Migration and Human Rights (47): A Phenomenology of Borders

Let’s admit it: borders are an illusion. They don’t exist. The things that do exist are border controls, deportations, entry restrictions, visa requirements, border shootings etc. Those things are real enough and often painful for those feeling the brunt. They are facts in the original sense of the word, from the Latin facere, “to do”. They are things that people do to each other.

But none of those things, not even all those things put together, amount to what we think are borders. We believe, erroneously, that borders are separation lines, separating two or more political and geographical spaces, territories, or pieces of the earth. There’s a real physical, even earthly sense of separation that is implied in the border concept. Borders cut up the earth.

But of course they don’t, really. Borders aren’t facts but ideas, and as ideas they are more or less realized, but never completely real. Those who claim to protect the borders – the “front” in frontière – are not protecting a thing but are rather striving for an ideal, an ideal justified in their minds by a variety of other ideals (culture, prosperity, democracy etc.). The separations are merely fragmentary in real life. This is clear from the fact that people routinely cross borders illegally and without permission, as if there’s nothing there, or at least as if there isn’t a clear separation between territories. They may sometimes find that the difficulty of moving increases and then decreases. Even if they are stopped, shot, caught or deported – which often doesn’t happen – they don’t experience a so-called border. They merely experience an obstacle limited in space, not the territory-encompassing and circular separation that a border is claimed to be.

The lack of reality of borders is also evident from their lack of stability. Poland, for instance, ceased to exist completely for some time in its history and its borders fluctuated violently throughout. The Balkans have even given their name to the process of shifting borders. Sweden is perhaps an unexpected example of instability. China has been a series of different China’s throughout history. And here’s France.

In fact, you could pick just about any part of the world and see the same thing. Perhaps because we consume more news than history we tend to see international borders and the shapes of countries as fixed entities. It’s really a big news story when a territory secedes, when countries unify etc. And yet, over a slightly longer time frame, that is normality. You can look at this in two ways:

  • Either this proves the case for strong borders: most of the changes were due to foreign invasions.
  • Or it’s an argument for the lack of importance of borders: after all, if borders change over the course of a few decades, it’s hardly fair to keep people out who didn’t move and who turned from insiders to outsiders through no fault of their own.

My point is that both ways of looking at the reality of borders should retain some validity. If we agree that borders are an idea that can never be realized completely, then the argument is about the degree of realization. Border defenders should realize that there will always be unauthorized cross-border movement because they can’t have their factual separation the way they like it. Defenders of migration, on the other hand, should admit that “open borders” is not the same thing as “no borders”. Even if it’s just an idea, borders merit some attempt at realization. You can allow limitless immigration and yet try to defend the border against invading armies or immigrants intent on terrorist attacks. This way, your country can remain an independent entity – designed by its borders, or better its idea of a border – while opening its borders to immigrants. Also, you can allow limitless immigration and yet give citizenship only to people born within the country. That’s another way to retain your country and allow immigration at the same time. Hence, immigration restrictionists are wrong to claim that an open borders policy destroys the very concept of the border and equals a no borders policy.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (27): The Economic Benefits of Immigration

The prevailing thought in most Western countries is that immigration is a bad thing, and it’s a thought shared by both governments and public opinion. Western countries, it is believed, can only accommodate a limited number of immigrants – a few hand-picked high-skilled ones, some low-skilled ones in very special circumstances for special industries and for a limited amount of time (when local labor can’t or won’t provide), and a few lucky ones who might otherwise face certain death or extreme pain in their country of origin (generously called “asylum seekers”). People merely fleeing the horrors of poverty (“economic migrants”) should think again.

When the numbers of immigrants surpass this threshold, it’s imminent disaster for these proud former rulers of the world with their efficient economies, exemplary political and legal systems and strong moral and religious traditions. Two disasters, to be precise: on the one hand, cultural and religious destruction and, on the other hand, economic destruction. Let’s focus on the latter shall we. (An age-old culture or religion that can’t withstand the onslaught of a few million poverty stricken and low-skilled nannies, builders and factory laborers doesn’t seem to deserve survival).

Immigrants are said to be a burden on social safety nets; and they bring down wages for local workers because they are willing to work for less (especially the illegal immigrants). Never mind that this is completely and utterly wrong.

