Here’s a particularly bad argument against immigration: “Liberal immigration laws are unfair to legal immigrants who have played by the rules and waited patiently to get into this country in compliance with restrictive immigration laws.” The argument is offered by influential conservative figures like Senator Ted Cruz and is routinely echoed in talk-show media.
This argument simply begs the question. If the restrictive laws are unjust, then their abolition should be applauded, not criticized, by those who chose submission. If I, a legal immigrant, thought the burdens I endured were unjustified, then my reaction when those burdens are lifted should be celebration, not bitterness: “Finally, those folks who seek opportunity will not suffer as I did!” Their new freedom to immigrate is not unfair to me, who did not have that freedom and had to wait for many years to be admitted. To see why, imagine that the government decides to subject political speech to a host of bureaucratic regulations. Before being allowed to speak you must fill a zillion bureaucratic forms, wait several years, endure health inspections, and so forth. You tamely submit to these restrictions. Then, the restrictions are lifted. It would be petty, to say the least, for you to say: “This is unfair, all of you should suffer the indignities I did!”
What is going on in this argument is a hidden premise: that states have a background discretionary power to exclude, and that therefore, unlike the speech example, no one has a right to be admitted. But if this premise is denied, if the power to exclude is unjust, then the argument from fairness to legal immigrants does not get off the ground.
Now let us concede, for the sake of argument, that states do have this discretionary power. Still the argument from fairness fails. For (let us assume) liberal immigration laws grant a privilege (not a right) to be admitted. Admission, on this view, is a privilege the state can grant or revoke, and the legal immigrant simply was denied, in the past, the privilege of entering freely. But the state has now granted the privilege to new immigrants. By hypothesis, the state had discretion to do this. The legal immigrant does not have a fairness claim, because fairness does not dictate that bureaucratic burdens should remain constant over time. Driving cars (let us assume) is a privilege that the state of Florida grants me, not a right. Suppose that the state now abolishes the Motor Vehicle Division and says that from now on people can drive freely without a license. I don’t have a residual fairness claim, and it would be surely unbecoming for me to insist that all drivers should be subject to the same indignity I endured, namely to take a driver’s exam.
Some of the worries people have about liberalizing immigration deserve a hearing. Not this one.