What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like?

What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like?

What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like?

Borders have turned the American Southwest, the Mediterranean, and countless other areas of our world into unnecessary graveyards for migrants. It’s time for a new way.


In the summer of 1947, the British lord and lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe found himself in charge of the fate of a subcontinent. As the freshly appointed head of the Boundary Commission, he was tasked with dividing up the British India territories of Bengal and Punjab—and he had just a few weeks to complete the task.

After three and a half centuries of brutal and exploitative involvement in the region, the last 90 years as official imperial overlord of the British Raj, the United Kingdom was officially abdicating colonial rule. Deeply in debt from two world wars, and facing pressure from increasingly militant anti-colonial movements, the UK was to cede control of the crown jewel of the British Empire to its inhabitants. It was left to Radcliffe to sort out the borderlines of the new territories.

What Radcliffe and his commission contrived was to divide the subcontinent according to religion: The so-called “Radcliffe line” separated a Hindu-majority India in the center from Muslim-majority East and West Pakistan on its wings, with a smattering of independent princely states throughout. But neat division wasn’t remotely possible, and what resulted was a labyrinthine confusion of over 100 enclaves (a portion of a nation entirely inside another nation), counter-enclaves (an enclave within an enclave), and even a counter-counter-enclave, in which a little pocket of India sat in a little pocket of East Pakistan which sat in a bigger pocket of India which was entirely enisled in East Pakistan. His carving done, and the heat of the subcontinent not agreeing with him, Radcliffe returned to England.

The fear and reality of religious violence that immediately followed in partition’s wake displaced over 14 million people and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands—some estimates range as high as 2 million deaths. The decades since have been witness to a series of wars between India and Pakistan; a genocide and civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh out of what was once East Pakistan; and an ongoing, violent stalemate between the two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, over the status of Kashmir—a conflict which threatens, once again, to erupt into a cataclysmic war.

Radcliffe was remarkable for his lack of knowledge about the region’s history or present, not to mention lack of personal stake in its future. But as an arbiter of international boundaries, he was hardly an anomaly. As a rule to which there are few exceptions, our current borders are the result of imperial horse-trading, wars of expansion and conquest, and ragged lines cutting clumsily through ethnic areas, as statesmen have deftly minced up the globe seeking to settle scores and extract maximum gain. Whether carved up willy-nilly by colonialist patricians trying to cram notions into nation-states, or the outcome of aggressive land-grabbing, our current system of borders is neither rational nor historical. In a time of mass migration and displacement—with growing diasporas and asylum-seekers finding safety in caravans on their journey to the US-Mexico border, with refugees braving and often drowning the waters of the Mediterranean, and with the World Bank estimating that climate change will result in 143 million new internal climate migrants by 2050—might it be time to think beyond outdated notions of “territorial integrity”?

Simply put, there is nothing natural, inevitable, or immutable about the nation-state, though it is the nation-state that is the entity most invested in border fortification. And it was the nation-state that was the first political organizing model to peg the idea of sovereignty to territory. Previously, kingdoms and empires blurred at their edges, and even the earliest walls, such as the Great Wall of China or the walls of early Sumerian city-states, were more to keep tax-paying citizens in than to keep anybody out, as James C. Scott lays out in his book Against the Grain. In the 17th century, early nation-states rose slowly, along with capitalism, after the Peace of Westphalia brought a century of bloodshed to a close and European nations, with newly enshrined territorial sovereignty, began marking their edges. The transition from feudalism to capitalism, from sprawling kingdom to articulated nation-state, neatly coincided with the beginning of Europe’s rapacious expansion and the imposition of Western structures of governance into the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

And still, as recently as a century ago, national borders hardly existed as we know them today. Even the US-Mexico border, though its final position was marked—on maps—by 1853, had no walls, and people crossed back and forth with little oversight well into the 20th century. There are stories of early ranchers replanting the surveyors’ obelisks that first marked the US-Mexico border so as to give their cattle, and their nation, more room to graze. Though the first small segments of wall were raised during the Mexican Revolution, it wasn’t until the 1990s, less than 30 years ago, that significant infrastructure—selective, short segments of wall—went up along the US-Mexico border. Those walls shifted migrant traffic; they did not stop it.

