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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. We just started publishing a series called “The True Story of America’s Supremely Messed-Up Immigration System.” As we were working on the series, we came across an interview we did back in 2015 for an episode called “Is Migration a Basic Human Right?” We interviewed a variety of people for that episode — economists, political scientists, refugees from Egypt and Syria — and they all had very different perspectives on immigration. But there was one interview that really stayed with me:

Madeleine ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it is a human right, but I do think that there is a sense where somebody is taking my bread, so why don’t they live in their own country?

That is the voice of Madeleine Albright. She was born in Prague in 1937 and was a refugee in her youth, twice. As you may know, Albright would go on to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, under President Bill Clinton; she was also U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Albright died in 2022, at age 84. Today, I wanted to share this conversation with you as a bonus episode in our immigration series. There has been a lot of change in the world since 2015 when we spoke, but I think you will find that Albright’s worldview is almost strangely appropriate for the present moment. One thing worth mentioning, since we talk a bit about the European Union near the beginning of the episode: this conversation took place before the 2016 Brexit referendum, when the U.K. voted to leave the E.U. As always, thanks for listening.

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DUBNER: Hello, Madam Secretary.  

ALBRIGHT: Hi. How are you?  

DUBNER: Very well, thanks for joining us today. 

ALBRIGHT: Delighted.

DUBNER: Please begin just by saying your name and what you do.

ALBRIGHT: My name is Madeleine Albright, and I run the Albright Stonebridge Group as one of the chairs, and I teach at Georgetown, and I am Chairman of the Board of the National Democratic Institute, among other things.  

DUBNER: Among other things, you were the U.S. Secretary of State and before that, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, correct? 

ALBRIGHT: Absolutely. That is true. 

DUBNER: Can you just quickly give us your family’s background, and how that journey brought you here?  

ALBRIGHT: Well, my father was a Czechoslovak diplomat, and when the Nazis marched into Prague in March 1939, I was two years old, and my parents decided that they had to leave. And so, they managed to get out and we went to London and lived there, and we were refugees. After the war, went back to Czechoslovakia, where my father worked in the Foreign Ministry and then became the Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia. When the Communists took over in February 1948, he had just gotten a new assignment, and he did not want to work for the Communists. And in November 1948, first my mother, brother, and sister, and I came to the United States, and then my father joined us in December. My father, as I said, did not want to work for the Communists and so he resigned, defected, and asked for political asylum in the United States. And it was granted. And we were technically called “displaced persons.” We were refugees, and I hesitate to compare myself at all to the people that now are walking in deserts and drowning in boats and being refused entry because my story was clearly one where we didn’t have that kind of suffering in order to get into the United States. But my father, on a regular basis, would say, “Other countries say, ‘Sorry your country has been taken over by terrible people. And you’re welcome here. And when are you going home?’ And when we came to the United States, people would say, ‘We’re sorry your country has been taken over by a terrible system. You’re welcome here. And when will you become citizens?’” And he said that is the difference between other countries and America. 

DUBNER: It’s hard for me to imagine that your own background did not inform the way you’ve looked at geopolitics as a professional, but maybe I’m wrong. Can you talk about that for a moment?  

ALBRIGHT: Yes, absolutely, it is true, in the following way. I am a child of World War II and the Cold War. There’s no question about that. As you mentioned, I was Ambassador at the United Nations, and when I saw what was happening in the Balkans, and people being loaded into trucks and trains and sent to concentration-slash-labor camps, I thought, “We’ve seen this before.” And when people in Bosnia and Kosovo later were being ethnically cleansed only because they were Muslims, I thought, “We can’t have that,” when I was in the government, when I could argue for us doing something. And so, yes, very much, I was informed by my own background. In addition, I later found out about my Jewish background, and people thought that maybe my action in Bosnia had to do with that. It didn’t. I mean, because I obviously knew about the Holocaust. I didn’t, however, know that it applied to my own family. But there is no question that my background definitely informed the way that I see things. 

DUBNER: I’d like to speak with you for a bit about the notion of open borders generally. Let’s begin with the Schengen Agreement that permits citizens of most E.U. countries to travel freely from one country to the next. What’s your view of that agreement generally?  

