The Corner

It Depends upon What the Meaning of the Word “Open” Is

In his piece on the home page, Ian Tuttle is correct that “open borders” is sometimes used incorrectly as an epithet, like “RINO” or “commie.” But the Open-Borders Right is no myth.

Part of the confusion is what is meant by “open borders.” Ian cites two authorities for the meaning of the term, whose definitions are similar, but not the same. The Schengen zone (which, incidentally, includes several non-EU states) represents truly open borders – no screening at the frontier. It’s like driving to Cape Cod and whizzing at full speed past the “Entering Marion” sign. 

But the definition he cites from is actually not open borders in its purest form: “a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate…where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.” But if it can be curtailed under any circumstances, is it actually “open borders”?

Likewise, Ian notes that “supporters of the policy are active at the Cato Institute” – the main one there being Alex Nowrasteh, whom I’ve debated many times. He certainly says he’s for open borders, but even he’s not in favor it in its literal form; he concedes that people should be prevented from entering if they are criminals, terrorists, or carry dangerous communicable diseases – control over which presupposes a vast infrastructure of border inspection and enforcement.

To use Plato’s metaphor of the cave, Ian is suggesting that because the shadows projected on the wall are not the concrete object, they aren’t related to the object and we must not call them by its name. If “open borders” can be used to label only a policy that is comparable to, say, your walking between your living room and your dining room – distinct spaces but with no barrier between them – then the term has no practical political meaning whatever.

But in the real world, the shadows are all we have to work with. Or, to use a perhaps more apt image, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

Real-world open borders is consistent with enforcement theater, so long as it doesn’t interfere in any meaningful sense with foreigners moving here. It’s consistent with immigration quotas, so long as they are high enough that everyone who wants to move here is able to do so.

In a policy sense, then, open borders actually means “unlimited immigration.” And this is, in fact, a widespread view, on both the elite Left and the elite Right. As I wrote on this happy Corner back in 2010:

I actually think that La Raza, the Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU, Microsoft, et al. would sincerely back electrified fencing, land mines, and anything else they were asked to support, so long as there were no limits on the number of foreigners able to legally come here, as President Bush called for in his January 2004 immigration speech. This is why referring to these groups as supporters of open borders is not an epithet but simply a description.

This is also why “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals always have three elements: Amnesty for the illegals already here, empty enforcement promises to quiet the yokels, and – most importantly – huge increases immigration in the hopes that the enforcement won’t actually have to prevent anyone from moving here. Passage of the Schumer-Rubio Gang of Eight bill would not have delivered open borders overnight. But it would have been one more step in the asymptotic approach to open borders our political and economic and cultural leaders take as a given.

When Ian writes that “There’s an all-important difference between wanting to secure the borders while also letting more people in, and wanting to erase the border altogether,” he’s correct – in theory. In the real world, though, it doesn’t actually work that way.


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