Sociologist makes the case for open borders

Politicians may be talking about building walls and turning away migrants, but a group of academics and activists hope to eventually take the debate in the opposite direction – to a campaign for giving people the freedom to move without restriction across international boundaries.

The group, which includes Indiana University sociologist Fabio Rojas, has organized a series of activities this month around the third annual Open Borders Day, which is March 16.

Fabio Rojas

Fabio Rojas

Rojas, an associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the case for open borders is based on ethics and economics. Ethically, it’s simply wrong to prevent people from moving to another place where they can live a happier, more productive life. And economically, closed borders and restrictions of movement limit economic activity and keep people poor.

“Sociologists and economists have started to realize that immigration isn’t a problem. Immigration is the solution,” Rojas said. “If you want to move to Canada and work, you should be able to do that. If you want to retire to Mexico, you should be able to do that.”

Rojas will give a talk on “The Case for Open Borders” at 4 p.m. March 16 at Northwestern University. Other Open Borders Day events include:

  • March 9, a panel discussion at Harvard University
  • March 16, a debate between policy experts at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C.,
  • March 16, a reading in San Francisco by Tanya Golash-Boza from her book “Deported.”

Rojas said American support for open borders goes back to the Declaration of Independence, in which colonists criticized King George III for restricting movement and migration. U.S. law welcomed immigrants for 100 years, until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred laborers from China.

The recent movement developed a few years ago after Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, published an article that said economic benefits from ending border restrictions would be like finding “a trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk.”

The idea, Rojas said, attracts supporters from the right and the left: libertarians who oppose government restrictions and progressives who favor human rights and social justice. And a policy of open borders would be simple to implement, he said.

“Going to war, jump-starting the economy, building superhighways – that’s hard,” he said. “This is easy. You simply tell people who work at the border stations, ‘Don’t show up.’”

The usual argument against open borders is that waves of immigrants will rush from poor to wealthy countries where they will compete for jobs and increase the demand for social services. But Rojas said those fears are overblown.

“There’s almost 100 years of research on whether immigrants take jobs, and the answer is, not really,” he said. “When a migrant shows up in your neighborhood, not only are they working, they’re also paying. They’re paying taxes, they’re paying for a place to live and for food.”

Rojas said open borders supporters have no illusion that they will persuade most people right away. And they aren’t discouraged that anti-immigration politicians are attracting big followings.

“Politicians generally follow public opinion,” he said. “They don’t shape public opinion. And we already know that most people don’t support more immigration. On the other hand, Martin Luther King said history bends the right way. The arc of history bends in the right direction.”

Rojas is also available for comment on the 2016 election season. You can learn about his expertise and more at Decision 2016, a comprehensive online media guide for elections resources at IU.

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