The US-Mexico borderlands, to stay with an example much in the headlines recently, are a zone of cultural and linguistic blend, where cities, such as Juárez in Mexico and El Paso in the US, or Nogales in Arizona and Nogales in Sonora, were once relatively seamless conurbations in which families visited, shopped, and traveled back and forth with minimal friction—until, that is, they were hewn in two by a militarized border wall, economic chicanery exploiting tax loopholes and cheap labor, and bogeyman scare tactics used to shore up nationalistic voting blocks. The oft-cited and oft-exaggerated comparison of El Paso as one of the safest cities in America and Juárez as suffering from uncontrollable violence is not because the border wall protects El Paso from the violence or poverty of Juárez. The wage gap and security disparity are because of the border wall: transnational corporations drawing massive numbers of nearly starvation-wage workers to Juárez and exploiting a paucity of labor protections. And with US illicit-drug demand constant over the years, a hardened border makes trafficking and smuggling more lucrative for the paramilitary cartels and the corrupt state agencies they work with, entrenching their stranglehold on the population. More than marking the difference between people, therefore, borders make the difference—imaginary lines fissuring families, cultures, and ecosystems.

Despite all the prattle and fuss about Donald Trump’s wall, he has, to date, built none of it. Though the administration has been building about 40 miles of replacement fencing and is planning, soon, to lay waste to a butterfly sanctuary in south Texas and add some 13 miles of fencing to what is functionally little more than a monument to state conquest. The national emergency symbolized by the Trump presidency has prompted him to concoct his own emergency and beg, as former Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen put it—with the administration’s characteristic eloquence—“We need wall.” Walls, however, as a Foreign Policy article recently put it, “don’t work”—at least not for their stated practical purpose. Rather, as the historian Greg Grandin writes, borders “announce the panic of power.” It’s a point that seems abundantly evident as Trump, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other authoritarian leaders try to grip power by inciting panic at the fraying edges of imaginary ideals. Borders represent, to quote Grandin again, “the absurdity of human efforts to force the concrete to conform to the abstract.”

Is it time to seriously work through what a world would be like that allowed any people to leave their country and enter a new one freely, without penalty, and without forcing them into underground economies or worse? Is it time to envision a transnational movement that advocates for equal rights for all people, regardless of birthplace? Is it time, in other words, for us to open the borders?

Why Do We Need Open Borders?

There are strong ethical, environmental, and—more commonly—economic arguments for why an open-borders position makes sense. The first and perhaps best argument for open borders is that borders kill. Just since 2014, according to the Associated Press, the number of migrants who have died or gone missing is nearly 60,000 worldwide. If people weren’t forced to board unseaworthy ships captained by smugglers, ford dangerous rivers to bypass visa restrictions, or trek across remote deserts to avoid violent border guards—that is, if they were allowed free transit—we could eliminate many, or even all, of these deaths.

Furthermore, the status quo is just not fair, in the basic sense of the word. Why does being born on one side of a line—in Piedras Negras, Mexico, for example—often consign one to a life of relative hardship, violence, and privation, while being born on the other side of the line—in, say, San Antonio, in the US—afford a life of relative opportunity, privilege, and bounty? Such inequality is enforced by our militarized borders: Philosopher Joseph Carens, in his book The Ethics of Immigration, writes that “The goal of the open borders argument is to challenge complacency, to make us aware of how routine democratic practices in immigration deny freedom and help to maintain unjust inequality.” For Carens, birthright privileges, or jus solis, are akin to feudal class privileges. As he argues elsewhere, birthright privileges grant “great advantages on the basis of birth but also entrench these advantages by legally restricting mobility, making it extremely difficult for those born into a socially disadvantaged position to overcome that disadvantage, no matter how talented they are or how hard they work.” That, according to Carens, is unethical.

