Ten Arguments for Open Borders, the Abolition of ICE, and an Internationalist Labor Movement

Support for open borders not simply the only morally defensible position. It also opens up an alternate strategy to building workers’ power.

The United States has been in the midst of a great and on-going debate about immigration since the 1980s, a debate driven mainly by the rising number of Latin American and Asian immigrants. Since the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, a landmark piece of legislation that ended quotas based on national origin and enshrined the principle of family reunification into immigration law, the number of immigrants has risen from 9.6 million immigrants representing 4.5 percent of the population to 45 million immigrants representing 13.7 percent of the total population. Immigrants make up an even larger share of the workforce, some 17.1 percent. Only the period between 1870 and 1910 had a higher percentage of foreign-born people living in the country. 

The latest waves of immigration led to several reactions that can be found among both Republicans and Democrats.

First — and this has proven to be the dominant position today —  are those who, unable to formulate a broad new policy, have permitted the existing laws to stay on the books while responding to the crisis with increasing deportations. Since the failure of President George W. Bush’s immigration reform proposals of 2004 and 2007, immigration reform has basically been stalled. Bush, President Barack Obama, and now President Donald Trump have all followed this path of least resistance, though Trump has clamped down much harder on undocumented and documented immigrants alike.

Second, a group of politicians, corporations, the Catholic Church, the AFL-CIO, and major Latino organizations have supported a package of policy changes under the banner of “comprehensive immigration reform.” This means increased border security, some sort of guest work program for agriculture, high tech and other industries, and a rather steep path to residency and citizenship involving years of waiting, fines and fees, and other onerous requirements. This is the dominant position in the Democratic Party today, one version or another of which is held by candidates from Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders.

Third, another group of politicians and businesses would like a meritocratic immigration system that would allow the entrance of people with higher education, special skills, or entrepreneurs planning on opening businesses here. Such a system would exclude the millions of immigrants coming from Latin America in particular who have neither formal education nor capital.

On the extreme right are the white nationalists who would only permit the immigration of white people from Europe and Canada. President Donald J. Trump indicated that he would exclude immigrants from “shithole countries” such as El Salvador and nations on the African continent, and has made clear that he would prefer Norwegians and other white people. Many of those on this far right margin of American society would virtually close the border.

We in the U.S. socialist movements have called for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and for open borders. While this is a minority position in our country, it is the one position that is not only morally just,but also in the best interests of the vast majority of people in the U.S.. And we believe that there is growing support for it.

Under conditions of intense political polarization, we find some Americans gravitating toward more restrictive policies and others toward greater liberalization of immigration. We are in a struggle for hearts and minds on the question of immigration, a key issue in U.S.politics today, the issue that has galvanized the 40 percent of Americans who support Trump and the Republican Party. What is so remarkable is that a short time ago this was a country where many took pride in our immigrant heritage, celebrated ethnic diversity and religious pluralism, and (quite problematically) claimed the mission of defending democracy and human rights around the world. While our country has a long history of racism and xenophobia, beginning with the conquest of the native peoples and the enslavement of black people, racist ideology was not for half a century part of legitimate political discourse. The Civil Rights Movement beat back the outright racists and chased them into the shadows. 

But in the last two decades, everything changed. Support for restrictionist immigration policies increased in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and this was exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008. The crisis created a slew of problems for an already hard-pressed working class, from plant closings and joblessness and to the mortgage crisis and lost homes. The economic issues gave rise to social problems like the opioid crisis. But above all, the turmoil generated economic and status insecurities—what we might call “fear of falling”— which particularly affected working and lower-middle class white people. Those anxieties have often found expression in a white nationalist and white supremacist ideology with its goal of saving white, Christian, patriarchal America from the so-called “great replacement.” Donald Trump, who has a real political genius for stoking and manipulating people’s basest fears, promised to save the American people from Mexicans “rapists,” Muslim terrorists, and Chinese competition.

This is a challenging situation, but we are not discouraged. We have a growing movement of immigrant organizations, and their allies in churches, temples, and mosques, in labor unions, in parent-teacher organizations, and many other groups who oppose anti-immigrant legislation and welcome immigrants. Millions of Americans find Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, workplace round-ups, and separation of families to be immoral and unjust. In some places in the U.S., people have spontaneously come out of their houses to protect their immigrant friends and neighbors from ICE. Since the 1970s we have had immigrant and cross-border organizations that have taken as their slogans the phrases “sin fronteras” (without borders) and “ningún ser humano es illegal” (no human being is illegal). Today many march and chant, “Open Borders,” “Close the Camps” and “Abolish ICE,” and some engage in nonviolent direct action and risk jail to close the camps. We in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) call for open borders and join these movements.

