Bernie Sanders, The Koch Brothers & Open Borders

Scrutinizing the nationalist grounding for the opposition to open borders 

By Professor Peter Higgins (Eastern Michigan State University)

January 6, 2016          Picture: Phil Roeder/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique’s And Who Is My Neighbour? Exclusive.

It is safe to say that Senator Bernie Sanders, who characterizes himself as a democratic socialist, is politically the left-most of the major candidates in the 2016 US Presidential race. This may explain why many expressed surprise and disappointment when Sanders recently stated his strong opposition to what, among those who have encountered the idea before, is usually considered the most progressive position one can take on immigration—the proposal that the United States eliminate restrictions on immigration, also known as “open borders.”

Sanders articulated his opposition to open borders in a July 28 interview for Vox with Ezra Klein, excerpted below at length to illustrate Sanders’ rationale. [1]

Vox Conversation: Bernie Sanders

Klein: You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …


Sanders: Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.


Klein: Really?


Sanders: Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …


Klein: But it would make …


Sanders: Excuse me …


Klein: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?


Sanders: It would make everybody in America poorer—you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs. You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids? I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.


Klein: Then what are the responsibilities that we have? Someone who is poor by US standards is quite well off by, say, Malaysian standards, so if the calculation goes so easily to the benefit of the person in the US, how do we think about that responsibility? We have a nation-state structure. I agree on that. But philosophically, the question is how do you weight it? How do you think about what the foreign aid budget should be? How do you think about poverty abroad?


Sanders: I do weigh it. As a United States senator in Vermont, my first obligation is to make certain kids in my state and kids all over this country have the ability to go to college, which is why I am supporting tuition-free public colleges and universities. I believe we should create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and ask the wealthiest people in this country to start paying their fair share of taxes. I believe we should raise the minimum wage to at least 15 bucks an hour so people in this county are not living in poverty. I think we end the disgrace of some 20 percent of our kids living in poverty in America. Now, how do you do that? What you do is understand there’s been a huge redistribution of wealth in the last 30 years from the middle class to the top tenth of 1 percent. The other thing that you understand globally is a horrendous imbalance in terms of wealth in the world. As I mentioned earlier, the top 1 percent will own more than the bottom 99 percent in a year or so. That’s absurd. That takes you to programs like the IMF and so forth and so on. But I think what we need to be doing as a global economy is making sure that people in poor countries have decent-paying jobs, have education, have health care, have nutrition for their people. That is a moral responsibility, but you don’t do that, as some would suggest, by lowering the standard of American workers, which has already gone down very significantly.

Most of the dismay expressed in reaction to Sanders’ rejection of open borders was not in response to his opposition to the elimination of immigration restrictions per se; no other major Presidential candidate in the US even countenances the proposal, after all. Rather, progressives and immigration reform activists denounced Sanders’ reason for maintaining immigration restrictions: that allowing large numbers of “unskilled” foreigners to enter the country harms poor and working class Americans economically by increasing unemployment and depressing wages. [Read Professor Philip Cafaro’s arguments for reducing immigration into the U.S here].

For example, Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, replied that Sanders is:

“a bit off the mark. I think he’s likening allowing more immigrants coming into the country to taking American jobs. Our position is that some of these jobs [are some] that some of our young people wouldn’t take. We don’t see young people lining up to pluck chickens.” [2]

Similarly, Lizet Ocampo, associate director for immigration at the Center for American Progress, argued following the Vox interview of Sanders that:

“There’s just overwhelming information about how immigrants contribute to our economy and to our communities, and that’s something that should be part of the conversation instead of the frame of mind that immigrants can take jobs, which is incorrect.” [3]

Todd Schulte, president of, a political action group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, objected that

“when Senator Sanders falsely pits immigrants as an obstacle to tackling unemployment, he’s just plain wrong. The economic data is clear that immigrants create American jobs.” He added that Sanders’ position reflects “exactly the sort of backward-looking thinking that progressives have rightly moved away from in the past years.” [4]


The idea of open borders is not new, even if it is seldom discussed by politicians or in mainstream news media. In the contemporary era, philosophers and political theorists have debated what immigration restrictions nation-states can justly enact since the 1970s, and many have concluded that there are (virtually) none at all. [5]

In contrast to the disagreement between Senator Sanders and many immigration reform activists, philosophers and political theorists debating how many and what kind of immigrants nation-states ought to admit have almost never treated the economic effects of immigration on the receiving society as an important consideration. There are at least two reasons for this.

