Open Borders: Definition, Pros and Cons

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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 by choice or because it lacks the resources needed 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 Definitions

In the 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” as determined by the enforcement of border control laws. Understanding these types of borders is critical to understanding the political debate over open border 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 States along with 148 other nations have agreed to adhere to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocols, which allow people to cross their borders to escape life-threatening situations in their homelands.

Controlled Borders

Countries with controlled borders place restrictions—sometimes significant—on immigration. Today, the United States and 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.

Controlled borders typically require physical barriers, such as rivers, oceans, or fences to ensure that the border controls are not bypassed. People wishing to cross the border are directed to authorized border crossing points where any conditions of entry can be properly monitored. Controlled borders also require internal checks and internal enforcement within the jurisdiction to ensure that people who have entered the country for work, holidays, study, and other reasons are complying with any entry conditions and not overstaying temporary visas to reside illegally or as undocumented residents. By legislative statute, as in the U.S., most international borders are controlled borders. However, where there is a lack of adequate internal enforcement or where the borders lack physical barriers, the border is often controlled only on parts of the border, while other parts of the border may remain open to such an extent that it may be considered an open border due to lack of supervision and enforcement.

Since taking office in January 2021, the administration of President Joe Biden has been faced with a growing number of migrants at the US-Mexico border, many of whom are now from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Recently released U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that in fiscal year 2022, border authorities had encountered more than 2 million migrants, some of whom repeatedly tried to cross the border. The data showed a marked increased from fiscal year 2021 when there were more than 1.7 million such encounters.

While control of the U.S. border with Mexico remains a source of political debate, the border is guarded by a powerful and well-funded national security agency. The U.S. Border Patrol has nearly doubled in enforcement capacity since 2000, from fewer than 10,000 agents to more than 19,500 in 2020. President Biden has requested $97.3 billion in funding for the Department of Homeland Security for fiscal year 2023, including billions of dollars for border security and internal immigration enforcement. 

Additionally, the Biden administration has limited the opportunity to apply for asylum for many migrants at the border by continuing the controversial usage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 public health authority initiated under the Donald Trump administration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the administration has carried out more than 1 million expulsions in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2022, on top of the more than one million deportations conducted during the fiscal year 2021.

However, on November 16, 2022, a US District Court gave the Biden administration five weeks to end all enforcement of Title 42, finding it to be an “arbitrary and capricious” policy that violated federal regulatory law. But when it ends, the Title 42 system will be replaced by an expanded application of Title 8 proceedings that were in place at the border before COVID and which can bring criminal charges for repeated improper entries, thus further adding to the administration’s border enforcement capabilities. Rather than specifying COVID, Title 8 defines an inadmissible alien as, “Any alien who is determined … to have a communicable disease of public health significance; …”

On March 28, 2022, President Biden submitted his Fiscal Year 2023 budget proposal to Congress, a $5.8 trillion request containing $56.7 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and $1.4 billion for the Department of Justice’s immigration courts. The request includes a 700% funding increase for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and an 80% increase for the immigration courts. Of that request, the administration has requested $765 million specifically for caseload and backlog reductions. The discretionary funding is intended to decrease rising asylum backlogs, improve refugee processing, and address the historic backlog of applications for work authorization, naturalization, green cards, and other immigration benefits.

For 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) will receive 13% more funding than in 2021, with the administration’s request of $15.3 billion to hire an additional 300 Border Patrol agents and 300 officials to process the paperwork and applications of undocumented people entering the country at the southwest border. The budget prioritizes improvements to border processing and management, with funding earmarked to “enforce immigration law, further secure U.S. borders and ports of entry, and effectively manage irregular migration along the Southwest border.” The budget requests $309 million in modern border security technology and $494 million for “noncitizen processing and care costs.

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 an 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 an immigrant’s skills, employment potential, and relationship to current U.S. citizens or legal permanent U.S. residents.

Main Advantages of Open Borders

Some of the main arguments in favor of open borders are:

Controlling borders creates a financial drain on governments. For example, the United States budgeted $1.6 billion for a new border wall along the Gulf of Mexico and $210.5 million to hire Border Patrol Agents in 2019 alone. In addition, during 2018, the U.S. government spent $3.0 billion—$8.43 million per day—to detain undocumented immigrants.

Throughout history, immigration has helped fuel the economies of many nations. In a phenomenon dubbed the “immigration surplus,” immigrants in the workforce increase a nation’s level of human capital, inevitably increasing production and raising its annual Gross Domestic Product. For example, immigrants increase the GDP of the United States by an estimated $36 to $72 billion per year.

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 harmoniously, thus contributing to greater creativity.

Main Disadvantages of Open Borders

Some of the main arguments against open borders are:

Some opponents of open borders argue that open borders lead to increased crime. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, undocumented immigrants made up 37% total population of federal prisoners as of 2019. 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.

Some opponents of open borders also argue that immigrants only contribute to economic growth if the taxes they pay exceed the costs they create. This happens only if a majority of immigrants attain higher income levels. Historically, opponents contend, many immigrants receive below-average incomes, thus creating a net drain on the economy.

Large-scale immigration from poorer countries into richer countries can create a "brain drain" in the source country, where educated professionals leave their home country to live elsewhere, depriving their home countries of an educated workforce. For example, in 2010 more Ethiopian doctors were living in Chicago than there were living in all of Ethiopia itself.

In the United States, it has been argued that it may cause increased backlash from the white population who carry a majority of the political vote. This backlash includes preventing immigrants' access to basic forms of government or community support as well as the creation of policies that specifically criminalize immigrants. 

Countries With Open Borders

While no countries currently have borders that are completely open for worldwide travel and immigration, several countries are members of multinational 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 that 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. Several other nation-pairs such as India and Nepal, Russia and Belarus, and Ireland and the United Kingdom share similarly “open” borders.

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. The 1951 Refugee Convention.” UNHCR. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

  2. "Budget-in-Brief Fiscal Year 2019." U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

  3. The Math of Immigration Detention, 2018 Update: Costs Continue to Multiply.” National Immigration Forum. 9 May 2018.

  4. Benefits of Immigration Outweigh the Costs,

  5. Bump, Philip. “Want to Know Where Most Drugs Cross the Border? Look at the Border Patrol's News Releases.” The Washington Post, 1 Feb. 2019.

  6. Bump, Philip. “Want to Know Where Most Drugs Cross the Border? Look at the Border Patrol's News Releases.” The Washington Post, 1 Feb. 2019.

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Longley, Robert. "Open Borders: Definition, Pros and Cons." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, December 1). Open Borders: Definition, Pros and Cons. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Open Borders: Definition, Pros and Cons." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).