The boldness of Trump’s xenophobic appeals have grabbed hold of many Americans. We who oppose the Republican and Democratic parties’ immigration policies need to construct an equally strong set of arguments that will also appeal to the broadest possible audience among the American people. The central idea must be embracing immigrants is central to building a better life for all Americans, whether immigrant or native-born. When we unite all working people in the country, regardless of immigration status or national origin,  our movement will be stronger. We must demand a policy of open borders not simply because it is the only morally defensible position, but also because it opens up an alternate strategy to building workers’ power. I return to this point at the conclusion of the essay. I offer here some arguments for open borders.

I. The Humanistic Argument: One Race, One World 

Humanists, religious and secular, have long argued that we are one race, the human race, and that we must share our common home, the planet Earth. We human beings are fundamentally alike everywhere and we all have the same basic needs. The world’s natural resources and produce should go to shelter, heat, clothe, and feed all of us on this planet. We should enjoy the right to travel this planet as our common home. The looming environmental crisis has made it clear as environmental activists have argued that we must change the international economic, social and political system. 

Under present international agreements and domestic laws, people don’t enjoy the same freedom of movement that capital does. Multinational corporations move their money, factories, and products around the world, while corporate executives, professionals, and high-skilled workers migrate around the globe to carry out the corporations’ wishes. The wealthy can travel virtually anywhere they want and even the merely comfortable of the Global North can tour the world and set up home wherever they like. Yet working people cannot freely move in search of jobs, higher wages, or a better life. 

We should open our borders because restricting migration on the basis of class, race, religion, and national origin violates the ethical principle of our common right to life on this planet.

II. The Responsibility Argument: Why Punish the Migrant? 

Many in the immigrant rights and labor movements argue that immigration restrictions unfairly penalize workers, denying them the right to find work to support their families when they were forced by economic or political conditions to migrate. While governments and corporations have caused the dislocations that lead to migration, it is workers who suffer the consequences. 

Modern mass migration began in the nineteenth century with the spread of industrial capitalism and the destruction of pre-capitalist agricultural and traditional societies from Ireland to China. Railroads siphoned dispossessed peasants off the land and hauled them to the harbors, where steamships could carry them cheaply to the United States, Brazil, or Argentina. This process has taken centuries to complete, and today globalization has virtually finished off the dispossession of the peasants, leading millions of Mexican and Central American migrants in particular to come to the United States. 

Capitalism and corporations are not entirely to blame for migration. U.S. foreign policy and military intervention also set workers in motion. The CIA’s coup in Guatemala in 1954, for example, led to a series of dictatorial governments, civil war, and eventually the murder of over 200,000 Guatemalans. U.S. military intervention in Central America in the 1980s destroyed political, economic, and social structures and set millions in motion toward the United States, not only from Guatemala but also from Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. The U.S. wars in Central America were followed by neoliberal globalization that wiped out many industries in the region, followed by the growth of the drug business with cartels that sell to the U.S. market. Most recently, climate change caused by fossil fuels burned in the United States and other rich countries has led to global warming, making many of Central America’s once fertile lands untillable.

Most people do not choose to migrate. Most would prefer to live in the countries they know with the families and friends whom they love. Most move because they must. Given that U.S. corporations, U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. energy policy have generated these mass migrations, shouldn’t workers from the affected countries have the right to come here seeking jobs? Why should workers in other countries have to pay the price for U.S. corporate and governmental policies? 

III. The Historical Argument: Borders Are Past Violence Congealed 

Historically speaking, it is difficult to justify the legitimacy of the world’s borders. Borders have been created by states through conquest. The U.S.-Mexico border was created by the War of 1847, an U.S.war of aggression in which the United States took half of Mexico and forced 100,000 of its citizens to become U.S. citizens. 

