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Politics & Current Affairs

#9: Open Our Borders

The United States continues to be a nation of immigrants.  An estimated 11 million undocumented people live in the U.S., and thousands more migrate legally: Roughly 140,000 employment-based and 480,000 family-based visas are issued each year.  Yet the tide of public opinion is turning against this swell of new residents.  Nearly 70 percent of Americans say that immigrants are a taxpayer burden, 62 percent think they add to national crime and 59 percent believe they take jobs away from Americans, according a recent survey by CNN.

Amid calls to close the borders further, economist and journalist Philippe Legrain says the answer to immigration lies in more open borders and more people entering the U.S. legally: “Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right,” he says, “and governments have no business telling us where we can live and where we can work.”

According to Legrain, controls over freedom of movement violate the right to seek opportunity and employment, as well as to escape from circumstance of birth.  Such controls also cost lives: “Each year thousands of people die because of border restrictions around the world, whether its Africans drowning trying to reach Europe, or Mexicans dying in the desert, or people being packed into containers, shipped, and dying as a result,” he says.

Kevin Johnson, the dean at the UC Davis School of Law, also thinks we need to open up the borders, saying we have to think of immigration as a labor issue: “The economic studies show that in the aggregate the economy benefits from an infusion of labor into the marketplace,” he says.  One such study, concluded that the removal of labor mobility restrictions would raise aggregate output by about 10.5 percent in North America, gains similar in effect to reducing the capital income tax between 40 and 45 percent. 

Both Legrain and Johnson cite as a model the the European Union, where goods and people move across 27 countries relatively freely.  In the EU, countries as economically dissimilar as Romania (which is poorer than Mexico, based on GDP per capita) and wealthy Sweden are connected.  “People move freely and it has not caused disaster,” said Legrain. “On the contrary, it has been very good for the economy.” 

Coupled with this economic appeal is a pragmatic reason: The borders can’t be thoroughly secured.  “Even if you have your doubts about immigration,” said Legrain, “immigration controls make things worse.”  Now, he said, “Building a border wall, ever more stringent checks, and whether people have a right to work somewhere — they don’t actually stop immigration, they drive it underground, and that has huge costs not just for the people, but also for the society as a whole.”  For example, the average cost of hiring an “coyote” to facilitate an illegal border crossing from Mexico has steadily increased from around $300 per person in the 1992 to near $1,500 now, fueling a shadow economy that would dissipate with more open borders. 

Opening up borders brings immigration into the open, and would necessarily accompany a reorganization of priorities, according to Johnson.  This would include a shift from policing and prosecuting migration violations to improving working conditions for new workers and targeting specific threats to the U.S. 


Contrary to public perception, immigration has had a positive overall impact on the U.S. economy, according to a study which looked at data from 1990 to 2004. The impact of immigration increased the average wage of U.S.-born workers overall, both in the short term and in the long term.  Open immigration would further augment this economic boon—and could result in over 10 percent growth in economic output in North America. 

Why We Should Reject This

“The central reason open borders can’t work is that mass immigration is in conflict with the goals and characteristics of a modern society,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. One hundred years ago, says Krikorian, immigration to the U.S. worked in a way approximating open borders, to great benefit for the nation.  But in our post-industrial, high-tech, knowledge-based economy the potential influx of people, not just from neighboring countries but from across the globe, would be disastrous.

Proponents of more open borders, said Krikorian, “think the existing flow of mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants is pretty much what you would see with open borders—it’s just that they would be able to come legally instead of illegally. And that is a fallacy.”  The concern, he says, is “not with Mexican levels of poverty being imported, but Bangladeshi and Indonesian levels of poverty,” which would add undue stress on the U.S. economy.

More Resources

— Profs. Paul Klein and Gustavo Ventura. “Productivity Differences and the Dynamic Effects of Labor Movements.” On the economic benefits of a reduction in border restrictions. 

— Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri. “Rethinking the Effects of Immigration on Wages.” On the positive impact immigrants have had on U.S.-born workers’ wages. 

— “CNN Poll: ‘Melting Pot’ weakening country?” A July 16-21, 2010 survey of 1,018 adult Americans on their opinions on immigrants and immigration. 


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