Immigration is a national discussion that people have many different ideas about. There are countless perspectives and potential solutions that individuals have, and for this reason, certain aspects of immigration are sometimes misunderstood or overlooked. I reached out to Open Borders to learn more about the website that argues for just that, open borders. The website seeks to make arguments for open borders, while also discussing the many arguments against open borders in order to evaluate their validity and determine ways to tackle the objections.
I spoke with Open Borders blogger John Lee to find out more. Lee, a Malaysian national currently living and working in the United States, has personally experienced the benefits of open borders. This has allowed him to advocate for open borders from both personal and practical perspectives. According to Lee, he regards “open borders — or more broadly, any liberalisation in immigration policy, anywhere — as the moral imperative of our time.”
Last week, I talked to NumbersUSA President and Founder Roy Beck to give you one perspective on the crisis at the border. Now, it’s time for the other view on this controversial issue. This is the second of a two part Q&A series on immigration:
1. How did you become involved in immigration, and why do you think it is an important issue?
I’m a descendant of immigrants and an immigrant many times over. My ancestors migrated to Malaysia and the Philippines from China searching for a better life. My parents met as graduate students in Thailand, a country neither of them are from. I was born in Japan where my father was studying and spent my early life in Singapore before finally moving “home” to Malaysia where I grew up. I am now an immigrant in the US, enjoying a far more rewarding occupation and higher quality of living than I could get back home in Malaysia. I have personally seen the power of people moving in search of a better life.
Today, most people can’t do any of what I just named. We subject human beings to the indignity of arbitrary restrictions on where they may move, based not on any knowledge of their personal background or intentions, but simply because of where they were born. My distant cousins in China may be just as intelligent or hardworking as me or my ancestors. But they have virtually zero chance of ever migrating legally to Malaysia or the US, no matter how law-abiding or productive they may be. There is no legal provision for them to migrate.
I double majored in economics and history in college and so I was well aware of the bigoted history of immigration restrictions, and their economic inefficiency. But there are many bad laws around today; what makes immigration worth focusing on?
The more I looked at what economists have found, the more insanely inefficient the world’s immigration laws look. And the more I studied the history of immigration law, the harder it became to justify immigration restrictions — most, if not all, of which were originally established based on extremely prejudiced and baseless reasoning.
2. There has been much discussion and controversy over the recent surge of child immigrants from Latin America. So many different issues and factors come into play when forming an opinion or set of actions. What are some of the factors contributing to this issue, and how do you think the United States should address the problem?
The reasons people migrate are complex, but it’s fairly unambiguous that people would not be sending their children unaccompanied on dangerous long journeys unless the alternative was even worse. The stories coming out of some of these countries are horrifying: young girls raped and murdered, boys forced into joining gangs and killed if they refuse. Still others are just leaving because their families don’t have the money to feed them. The alternative to moving for an education or for work is to starve to death.
My view is that anyone should be allowed to purchase a ticket on a safe form of passage to any country they desire (subject to reasonable restrictions such as in the case of armed conflict, etc.). Upon arrival, they should be allowed entry with minimal criteria — ideally, the same as those applied to citizens. If you’re not carrying criminal substances or suffering a dangerous contagious disease, you as a US citizen have the legal right to enter the US, provided you fill out some paperwork. I think the exact same should apply to everyone.
Allowing people to come freely would eliminate the need for anyone, child or adult, to make a dangerous journey just to escape starvation or murder. It would allow the government to efficiently screen all those seeking entry, and record all people coming or going. It’s the sane thing to do.
As for what happens after they come, many of these children already have relatives or family friends in the US. These children should be allowed to live with their family in a safe home, just like any other child. If they lack family, there are many charities in the US whose purpose is to care for and house the orphaned or abandoned child.
3. What do you think is the most misunderstood or overlooked aspect of immigration?
I have a hard time picking between two things. The first is ignorance of how many people are banned from migrating by our laws. This is true for almost any country, but let’s take the US for example: about one million green cards (permanent resident permits) are granted annually. Most go to family members of US citizens or immigrants: spouses, children, parents. Only a few hundred thousand permits go to true immigrants with no ties to the US. The US government runs a small lottery every year for a few thousand extra green cards; over ten million people enter that lottery every year. It’s virtually impossible for most people to legally migrate to the US.
The second misapprehension is that people don’t realize how this constitutes an incredible, vast form of government-enforced discrimination. Hundreds of millions of good people, willing to abide by the law and just looking for good work, are banned from contributing to our economies just because of something they had zero choice in: where they were born.
