You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land”
Excerpt from “Home,” a poem by Warsan Shire
For better or for worse, the United States plays a “special” role in global politics. In some parts of the world, America is revered as a defender of peace and democracy. In others, Americans are bringers of death and suffering. No other nation has ever had an impact on virtually every other nation on Earth, which is why the U.S. has a unique obligation to the billions of non-Americans who are affected by our government’s policies. Everyone, regardless of their country of origin, deserves a place in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The History of America’s Ever Expanding Borders
The borders of the United States, like many countries, were defined by war, invasion and displacement. Following the American revolution, what began as a rogue British colony quickly evolved into an empire bent on indefinite westward expansion. Driven by the philosophy of manifest destiny, the U.S. government forcefully removed millions of Native Americans from their homelands to make room for white settlers. In 1848, the U.S. “won” more than half of the newly formed nation of Mexico’s territory following the Mexican-American war. In 1893, U.S. citizens overthrew the monarchy of Hawaii, and the government later annexed the entire archipelago.
During the mid-20th century, American imperialism entered a new phase. The World Wars decimated the old imperial superpowers of Western Europe, which gave the U.S. a major economic advantage. America took on a new role as “the leader of the free world” that juxtaposed itself against the fascistic communist regimes popping up around the globe. The subsequent Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union devastated dozens of countries as the two superpowers battled for geopolitical supremacy. The two governments killed hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Congo, Angola, Ethiopia and Laos in their proxy wars.
When the Soviet empire collapsed, the American one continued to thrive. Today, the U.S. military operates more than 800 bases in 40 countries. As of late 2018, the U.S. is actively bombing at least seven countries while providing military assistance to about 70 percent of the world’s dictators. Since 1950, the U.S. has dropped bombs and killed innocent civilians in Korea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria.
Have some people benefitted from our global military dominance? The answer is obviously yes, but it has ruined the lives of many others. Since we’ve taken it upon ourselves to be the world police, then we should also provide refuge to those fleeing violence and tyranny, especially when we’re the cause of it.
The Moral Argument for Open Borders
The opening line of Warsan Shire’s poem “Home” summarizes the plight of many immigrants today: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Unfortunately, the U.S. has been feeding sharks all over the world for many years. Our government is directly responsible for much of the turmoil driving widespread migration from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
From 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government was involved in 41 successful regime changes across Latin America. This is in addition to failed coups like the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba. While several such interventions were intended to stop the spread of communism, they only succeeded in creating power vacuums that allowed criminal gangs to take over countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. The ongoing “crisis” at the U.S. southern border is a consequence of that history.
Since 2001, the War on Terror has been invoked to justify U.S. military intervention in several countries. Instead of spreading democracy and making the world safer, the invasions of Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 created new opportunities for even more terrorist groups to gain power. As a result, people from those regions are fleeing for their lives to the U.S. and Europe.
The U.S. has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs longer than most Americans realize. Almost everyone knows that we’ve been at war in Afghanistan for the past 17 years, but fewer people are aware that the U.S. was funding Muslim radicals in the country during the 1980s to fight against the Soviets. Likewise, very few Americans know that the C.I.A. overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 to prevent the country from nationalizing its oil supply. That operation resulted in the Islamic revolution, which transformed Iran into a theocratic dictatorship and destabilized the Middle East for decades.
“We are here because you were there” is a popular saying among British immigrant rights activists. Because the British empire was responsible for sowing economic and political instability within its colonies, citizens of the colonies have argued that they deserve a place in the U.K. Many immigrants in the U.S. could make the same claim; they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for American foreign policy. Nonetheless, there are other reasons why we should embrace, rather than reject, increased immigration.
The Economic Argument for Open Borders
Proponents of free market capitalism should embrace open borders in principle and practice. Corporations and goods now travel freely; why shouldn’t people? Besides, the U.S. government spends an ungodly amount of money on trying to keep people out of the country. Decriminalizing immigration would free up resources for law enforcement to focus on real crimes like human trafficking and drug smuggling.
Furthermore, borders restrict the rights of individuals and stifle economic competition. Studies suggest that opening international borders could potentially double the world’s GDP. Immigrants do not suppress wages – employers do that – but they do work, pay taxes, start businesses and create more jobs for Americans. Google, PayPal, eBay, Yahoo and Intel were all founded by immigrants, and about half of the skilled workers in Silicon Valley are immigrants.
If anything, the influx of immigrants over the past few decades has improved the America economy while neoliberal economic policies have encouraged American companies to ship jobs abroad. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, “immigrants expand the economy’s productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization, which produces efficiency gains and boosts income per worker.” It’s also worth noting that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native born citizens, and they use less public welfare than they pay in on average.
No amount of protectionist trade policies are going to stop globalization. Due to advancements in technology and transportation, the world economy is fundamentally different than it was a few decades ago. At the same time, the American population is aging rapidly, and we need a strong workforce with laborers of all skill levels to stay competitive in the new global marketplace. Without a continued influx of immigrants, the U.S. will struggle to maintain the economic and political dominance it has enjoyed for the past 100 years.
The Collective Responsibility of Americans
We have no control over the privilege that we are born with. The average American is no more responsible for the Iraq war than the average white person is for slavery, but how we use the power of our privilege defines who we are. Those of us who have “arrived” have a choice: Do we close the door behind us, or do we hold it open for those who have nowhere else to go?
Shire’s poem concludes: “No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear/ saying leave, run away from me now.” Sadly, millions of people around the globe are on the run due to the actions of the American empire. Thus, we have a moral obligation to offer them a new home in the United States.
Clemens, Michael, A. 2011. “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25 (3): 83-106.