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Journalist John Washington makes the case for open borders — and it doesn't mean no borders

You’ve probably heard the phrase open borders thrown around quite a bit in today’s heated debate over our Southern border and immigration. But John Washington argues we have nothing close to an open border right now — not that he thinks it’s such a bad idea.

John Washington is a journalist who’s covered the border for a long time. In his new book, he makes the case for open borders. In fact, that’s the title of the book. He joined The Show to talk about why that doesn’t mean no borders.

Interview highlights

JOHN WASHINGTON: The idea that we have open borders right now is completely laughable. The, the number of people who have been deported or expelled under the Biden administration is around 3 million. The number of people who are detained in immigration detention centers is going up. It's approaching 40,000. There is a few dozen billion dollar budget for CBP and ICE.

The Biden administration is currently closing gaps in the border wall, despite many promises during campaign and early part of the administration to build not another foot of the wall. And they are trying to restrict asylum at every, every step and they are in many ways succeeding. So there is nothing at all like an open border at the U.S.-Mexico border right now.

LAUREN GILGER: So in this book, you are making the case for open borders. That is the title, and I know you've covered the border for a long time. So I want to talk about what that case means for open borders in a moment. But first tell us a little bit about what brought you to this book, like why write this and, and why now?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, so I, I know it does seem like a bit of an incendiary title. The intention actually was to try to put out the flames. We were just talking about a lot of misinformation, and there is so much of it, there's so much not only misinformation but actually falsehood being spouted about the border and about current immigration trends. That part of my objective here was to just bring clarity to the issue. And as I tried to do that and as you know, a reporter, I tried to dig and do research, I understood more and more that actually, as of relatively recently, there were much less closed borders in the world.

In, in about 2000, the year 2000, there was 15 or so border walls throughout the world. Today, that number is in the high 70s. And just thinking about the U.S.-Mexico border, we're only about 30 years in to having any significant portions of wall at all. And if you go further back in history, for the first 100 years of this country, there were zero federal immigration statutes on the books. So we have had not exactly open borders but something much similar to open borders in our recent past. There are about 15% of the the U.S. population are foreign born; 100 years ago, that was the same.

So what this makes me and a lot of people who study this recognize is that migration or maybe another way of putting as human mobility is inevitable. People will move. And, and when you look at attempts to stop people from moving, you see that they don't really work. So I think that one of the things that some people are starting to recognize is maybe instead of trying to block the inevitable, trying stop people from doing what they've done throughout human history is moving, maybe we should reconsider how we welcome them or how we receive them, how we respond to that movement rather than try ineffectually to stop it.

GILGER: Right, so talk about what you mean by that and, and what you mean by the phrase open borders in this book. Like it doesn't necessarily mean not having any limitation or tracking on who comes in, right? Like it's a little different than that, right?

WASHINGTON: You know, there, there is a distinction between open borders and no borders. I'm not proposing no borders in this book. I, I don't think that's really possible at this stage. And, and I don't know if that would necessarily be wise either. We have to have some way of organizing ourselves politically and just as communities as well. Borders can be a useful tool for, for doing that. They don't need to be exclusionary. They don't need to be places where people lack human rights. They don't need to be a reason to exploit, to detain, to expel.

It's one of the problems that people point out a lot, especially on the anti-immigrant right, is that we don't know who's coming into our country. And that is actually because we're trying to close down borders. If we opened our ports of entry and we had people register, then we could actually know who's coming into our country. We could set up some system in which they can, you know, resettle to different parts of our country. And we would have a better sense of who's actually coming in.

So one way to look at it is maybe the way that the United States is, is currently set up, we have an incredibly diverse array of cultures, of languages, of cuisines, of just kind of modes of being of politics, of ideology, all of that, you can transfer from state to state within the United States and you have to re-register, you have to register to vote, you have to register with the DMV, run through all these other bureaucratic hurdles. It's not nothing but it's, you know, pretty much free movement. I mean, it is free movement and, you know, within the EU as well. What happened when they opened borders though, they actually hardened them around the exterior of the current European Union, was they allowed for free transit across these national lines. And what did not happen was France did not lose its Frenchness and, and, and Spain did not lose its Spanish, which was one of the major fears.

I think there can be freer movement. It can be, it, it would be more controlled if you were actually to open the borders but just try to register.

GILGER: One question. I think that's always worth asking in journalism is who's profiting from the system that we have now and you get into that in the book?

WASHINGTON: Right, yeah. So again, one of the things I really tried to do is bring some basic understanding of how borders work. And what borders ultimately do is function as what I think of something like a, a fiscal fulcrum in which people or corporations rather on one side of the border are able to exploit and take advantage of wage differentials or lack of workers rights or lack of unionization rates in another country. You look at U.S.-Mexico border. That's exactly what's happening. The reason that Maquilas or Maquiladoras exist, especially in northern Mexico, is because capital and goods are able to flow each way across the border. But labor or people, the people who put together those goods, are not.

So another huge factor or you know, a huge financial factor in bordering is the border industrial complex right now. The companies that are making bank off of surveillance technology, corporations rake that money in. But then you look at immigration detention within the country as well. It's a booming industry, not only in the United States, but primarily so. We also see it in Australia and other parts of the world. So people are making a lot of money off of borders.

But what people maybe potentially fail to grasp here is that actually it would be a boon not only for migrants, which it certainly is, but also for native workers if we allowed for more migration.

GILGER: So I wanna ask a political question to end with. like the the kind of, this kind of argument, this kind of conversation, right, is, is so far right now from the policy discussions happening in Washington surrounding immigration, which have actually become more conservative of late and not less. Do you think these ideas have any role, any place in the current political landscape?

WASHINGTON: You know, I think that both parties at this point have really shown their hand in recent weeks. The Democrats really caved to most of the central demands that the Republican Party had. And you know, no one has really found any means of success in the past three, four decades, in terms of what we should do about the border. And I think that we need to start looking outside of the box. We have failed in 2024, we failed in 2013. We failed in 2007. And between that, there's been these calls for crisis, there's been incredible human suffering and death that has happened not only along the U.S.-Mexico border, but borders throughout the world.

People claim that it's incredibly complex, but I think that's actually a little bit of a smokescreen. I think when it comes down to it, it is rather simple. People are moving and they're going to move. Walls, immigration policy trying to deter them doesn't really work. So maybe we can let people in. I think that's an approach that more and more people are starting to take.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.