However, not only are the disadvantages of immigration overstated, the advantages are understated. It turns out that relatively high levels of immigration are beneficial for the receiving economy, at least in the U.S.:

[C]omprehensive immigration reform* would raise wages, increase consumption, create jobs, and generate additional tax revenue. … This is a compelling economic reason to move away from the current “vicious cycle” where enforcement-only policies perpetuate unauthorized migration and exert downward pressure on already low wages, and toward a “virtuous cycle” of worker empowerment in which legal status and labor rights exert upward pressure on wages. …

[L]egalizing the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants through comprehensive immigration reform as well as making future flows more flexible would grow the economy by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. … [I]n the short term (three years) [it would] generate $4.5 to $5.4 billion in additional tax revenue and consumer spending sufficient to support 750,000 to 900,000 jobs. … Conversely, the deportation prescription that is offered by immigration restrictionists would poison the already anemic U.S. economy by draining $2.5 trillion from the economy over 10 years, even before factoring in the costs to deport 12 million people and permanently seal the border. (source)

And this isn’t just left-wing extremism. Here’s another quote, from a right-wing think-tank:

This study finds that increased enforcement [of immigration law] and reduced low-skilled immigration have a significant negative impact on the income of U.S. households. … A policy that reduces the number of low-skilled immigrant workers by 28.6 percent compared to projected levels would reduce U.S. household welfare by about 0.5 percent, or $80 billion. … In contrast, legalization of low-skilled immigrant workers would yield significant income gains for American workers and households. Legalization would eliminate smugglers’ fees and other costs faced by illegal immigrants. It would also allow immigrants to have higher productivity and create more openings for Americans in higher skilled occupations. The positive impact for U.S. households of legalization under an optimal visa tax would be 1.27 percent of GDP or $180 billion. (source)

* legalization of illegal immigrants combined with visa reform

Much of the economically inspired opposition to immigration is about the wellbeing of local low-skilled workers. These people, the narrative goes, are unable to compete with low-skilled immigrants who ask lower wages, especially if they’re illegal (and don’t have to pay taxes, and their employers don’t have to pay taxes for hiring them). In the best case, this competition pushes down the wages of local people; in the worst case it pushes these people into unemployment.

The studies cited above show that such claims aren’t compatible with the facts: low-skilled local workers actually benefit from low-skilled immigration, especially if this is legal (or legalized) immigration, because it allows them to move to higher skilled positions. It also makes it possible for them to spend less time on low-skilled and non-paid activities that they can outsource, and hence they can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. And there’s another way in which the indigenous population – including the less wealthy parts – can benefit from immigration: legalization of immigrants pushes their wages up and increases tax revenues. Higher earning immigrants consume and invest more, which creates higher economic growth that benefits everyone. And the taxes that they pay can be used for social safety nets that also benefit everyone.

There’s actually some data showing that immigration doesn’t push down low-skilled wages.

This chart tracks the average median hourly wage for high school drop outs – the very subgroup that immigrations most pressures – in a variety of states. If, as some claim, high levels of immigration exert relentless downward pressure on unskilled native wages, you’d expect states with large immigrant populations to exhibit very low wages for unskilled workers. That doesn’t appear to be the case. … [E]ven George Borjas, the economist most often used by restrictionists, estimates that under realistic assumptions, the drag immigrants exert on native, unskilled wages is about 4 percent. Given the universe of things screwing over the working man, immigration just ain’t that large a player. (source)

And here are some other data confirming that the effect of immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers is negligible:

California may seem the best place to study the impact of illegal immigration on the prospects of American workers. Hordes of immigrants rushed into the state in the last 25 years, competing for jobs with the least educated among the native population. The wages of high school dropouts in California fell 17 percent from 1980 to 2004. But before concluding that immigrants are undercutting the wages of the least fortunate Americans, perhaps one should consider Ohio. Unlike California, Ohio remains mostly free of illegal immigrants. And what happened to the wages of Ohio’s high school dropouts from 1980 to 2004? They fell 31 percent. (source)

What is Democracy? (46): The Boundary Problem

Most discussions about democracy take one thing for granted: that the composition of the group of people who (have to) govern themselves democratically is already fixed. The topics discussed are:

  • how can these people govern themselves democratically, or more democratically?
  • which procedures, institutions or voting systems should be used to guarantee the highest level of democracy?
  • is representative democracy best, or should there be some kind of <a href="http://direct democracy?
  • which are the prerequisites for an adequate or perfect democracy (education, free speech etc.)?
  • what happens to the minorities within this group of people?
  • etc.

