by Joseph H. Carens. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010. 128pp. $14.95/£11.95 (CLOTH) Trade. ISBN: 9780262014830.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hamlin, Department of Political Science, Grinnell College. Email: hamlinr [at]


Modern liberal states are faced with a dilemma that Hollifield calls “the liberal paradox” (2004, 885). The economic logic of liberalism calls for free movement of goods, ideas, and people, but these liberal values of openness are in tension with the concept of bounded states and the sovereign right of border control. The task of figuring out how to resolve the tension of the liberal paradox is what makes immigration politics controversial. Modern states have struck the balance between openness and control in a variety of different ways, but the question remains a legal, political, and moral conundrum for western democracies because there are no easy solutions.

Political theorist Joseph Carens is known for his advocacy of resolving the liberal paradox by embracing open borders (1987). This is an ideal he still favors. However, in IMMIGRANTS AND THE RIGHT TO STAY Carens proposes a different scenario, one that is more cognizant of the political forces that shape the liberal paradox. In the interest of finding “common ground” with those who reject the idea of open borders, he assumes that states maintain a sovereign right of border control, and then asks what these states should do about unauthorized immigration (p.36). He argues that because undocumented immigrants spend significant amounts of time in receiving states, they put down roots, form ties, and become members of communities. Thus, he suggests that long-term undocumented immigrants gain rights over time, one of which is the right to participate in community governance. His proposal is for states to allow undocumented immigrants to adjust their status after about five years of residence. These immigrants should be granted amnesty because “there is something deeply wrong in forcing people to leave a place where they have lived for a long time” (p.12).

Carens’ argument about migrant rights is not just reliant on time, however. He also argues that undocumented immigrants should have access to some rights from the moment they arrive, including the right to join unions, safe working conditions, and minimum wage protections as well as the right to call upon police and other emergency services. Carens suggests a “firewall” between these protections and immigration law enforcement so that those who are vulnerable to deportation will not be reluctant to claim their other rights (pp.33-4). Carens does not go into detail about how this firewall would work and what immigration law enforcement would look like under this scenario, but presumably it would be predominantly focused at the physical border, and not in worksites or communities. [*220]

Carens has lined up an impressive group of some of the most thoughtful contemporary immigration scholars to comment on his proposal from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Each response has a different addition to (or critique of) the main essay. Though Carens’ proposal is written in the abstract and could apply to any liberal receiving state, almost all of the responses are focused on the case of the United States.

Mae Ngai, a historian, reminds us that as long as there has been immigration law in the United States there has been deportation, but also episodes of legalization. She concludes that our current reluctance to legalize unauthorized immigrants is a legacy of the 1996 legislative crack-down, implying that it may be a phase we can move beyond. But, she also points out the historical American reluctance to give amnesty to racial minorities who were perceived as threatening. Ngai does not mention the recent restrictionist legislative trend in Arizona and other states, or the lack of congressional support for amnesty during the last round of immigration reform debate in 2006-7. However, her analysis suggests that renewed public concern about unauthorized Mexican migration makes an amnesty like the one Carens proposes very unlikely in the current political climate.

Political scientist Carol Swain objects to Carens’ proposal, arguing that it loses its “moral force” in the face of the negative impact it would have on low skilled Americans, who are disproportionately black and Latino and who have higher unemployment rates than unauthorized immigrants (p.67). She argues that we should actively commit to enforcing employer sanctions in order to reduce the pull that available jobs create. Swain does not make the point in these terms, but she seems to be arguing that our current de facto border policy is much closer to the open borders model than Carens acknowledges, and beyond that, it is not the ideal scenario that he imagines.

Sociologist Douglas S. Massey’s critique of the proposal is centered on the point that amnesty is a reactive, not a proactive policy response. He claims that the problem of undocumented immigration will just recreate itself if we do not deal with the root – our historic and continuing reliance on Mexico as a source of agricultural labor. He states that our current policy framework allocates the same number of visas annually to Mexico as we do to Nepal or Botswana, so it is no wonder so many people enter the United States illegally from Mexico (p.78). Massey does not suggest a specific counter-proposal, but he implicitly suggests that an expansion in the number of visas available to Mexicans would reduce the number of people in the precarious situation about which Carens is concerned.

Legal theorist Linda Bosniak takes up the interesting problem of the rights of undocumented people who have not yet reached Carens’ five-year time threshold. She points out that this “constantly self-replenishing” group is in a very uncertain status that Carens’ firewall would not alleviate (p.85). She argues that it is unacceptable in a liberal democracy to have what essentially becomes a system of “internal institutionalized caste” (p.90). Bosniak laments what she sees as Carens taking a [*221] compromise position which accepts state sovereignty, and suggests that in order to maintain moral and theoretical consistency he should return to the “forceful social criticism” of his open borders advocacy (p.91).

Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain is concerned with the logistics of amnesty. She suggests that time is not the only important factor in establishing the right to stay; it also matters what kind of citizens those seeking amnesty will become. She states that applicants should be screened and processed carefully, and should take citizenship classes. It is not clear from this essay whether Elshtain would subject amnesty applicants to a different or more rigorous screening process than the current parameters for granting people legal permanent residency in the United States, and if so, what her justification would be for why they should be treated differently from people who get green cards in other ways.

Law professor T. Alexander Aleinikoff is frustrated by the simplicity of the moral appeal in Carens proposal – the suggestion that we should not deport certain people because it just feels very wrong to do so. Aleinikoff points out (like Swain) that powerful moral arguments can be made on both sides of the debate, and that ultimately the success of amnesty will come from making the argument on “more prosaic policy grounds” (p.107). These arguments include the cost and impracticality of finding and deporting eleven million people and the political uproar that would result from any real effort to do so.

IMMIGRANTS AND THE RIGHT TO STAY is a quick, easy read, and the overall effect is thought-provoking. Because each piece is so brief, the arguments are not explored in very much depth and so are difficult to fully evaluate. However, each of the eight authors in the book have elaborated on their arguments in other places, so perhaps the point of the book is to achieve breadth instead of depth. For this reason, I think it would be a useful teaching tool at the undergraduate level, for structuring an in-class debate on the question of amnesty or open borders. While most migration scholars will prefer to read these authors in other, lengthier formats, it could be an extremely valuable book for anyone who is new to navigating the perils of the liberal paradox.

Carens, Joseph. 1987. “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” REVIEW OF POLITICS, Vol. 49/2.

Hollifield, James F. 2004.“The Emerging Migration State.” INTERNATIONAL MIGRATION REVIEW, Vol. 38/2.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Rebecca Hamlin.