Are Borders Antiquated?

 “A nation is the same people living in the same place … or in different places,” writes James Joyce.

But the most fundamental issue surrounding the nation-state is not debts or central banks but about immigration.

While obviously a dramatic case from history, many immigrants today are fleeing comparable danger to Jews escaping Nazi Germany.

Changing employment patterns is hardly a sufficient reason to hunker down and close our borders.

Can a nation exist without secure borders? To this question, many people who support a lockdown on immigration answer no. For these individuals, the lines drawn on a map are of great importance. What do such boundary lines represent? And does their ambiguity present an existential threat to a nation?

Let’s look first at one of the most controversial cases of nationalism in the world today: Zionism. Then we will address the case of the United States and its concerns about immigration.

Zionism, since its origin in the nineteenth century, situated itself by calling for a homeland for the Jewish people, a group viewed as a persecuted minority. Identifying themselves as a people without a nation, Zionists observed the nation-states of Europe and imagined a similar Jewish state in Palestine.

But did the Jewish people constitute a nation even during the Diaspora when they were living within the borders of other nations?

For decades prior to the unification of Germany by the Prussian army, German literature and collective consciousness alike acknowledged that there was something akin to a German nationality.

It seems like the real question here is not about the existence of national sentiment but, rather, the necessity or advantages of a nation-state. There certainly are many advantages to having a politically strong state. States provide financial confidence over time by ensuring that other governments can trust that loans they make will be repaid in the future. States partake in publicly funding military research, maintaining a central bank, or in the case of the United States in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, propping up failing industries.

But the most fundamental issue surrounding the nation-state is not debts or central banks but about immigration.

What leads people to want to restrict immigration? Some people have said that a nation has a duty only to serve its citizens, and that any threat no matter how small to the safety of those citizens should mean not letting anyone possibly dangerous from elsewhere on to its soil. In general, the attitude that a nation should only serve its citizens sounds like an argument that could justify imperialism: nations providing maximum growth and resources to its citizens, even if it means subjugating or enslaving other peoples. However, I recognize that most promoting nationalism in the United States today are not advocating imperialism.

But what about when refusing to allow foreigners to enter a country causes much suffering? The most famous case of people being turned away from entry into the United States were Jews aboard the ship St. Louis in 1939, fleeing the impending terrors of the Holocaust. Anti-immigration groups claimed that Jews would bring violence with them into the United States. We can, in fairness, imagine the fear that some Americans felt, at the time, about admitting foreigners coming from war-torn parts of the world.

Will critics of immigration defend even this case of denying refugees? While obviously a dramatic case from history, many immigrants today are fleeing comparable danger to Jews escaping Nazi Germany. This historical case asks us to consider whether we ought to always privilege the safety of citizens over that of foreigners.

Lastly, let’s consider the argument for restricting immigration for a non-safety reason. “Mexicans took my job” is a refrain that has been often parodied. Competition within unskilled labor pools is a problem that continues to challenge the United States. Businesses have been outsourcing their factories to Mexico for such cheap labor for much the same reasons that Mexicans seek work in America. The loss of jobs in the United States is a problem not only caused by outsourcing to countries often with few laws regarding minimum wage or on-the-job-safety—but also by technological obsolescence, a trend that economist Joseph Schumpeter celebrated as “creative destruction.”

Of course these revolutions in labor-saving devices bring with them improvements in cost-saving and efficiency, but untold numbers of workers lose their jobs . What counts as a “net” gain for the economy has come at the cost of the wages of the workers in question. Something similar happens with immigration. Relatively cheap immigrant labor, people who are willing to work longer hours for less pay, is a great cost-saving boon to American businesses.

If we are concerned about the plight of the unemployed, there are other ways to provide assistance to those displaced from their jobs than to artificially restrict the abundant supply of labor. Investments can be made in helping the unemployed acquire new skills and reacclimate themselves to a different economic environment. Since many supporters of nationalism can concede in the case of the Jewish refugees the value in sometimes allowing foreigners to enter one’s country and most reject imperialism, the major remaining hang-up is undercutting wages of American workers. However, changing employment patterns is hardly a sufficient reason to hunker down and close our borders.

Cameron Peltz is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in public policy. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s College.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *