Freedom, Justice, and the Borderless World

Seven years ago, a friend of mine came to the United States hoping to gain political asylum and legal status as a refugee. He had been targeted by violent insurgent groups in El Salvador following political unrest and no longer felt safe in his home country. He had two broken legs, and burns covered his body from a grenade attack that had killed four others while putting him in a week-long coma.  Like many other applicants for political asylum, he entered the country illegally and began applying for refugee status. Fearing deportation that he was sure would result in his death, he never attended his hearings, rendering himself ineligible for legal status. While he lacks the advantages of American citizenship, he is still in pursuit of his own American Dream, slowly learning to read and write in Spanish and English, as he had never had the opportunity to attend school, and had been illiterate for over thirty years. Despite numerous health afflictions that leave him in constant pain, he works hard to support himself and hopes that learning English will improve his chances of gaining legal resident status in the future. After slowly opening up about his past experiences, he asked me how I had come to the US. When I told him that I was born a citizen, he quickly responded: “Oh, you are better than me.”

Image courtesy of jillyspoon, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Why is it that in Western societies we have come to understand that all men are not created equal? It is perfectly clear to me, as I hope it will be to most readers, that my friend, with his extraordinary tale of survival and perseverance, is no less of a human being than I am. In the course of our lifetimes, we will both eat, sleep, dream, laugh, love, live, and die in, objectively, the same manner, except I will have the so-called self-evident rights of citizenship and state protection, and he will have nothing.

What is it to say that any one being deserves a certain opportunity more than another based on circumstances of birth? To say that I deserve certain opportunities based on the circumstantial luck that I was born into a certain country is similar to arguing for feudal privileges in aligning circumstances of birth with rights to certain entitlements. In the debate surrounding the state of all closed borders, certain egalitarians argue that all human beings are equally deserving of moral consideration regardless of national identity, and should have equal opportunity to prosperity. Ergo, those born in developing states should, by default, have an equal right to utilize the political and economic opportunities available anywhere in the world.

 In the context of globalisation, the idea of a boundary-less state is not necessarily so radical. Information and cultural institutions move freely across national boundaries, and open borders have already been implemented within the Schengen region. Obviously state sovereign remains intact, though the finite boundaries of nations have been subject to significant erosion. This graduate breakdown of state boundaries, however, may come with certain benefits. Theories of global utilitarianism explain that preventing freedom of movement can result in pronounced inefficiencies and can thus cause economic complications. Just as we acknowledge that a system that a system that prevents men from serving as nurses and women from serving as doctors would deprive society of many good nurses and doctors, any geopolitical system that enables work-force discrimination based upon national identity may fail to capitalize on the talents of foreigners held outside of  the labour market.

But is the labour market free, and if not, should it be? If the United States government prevents a domestic business from hiring migrant workers, does that violate the rights of the business owner to make voluntary transactions? Should the government have a role in preventing these transactions? Or should the job market be governed by principles of competitive capitalism? Should the government be able to prevent businesses from hiring immigrants? Or allow labour transactions to be carried out autonomously? Should a state prioritize maintaining a monopoly on jobs for its citizens, or allow for more laissez fair labour transactions through loosening border restrictions?  Where should a state’s duty to protect its citizens begin and end, and when should conceptions of social justice and human equality become more influential?

Answers to these questions will undoubtedly be varied based upon differing political, economic, and ethical biases that form our views of the world. The purpose of this argument is not to prescribe any correct answers, or to advocate for a border-less world economy or even to suggest with naive idealism that such a condition would actually successfully maximize global utility. Instead, it is to provide a framework for the normative assumptions upon which we formulate our opinions on immigration policy ethics and national identity. From the Golden Dawn movement in Greece to the failures of immigration policies in the Americas to the ‘Aktion mot deportation’ and ‘Dessa mina minsta’ movements to prevent deportations in Sweden, questions surrounding immigration policy, nationalist identity, and ethical obligations will only become more central in the dialogue of international relations as globalization continues to transcend national boundaries. As you confront these quandaries, I challenge you to decide if your perceptions of global utility and nationalist entitlement are as ambiguous as the future of the sovereign state in our increasingly interdependent and unifying world system.