Humans are a historically migratory species (along with starlings and cockroaches, we’re among the most widespread of all animal species), and our movement has been enshrined as a fundamental human freedom: Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” The crucial part of the equation that has been missing, however, is that in a world carved up into nation-states, a right to leave a state is only a half-right if it’s not accompanied by the right to enter another state. It’s as if the First Amendment guaranteed the right not to stay silent but didn’t mention the attending right to freedom of speech.

Another ethical approach is to view open migration as a form of reparations: Taking Honduras as an example, and tracing the long history of US meddling and exploitation, as well as the extraction of resources and labor power in Honduras—including using the country effectively as an auxiliary military base—Vassar professor Joseph Nevins argues in the recent anthology Open Borders that the US has “an imperial debt” to Honduras. “US responsibility for helping to create the conditions that drive much of the out-migration from Honduras also should negate any justification by the US government to deport and deny rights of residence to people of Honduran origin,” Nevins writes. Given that Honduras is less exception to and more exemplar of the destabilizing effects of US imperialistic intervention, the same argument could be made for dozens of other countries, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Indonesia, Laos, and Cambodia—to name just a few.

Another reason to support open borders is environmental: Not only do borders negatively affect ecosystems, but they also perpetuate and excuse the wasteful and extractive capitalism that underlies so much of climate change. American and Canadian mining companies, for example, wreak havoc on communities and ecologies in Central America and the South Pacific. Likewise, huge quantities of Western waste are dumped in places like Malaysia and Africa, turning groundwater toxic. As rising seas and devastating storms lay ruin, disproportionately, to the Global South, borders function as moral shields—the limits to which citizens are willing to extend their empathy. Todd Miller, whose latest book, Storming the Wall, traces the relationship between climate change and borders, said, “With accelerated displacement projected across the globe, hardened borders make no sense [and] free movement will be imperative as more places become uninhabitable…. That also goes for cross-border cooperation, solidarity, organizing, and ecological restoration. Climate change needs a movement and organizing that is transnational, not hindered.”

But it is the economic argument that typically dominates open-borders debates. Contrary to the commonly invoked fear that “they” will steal “our” jobs, the economists Gihoon Hong and John McLaren have found that in the United States, “immigrants can raise native workers’ real wages, and…[each] immigrant creates 1.2 local jobs for local workers.” Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, where he leads research on migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy, said, “The bottom line is that if even one in 20 people currently in poorer countries could work in richer countries, that would add more value to the world economy overall than removing every remaining policy barrier to goods-and-services trade—every tariff, every quota.” If borders were opened, economists, both conservative and liberal, predict an enormous boost in global GDP, which would ratchet up by about $40 trillion—a 60 percent rise.

But both the economic and ethical arguments often remain state-centric, which brings us to the other vision of open borders: no borders. The no-borders argument, as espoused by activist-scholars Natasha King and Harsha Walia, among others, takes aim at the nation-state, its borders, and its reigning ideology—transnational capitalism. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian recently wrote on this site, “Thinking primarily in terms of the nation is easier, of course; it’s an older political form, and indeed, the default one. But it also betrays a lack of imagination, and, more worryingly, it misses what is really at the heart of the current crisis: The problem has never been globalization in and of itself, but that the globalization we have had puts the well-being of capital and capitalists over that of ordinary men, women, and children.” In an interview with the Empty Cages Collective, Walia says, “In the context of settler colonial states like Canada, a necessary corollary to [the work of the migrant-justice group] No One Is Illegal has been the assertion of Canada Is Illegal. Settler-colonial states are founded on the racist doctrine of discovery and terra nullius, which denies and erases the presences of Indigenous peoples and nations.” In other words, a no-borders praxis is a sort of Copernican shift in thinking about state/citizen relations—that it is not the mobile human who needs legitimation or permission but the state itself.

