“Open Borders” is Not the Issue: A Reply to Dan La Botz
Dan La Botz has written an extensive piece on open borders in Socialist Forum. I want to critique some parts of his arguments.
La Botz is well informed in this field and makes the best case for open borders. However, the conclusions do not necessarily follow from his arguments. In my view, he is about 80% correct. At the same time, we should not assume that open borders is the only correct position for the left, nor that it is feasible. We need clarity on these issues in order to build our movement.
At the same time, most of organized labor, most of the major civil rights organizations, and the Bernie Sanders campaign do not support open borders. We should understand why.
La Botz’s descriptions of the economy and the political forces, and his analysis are very well informed. The conclusions he draws from this work go beyond the arguments he makes. I do not have the time to go through each of the arguments in detail, so I want to highlight what I see as the major problem areas.
While it is true that delegates at the 2019 DSA national convention endorsed open borders an open borders policy of DSA, not all DSA members agree with that position.
In 2018 I described some of these contradictions in a piece called “Steps Toward a Labor Informed Perspective on Immigration” on the DSA North Star caucus’s blog. Here’s a brief excerpt from that piece:
In the article, “The Left Case against Open Borders”, writer Angela Nagle gets some of the economic conditions correct, but like Trump, she argues without evidence that the problem is that unions, the Left and immigrants’ rights activists support “open borders”. Her writing follows from the position in Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders by Reihan Salam.
Developing a policy on migration for labor and the left is far more complex than presented by Nagle and other writers.
First we must deal with some of the false accusations about the role of unions in the immigration policy debates.
Writer Nagle is wrong in asserting that the left and labor favor open borders. This is accepting the false narrative of Trump and the anti- immigrant forces.
There has been a long and well developed movement for immigration reform, along with connected policy proposals – few of which argue for open borders. Progressive policies and practices have emerged from within U.S. communities and the labor movement.
I agree with La Botz that “We are in a struggle for hearts and minds on the question of immigration, a key issue in U.S. politics today.” He then locates the problems in the crisis of 9/11 and austerity policies following the economic crisis of 2008.
Those issues were important, but anti-immigrant hostility was rampant as early as 1994, when Republican governor Pete Wilson won re-election while supporting the successful Proposition 187 ballot initiative. Proposition 187 established a citizenship screening system and attempted to cut undocumented immigrants off from health care, education, and other public services. Over five million voters – 60% of Californians who voted on the initiative – cast their ballots for this harshly anti-immigrant measure. Republicans have since been repudiated in California, and it is now a sanctuary state. However, at the federal level congressional Republicans passed and Bill Clinton signed the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, a repressive bill that provided for the construction of fencing along the border and criminalized many aspects of immigrant life. Over the decades there have been numerous appropriation bills to provide increased funding for the Border Patrol as well as militarization and fencing of the border. Many of the current repressive actions at the border were made possible by the Trump administration’s use of this 1996 legislation. For more on this history, see Sand and Blood: America’s Deadly Stealth War on the Mexican Border by John Carlos Frey.
While I agree with La Botz that the anti-immigrant campaigns contribute to capitalist exploitation, I do not agree that open borders campaigns will advance the rights of immigrant workers. The DSA International Committee has a number of pieces supporting the position of open borders as put forward by La Botz and this position is supported by Alexandria Ocassio-Cortez, among others. However the U.S. organized labor movement is not there, nor are major political movements such as the civil rights organizations and the Sanders campaign. We should try to understand why these groups, our usual allies, are not arguing for open borders.
La Botz argues that organized labor does not currently support an internationalist position due in some part to the shortcomings of union leadership, an analysis linked to his support for the rank-and-file strategy regarding the labor movement. This may certainly be part of the story, and the rank-and-file strategy is well worth debating. But we should be cautious in incorporating the assumptions of the rank-and-file campaign approach as a part of a strategy for responding to migration. It is only one idea, and there is only scattered evidence to support it. We need strategies based upon really existing conditions, not wished for new unions.
Instead of open borders, most progressive unions have been arguing for revised immigration and labor policies that protect the rights of migrant workers, including their right to form unions. We should work with labor unions and workers centers. But we cannot assume that the unions support the rank-and-file strategy. Instead, we should seek migration policies that are possible within the present political reality.
La Botz, in his piece, argues for an internationalist labor position. That is fine. I am all for internationalism. I hope we get there someday. While supporting internationalism, we do not all support the abolition of nation-states. That is an extreme position. We should note that this argument has been active since at least 1914 and it has not yet made significant progress. I wish the internationalists well, but I also favor working in the real world, as it is.
When La Botz proposes the abolition of borders, we have to consider what would take their place. My view of history is that nation-states, with all of their problems, have been the only instrument that has limited the exploitation of the working class. That is why working people’s movement seek to gain control of governments. They hope to use their control of governments to protect their lives, their families. Since the new deal, national governments have imposed some limits on corporations.
I accept as accurate La Botz’s descriptions of the multinational corporations. The question is, what are we going to do about it. La Botz is certainly correct that in this neoliberal era workers are losing ground. However, tell me where corporations have been limited by any power other than a nation-state.
