by Kevin R. Johnson. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 304pp. Cloth $35.00. ISBN: 9780814742860.

Reviewed by Doris Marie Provine, Professor, School of Justice & Social Inquiry, Arizona State University. Email: marie.provine [at]


No book could be more timely than Kevin Johnson’s OPENING THE FLOODGATES: WHY AMERICA NEEDS TO RETHINK ITS BORDERS AND IMMIGRATION LAWS. An unprecedented movement is occurring in states and municipalities across the nation to control the flow of immigrants without authorization, and the issue has become a primary focus of the presidential campaign. Johnson’s focus, however, is not on the current imbroglio, but on the reasons why it exists. He makes a convincing argument for a policy of open borders, if not with the world, then within North America. Open borders, he asserts, is the only sensible policy in this era of globalization.

The argument for open borders can be made on utilitarian and moral grounds. Johnson addresses both, but stresses the reasons why it makes good economic sense to open the borders to people who seek work in the United States. He starts from the position that the inflow of foreign labor is not only needed – it is unstoppable. So the United States should drop the pretense of immigration control, with its harsh quotas, inadequate walls and stop points, long waiting lines, and detailed inquiries into the background of applicants in favor of a straightforward, easily administered visa program that presumes eligibility to enter. Entrants would immediately become legal permanent residents. There would be no temporary workers or other conditional or short-term admissions. The only grounds for exclusion would be danger to American security, which would exclude those with dangerous communicable diseases, terrorists, and criminals likely to re-offend. The burden of proof would be on the government to exclude, and there would be a right to appeal.

Would such a policy “open the floodgates” to an unmanageable flow of immigrants? Johnson acknowledges that this is a common concern, but he dismisses it with examples of people from poverty-stricken areas who could migrate freely under current law (e.g., Puerto Rico, Mississippi), but do not. He cites the European Union as a relevant case in point. Despite some initial fears, there has been no dramatic inflow of Bulgarians or Romanians into Western Europe, he asserts.

What about the impact of open borders on American labor? The current system, Johnson points out, is worse than a properly managed system of open borders. Under the current policy, which does not legally acknowledge the presence of workers who have settled without authorization, the United States has developed a large secondary labor market. More than one-half of the growth of the labor force in the past [*107] decade is made up of these workers. They are vulnerable to exploitation from employers and from criminals who prey upon them. They pay taxes, including, in many cases, income tax, but get virtually nothing in return. While this is, in a certain sense, a good deal for American citizens, it is unfair and has many negative consequences for everyone.

A better solution, Johnson argues convincingly, is enhanced workplace standards for all workers, with transfer payments to workers displaced by immigrants. The money for such a program would come from the employers who benefit from immigrant labor. Johnson is not alone in seeing the value of recognizing the presence of unauthorized workers. The AFL- CIO has reversed its earlier opposition to unauthorized workers and now seeks to include all workers in its membership.

The current failed policy, Johnson asserts, resembles the Prohibition era, when government attempted to stop the purchase of alcoholic beverages. Immigration controls are just as unworkable and just as out of step with current realities, Johnson argues. The world is shrinking and people everywhere are more aware of opportunities elsewhere. International law is increasingly protecting persons who migrate. The US is out of step with the realities of immigration in the modern world, Johnson asserts. The current system of exclusion will eventually be dismantled in his view: “Some day, borders as we know them today will be as antiquated as covered wagons, the use of leeches, and mimeograph machines.”

Moral arguments for open borders arise partly out of the nation’s past schizophrenia about immigration and its racism in developing and applying standards of admission. America congratulates itself for welcoming the world’s “huddled masses,” but has, in reality been quite consistently racist and classist in its policies, at least since 1875 when federal policy first took shape. It has also tolerated and sometimes encouraged unauthorized immigration, and then punished those who have come. Johnson briefly and tellingly reviews this history and current policy for racial and class bias, noting the lack of responsiveness of American courts to these issues. This unpacking of past and current policy as it has been implemented is an important strength of this provocative book.

The choices the United States now faces, Johnson argues, are “painfully simple.” Regulated, but open, borders is the right policy, both because it rejects the racist past, and because it makes good economic sense. If the US does not accept immigrants, Johnson points out, the jobs will increasingly go abroad. Losing those low-paying jobs that many new immigrants currently occupy would have deleterious secondary effects that would harm communities. Johnson might have used meatpacking as an example – the industry was in decline until it began employing immigrant workers.

Johnson acknowledges that, however sensible, an open-borders policy is not likely to be adopted soon. The 2001 attack on the World Trade Center ended promising movements toward a more generous policy concerning Mexican immigration. Arguably, the prospects [*108] for opening borders have grown worse since this book was published. Johnson assumes, for example, that policy makers could build upon the success of NAFTA and create open borders at this level as a second-best option. NAFTA, however, is under attack, with prospects for expansion quite bleak at this time.

At times, this book makes for frustrating reading. Perhaps because it is organized like a legal brief for open borders, the text is repetitive and occasionally didactic. Johnson exhorts the reader to see the right to migrate as a basic civil right without seriously exploring the possible consequences. He is too quick to dismiss the prospect of significantly increased migration from the poorest nations under an open-borders policy. While he does, repeatedly, acknowledge the importance of governmental efforts to integrate immigrants and criticize the US for not doing more to create English classes and other assimilative programs, he never reaches the problem of costs or planning. At times he appears curiously out of touch with how poor the current social support system is in the United States. He expresses dismay, for example, that unauthorized workers do not have free health care, without noting that many American citizens also lack such coverage.

More damaging to his arguments are occasional exaggerations. He describes human trafficking as a major business in the United States, though the number of cases he cites is small. He conflates trafficking, which involves an element of deceit, with human smuggling. He is overly harsh in his criticism of American refugee policy as racist and stingy.

The argument for open borders is nevertheless appealing and interesting, raising, for the sympathetic reader the question of how one might begin to persuade others to welcome immigrants. Johnson’s strategy of citing and then countering arguments against open borders is powerful and helpful. He made a good strategic choice in focusing on the rationality of opening borders and not dwelling on the psychological reasons, including racism and xenophobia, that make so many Americans uneasy about immigration. But he might have talked more about the political obstacles that stand in the way of open borders and the costs of such a policy. What is it about this system of government that allows such flagrantly unworkable policies to be set in place, and defended? The ill-planned, unmanageable, and racist War on Drugs comes to mind as a parallel case.

But ultimately, one comes away from this book with the sense that the question Johnson raises is bigger, and tougher, than the answer that he provides. The United States, after all, is not the only nation resistant to the idea of opening its borders. Immigration is a volatile issue because it challenges national governments to defer to market forces. Advocacy for open borders makes for a curious result: Johnson’s most ardent supporters are likely to be corporations and businesses looking for easier access to cheap labor. This book encourages a broader discussion than is currently circulating in American politics, one that looks to the foundations of immigration policy and imagines a major overhaul.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Doris Marie Provine.