The Arizona border: “No More Deaths” versus "The Minutemen"

Are borders ethically arbitrary? What, apart from sheer political pragmatism, justifies one community from keeping another from exercising the right of free movement? A proper consideration of the difference between voluntary migration and economic migration suggests cosmopolitan alternatives to a free-for-all
Daniele Archibugi
Daniele Archibugi
2 February 2011

Cosmopolitanism at the borders

Attitudes towards migration as a key indicator of cosmopolitan values

The border that separates the United States and Mexico, in the middle of the desert, appears to be fully arbitrary. But history is never arbitrary: over a little more than two centuries, the state North of the border has become one of the richest in the world, with a GDP per capita equal to 46,436 US dollars a year. On the Southern side, Mexico is still a developing country, and its GDP per capita is only 14,331 US dollars a year. A recent and well documented book by Luis Cabrera[1] reports on-field research of two American voluntary groups active on the  Arizona border.

With such an income disparity, it is to be expected that many Mexican citizens are tempted to enter into the United States with the expectation to find better jobs, better health care, better schools and better opportunities for their children. These hopes, however, are not necessarily reciprocated by the American citizens: migration flows, in the United States as anywhere else, generate very passionate reactions.[2] Many Americans look rationally at the advantages and disadvantages associated to migration. On the one hand, they are aware that the US economy and society needs this working force to maintain its performance. On the other hand, they perceive that an uncontrolled flow of immigrants may jeopardize the standard of living, the welfare infrastructures and the wage levels of their community. In the United States there are more than ten million unauthorized residents and the fact that many of them get regularized with time may create an incentive to further unauthorized immigration. Summing it all, it is difficult to decide if the average American citizen makes a profit or a loss from unauthorized immigration.

Besides the standard political debate, which occurs in the Congress and in local governments, in the Trade Unions and in the political parties, much could be understood by looking at the social movements that act directly on the field. The first group discussed by Cabrera is the “No More Deaths” organization. The name refers to the fact that nearly 400 people die every year in the desert in the attempt to enter in the United States through the Southern border. A much higher number gets grave injuries, well documented in the Web site of the organization.[3] So far, official security has not managed to stop the bloodshed. The volunteers provide their aid to those in troubles in the form of water, food, shelter and hospitalization. However, “No More Deaths” is not necessarily encouraged by US authorities and it has to act, literally, on a borderline. On the one hand, it aims to provide basic help to people that are endangering their lives and this action should receive the praise of US authorities. On the other hand, it somehow helps immigrants to enter illegally into the United States. What limits should they respect? If they help explicitly trespassers, for example giving them a ride on their own vehicles, they could become similar to a smuggling rather than a humanitarian organization.

Of course, there is no law in the United States that imposes leaving unauthorized immigrants to die in the desert. Public institutions such as the US Border Patrol have a duty to prevent injuries and to assist those in need, including trespassers, although their main task is to prevent the entry of unauthorized immigrants and to repatriate those caught. But the desire of the immigrants to enter into the United States is so strong that they prefer to bear the risk to die than to be caught by the Border Patrol. And for sure the spirit of “No More Deaths” is not to catch immigrants to deliver them to the police. The action of “No More Deaths” is therefore not just humanitarian, it is also sympathetic with the reasons that lead so many people to search fortune in another country. This is a cosmo-political position: these American citizens are willing to share their well-being and even their schools and hospitals with less privileged people.

Apparently, in the Arizona desert there is new reincarnation of the perennial struggle between Creon and Antigone where the government plays the part of Creon and demands that its rules are respected even when they are hard, and “No More Deaths” the part of Antigone, believing that there are universal laws, including the law to help those dying, which are above any government law. But the book by Cabrera originally goes beyond the stereotype of a good willing civil society and a villain government. The government is, in fact, often willing to “close an eye” and leave at least some of the immigrants to pass through the borders. And, as Cabrera points out, there are also social movements that have opposite aims to those of “No More Deaths”.

The Minuteman Project is one of the organizations that guard the same border but with opposite intentions.[4] These volunteers wish to discourage clandestine immigration and, when they see suspicious movements, they report them to the Border Patrol. The members of the Minuteman Project will also assist immigrants if they are in danger, but their final aim is to repatriate rather than to shelter them. They collaborate and urge the official institutions to be more efficient and do their best to discourage the “close an eye” policy. Their presence in the middle of the desert is law-enforcing rather than law-disobeying. They claim that would-be immigrants should apply through the existing legal channels. And it can be guessed that most of the members of the Minuteman Project will also be against more permissive immigration policies.

The Minuteman Project is therefore an anti-cosmopolitan organization since they have no willingness to share the wealth and the social infrastructures developed through sweat and tears of generations of Americans with immigrants. The arguments provided by the most eloquent members of the organization are very close to those of the communitarian. They claim that the costs of assimilation are unevenly distributed in the United States and while some privileged groups get most of the advantages in the form of a cheaper workforce, the American working class has most of the disadvantages since the continuous increase of unqualified workforce will reduce their wages. Moreover, once they manage to enter into the USA, unauthorized immigrants live in poor neighbourhoods and use the schools, public transports and health facilities of these areas, often aggravating the already existing problems.

