No Borders

A review of John Washington, The Case for Open Borders (Chicago: Haymarket, 2023).

I like to think of myself as a fairly nondogmatic leftist. Yes, my sympathies are clearly with the extraparliamentary, “radical” left, but I understand that there are different views on how to combat capitalism and reach a world where freedom and justice are merged rather than juxtaposed. I also understand that, when the path to revolution seems blocked, we might, for the time being, settle for pragmatism and reformist solutions to the most urgent of social problems.

But with regard to some questions, I feel compromise is no option. The demand for open borders is one of them. I simply refuse to recognize that it can ever be ethically acceptable to limit people’s rights to free movement. There must be limits to conquest, exploitation, and occupation, of course, but that’s another matter. Outside of the colonialist framework, individuals, no matter their origin, must have the same possibilities to explore and appreciate the planet, and to settle where they foresee the biggest personal fulfillment. We all share this earth; the entire earth. With basic notions of mutual respect, we humans should be able to work this out.

So, it’s easy for me to embrace a book titled The Case for Open Borders. Its author, John Washington, has reported extensively from border regions for various media outlets. There is a remote personal connection, as Washington lives in Arizona, where the 600-kilometer Mexican border has been politically charged for years, with thousands of people from Latin America risking their lives trying to cross the desert while evading both far-right militias and the state’s militarized border regime. I myself lived in Arizona for a few years in the 1990s and have a good number of friends who are active in groups trying to help migrants to make the crossing safely.

Washington deserves credit for opening the book with an anecdote that reveals, as he puts it, “profound and deeply rooted ignorance” in his own history. It relates to a brief meeting with an undocumented, suffering migrant who had just made it into the US, while Washington was driving near the border. Twenty minutes after the encounter, Washington considered the help he had offered as too limited – too late, as it turned out, as he was no longer able to find the person, despite revisiting the original meeting place. Most social justice activists will know of similar moments, but it takes courage to share them. Washington reminds us that social justice work is no moral competition, just a permanent attempt to make the best of our abilities.

Washington then dives into a thorough investigation of numerous questions related to nation-state borders, spiced with personal experiences from years of border-region journalism. He sides with the open-border sentiment every single time and ends the book with a summarizing appendix titled “Twenty-one Arguments for Open Borders” (a list that Washington calls “short and far from exhaustive”).

The Case for Open Borders is a motivating read for anyone who perceives nation-state borders and the criminalization of migration as wrongs, and, technically, I could end the review here. But it would make for a fairly boring read. So, for the sake of it, let’s raise three questions in relation to the book:

1. I am not sure how beneficial it is in our defense of open borders to blend principled arguments (“Closed Borders Are Unethical”, “The Nonsense of Nationalism”) with factual arguments (“Immigrants Don’t Steal Jobs”, “Immigrants Don’t Drain Government Coffers”). I don’t think the two are on the same level. We must, of course, confront factual anti-immigration arguments when they are wrong, biased, and manipulative. But facts can change and allow for different political interpretations. Principles don’t change. What I am trying to get at is this: open borders need to be defended even if we were forced to concede that migration does, under certain circumstances, create social and economic problems. Migration creating problems is no argument against migration, it just means that we have problems to solve. If our defense of open borders relies too much on a line of “migration does not cause any problems,” we run the risk of losing credibility should the line ever be proven wrong.

2. It might just be that leftists socialized in the German-speaking world are, for historical reasons, oversensitive when it comes to any form of natural references, but I did not feel fully comfortable with the book’s chapter about the “Environmental Argument.” Simply put, I’m not sure if we want to discuss the breeding habits of wolves or the role of Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes in connection with migration politics. We might be opening a Pandora’s box that we’d be better off keeping closed.

3. Reading The Case for Open Borders, I wondered about something I hardly ever wonder about, even though it’s a favorite for publishers to ask: who is the audience for the book? Who does Washington want to reach? He himself makes it clear that most anti-immigration arguments aren’t rational, which means that you won’t change the minds of those who embrace them with rational counterarguments. At the same time, people who sympathize with Washington’s ideas will be familiar with most of the arguments. Perhaps the purpose of the book simply was to provide moral support for them. Or was it to take the migration debate further? This wasn’t clear to me.

In the end of the book, Washington touches on border abolition but doesn’t take the discussion very far. He circumnavigates the nitty-gritty by quoting Mariame Kaba’s response to what a world without prisons would look like: “We’ll figure it out by working to get there.” I would say yes and no. There’s no blueprint, sure, and workable theory needs to be informed by practice. But workable practice also needs to be informed by theory, it’s a dialectic process. To simply head out and hope that everything will get sorted along the way might leave us stranded. Here, of course, we are raising big political questions that are beyond the scope of Washington’s laudable and inspirational volume.

Gabriel Kuhn

(May 1, 2024)