) is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation, Truth Out, In These Times, AlterNet and elsewhere. He is a field reporter for Citizen Radio and is writing a book on 2011, to be published spring 2012.

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