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Borders kill, but it doesn't have to be that way
The world does so love a cage
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In this installment of the “Ship’s Log”, more personal entries on the beats we cover for paid subscribers, we take a look at the global trend towards xenophobia. The world hasn’t always been this way, and there is no reason it has to be. Even as we grow more connected digitally by the day, countries across the globe are trending towards militarized borders and more closed societies. Why?
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We live in a world of cages. We were born into a system, and for many of us, it is difficult to imagine anything else. We assume that the world must be a global caste system of passports and deadly border regulation, because anything else is “unrealistic”, “implausible” or “radical”.
As the modern world lurches towards ever more xenophobic and draconian measures to restrict and punish those who would dare to try and live somewhere else, it is even tempting at times to believe that the new normal is simply a perhaps imperfect system for which there is no other option.
But it is not.
Alternatives to the dystopian system we have created are not merely the fever dreams of your humble author, one cynical journalist who has spent enough time on borders to have seen firsthand the suffering, pain and even death they inflict.
Indeed the opposite is true. It isn’t difficult to imagine alternatives to the current paradigm because for the vast majority of human history borders only mattered to armies and tax collectors.
The idea of not classifying human beings based on the x and y coordinates they happened to be born at on a map is a new invention— one that began only in the 20th Century. It is also one that has proven useful to those with power, and those with money who would exploit those who do not.
Passports were invented by the League of Nations during the first World War, and meant to be a temporary measure. When they were implemented, the agreeing nations did so only with the stipulation that signatories promise to “secure and maintain freedom of communications and of transit.” for all peoples.
But walls and police states proved easier to build than to dismantle, and since 1922, when the measure was adopted, those restrictions have only become more brutal— and more deadly.
The US-Mexico border, under President Joe Biden, has become the deadliest land-border in the world. The UN International Office on Migration (IOM) confirmed 686 deaths and disappearances in 2022, though they are careful to point out the true figure is likely much higher as many deaths go unreported as are an unknown number of those who go missing.
Nearly half of those confirmed deaths occurred in remote desert regions, as people have been increasingly forced into more dangerous routes by U.S. policies that have effectively made legal migration impossible for the majority of Latin America, and dismantled guarantees for the internationally recognized right to asylum.
As I write these words, more than 2,000 people have gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe in 2023— nearly 30,000 since 2014.
The U.N. confirmed In Latin America 1,457 migrant deaths and disappearances throughout the Americas in 2022. In all regions, the IOM believes the real numbers to be much higher.
Clearly, our current system comes with a cost.
But the trend for decades globally, and one that has increased dramatically in recent years, is towards further restrictions on global movement. Why?
In large part due to politicians who are willing to lie to win elections. Politicians have found that stoking our fears and selling lies about the supposed damage migrants cause is an easy way to win elections— and as a bonus tactic that only alienates migrants, the majority of whom in many countries cannot vote.
But the interesting thing about the lies told by those who would stoke hatred in an attempt to gain power is that they are easily disproved. Thus far, I have presented the moral problems with our current system, and for me these are the hardest arguments to ignore, being the most dire.
But luckily for us, abolishing this horrific system isn’t only the right thing to do— it would benefit us directly as well by every nearly measurable economic and social measure.
I spend a lot of time talking about borders publicly, and so have naturally heard a lot of people arguing, erroneously, that they need to be restricted. I have yet to encounter a single valid, data-based anti-migration argument.
If you have one, feel free to drop it in the comments. I love debunking that stuff. You could even say I view it as a moral obligation. But in the meantime, I want to (very) briefly address the two most common anti-arguments and explain why they are wrong.
Let’s start with one of the most common false claims globally: “Immigrants will take our jobs, lower our wages and especially hurt the poor”
To explain why this claim is false, we need to first explain a bit what immigrants do when they arrive in their destination countries. We have two real-world examples to study this! Colombia, which absorbed more than 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants between 2015 and 2020, and decades of data from the US, which has seen a rise in migration in recent years.
When a population grows for any reason, spending and consumption grow as well. Put simply, those people buy goods. They need food, clothes, diapers, transportation, housing, milk and a million other consumer goods. They also need to work to pay for those goods.
This increases both supply and demand sides of the economy. This growth to the economy, which raises the GDP of the receiving country, means demand for labor increases. All of that is to say, migrants create jobs through both supply and demand-side growth.
This is true of almost all sectors across the entire economy.
“But what if a bunch of migrant laborers arrive that all want to work in just a few industries?” you ask, “won’t that depress wages for those workers?”
I’m so glad you asked! The short answer is no. Colombia was an amazing test case for this question because in practice, they conducted one of the biggest open-border experiments in modern history with Venezuela. The Colombian National Chamber of Commerce spent years studying the effects this migration had on wages, and the data is overwhelmingly clear.
Between 2015 and 2020, at the height of the Venezuelan migration, Colombia experienced record growth, fueled in part by migration. The study found a temporary and small hit to domestic workers who worked informally, but wages grew for everyone else. And unemployment dropped.
“Migrants, especially poor migrants, bring crime to the countries they arrive in”
This is one of the most common misconceptions I encounter about migration. And it is one that is often harped upon by politicians.
If you examine any large group of people anywhere, there are going to be some bad actors within that group, and these are the examples often magnified by politicians, or media companies bent on demonizing migrants.
But in different countries, on different continents, at different income levels, the statistics tell a very different story. Migrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than natural-born citizens. That is to say, they lower crime rates in their destination countries.
Public perception however, stoked by misinformation (and disinformation), often focuses on cases that are the exception rather than the norm and magnifies the idea that migrants are dangerous.
I’ve written many pieces debunking false arguments about migration, and I welcome you to read more on the subject. But the takeaway here is: there is no rational reason for the current system we have. Most of the people who tell you that there is have simply been misinformed— though some have much darker motives.
The trend away from freedom of movement is global, and it is omni-partisan. We live in a world increasingly dominated by walls and cages. Though passports may have been introduced in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the last three decades that militarization has become widespread.
There is no rational reason the trend need continue. One point infrequently mentioned in these debates is that cages don't just keep others locked out— they keep us locked in as well.
Border policy as it stands now kills— across countries and across regions. There is a lot of room for debate in how that could be changed for the better, but when someone tells you “That’s just how it has to be”, they’re mistaken.
Not only can it be different, it already has been.
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