ALBRIGHT: I think generally it’s a very good idea. I think what has been interesting is to just look at the evolution of Europe, where two horrendous world wars took place as a result of aggression and rampant nationalism. These are very small countries on the whole and the distances in Europe are very small. I know when we came to the United States and we would drive from Denver to Seattle, my parents would say, “Well, this is like driving from Paris to Berlin,” whereas in the United States it’s just open space. So as the evolution after World War II came about and the European Union came together, there really was a thought that open borders were the way to go, and that the Schengen Agreement — that is the codification of it. I know that there are obviously a lot of questions at this point about it, but that is based on the fact that within Europe, there would be open travel but to get into the Schengen system, there have to be some rules and verifications of who people are.  

DUBNER: So in a case like the Schengen Area, what is a border? How does the nature of what a border is change? 

ALBRIGHT: Well, if I might kind of put this into a larger context, it is an attempt to get over national differences. But what has happened is that, to some extent, the European Union is kind of faceless. And given things that have been going on in the last few years, people feel a need to have an identity of some kind. And so, people group with their own kind, whether it’s ethnic or religious or linguistic, or the borders that used to be. And so, all of a sudden there is within the Schengen system, kind of a return to national pride, one might put it that way. 

DUBNER: Does that surprise you or no?  

ALBRIGHT: Well it does, and it doesn’t, frankly. Even in the United States, people call themselves, you know, a Czech-American or an Italian-American. Everybody wants to have some kind of an identity. What surprises me is virulent nationalism has taken hold in some places, Hungary being the most acute example of it. And that does surprise me, and I think is very, very damaging. I can explain it in terms of this kind of facelessness of the European Union and the need for identity. I can’t explain it in terms of pragmatism and what should be happening. So there’s kind of a re-creation of borders. And then the aspect of the humanitarian influx of the refugees and the migrants has, frankly, made it worse. I think it’s a step backward. I really do think, I — I can see that it’s very important to have an identity. We all have lots of different identities, so I can understand that. But when your identity depends on hating the other people, and closing the door, then you have damaged the process of trying to figure out how we all live together. 

DUBNER: What do you think creates that? I mean, on the one hand, you could argue that the further we get into this, you know, human experiment and the experiment of civilization and so on, the less we discriminate, the less we distinguish, the less tribal we get. On the other hand, you see that this tendency, whether it’s human nature or conditioned or economic, whatever it’s driven by, it is real. So what do you think distinguishes either a person, or a community, or even a nation, who gets to be that, I don’t know if we want to go so far as to call it xenophobic, but who treasures the distinction between people as opposed to, would rather see those distinctions be ameliorated? 

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think the basic issue is fear. And the fear often comes from a sense that there’s an economic loss. That somebody’s taken your job or your house or married your sister. But what bothers me the most is that when what is a natural fear of economic deprivation is then exacerbated by the political needs of a demagogic leader. And I would put Viktor Orban in Hungary in that category, who takes advantage of this sense of compression or fear and then makes a political ideology out of it that makes it worse.  

DUBNER: Okay, so let’s talk about a scenario that would be quite the opposite of that. Let’s talk about a world where open borders are the norm. So, the economist Alex Tabarrok wrote for The Atlantic recently calling for basically getting rid of borders for moral and economic reasons. And he argues that the freedom to move wherever you want is an essential human right. Let me, um, if you don’t mind, Madam Secretary, I’d like to read you just a bit briefly from what he said to us in an interview: “Our moral intuitions, and indeed our laws today, are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, gender, sexual preference, etc. but for odd reasons, it’s perfectly okay to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else. You can, in fact, put up walls and machine guns and prevent someone from moving simply for the reason that they were born somewhere else.” So I’m not going to ask for a “yes” or “no,” do you agree or not agree, but do you see this generally as an agreement that you could get behind — that the freedom to move where you want beyond any border is essentially a human right, or is this a kind of hopelessly naive argument, politically and even economically?  

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it is a human right, but I do think that for whatever, either a political reason or — it’s hard to differentiate political and economic here, there is a kind of sense where, you know, somebody is taking my bread, so why don’t they live in their own country? And I think that it becomes exacerbated. But in the best of all possible worlds, what you would have is the possibility of going wherever you want and either staying or not. But I’m not sure I fully agree that we are ready to accept everybody. This is my problem in terms of how you square the need for identity, pride in your group, without having it curdle into hatred of somebody else. It’s viewed as a zero-sum game, when it actually should be an additive and not “it’s me against you, and just because you’re coming, I have less.” We are living in a borderless virtual world, however, as a result of technology, and there are pros and cons to that. But it is borderless. There’s no question.  

DUBNER: What would happen — and I’m asking you to predict the future, which I realize is impossible — but what would happen if North America became another Schengen area? Open borders — U.S., Canada, Mexico. How would you see that playing out?  