Anti-immigration groups also compare the difference between official and unauthorized immigration. If getting a greater number of immigrants is an official policy, the burden of accommodation should be paid by all the American society and not just by the poor. The government should be able to provide schools, homes and other infrastructures getting the resources from taxation. And everybody, not just the poor, will contribute to accommodation costs (and, in a country with progressive taxation, the rich will contribute, in proportion, more than the poor). The Minuteman Project is therefore willing to defend not only the Americans from the Mexicans, but also the American poor against the American rich. The activists of the Minuteman Project are resentful not only against the American government for its inability to patrol effectively the borders, but even more against the Mexican government for its unwillingness and inability to address effectively the problem of poverty in its own country. These are strong arguments but it does not rule out the fact the Minuteman Project does not show any compassion for humans that are so burdened. On the contrary, they resemble by all means a man hunting group as those ironically depicted in Machete.

This does not mean, however, that the position of those that provide help and relief to the unauthorized trespassers is without contradictions. The most important weakness of the “No More Deaths” group and, more generally, of those supporting unauthorized immigration, the lack of an overall position about border control. In fact Antigone was acting in conformity to a universal law that, according to her, should and could be applied to anybody and in any circumstance. What is the universal law that “No More Deaths” will suggest? Should immigrants be accepted without restrictions? And, if restrictions should be applied, which ones? So far, the “No More Death” has been more effective in helping people on the field than in campaigning for a radical reform of US immigration policy. [5]

The most coherent policy option will be to support open borders.[6] The open border position is, in fact, a fully consistent cosmopolitan position. It based on the assumption that borders are ethically irrelevant, and that there is a basic human right to the freedom of movement that cannot be restricted by state institutions and laws. This position is intellectually attractive but politically unrealistic. It can work very well for countries that have comparable income levels (such as Europe, North America and Japan). Japanese citizens moving to the United States and American citizens moving in Europe have always been more an asset than a problem. The largest group of unauthorized immigrants in Australia is represented by British citizens and this has never created social and economic conflicts. When the willingness to travel and to settle in another country is not dictated by economic and social hardship but by personal preferences, it can easily be met by the countries involved. In a planet with no income differentials, the right to visit and the duty to hospitality already advocated by Immanuel Kant as an emerging cosmopolitan law can be managed as easily through tourism, house swaps and cultural exchanges.

But when countries with very different income inequalities are involved, open borders can generate serious social and economic problems. We are not any longer dealing with wealthy tourists and the privileged élites, but with people escaping poverty. These people are not interested in the freedom to move per se (actually, many unauthorized immigrants are stuck in the United States since if they leave the country they do not have a legal possibility to re-enter), but to improve their economic and social condition. It is unclear what sort of migration flows will occur in the world if borders will vanish. There are those who argue that not many people are willing to move to foreign country, and they back their view with data of the limited emigration from ex-colonies when inhabitants were given the opportunity to move.[7] Others argue that to make borders open will generate major migrations able to radically transform the demographic structure of both the North and the South. Major and often traumatic migrations regularly occur within countries. Cities like Calcutta, Mexico City and Laos now host millions of homeless people coming from rural areas and the same could happen in Los Angeles, Tokyo and London if restriction to immigration will disappear.

The real problem is what is the argument used to justify the open border positions. If the argument is to provide better economic opportunities, are we sure that immigration is the most effective policy? Perhaps migrants would prefer to stay in their own country if they were provided with comparable opportunities in their motherland. The communitarian argument could continue by arguing that the opportunities caught by the United States are available to every people willing to engage in a collective effort and to get an efficient government. For example, California joined the United States in 1850 only. Historical circumstances could have been different and California could today be the 33rd district of Mexico rather than the 31st American State. In such a scenario would California be so wealthy and attractive to other Latin American citizens? Probably not, they argue, while it is likely that many Mexicans living in San Diego and Los Angeles would try to enter into the United States by any method. On the other side, Baja California could have become part of the United States in 1850s: what would be its standard of living now?

In other words, world income inequalities cannot be cured through migration only. And cosmopolitans should be able to find less traumatic and more effective methods than immigration. Official development aid, the collaboration in education, science and technology carried out by international organizations, the struggle to get more effective institutions in developing countries, the openings of Western markets through customs unions are all methods that could in principle reduce income disparities. Unfortunately, their effectiveness has been so far rather limited and not even all of them combined have managed to offer to individuals an immediate solution to their hardship. So long as there will be trespassers risking their life in the desert there are good reasons to urge a greater global responsibility.


[1] Luis Cabrera, The Practice of Global Citizenship, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[2] The American film industry has been able to portray these sentiments better than academics. For its irony, perhaps the most telling movie is Machete by Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis. See http://www.ugo.com/therush/product/action/machete/229/ .

[3] See the “No More Deaths” web site at http://www.nomoredeaths.org/

[4] See Jim Gilchrist’s Minuteman Project, at http://www.minutemanproject.com/

[5] Although the Faith Based Principles for Immigration Reform do provide a very interesting starting point. See http://www.nomoredeaths.org/Information/faithbased.html .

[6] See, for example, the provocative and well argued book by Philippe Legrain, Immigrants. Your country needs them, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2006.

[7] See Bob Sutcliffe, Nacido en otra pare. Un ensayo sobre la migracion internacionial, el desarrollo y la equidad, Hegoa, Bilbao, 1999.

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