By Joshua Rubin
The right to migrate is not a favor we occasionally grant to people when we are feeling generous. Humans have always migrated. And it is always for similar reasons. A place has become untenable. Not enough food. Too much danger. Climate change. Remember the Ice Age?
But the way we mostly talk about migration always starts with a statement that stresses security and borders. I suppose it is not unreasonable to think that migrants may cut into our share of the Earth’s resources. And maybe that’s exactly what those borders are for. To protect our share. But is it a fair share?
A hefty amount of our share, many of us realize, comes from something we often call exploitation. It implies an unbalanced relationship that takes advantage of unequal power in the world. It is not, I would contend, the fruits of exceptional status or the bias of heavenly forces. It is power derived from wealth, derived from power, in a vicious cycle that amplifies inequality.
As I am suggesting, there are some who feel that those nations with outsized shares of the world’s wealth have done something that entitles them to those shares and that, in liberal thought, our obligations are to exercise generosity. This is not unlike the idea of noblesse oblige, an expression that has fallen out of favor since the historic uprisings against it. But the principle is very much in favor in our current political climate.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that within our borders, much the same conditions hold. We rarely see the borders that protect those with the lion’s share, but sometimes they come into focus, plain as day, in gated developments, for instance. And we may not always see walls, but all of us know the lines of separation maintained between the rich and the poor, all within the militarized boundaries of our unequal society.
People thus deprived see threats to their own tenuous hold on a decent life, and wonder why they are being asked to share with people who come from far away, infusing our politics with the kind of confusion of targets that reinforces some of those same boundaries that hurt all poor people.
But back to the right to migrate. Unlike the liberal notions of generosity and obligation, which ebb and flow with the political tide, the right to migrate cannot be granted or denied. It is a human right. We hear, among well-meaning people, that we must carefully scrutinize the claims of people who come to us, to see and judge whether their misery reaches a threshold high enough to wring a few drops from our bleeding hearts. We establish categories of suffering, so that we may disregard some. Persecuted politically? Maybe. Can’t feed your children? Oh, that’s just economic. Next!
People migrate. They have that right. You have that right. No one has the right to stop them.
Joshua Rubin, a software developer from Brooklyn, New York, is the founder of Witness at the Border. He was a witness at the Tornillo, Texas tent detention facility for migrant children, and at a similar influx shelter in Homestead, Florida. These facilities held over 3,000 children at their peak; both no longer hold children. Rubin led the Witness project on the ground in Brownsville TX/Matamoros MX from January-March 2020, and now virtually.