Why can’t we have that? ‘Global civil disobedience’ and the European living laboratory

In a response to Daniele Archibugi and Patti Tamara Lenard, the author argues that unauthorized immigrants should be seen as offering a powerful normative challenge to the vast disparities in life chances that are the norm in the current global system. Rather than advocating the open borders approach rejected by both Archibugi and Lenard, however, he argues for more gradual transformations involving deeper, democratically accountable integration between states.
Luis Cabrera
1 December 2011

The Algerian detainee scowled. A stocky, powerful man with close-cut hair and a bandage wrapped around one hand, he shook his head as he told of previously living as an unauthorized migrant in Madrid. He had rooted through trash bins for food, slept out of doors and scrounged whatever work he could, before finally being caught and expelled.

Yet, here he was again, being held at an immigration detention centre after slipping into the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta. He wanted nothing more, he said, than to return to the Spanish mainland, but this time as a worker in the vegetable fields. ‘I have the body to work in the fields,’ he noted. ‘I want to go to Spain to earn money to help my family.’ Then he leaned closer. ‘We know in Algeria that Spain was like us. Until it joined the EU, people had to leave to find work. Now everyone wants to get into Spain. Why can’t we have that?’

That question, while immediately raising the issue of broader EU membership, goes to the heart of much of the current conflict over immigration, and ultimately global poverty. It seeks to challenge exclusions from membership in the affluent world. At a more fundamental level, it boldly demands justification for a global structure in which the ‘luck of birth’ continues to do so much to determine life chances.

In field work for a recent book, I spent more than five years interviewing those who had crossed a national boundary illegally.[1];I also interviewed immigration activists, elected officials, border enforcement officers and human smugglers in the United States, Mexico, the UK, Ireland, Spain and Belgium. I wanted to gain ground-level insight from those involved in immigration struggles, which so often are rooted in conflicts over claims to adequate life resources and opportunities.

In Open Democracy articles, Daniele Archibugi and Patti Lenard [2] have both used this field research as a departure point for their own arguments about how best to situate migration in an ethical frame. Both are skeptical, albeit for different reasons, of some common arguments put forward for open borders. Both also reject migration, including open borders, as a desirable development strategy in itself. 

I want to outline here a separate normative approach to, or view of, unauthorized migration. It does not call for the immediate opening of national boundaries to anyone who would like to move across them. Rather, it emphasizes some key ways in which unauthorized migration is analogous to a form of ‘global civil disobedience.’ It sees such migrants as offering an even more direct version of the Algerian man’s challenge. Instead of asking ‘Why can’t we have that?’ unauthorized migrants are declaring by their actions, ‘We deserve the opportunity to have that, and we are going to try to get it.’

More specifically, the claim is that by illicitly crossing borders in order to better provide for themselves and their families, unauthorized migrants are implicitly claiming some core human rights. Because most of the rich, immigrant-receiving countries have formally bound themselves to treaties proclaiming the importance of those universal rights—to adequate food, decent work, and an overall adequate standard of living[3]—the migrants can plausibly be viewed as challenging rich countries to make good on their promises.[4]

This is, of course, a provocative claim. Yet, a right to be able to decently support oneself and one’s family, even if doing so involves breaking entry laws, was declared, or at least implied, in dozens of interviews: by Central Americans who rode atop freight trains the length of Mexico in hopes of reaching the US border; by those working furtively, under false documents, in the US Southwest; by migrant-rights activists in Arizona, Sonora, Mexico; London, Dublin and Brussels; and by the Algerian man and a score of others being detained in Ceuta. Though all understood that covert entry violated the host country’s laws, they also had a strong sense of that violation as morally permissible.

The richer countries, of course, have responded to mass unauthorized immigration with more stringent enforcement. The US Border Patrol has sought to deter crossers by pushing them into often brutal terrain. This has dramatically increased deaths, with more than 2,000 bodies of crossers recovered in the past 15 years. Even more have died on the European crossings, where EU border agency Frontex now coordinates member-state enforcement. Increasingly, the agency is extending enforcement through agreements with non-EU neighbouring countries, seeking to halt would-be migrants before they ever step into the boats. 

Such enforcement efforts, and the highly publicized death and hardship that has followed in their wake, may actually strengthen the analogy between unauthorized immigration and global civil disobedience. It may increase the power of covert entry to call attention to the global disparities in life chances that send so many onto the desert trails or into the treacherous water crossings.

