Democracy Demands Open Borders

Every immigrant is a vote for America. Every deportation is a vote against America.

Democracy Demands Open Borders

President Biden’s executive order to limit asylum access to people crossing the US border ignited a rebuke from progressive Democrats and a minor furor on social media: how is this different from Trump’s border policies that inspired so much fear and rage? Biden claims “I will never demonize immigrants. I will never refer to immigrants as 'poisoning the blood' of a country. And further, I’ll never separate children from their families at the border.” But in the same speech Biden says that “if the United States doesn’t secure our border, there is no limit to the number of people who may try to come here, because there is no better place on the planet than the United States of America.” 

This, following a long history of restrictionist policies and rhetoric, betrays a zero-sum understanding of immigration and of America itself. There is some “limit” to the number of immigrants beyond which current Americans must defend their better way of life, and “the good will of Americans [is] wearing thin right now.” This closed border thinking views immigrants as presumptively suspicious and, in large numbers, threatening. 

The truth is that MAGA is right about Democrats and open borders. The deepest values any true Democrat holds point ineluctably toward open borders and freedom of movement for all people. We as Democrats must stop cringing from this core truth, and we must stop kowtowing to anti-immigrant rhetoric that only serves reactionary causes. Only an open border is consistent with freedom, democratic government, diversity, and racial justice.


In a very real sense, migration just is freedom. We move across borders to choose where we live. We move to meet and mingle with the people we’d like, to be with family and friends or to make new friends and join new families. We move to work in the jobs and careers we desire. We move to experience the culture, the cities and the natural landscapes that inhabit our dreams. In short, we migrate to live the lives we want to lead. Migration is choice, self-determination, and self-authorship.

This is all the more true in the case of refugees fleeing oppression. Enslaved blacks struck for freedom by fleeing to the north. European Jews fled Nazi death camps, and were all too often turned away by proto-MAGA antisemites in America, to our everlasting shame as a nation. There is no more powerful image of freedom in recent decades than the joyous destruction of the Berlin Wall, which had confined millions of Germans in unfreedom with its concrete, barbed wire, land mines, and snipers. Uighurs, Palestinians, Sudanese, Venezuelans and others can attest that the world today does not lack in oppression and horrors from which to flee.

But we make a mistake to draw a line too sharply separating “merely” economic migrants from refugees and asylees. Natural disasters, destitution, and decrepit political institutions can smother freedom as surely as repression and violence. And refugees are necessarily also economic migrants, who must repair their often shattered financial condition and pursue work in their new country. Differentiating between refugees and “ordinary” immigrants only incentivizes politicians and officials to cynically define the conditions of asylum ever more narrowly.

Consider what it takes to stop immigration. There are no gentle ways to deny entry, detain, or deport. Barring entry to a country means forcefully compelling a person to return from whence they came. Closed borders erode civil liberties even for citizens: federal border enforcement agencies have arrogated the power to search anyone within 100 miles of any US border—about two out of three people—without a warrant. As long as our borders remain closed, even under administrations who don’t conspicuously delight in pornographic cruelty, we will be confronted with images of separated families and drowned children.

Detention is incarceration—literal, physical unfreedom. If we are uncomfortable imprisoning human beings without trial and for victimless misdemeanors, then we should be outraged when armed agents of the state throw people into cages for the “crime” of crossing a border to shape and improve their lives.

Deportation rips an individual away from their lives and forcefully ejects them from society. Dreamers, immigrants brought to the US as children by undocumented parents, make an especially sympathetic case because they didn’t immigrate of their own volition. But all immigrants—documented and otherwise—have lives, families, friends, communities, careers, obligations, bills, plans, and projects associated with their homes. The human connections that make Dreamers so sympathetic are common to all immigrants, and their forceful severance is always devastating to the human beings involved. Deportation ultimately consists of men with guns frog-marching a fellow human being onto a plane and dumping them in a place they would prefer not to be, and may even fear. Banishment and exile are not freedom.


Americans rebelled against the British crown with the demand, “No taxation without representation.” It was self-evidently unjust that taxes and other matters of law could be imposed on people who had no say in their composition. When legislation affects our lives and welfare, we deserve some voice in the matter.

But what voice does the immigrant have? The strong, violent arm of government bears down far more harshly on the crosser of frontiers than do any taxes or ordinances. But the immigrant cannot vote to influence the forces that so profoundly shape their life. In our electoral discourse we take no account of the immigrant’s manifest desire. We poll citizens who have no skin in the game about how much immigration should be tolerated. How much, as if immigrants comprise a formless mass, as if each immigrant is not a distinct person with unique dreams. 

But every immigrant has already voted in the most profound possible way—with their feet and their lives—in favor of their chosen country. Every immigrant is a vote for America. Every deportation is a vote against America.

Democrats rightfully rail against the Senate and the Electoral College because they violate the basic democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Republicans since the Civil Rights Movement have schemed to gerrymander and election-rig Black Americans out of political power. But non-citizen immigrants are completely disenfranchised, no chicanery even necessary. Immigrants, despite living among us as Americans in all but legal status, are in a similar situation as women before suffrage, or Black Americans before the fall of Jim Crow. Such a profound asymmetry in power demands courage and unwavering commitment from Democrats to dismantle. 

