Today, March 16th, marks Open Borders Day. On this day, people around the world seek to imagine a world radically different from the status quo. Whereas immigration restrictions curtail freedom of movement for the most trivial and discriminatory of reasons, such as the country an individual was born in, we envision a world where free migration is respected as a human right.
Immigration restrictions are objectionable for the same reason as practically any other state intervention: they involve coercive interference with peaceful and voluntary social cooperation. If an employer wants to hire a willing worker, why should the state be able to stop that transaction based on the worker’s birthplace? If someone wants to sell or rent a home to an immigrant, why should the government interfere based on the prospective buyer or tenant’s nation of origin? Immigration restrictions are ultimately restrictions on voluntary social cooperation.
But immigration restrictions cause more harm than many of the other similarly unjust restrictions imposed by government. Bryan Caplan, one of the most prominent proponents of open borders, explains that he initially came to support open borders for the same reasons he opposes protectionist trade barriers. However, Caplan explains, this comparison did not reveal the magnitude of the problem caused by immigration restrictions:
I saw no reason to take immigration restrictions more seriously than, say, steel tariffs. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions are far more onerous than trade barriers on steel. I falsely assumed that illegal immigration to the U.S. was pretty easy. I didn’t realize that the labor market is by far the largest market in the world — roughly 70% of national income. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions trap hundreds of millions of people in Third World poverty.
Because immigration restrictions forcibly keep hundreds of millions of people impoverished, they represent a massive atrocity. The flip side of this is that abolishing immigration restrictions would radically change society.
Immigration restrictions don’t simply impoverish those who are prevented from migrating. Economist Michael A. Clemens estimates that abolishing immigration restrictions could double world GDP. Even if that specific estimate is wrong, it’s clear that allowing workers to move towards more valued uses of their labor would drastically increase production. This increased production would improve living standards for everyone who wants to consume goods and services, not just for immigrants.
But the argument for open borders is not just an economic argument. Immigration restrictions not only keep people impoverished, they also enable human rights violations. Immigration restrictions keep women trapped in countries where they face genital mutilation, forced marriage, stoning, restrictive dress codes, and other abuses. Sheldon Richman, the chair of our board of trustees here at the Center for a Stateless Society, has argued that open borders provide a clear way to help those trapped in war zones like Ukraine. Allowing individuals to leave sites of violence and abuse is one way to help alleviate human rights violations across the globe.
However, instead of opening the borders and allowing people to flee violence, abuse, and authoritarianism in their home countries, Western governments all too often brutalize immigrants. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2011 “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds.” Unlike criminal cases, immigration cases do not feature a right to counsel, so many of these detainees have no legal representation. Guards often sexually abuse detainees, a grotesque example of the powerful brutalizing the most vulnerable.
It’s not just the American state that commits these sorts of atrocities against migrants. Recent reports have exposed abuses in immigration detention facilities in the United Kingdom. The UN has condemned Canada’s immigration detention system for violating human rights.
Today, let’s envision a world without these brutal prison camps for migrants. Let’s envision a world where a presumption of liberty prevails with regards to migration, not a presumption that only those who can navigate labyrinthine bureaucracies deserve the right to travel. Open borders means unleashing the prosperity that voluntary social cooperation can create. It means allowing people to escape human rights abuses, rather than subjecting them to further violence simply for moving. But it also means that freedom of movement, freedom of contract, and the right to engage in voluntary interactions anywhere on Earth are fundamental rights for everyone, not merely those deemed “deserving” or in need of help. This is a radical proposition, but it follows from the most fundamental ethical intuitions. Open Borders Day is a day for envisioning radical changes that can free the world from tyranny and poverty. Another world is possible, and we will fight to make it real.