Archibugi and Lenard, while acknowledging the large amounts of money that migrants send home as remittances – hitting a peak of more than $300 billion annually before the global economic crisis – again are critical of migration viewed as a key to development. Lenard offers an additional normative argument for a ‘cosmunitarian’ approach to 'national borders and belonging' that is highly salient here. The cosmunitarian is said to fall between an unflinchingly universalist cosmopolitanism and a rigid, group-centric communitarianism. The approach would reject freer movement across borders, because ‘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.’[5]

Many questions are raised by such a claim. The primary ones revolve around how to draw boundaries around the ‘self’ or community that will execute its own determination. The cosmunitarian approach seems to presume that current national boundaries somehow track natural political communities whose members rightly view themselves as a cohesive group.[6] Yet, in many parts of the world, challenges associated with migration are as much domestic as international. Significant tensions have arisen, for example, around the mass movement from countryside to city under way across the developing world. Further, in diverse, multinational states – India, Malaysia, Nigeria – domestic migrants often will observe different cultural and religious practices, speak a different language, and be perceived as outsiders at nearly the same level as international entrants.

Internal boundaries could be drawn so as to exclude such domestic migrants, or walls and fences erected against them in the name of preserving those valuable aspects community that exist in the receiving cities. Or, a more fluid conception of belonging and identity could be adopted, one that is open to difference and diversity while seeking to identify principles of rights and equal participation that can and should be shared in any democratic political community.

I have explored possibilities for gradually building the latter kinds of communities across national boundaries, and especially ways in which the process could improve the life chances of those born into poorer countries. In fact, the European Union itself serves as an invaluable living laboratory for ways in which economic and some political integration between states might improve such individual prospects. It is not a neatly packaged ‘model’ that can be transferred directly to other regions, but its evolution – including the fiscal challenges it has recently faced – offer vitally important lessons for possibilities in other regions, including North America.[7]

EU-style integration, of course, includes individual rights to free movement across state borders. Such rights enable EU citizens to move with comparatively few barriers in pursuit of employment, education and other opportunities. It, along with substantial cross-border resource transfers, allows many more persons to ‘have that,’ while providing some portable rights protections against unjust discrimination. Such movement and integration overall certainly stimulates tensions and challenges of its own. These might be viewed as sufficient reason to retreat behind walls. Or, they can be seen as motivation to focus energies on developing ever more effective ways of enabling those with diverse origins and viewpoints to integrate as equal partners in broader democratic political communities.

If the prize is a fairer distribution of life resources and opportunities over world regions, then the task is one very much worth taking up. Of course, much more extensive economic, political and democratic integration between states is a long-term aim. In the near term, however, the problems that might be addressed by such integration – and less dramatic reforms to immigration laws, aid, development-related trade governance – can be addressed in substantive and meaningful ways by those willing to reach across boundaries of state and citizenship. Certainly the importance of addressing such problems will remain foregrounded, as millions of unauthorized immigrants in effect continue to ask, ‘Why can’t we have that?’ 

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

[2]Daniele Archibugi, “The Arizona border: ‘No More Deaths’ versus ‘The Minutemen,’” Open Democracy, Feb. 2, 2011; Patti Tamara Lenard, “Migration: A Cosmunitarian Approach,” Open Democracy, April 19, 2011.

[3]Each of these rights is enumerated, for example, in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has been ratified by 160 countries.

[4]Given that they do not usually publicly protest – with some very notable exceptions in the United States in 2006-07 – or submit themselves for arrest, the migrants’ actions would more readily fit into the category of ‘conscientious evasion.’The argument is fully elaborated in Cabrera 2010, Ch. 5.

[5]Lenard,‘Migration: A Cosmunitarian Approach.’

[6]For a useful exploration and critique of such assumptions in the work of Walzer, on whom Lenard draws in her article, see Charles R. Beitz, “Nonintervention and Communal Integrity,” Philosophy & Public Affairs  9(4), 1980, 385-91; See also Luis Cabrera, Political Theory of Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Case for the World State, London: Routledge, 2004, Ch. 1. Lenard also draws on David Miller’s arguments citing group cohesion and the nourishing of a beneficial national sentiment as reason to maintain firm boundaries. For a detailed engagement with Miller’s approach, see Cabrera 2010, 84-90.

[7]For a careful and detailed set of arguments in favor of much deeper, EU-style integration in the North American Free Trade Agreement region, see Robert Pastor,The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.


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