Migration – a cosmunitarian approach

In response to Daniele Archibugi, the author rejects an approach to migration which sets cosmopolitans against communitarians. Instead she proposes a scheme able to differentiate, to address and to juggle the needs of both
Patti Tamara Lenard
19 April 2011

No More Deaths is an organization that aims to protect “fundamental human rights,” by offering humanitarian aid to those who attempt to cross the border between Mexico and the United States.  Its volunteers take considerable personal risk in offering support to migrants attempting to cross the border illegally, and in so doing they reject the claim that borders protect a deserved privileged status for American citizens.  In openDemocracy, Daniele Archibugi suggests that we think of members of No More Deaths as the quintessential “cosmo-political agents.” As cosmo-political agents, No More Deaths volunteers are willing to share their “well-being” and even “schools and hospitals with less privileged people.”[i]  On the other hand, Archibugi describes members of the Minutemen, who police the border between Mexico and the United States with the aim of rounding up illegal border crossers and delivering them to American authorities, as more like “communitarians.” At their best, at least, they defend their attempts to prevent the entry of unauthorized migrants by pointing to the detrimental effects these migrants have on the poorest Americans. They argue that unauthorized migrants often settle in poor neighbourhoods, where resources are already stretched to the limit, and they take jobs from the Americans who need them most. While No More Deaths members attempt to erode the significance of the border that divides Mexico and the United States, Minutemen members attempt to protect it.  I want to question this way of characterizing the debate about migration, as between cosmopolitans and communitarians; I argue instead for taking what I term a cosmunitarian approach to migration.

Between No More Deaths and the Minutemen, cosmopolitans might be predicted to side with the former, since they typically argue for opening borders.  In opening borders to those who wish to cross them, the right to free movement, a basic human right, is protected and additional economic opportunities are provided, which may, in time, reduce global wealth inequalities.[ii] 

Yet, says Archibugi, opening borders is not a realistic policy option.  Not only does it have no political traction, but in an unequal world the policy will most likely produce “serious social and economic problems.” So long as income differentials across nations are high, migration flows under conditions of open borders will be unpredictable and often destabilizing. This seems plausible. Who would move if borders were open? Those with the resources to do so, including the already wealthy, the educated seeking opportunities in more robust economies, and the skilled who can offer services desired across borders.  Who would stay behind?  Those who are not able to muster the resources to move, including children, the elderly, and presumably the many young women charged with providing their care.  Open borders would then produce wealth that is even more concentrated than it is now; cosmopolitan principle can lead us to pursue policies that have dramatically uncosmopolitan consequences.

Archibugi thus warns against relying on migration as a tool to reduce economic inequalities across borders; instead we should, he tells us, be able to find “less traumatic and more effective” mechanisms by which to reduce global inequality (and this is true even if considerable evidence suggest that, at least for now, migration contributes to reducing global inequality more than does official development aid).  We should support official development aid; we should work to improve the quality of education in developing countries; we should offer support to developing nations struggling to sustain effective political institutions.[iii]

The proposals that Archibugi recommends depend on the existence of relatively strong borders, and in that sense they are communitarian.  The development of strong institutions in one’s homeland, the development of a flourishing (or even just a functional) economy in which opportunities to secure one’s well-being, in the political and social environment with which one is familiar – these are objectives intended to produce strong, self-determining states, protected by borders, in which individuals can live and work in functioning political communities, often the ones in which they were born and raised.[iv]  Archibugi tells us that opening borders in an unequal world will be destabilizing, and the implication is that open borders in a more nearly equal world would not be.  But he doesn’t tell us why we should expect that.  The answer is a communitarian one: people would prefer to stay home, with friends and families and cultures that are familiar and loved.  If they have access to a flourishing (social, political, and economic) community, they will more often than not choose against migration; and borders, along with their attendant membership rules, then serve to protect something worth protecting, namely, political self-determination, rather than undeserved wealth.  Political communities are valuable to those who are members, and their value stems from their capacity to provide an environment in which political self-determination is possible.[v] The standard cosmopolitan position is so often focused on denying the ethical significance of borders, and therefore on opening borders to wealthy nations, that it often fails to consider seriously the possibility that borders do more than protect unequal wealth.[vi]

In pointing to these flaws in the standard cosmopolitan defense of open borders, Archibugi has taken a first step toward developing a fair approach to migration.  Such an approach will not automatically condemn borders as inevitably solidifying wealth inequalities; instead, it will acknowledge the ways in which borders are themselves valuable to the communities that they protect, and how these borders can often contribute to the meeting of a broad range of cosmopolitan objectives.  I term this approach cosmunitarian, and it is an approach that highlights how cosmopolitan commitments can motivate protecting borders under some conditions, as well the inherent rather than solely instrumental contribution that borders can make to human flourishing.  To be cosmunitarian with respect to migration means to give attention to the diversity of human needs, only some of which can be met via opening migration opportunities, and to recognize that other needs will inevitably be unmet under these conditions.  To be cosmunitarian means to avoid fetishizing the capacity to move across borders, and to avoid succumbing to the simple view that this capacity will alone serve to reduce inequalities.  To be cosmunitarian means acknowledging the needs of human beings, and to recognize that some of them are in fact served by protecting borders and the communities that need our support to thrive within them.  To be cosmunitarian means to treat differently the distinct claims made by potential migrants, to ask what drives them to migrate and what prevents their doing so.  To be cosmunitarian is to ask whether migration is a second-best alternative to (potential) migrants’ preferred solution. It is to consider the possibility, observed only in passing among cosmopolitan advocates of open borders, that migration is carried out with a heavy heart and under duress. 

