Interview: Borders Abolitionist Steven Sacco

Interview: Borders Abolitionist Steven Sacco

In this interview Open Borders Advocate Steven Sacco explains the emerging political idea of open borders, and why it is the subject of such opposition. Steven is a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society of New York City, where he represents people in removal proceedings.

Open borders is a topic that is talked about a lot in the media and political sphere. For example, Donald Trump has tweeted that the “Liberal Left, also known as the Democrats, want to get rid of ICE, who do a fantastic job, and want Open Borders. Crime would be rampant and uncontrollable. Make America Great Again”.  It seems like this is a topic that can be easily misunderstood. Can you explain what the term ‘open borders’ actually means?

Tragically, the Democratic party has never endorsed open borders. When actual open borders advocates use that phrase, we are endorsing free migration across international boundaries as unrestricted as, say, present day migration is between U.S. states. Some might also use the term to describe equal treatment under the law once people cross that boundary, such as ensuring non-U.S. citizens have the same right as citizens to work, live, vote and remain within the U.S. This effectively ties citizenship to chosen residence, rather than birthplace or ancestry. Still others might add to these the abolition of nationality altogether, endorsing states without nations. I happen to fall into the last camp.

Like most political ideas, “open borders” is a virtue for some, and an epithet for others. A fascist like Trump uses the phrase as a racially charged incendiary device that telegraphs the white supremacist message that people of color are inherently dangerous, which is why crime is invoked in the same breath. A Trumpist-fascist would call any movement across borders “open borders” because all migration is threatening when your goal is ethnic cleansing.

Is the right to migrate, free of restrictions, a human right? If so, how? Under a specific treaty, or simply ideologically?

While the right to leave your state of nationality is protected under international law, the right to migrate into nation states where you do not have citizenship is not yet recognized under international law at all. It is legally precluded by the nation state’s alleged right to exclude non-citizen human beings from its territory. But like the rights to freedom from slavery, to unionize, to vote and countless others before it, the right to migrate will need to be imagined, believed in, and fought for before it can become law.

An article in Foreign Affairs, a platform about U.S. foreign policy states that:

But except for a few progressive firebrands, essentially no one on the political left is explicitly advocating for the abolishment of all immigration restrictions. The open borders case is instead a darling of intellectual libertarian circles.

Is this the case? If so/not, why?

 No, not the case. In New York City alone there are at least two organizations that I am familiar with, and likely more that I’m not, which advocate for some form of open borders – the New Sanctuary Coalition and the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. There are indeed multiple outspoken libertarians who would endorse open borders, but there are also, if not as well known, many voices on the left who agree, albeit for ideologically different reasons. In fact, these diverse ideologies came together in the first annual Open Borders Conference just this past October, in Washington D.C.

 Comments like these ignore or forget that closed borders are a historically new phenomenon and thus neither natural nor inevitable. They also imply that a small movement is not worth growing only because it’s small, which is a defense of the status quo disguised as an observation.   

 What is your response to critics of open borders who argue that the policy has a severe, depressing effect on wages and therefore hurts US workers? (For example here and here)

 Let’s assume this is true. The border abolitionist perspective is that this is an argument to raise the minimum wage and ensure everyone an equal right to work – problem solved. But there’s a deeper dilemma here. There is a reason, although not a rational one, why, for example, New Jerseyans are not concerned with Pennsylvanians “taking their jobs,” and Illinoisans are not concerned with Kansans bringing down “their” wages. That is because people believe, at least very generally, that “Americans” are equally entitled to compete for “American” resources. And that is because they imagine themselves to be part of the same national community. If the world is seen through a non-national lens, or if humanity is regarded as a single nation, then everyone is entitled to compete for every wage or job. If hypothetically, we learned the Kansans were bringing down the wages of Illinoisans, we would regard this as an economic problem, not a migration problem. Borders and nationalism merely cloud our judgment in all things “international.”

 In other words, nationalists don’t truly take issue with competition for jobs and wages – only with the nationality of those that do. Just like, when it was common for white Americans to rage against black Americans “taking their jobs,” it wasn’t job competition white workers hated, but the race of other workers. Ditto when women began “taking men’s jobs” - resistance was about the gender, not the job. Job loss, crime, welfare use – all were just proxy arguments for white/male supremacy; likewise, those same “problems” are proxy arguments for nationalism. An open border introduces true equality, and equality always appears oppressive to the privileged.

 If you became President of the United States tomorrow, how would you operationalize open borders?

Since the President can’t change federal law without Congress, I would propose to Congress legislation that abolishes all immigration law and replaces it with just one rule: All persons physically present in the United States are citizens of the United States. I wouldn’t be a popular president, but that is the task ahead of us: to move popular opinion toward the freedom and equality of open borders, and away from the tyranny and violence of closed ones.

 Broadly speaking, assuming open borders gained support in a number of powerful countries, what would be some of the challenges of creating a global open borders regime?

 Closed-border apologists typically fear major population shifts or the alleged economic “burden” of new people. But no one worries about West Virginians crowding into Hawaii, or New Yorker retirees “flooding” Florida; more people mean more workers, more tax revenue, more business, more jobs. This is not a defense of capitalism (I’ll leave that to the libertarians), this is a defense of equality: If Americans have a right to move and enjoy recognition as agents of economic growth, then so does everyone else. There is no anxiety over internal migration because the alleged challenges of migration are just pretext for xenophobia. The only real challenge to open borders is the white rage and nationalism that they, like all movements for equality, stoke. The problem is not migration, but the hypocritical failure to accept equality. Migrant oppression is a problem of oppression, not migration.

 How are you advocating for open borders?

 All defiance of immigration restrictions is a form of advocacy for free migration. The people doing the hardest work fighting for the right to migrate, and putting their bodies and liberty on the line to do it, are the millions living undocumented in states they were not born in, all over the world. Being undocumented is an act of civil disobedience. Migration is visionary politics.

I advocate for open borders by following those engaged in this self-liberation. That means supporting organizations led by affected people and speaking publicly about their right to migrate. Notably the prison abolition movement, and organizations like Critical Resistance, have a lot to teach us about how to live an abolitionist politics in a carceral society, or by analogy, a border abolitionist politics in a closed-borders world.  

If you would like to advocate for open borders, please consider volunteering your time and passion with an openly pro-open borders, affected person-led organization, such as the New Sanctuary Coalition or the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, or any number of other organizations in your area.

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