Why borders are unethical
Talk dismantles xenophobic arguments
On Thursday, March 9, Mcgill students and community members gathered for a lecture co-hosted by the Institute for Liberal Studies and the Research Group on Constitutional Studies. The lecture was given by Peter Jaworski, an Assistant Teaching Professor at Georgetown University, who explored the question of whether nations have an ethical obligation to open borders around the world.
Jaworski began with a personal history of his immigration experience. He was born in communist Poland and became a refugee in West Germany at the age of six. In 1992, after three years of living as a refugee, Jaworski and his family immigrated to Canada, and then again to the United States.
“In December of 2016 I became a permanent resident of the United States of America. So you can see that [...] I’ve been immigrating most of my life,” said Jaworski. “This is why this issue matters so much to me.”
Liberty, or the right to curtail it?
Jaworski began his argument by explaining the presumption of liberty, on which his later arguments would be premised.
“We can just begin with the assumption that people have the right to do whatever it is they want to do, and if you want to stop them [...] you have to give a good reason for why you have the right to stop them,” said Jaworski. “If we accept the presumption of liberty then clearly borders require moral justification.”
“We live in a world of sovereign states, in a world of borders,” he said. “So you might begin this discussion [...] with a different assumption, namely, the right to enforce borders.”
“It’s still true that some rules are morally justified and some are not. [...] Having a right to do things like enforce borders doesn’t mean that any enforcement of borders is morally rightful.” Jaworski continued, claiming, “We overestimate the weight of the reasons that we think we have for having borders.”
Why keep people out?
Jaworski then outlined four common arguments given for enforcing national borders: cultural and political differences, anxiety over job availability, fear of crime, and social insurance.
Jaworski pointed out that xenophobic fears around, on the one hand, job availability, and on the other, crime and social insurance actually contradict one another. If immigrants are in fact ‘stealing jobs,’ they must be earning wages, which would preclude the necessity of supporting themselves through welfare or criminal activity.
Where should borders be?
Jaworski continued by taking the above arguments made in favor of strong national borders to their logical conclusion: “If culture, jobs, crime, and social insurance are really good reasons to have borders, then they should determine where we put those borders.”
Displaying a map which broke North America down into cultural regions instead of countries and states, he pointed to the hypocrisy of using cultural differences as an excuse for border security.
“This is an attempt to identify groups of people who share similar cultural outlooks,” he explained. “Notice that the cultural similarities don’t neatly follow where the borders actually are. In fact, where we have borders now separates similar cultural groups.
“If culture really mattered that much to us,” concluded Jaworski, “then there should be movements for people to set up borders along cultural lines.”
Who gets to stay?
Jaworski continued with another logical assertion following from the initial arguments that he was trying to break down: “If culture, crime, jobs and social insurance are good reasons to keep people out then they should be just as good reasons to kick certain of us insiders out.”
Yet Canada, he pointed out, has not proposed a citizen deportation plan for those individuals who commit crimes or take disproportionate advantage of welfare. Similarly, some Canadians hold religious beliefs that are at odds with other fellow citizens and this has yet to inspire a movement to redefine borders.
“Why not get right at the heart of the problem and decide to limit freedom of religion?” he asked rhetorically, implying that, should anxiety around a particular religious group be taken to its logical conclusion, this would be antithetical to our society’s nominal commitment to the fundamental human rights of speech and belief.
Concerning the fear that immigrants would flood the workforce, Jaworski argued that this was nonsensical.
“There are two ways to increase the size of Canada’s population,” he said. “The first is to import people into Canada. The second way is to [...] make new Canadians. It turns out that here in this country just anybody can have a baby. [...] You don’t need a license, you don’t need to fill out any paperwork. It doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic status is.”
“Foreigners come and they take our jobs and that’s [...] a reason to keep them out,” Jaworski continued. “Some Canadians have babies and what happens when those babies grow up? They take our jobs.”
He used a similar argument to contend that the draining of social insurance is not a valid reason to enforce national borders.
“If you want to know about net-tax consumers,” Jaworski told his audience, “consider babies. They are completely unproductive. [...] But that’s [considered] OK because we talk about that like it’s an investment.”
Old hatred, new target
Jaworski referenced another popular rationalization for antiimmigrant sentiment: the notion that the threat from abroad has never been so large as it supposedly is today. After displaying a number of political cartoons from different moments in the history of the U.S. and Canada, he drew the audience’s attention to the similar language of hatred that has been directed at so many different groups through the years.
After quoting speeches by various politicians vilifying immigrants and ethnic minorities over the centuries, Jaworski finished his lecture by connecting this parade of historical fear tactics with a reference to the current political climate. Showing a picture of a bowl of Skittles, he referenced a now-infamous tweet by Donald Trump Jr., son of the current U.S. President, which likened Syrian refugees to the candy in a dehumanizing and wildly innacurate attempt to portray them as a potential menace to American society.
Scaremongering rhetoric around immigrants and refugees from the Muslim-majority nations, Jaworski argued, is simply the latest form of unfounded and illogical bigotry which we have been directing at foreigners for centuries, as a way to justify restrictive border security.
In conclusion, Jaworski explained that while he accepts the existence of borders for administrative purposes, he firmly believes that all borders should be open, and that people should be able to live wherever they choose.
“We overestimate the weight of the reasons that we think we have for having borders.” –Peter Jaworski Assistant Teaching Professor at Georgetown University