Archibugi himself notes that many migrants are not “interested in the freedom to move per se,” but rather in improving their social and economic conditions.   He is close to making the essential observation: the freedom to move is only truly meaningful when the freedom to stay is a real one.  Think of the freedom to move like freedom of religion: the freedom to choose a religion includes the freedom to choose not to be religious, and the freedom to move includes the freedom not to leave.  Yet, the freedom to stay – in one’s home, with one’s compatriots, speaking one’s language – is realizable only with adequate economic opportunities at home.[vii]  Open border advocates believe that the capacity to cross borders provides options, which it undoubtedly does, but they do not provide opportunities that do justice to the range of options that should define a rich life.

Possible migrants present multiple reasons to cross borders: refugees escape violence and persecution (and increasingly environmental degradation); guest workers seek temporary access to labour markets; family members seek to join loved ones.  There are other, more exceptional groups, who cross borders by choice or against their will: women recruited involuntarily into sex tourism operations, child soldiers whose rehabilitation is often sought by concerned outsiders, babies adopted by foreign parents over the objections of their biological parents, and so on.  A cosmunitarian approach can better discern when demands that migrants make are best met by permitting migration, as in the case of family reunification, and when they are best met by the community-building proposals that Archibugi advocates.  Such an approach tells us that the propensity to deny access to citizenship to low-skilled guest workers is morally objectionable,[viii] since contributing members of a society are entitled to membership, and such an approach can guide us in formulating permanent integration plans for refugees whose home countries are devastated by violence that is unlikely to abate.  Such an approach informs our attempts to develop guidelines restricting the recruitment of high-skilled guest workers from developing nations, and it prods us to focus on development aid that reduces the number of individuals who make heart-wrenching, and often fatal, decisions to entrust one’s fate to human smugglers who, for extortionate fees, guide South American citizens into the illegal economy in the United States.

As I have described it, cosmunitarianism can be accused of (or applauded for!) taking for itself the best of cosmopolitanism and communitarianism, to produce a view that is immune from the standard criticisms launched to both sides.  The cosmopolitan commitment to open borders neglects the real desire that many have to stay home, and the extent to which borders are more than instruments to protect the wealth of developed nations.  The insular focus of communitarianism often directs attention away from the duties we have across borders. 

The cosmunitarian approach that I advocate acknowledges two moral intuitions: the cosmopolitan moral intuition, that we have strong obligations across borders, and the communitarian intuition, that people put great value on the ties that bind them to their cultural communities.  Thus, in evaluating migration policies, cosmunitarians juggle the multifarious needs of individuals, which include improving their economic status and living as a full member of a flourishing community to which they feel they belong.  A consideration of these many needs may appear to produce inconsistent policies with respect to migration: the cosmunitarian may support policies that close borders to educated citizens of developed nations, whose contributions to their nations are deemed essential, and it may open borders to low-skilled migrants who demand access to healthy labour markets.   Yet, a cosmunitarian approach – which acknowledges the imperfect contribution that migration makes to global justice goals more generally – is best suited to weigh the specific needs that can be met by migration, and then to press us to look elsewhere when migration is not the best solution.


[i] The activities and tensions of these organizations, and others like them, are described and evaluated in Luis Cabrera, The Practice of Global Citizenship (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[ii] Joseph Carens, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders”, Review of Politics, 49/2 (Spring 1987), pp. 251-273.

[iii] For a full account of Archibugi’s cosmopolitan-democratic perspective, see his recent The Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[iv] For a strong statement of this position, see Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

[v] For an account of the reasons to value political communities, and the ways in which the values that protect borders are often consistent with moral cosmopolitanism, see Margaret Moore, “Cosmopolitanism and Political Communities”, Social Theory and Practice, 32/4 (2006), pp. 627-658.

[vi] For an account of the reasons to open borders in comparison to the reasons to keep borders under the strong control of sovereign states, see Chandran Kukathas, "The Case for Open Migration," in Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, ed. Andrew Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), David Miller, "Immigration: The Case for Limits," in Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, ed. Andrew Cohen and Christopher Wellman (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2005).

[vii] James Nickel refers to this kind of right, where the right to X includes the right to not-X, a “bilateral right.”  See his “Why basic liberties are bilateral”, Law and Philosophy, 17/5-6 (1998), pp. 627-634.

[viii] I make this argument, along with my colleague Christine Straehle, in “Temporary Labour Migration, Global Redistribution and Democratic Justice”, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, available online early.  For a defense of temporary labour migration, see Valeria Ottonelli and Tiziana Torresi, “Inclusivist Egalitarian Liberalism and Temporary Migration: A Dilemma”, Journal of Political Philosophy, available online early.

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