The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Today is Open Borders Day—an international event created for the purpose of focusing attention on the injustices inflicted by state-imposed restrictions on international migration. This year, the Open Borders website has put up an Open Borders Manifesto that effectively summarizes the major reasons why people with a wide range of ideological perspectives should oppose most currently existing migration restrictions:
Freedom of movement is a basic liberty that governments should respect and protect unless justified by extenuating circumstances. This extends to movement across international boundaries. International law and many domestic laws already recognize the right of any individual to leave his or her country. This right may only be circumscribed in extreme circumstances, where threats to public safety or order are imminent.
We believe international and domestic law should similarly extend such protections to individuals seeking to enter another country. Although there may be times when governments should treat foreign nationals differently from domestic citizens, freedom of movement and residence are fundamental rights that should only be circumscribed when the situation absolutely warrants.
The border enforcement status quo is both morally unconscionable and economically destructive. Border controls predominantly restrict the movement of people who bear no ill intentions. Most of the people legally barred from moving across international borders today are fleeing persecution or poverty, desire a better job or home, or simply want to see the city lights.
The border status quo bars ordinary people from pursuing the life and opportunity they desire, not because they lack merit or because they pose a danger to others. Billions of people are legally barred from realizing their full potential and ambitions purely on the basis of an accident of birth: where they were born. This is both a drain on the economic and innovative potential of human societies across the world, and indefensible in any order that recognizes the moral worth and dignity of every human being.
We seek legal and policy reforms that will reduce and eventually remove these bars to movement for billions of ordinary people around the world. The economic toll of the modern restrictive border regime is vast, the human toll incalculable. To end this, we do not need a philosopher's utopia or a world government. As citizens and human beings, we only demand accountability from our own governments for the senseless immigration laws that they enact in our name. Border controls should be minimized to only the extent required to protect public health and security. International borders should be open for all to cross, in both directions.
In my Open Borders Day post from last year, I outlined the case for abolishing the lion's share of current migration restrictions in greater detail, and also addressed some common objections. The Open Borders website has an enormous wealth of other material on arguments both for and against open borders, ranging from the obvious to the most obscure. It is probably the most thorough resource on these issues anywhere on the English-language internet.
Here are links to some of my past Volokh Conspiracy posts on migration rights, and a few other writings on the case for open borders. I have chosen posts that cover broad, general issues, rather than very specific policy initiatives or legal questions.
Obviously, these are largely arguments in favor of free migration rights rather than against them. I make no apology for that, since such a focus is entirely appropriate in a post advocating Open Borders Day. Moreover, some of the most important points in favor of free migration are likely to be counterintuitive to a large proportion of readers who are not already familiar with the debate over these issues. Many of the sources below do, however, contain links and cites to advocates of the restrictionist positions they criticize:
1. "Immigration and Political Freedom": For many people, free international migration is the only realistically feasible way to exercise political freedom.
2. "Immigration and Discrimination.": The commonalities between migration restrictions based on place of birth and racial and ethnic discrimination.
3. "Is there a Right to Immigrate?": Philosopher Michael Huemer provides a powerful explanation of why laws banning international migration involve the active use of coercion to prevent poor and oppressed people from improving their lot. They thereby go beyond merely refusing to help alleviate bad conditions created by the actions of others.
4. "Why Should We Restrict Immigration?": Economist Bryan Caplan explains why most of the claimed negative effects of immigration are either greatly overstated, or readily addressed by means less draconian than migration restrictions. The latter point is particularly important, and too often ignored by advocates on both sides of the immigration debate. Even if free migration does sometimes have negative side-effects (and no intellectually serious proponent of open borders claims that such effects never occur), we should consider whether there are more humane means of addressing these problems than forcibly consigning innocent people to lives of poverty and oppression.
5. "'Immigrants as Our Future Rulers': Does the Danger of Political Externalities Justify Restrictions on Immigration." My response to Eugene Volokh's and others' concerns that free migration could lead to negative effects on government policy by changing the distribution of public opinion for the worse. See also this more recent post on how immigrants' political views are much closer to those of natives than is usually assumed.
6. "Assessing Immigration Policy as if Immigrants were People Too.": Why it is unjust to assess immigration policy without considering the impact on would-be immigrants themselves. This is perhaps the single most important disputed moral (as opposed to empirical) issue in the immigration debate. Even if you conclude that the interests of potential immigrants should be given only, e.g., 20% as much weight as you would assign to a comparable benefit to natives, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that a high proportion of present immigration restrictions are indefensible, because the gains to migrants from poor and oppressed nations are so vast.
7. "Increased Immigration is Unlikely to Increase the Size of the Welfare State.": Evidence against one of the most common objections to free migration raised by critics on the political right.
8. "Immigration and the US Constitution": How the structure of the US Constitution helps mitigate many claimed negative effects of immigration (though it might also diminish some potential positive effects). Also, at least in its original meaning, the Constitution does not give Congress a general power to restrict immigration.
9. "Do Illegal Immigrants have an Obligation to Obey Laws Banning them from Entering the United States?": Why, at least in a wide range of real-world cases, my answer to this question is "no."
As the Open Borders Manifesto notes, and as I have said in the past, most open borders advocates do not claim that the right to free migration is absolute and always trumps opposing considerations. Just as I reject absolute property rights or absolute freedom of speech, so too I reject absolute rights to free migration. But we do believe there should be a strong presumption in favor of free migration that can only be overcome by strong evidence that restriction is the only way to prevent a harm great enough to outweigh the vast benefits of freedom to natives and migrants alike.