Open Borders: Definition, Pros and Cons

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Protestors hold a banner reading 'Open Hearts Open Borders' on Westminster Bridge on January 20, 2017 in London, England. To protest against the inauguration of Donald Trump in the US, the 'Bridges Not Walls' campaign group are dropping banners from over fifty bridges across the UK, showing solidarity with those in the USA who are fearing the possible consequences of Trump's election. Leon Neal / Getty Images

Open borders policies allow people to move freely between countries or political jurisdictions with no restrictions. A country’s borders may be opened because its government either has no border control laws or lacks the resources it needs to enforce immigration control laws. The term “open borders” does not apply to the flow of goods and services or to the boundaries between privately owned properties. Within most countries, borders between political subdivisions like cities and states are typically open.

Key Takeaways: Open Borders

  • The term “open borders” refers to government policies allowing immigrants to enter the country with little or no restriction.
  • Borders may be open due to the absence of border control laws or the lack of resources needed to enforce such laws.
  • Open borders are the opposite of closed borders, which bar the entry of foreign nationals except under extraordinary circumstances.

Open Borders Definition

In its strictest sense, the term “open borders” implies that people may travel to and from a country without presenting a passport, visa, or another form of legal documentation. It does not, however, imply that new immigrants will automatically be granted citizenship.

In addition to fully open borders, there are other types of international borders classified according to their “degrees of openness” depending on the existence and enforcement of border control laws. Understanding these types of borders is critical to understanding the political debate over open borders policies.

Conditionally Open Borders

Conditionally open borders allow people who meet a legally established set of conditions to freely enter the country. These conditions represent exemptions to existing border control laws that would otherwise apply. For example, the United States Refugee Act grants the President of the United States the authority to permit a limited number of foreign nationals to enter and remain in the U.S. if they can prove a “credible and reasonable fear” of racial or political persecution in their home nations. Internationally, the United State along with 144 other nations have agreed to adhere to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which allows people to cross their borders to escape life-threatening situations in their homelands.

Controlled Borders

Countries with controlled border place restrictions—sometimes significant—on immigration. Today, the United States, along with a majority of developed nations have controlled borders. Controlled borders typically require persons crossing them to present a visa or may allow for short term visa-free visits. Controlled borders may impose internal checks to ensure that people who have entered the country are complying with their conditions of entry and have not overstayed their visas, continuing to reside in the country illegally as undocumented immigrants. In addition, physical passage across controlled borders is usually restricted to a limited number of “points of entry,” such as bridges and airports where conditions for entry can be enforced.

Closed Borders

Closed borders completely prohibit the entry of foreign nationals under all but exceptional circumstances. The infamous Berlin Wall that separated the people of East and West Berlin, Germany during the Cold War was an example of a closed border. Today, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea remains one of the few closed borders.

Quota Controlled Borders

Both conditionally open and controlled borders may impose quota entry restrictions based on the entrant’s country of origin, health, occupation and skills, family status, financial resources, and criminal record. The United States, for example, applies an annual per-country immigration limit, also taking into consideration “preferential” criteria such as the immigrant’s skills, employment potential, and relationship to current U.S. citizens or legal permanent U.S. residents.

Main Advantages of Open Borders

Reduces the Cost of Government: Controlling borders creates a financial drain on governments. For example, the United States spent $18.9 billion on border security in 2017, a figure estimated to increase to $23.1 billion in 2019. In addition, during 2018, the U.S. government spent $3.0 billion—$8.43 million per day—to detain illegal immigrants.

Stimulates the Economy: Throughout history, immigration has helped fuel the economies of nations. Often driven by poverty and lack of opportunity, immigrants are often eager to do much-needed work that citizens of their new countries are unwilling to do. Once employed, they contribute to the local economy and society. In a phenomenon dubbed the “immigration surplus,” immigrants in the workforce increase the nation’s level of human capital, inevitably increasing production and raising its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, immigrants increase the GDP of the United States by an estimated $36 to $72 billion per year.

Creates Greater Cultural Diversity: Societies have consistently benefited from ethnic diversity resulting from immigration. The new ideas, skills, and cultural practices brought by new immigrants allow society to grow and thrive. Open borders advocates argue that diversity fuels an environment in which people live and work, thus contributing to greater creativity.

Main Disadvantages of Open Borders

Creates Security Threats: Open borders enable terrorism and crime. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, undocumented immigrants made up 26% total population of federal prisoners in 2018. In addition, U.S. border control officers seized nearly 4.5 million pounds of illegal narcotics at border crossings and ports of entry in 2018.

Drains the Economy: Immigrants increase the economy only if the taxes they pay exceeds the costs they create. This happens only if a majority of immigrants are well-educated and attain higher income levels. Historically, however, many immigrants represent a less-educated, lower-income demographic, thus creating a net drain of the economy.

Countries With Open Borders

While no countries currently have borders that are completely open for worldwide travel and immigration, several countries are members of multi-national conventions that allow free travel between member nations. For example, most nations of the European Union, allow people to travel freely—without visas— between countries which have signed the Schengen Agreement of 1985. This essentially makes most of Europe a single “country” as it applies to internal travel. However, all European countries continue to require visas for travelers coming from countries outside the region.

New Zealand and nearby Australia share “open” borders in the sense that they allow their citizens to travel, live and work in either country with few restrictions. In addition, several other nation-pairs, such as India and Nepal, Russia and Belarus, and Ireland and the United Kingdom share similarly “open” borders.

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