What Are Border Controls For?

I haven’t posted any much in the past on the subject of migration. So to rectify that, this is a post to explain why any sensible person should support international freedom of movement, i.e. ‘open borders’. This discussion will focus on immigration to developed countries – immigration to developing countries has a whole different set of issues involved.

Let’s start by explaining why I put that phrase in quote marks. It carries with it a picture: the picture of borders between nations as more or less permeable, and us asking ourselves, hypothetically, how many people we should allow through them. One position would be to let through anyone who wishes, as currently happens within the European Union or within countries (at least those that follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike, say, Israel or China). The opposite, the ‘closed borders’ position, would be to not let anyone through.

Now this is I think a somewhat misleading picture, for the basic reason that countries have very limited ability to control who crosses their borders. Even if we ‘closed’ all of our national borders (this is a non-specific ‘us’) if people were trying to get in, a lot of them still would. What different immigration policies change is not so much how many people enter the country, but how they are treated when they are inside.

That is, a natural and inevitable product of the modern world is that many countries contain a large proportion of inhabitants who were not born in that country. Different immigration laws principally amount to different ways of treating this group. Some adjustment in numbers of people is a secondary feature.

So in some ways, for example, a radical closed-borders position and a radical open-borders position are more similar than either is to the currently mainstream ‘somewhat open’ position, because they both prescribe a single form of treatment for immigrants, while the mainstream position crucially prescribes a distinction within the class between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ groups. One of the key effects of this, of course, is the insecurity of individual immigrants who must navigate the line between legal and illegal, and the creation of an apparatus that oversees the precise demarcation of that line, adjudicating an individual’s status in various ways.

An open borders position is essentially a position of equality – that all inhabitants of a country should be subject to the same laws and have the same rights and opportunities. A closed-borders position is a position of two-category discrimination: that one class of inhabitants should be outside of the law’s protection, and subject at any moment to unexpected arrest, imprisonment, or kidnapping to a foreign country. Now it is certainly not a position of universal arrest, imprisonment, or deportation – without a vast increase in police numbers and powers, no country can actually locate and attack all the migrants in its territory. What it can do however is establish them as vulnerable – unable to draw on the protection or help of society and hence vulnerable to all forms of abuse from those who are able to do so.

A mixed system, such as is mainstream, can draw finer distinctions. For example, it can divide up immigrants into people from different countries. People from countries which are wealthy will typically be entitled to equal status with non-immigrants, as will people who bring a lot of money with them. But the large number of people who are largely propertyless (i.e. proletarian) and come from poor countries, get divided up into the legal and the illegal. The illegal are made vulnerable by the threat of state force against them, the legal remain secure – but insofar as that distinction remains fuzzy or open to change, even those with legal status can be put on the defensive, into a position of weakness. This re-inforces the position of social weakness that will inevitably characterise the stranger (e.g. language difficulties).

So the question is this: should we support a policy whose principal function and effect is to increase the weakness and vulnerability of a particularly weak and vulnerable section of the proletariat? Should we support a policy that increases inequality of power and hence necessarily increases exploitation and abuse of power?

Moreover, we must bear in mind that the structure of interests in society is such that weakening one part of the proletariat is liable to weaken it as a whole. A report a year or two ago in the UK found that the net effect of immigration on wages was neutral, but that it slightly reduced the wages of lower-paid workers, and slightly increased the wages of higher-paid workers. This is why the CBI (a British business association) and the UK government support what they call “controlled immigration” – because it ‘keeps costs down’, i.e. keeps wages down, i.e. is being used by capital against labour.

It has this effect politically as well. The division of of working people into immigrants and natives deflects native workers’ resentment of their position onto those who have less, it provides a cover for the introduction of authoritarian measures, it gives support to right-wing populist forces whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of workers.

Now, some readers might feel that I’ve begged the question by assuming that changes in immigration policy won’t have a huge effect on numbers of immigrants. If that means that I am not enormously worried that “everyone in the third world” will come the Britain (or whatever other first-world country opens its borders), then yes I have rather assumed that. I would point out that open borders have been the rule, not the exception, for most of history, up until the last several decades, and that the great majority of mass population transfer has been organised by rich-world governments (such as the transportation of African, Chinese, and Indian labourers to wherever the colonialists wanted them). I would point out that all of our current terrifying parephenalia of repression – our imprisonment without trial, our dawn raids on sleeping families, our cold, calculated imposition of absolute destitution (as in, £0 per week) through the denial of both work and benefits – all of these things still leave millions of illegal immigrants living here.

I would in fact suggest that this fear is itself the product of racist imagery about migrants. By and large I think a lot of migrants are humans with a deep desire for dignity and a love of the place where they were brought up, forced by fear for their lives or a desire to provide for their families to undergo an arduous, risky, and intimidating enterprise. I do not think they are the ‘lazy’, ‘sponging’, ‘swamping’, ‘flooding’ figures that we often here described, the possibly-disease-carrying ‘mass’ of silent, baffling semi-humanity that must be held back like a brackish river is held back by a damn, lest they ‘pour’ into developed countries and ‘overwhelm’ us.

But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that as soon as the EU dropped its border controls, the number of people migrating there multiplied by a hundred. Has a problem been created? No. A problem has been revealed. The problem of huge concentration of wealth in one part of the world, and people’s desperate need for that – a need that, in this scenario, had been contained only by the barbed wire around detention centres and the shackles on deportation flights.

Is this where we want to live? A world where the poor must be controlled by a vast police apparatus because of their desperation? Anyone saying ‘yes’, get off my internet immediately.

If there is a such a problem, we need to solve it. There are many approaches to how to do so. But presumably we can reject out of hand a solution that involved massacring the poor (gets them off the streets, right?). Similarly, why have we not rejected out of hand a solution that involves coercing and caging people when they do what they can to survive in a fucked-up world?

People say border controls are “necessary”. Perhaps – I suspect not so much. I suspect they make very little difference to the size of migration flows. But if they are necessary, they are necessary to maintain and stabilise inequality – with the desirable by-product of weakening the working class and enabling more efficient exploitation.

There’s a famous quote about giving up liberty for security, and how its a bad idea. But it somewhat misses the point. The liberty that is given up is usually the liberty of the weakest, and the security that is won is usually the security of the strongest. This is what border controls do.

One Response to “What Are Border Controls For?”

  1. Red Baron Says:

    Interesting that I came across this just at the time I was attempting an updating of my Jeux Sans Frontieres post I wrote some years ago. You make an eloquent argument focusing very much on the people involved and crucially the cost of allowing the status quo to remain which is very often overlooked.

    “Has a problem been created? No. A problem has been revealed.”

    Very much so, that’s a nice point well made. Perhaps an important question may be phrased not as what are border controls for, but for whom are they.

    I shall digest this article and it may give me further food for thought, in the mean time thanks for a well-thought out and argued entry.


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