Few issues seem to divide lovers of liberty in the American Union more than the issue of open borders, and related immigration issues. Although open borders has long been a staple of Libertarian Party platforms, it has been an issue which has kept some people OUT of the Libertarian Party, and has caused them to vote against Libertarian candidates. Even many staunch supporters of freedom have said, at least privately, “I admit I have some reservations about just opening up the borders.”
There are some common concerns that come up, and they deserve to be addressed properly and respectfully, and not simply shrugged off as “statism” or some kind of suppressed authoritarian tendency. People who have “some reservations” are not alone, even in the most “radical” parts of the freedom movement.
But “open borders” are a very important part of a larger, more general freedom: the freedom to travel, or freedom of movement.
In a world with very little freedom left, the freedom to travel might mean little. But in our world, with constant change and great differences in the amount of liberty found in various places, it is very important. Freedom to travel is certainly as important as freedom of speech, religion, etc. because it is tied so closely to them. For all old England’s faults, back in the 1600s and 1700s, its people had freedom to travel, to emigrate, and for that we should be indeed thankful.
The freedom to travel, and attempts to prevent it, go back a long way. Abraham apparently had (or took) that freedom, leaving the old god-king monarchies of Mesopotamia for the harsh freedom of life as a nomad in the “promised land.” Five hundred or so years later, though, his descendents didn’t have that freedom. An entire nation held in slavery! But two men, brothers, by faith had the courage to demand, “Let my people go!” Although Egypt was unable to enforce its “closed borders” policy on the Hebrews, Raamses II would not be the last ruler to attempt it. History is full of examples of migrations of whole peoples, of families, of individuals; usually (if not, indeed, always) in search of more freedom, more opportunity, a better place to live. And for freedom, people have been willing to trade much, much else. It doesn’t matter what era we talk about, or what people: the proto-Polynesians moving out into the vastness of the Pacific, the Angles and Saxons crossing from Europe to Britain, the Dissenters fleeing first to Holland and then to Massachusetts Bay, Huguenots and Dutch farmers moving to the Cape of Good Hope, their descendents on the Great Trek, the Wild Geese of Ireland and Scotland exploding across the world after the ’45 and the Potato Famine, the Numu (Comanche) going south to where those wonderful “magic dogs” came from, Deutschervolk moving to the steppes of the Volga and later to the prairies of North America, Loyalists leaving New York for the wilds of Ontario, Cubanos running from a Spanish viceroy or a Communist dictator, “coolies” seeking their fortune in the gold-fields of California or on a railroad track in the middle of Utah, “Saints” seeking “the place” to build Zion, Okies and Arkies seeking that fabulous Hollywood sunshine, ex-slaves looking for work in factories of the North, or Vietnamese boat people trying to go anywhere but…
Not that there haven’t been forced migrations, either: exiles “weeping by the waters of Babylon” and fleeing from the X Legio to be the Diaspora, ships full of collared slaves bound from Ghana to Boston and Newport and Georgetown, petty thieves (from hunger) dropped on the shores of Botany Bay or the Georgia coast, the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, or Lakota refugees in Grandmother’s Land, right down to the present. But most of the migrations of history are, whatever the reason, essentially voluntary: whether it was because the people moving were too stiff-necked to submit to “proper authority” or because they wanted room for their children to play or because the taxes were too high or the wages too low; it was time to nail a sign “G.T.T.” on the door of the house and head out for a new homeland, a new start.
And none of that would have been possible without open borders.
Now, that may be fine in theory, but how has it worked and how did it work, in the United States, and will it work in the future? Tough questions, and no easy answers, to be sure. Those who “have reservations” about open borders bring up some important points. In this article, we’ll look at one.
The original theory of immigration was that people (certain people, anyway) would be allowed in slowly enough that they could be absorbed into the existing culture and learn about things like our traditions of political liberty and the Constitution, and learn the language.
In a way, this is revisionist history – one can picture (ala Larson) a Delaware or Miskogee standing at a “border control station” looking at the approaching hordes of European would-be immigrants and making the foolish mistake of “letting them in, we need some new blood around here.” In reality, it was not until well after the American Republic was founded that any attempt was made to control the entry into the Country of anyone except the most obviously disciplined, uniformed, and armed bodies of thugs… troops. In the early days, anyone who could afford a passage or find a way to sneak in was pretty much welcome to do so.
Actually, the British-American experience in North America was a "grand experiment" in its time: most of the colonial powers did not allow for immigration from third countries, or if they did, certainly did not allow “those people” to be naturalized. Whatever the reason that His (or Her) Majesty’s Government in London allowed that for the North American colonies (and perhaps it was because the then-new United Kingdom was already an empire and had a lot of “internal” foreigners (those pesky Scots and Irish, to name two) to do something with), that decision was made in the mid-1600s, and often questioned. However, the benefits of that policy to both the mother country and to the colonies (later the former colonies) was seen to far, far outweigh the negatives. Even when the immigrants outnumbered the "old chums" by large margins.
There was no concern for “absorption” at the time: people didn’t give a rat’s rear-end whether the family that lived down the road or trail or street spoke English, French, or Pig-Latin. That was their business, and we pretty much minded our own business. People proved that they had a right to participate in the body politic (voting and such) by working enough and earning enough to meet property-owning qualifications to be able to vote. (Not that voting was such a big deal then, when the government didn’t run everything.) And since everyone realized that most of the people had come to America for freedom and opportunity, there wasn’t much concern about them having to learn our culture and about liberty; in fact, they often taught those who were already there. When they weren’t busy making a home and a living: it was root, hog, or die!
