The writer is chief information officer of an NGO in Guatemala that promotes local governance in developing countries.
What’s the difference between a Mexican and a New Mexican? The former lacked the foresight of being born to American parents. New Mexicans, on the other hand, made the much more strategic choice of entering life with a U.S. birth certificate . This earned them the right to live and work anywhere across the fruited plain, a luxury not afforded to their southern namesakes.
For some stuck on the wrong side of the fence, migrating legally to another country is as impossible as undergoing a full-body skin transplant. Like race, citizenship is an attribute we inherit and have no say over. But while we balk at the idea of letting race determine someone’s legal rights, we unthinkingly support a similar principle based on citizenship.
Few examples illustrate this dissonance better than Loving v. Virginia . In this landmark 1967 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot prohibit interracial marriage. The decision was a response to Virginia state judge Leon Bazile, who declared that God placed the different races on separate continents so that they would not mix. Then, as now, his reasoning was brushed off as quasi-religious racism, yet it echoes the logic behind present-day immigration policies: We are all born on separate blocks of land and may not move without special permission and a visa sponsor.
This guild system of nationalities is not racism. Nor is it nationalism nor nativism. In fact, no word exists to describe it. This is problematic, as our language often defines how we perceive the world. When the word racism entered the English language in the 1930s, it helped draw attention to the racial discrimination that pervaded society. Similarly, we need a term to highlight citizenship-based discrimination. My humble suggestion: borderism.
In many countries, foreigners can take up only jobs that require unique skills, as determined by the government. A Seattle-based company wishing to hire a person from Birmingham, England, rather than Birmingham, Ala., must meet special requirements and pay thousands of dollars in visa fees. Most countries enforce similar immigration policies, making it difficult even for experienced workers to move abroad. A person with little education often has zero chance of obtaining a foreign residency permit.
One could certainly argue that racial discrimination is worse than borderism because it excludes people from opportunities within their own countries. But how much worse? Many aspiring immigrants are born into nations where jobs are nonexistent, corruption is rife and indiscriminate violence plagues daily life. Being legally segregated into poverty and tyranny because of one’s ancestry is a cruel fate, regardless whether it’s because of race or citizenship.
Such a moral argument against borderism may seem obvious — when we bother to examine it — but many support tough immigration restrictions on practical and economic grounds. At the top of this list is the notion that foreigners poach jobs and drain tax-funded services.
But experience shows that freedom of movement is in fact a realistic ideal. The European Union — although raising its walls against the outside world — has all but eliminated borderism within its jurisdiction. E.U. citizens are free to live and work in any of the 28 member states, despite vast economic, political and cultural differences among those nations. This freedom of movement has brought friction and challenges at times, but not to the extent that skeptics feared. Rather, it has improved the lives of millions of migrant workers.
Freedom of movement is also possible without supranational unions. Like trade agreements, nations can establish open and reciprocal immigration treaties. On a practical level, this can mitigate high unemployment and labor shortages, particularly during major economic shifts. It also creates a healthy competition between governments when people can vote with their feet.
Sweden has taken immigration reform one step further. Despite the country’s generous welfare system, the government grants residency permits to any foreigner with a job offer so long as his or her salary matches the industry standard. This prevents exploitation while reducing borderism.
A possible alternative is to decentralize immigration policies. National governments could grant regional governments the right to issue residency permits within their own jurisdictions. Federalist nations such as the United States and Switzerland could lead the way. In a national referendum this year, Switzerland voted for tough restrictions on immigration. However, only a narrow majority of the Swiss cantons supported the proposal. Zurich and Geneva, for example, opposed it. There, and in geographical giants such as the United States, it would make sense to abandon the one-size-fits-all approach in favor of more regional immigration policies.
Still, while practical matters are important, both borderism and racism are ultimately questions of ethics. Inheriting the wrong genes is no longer punishable by law, but inheriting the wrong citizenship is. Borderism is thus a sibling of racism as it subjects our rights to the lottery of life. While many opportunities in life are unequally distributed, our legal rights must always be universal.