Without national and state governments, working people would be even more exposed to abuse by the multinational ruling class – the party of Davos. For example, it is states and nations that are now suing Facebook and Google. If we no longer have nation-states, who will sue them? And, who will establish the courts in which to sue?
In his piece La Botz asserts as urgent that we overcome the divisions within the U.S. working class, and he correctly describes the important role of migrant labor within that working class. We should be opposing these divisions in the working class. This includes actions of solidarity with migrant workers, which are essential. But simply adopting an open borders policy does not overcome the divisions. Why do you think organized labor, including the sections of organized labor led by immigrants, is not pursuing open borders? It is because open borders is in part a neoliberal capitalist utopian dream or nightmare.
The Trump administration and the Republican Party want the election campaign to be about “open borders” because it mobilizes their nativist, reactionary base. The nationalist right wing will accuse those of us on the left of being in favor or open borders because that helps them to win the public debate against immigration. It fosters fear and anxiety, and places difficulties in the way of both migration and unionization.
In my decades of activist experience, few migrants have advocated for open borders. This is not a campaign emerging from the ranks of immigrant workers. Rather, migrants are seeking a way to work and feed their families and to keep them safe from violence.
Dan La Botz has done a great service by laying out the arguments for open borders. And he is correct in proposing that migration and borders are critical emerging issues facing the environmental justice movements. But instead of arguments for open borders, I urge a perspective on organizing that begins the conversation within the experience and common sense of working people. That is an argument we can win.
Duane Campbell, Sacramento DSA
La Botz responds:
In his response to my arguments for open borders, Duane Campbell writes, “open borders is in part a neoliberal capitalist utopian dream or nightmare.” He supports the efforts by the AFL-CIO and other U.S. unions to pressure the U.S. government to protect workers in this country by regulating immigration. He is correct that this has been the position of U.S. unions practically since they were founded and generally remains so today. To influence the government, the unions have allied with the Democratic Party, relying on it to propose legislation. In the last couple of decades this proposed legislation has been called “comprehensive immigration reform,” which is intended to strengthen the borders, to regulate the flow of immigrants into the United States, and which proposes an onerous process for reaching U.S. citizenship.
One has to ask, how has the labor bureaucracy that leads the unions been doing with this strategy? After the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave “amnesty” to a couple of million undocumented immigrants, other millions of migrants continued to enter the United States without documents. The number of undocumented immigrants rose from 5 million to 11 million. Nor did the harsher and more punitive Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 have the desired effect, and undocumented immigrants continued to come into the country. At the same time, the percentage of workers in the unions fell from 20.1% to 10.7% today.
Many workers, seeing the immigrants continued to come and that their unions continued to decline, and having bought the unions’ argument that the government could protect them, turned to Donald Trump who promised to do exactly what the unions had promised: use the government to protect them. Their votes helped elect Trump to the presidency. And he did what he promised, tightening up the border and rounding up undocumented immigrants. And union membership continued to fall. And, of course, the AFL-CIO’s alliance with the Democratic Party not only failed to protect U.S. workers, but it led to the abuse and exploitation of immigrant workers.
What is the alternative? To be more successful, U.S. unions must turn from relying on the Democratic Party and the government to protect them and engage instead in an economic and political struggle against the corporations. The unions will have to break from their “partnership” with the employers, which is generally the rule. To carry this out, the unions will need to organize not only the unorganized but also the undocumented. To do that they will have to carry out a political fight within the unions against the racism that is still prevalent in many. They must provide convincing demonstrations of the ability of workers to unite, to fight, and to win not only strikes but also the fight for pro-labor legislation. Socialists are key to raising these ideas in the workers’ movement.
Can anyone seriously think that the current top-level leadership of the unions is capable of carrying out such a transformation of the labor movement? There is little if any evidence for it. So, then, how will the union movement become capable of breaking with its past and its futile dependence on the Democratic Party? The only possibilities are these: First, either the rank-and-file movements in the unions informed by a pro-immigrant and internationalist policy raised within by democratic socialists will transform the exiting unions into organizations fighting for the working class as whole; or, second, the continued deterioration of working-class power and the decline of the workers’ standard of living, together the rising sense of indignation among working people because their needs and desires are ignored, will lead to some national uprising such as we see today in France, Chile, Lebanon, and several other nations. At such moments, nationalist sentiment sometimes comes to predominate, though strong international feelings also often develop, though the outcome is always unclear.
Open borders does not mean the abolition of the nation-state, but rather a change in the practices of the nation-state. The very word internationalism suggests that there are many nations and there will continue to be even if we win the battle for socialism in one place or another. Only on the distant horizon of the abolition of capitalism and worldwide socialism can one contemplate the abolition of the nation-state.
The only way to move toward an open borders and internationalist policy such as presented in my original article, is through a rank-and-file movement imbued with pro-immigrant and internationalist sentiments that understand the enemy is the domestic employer, not the immigrant worker. The only way that such ideas will be raised is through the active intervention of socialists in the unions, defending both workers’ immediate interests and their long-term interests around issues such as immigration and climate change.