One can argue well that the American culture of liberty that developed by, say, 1800, was in fact the result of such rapid immigration that the old culture could not absorb the new immigrants and their ways and ideas, and so changed into something that not only could, but indeed, had to have that steady influx. It was not until later (probably about 1910 or so) that a series of changes had so deformed that culture that it could no longer cope with the massive flow of newcomers, and the history of the 20th Century is a history of steady deterioration of that culture and its capabilities and flexibility. One is tempted to argue that the gradual increasing limits on migration is in fact one of the causes of that decline, rather than the result of it.
The history and reasons for the restrictions on immigration imposed by the United States over the period from about 1830 to 2000 is fascinating, but too long to be part of this article. Suffice to say it was caused by fears that can be classified as “tribal” (us versus them), and “greed” (economic: I don’t want them to have what I have). Fears that were (and are) totally unfounded, and rendered moot exactly by the same thing which caused the immigration in the first place: a land of liberty “endowed by the Creator.”
If we can restore, or again establish, this Union as a land of liberty, it won’t matter how fast the immigrants pour in, because they will absorb our culture and traditions like the air they breath and the water they drink. Why? Because freedom is BETTER.
Among the reasons to “have reservations” about “open borders” (freedom to travel) is this next concern, as stated by a dear and sincere libertarian friend:
I don't think it is a particularly good thing to encourage enclaves of non-English speaking third world peoples to set up shop.
I call this (not meaning to denigrate the concern) the “tribal fear” argument. Put in another (less tactful) way, this is saying, “People who talk funny and/or are of dubious origins are a threat to me, my community, and my liberty.” It is understandable, but fallacious, and American history demonstrates why.
In answering this concern, my first words were, “To which do you object - the ‘non-English’ or the ‘third world?’" So let us look at both in our continent’s recent (AD1500 on) history.
From the very beginning we had non-English speaking enclaves: the Dutch in New York (New Amsterdam), the Swedes in Delaware, the French in Conn, Germans in Penn, Germans in North Carolina, etc. When Louisiana was admitted to the Union, it was a large Acadian (French-speaking) enclave. When Texas and California were admitted, much of their population was Spanish speaking: the same was true for what later became Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado. This continued on until World War One: in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana were large communities where German, Norwegian, Suomi, etc. were the common languages. (Oh, and lest we forget, what about those enclaves of people who speak Numu (Comanche), Dineh (Navaho), Lakota or Dakota (Sioux), etc?)
Usually by the third generation in all these cases, English was replacing the original language, or relegating the original tongue to secondary status. In the case of German-speakers, to my personal knowledge, World War One speeded up that process, by the simple expedient of government (illegally and immorally, in my opinion) banning non-English publications, beatings, tarring and feathering of those overheard speaking in other languages, and outright lynching of some because they had an accent or “talked furrin”, and/or didn't buy enough war bonds. But the process of converting to English was (and is) a natural one, and would have happened, if more gradually, without those evils attendant on it.
Unless you have very significant reasons (such as religion, or a free meal-ticket) for retaining an original language, you will sooner or later adopt the local language. (We see this in other countries, as well: In South Africa, French Huguenots and settlers from modern Neidersachsen and Nordfriesland soon came to speak Dutch (today’s Afrikaans); in South America, Schmidts, O’Higginses, and Fujimoris all speak Spanish. It even happens to conquerers and ruling classes: look at the Normans, or the Mongols in China. Of course, worldwide today, more and more people are adopting English, usually, regardless of where they live or what their “native tongue” is.) Furthermore, once the language barrier is gone, unless there is no INTERNAL freedom of movement, the enclaves themselves soon pretty much disappear. (That is true even when in violation of government policy: most American Indians today do NOT live on reservations, no matter how attached to their homeland they might be.)
Enclaves of non-English speakers were not a problem for our land of liberty in the past; if we continue (or return) to the ways of freedom, they will not be in the future.
Are emigrants from third-world countries either new, or a concern? The “third-world” of course, is Africa, Asia (except Russia, Japan and Taiwan), and Latin America.
By today's geographical boundaries, virtually everyone with a darker than average skin who doesn't have, oh, ten or twelve generations (300 years or more) of ancestors born in North America, is descended from ancestors who came from Africa (Bantu, Nilihic, or Saharic). Of course, most of those ancestors didn't have much choice, did they? And while they certainly had an impact on the United States, their coming is part and parcel of what makes us who we are today. Millions of immigrants from Asia and Latin America came to the United States before the current “immigration crisis” (starting in the last quarter of the 20th Century). Again, despite vocal fears of their impact on the nation, they are part and parcel of “US” today.
Of course, if we base "third-world" status on relative poverty and undeveloped status (rather than on geography), then virtually anyone who immigrated to these shores from anywhere except the British Isles, France, the Germanies, Scandinavia, or Switzerland (and depending on the time period, Spain and Portugal), came from a "third-world" country. Especially: Russia, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, the Balkans, or Italy. And one could make a strong argument for listing both Scotland and Ireland as "third-world" until about 1800 or so. And when you come right down to it, a lot of this country looked pretty “third-world” until about 1900 or so, as compared to, say, London, Paris, New York, or San Francisco: Texas is a good example, until the great oil booms of the early 20th Century, the average Texan probably lived about as well (or badly) as the average Iraqi, Mexican, or Indonesian of that day, at least as far as physical and economic conditions.
It can be argued, in fact, that it is immigrants from deprived, stifled, backwards “third-world-type” places that are what made America a land of freedom. The colonists who came from London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Madrid, or even Dublin or Edinburgh, usually didn’t fare too well, especially if they were of the more privileged classes. It was the people from the sticks, the poor and downtrodden, that seemed to do best in this land.
In short, a free country can handle enclaves of people who talk funny or have dubious backgrounds. We don’t need that kind of tribalism. The key, once more, is freedom.