Open Borders Part I: State Sovereignty

The right of states to decide who gets in and who stays out seems self-evident until we step back and ask exactly why states ought to have this right. Political theorists began discussing the ethics of border controls largely due to Carens’ seminal article “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders”. Carens begins this article with the observation that “Borders have guards and the guards have guns.” Governments around the world employ a great deal of violence to prevent immigrants and refugees from coming, deporting and detaining millions of people every year. In another influential article in the collection Free Movement: Ethical Issues in the Transnational Migration of People and Money, Carens suggests that the world of sovereign states with harsh border controls is analogous to feudalism, where citizenship based on place of birth or on parents’ citizenship largely sets an individual’s life chances.
Carens early work raises two of the most important insights for the ethics of immigration:
  1. border controls restrict freedom through the use of violence
  2. border controls maintain inequalities between states by preventing millions of people from immigrating to countries with significantly higher wages, better security, and education.
The overwhelming majority of people who wish to immigrate are looking for an opportunity to better their own lives, provide for their families, and escape insecurity or persecution. They want for themselves and their families what people in the developed world take for granted. Moreover, they want to work for it. The use of violence to restrict people’s freedom or to prevent people from seeking a better life demands a strong justification.
Philosophers and political theorists have extensively debated the justice of immigration restrictions over the last twenty five years (probably the most formidable criticisms of open borders come from Michael Blakeand David Miller). Here are some resources for people interested in pursuing these arguments further:
Carens and other philosophers have made a persuasive case for far more open borders. Nonetheless, many people willing to admit that open borders might be a worthy ideal find the notion unfeasible for the real world of sovereign states. For the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely that developed states will raise the number of temporary visas for workers, resettle more refugees, or provide a path that allows unauthorized immigrants to regularize their status, let alone discuss open borders altogether.
What should we make of this? Feasibility means many things in political philosophy. Sometimes it means that something cannot not be achieved because of the nature of the world or of human beings. For example, David Hume observed that justice arises because of a combination of finite resources and finite benevolence. A vision of the world that depends on infinite resources or on perfect altruism can at most be a guiding ideal, not something that we can hope to bring about.
In other cases, feasibility means that something cannot be achieved now. Sometimes this is due to lack of resources, information, or coordination problems that may be overcome in the future. In other cases, things are unfeasible because people in power either want to prevent them from occurring or do not care enough to bring them about. I suspect that open borders – or at least much more open borders – are unfeasible not because it would lead to the collapse of sovereign states, environmental disaster, or widespread misery, but because of political will (including the will of voterswho wish to restrict immigration).
In my next blog post I want to address the question of how many people would come if borders were opened. Many people assume that tens, if not hundreds of millions, of people would flood into the developed world if states relaxed border controls. I think that what we know about the causes of migration suggests that this is probably false and that developed states are capable of absorbing far more people with relatively little pain than often recognized.
In this post, my goal is to consider another question: wouldn’t open borders undermine state sovereignty? One common objection to open borders is that relinquishing border controls would make states ungovernable or unlivable by preventing states from caring out their basic functions.
We care about state sovereign not for its own sake, but because it is necessary for security, prosperity, or for people to exercise self-determination. Are border controls essential to the aspects of sovereignty that we should care about?
Stephen D. Krasner has pointed out that sovereignty can mean at least four things: 1) the ability for the government to exert effective control within its borders; 2) the ability to control movement across borders; 3) the ability to exclude external political actors from interfering with states’ domestic authority; 4) international recognition as a political entity (e.g., recognition as a state).
When we discuss sovereignty with regard to immigration, we need to ask what type of sovereignty is threatened and why it matters. Immigration largely affects the first and second forms of sovereignty. In a globalized economy, countries have limited power to control the movement of goods across borders. For the most part, this doesn’t interfere with governments being able to perform their basic functions in a manner that is accountable to its citizens. The movement of people isn’t that different in this respect.
First, people frequently move to different jurisdictions within countries. People rarely remark on internal migration – migration from say New York to Oregon – but in most ways it mirrors international migration. (For a map of US internal migration, click here.) The presence of new Americans to Oregon does not threaten the state’s control over its residents and neither does the presence of people from other countries. Different jurisdictions have different policies and migrants are expected to adapt to them – or to attempt to change them through democratic processes.
Second, border controls are somewhat superfluous given the many ways that contemporary states track people’s lives to ensure that they pay taxes, are permitted to vote, are eligible for benefits, and so on. Entry into a country is the beginning, rather than the end of the state exercising control over people’s lives. The sovereignty that we should care about is the ability of the state to rule within its borders. In comparison, the power to restrict border flows is relatively insignificant.

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