06/12/2018 15:12 EDT | Updated 06/12/2018 15:15 EDT

It's Time For Canada To Truly Open Its Borders

An open-borders policy entails that all people regardless of citizenship, origin, wealth or skills are permitted to enter Canada.

Between Jan. 1 and April 30, 7,600 asylum seekers crossed irregularly from the U.S. into Canada and were apprehended by the RCMP.

Theseborder crossings are often blamed on a tweet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from January 2017 in reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump's travel ban: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you."

I suggest that Trudeau's well-intended tweet did not go far enough. He should have presented an open-borders vision to counter xenophobic rhetoric, anti-immigrant panic and suspicion emanating from south of the border and discourage similar sentiments from gaining momentum in Canada.

An open-borders policy entails that all people regardless of citizenship, origin, wealth or skills are permitted to enter Canada, and no one would need to cross the border irregularly. Criminals, however, could still be stopped for smuggling or trafficking.

This open-borders scenario may be dismissed as absurd. But so was gender equality 100 years ago. Even though we still have a long way to go to achieve equality between women, men and LGTBQ+ people, today many Canadians are proud that the bold vision of equality has guided their political path.

By embracing an open-border vision, Canada could reassert itself as a world leader of forward-looking migration policies.

Unfortunately, Canada is losing this opportunity.

Getty Images
A couple claiming to be from Turkey is warned by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer before they cross the U.S.-Canada border into Canada on Feb. 23, 2017 in Hemmingford, Que.

Rather than embracing the 7,600 asylum seekers who arrived in Canada in the first four months of this year, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen responded that "we do not appreciate or welcome irregular migration" and that there is "no free ticket to Canada." The Liberal government wants to spend an additional $173 million to prevent unauthorized border crossing — a figure that conservatives say is not enough.

What if Hussen had instead announced that we appreciate and welcome all migration, and are working on dismantling immigration barriers?

As a political aspiration, the open-borders vision does not mean that border controls must immediately be abolished. Our welfare, health care, education and other public service systems are not set up to cope with free migration. As borders are gradually opened, we would need to find ways to ensure that health care and other social services are paid for, that everyone is making equitable contributions, and that our labour and educational standards are protected. By the same token, open borders would mean that foreign seasonal agricultural workers could stay and actually redeem the employment insurance and other contributions they are making.

The case can be made from across the political spectrum.

What speaks especially for open borders as a political aspiration is that the case can be made from across the political spectrum.

Political liberals argue that denying people entry into a country based on the citizenship they acquired at birth is akin to feudal privilege. Modern democracies reject such birth privilege. If borders were open, then a person born in a country with unfavourable conditions could move to a country where conditions are more favourable. Free cross-border mobility should be a fundamental liberty. Liberal thinkers like Phillip Cole pursue such arguments.

Free-market supporters would agree. Distorting the free mobility of labour across national borders causes economic inefficiencies. By eliminating this source of market distortion, open borders would reduce international wage differentials and improve the economic efficiency of national and global economies. None other than Ronald Reagan suggested during the 1980 U.S. presidential primary debate to "open the border both ways" between the U.S. and Mexico so that workers can enter the U.S. and pay taxes there.

Chris Helgren / Reuters
Signs pointing to pedestrian and cycle routes are seen outside a Canada Border Service Agency crossing at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont.

Critics of market capitalism, such as British author and activist Teresa Hayter, also support open borders. They argue that borders are an instrument of oppression. Border restrictions apply predominantly to poor and low-skill workers, creating what Karl Marx once called a "labour reserve army" that can be exploited in low-wage countries, such as Mexico or Bangladesh, where wages and labour standards are low. Open borders would eliminate this source of exploitation.

The list of positions supporting open borders goes on: open border would be a way to end a form of global apartheid; cross-border mobility would disproportionately benefit women; remittances would help distribute the benefits of open borders to the global south; and even conservative Christian voices advocate for open borders.

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From a practical viewpoint, open borders would prevent thousands of deaths every year globally. At last count, the International Organization for Migration recorded more than 1,400 migrant fatalities worldwide in 2018 alone — almost 800 lives were lost in the Mediterranean Sea and 113 along the U.S.-Mexico border. And these numbers keep rising. Borders have become deadly because states are keeping migrants from crossing them. Opening them would stop the deaths.

Borders are already largely open to information and the environment. Over the last 40 years, we have also relinquished much control over the cross-border movement of money, goods and services through international trade agreements. Open borders for people are the logical next step. Regressing to mid-20th Century nationalism — as Donald Trump apparently seeks to achieve — is a path many Canadians reject.

Because the case for open borders can be made from various ideological and practical positions, it serves as a powerful political vision to counter the closed-border rhetoric steeped in fear and intolerance. With so much xenophobic rhetoric, anti-migrant panic and suspicion on the rise in many parts of the world, we need this bold vision more than ever.

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