One is that the empirical research on the economic effects of (different kinds of) immigration is very unclear; social scientists and economists disagree, sometimes sharply, both in terms of the strength and the direction of the impact of immigration on the economies of receiving societies. [6] It is easy to imagine that this is due in part to the fact that much of the research is politically motivated and sometimes even funded by partisan interests.

Second, there is something ethically disquieting in the idea that debates about how many (and what categories of) immigrants ought to be admitted should be settled by reference to immigrants’ economic impact. In the case of those who suspect that the impacts are negative, the point seems callous, since (in the context of countries like the US) prospective immigrants are usually much poorer than typical poor citizens. In the case of those who believe that the impacts are positive, the point seems demeaning, since it implies that the primary value of foreigners is instrumental, that foreigners matter because they are economically useful for citizens.

The most notable exception to the general resistance of philosophers and political theorists to evaluating the justice of immigration policies in terms of their economic effects on receiving countries is Stephen Macedo. Macedo opposes open borders on grounds largely identical to Sanders: the elimination of formal barriers to entry would result in the large-scale immigration of persons who would compete for jobs with poor and working class citizens, thereby increasing native unemployment and depressing wages. [7] Macedo’s argument reveals that there is an undefended assumption in Sanders’ opposition to open borders, and therefore a way to challenge Sanders’ position without the risks of instrumentalizing prospective immigrants and having one’s view upended by future empirical research. The remainder of this essay will critically examine Macedo’s case against open borders in order to assess what Sanders takes for granted—the nationalist belief that it is morally acceptable to weigh the interests of economically disadvantaged citizens much more heavily than one weighs the interests of even poorer prospective immigrants, simply because they were born in another country.



Macedo’s argument focuses on how many, and what categories of, prospective immigrants the US ought to admit, though its premises seem for the most part applicable to wealthy receiving countries generally. Macedo calls for substantial limits on the admission of “poorly educated and low-skilled” foreigners, whom he faults for “increased competition for low-skilled jobs, lowering the wages of the poor, and increasing the gap between rich and poor” citizens. In addition, he asserts that “the high proportion of non-citizens among the poor may also lessen support for social welfare policies.” (63-64) Macedo acknowledges that admissions policies of the sort he advocates cut against the interests of the foreigners whose exclusion he defends—foreigners who are generally economically worse-off than disadvantaged groups in wealthy receiving countries. Nevertheless, he contends, “the comparative standing of citizens matters in some ways that the comparative standing of citizens and non-citizens does not.” (64)

What can justify this inequality? A person’s capacity to suffer as a consequence of inadequate economic opportunities does not depend on her nationality, after all. Macedo argues that considerations of distributive justice (fairness in the distribution of basic resources, such as income and wealth) apply only among “co-participants in self-governing political communities.” (64) Macedo explains:

“As members of a political community, we are joined in a collective enterprise across generations through which we construct and sustain a comprehensive system of laws and institutions that regulate and shape all other associations, including religious communities and families. We are born into political communities and are formed by them. From cradle to grave (and beyond), our interests, identities, relationships, and opportunities are pervasively shaped by the political system and the laws that we collectively create, coercively impose, and live within. The basic values of our political order pervasively shape the lives of those who reside within”. (73-74)

In virtue of these unique shared political relations, Macedo maintains, persons have duties of distributive justice only to fellow citizens. This, in Macedo’s view, explains why the state ought to enact immigration policies in service of the economic interests of the domestic poor and working class even if those policies deprive much poorer foreigners of substantially enhanced economic opportunities. In particular, Macedo proposes that wealthy receiving countries limit “immigration based on family reunification (perhaps limiting that preference to spouses and minor children), placing greater weight on priorities for education and other skills, and curbing undocumented or illegal immigration.” (77)

One potential problem for Macedo’s position is that it may rest on an exaggerated estimate of the negative impact of “low-skilled” migration on the working class and the poor in wealthy receiving countries. There is compelling (but not undisputed) evidence that immigration does not, on-balance, “take jobs away from” the least well-off citizens, and that its impact on the wages of domestic disadvantaged groups—the worst of its possible harms—appears to be fairly small. [8] Moreover, as Ryan Pevnick points out, the claim that the immigration of poor foreigners undermines support for redistributive programs “is (at least) not unambiguously supported by the empirical literature.” [9] These observations do not wholly undermine Macedo’s argument, but they do show that its success depends on heavily discounting the interests of poor prospective migrants relative to the interests of citizens.

