What’s wrong with “open borders”?

image: Christophe Gowans

Any chance he gets, President Trump assails critics of his immigration policies as advocates of “open borders.”  Unsurprisingly, he is wrong as a matter of fact; the United States does not have open borders, and the Democratic Party is not arguing for opening them.

But what exactly is wrong with open borders?  No, really.  What exactly is a border, what does it mean for it to be open, and what exactly is wrong with it?

Begin with the concept of borders.  A border is a line that separates things on either side of it.  Us versus them.  A political border is a line on a map backed and defended by force, a claim to territory that a state is willing to defend.  Think in this vein about the southwest border of the United States, and what used to be Mexican territory  The Mexican War and $20 million dollars shifted most of the border to what it is today (the Gadsden Purchase took care of the rest).  We can think about similar examples from around the world.

What then of the idea of an open border?  Here, I think about the lines that separate our 48 contiguous states.  Last time I drove from Indiana to Michigan, I remember crossing the “border” and thinking about how easy it was.  That is an open border, a permeable barrier that allows for the free flow of people across it.  That is what Trump means when he speaks about an “open border.”  No laws.  No enforcement. No desire to exclude anyone from coming in or getting out.  Essentially, the freedom to move.

This is the straw man that captures President Trump’s attention. U.S. borders are not openand few people argue for open borders in this way. My friend Kevin Johnson is one of those people.  So are the fine folks at the CATO Institute, or bloggers at openborders.  But these remain fringe views.  Are they they wrong?  What are the arguments against open borders?

The leading argument is public safety, and the view that immigrants are more prone to commit crimes than those already in the US.  Though President Trump disagrees — yet cites no supporting evidence — the research does not support this view.  See here, here, and here.

Another argument is that immigrants take more in benefits than they give back.  This is the long-standing concern in immigration law about immigrants becoming a “public charge.”  In this vein, Milton Friedman famously said, “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.”  A recent study by the CATO Institute and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation concludes that “[o]verall, immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native-born Americans.”  Critics disagree (see, for example, herehere and here).  Bryan Caplan, economist at George Mason, similarly argues that “once immigrants arrive here, few of them want to settle for a welfare check; they want to earn some real money. In fact, once you realize that the welfare state is primarily about helping the old, not the poor, it turns out that immigration may be the only way for aging countries to sustain their welfare states.”

Because this point is framed by President Trump’s rhetoric, it is easy to confuse it.  If referring to the drain by unauthorized migrants on public benefit programs, the number is “small.”  If referring to the number of migrants generally, Caplan argues that “[i]mmigrants can pull their own fiscal weight even if their tax bills are well below average.”  The key takeaway, about which the research is overwhelming, is that immigration is a net plus on the economy.  This makes sense.  Borders are barriers of entry, stifle movement and are anti-competitive.  People will move to places where they can work and be productive, and employers want to hire those people.  Markets don’t know what borders are.    They don’t speak the same language.

This is not to say that everyone benefits from immigration, in fairness to the critics, but to say instead that  those who bear the costs of immigration must be helped in some way.  That is, “[i]mmigration is a net positive, even for those who don’t move, but the gains are not distributed equally. The next step for policymakers is to structure immigration reform to take advantage of immigration’s many benefits while mitigating the costs.”

What, then, is wrong with open borders?  Why does President Trump invoke the phrase as often as he does, and why do so many on his base react to the term as viscerally as they do? Put charitably, the debate boils down to sovereignty and the right of a nation to protect its border.  We like our tribe above all others.  But so stated, the debate raises a much more interesting and difficult question: What gives a country the right to close its borders and prevent others from crossing it?  Should a country have the right to do so?

If you think this is an easy question, you are not thinking about it hard enough.

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