What is forgotten in all such discussions is that the composition of the group of people governing themselves democratically has an enormous importance. This composition is of course established by boundaries or borders. These boundaries are prerequisites for any democratic decision: before such a decision is possible or even conceivable, there has to be a prior decision on who the “demos” is, on who is included in and excluded from the group that is supposed to govern itself democratically.

There is no problem when the democratic decisions of the group are strictly self-regarding; the “boundary problem” arises when the groups takes democratic decisions that affect outsiders, those who have been excluded from the demos by the initial boundary decision. And that happens quite often. Groups then take decisions that have consequences for other people who have had no say in the matter. Sometimes this happens inadvertently, but other times the boundary decision has been made precisely in such a manner that the outsiders have been excluded on purpose. An example of the former case is the decision by a democratic country to exploit its rainforest for wood exports, impacting the global climate. An example of the latter is the disenfranchisement of felons and the subsequent democratic decision to impose forced labor on prisoners.

This last example already indicates that the boundary problem isn’t limited to national frontiers. These national frontiers obviously raise important problems (and not only when they are contested, as in the case of the occupied territories in Palestine where the excluded Palestinians have to live with the decision of democratic Israel), but other, less material boundaries do so as well. In many cases, the prior boundary decision effectively determines (and in some cases is meant to determine) the consequent democratic decisions. When blacks were disenfranchised under the apartheid regime in South Africa, then this determined – and was intended to determine – the nature of the democratic decisions taken by non-blacks.

As is clear from these examples, the boundary problems arises when the decision-makers don’t include all those who are affected by the decisions. The boundary problem therefore violates a basic democratic principle, namely self-government and self-control. The purpose of democracy is precisely the avoidance of heteronomy, the political subjection of a community to the rule of another power or to an external law. The boundary problem can mean the reintroduction of – intended or unintended – heteronomy. Boundaries are obviously necessary for the creation of democracy – no democracy without a fixed demos, and no demos with boundaries, exclusion and inclusion – but they can also undo it, namely when they exclude people who are affected by the decisions of those who are included.

The rule that we should try to include in the demos all those who are affected by democratic decisions sounds good in theory but raises problems of its own. For example, it’s never clear beforehand who will be affected by a decision, and hence it’s impossible to include all those who may be affected. In addition, the affected population is extremely different from one decision to another, meaning that the rule would force us to radically reconsider and alter the demos for each decision. That seems practically impossible. And finally, the affected population may be very far away, physically, or may cover the entire world population, including those not yet born. Again, difficult if not impossible to solve this in practice.

Bob Goodin, who has thought about this a lot more than me,  states that we may perhaps not be able to always include all those affected by all decisions, but there is less and more. He states that over-inclusiveness is less of a problem than under-inclusiveness, and proposes some practical ways in which to promote inclusiveness.

Another way to solve the boundary problem is international democracy – i.e. the creation of democratically governed cooperative inter-state institutions. This can solve the problem of negative externalities imposed by the democratic decisions of one state on other states.

We can also do something about the boundary problem by granting immigrants some degree of voting rights. Immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees typically have no voting rights, even in the most democratic of countries. This is exacerbated by the often very restrictive citizenship application rules. And, finally, issues of global justice are also instances of the boundary problem. Decisions by rich countries regarding import quotas, free trade arrangements etc. obviously impact the poor in other parts of the world.

There is also another problem, similar to the boundary problem. People may not be de iure excluded from the demos, but de facto. I’m thinking here of so-called permanent minorities. Permanent minorities are groups of people who, although not officially disenfranchised, are always subject to the decisions of majorities.  Federalism would allow those permanent minorities that are regionally concentrated, to have self-government. When they are allowed, in a federal system, to make their own self-regarding decisions, they will no longer be affected by national decisions over which they have almost no influence, not because of a lack of voting rights, but because of a lack of voting weight. Federalism can solve the problem of a minority negatively affected by the decisions of a majority, not because it is disenfranchised but because it is a permanent minority.