The United States should not be singled out here. The same process has created borders everywhere. The Berlin Congress of 1884 divided up Africa among the European powers and after World War II these old colonial divisions became the boundaries of the new African states. The new states’ borders seldom reflected the desires of African people; they were simply foisted on them by the great powers. Similarly, Great Britain and France created the borders of the Middle East when they gave up control of that region to the United States following the end of World War II. The new boundaries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after 1989 resulted from power grabs by former Communist bureaucrats, while in Asia, China took Tibet and the Cold War led to a murderous hot war that divided Korea. Everywhere, borders have been the result of power plays and aggression, of wars of conquest and occupation. Such borders, including our own, can hardly demand our respect since they represent only congealed violence. 

Why should borders created in such a way govern migration? Shouldn’t international relations, among them the rights of migrants, have a more rational, fair, and democratic basis? Shouldn’t we create a democratic and peaceful foreign policy of which open borders would be a part?

IV. The Internationalist Argument: Borders Promote Nationalism and Warfare 

Internationalists—humanists and socialists— have argued for at least 150 years that economic competition and nationalism lead to war. While the nation-state supposedly fights its wars to defend the nation, internationalists argue that in reality most are wars fought to enrich capitalists and expand the power of government. 

Borders bind together all social classes in the common venture of the nation. Capitalists and workers of one nation are to be united against capitalists and workers in another. We are told that we must defend our own markets while we fight our way into the markets of other countries. 

Internationalists call upon the world’s people to unite as one across borders, rejecting nationalism,imperialism, andwar. Working-class internationalism argues that workers of any country have more in common with the workers in other countries than they do with the bosses of their own nation. If other workers are our sisters and brothers in a common struggle against capital, then we cannot close our nation’s door to them. As internationalists we should open our borders everywhere and welcome migrants into our country, our workplaces, and our unions

V. The Inequality Argument: Borders Reinforce Inequalities on a Global Scale 

Wealth today is distributed highly unequally among geographic regions and nations of the world. The United States, the European Union, China, and Japan are the wealthiest regions of the world (even if there is great inequality within those regions). Much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America is much poorer. As long as wealth remains unequally distributed among nations, people will migrate to wealthier countries for better jobs and wages.

In the 1980s, European social democrats argued that the world’s wealth was distributed in a way that is unequal, unfair, and ultimately unsustainable. Similarly, in the early 2000s, the global justice movement argued that the world’s trade agreements only exacerbated the situation by making rich countries richer and poor countries poorer. This unequal division of the world’s wealth is maintained and enforced by borders. 

The answer they argued for was not to restrict migration but to give all workers rights to residency and work, and citizenship rights. Justice, they argued, demanded open borders. And they were right.

VI. The Race Argument: Borders Keep People of Color Out of White Peoples’ Countries

One hundred years ago, W. E. B. DuBois wrote that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Since that problem was not resolved by the end of the twentieth century it continues to plague us in the twenty-first. Today, the color line is a border and the border is a wall. Most of the world’s wealthy nations are made up mostly of white people (Japan and more recently China are the exceptions), while most of the world’s poor nations are made up mostly of people of color. Borders maintain that reality. 

Nations and peoples have found it hard to simply keep the people of color out. They must also create reasons to fear and hate them. So throughout history we see that the argument for immigration restrictions bolstered by calls to keep out the yellow, brown, or black people who were supposedly racially inferior to whites. Anti-immigrant sentiment has also been inspired by religious discrimination against Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Jews, or Muslims; this discrimination is often racialized as wellFear and hatred dehumanizemigrants, making it easier to mistreat and abuse them. 

When nations develop racist and discriminatory policies, it becomes impossible to confine the fear and hatred of people of color or those of different faiths to those who are on the other side of the border wall. Racism also expands within the country. There can be no doubt that the racism against Latin American and Asian immigrants will also undermine the position of African Americans, in particular. Advocacy of open borders represents a stand against racism and bigotry. 

VII. The Feminization of Poverty Argument: Borders Contribute to the Increasing Poverty of Women 

Borders also penalize women disproportionately. We have a global crisis that has been called the feminization of poverty: throughout the world, the poorest of the poor are women and their children. National borders serve to keep women in their place. The woman who would move from the one-dollar-a-day income she has in Honduras will not be permitted to cross the border into the United States so that she can earn enough money to feed her children. The woman who faces domestic violence at home will not be allowed asylum abroad. Borders enforce the economic, social, and political subjection of women. 