It’s typical when defending open borders to go straight to the counterarguments—why there wouldn’t be an overwhelming influx of migrants, why wages wouldn’t plummet, why there wouldn’t be a paralyzing run on government services, and why crime wouldn’t increase, all of which are likely true. But policies are rarely won with defense—allaying imagined fears can solidify those fears—and the affirmative argument for opening borders is the more compelling: how a borderless world would lead to more freedom, more equality, and more justice. As Walia writes, “All movements need an anchor in a shared positive vision, not a homogeneous or exact or perfect condition, but one that will nonetheless dismantle hierarchies, disarm concentrations of power, guide just relations, and nurture individual autonomy alongside collective responsibility.”

What Would a Borderless World Look Like?

The vision of a borderless world has never been the exclusive domain of the political left, and many of our current problems can be traced to the fact that we are already living in a borderless world for corporations and capital but not for people. Neoliberal economists have been perhaps most successful in implementing their version of open borders, in which capital and goods flow freely across borders (think NAFTA, CAFTA-DR, TPP, and similar acronymic endowments to corporations). Libertarians, too, have their idiomatic vision of open borders, or at least free migration—based on “a strong presumption of letting people engage freely in mutually consensual activity and on minimizing coercion in society,” as Open Borders summarizes the libertarian argument. Essentially, libertarians want government out of their way: People should be free to do what they please and go where they please, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.

All of which makes it more important that the left have a clear and well-defined version of open borders of our own, one that doesn’t keep all the power in the hands of corporations and the wealthy.

Angela Nagle, a cultural theorist and the author of Kill All Normies, recently sparked an intense (mostly internal) debate on the left on just how socialists, progressives, and the left in general should define open borders. In her article “The Left Case Against Open Borders,” she argues that “open borders radicalism ultimately benefits the elites within the most powerful countries in the world, further disempowers organized labor, robs the developing world of desperately needed professionals, and turns workers against workers.” It is true that capitalists in the US stand to benefit from the labor of undocumented immigrants—for a class of workers without residency status, living in fear of arrest or deportation, advocating for greater workplace rights comes with significant risks. Similarly, the Persian Gulf states, awash with oil wealth but small in native-born populations, depend on a system of effective indentured servitude to bring workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, and beyond to work the construction sites and domestic jobs those economies depend on—all without affording even the most basic rights to these workers. (In Qatar, for example, foreign workers make up 95 percent of the labor force, but these workers are denied the right to leave their jobs or to even leave the country without their employer’s permission.)

But such examples should not be viewed as arguments against freedom of movement; rather, they prove the vital need for any left version of open borders to be paired with a robust campaign for equal rights for all workers, regardless of origin.

Nagle isn’t the first left-oriented thinker to critique the idea of open borders. Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar, while recognizing that borders implement “unequal access to the means of existence,” worries that simply opening borders and doing little else to restructure our world would unleash a “savage competition” among capitalists. Political theorist Michael Walzer, similarly, has written that “to tear down the walls of the state is not…to create a world without walls, but rather to create a thousand petty fortresses.” But instead of giving in to the current structures of cutthroat capitalism, as Nagle’s position inevitably does, Balibar pushes further, toward a democratization of borders.

In We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, Balibar calls for “new representative institutions” that are “not merely ‘territorial’ and certainly not purely national.” Such control of borders by the people themselves would, according to him, be coupled with a new form of “nomadic” citizenship, calling to mind the practice of Australian indigenous groups offering their own Aboriginal passports to asylum seekers, who had been denied status by the Australian state.

Today, there are zones of the world, such as the European Union’s Schengen area (a broad though increasingly threadbare blanket of 26 countries) and the Central America–4 Border Control Agreement (among Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua), in which citizens may travel or migrate at will within those zones. There’s also the United States of America, where millions of people from distinct cultures, languages, and distant cities can freely travel across state borders. Open borders, in sum, would be Schengen, CA-4, and the USA writ globally.

