One’s country of birth has a profound effect on life prospects. It's often best to go elsewhere. But moving is not always so easy.
What gives nations the right to control who can cross their borders? That’s the question we’re addressing in this week’s show. After all, in some sense we’re all citizens of this planet with an equal right to its bounty, so shouldn’t we all be able to live and work wherever we want?
Strictly speaking, of course, people are citizens of nations, and nations determine who can come into their territory and what they can do once they get there. But those are just the facts. What we’re interested in is the normative question: Should nations be able to prevent anybody from crossing their borders? And if so, why?
Here’s one argument in favor of the rights of nations to control their borders: Governments have a responsibility to provide security, along with economic and social stability for their citizens. Without border control, there would be mass immigration, which would lead to major job losses and economic instability, as well as excessive burdens on the state’s infrastructure and public services. In other words, without border control, there would be chaos.
This seems like a strong argument in favor of border control, but it doesn’t fully answer the question we started with. It presupposes the legitimacy of nations and then presents pragmatic reasons for protecting such entities, whereas the legitimacy of nations is exactly what we’re questioning. After all, if we examine at the history of most nations, what we’ll find are stories of war, conquest, theft, occupation, genocide, and expulsion. It’s not a pretty picture. If we’re interested in justice and not just domination, then we have to question the legitimacy of claims made by these arbitrarily formed entities we call nations, and thus their right to control the lines in the sand they call their borders.
Now, we might grant that nations have histories that are dark and messy and still want to defend their right to determine who can enter their territory. While there are certainly many borders and territories in dispute today, for most stable countries, it could be argued, that dark history is very much in the past. The actions that led to nations being formed, however illegitimate they were at the time, happened long ago, and those responsible for any injustices that were committed have been dead for generations. The current citizens of a country can’t be made to pay in perpetuity for those past injustices. If a person was born in a country, if they pay their taxes and obey the laws, then aren’t they entitled to certain rights and privileges not afforded to non-citizens?
I’m not sure I find this line of argumentation convincing. Consider an analogy. Imagine my great-grandfather stole an important piece of art many, many years ago and that it has been in my family for several generations. While it would be strange and unfair to hold me either morally or legally responsible for my great-grandfather’s crimes, which were committed long before I was even born, I don’t think it follows that I’m now entitled to keep this work of art just because it has been in my family for a few generations. The art rightfully belongs to someone else. Even if I was not the person to steal it in the first place, it doesn’t mean that it belongs to me or that I have any right to say what should happen to this work of art.
Similarly, just because I personally did not steal anyone’s territory, it doesn’t follow that I have any special claim on the territory that was stolen by my ancestors. I’m not to blame for what others did, but it’s not clear that I have any legitimate claim to territory that was forcefully taken either.
Of course, the history of territories is much more complicated and messy than the art analogy suggests. The world does not already come with works of art—they must be brought into existence, they must be created by someone—whereas land is just there to be discovered. If we go back far enough in the history of any particular land, at some point someone just claimed it as their own. And then some group invaded, took the land away, until another war happened, and then maybe the land became part of some empire thousands of miles away, until another war happened, and another war, and eventually a new state declared itself, and expelled and displaced one particular ethnic group that had maybe been there for centuries before, and so it goes. In these messy histories, how do we ever determine which group has the ultimate claim to the territory? It seems like at some point we just have to accept the arbitrariness of the lines that delineate one territory from another.
So, what follows from this arbitrariness? Does it mean no one has any ultimate right to govern territories? I don’t think so, but it does mean that these rights must have a different source of justification. I will leave that question aside to return to the specific question of border control. Even if we accept that the people living together in a particular region have some rights of self-determination (e.g. by legislating certain kinds of behavior within the territory), do those rights extend to determining who can and can’t enter their territory? And other than the pragmatic considerations we started with, how might we justify a state’s right to control their historically-messy and arbitrarily drawn borders?
A second set of questions we should ask concerns the rights of non-citizens once they have crossed the border. As a law-abiding non-citizen living in a foreign land, what should you be entitled to? Public education, health care, emergency services? What about the right to vote, either in local or national elections? If we exclude non-citizens from these institutions, on what basis do we do that, particularly considering how so many undocumented workers pay taxes and social security without ever benefiting from their contributions, and they often hold up regional economies by doing a lot of back-breaking work that citizens would never do?