ALBRIGHT: I personally would be for it, you know, but I do think there would be those who would feel that they had lost something. One of the things I was involved in during the Clinton administration in terms of NAFTA. And one of the things that I did, because I was at the U.N. at the time, was meet regularly with the Canadian and Mexican ambassadors, and then later with the foreign ministers. And what we were doing was showing what we all had in common. The environment, culture, and various aspects that showed our commonality. And if we were to become a Schengen, I think we would have to do much more to emphasize the commonality of the culture. But, I do know what’s going on now that I think has to be balanced is security versus openness. And it’s difficult. There’s no question. We can’t operate on the basis of fear factor and decide that just because somebody doesn’t look exactly the way we do or a different religion, that they’re a threat. But what’s happened, unfortunately, is we have moved backwards on this rather than forwards. 

DUBNER: So, Madam Secretary, I have to ask, do you watch Madam Secretary the TV show?  

ALBRIGHT: I do, yes. 

DUBNER: So I’m guessing you’ve noticed that the secretary in that show is briefly made acting president when the line of succession gets to her through a series of circumstances. But because you are not a natural-born U.S. citizen, that was not a possibility for you. I understand you were also excluded from nuclear contingency plans and so on. Did you and/or do you consider those exclusions sensible based on your having been foreign-born, or more of a strange historical relic?  

ALBRIGHT: I think it is a little bit of a strange historical relic, because of Hamilton, frankly. I do think that naturalized citizens should be eligible but after living in the country for a long, long time, I think that you cannot be the citizen of a country that you’ve just kind of arrived in. And I do think that it requires understanding the country. The opposite, however, you didn’t ask me this, but President Havel wanted me to become the president of the Czech Republic. And I refused for any number of reasons, but one, because I hadn’t lived there. I didn’t understand it.  

DUBNER: Let me ask you an impossibly broad or difficult question. Maybe it’s not so difficult for you. How would you characterize the United States’ immigration policies over the last couple centuries? Have they been largely sensible and productive, or somewhat random and occasionally contradictory, even xenophobic?  

ALBRIGHT: I think that they have been episodic. I think that mostly we have to remember that we are a country of immigrants, and therefore they clearly have worked. And I am very troubled by some of the discussion now. I have renewed my vows on a regular basis as an American and I didn’t become a citizen until I was a junior in college. And I take it very seriously. I have now participated in a number of naturalization ceremonies. I can’t be the person that swears the new citizens in because I’m not an officer of the law, but I am a person that has handed out the naturalization certificates to people. And I have to say, the most moving one was on July 4th, 2000, during the millennium, at Monticello. And as I handed the naturalization certificates to the people, I said, “This is the most important piece of paper you will ever get. I have the same one. Guard it with your life.” 

Coming up: Madeleine Albright on what can be learned from a refugee crisis.

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When we spoke with Madeleine Albright in 2015, one pressing immigration story was the flow of refugees who were fleeing civil war in Syria. I wanted to know how Albright thought the U.S., and the Obama administration, had handled the crisis in Syria. I should also note: the conflict in Syria continues today, although with much less attention paid by the rest of the world.

ALBRIGHT: I think it is as complicated as anything that I’ve seen — Syria itself, within the context of everything that’s going on in the Middle East. But for me, obviously I’m not in the government and I am not as informed as somebody that is in the government, but I would have done more earlier in terms of trying to be supportive of the rebels. Were they a group that could be supported? I don’t know all the answers, but from my perspective, I wish we had done that. I believe that it would be a good idea to establish some safe zones. There are lessons learned about how not to do them, from what we did, or tried to do in Bosnia and Kosovo. But I do think that there has to be some way to be able to protect people from their own governments, frankly. And then, also having been in Jordan two years ago and being very aware of the burden that is placed on Jordan itself for all the refugees that are there, also in Lebanon and Turkey, is that there needs to be some additional help to those countries because they’re kind of frontline states in all of this. And then try to work towards a political solution because to get back to the original point about being a refugee, people want to live in the country where they were born. I say that nothing is more important in my life than becoming an American but I do think, generally, what people want is to be in a place where they speak the language, have an extended family, understand the environment that they’re in. And so, there has to be a political solution.

DUBNER: There are an estimated 12 million Syrians who’ve left their homes because of the war there. Half of them, roughly, are children, many still in neighboring countries, some heading for Europe, some maybe heading here. Again, a large, large, large question but what’s your best idea for bettering their resettlement and/or eventual return? Especially keeping in mind what you learned from the Balkan refugee situation after those wars.  

