Open Borders Are the Way of the Future

Podcast available here

Apprehensions of migrants/ refugees along the US-Mexican border doubled from about 58,000 to 103,000 between January and March of 2019 (U.S. CBP 2019). For FY 2018, the most common nationalities that were apprehended on the southern border were Mexico (152,257), Guatemala (115,722), Honduras (76,513), El Salvador (31,369), India (8,997), Nicaragua (3,282), and Brazil (1,504) (U.S. CBP 2019).

Having a racist president in the White House certainly does not help the sentiment in the country, as he tries to convince the Homeland Department secretary to break the law and summarily reject all asylum applicants on the southern border and to send the migrants into sanctuary cities (i.e. cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities to round up undocumented immigrants). Now, Trump sacked secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, but the next secretary will hopefully have at least the dignity to preserve the rule of law and defy the president’s orders. The rising border apprehensions give Trump further impetus to demand for money to build his border wall, even though he had lost the government shutdown battle with the incoming Democratic House majority. Ironically, the president’s bellicose rhetoric is encouraging more migrants to come to the US border, because of the fear that it is now or never.

Controversy on the border wall is intensified by the cruel family separation policy of the administration, where children are separated from their parents, who get deported, while the confused and anxious children are detained, and even have to testify in migration courts. The psychological and physical consequences are heavy, and could create the problematic behavior later on in life, which anti-immigrant politicians will capitalize on to demand even harsher border and anti-migrant policies.

Creating border walls and making immigration as difficult as possible seems to be the ascending trend. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 15 border fences/ walls, but now there are 77 such fortifications around the world (Hjelmgaard 2018). The domestic political economy is characterized by once safe manufacturing jobs disappearing, and more wealth getting concentrated in cities and the hands of a few tech and financial company owners, which sky-rockets inequality. It produces the political discontent that right-wing populists capitalize on by blaming immigrants and foreigners and promising the electorate to build border walls and reduce more migration.

The flood of Polish workers to the UK from 2004 to 2016 created a similarly hostile sentiment that the Brexit campaigners, promising the control of borders, capitalized on, even though it was not the Polish workers who created the economic misery of zero-hours contracts and bad jobs, but the failure of government policy to invest in local communities and harsh austerity policies. Given that the UK, similar to other western countries, does not have a fertility rate to sustain the population at present levels, it is the presence of migrants that has kept the country so dynamic.

At heart, there is a contradiction between more globalization and cross-country capital/ good flows and tighter regulation of human/ migration flows. NAFTA, the free trade agreement between US, Mexico and Canada resulted in more cross-border capital flows. While some Mexican cities close to the US border gained some new manufacturing jobs with higher than average wages, NAFTA also meant that cheap US agricultural products would enter Mexico tariff-free, thus robbing the uncompetitive Mexican farmers of a way to make a living and attracting more migration to the US. Furthermore, the erection of strict border protection converted the previous circular migration flows (Mexicans going back and forth between US and Mexico) into unilateral flows, whereby Mexicans became too scared to return to Mexico, fearing that they could not return back to the US (Fernandez-Kelly and Massey 2007).

Given the lack of economic opportunities at home and the low wages at home, it makes sense for talented people in Mexico to leave their home country and move to a place where they can earn more income. The average wage of a US manufacturing worker is $20.80 and the equivalent for a Mexican worker is $2.30 (Toledo 2017). Hostility toward immigration makes US governments reluctant to welcome Mexican workers, but a EU-style open border policy would reduce wage differentials between the two countries. Despite the widespread fears that US living and working standards will decline, history has shown time and again that immigrants tend to be hard-working and also provide a source for local demand, which is badly needed in the declining rural communities of the US. Immigrant-heavy communities tend to be more dynamic/ entrepreneurial (Portes et al. 2002Fernandez-Kelly and Konczal 2007), and their presence also reduces crime (Sampson 2008). Besides, Mexico is one third the size of the US population, and the migrant workers tend to be the young and enterprising, which is usually 2-3% of the population of a country. So even with open borders, the US is unlikely to be overwhelmed by Mexican migration.

It should also be kept in mind that despite the appearance of closed borders, the US is still a country of immigrants, admitting one million permanent residents a year, over 250,000 H1-B (high-skilled worker) visas in 2015; 283,000 H-2A (temporary agricultural workers); 120,000 H-2B (temporary manual workers), and harboring 12 million undocumented migrants, some of which get detained and deported as a result of stepped up immigration enforcement efforts (Portes 2017). There is a high cost to deportations, not only in terms of the administration needed to enforce the policy, but also the loss of valuable members of the community (workers, neighbors, friends), who suddenly disappear from the neighborhood they felt was home.

In the US, anti-immigrant sentiment has kept down the number of Syrian refugees, which briefly peaked to 15,000 in 2016, but was quickly brought down to only 41 in 2018 (Statista 2019). In comparison, my native Austria has taken on 90,000 Syrians in 2016 with a population that is less than 1/30th of the US. This is quite ironic given that US bombs in the Middle East contribute substantially to the destabilization in the region. But while it is feasible to walk to Austria and Germany from the Middle East, it is usually not feasible to swim across the Atlantic Ocean to get to the US. Similarly, among the many Africans fed up about poor living conditions at home and the greed and corruption of their political leaders, the closest path is to travel across to Europe, even as the EU does its best to bribe north African countries to retain the migrants and refugees. In contrast, the US can just skim off the “cream of the crop”, e.g. the high-skilled Nigerians that come on H1-B visas and earn decent incomes (Hamilton 2014).

The US backyard that attracts huge migrant flows is Latin America and the southern border with Mexico. Guatemala (17 million), Honduras (9 million) and El Salvador (6 million) have much smaller populations than Mexico, but they send vast numbers of migrants to the US border. An obvious reason for migrating north is the poverty and the gang violence that makes lives horrendous at home. A brief look into Central American history also reveals that the US is directly responsible for destabilizing the political economy in the region, which produces the migrant flows.

US president James Monroe declared in 1823 that Latin America was the backyard of the US, and that it would have the right to counter further European influence in the continent (considering that much of Latin America was either a Portuguese or Spanish colony). That was the beginning of a series of military interventions that extend to the present period, whether by direct military invasion or by covert CIA operations to dislodge unwanted governments. The 1810s and 1820s was a crucial period, as many central and south American states declared independence from their colonial powers. Central America consisting of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize, achieved independence from Spain around 1821 (although Belize came under English control and was formally part of its empire from 1862 to 1981). The Central American Federal Republic with the capital city in Guatemala City lasted from 1823 to 1838 after which it disintegrated as local elites fought for power and sovereignty.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, the US fruit producer United Fruit Company (UFC) began to substantially make investments into Central America, which had the desirable land to grow bananas and a few other fruits (melons, legumes, nutmeg). In the Guatemalan case, the authoritarian regime under Manuel Estrada Cabrera agreed to cooperate with UFC because he hoped they would fund the build-up of the nation’s highways, railroads and sea ports to grow the economy. UFC, in return, got tax exemptions, land grants and control over the infrastructure, which means substantial rents to these companies often at the cost of the indigenous Mayan population (about 40% of the population, compared to 40% Mestizo and 20% white, the latter holding the high government positions and the land) that were displaced from their land. The landed elites supported successive political regimes in Guatemala until the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944 involving a general strike and mass protests brought down the regime propped up by the landed elite, the foreign corporation and the military.

The progressive Juan Jose Arevalo won the first free election in 1945, and he was succeeded by his defense minister Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who served from 1951 to 1954. These leaders believed that US New Deal programs, social programs in health and education would make sense, although Arevalo was quite hostile to independent labor unions. Arbenz was somewhat more radical, because he promised sweeping agrarian reforms in 1952, which transferred uncultivated land to landless peasants, which especially benefited the Mayan population. While among the popular masses, Arbenz’ could count on their support, the old landed elite and UFC felt directly threatened by the land reforms.

By this point the US government took special interest in the domestic affairs of Guatemala, and sought to preserve the economic interests of UFC. In 1952, President Truman authorized Operation PBFORTUNE to topple Arbenz, whom the US regarded as communist. But too much information about the plot turned public, and so the US abandoned the attempt. The Eisenhower administration developed a renewed interest to topple Arbenz. This time two high-level cabinet members, John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, and Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence, had a direct material interest in toppling Arbenz, because John served as UFC’s lawyer and Allen as member of the board of directors of UFC prior to government service. In 1953, the CIA armed, funded and trained a force of 480 men led by Carlos Castillo Armas, which invaded Guatemala in 1954. The invasion force struggled militarily, but psychological warfare and the fear of a full-scale US invasion intimidated the leadership of the Guatemalan army sufficiently that they refused to fight. Arbenz had no choice but to resign as president. He escaped to exile in Mexico, where he became an alcoholic and died in 1971. Castillo became his successor.

The US installed their guy into power, which revoked any implemented land reforms and reinforced the power of UFC, which had effectively turned the country into a “banana republic”, producing a few fruit commodities designed for export and maintaining a despotic dictatorship consisting of elites in business, politics and the military. This came at the cost of political instability and a civil war. In the 1970s, there emerged limited forms of guerrilla resistance, which attacked military installations, expressing popular grievances over poverty and loss of land. The guerrilla were supported by Cuba and Nicaragua, while the Guatemalan regime received most support from the US and Argentina. The military responded by forming paramilitary organizations, which carried out extrajudicial killings in villages where the guerrilla were suspected.

