You live in the US. You’re a US citizen. But unless you’re Native American, you have a migration story. The first person in your family to move to the US came from what part of the world? Why? What was going on in their home country? How were they received?

The US is a settler state, peopled by migrants from all over the world. The very first group to settle — the Puritans celebrated in our school history books — traveled across the ocean from England seeking religious freedom. Today’s migrants are similarly freedom seekers, willing to endure extreme hardship to find a place their families can live without persecution, violence, or extreme poverty. Why is one group revered, the other demonized?

If we examined each one of our millions of migration stories, we’d find variations on a simple theme: our ancient human willingness to uproot ourselves to improve our conditions of life and, quite often, to save our lives. But today, we have deliberately shed a sense of shared identity with new immigrants, refusing them the welcome we wish our own parents and grandparents had received.

Can we find it in our hearts to act in solidarity with people on the move today? Can we revive the tradition of welcoming new neighbors? John Washington, in our interview, believes that we can. And that we must, in order to preserve our own humanity.

At Arizona Luminaria in Tucson, AZ, a community-focused media outlet, John Washington writes about the border, climate change, democracy, and more. His articles have been published in The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Intercept and other outlets. He’s the author of The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexico Border and Beyond. A prolific translator, he co-translated with Daniela Ugaz Blood Barrios by Alberto Arce, which won a PEN Translates Award. Find him on Twitter (X) or Substack. Most recently, his article “11 Arguments for Open Borders” appeared in The Nation.

Lots of issues in the US concern us — the lack of affordable housing, mounting “natural” disasters, and so on. But migration is the all-consuming issue of this election, even though it affects very few. Why?

Creating fear of migrants is a winning campaign strategy. It worked well for Trump in 2016. The same drumbeat is sounding during this election season, and Biden has chosen to join it, not fight it. “Let’s see who can look tougher!” The fear-stoking employs false assertions that the data easily refutes — for example, that immigrants are a drain on the US economy — but then, this is not about facts.

It’s a propaganda war, and language is the weapon. They say migrants are “invading” the US, conjuring images of bandits taking over our country by force. But go to the border, as I did recently, where I talked with a typical migrant — a Guatemalan mom with three small kids, who was nervous, exhausted and grateful to hear the kind voice of the humanitarian aid worker who greeted her. Invaders?!

But that’s not to say immigration has a zero effect on US citizens. For example, in New York City, initially sympathetic mayor Eric Adams says that costs from the surge of migrants will force him to cut city services.

Local jurisdictions are hamstrung by federal laws that make it exceedingly difficult for migrants to work. Yet the US needs workers. At this point, the birth rate has fallen below replacement levels, which means the proportion of elders is growing in relation to working-age people. The US needs migrant workers to stave off the crisis. It’s simple: let them come, let them work!

Government officials are spending so much public money stupidly. The Texas governor Greg Abbott, to make a political point, put migrants on buses and sent them to blue states where they knew no one. What a waste! They could have been sent to the homes of relatives who would welcome them. But it did create the desired political result — pressure on Democratic leaders like Adams, who had to expend city dollars on housing them in shelters and hotels.

An interview with John Washington, author of "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexico Border and Beyond."

“Let them work.” That’s the intention of expanding the H2A program, which grants temporary legal status to farm workers. In 2022 we also saw a change for scientists wanting to work in the US, but the 0-1A temporary work permit (for “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement”) can be extended indefinitely — and open a pathway to a green card!

Temporary farm labor programs that tie a worker to a single employer without the right to change jobs is hardly the solution; it’s a recipe for exploitation and abuse.

At the non-working class end of the job market, the Biden administration determined we need highly skilled STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) workers. Many foreign professionals stay in the US for awhile and then go home, and the mutual exchange of knowledge benefits both countries. And those who choose to stay in the US permanently help keep the US competitive in those fields.

We could apply the same logic to the lower end of the wage scale. The government also recognizes the need for agricultural workers. Poor migrants often don’t want to stay long term; many spend a few years in the US, earn some money, and then go home. If they gain new skills and experiences from working abroad, they can, like high-income foreign workers, bring those home to the benefit of both countries. And, if they are allowed to stay, study after study shows that by the second generation, any cost of programs helping low-income migrants have been totally recouped.

You’ve made the case for open borders. What’s the difference between “open borders” and “no borders”?

Open borders are what we have now between states in this country. People have freedom of movement, but you must register in your new state, get a new driver’s license, register to vote, pay different kinds and rates of taxes. You might have a waiting period in order to receive some benefits, such as voting or welfare. Those, I think, can be reasonable.

Free trade agreements allow the free flow of capital and goods across borders. In future agreements, labor should be allowed the same freedom of movement. When we allow disparity in the rights of workers versus the rights of capital, allow different laws for the rich than for the poor, for citizens and non-citizens, the system fits the definition of apartheid. It’s morally bankrupt.

What about Mexico and its role?

Mexico, a transit country, has long done the US’s bidding. AMLO, too, has been disappointing on this issue, and Mexico’s own refugee system is underfunded. It’s become more dangerous for migrants to cross Mexico; they risk extortion, kidnapping and rape. Migration is by definition a cross-border issue; unfortunately, neither the US nor Mexico has treated migrants in a humane manner.

You mentioned how fear is used as a basis for policy. Fear of being separated from children to deter migrants, fear of migrant “criminals” to drive border policy. What positive emotion could replace fear?

The opposite of fear is solidarity. Receiving “others” into the fold is an ethical principle present in most religions. And it’s possible. For example, New York City has 170,000 recent migrants. That number sounds big, but it’s small compared to the total population of 8.8 million. They could easily be absorbed. Many previous waves of immigrants have become part of the fabric of our cities, enriching our culture, filling gaps in our workforce and inventing new kinds of businesses.

And some places do welcome migrants. Some states have allowed non-citizens to receive Medicaid benefits with no questions asked about status, and some allow them to qualify for other low-income benefit programs. Some cities allow non-citizens who are long-term residents to vote in local elections. Rather than spending money on enforcement and policing, money can be shifted to investing in programs that give immigrants a stable and secure life. That’s what a democratic society should be doing.

What do we do now?

The definition of asylum hasn’t been updated since right after WWII. For example, it doesn’t recognize the need to migrate due to climate change, though that’s now a common reason. It’s urgent that climate refugees be included in how we define asylum.

The way we talk about migration and the way we legislate it have real effects on real people. For awhile, the battle cry of “Abolish ICE” resonated broadly, but then the pressure dropped off. Those of us who care about human dignity can’t slack; we must keep pushing hard.