Why we say “open borders”

Author: 

Editorial

Those of us who took to the streets to protest against Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban”, a racist restriction on the freedom of movement of people from seven majority-Muslim countries, were protesting against immigration controls.

Not all of us necessarily saw what we were doing in those terms. Many of us were mobilised by something more visceral and instinctive: a raw opposition to the obvious prejudice and injustice implied by the ban, and by many other of Trump’s policies. That reflexive opposition to injustice is the beginning of much political wisdom, in this and other cases.

Our activity can have the best and most effective impact if it extends beyond that to become a movement of political and practical solidarity with migrants and refugees, that opposes deportations and border controls, not just in America but globally – and, in the first place, where we are, in Britain.

Immigration controls are part of the means states use to construct and maintain their power. When those states are administered by authoritarians and racists, as in the case of the current US administration, borders can be used to propagate and entrench their racist ideology, by directly applying controls to people from particular countries, of particular religions, or with brown skin. But in all cases, even when the nationalist ideology is less clear, borders and immigration controls are tools of division. They cannot be other than mechanisms for discriminating against people on the basis of their national origin.

This is why Workers’ Liberty, and many other revolutionary socialists throughout history, oppose immigration controls and fight for open borders. We say that no human being is “illegal”, and that, in a world where the wealth workers create is increasingly free to travel uninhibited across the globe, with no regard for borders, then workers deserve that same freedom. Limited freedom of movement already exists between some states, and within most. People who live in Sunderland are free to move to London to seek work. No-one in the British labour movement argues that the pressure of migration from the north should be blamed for pay, terms, and conditions of workers in the south.

Freedom of movement also exists between EU member states. The UK government seems certain to end Britain’s participation in the freedom of movement arrangement as part of the process of withdrawing from the EU. While EU freedom of movement is limited (and, necessarily, defined in a way that privileges European people at the expense of migrants from non-EU countries), throwing up hard borders between European countries would be a victory only for nationalism, and would do nothing to advance the freedoms of non-EU migrants and refugees.

Winning genuinely free movement seems a far off and in some ways utopian demand. It challenges much that has become accepted common sense around the issue of immigration, for example the idea that migrants take jobs from, and drive down wages for, local workers. This “common sense” is endlessly recycled by politicians of all parties, and the media.

In a recent speech, Labour MP Lisa Nandy said that free movement between EU member states had “allowed a skilled and mobile population across Europe to gain advantage at the expense of the rest of us.” This is a dressed-up way of saying “they’re coming over here and taking our jobs”. No evidence supports this. Repeated academic studies show that immigration has an only very minor effect on wages, and that migrants are net contributors to the economy, paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

But more than reference to academic data is necessary. What is required is a popular movement, rooted in workplaces and communities, that can confront nationalist arguments around immigration and persuade people of a different world-view: that they have more in common with working-class people of other nations than they do with the rulers of their own nation, and that the right to migrate and live where one likes is a human right.

The protests against Trump’s “Muslim ban” can be the start of such of a movement. Trumpism, along with the rise of Ukip in the UK and Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, is a symptom of a particularly vicious tendency within ruling-class ideology, which aims to confiscate popular disaffection with aspects of capitalism and mobilise it for a model of capitalism that retains the hard-nosed profiteering and private-sector-dominance of neo-liberalism, allying it to a backwards-looking, nationalist-racist world-view. In response, much mainstream ruling-class political discourse and activity has lurched rightwards in accommodation.

Both Trumpism and more mainstream, “respectable” forms of right-wing capitalist politics involve a morally-obscene indifference to the fate of refugees fleeing war, or economic migrants fleeing poverty. The instinctive solidarity shown with migrants and refugees by the thousands of people who have taken to the streets in protest against Trump suggest the foundations of a different world-view.

To make that world-view – one based on internationalism, solidarity, anti-racism – hegemonic will require much patient work of arguing and discussing. In the meantime, direct action to protest deportations, to demand the closure of detention centres, to resist Tory attempts to restrict existing freedom of movement, are all also necessary. Those who wish to defeat Trump should extend the instinctive solidarity and opposition to injustice that motivated them to demonstrate and protest into ongoing activism to build a movement that can win the arguments for open borders, and defeat the governments that seek to divide us.

Stop Trump!

As we go to press Donald Trump’s ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries is still suspended, following a court order. Protests against Trump’s state visit to the UK and in solidarity with migrants have been called for 20 February. The London march assembles at 6 p.m. in Parliament Square.