Yet, driven by the poverty of their countries, women will nevertheless seek to migrate, and half of all migrants are now women. The conditions under which they migrate often lead to sexual abuse in the migration process and intense labor exploitation when they arrive, as well as a netherworld of traffickers in sex workers and mail-order brides. 

There is a great irony here. The women of Africa, Asia, and Latin America give years of their lives and their miserable incomes to raise the children who grow up to become workers in the United States and Europe. Mexico and Central America, especially its women, pay the costs of social reproduction for the millions from those regions who work here The United States then reaps the benefits of the adult laborers in their productive years. Later, some of those workers return to Mexico and other countries in their older years, where they need more care. Much of the care at every stage is often given by the unpaid labor of women. 

VIII. The State versus Society Argument: To Defend the Border You Must Expand the Power of the State 

Immigration restrictions endanger democracy in the United States. To enforce highly restrictionist immigration policies,you must have a stronger and more punitive state. We will have to build walls at the border. We will need more border patrol agents, jeeps, helicopters, planes, and boats. We will have to deploy the National Guard and the army to back up the Border Patrol. 

The border, however, is not only at the border. The border is everywhere. We would have to ferret out the “illegal aliens” amongst us. We must have an immigrant identification system, so we will also need a national identity card for all citizens. We will need not only fingerprints, but also biometric devices to scan our faces, our hands, our eyes, and our DNA. We will need more surveillance of emails, social media, and people’s maps, routes, and movements.

Restrictionist policies augment authoritarian tendencies within our country and undermine democracy. Historically, everything that strengthens the repressive apparatus of the state weakens the power of citizens and workers. The repressive measures taken against immigrants today will be taken against citizens and workers tomorrow. The kinds of forces mobilized to protect your border will also be used to break your strike.

The more open, equal, and fair society is, the more possible it is to reduce immigration police and for that matter other police forces as well. Opening borders allows us to reduce or eliminate the immigration police forces, the Border Patrol and ICE. 

IX. The Economic Power Argument: Open Borders Build International Solidarity 

The principal reason that we should adopt open borders is that it will strengthen the power of workers against their employers –  but only if America’s native-born workers embrace the immigrants. Today the U.S. workforce is divided by race, religion, gender, and immigration status, by the division of workers into the private and the public sector, skilled and unskilled workers, workers with stable, full-time jobs and workers with precarious employment. All of these divisions must be overcome, but at the moment the issue that is being used the most as a wedge to divide U.S.workers is the immigration question, which is also usually a question of race as well. If we can overcome the opposition to immigrants, we will be in a better position to overcome the other divisions as well.

Immigrants—documented and undocumented—make up today about 45 million people out of a national population of 327 million, or 14 percent of the total U.S. population. Some 35.2 percent are lawful immigrants and 10.5 percent are unauthorized immigrants. But immigrants are more important in the workforce—where there are 29 million—making up 17 percent of the total. Undocumented workers tend to be concentrated in certain industries like agriculture, constriction, leisure and hospitality (i.e. restaurants), where they make up a significant proportion of the workforce. If workers are to raise standards and exercise power in these industries,they will need to defend the rights and interests of undocumented workers.

Workers who have few or no political and civil rights and are forced to take low-paying jobs with poor conditions do, in certain circumstances,create  downward pressure on labor standards. But so too do other groups in our society, including those workers who are not in unions – these represent 89.5 percent of all workers.This massive pool of unorganized workers represents an even greater menace to overall working class well-being. This is, of course, not the fault of unorganized workers themselves, but the employers and politicians who have made it so difficult and costly for workers to form unions in this country. The greatest threat to the native-born U.S.worker is not the immigrant, but the employers who exploit them and the government that fails to enforce or takes away their rights.

Moreover, the general decline in workers’ power and living standards has virtually nothing to do with immigrants. It is almost entirely a result of corporate reorganization of finance, world trade, and industrial production; it is about the movement of plants, shipping containers, fiber optic cables, satellites, automation,and the reorganization of the shop floor. What were called “good jobs” for working-class people, i.e.unionized industrial jobs that required no more than a high school diploma and had relatively high wages and good benefits, are largely gone, and it is only partly because they’ve been shipped abroad. Labor-saving technology has reduced the need for workers from auto plants to fast food restaurants.  Immigrants are the last people you can blame for this situation.

