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The Ideas Q&A

Why We Should Open U.S. Borders

John Washington has spent years reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border. In a new book, he makes the case for its abolition.

The US-Mexico border between New Mexico and Chihuahua state, December 2021
The US-Mexico border between New Mexico and Chihuahua state, in December 2021

For several months beginning late last year, Senate Democrats and Republicans came together to negotiate a bipartisan border bill that, if passed, would have represented an unprecedented crackdown on undocumented immigration. President Joe Biden championed the bill, vowing to wield the new authority it would give him to “shut down the border.” What happened next? Donald Trump, sensing a potential loss of political capital heading into the 2024 election, began campaigning vociferously against the legislation, which he deemed a “horrible open borders betrayal of America.” The GOP quickly fell into line, slamming the bipartisan deal as a “Biden/Schumer Open Border Bill.” The bill officially tanked in early February, though members of both parties continue to scramble to out-tough each other on the border. On Thursday, both Biden and Trump are headed to southern Texas, where the President will tout “the toughest and fairest set of reforms to secure the border in decades.”

“Open Borders.” The term is “at once verboten, anathema, and a catchall, memeified and mischaracterizing smear utilized by left, right and center,” writes immigration journalist John Washington, who has spent years reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. In his new book, The Case for Open Borders, Washington attempts to reclaim the much-abused term as a coherent political aspiration—one that, he says, is essential if we are to achieve just outcomes on a number of global issues in the twenty-first century. By taking steps to decriminalize the act of crossing borders, defund and demilitarize bloated immigration agencies, and cancel contracts with private for-profit companies handling immigration detention and enforcement, among other changes, we can move toward a world in which, Washington argues, nobody is jailed or deported for “seeking safety and dignity.”

The Case for Open Borders
by John Washington
Haymarket Books, 272 pp., $19.95

During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Washington and I discussed the weaknesses of popular arguments against loosened immigration, President Biden’s heel-turn on the issue, and the policies that could move us toward an open-borders world.

Jack McCordick: You envision a world of open borders. What would that look like in practice—what kinds of policies could get us there?

John Washington: There needs to be an amnesty. We have a second tier of residents in this country, a large one, who have less rights than the people who have citizenship or have legal status. What kind of society are we living in where we have this long-term population that has less rights than their neighbors? That needs to be addressed now. I think that it is pathetic and really, really telling that there was no legalization offered in this most recent Senate Bill, not even for [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. That’s one. Lowering the asylum standard or expanding why people can apply and receive asylum is also really important. There’s a couple huge things that we need to look at here. One is climate change. We need to establish a system globally to accept climate refugees. That is urgently necessary. I could go on. I have a whole list. I think the guest-worker system is also ridiculous. It’s creating second-class half-citizens.

J.M.: You also make some interesting proposals related to repurposing the work of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Can you lay those out briefly?

J.W.: The overwhelming majority of the work that Border Patrol does right now is accepting families and accepting individuals who are trying to ask for asylum. Why are they armed? Why are they trained as if they’re going into the military? Why do they have this cultural sense that they’re defending the country from a potential violent attack? I realize that ICE was formed, CBP was completely reformed, and [the Department of Homeland Security] was created after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but that is not the threat that we face on the U.S. southern border. It’s just not. I think that disarming these people, or training them to enact rescues of folks who are forced into the far reaches of the desert because of our policies, is the only humane step forward.

ICE has these nearly like Stasi-like agents who are charged with an impossible task. To hunt down, detain, and deport 11 million people would cost an astronomical amount. So it’s a joke that we even pretend that that is what they should be doing, although that is actually what they’re charged with doing. I think that we could put those people to work processing folks and registering people. I think that registering folks, so they can be participatory members in society, so they can be contributing to taxes in their community, actually makes a lot of sense. I think there needs to be some sort of registration, and I think that those people could have jobs doing that, rather than ripping people apart.

J.M.: The book addresses many of the anti-immigration arguments you hear in popular discourse. I’d like to run through a few of them. What do you make of the argument that loosened immigration hurts economies?

J.W.: We have evidence going back a century: Study after study after study shows that migrants are not a threat to wages, are not a threat to employment, are not a threat to [gross domestic product]. The net change is pretty small, but in almost all those cases, it’s a positive gain. There are outlying economists, who I think are driven by ideology, that have, in a few cases, found very small negative effects. There’s a famous economist, George Borjas, who I mention a number of times in the book. He has invited fury from a lot of other economists, because he has really, I think, tweaked numbers as much as possible to show that there was a tiny, small segment of people in Miami, who in 1980 and 1981, actually did suffer a little bit due to the influx of the Cuban migration through the Mariel Boatlift. But he is a far outlying exception. There are studies showing that even in times of great economic distress, that more immigrants coming helps the economy. The reverse also holds true. I reference a ton of studies in the book. There are a number of other so-called natural experiments where you have huge increases in population over a short period of time. We saw this in Israel in the early 1990s. We saw this in France in the 1960s. And their economies did not suffer. In fact, they were doing pretty well.

J.M.: Increases crime?