Racial justice

Racial justice is incompatible with closed borders. It’s clear enough that white supremacy animates the MAGA mission to close our borders to immigrants from “shithole” countries. Donald Trump’s Muslim ban was exactly what it said on the tin: a ban on Muslim and/or Arab immigrants. MAGA threatens public peace and our democratic form of government to forestall the “Great Replacement,” the conspiracy theory that Jews are coordinating the systematic replacement of white people in America and western Europe with black and brown foreigners.

But MAGA white supremacy is hardly unique. American immigration was first restricted in the nineteenth century for the explicitly racist purpose of excluding immigrants from China. Constricting the American border to target certain races or nationalities—Mexicans, Haitians, Arabs—for exclusion and to privilege access for whites and Christians has been the norm throughout our history. 

It is, of course, possible to carefully massage and prune the language of border policy to be fastidiously “colorblind” so the racism is merely systemic and not evident beyond the shadow of a white man’s doubt. But Democrats are not obligated to play make-believe as if they were on the MAGA Court. The closed border has been and will only be the ally of white supremacy. Efforts to degrade and destroy racism on which Democrats have prided themselves since the Civil Rights Movement will come to naught as long as they affirm the unquestioned right of the government to detain, deport, and discriminate against immigrants and people who look like they might be immigrants.


In affirming the principle of closed borders, of “border sovereignty”—that the individual has no freedom of movement that the state must respect—Democrats cede the narrative to the MAGA worldview. We concede that moving across frontiers is an inherently suspicious act and immigrants inherently suspicious people. 

But this is alien to the Democratic vision of what America is and can be. We celebrate diversity not merely as an ideal but as a firm, visible fact. People from different ethnic backgrounds, different religious traditions, and different cultures can and do live together in close proximity and in peace and prosperity. People who look different, dress differently, eat differently, and pray differently can live together, dispersed as well as in overlapping communities. This makes America richer, stronger, and livelier.

This is no mere fantasy. American cities from the California coast to the Atlantic seaboard, from the industrial Midwest to the deep South, are living, breathing centers of boisterous diversity and cultural and economic dynamism. Like so many features of American politics, the apparent hostility to immigrants is a product of our lingering undead antidemocratic institutions, such as the Electoral College, the Senate, and an artificially shrunken House of Representatives. These privilege white folks and empty land over the diverse, heavily urban American tapestry as it actually exists.

Democrats betray our commitment to—our faith in—diversity when we condone shutting down the very mechanism which produced our diversity. If Democrats would have America be the multihued, polyglot cosmopolis we advertise on our yard signs and bumper stickers, then we must condemn closed borders. We must press the case for open borders and freedom of movement. 

Essays like this usually include facts and figures to allay the concerns ordinary people—the denizens of midwestern diners and rural Americans—have about immigration. Immigrants don’t increase crime and they don’t take away jobs and they don’t lower wages and they don’t bankrupt social services and they do integrate and they do enlarge the economic pie. These aggregate facts are easy enough to confirm if you’re curious. But the essential truth is that immigrants are simply human beings, with all the foibles, frailties, passions, and brilliances to which our species is heir. We should not single out those humans we call immigrants for higher (or lower) expectations because of some accident of their birth. We are Democrats, and we are against that kind of thing.

Instead I will close by showing how in welcoming immigrants with open borders and open arms, we affirm a patriotic American tradition.

Her Right Foot

When Emma Lazarus penned The New Colossus, the poem we associate with the Statue of Liberty, she bestowed upon the nation a new Founding document to accompany the new monument.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

America’s most iconic monument is a statue proclaiming world-wide welcome. The Mother of Exiles welcomes not only the rich and powerful, but pointedly the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. These words and the Statue of Liberty herself have so impressed themselves onto the civic religion of America that they rival “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” Our most deeply held ideas about who we are as Americans are that we fight for freedom and against tyrants, that we are willing to risk the blood and unity of the whole nation in order to liberate those held in bondage, and that we lift the lamp of welcome beside our golden door of liberty.

The New Colossus is well known. Less well known is its sequel, written in the form of a children’s book by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris. In Her Right Foot, Eggers alerts us to the fact that the right foot of the Statue of Liberty is upraised, her heel lifted off the pedestal, broken chains close by. She faces southeast, outward to the world, and she is on the move. Why?

If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, if the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States, then how can she stand still? Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest ... In welcoming the poor, the tired, the struggling to breathe free, She is not content to wait. She must meet them in the sea.

Look to the Statue of Liberty and act. Break the conventional chains of closed borders. Defend the right to move freely across borders. Welcome all who would become Americans and fight for their right to do so. Defend, shelter, and advocate for the immigrant with all the fire and passion you can muster. This is our commitment as Democrats and as Americans. Throw open the borders and break the infernal locks. Free them all.

Featured image is Liberty Enlightening the World, by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi