Columnist Razvan Sibii: What’s the progressive endgame on immigration? Part 3: The radicals’ vision

  • A journalist in Anapara, Mexico, sticks her microphone through a through a border fence to interview a Border Patrol agent following a training exercise on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Sunland Park, New Mexico. AP

Published: 9/14/2020 9:22:50 PM

Two months ago, I started a three-article series about the liberals’ ideas on immigration. I first reviewed the Biden plan. Then, I spoke with representatives of several immigrant rights organizations about their own expectations for reform. (Since then, the Biden campaign has received a unified 10-point immigration reform blueprint endorsed by no fewer than 173 immigrant rights organizations.)

It is now time for the last part of the series: an examination of the perspectives of the “radicals” who are not satisfied with amnesty for undocumented immigrants and higher immigration quotas, but rather push for a wholesale reconsideration of borders, citizenship and capitalism.

It is remarkably hard to get most liberal activists to discuss the subject of “open borders,” most likely because they don’t want to play into the hands of Trump/Fox News with that kind of discourse, or because they themselves are uncomfortable with the idea of eliminating borders and “letting everyone in.” No surprise, then, that my first interview on the subject was with an “open-borders” libertarian, whose beliefs have never been shared by most people around him and who is therefore a lot less afraid now of intellectual ostracism.

Unlike many fair-weather, pick-and-choose libertarians, economist Nathan Smith is consistent in his beliefs that the market is the best mechanism for allocating resources in a society and that every individual’s freedom should be maximized, as long as it doesn’t impinge on someone else’s freedom.

Crucially, when he invokes the utilitarian principle “the most good for the greatest number of people,” he does not exclusively define “people” as “American citizens;” he is concerned with the welfare of all people, everywhere.

Smith points out two dilemmas at the heart of the liberal program of immigration reform:

1) The more permissive the immigration policy (fewer deportations, amnesty, etc.), the more incentives for people to cross the border illegally. This problem cannot be wished away, and conservatives will never tire highlighting it. What happens if, a week after Biden gets inaugurated, a wave of “caravans” (real ones, this time, not imagined) from Central America start toward the U.S. border?

2) “There’s a whole lot of very poor people in the world,” Smith says. “And a very large portion of them could improve their lot by coming to a country like the United States. And they might make their lives better by doing so, better than they were in their country of origin. But their lives would still not be as good as what we take for granted for even the poorest Americans. If we provide a social safety net to get people up to a certain level, lots of people in the world would love to come here just to get that. But that’s not fiscally sustainable. And so, ultimately, there’s this conflict between a welfare state on the one hand and open borders on the other.”

For the libertarian, the calculus is simple: If a restrictive immigration policy is inhuman and extended welfare benefits are unmanageable, allow in as many immigrants as possible but don’t give them access to the social safety net. Yes, such a policy would create even more inequality within the U.S., but globally it would be a net gain.

There are some immigrant rights organizations (not many) who share Smith’s vision of open borders — thus side-stepping the question of how to choose which immigrants to let in and how many. Nisha Toomey, of No One Is Illegal Toronto, points out that the logic of states with borders and citizenship rights was brought to North America by European settlers, and that an alternative vision of “belonging” could come from Indigenous peoples, who have other “governance mechanisms for allowing people in.”

But she takes exception to Smith’s assumption that an influx of immigrants, however big, would make a universal safety net impossible.

“I think there’s a way to govern where we can share, where we can have equity. The planet has enough for all of the people on it,” Toomey says. “It’s the way we are managing what we have that is the problem. Part of the mismanagement is this idea that there always needs to be competition between us because there’s not enough resources. What I would advocate would be to tax the rich heavily. We can no longer have these elite classes of people who are just living with billions of dollars.”

For a more practical perspective on radical politics, I went to Jana Douglass, a former UMass student of mine from whom I’ve learned a lot about a brand of progressivism that does not primarily look to friendly members of Congress for help. She agrees with Toomey that an anti-state approach to achieving justice for migrants would require discarding the capitalist-settler logic of perpetual competition. The alternative she offers is known as “prefigurative politics.”

“What we put into practice now will grow into the tools that we need to fight for tomorrow,” Douglass says. “Radicals” do not know exactly what a future without borders would look like, anymore than the rest of us do. What they are trying to do is build communities right now whose priorities and governing practices can become viable models for what is now just a utopia. Such practices include consensus decision-making, mutual aid initiatives, housing co-ops, alternatives to imprisonment, and, most importantly, the centering of people who have historically been marginalized.

We don’t know if the Democrats will win the elections. If they do, we don’t know whether they’ll listen to the “moderates” or to the “radicals.” As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy both of these wings exist. One can do what they other can’t, and they keep each other real.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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