Discrimination is by definition inefficient: it’s preventing people from putting their talents to use on the completely arbitrary basis of where they came from, rather than any actual objective measure of one’s merit or character. Virtually every economist who has studied the issue finds that eliminating restrictions on human migration would increase the world’s GDP by 50% to 150%. Even taking the most pessimistic number, that means that the human race is turning down the equivalent of a 50% pay raise every year we keep our borders sealed.
When you globalize the labor market, it becomes dramatically more efficient. We have walled away the most efficient labor markets from the world’s poor. We are wasting the talents of billions, and we are forcing most of them to live in a poverty that they do not deserve.
4. In your personal statement, you state that you found it, “impossible to ignore the injustice of closed borders.” What factors influenced your perspective on immigration?
We had open borders for most of human history — until just after World War I, less than a century ago. The world didn’t end; it grew and it prospered. Most of our countries owe their incredible strength and dynamism to a history of migration. My home country of Malaysia and the US are both great examples.
What’s changed in the last hundred years? People are still the same. It’s just now our laws ban them by default from migrating. Most rich people (rich by global standards anyway) live in countries where they don’t need to migrate to find a safe home, functioning healthcare system, or fair wages; if they do need to migrate, they are often rich enough to find a legal loophole to do it. Hardly any poor person can migrate legally today.
I visited my distant cousins in southern China last year. What’s different between me and them? They are, in some very real sense, the flesh of my flesh and the blood of my blood. But they lead a life not too different from the subsistence farming that my great-great-grandfather left behind.
Our common ancestor a century ago would have been able to migrate to Malaysia legally. He wasn’t able to migrate to the US only because the only US immigration restriction then was a racist ban on Chinese immigration. Today, I’ve grown up in the relatively safe and prosperous country of Malaysia, and been able to seek even greater opportunity in the US. What makes me or my ancestor so much more entitled to these opportunities which our governments deny to my Chinese relatives?
There is no rational reason to deny these people the right to seek a better life in a new home. And yet there, but for the grace of God, go I. If I had been born to a different family, the law would have banned me from pursuing the opportunities I’ve been able to enjoy as of right. This is the injustice that I cannot abide, and that’s the discrimination we need to end.
5. How has working as a lead blogger and administrator for Open Borders enriched and/or changed how you think about immigration?
I first came to open borders through the economic angle: the incredible inefficiency of preventing people from seeking fair wages for their talent. I think the main evolution in my thinking since then has been that I see more and more the incredible injustice here as well. There is nothing organic or fair about laws which ban people from moving from one place to another. Such bans, when applied without any rational basis beyond the arbitrary criterion of where you happened to be born, are nothing more than government-enforced discrimination.
People often ask how migrants would feed or house themselves under open borders. The answer is simple: they would pay for their own food and housing, same as anyone else. Yet the government bans them from doing this. If black people from Detroit had to ask for government permission to rent a home in a predominantly white suburb, we would be up in arms about it. Yet if there is a foreigner who is willing to pay to rent a home in Detroit so he can look for work there, nobody gives a toss that this foreigner can’t do that: it’s just a supposed fact of life.
Of course there are differences between foreigners and citizens. Nobody denies that. But there are many differences between different groups of citizens, and nobody demands that government discriminate on the basis of these differences. That sitting next to a black person on the subway might make you uncomfortable is not a good reason to demand the government ban blacks from moving to your city. But if that black person comes from Nigeria, then suddenly you are completely right to demand that the government stop people like him from moving next door to you.
A New Yorker in Texas is, in many cases, more alien than a Mexican from just over the border. But if the New Yorker with strange clothes and funny accent takes a job in Houston, that’s just the normal operation of the market. Meanwhile, if a Mexican who dresses and talks like Texans who’ve lived in Texas for generations takes a job in Houston, that’s apparently “stealing” a job that “belongs” to Americans, and the government has to override the market’s evaluation of just who exactly is the best person for the job.
Immigration restrictions based purely on where you came from are just impossible to justify unless you abandon any pretense of egalitarianism or meritocracy altogether. The more time I spend researching immigration issues and the more time I look at how we treat people who just want to work for a better life, the harder it is to see any difference between how our laws treat migrants and how our laws once treated people of the wrong skin color or sexual orientation.
6. Please explain the mission of Open Borders and what the organization aims to do.
The main thing which I think differentiates Open Borders from many other immigration advocacy groups is that we are the only ones who really take global freedom of movement seriously. It’s not merely that we champion it; it’s that we honestly ponder the question of how the world might be different — both for better and for worse — if people could freely choose where to travel, where to settle, and where to work or study.
