I suppose the readers of this website are more likely than most to favor open borders. But the majority of people are pretty strongly opposed to immigration. They think the government should amp up its efforts to keep the borders shut (or “secure” in the doublespeak of our time). This post gives reasons for being very skeptical of the idea that governments have a right to do this.
Let’s start at the beginning. Closing the borders strongly curtails the freedom of billions of people around the world. Whenever you want to limit other people’s freedom in these ways, you need a good justification. You better have a good story to tell.
So why would governments be justified in closing their borders? Here are some popular reasons. Perhaps you think that the vast majority of immigrants are dangerous people, and that this is why borders can be justly closed. Or perhaps you worry that immigrations would put undue pressure on our culture. Or you might want to protect the wages and jobs of your fellow citizens, some of whom might lose their positions to more competitive foreigners.
But these are bad reasons to favor closing the borders. First, most immigrants are not dangerous people. In fact, the average immigrant is less likely to commit crime than the average native-born person. So if you’re interested in lowering crime statistics, you should let in more immigrants. In any case, it’s always a bad idea to impose extremely severe limitations on the freedom of many just because you are worried about a few bad apples. Better to try and find the bad apples.
Nor is the desire to protect your culture a good enough reason to take away the freedom of others. Suppose you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, and you’d like to keep it that way. Would that justify you in preventing black people from buying a house nearby yours? Obviously not. (Google: Shelly vs. Kraemer.) But if the desire to protect your local culture does not justify excluding people from neighborhoods, it a fortiori cannot justify excluding people from entire countries.
Third, the desire to exclude people from competing in the labor market also fails to justify closing the borders. Suppose there is this job I want, and you might get it instead because you’ll do the job for less. Does this mean I may coercively prevent you from showing up for your interview? Of course not. It’s the employer’s decision whom to hire, and your decision whether or not to take the job should it be offered. I should let them do as they please. (In any case, it is worth keeping in mind that the likely benefits of allowing people to travel freely are so great that we could easily use some of that money to compensate the people who lost their jobs. You can open borders, tax the winners to make the losers whole, and still come out ahead.)
Some of these arguments may be familiar to you from this excellent discussion by Michael Huemer. But let me add another reason people think governments have the right to close the borders. This is based on the way international law conceives of things. According to international law, sovereign states have the right to close their borders to immigration simply as part of their domestic authority. Might that justify these policies?
To find out, we need to push back the question one step. What are the rights of sovereign states? The question here is about the moral right, not the legal right, to close the borders. So how do states acquire their moral rights to rule? The standard story, enshrined in the US constitution for example, goes that governments acquire these rights from their subjects. Perhaps they receive these rights from their citizens through their democratic consent.
Now as most readers here will know, this story is pretty problematic. (Check back next week for our symposium on this.) But let’s assume for the moment that it works.
Even so, closing the borders would still not be justified. This standard picture conceives of the rights of government as the product of the rights of its citizens. It holds that the government cannot have any rights that its citizens do not possess. (This is why, for example, the constitution mentions inalienable rights – given that these rights could not have been alienated, the government cannot possess them.) [UPDATE: John Hasnas reminds me that I had in mind the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Apologies.]
But this story has clear limits. Citizens cannot give the state rights that they do not possess. And no citizen has the right to deny immigrants access to the country. Closing the borders means denying billions of people around the world access to vast pieces of the world. No person has the right to do this.
To see this, consider a US citizen going to France and preventing French Northerners from accessing the French South. Obviously these Americans would be violating the rights of French people – who should be free. But there is no difference between a US citizen violating the rights of foreigners abroad or at home. Violations are violations. The mere fact that one lives within the same area does not help to justify this.
So unless you are already assuming that Americans somehow have a right to close the borders (which is precisely what we are questioning here), there is no reason to think that the US citizens have the right to deny foreigners the freedom to move on American soil. And if they don’t have this right, then they cannot have given it to the government. So this argument too fails.
Let’s consider a final possible argument. Perhaps you think that American citizens together own all the American soil. And perhaps they transferred part of their ownership to the government through their democratic consent. Would that do the trick? (I should note we’re starting to enter into laughably contrived arguments that seem more interested in trying to rationalize as right what now seems clearly wrong. But set that aside.)
Again, the answer is no. For one, it is simply not true that all American land is owned by Americans. Much of it is owned by foreigners. And since they don’t vote, they can’t democratically transfer their rights to the government either. More importantly, it is simply not true that the government is the part-owner of all the land. Just consider what this would mean. If the government had the right to exclude people from all the land, then it would also have the right to decide whom you get to invite for dinner, your party, or whatever. This is plain stupid.
What we are left with is a basic truth.* Closing the borders is horrifically unjust. The vast majority of immigrants simply seek to access our labor market in order to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. If they could do this from home, they’d probably stay. But they can’t and so they want to come here. By closing the borders we literally prevent billions of people from helping themselves escape the crushing poverty of their societies. We should stop doing this. And we should stop doing this now.
* I have not addressed here what I think is the strongest argument in defense of closed borders. I have in mind Kit Wellman’s argument from self-determination. This argument too fails, and I hope to post a rebuttal of Wellman’s argument here at some point.
[UPDATE: I occasionally speak of things like “closed borders” in this post. As Matt correctly pointed out in the comments, borders need not be entirely closed in order to violate rights. Borders ought to be open. Closed borders are just the worst kind (and very close to what we’ve got).]