Why Angela Nagle’s “The Left Case Against Open Borders” Should Convince No One
Writing in American Affairs, Angela Nagle argues that the left should oppose “open borders” and high levels of immigration. Nagle’s essay has been rightly criticized for misrepresenting leftist thought on this issue and stripping away a great deal of historical context. However, she does raise a number of substantive arguments that are worth addressing, specifically that open migration policies — a more accurate term than “open borders” — conflict with important leftist goals, limit the development of countries from which people emigrate, and create “a crisis that is fundamental to democracy.”
Before dealing with Nagle’s arguments, it’s important to present the actual leftist case for open borders, particularly because Nagle neglects to present the case or address it in any meaningful way. Let’s begin from first principles that should be uncontroversial to most readers: one, that all people are of equal moral worth; two, that restrictions on people’s freedom requires justification.
With these principles in mind, let’s acknowledge that the intended function of borders is to limit people’s ability to go where they want. In this way, borders strictly limit one’s ability to exercise a basic freedom: the freedom of movement.
This limitation has practical consequences in people’s lives, the largest of which is that people are economically and socially advantaged or disadvantaged on the basis of where they happen to be born. Let’s imagine two people identical aside from their place of birth: Sven (born in Sweden) and Samir (born in Somalia). Each of these men are going to have radically different lives. Due to a literal accident of birth, Sven is likely to enjoy a substantially higher quality of life than Samir.
In this way, our division of the world into states with strict limits on migration begins to resemble the old feudal system. Those of us fortunate enough to be born in wealthy countries are the nobility, enjoying inherited privilege, while those born in poor countries resemble the peasantry. The social arrangement of closed borders extends extraordinarily privileges to certain people on the basis of birth, while limiting opportunity for those born into disadvantaged circumstances to improve their lot. For the same reason leftists do not often defend feudalism, we should have a strong intuition that this whole closed borders arrangement is not morally justifiable.
Anyone attempting to offer a compelling leftist case against open borders must therefore show that a closed borders system is justifiable in spite of its basic moral failings. They must do this by showing that open migration policies produce harms significant enough to justify abrogating principles of both fairness and freedom.
In making her case, Nagle attempts to produce a number of justifications of this sort. Her first, and most important, is an argument that open migration policies threaten key leftist goals. She identifies two ways in which they do so. First: by increasing the supply of labour which undermines unions. Second: by overwhelming the welfare state and public services. Let’s address them in turn.
“There is no getting around the fact”, Nagle writes, “that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced. Open borders and mass immigration are a victory for the bosses.” There is no doubt that, as Nagle points out, union power has deteriorated across developed capitalist countries over the past four decades. But Nagle is asking us to believe that more immigration must lead to weaker unions, and this is not necessarily the case. The strength or weakness of unions is determined by the various economic and legal institutions in a country, not its level of migration.
The reality is that most capitalist states have developed, to one degree or another, a complex web of legal and economic institutions designed to prevent the formation of strong unions. In the United States, the National Labor Relations Act is often ignored without consequence, numerous states have imposed so-called Right-To-Work rules, and anti-union propaganda has soured workers on the labor movement in general. If this were not the case — if unions were already a powerful force in American society — why should we expect the arrival of more legal immigrants to undermine labor? There’s no reason why new workers in an economy with strong unions would not be integrated into that system in much the same way domestic workers entering the labor force for the first time would. In other words, more immigrants would simply mean more union workers.
Nagle is correct on one point, which is that a large population of undocumented immigrants undermines union power. However, this is not because, as she suggests, they are immigrants but rather because they are undocumented. Employers can easily exploit undocumented workers who lack any meaningful access to worker protections or the legal system. For this reason, undocumented workers are a useful tool for employers to avoid paying minimum wages, providing benefits, paying employee taxes, and so on. Undocumented workers are not going to be joining unions. However, it should be obvious that the solution to this problem is not to limit immigration, as Nagle recommends, but to provide documentation to the undocumented, give them access to the legal system, and allow them to organize.
Union power is not determined by the ethnicity or birthplace of workers, but rather the arrangement of legal and economic institutions in a society. To justify her position, Nagle has to show that unions would be stronger if we adjusted just one variable — migration levels — and left everything else the same. She does not succeed in this task.
Nagle suggests another way in which open migration policies might interfere with a leftist agenda, and that is through their impact on the welfare state. She writes: “If ‘no human is illegal!,’ as the protest chant goes, the Left is implicitly accepting the moral case for no borders or sovereign nations at all. But what implications will unlimited migration have for projects like universal public health care and education, or a federal jobs guarantee? And how will progressives convincingly explain these goals to the public?”
There are a number of problems with this argument, the first of which has to do with who uses welfare. Contrary to the nasty trope of the welfare-suckling immigrant living off state largesse, the reality is that native-born Americans and immigrants consume roughly the same amount of welfare. Analysis of Survey of Income and Program Participation data by Matt Bruenig shows that 65.2% of immigrant households and 58.7% of native households used welfare benefits at some point in 2012. Bruenig notes that “there is good reason to think that natives receive the most overall welfare money” because “natives use welfare benefits that tend to have much higher benefit levels.”