When US citizens cross from one state to another, they are beholden to the laws of the new state. As Reece Jones, a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii and the editor of the anthology Open Borders, laid it out, “When you’re in New York, you follow the laws of New York, you get a driver’s license in New York, you pay your taxes in New York, you establish residency in New York. But then if you decide to move to Hawaii, you follow the laws in Hawaii, you become a resident of the State of Hawaii, you pay your taxes in Hawaii.” (He grew up in Virginia.) If you fly from Richmond to Honolulu or even from Houston to Atlanta, you have to show an ID and run through an inspection. That could be the length of the bureaucratic gauntlet we would require people to run before crossing national borders. Addressing the scare that there would be a massive influx to the US, he gave the example of Maryland and West Virginia, far apart in terms of economic prosperity; the GDP of Maryland is about $399 billion, whereas the GDP of West Virginia is $74 billion, and minimum wage and average annual salaries mirror that disparity. And yet there hasn’t been a flood of West Virginians into Maryland. Why not? Because people are tied to their homes and their culture, because migrating isn’t easy or enacted on a lark.

Whether migration is rapid or protracted, a core left concern remains: If we open borders, how can social-welfare provisions be protected from an influx of potential recipients? The answer is that these provisions could actually be strengthened. As John Lee, an administrator at Open Borders, explained, “Immigration is structurally good for the economics of government social programs…because immigrants are likelier to be in the prime working-age demographic.” Or, as Clemens of the Center for Global Development described, for any kind of social-benefit program to be fiscally solvent, there has to be a system for ensuring that those who benefit also contribute enough to keep the system afloat—basic book balancing. And though many people insist that “barring the physical presence of people from geographic areas is the only way to do that, it is obviously not the only way to do that.” Clemens offered the US’s current Medicare policy as an example:

If you have been in the US for at least five years [as a “lawfully present” immigrant], and paid certain taxes for at least 10 years…you can get Medicare for free. If you haven’t paid those taxes, you buy Medicare at a hefty price. What is that policy doing? It is aligning beneficiaries and payers. It is requiring you to have paid into the system—either through a decade of taxes or through paying an ongoing price for coverage—before you can benefit from it. That makes sense, and it helps protect Medicare coverage for both natives and immigrants. It does that without physically barring anyone from the US. It is based on your individual identity and what you have paid in, not on which side of a wall you are located.

To be a true freedom, the freedom to move across borders, therefore, must be accompanied by the ability to access all the rights that native-born residents enjoy: The right to pay into social programs and to ultimately benefit from them. The right to be protected by labor laws, to access minimum wages, overtime protections, and more. The right to unionize and to collectively bargain without fear of reprisal. The right to live free from fear of being hounded by police or immigration officers. The right, perhaps after a period of residency, to vote in your new home and have a say in its future. There’s no real reason for these rights to be tied to citizenship, and, as the above has hopefully shown, ample reasons for them not to be—all that remains is to work out how we get there.

How Can We Create a Borderless World?

One logical way to begin dismantling the militarized borders of our nations is by expanding our conception of the sanctuary movement. If the idea of sanctuary is based in the belief that collective protection should extend to all communities facing criminalization and persecution, the sanctuary movement should be a call that unites broad swaths of institutions and civil society to defend communities against all the agencies that threaten them, not just immigration police—thus laying the groundwork for an extension of open borders beyond the geographic border.

In “Sanctuary, Solidarity, Status!” his chapter from Jones’s Open Borders, Thomas Nail lays out steps in which he details the series of sans-papiers occupations in France in the late 1990s as a potential model. After an intense standoff in the Saint Bernard Church in Paris in 1996, which culminated in riot police breaking down the church doors with axes, the movement galvanized other sanctuary occupations across France, with hundreds of thousands of protesters hitting the streets and rolling back, at least temporarily, a wave of draconian anti-immigrant legislation. The US experienced a similar surge in pro-immigrant advocacy in 2006 and again in 2017, but the organized vigor has waxed and waned without, still, legislative protections even for Dreamers.

