Removing Borders: The Ultimate Immigration Reform


A border can be a tricky thing. Families strive to cross it, risking their lives. I have visions of El Norte still fresh in my mind. The kids crawling in sewer pipes, bitten by rats. I grew up with stories of immigration I knew people crossed the border illegally. Some to work the fields, picking tomatoes in the hot California sun, some covered with itchy peach fuzz. I was little but I understood the importance of living in America. I watched my new family from India eagerly await social security numbers, driver’s licences and finally permanent residence. Now as an adult, I have learned about the atrocities of 1947. My grandparents and their two small children crossing the Pakistani border forced to settle back in India. Not of their own volition. But due to arbitrary lines drawn by the English, who only wanted to flee before more blood was spilled.


Just a squiggly line on a map. It can cause so much pain. Incite violence and terror. Across that river is your land. This is mine. Over the mountains is an unwelcoming land, watch your back. Settlers making camp on ancient lands. Fathers drowning in the brisk current of the Rio Grande. For a chance, maybe a tiny fraction of prosperity.  On the other side all  is better. There is happiness.

Yet some propose we can move away from this notion of nation states, removing borders. Scholars, researchers and economists have studied the effect of strict border control and lack of access to first world countries such as the United States. A recent article in The Atlantic  entitled If People Could Immigrate Anywhere, Would Poverty Be Eliminated? is a good first primer to what can feel like an unpalatable idea. The ultimate immigration reform, yes highly Utopian, but the research and data that spur the notion of “open borders” need to be part of the conversation. If just to be contrary, slightly critical and to think beyond the current left-right dichotomy that is halting true immigration reform and stalling progress  for the burgeoning world of global citizens. We already live a border free world online, people work virtually, talk to across lines and ethnic separation everyday without consequence in most cases. Why not make this a reality? The world is already competing for the same resources, sharing from one big pot seems more efficient. Another logical idea, relegated to radical scholarly thought.

But there is plenty of data to make the case that this is not a wacky idea. Michael Clemens, from the Center for Global Development, a think tank in D.C., who has spent over five years compiling statistics states;

Remove all remaining barriers to trade, says Clemens, and all remaining barriers to capital flow, and it still wouldn’t compensate for the inefficiencies created by current global labor mobility restrictions. His research indicates that allowing free movement of all people across international borders could double world GDP.

Economic gain obviously helps the conversation gain traction. But there is also a human element. At first many of the world’s poor would try to leave their home base, to finally take a chance at something new. But eventually I could see that an open border system, would bring some stability and prosperity to more parts of the world. Perhaps families won’t to choose to be torn apart. They could have the freedom to make money and return to their homes without the current struggle and restrictions placed on immigrants. Maybe someone from a first world country would choose to move to another country and learn about another part of the world, stretch their savings or help other people. I know I have always wanted to live in another land, maybe temporarily, but have been restricted by my inability to find a job, have health insurance and other benefits. Or people could simply stop “wanting” to leave their homes and live somewhat simple lives, not in abject poverty, but to just live with peace knowing they don’t have to strive for the “American Dream”. Those families could avoid problems associated with assimilation, connections, loss of family and feeling isolated. Whatever the case, opening borders would bring prosperity to so many more of our fellow citizens. According to Clemens,

Development is about people, not places,” …and often the best way to make a person richer is by allowing them to move to another place. We don’t really care about helping poverty-stricken Liberia, we care about helping poverty-stricken Liberians. It sounds almost too simple at first: A very large percentage of people who have gone from extreme poverty to relative financial stability have done so by moving across borders. So why don’t we just let more people move?

Instead of creating barriers for people, especially blocking a workforce and labor market that could fill certain gaps in different areas in the world, we could benefit by allowing workers to go where there is work. They could avoid being exploited, living lives a nameless individuals living in fear. “The trillions of dollars are lost by not maximizing human potential. Workers in the developing world can be much more productive when they are not locked in places with crumbled infrastructure, poor academic institutions, and mass corruption”.

hunter gatherer

Borders are man made. A mass of land that does not belong to one government or another. Lands belong to people and in some places, people are stuck, unable to move freely as all our ancestors have at one point. Yet we fight to protect an artificial notion that only blocks true progress. This would not remove economic power from those striving so hard to hold onto this structure. As far as I can tell, those at the top would make more money with access to more human capital. But for some, a living wage would make all the difference between life and death.

If you are intrigued, as I was, there is a healthy and vibrant community espousing the ideas of open borders at

One thought on “Removing Borders: The Ultimate Immigration Reform

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  1. I’m all for this kind of utopianism knowing that, if it actually happened, chaos would ensure, for awhile, and lifes would change, for awhile. Some of my colleagues fear it, worrying that ‘others’ would come here and take their jobs. The odd thing is that: 1) our jobs are intellectual and, thus, can already be moved to anywhere where there are intellects; and 2) some of the bigger complainers actually moved here from another country just to do this kind of work.

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