Nevertheless, given the vexed nature of the empirical evidence on the economic effects of immigration for receiving countries, it may be more fruitful to consider the tenability of the normative theoretical premise in Macedo’s argument—the nationalist claim that states have duties of distributive justice only to their own citizens. Even if one grants Macedo the empirical premise of his argument (that permissive immigration policies harm the interests of poor and working class citizens), there are two reasons to doubt that the normative theoretical premise enables Macedo to reach his conclusion (that states may justly restrict immigration in quantity and kind in order to protect the interests of their poor and working class citizens, even when doing so comes at a greater cost to prospective migrants who are economically worse-off).

The first is that Macedo does not consider that the sorts of immigration policies he advocates may violate duties that he himself rightly allows nation-states owe foreigners simply as human beings. On Macedo’s view, states have three duties to all human beings regardless of nationality: fair dealing (which includes “nonexploitation, the avoidance of force and fraud, and the duty to curb the capacity of one’s citizens or corporations to harm and exploit others,” as well as “doing our fair share to address common problems” (75)), rectification for past injustice (“if we have exploited or oppressed poorer and weaker societies, or if we have allowed our corporations to do so, then we have debts to these other societies that require some sort of recompense” (76)), and humanitarian assistance (“to do what we can to relieve distress, to end suffering, to stop gross violations of human rights, and to get a society on its feet so that it can look after its own affairs” (76)). The duties of fair dealing, rectification for past injustice, and humanitarian assistance are owed to human beings as such (regardless of nationality) because they are basic, fundamental. They represent minimal standards of moral treatment: a prohibition on the imposition of undue harm (fair dealing), redress for violations of the duty of fair dealing (rectification for past injustice), and minimal beneficence in response to extreme suffering (humanitarian assistance).

It would seemingly be difficult to make the case that wealthy states that exclude poor migrants violate duties of humanitarian assistance. Macedo is mostly correct when he notes that people who are poor in an absolute sense (for example, suffering from chronic malnutrition and having little access to clean drinking water) generally do not engage in transnational migration, lacking the resources it typically requires. (79) Absolutely poor people do cross national boundaries, but usually only from their country of origin to a neighboring, equally poor country, often driven by violent conflict. What is rare is the migration of a person who is poor in absolute terms to a wealthy country of the global North. Prospective migrants to wealthy countries are almost never poor in an absolute sense, though they are often poor relative to the standards of the receiving state. Nevertheless, in a small range of cases, people who are absolutely poor are able to reach the borders of wealthy countries, especially if the wealthy country (for example, the US) is geographically proximate to a much poorer society (for example, Haiti). In these cases, Macedo’s own argument (and, presumably, Sanders’ as well) entails that the wealthy country may not refuse admission to poor migrants without violating duties of humanitarian assistance.

Peter Haden/Flickr
Peter Haden/Flickr“Central American migrants hop a freight train in Ciudad Ixtepec, Mexico on July 15, 2008. The trains are nicknamed “La Bestia” – the Beast – and will take them on a perilous journey 1,500 miles north to the U.S.-Mexican border. Canada’s SAWP program flies workers in on a plane”.

Macedo could argue, in response, that excluding migrants who are poor in an absolute sense is permissible even if doing so violates duties of humanitarian assistance because their admission harms the economic interests of the domestic poor, and therefore violates duties of distributive justice states owe their citizens. However, in order to support this reply, Macedo would need to have provided a reason for privileging states’ duties of distributive justice to their own citizens over duties of humanitarian assistance to foreigners when the two come into conflict. Even if one finds Macedo’s argument that states have duties of distributive justice only to their own citizens compelling, it does not by itself also show that states’ duties of distributive justice to their own citizens override the duty of humanitarian assistance in cases of conflict. And it seems implausible that they would: the duty of humanitarian assistance is owed to human beings as such, regardless of nationality, simply because it is fundamental, protecting interests far more basic than duties of distributive justice.