J.W.: We’ve crunched the numbers and, again, you see that undocumented migrants, legal permanent residents, people who have recently gotten a green card, commit crimes at lower rates than native populations. That’s what the statistics say. That’s just the case. There are also all sorts of reasons why bordering actually foments crime. Think about what borders have done to the smuggling industries in Mexico. If there were not strict border controls, people could cross on their own. But this has been made effectively impossible, and so they have to rely on smuggling networks. Also, look at the rise of the Central American gangs. Just start scratching a little bit of that history, and you realize the gangs actually began in Los Angeles. The reason that they began was because migrants were being incarcerated, and the prison culture in L.A. was so atrocious, with organizations like the Mexican Mafia or Black prison gangs that threatened the Central American folks, and they banded together to form their own gangs. And then deportation policies sent them back either to a civil war or to a country that was nearly in shambles because of U.S.-backed insurgencies.

J.M.: Strains public services?

J.W.: Most migrants aren’t eligible for most welfare. For undocumented migrants, they’re not eligible, except in some states, for some benefits. They’re not eligible for almost any federal benefits at all, ever. Most of them pay into Social Security through either using someone else’s Social Security number or through a noncitizen tax identification number. There are other so-called benefits that you might think of, like public schools. But they also pay in, sometimes by property taxes and definitely in sales taxes. When you break it down per family or per migrant, you see that over their lifetimes—this is true in the U.K., and this is true in the United States—migrants receive, on average, far less than native folks in welfare benefits, and they pay in about the same.

J.M.: What do you think accounts for the dramatic surge in border construction and militarization in recent decades, especially in an age where the flow of capital has become ever more loosened from national boundaries?

J.W.: It’s good business. It’s a boondoggle industry. I’m talking about some of the big players in border wall construction and in surveillance technology that is built up around border walls throughout the world, and also private detention companies that are proliferating in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere. That’s big business. But I also mean that it’s big business to keep people marginalized, keep people either undocumented or as guest workers, or to keep people on the other side of the border immobilized in slums, in sweatshops, in maquiladoras, which are duty-free factories. You don’t have to deal with labor laws. You don’t have to deal with workers’ rights nearly as much.

It’s also good for elections. As some of the other institutions that people have leaned on for understanding who they are and where they belong have been ripped away or have petered out—I’m thinking of organized religion, of the community ties that we used to have before the rise of the internet, of labor unions—we feel unanchored, we feel alienated, we feel like we have no support systems, no guiding principles of identity. And so we are grasping at this idea of nationalism. Politicians are able to exploit that very effectively.

J.M.: Much of your reporting has focused on the U.S.-Mexico border, but the book makes a global argument. Why do you think it’s important to talk about the U.S. southern border in the same terms you address, say, Israel’s construction of a border wall in the West Bank, or migrants crossing the Mediterranean, or the conflict over the so-called “Line of Control” dividing the Indian and Pakistani-administered parts of Kashmir?

J.W.: I think that it would be better than this current status quo if we opened only the US-Mexico border. But capital flows in such complex ways across the globe, there would be other borders that would be exploited almost in lieu of the U.S. border, if it somehow were opened up. The United States has invested so much in bordering throughout the world. Here I lean on the work of Todd Miller, who has a great book, Empire of Borders. You fall into the logic of bordering if you worry only about a certain border. If we’re really concerned about human rights, or the right to freedom of movement, how can you restrict that framing to just a certain international border? You have to think about it in global terms. Think about the open borders that were established in the European Union. Those were coupled with a fortification of external European borders. If you limit yourself to just opening some borders, you risk falling into that trap of fortifying some other border.

J.M.: As we speak, President Joe Biden, who campaigned on reversing Trump’s immigration policies, is blaming Trump for sinking a bipartisan border deal, which Biden has said will equip him to “shut down” the border. What do you make of the administration’s about-face on immigration? And if you were to have an audience with the president right now, what would you tell him?

J.W.: He ought to hold up his plan that he put in place on his campaign. So you were singing a song for a long time and your tune has changed? And we saw the same bullshit during the Obama administration: trying to build political capital to get a comprehensive border immigration package passed. We’ve played this game a number of times in a number of different ways. Do you not learn lessons? What about your principles, the principles that you campaigned on? What the fuck, honestly? It’s a huge disappointment. It’s a political game, obviously, on the right. But why, on the left, did you cave to something that just shows your lack of spine? And now, what, you’re willing to cave in the next administration as well? I never had much hope this bill was actually going to pass, but the politicking around it has been just absolutely shameful.

J.M.: This book grew out of your own reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border. What experiences led you to this book’s argument?

J.W.: One of the stories I have in the book takes place in the middle of the Obama years. It’s about a man who was a grandfather and had been living in the United States, in Los Angeles, for 40-some years. He got picked up, deported, and tried to get back to his family and his life in Los Angeles. He got caught by Border Patrol, and when they were transporting them to the Border Patrol facility, the agent got in a car accident, and the man broke his back. They deported him three days later, with a broken back, just shoved him across the border with a bottle of over-the-counter pain meds. I spent an entire day with a man, and he was incredibly in good spirits. I remember he was like, “I wish I could buy you a Coke.” He died that week. It was a heart attack, but it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t have some relationship to a broken back and this incredible trauma that he just went through. It was incredible that the machinery of the state crushes people like that with zero accountability.