The Case For Open Borders: Birth

A person should not be judged by the circumstances of their birth.

Indi Samarajiva
Jul 10 · 5 min read

I was born. I don’t remember it, but I’m told I was there.

I fell out of my mother in the Salvation Army Hospital in Vancouver, Canada. I was healthy and I assume I just cried and drank milk and slept. It didn’t matter. My life was already out of my hands.

Two things happened.

First, I became a Canadian citizen. Canada has birthright citizenship, so due to where I entered the universe, I got some paperwork. Second, because my father was a Sri Lankan, he was able to register me at the Sri Lankan Embassy. I highlight father because at this time a mother could not pass citizenship. These were two bits of luck that have determined my entire life.

I was Canadian and I was Sri Lankan. And I had no idea what the fuck was going on.

Fast-forward 35 years and I am in the Joseph Fraser Hospital as my daughter falls into this world. I was there and I still don’t understand how that happened. I wrapped her in a towel (which was incorrect) and held her. She was a bit alien looking and I loved her very much, largely because she was so helpless and alone. Newborn babies are not like the newborn babies on TV. They are not fully cooked yet but the kitchen was closing and they had to go. They are frail and blind and quite useless. We had to take her life, literally, into our hands.

First, we registered her as a Sri Lankan. When she was a bit older we flew to England and got her UK citizenship (much easier from there), through my wife. Those were also two bits of luck.

So she is British and Sri Lankan, and Canadian if she wants to be. She also has no idea what is going on.

I was lucky. I was born lucky. My children were born lucky. We have many rights and privileges which were set from birth. Many, many babies do not. I feel, deep in my heart, that this is not fair.

Imagine that there is a cosmic roulette wheel, set in darkness, with vaginas along the end. You are set in the darkness, waiting for your birth. The wheel spins and you fall out of a vagina. And that is your life.

If you could decide the rules of this game, would you have relatively equal opportunities at the end of each vagina, or drastically unequal ones?

This is a thought experiment, and I’m doing the thinking here. So I’ll give you the answer. If you don’t know where you’re falling out, you’d want the most equal option. That gives everyone an OK chance and no one the worst.

That of course is not the world we live in. The rules are set before we can wrap our heads around anything more than a nipple. By the time we are born, les jeux sont faits. The game is done. No more bets.

If you fall out in a powerful, stable country — congratulations! You can live peacefully and read about other countries being bombed in the paper. You can travel freely or become a digital nomad, working remotely on a tourist visa. Even if you do live somewhere you’ll be an expat, never an immigrant.

If you fall out in a week or unstable country — too bad. You can get bombed but don’t try to leave or you’ll be encouraged to drown at sea or get cholera in a refuge camp. You can’t travel anywhere cause you may be trying to escape, and don’t think of trying to work somewhere that would make sense. If you do get out you’ll always be an immigrant, or a refuge — potentially diseased, violent or criminal.

And this is all set before you can lift your head. It’s just the luck of the draw.

Today I have two children. Right now, the youngest only has a Sri Lankan passport, which is a bit of a natural experiment. For this abstract, temporary reason, his world is simply much smaller than his sisters.

With his brown passport he can only travel to 42 countries. 22% of the world. The rest of the world will make him (me) wait in lines and bring bank statements, if they let him in at all. He has already been rejected for a UK visa once. They wanted to see more money.

His sister’s white passport, however, gives her access to 183 countries without a visa. She has easy access to 94% of the world.

These are two very similar people and I wouldn’t say that one is more or less deserving than the other. If anything he hits less, and doesn’t go for the eyes as much. However, by quirks of birth and paperwork, they live in two different worlds, one much smaller (and poorer) than the other. My son will get escape this world as soon as we register him in England, but for many children this is impossible. This hardly seems fair.

I mention my family in this story because we live on the edge of this imagined reality. Borders seem very solid and real unless you’re on the edge of them, in which case they’re absurd. I’ve stood on those interesections of four states in the US and it’s just a plaque in the ground and a bunch of similar looking land. There’s no there there.

Living on the edge of this reality, I can see that it is ultimately meaningless and cruel. It cuts people apart before their umbilical cords are cut. I’ll get into the philosophical, economic and historical reasons why open borders are just, but the ethical reason is clear if you just hold a baby.

They’re just a baby. They’re helpless, and alone, and they have no agency in this life. We are all God’s children. Who are we to tell babies where they can and cannot go, who they can and cannot be? Every baby deserves a chance. Every baby deserves to be free.

The case for open borders starts from a simple premise. A person should not be judged by the circumstances of their birth.

Indi Samarajiva

Written by

Colombo liberal. Writer, father. Founder of YAMU and Kottu.