Immigration policies of the sort Macedo proposes may also violate the duties of fair dealing and (indirectly) of rectification he says states have to each other and foreigners. Wealthy countries that encourage the immigration of foreigners with marketable skills or a tertiary education, either directly (by awarding them preference in admission—as Canada does, and which Macedo favors) or indirectly (by permitting immigration generally while severely restricting the admission of foreigners who do not satisfy criteria for education or skillfulness—as appears to be Sanders’ position), help to both entrench and increase the incidence of extreme poverty in the global South. The emigration of college-educated professionals from poor countries harms those who remain (often having been rendered internationally immobile by absolute poverty) in a variety of specific ways, but, in the most general sense, it does so by undermining prospects for human development; the people best positioned to contribute to medical, scientific, political and economic improvements are no longer present. [10] [See Professor Christine Straehle on the challenges of ‘brain drain” here].

In this respect, the policy Macedo defends (and Sanders suggests) is excluded by the duty of fair dealing he himself maintains states have toward each other and foreigners. Moreover, if one accepts that extreme poverty globally is in large part maintained by global economic institutions and trade policies controlled by wealthy countries of the global North (both Macedo (76) and Sanders seem to accept this [11]), then these countries have duties of rectification to poor countries of the global South. Immigration policies of the sort Macedo (and Sanders) advocate contravene these rectificatory obligations. Yet—as in the case of the duty of humanitarian assistance—the argument that states have duties of distributive justice only to their own citizens does not by itself also establish that states’ duties of distributive justice override their duties of fair dealing and rectification for past injustice.

The second problem for the nationalist claim that states have duties of distributive justice only to their own citizens is that the argument for the inclusion of citizens in the scope of distributive justice does not support the exclusion of foreigners from the same. According to Macedo, considerations of distributive justice apply among compatriots because compatriots are mutually engaged in a collective project of self-governance; compatriots “share a system of binding laws” (71) and institutions that they themselves create and enforce upon each other, and which profoundly influence each others’ identities and life circumstances. That compatriots participate together in a system of collective self-governance does not explain, however, why such co-participation is morally significant. Why does it generate duties of distributive justice among co-participants?

Macedo might say that compatriots have duties of distributive justice to each other simply because they collectively create and live under the same set of laws and institutions. This does not seem morally significant in itself, however; that you and I are bound by the same set of rules would give no reason why we should have special obligations to one another that we do not have to others, even if we together created those rules. Alternatively, one might argue that compatriots have duties of distributive justice to each other because their “interests, identities, [and] relationships” are “pervasively shaped” by the shared institutions under which they live; compatriots “are formed by” their shared political institutions. (74) Once more, however, it is hard to see why this in itself ought to mean that compatriots have duties to each other that they do not have to foreigners; that you and I are mutually bound by a set of rules, no matter how profoundly they influence our identities and life circumstances, does not seem intrinsically relevant to the question of whether I ought, morally, to favor your interests over the interests of people bound by different, identity-defining, rules.

What seems morally significant about co-participation in systems of collective self-governance is the mutual vulnerability to each others’ actions and decisions members share: compatriots have great causal efficacy with respect to each other. This suggests that co-participation in systems of collective self-governance is merely of instrumental significance; it explains why compatriots have great causal efficacy with respect to each other, which is itself the reason that duties of distributive justice hold among compatriots. This account of the scope of distributive justice is also what Macedo appears at points to have in mind. For example:

“Citizens have powerful obligations of mutual concern and respect, and mutual justification, to one another because they are joined together—as constituent members of a sovereign people—in creating binding political institutions that determine patterns of opportunity and rewards for all,” and “We have strong common obligations as fellow citizens because we collectively govern one another: we collectively make hugely consequential decisions.” (74, emphases added)

This interpretation is the most compelling way of understanding Macedo’s account of why co-citizenship is morally significant, but it does not show why co-citizenship is uniquely morally significant and therefore does not support excluding foreigners from the scope of distributive justice. Macedo’s notion that individuals experience unique vulnerability to those with whom they share national political institutions gains credibility by presuming a falsely idealized notion of the imperviousness of states to external forces, on which states are largely able to control domestic matters as they wish, regardless of the conduct of other states. Only if one supposes that states and their citizens are relatively impervious to extra-national influence does it seem plausible that individuals would have to share a political allegiance in order to be vulnerable in a morally significant way to each others’ decisions. States clearly have the power to significantly affect the life circumstances and opportunities of foreigners, wealthy countries of the global North more so than others. (This is nowhere more apparent than in states’ decisions regarding immigrant admissions.)