I think most mainstream immigration reformers mostly fall into one of two groups:
a) People who advocate better treatment of refugees and/or unauthorized migrants, but don’t have a good answer for why they also advocate the continued exclusion of other people who seek to migrate
b) People who advocate more high-skilled migration, but don’t have a good answer for why it would be just or efficient to exclude low-skilled migrants
Neither of these approaches could have justified letting our ancestors migrate, as they did in the era of open borders. Our ancestors were, for the most part, low-skilled laborers. If your idea of “reform” is tolerating bad laws which would have banned your ancestors from striving to give you the opportunities you enjoy today, then I don’t see how you can call that reform at all. I think many in the mainstream shrink from contemplating open borders just because it seems so radical — even though that’s exactly how our ancestors got to the countries we live in today. True reform has to defend the right to migrate, the freedom of movement our ancestors enjoyed: that’s what we at Open Borders advocate.
Our mission is to offer a rational assessment of what the world would look like under open borders, and to articulate the case of why our governments and societies must respect the right to migrate (except in those extreme cases where infringement might be justified — just the same as with any other right).
7. Much of the current focus with immigration is centered around the U.S./Mexican border. How has immigration and immigration policy from other regions of the world changed in recent years- and what challenges do you think immigration law faces?
To me, the point of immigration law should be to safeguard the flow of people and goods across the borders in an orderly manner. Immigration laws today do not do this. Instead, they ban people from entering through normal ports of entry. People think that governments can just seal their borders at will, and that this is the natural state of any border. But until the early 20th century, no country had ever had sealed borders before, except perhaps in times of war.
What country today truly has a “secure” border in the sense that it is sealed? North Korea perhaps. Unless you actually militarize the border and have your armed forces ready for war on the border 24/7, some people are going to try to break through. Most of them do this not because they are criminals, but because they want the freedom and opportunity offered by the society on the other side of that fence. Were East Germans criminals for daring to break through the Berlin Wall in desperate bids for freedom and a better life?
The annual green card quota for low-skilled migrants with no family ties to the US is about five to ten thousand. Over ten million people every year enter the green card lottery. The reward for “playing by the rules” is having your life decided by a literal lottery — you just get to choose whether you want to play the actual lottery, or wait in line with millions of others for the annual quota of a few thousand. This is absurd.
The US has an immigration problem because its laws make no sense. Millions of people waste their time and talents waiting in a line that will never end. Millions of others have been so desperate for freedom and opportunity that they’ve felt they have no option but to migrate unlawfully. These people are banned from migrating, not because they are bad people, but because they were born elsewhere. Until the law can explain to each and every person banned from migrating just why they had to be turned away, you cannot describe the law as just.
To me, a just immigration law would allow almost anyone entry. They might have to fill out a form at their port of entry, just as you fill out a customs form whenever you bring goods into the US. But unless there was a good reason to stop them — evidence of criminal intent, evidence of an imminent threat to public safety — there should be no restriction on their movement. This would allow law enforcement to focus on the true criminals who don’t respect the border and trespass on property lying next to the border. Anyone else willing to abide by the law would simply be able to come and go as they wish.
8. Immigration is an incredibly divisive issue in the United States – given that and the many perspectives people have on how it should be approached, how do you think the United States should move forward and address the future of immigration with so many different opinions and ideas?
I think we have to recognize that we cannot subject people’s rights to a simple majority vote, and that one of these rights is the right to freedom of movement. A black man has the right to live next door to me, and my employer has the right to hire a lesbian. A majority may not agree with the idea of living next door to someone from a particular race, or with the idea of working next to someone of a particular sexual orientation. But these social issues are not something for government to legislate on, except to *protect* the rights of those the majority might want to oppress.
I see migration the same way. If a foreigner wants to move in next door to me, or my employer wants to hire a foreigner, then their decision should not be subject to a majority vote. If all the applicable tenancy or labor laws are followed, then it’s just none of the government’s business who my neighbor wants to rent to, or who my employer wants to hire.
There is a legitimate public interest in managing the consequences of migration, and sometimes even restricting the right to migrate. But restrictions should be tailored to solving a specific problem — they should not be blanket, arbitrary bans, which are what modern visa quotas amount to.
To me, the question for public debate should be whether we need to restrict the right to migrate, and if so, what would be a fair and just way to do it. The debate should not be “Well, a majority of us don’t want foreigners here, so we can slam the door in their face. Done.” We should not be arguing about just how high our walls should be, or just how tightly our doors ought to be sealed. The essence of the rule of law is justice. Excluding people without consideration for the merits of their case, and discriminating against them for arbitrary reasons, cuts against the rule of law in every shape and form. Our debate needs to be about how to manage migration in a manner consistent with the rule of law, and the tenets of justice — not about just how hard we should slam the door in the face of people who would do anything to work for us and contribute to our society.
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