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think there are several parts to this. Obviously, the best situation would be to have some kind of a political solution in Syria itself, going on what I’d said earlier about people actually wanting to live in the countries where they were born and where their families are. Then I do think that there needs to be a way to establish some kind of safe zones and safe areas using the lessons that we learned in the Balkans of making sure that they are properly protected and are not havens for people that want to undermine them. But at least they would be proximate and  provide a place for people so that they didn’t have to trek, you know, with a child on their back and their worldly goods dragged behind them. I would also then do more to be helpful to the neighboring countries. Then the other part, that I don’t see why we can’t figure out with the help of the U.N. refugee organization as well as with the European Union, is how to build facilities in various countries near their borders so that people actually can live in — bring trailers. I mean, there are any number of ways. I’m amazed at how overwhelmed the system has been in terms of not being able to deal with just the facilities of things. And then I do think that it would be a good idea if various countries took Syrian refugees in. The thing that I find hard about — and again, this goes back to my background and traveling across this huge country — we have room in the United States for people, and immigrants have been pretty good citizens, frankly, and want to be a part of this country. And it’s very hard for us to tell other countries that have more dense populations and less space that, you know, “You do something” and we are saying, “Not here.” I believe in the role of the United States. I happen to believe we are an exceptional nation of immigrants. We are exceptional, but we can’t ask that exceptions be made for us. I think we need to provide a better example, and then support the international organizations whose job it is to do a lot of this. Make sure that the U.N. refugee operation is funded, that the World Food Program is funded, and that we help do a multilateral approach to this as well as a national one.  

DUBNER: But let me ask you, if I may, I realize I’ve already taken more time than you promised, but if you don’t mind, I have one more question I’d like to ask you. From a video by the International Rescue Committee where, I’d like to read you back a quote from you, you said, “Diversity is what makes our societies richer in every single way in the 21st century. And diversity is our strength.” Now, let’s assume that one agrees with your position on the strength of diversity. The practical question, to my mind at least, becomes then how does one — meaning a nation, a government, even at any community — how does one balance that strength with the realities of immigration and economics and so on? In other words, how does one sensibly set the rules for who’s allowed to move into a country and who’s not? Because if we presumably opened up, let’s say, the American borders to anyone and everyone, we’d get pretty crowded, pretty fast. And I assume that’s not the idea that you have in mind.  

ALBRIGHT:   Look, I do think there need to be certain rules for coming into a country. I find stunning the following set of facts. Jordan, as I said, I had been there. They have refugees from Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. In numbers, proportional numbers to their population, it is as though the United States had 60 million refugees. We can’t even deal with 11 million undocumented workers. I think that where we have been makes no sense at all and there needs to be, absent the Syrian issue, even before, some kind of a rational immigration program for the United States: how people come here, what the procedure is, fairness, legality, a whole aspect of things. Having gone through a naturalization process myself, I do think it is important to know who is who, have people study the Constitution. I happen to think it’s useful — I mean I speak a number of languages, but I do think it’s important for people to be able to speak and understand English. But I do think that the default position should be that we do benefit by the diversity, that we can use more people, that people want to work, and that there can and will be jobs for them. It doesn’t mean that we can just say, “y’all come.” I do think that there has to be some way of checking who is who. I do believe that. And having just been involved in a discussion with people who describe what the procedure now is for Syrian refugees to come in, it is stunningly detailed and rigorous, and so I find appalling that there are those in public office who are saying, “Not in my state.” And I do think that what people should do is, frankly, put themselves into the shoes of somebody who is desperate and good and wants to contribute and is treated in an inhuman way when they arrive at a border.  

DUBNER: We should say you are admittedly probably the number one poster girl for immigration to the United States. We were pretty lucky to get you.  

ALBRIGHT: Well, I certainly am grateful and I describe myself on my Twitter account as a grateful American. You try to do everything you can to pay back, believe me. Every day I’m grateful to have been accepted in this country. And I do have to keep saying I didn’t have a tragic story in terms of barbed wire or boats that leaked. I came here in a very dignified way, and I’m sitting in my office and I have in front of me the manifest of the ship that I came in on, the S.S. America, on November 11th, 1948. I have my commissions on the wall, signed by President Clinton. And then, if I may, on the other side, I have the Medal of Freedom that President Obama gave me. That’s my story. And I’m grateful to be an American. 

That, again, was Madeleine Albright, who served as U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001. She died in 2022.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Arwa Gunja, and edited by Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Augusta Chapman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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  • Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.



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