Some jurisdictions are working to expand sanctuary to go beyond protection from deportation and include undocumented immigrants in civic life and social programs. New York City, for example, while working to issue ID cards to all residents (documented or not) is pushing to extend health-care coverage to the more than half a million uninsured people in the city, including hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. But these efforts—including San Francisco’s move to allow noncitizens to vote in school-board elections—are half-steps as long as ICE agents are still on the hunt in the cities. Essential next moves include not only expanding these programs to advocate for broader state and national corollaries but also tying them to burgeoning prison-abolition, anti-police-violence, and anti-racist movements.

But as long as open-borders advocates merely seek to defend basic protections, we will remain trapped in the dualistic logic of citizen and noncitizen. Hannah Arendt famously identified the quagmire one could fall into if we rely on states or hegemonic political entities to bestow or protect rights: If those rights are revoked or if you fall out from under the wing of the state, you no longer even have the “right to have rights.” True sanctuary power, Peter Mancina contends in another chapter in Open Borders, “is a project not to ‘regularize’ everyone’s immigration status, but rather to render all forms of citizenship and immigration status useless.” The goal is to “make governance systems that are not exclusionary on the basis of the nation and citizenship.”

Sean McElwee, the writer and analyst who was fundamental in bringing the Abolish ICE campaign into the mainstream narrative, described the need to intertwine the Abolish ICE, Medicare for All, Green New Deal, and open-borders movements. He sees open borders as a way to collapse gross transnational income inequalities and deal with the coming increase in climate-change-induced migration. Concretely, the way McElwee helped steer Abolish ICE into the national conversation had a lot to do with timing and strategic targeting of primary-season Democrats. In the next round of the endlessly stuttering and uninspired debate about Comprehensive Immigration Reform, McElwee suggests, there may be room to bring open borders to the negotiating table, though he also warned, “Dems are more afraid of open borders than Abolish ICE”—at least for now.

Beyond the electoral strategy and the ongoing expansion of sanctuary movements, the urgent, lifesaving work of direct-aid groups such as No More Deaths—leaving water out in the desert and taking other practical steps to end death and suffering in the Mexico-US borderlands—helps achieve the cross-border movement of people essential to an open-borders future.

Lastly, none of this work can be successful without the Herculean task of dismantling the bloated border-control bureaucracies that have turned our borderlands into places of harassment and death. In the 2017 book No Wall They Can Build, an open-borders philippic from a longtime No More Deaths activist, the anonymous author claims that Border Patrol agents “could put the cartels out of business and end the death in the desert tomorrow simply by going home.” The writer may be overstating the case somewhat, but not by much. The cartels reap obscene levels of profit because of US demand, illegalization of drugs, and militarization of the borders. Migrants would have a much safer journey if they didn’t need to trudge through the outer reaches of the desert or risk river crossings at night. But absent a broad movement to dismantle the militarization border machinery, Border Patrol agents will continue to prowl the deserts, and ICE officers will continue to stalk our neighborhoods hunting for people who happened to be born on the other side of the line.

“By refusing to abide by a wall, map, property line, border, identity document, or legal regime, mobile people upset the state’s schemes of exclusion, control, and violence,” Jones writes in his book Violent Borders. “They do this simply by moving.” In other words, migrants are already doing their part. It’s the rest of us who now need to take action.

Watching video of Border Patrol agents stabbing, kicking, or dumping out water bottles left out on trails where migrants regularly die of thirst, I find it hard to fathom the blatant cruelty that would inspire such an action. I spoke with one Border Patrol agent last year who witnessed a senior training officer kick a water bottle out of the hands of a 4-year-old boy who had been lost for days in the desert. How can someone do that to another person? How can someone refuse water to a person dying of thirst? The only way I can understand such an act—and I’ve spent a long time trying to understand it—is through the logic of the border: that imagined line that lets us ignore one another’s humanity.

Last year another Border Patrol agent was exonerated after shooting a teenage boy through the border fence 10 times from behind. The boy was walking on a sidewalk in Mexico and died that night. Recently, four humanitarian-aid volunteers were convicted for leaving water out on trails where migrants regularly die of thirst. That moral contradiction—the exoneration of murder and the criminalization of humanitarian aid—cannot be explained by law. Only by the logic of the border does such a deadly injustice make any sense.

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