X. The Workers of the World Argument

The world’s workers are perhaps today more divided than they have ever been. The era of neoliberal globalization from 1980 to about 2010 reorganized the world’s economy, weakened labor movements, and completed the transformation of formerly left-wing and social democratic parties into managers of capitalism and austerity. Consequently, competition among workers both within and between countries has increased. The neoliberal era ended with formerly socialist and nationalist parties, like the conservative and liberal parties, imposing austerity and increasing taxes on working people. Since the global financial crisis, neoliberalism has given way in many places to right-wing nationalism and authoritarianism —from India to the Philippines, from El Salvador to Brazil, and from Britain to the United States—with renewed attacks on workers and especially on racial or religious minorities and migrants.

All of this economic upheaval has been accompanied by political conflict and in several regions by armed conflict, drug wars, and climate change. In Central America, for example, the U.S.-backed wars in that region in the 1980s were followed by neoliberalism in the 1990s, the growth of drug cartels and drug wars, and then climate change brought drought. All of these contribute to family and community level social problems such as drug addiction, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. The resulting mass migration complicated all international issues, and as we have noted, spurred the growth of right-wing authoritarianism. 

Throughout the last forty years, U.S. labor unions have largely adopted a business unionist orientation that looks to partnerships with management and reliance on Democratic Party officials.This approach has shown itself to be incapable not only of defending workers at home, but also of forming significant alliances with unions abroad. At one time, there was hope that U.S. labor unions might partner with unions in Canada and Mexico, and perhaps even with unions in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. There were a few experiments. The U.S. labor movement, however, developed no strategy to build an international labor movement beyond the existing international trade federations in various industries (metal, food, transportation, etc.), which were useful defensively but had no plan for leading the world labor movement to power.

What will it take for labor to respond to the new shape of capital, to be able to follow the actual chains of supply, production, and distribution? And what plan and ethos do we need to develop a plan to challenge global capital not only economically but also politically? We are all aware that labor can only do this if it creates international alliances that allow us to take concerted economic action simultaneously across international borders. To build such international alliances against capital, we will have to prove ourselves to be loyal first to our fellow immigrant workers at home. 

What does an open border policy have to do with an international solidarity policy? Think of it this way: Can we make an alliance with the unions and workers of Venezuela if our unions and politicians support a U.S. coup or invasion in that country? Similarly, can we join forces with Mexican or Guatemalan workers if at the same time we support stronger immigration enforcement, more Border Patrol, more ICE agents, raids, and deportations? Will Latin American workers believe in us if we permit guest-worker programs where the “guests” are effectively indentured, without labor, civil, or political rights? If we want an international labor alliance, then we must put ourselves on the side of immigrant workers here and foreign workers abroad rather than on the side of our employers and our government. Fighting and winning open borders, abolition of ICE, and closing the concentration camps would show workers around the world where we stand, that we stand with them. 

Some Final Thoughts

U.S. workers and unions will not be able to fight for and win open borders without completely transforming our conception of the labor movement. The labor movement must become a movement for equality, democracy, and workers’ power, not just protections for small sections of the working class. That will only happen when we have powerful rank-and-file movements that radically reform the current unions’ organizational structures,throw out their high-level officials, and end their corrupt relationship with employers and their subservience to the political parties and the government. Even that, however, will not be enough to bring about the change we need to build a workers’ movement because unions are so small a part of the working class.

We need not only a workers movement, but we need the workers movement to become permeated by a progressive orientation on the full range of social questions. In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights, black power, and women’s liberation and later gay liberation had an enormous impact on rank-and-file workers and the society as a whole. 

We need something like that today. We need a labor movement that would embrace a movement like Black Lives Matter, while the one we have failed to do so. We need a workers’ movement that will march by the millions against climate change, while at present only a few unions do. We need organized labor to go to the border and tear down the walls and welcome our brothers and sisters. We in the socialist movement are the ones in a position to help make these connections. 

Our incipient democratic socialist political movement  – the city council members and state and federal legislators we have helped power to office, few though they are at present –  can encourage the labor movement and the immigrant rights movement, and work to join them together and to give them a political voice. When we have built an independent political movement and eventually an independent working-class party supported by the votes of all workers, native-born and immigrant, documented and undocumented, dismantle the capitalist system, and live in a world without walls.