The vast majority of the violence came from the military and state power, which brutally repressed indigenous activists, government opponents, returning refugees, critical academics, students, left-leaning politicians, trade unionists, religious workers, journalists and street children. The Civil War lasted from 1960 to 1996, concluding in a peace accord. 140-200,000 people died in the course of the civil war. 93% of the human rights violations came from the state, and 3% from the guerrillas, and 83% of the victims were Maya (who are 40% of the population). In 1999, President Bill Clinton issued an apology for the US participation in the Guatemalan state repression.

In spite of the end of the civil war, general insecurity is still prevalent. The US issues a travel warning to Guatemala, calling for tourists to “exercise increased caution” given that “violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common.” (State Dep). Poverty is also rampant.

The quality of the political institutions also barely improved. The government under Otto Perez Molina (2012-2015) was forced to resign for the La Linea corruption scandal, where officials received bribes from importers in exchange for discounted import tariffs. Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned her post in 2015, and in 2018 was sentenced to 15 1/2 years in prison for fraud charges. President Perez resigned a few months later, and was also arrested. He is still in custody. The corruption scandal launched Jimmy Morales, from the National Convergence Front (FCN), who became elected president in 2016. Only a year later, his older brother and adviser Sammy and one of his sons Jose Manuel were arrested on corruption and money laundering charges. Morales ignored public calls for resignation. In August 2017, Morales ordered the expulsion of Ivan Velasquez, the commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, because he made claims that Morales’ party took illegal donations from drug traffickers and demanded his resignation. The constitutional court blocked the move. Morales took a “bonus” from the Ministry of Defense in addition to his salary. Transparency International ranked Guatemala as 144 out of 180 countries (with the 1st being least corrupt).

As mentioned earlier, NAFTA has hit the Mexican farmers with US imports of agricultural products. As for Central America, the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies forced Guatemala to liberalize their trade, which resulted in US corn being brought into the country at very low prices. Farmers could no longer live on the crops that they sold. The only way out of desperate poverty is to flee to the US (Yates-Doerr 2018). Living and working in the US, even if many are undocumented (given the difficulty of getting foreign visas: FY 2014 only allocated 1,453 H-2A visas to Guatemala, Wikipedia), has become an important survival strategy: remittances to family members back home make up 1/10th of the GDP of Guatemala (Wikipedia, “Guatemala”).

Remittances form an important part of foreign aid, which is more effective than any direct foreign aid provided between governments. The trouble of traditional foreign aid is that if the funds are funneled via official government sources, it tends to be lost in corruption. The poverty of a country is partly based on the poor quality of institutions, i.e. excessive corruption, cliques of power, lack of meritocracy, weak civil society, and closedness to technological innovation  (Portes and Smith 2012; Portes and Nava 2016). Therefore, direct foreign aid might end up in the wrong pockets, but remittances work quite well in alleviating the poverty of recipients. On the other hand, Trump’s decision to cut $700 million in foreign aid to the central American states, citing discontent over the border crisis could backfire, because some aid is reaching the local population and mitigating the social problems that cause migrants to leave their country (Reints 2019). Trump’s policies are ironically increasing migration flows, but he is not known for reasoning well or thinking through his policies.

International migration is going to remain quite controversial, because the dislocation that neoliberalism produces creates domestic pressures to blame immigrants and draw up higher border walls, even as the country would suffer more stagnation if there are fewer immigrants. Yet, as climate change advances, global inequality is reinforced, because the carbon emitters (the west and China) are different from the greatest climate change sufferers (the global South). As climate change advances, the rich countries have to pay more and more compensation to poor countries to help them rebuild from droughts, tornadoes or floods. A more humane solution is to lift border restrictions, and allow more migration to places where life is more tolerable. In the short term, local resources are going to be stretched, but the entrepreneurial immigrants tend to be more productive and more beneficial to the communities they move into. And even those, migrants who do laboring jobs tend to work in sectors that native workers don’t want to be employed in.

In the Central American case, the US has added responsibility to accept more migrants from there given the history of US military interventions, and support to US multinational corporations who get to dominate the national economy and control the political system of these states without much trickle-down.

For Rutger Bregman (2017) one “utopian” policy that would result in less global inequality is to erase national borders. The poorest Norwegian person is still on the 70th percentile of the global income distribution. In 2016, half of the national income of the world is concentrated in the EU and North America (Table 2.2.2. WID). One’s passport is the single biggest predictor of economic well-being. A second-best solution is to retain borders, which produces undocumented migrants, which need an amnesty every 10 years. Opponents will claim that an amnesty will simply attract more migrants, but every time the number of undocumented migrants swell, the government faces the dilemma of not being able to deport all migrants and more crackdowns result in terror, fear and local destabilization (which are very reliant on migrant labor). The trend is toward walls and isolationism, but a borderless utopia becomes realistic if some stubborn people refuse to budge and demand its realization.

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