Beyond this, we have to grapple with the basic fact that welfare is funded through taxes, and taxes are mostly paid by workers. It’s also a fact that welfare is disproportionately consumed by people who are not in the workforce: the elderly, disabled, children, and so on. In order to fund welfare for an ageing population, an economy needs to expand its workforce through either a high birth-rate or open immigration policies. Most western states do not have high birth-rates, leaving immigration as the only option on the table. Contrary to Nagle’s suggestion that open migration policies could cripple the welfare state, they might be the only way to save it.
That said, who uses welfare and who pays for it are both empirical questions, and it’s easy to trade studies and reports that confirm whatever viewpoint you already happen to have. So for the purposes of this argument, let’s accept Nagle’s contention that open migration policies erode the welfare state, and migration restrictions that limit such erosion are therefore justified. How far does this line of attack actually take her? It appears that Nagle would have to accept open migration up until the point that it started eroding the welfare state. Right now, immigrants account for around 13.5% of the U.S. population. In neighbouring Canada, a country with single-payer healthcare and a more robust welfare state, immigrants make up 20.6% of the population. It stands to reason, therefore, that America could increase the immigrant share of their population by at least 7% without damaging its welfare state. In other words, Nagle’s logic generates the conclusion that the United States could stand to admit at least an additional 23 million immigrants. Strangely, Nagle neglected to mention this during her appearance on Tucker Carlson’s program.
Nagle’s central argument is that open migration policies conflict with leftist goals, but neither prong of her case withstands scrutiny. It is legal and economic institutions designed to bust unions that weaken labor, not immigrants. As for the welfare state, it’s far from clear that open migration threatens its viability — and even if it did, by Nagle’s own reasoning the United States could admit tens of millions more immigrants before it became a factor.
There are two more arguments Nagle advances that are worth addressing. The first is her claim that open migration policies hurt developing countries from which people emigrate. Nagle argues that “Developing countries are struggling to retain their skilled and professional citizens, often trained at great public cost, because the largest and wealthiest economies that dominate the global market have the wealth to snap them up.” This may be the case, but let’s be clear about the point being made: because emigration harms the countries from which skilled workers emigrate, we ought to limit those workers’ freedom to migrate where they choose. The very same logic could be used to justify a general prohibition on emigration (and in fact has been in various totalitarian states throughout history), and we ought to reject it for the same reason we reject that dark outcome. People’s freedom of movement should be respected, and the fact that the exercising of that freedom may harm certain states and benefit others is not a sufficient justification to limit it.
A more generous read of Nagle’s argument here is that she is merely objecting to a system of global commerce that rewards wealthy states and punishes poor, developing countries. If this is the actual case, then her point is well taken — but she has again misidentified the source of the problem. Global wealth and power inequalities have been established over centuries through a variety of mechanisms, many of them violent. Open migration policies are not the bug in an otherwise just international order, and shutting down the borders will not resolve these much deeper problems that are ultimately rooted in well-entrenched power structures. This weaker version of her claim does not give us reason to ditch open migration.
Towards the conclusion of her piece, Nagle raises her third objection almost in passing, but it’s worth lingering on for a moment. She writes:
“But whether they like it or not, radically transformative levels of mass migration are unpopular across every section of society and throughout the world. And the people among whom it is unpopular, the citizenry, have the right to vote. Thus migration increasingly presents a crisis that is fundamental to democracy. Any political party wishing to govern will either have to accept the will of the people, or it will have to repress dissent in order to impose the open borders agenda.”
The claim here is that open migration policies threaten democracy because they are unpopular, and thus can only be preserved through the repression of public will. While their popularity tells us nothing about whether open migration policies are just or not, if maintaining these policies entailed the end of democracy that would certainly be a major problem and potentially a reasonable justification for tightening the borders.
Nagle’s argument depends on it being true that immigration is now historically unpopular. If immigration is not historically unpopular, then it must be the case that at least status quo immigration levels can be sustained without eroding democratic norms or repressing public demands. As it turns out, public support for immigration is actually relatively high compared to historical trends. Since 1967, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they think immigration should be increased, decreased, or remain the same. In 2018, 39% said immigration should remain the same, 29% said it should be decreased, and 28% said it should be increased. Compare this to 1994 when 65% of Americans though immigration should be decreased while only 7% thought it should be increased. While those opposed to migration, like Nagle, are elevated in today’s media environment, there does not appear to be broad public support for closing the borders. In fact, support for increased immigration is at the highest point ever recorded by Gallup. Not only has Nagle’s imagined “crisis […] fundamental to democracy” yet to manifest, it appears that broad public opposition to immigration is at historic lows.
Nagle claims to raise a number of challenges to open migration policies from a leftist perspective, but misfires on every count. She sees “open borders” threatening unions and the welfare state, badly misidentifying the real forces and institutions that undermine worker power. This is a serious problem, and makes Nagle’s arguments particularly dangerous to the left. Making closed borders a part of a leftist agenda lets capitalists off the hook, and ultimately allows them to continue to reproduce the laws and institutions that disenfranchise workers. This scapegoating of migrants is a classic and well-worn tactic in the playbook of right-wing business interests, and it’s sad to see any self-professed leftist fall for it. Nagle imagines herself railing against naïve idealists, decrying “today’s well-intentioned activists [who] have become the useful idiots of big business”. If Nagle is searching for a useful idiot, she would do better to find a mirror.