Book Review of "Against Borders: Why the World Needs Free Movement of People"

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

In his new book Against Borders: Why The World Needs Free Movement Of People, Alex Sager makes an expansive and persuasive case for open borders. Grounded in principles of equality, this is a timely out-cry against global immigration restrictions he feels are rooted in racism. From the beginning Sager posits this debate as one of morality, and his commitment to equality is the force that runs throughout the book, giving his argument a sense of hope and ambition.  For Sager, contemporary immigration controls are born out of racism, and uphold and perpetuate inequality along racialised lines.  At a time when thousands across the globe are taking to the streets to protest against structural racism that permeates society, there is a strong sense of the need for education on this subject. This book will be a valuable tool to anyone seeking not only to understand the structural racism of migration law, but how it might be dismantled.  Sager begins by clarifying that he is not arguing for a borderless world.  He maintains that freedom of movement should not interfere with the “jurisdictional boundaries of the territorial state” (13) or undermine state sovereignty.  In Chapter 2 Sager makes the case for freedom of movement as a human right; mobility is not only essential to being human but it also unlocks other rights.  

Chapter 3: Open Border and Distributive Justice, is at once the most persuasive and most relevant part of Sager’s argument.  Quoting Joseph Carens, who called citizenship in Western states “the modern equivalent of feudal privilege - an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life’s chances” (34), Sager argues that borders concentrate wealth in particular states, and allow those states to deny access to those who happen to be born in poorer countries.  These borders, he says, exist within as well as outside the state; when immigrants are denied the same rights as citizens, the border is moved inside the territory.  In this way, inequalities are perpetuated both between and within states.  Readers with an interest in UK immigration law will recall the NHS surcharge and the No Recourse to Public Fundscondition, which internalise the border by limiting the rights of migrants in the country, making them ‘quasi-citizens’.

Sager cites Rhonda Magee who traces the roots of racialised immigration policy back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade; for Magee this “founded a racially segmented labour-based immigration system”, and “finds parallels in how immigrants are socially and culturally constructed as ‘non citizens’ or ‘quasi-citizens’” (36).  To support the notion that immigration restrictions are racialised Sager focuses on the US, offering the example of ‘Operation Wetback’ in the 1950s, the mass deportation of people of Mexican heritage, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which imposed a migration cap on every country in the world, resulting in the “illegalization” of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans.  It is not difficult to bring to mind similar examples from elsewhere in the world.  In the UK, the hostile environment policy of 2016 has meant that non-white people are far more likely to be challenged to prove their rights to live in this country and to be denied services (see for example the discriminatory Right to Rent Scheme). In Chapter 4 Sager offers a powerful denunciation of the inherent violence of Border Controls, calling them disproportionate, “political theatre”, designed to force migrants to return or abandon claims for asylum, and to deter immigration. While his examples are again largely restricted to the US, they are nonetheless compelling and recall similar border control techniques across the globe, particularly immigration raids, detention, denying the rights of children through traumatic separations, and the “psychological violence” of the constant threat of detention.  Could border control exist without violence?  He refutes the idea of reform, arguing that to exclude people from opportunities requires “actively constructing people as inferior, subordinate and exploitable to uphold racialised hierarchies” (58). Since border controls are connected to racialisation and racism, they encourage dehumanisation and violence against migrants (52).   In the following two chapters Sager outlines and confronts a number of objections to open borders.  After the momentum of the first half of the book, these chapters feel a little disappointing.  On the question of whether a community has the right to self-determination through exclusion, Sager is dismissive.  He argues against analogies between states and clubs, that it is wrong to assume that states embody any “unified, common will”.  This feels incomplete.  Perhaps a state community is a fiction, but the reality of increased, localised migration is that smaller, tangible communities are altered in very real ways. Barking and Dagenham, for example, is an area in London which has seen a huge demographic shift since the beginning of the century, and a failure to engage with these kinds of realities weakens his argument. 

Chapter 6 promises to address the idea that increased immigration might interfere with a country's cultural goal of establishing a national identity, and social goals of economic security and healthcare.  However, to a European audience this chapter will feel significantly lacking in its failure to deal with Brexit, especially since Sager consistently refers to freedom of movement within the EU to support his arguments.  While the “cultural” argument may well hinge on wrongly attributing certain values to certain groups, and the idea of Western values “rests on an indefensible division of the world” (81), history has shown that - certainly in the UK - these concepts are real in the minds of a large number of people. This chapter would have been strengthened by an engagement with such initiatives as the National Conversation, a public consultation which aimed to understand local perceptions of immigration across the UK, and to engage civil society on immigration policy.  

In the final Chapter, Resistance and Refusal (or Toward a World of Open Borders), Sager returns to the energy seen at the beginning of the book with a call to action.  This chapter begins with an account of the gilets noires in Paris; illegalised migrant workers who protest against the restrictions they face to regularisation and basic rights.  By insisting on the legitimacy of migrants’ resistance to border control, he continues and solidifies an important element of his argument: if global inequalities will be addressed through the migration of the excluded, then ultimately the action belongs to migrants. That is, the role of governments who wish to alleviate poverty abroad is not to funnel aid and deploy development strategies, but to dismantle an unjust immigration system, thus allowing poorer societies to access opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty.    Though he concedes that this is a time of increasingly restrictive migration controls - with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and Trump’s consistent nationalist rhetoric - Sager is convinced of the feasibility of open-borders, and in the imperative to work toward this kind of world.  Some may read a cruel irony in the timing of this publication, when coronavirus has hugely accelerated the dismantling of migration (see Alan Gamlen’s recent working paper on this).  While the open-bordered world that Sager advocates certainly feels far away at this point, his depiction of the global immigration structure as based on racism, perpetuating and creating inequalities along racial lines, forms a powerful and urgent element of the anti-racism movement that is taking place at this time.   Rose is studying for a Masters in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration at the University of London.  She is also training to be an Immigration Advisor. Previously, she was a support worker on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.