Macedo’s emphasis on the formal political institutions of the nation-state blocks from view other kinds of institutions through which people become vulnerable to the decisions of others, including international economic institutions as well as social institutions, such as gender, that are global in scope. For example, Alison Jaggar argues that:

The BBC World Service/Flickr.
The BBC World Service/Flickr.“Families meet through the border fence”

“Contemporary processes of economic globalization, regulated by the Western-inspired and Western-imposed principles and policies of neoliberalism, have significantly affected the situation of many poor women in poor countries.” [12]

Particularly notable has been the expansion of export agriculture mandated by structural adjustment policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on the viability of subsistence agriculture, formerly a traditional form of livelihood for women in South America and Southeast Asia, many of whom have consequently been driven to unregulated work in the informal economy, prostitution, sweatshops and emigration for the purpose of domestic work in economies of the global North. Structural adjustment programs have additionally mandated cutbacks in the public provision of social services, which “have affected women’s economic status even more adversely than men’s, because women’s responsibility for caring for children and other family members makes them more reliant on such programs.” [13] Moreover, “it is indisputable that many supposed cultural traditions in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have been strongly influenced by encounters with Western colonialism.” [14]

These observations show that, while there is something correct in Macedo’s view (obligations of distributive justice are in principle bounded), it is increasingly anachronistic to hold that shared membership in a nation-state supplies a unique basis for setting these boundaries.



The untenability of Macedo’s nationalism does not entail that wealthy countries, such as the US, ought to eliminate restrictions on immigration; Macedo’s is only one argument that might be made against open borders. What is even more clear is that the absence of a sound argument for nationalist opposition to open borders provides no reason to think that Senator Sanders (or any mainstream political candidate) would endorse a policy of open borders in the near future. The idea seems surely too politically perilous to take seriously for any candidate for political office, especially given the role of racism and xenophobia in shaping many Americans’ attitudes about immigration. Still, what ideas fall within the boundaries of being politically realistic is something that shifts over time, surely due in part to what mainstream political candidates are willing to support openly. One might reasonably hope that Senator Sanders, who is bold enough to describe himself as a socialist in a country where such a label is usually used pejoratively, might be similarly bold in questioning dominant nationalist approaches to immigration.

Footnotes & References:

[1] See (last accessed October 17, 2015).

[2] See (last accessed October 17, 2015).

[3] See (last accessed October 17, 2015).

[4] See (last accessed October 17, 2015).

[5] The most prominent advocate of open borders is Joseph Carens. For a good example of the defense of this position, see his The Ethics of Immigration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[6] See chapter 10 of Castles, Stephen and Mark Miller (2009), The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (4th Edition), New York: Guilford Press.

[7] Macedo, Stephen, (2007), “The Moral Dilemma of U.S. Immigration Policy: Open Borders Versus Social Justice?”, in Debating Immigration, ed. Carol M. Swain, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 63-81. (Subsequent parenthetical page references in the text are to this article.) Sanders’ position on what immigrants should be admitted is by no means identical to Macedo’s, but they share the relevant view that the immigration of “unskilled” foreigners must be sharply limited in order to prevent economic harms to poor and working class citizens.

[8] Castles and Miller, pp. 231-2

[9] Pevnick, Ryan (2009), “Social Trust and the Ethics of Immigration Policy,”The Journal of Political Philosophy 17:2, pp. 146-167.

[10] See my Immigration Justice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), chapters 3 and 6 in particular, for a much more extensive defense of this claim.

[11] See the Vox interview excerpted here (above), as well as Sanders’ own website: (last accessed October 17, 2015). For a systematic defense of the view that global poverty is maintained by global economic institutions and trade policies controlled by wealthy countries of the global North, see Pogge, Thomas (2008), World Poverty and Human Rights (2nd Edition), Malden, MA: Polity Press.

[12] Jaggar, Alison (2005), “‘Saving Amina’: Global Justice for Women and Intercultural Dialogue,” Ethics and International Affairs 19:3, pp. 62-3.

[13] Jaggar, p. 64

[14] Jaggar, p. 65

Peter Higgins
Peter Higgins
Peter Higgins is an associate professor of Philosophy and department member in Women’s and Gender Studies at Eastern Michigan University. He completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2008. Dr. Higgins specializes in social and political philosophy and generally focuses on issues that are global in scope, approaching them from a feminist perspective. His book Immigration Justice was published in 2013 (Edinburgh University Press).
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