We claim that immigration restrictions and liberalism are incompatible. One response to our argument is that states have stronger obligations to their citizens than they have to foreigners. For example, a public official in the U.S. government could argue: “It’s true that immigration restrictions limit the freedom of foreigners. But the U.S. government isn’t obligated to protect the liberties of foreigners. It is only obligated to protect the liberties of our citizens. Thus, immigration restrictions don’t interfere with liberties that we are obligated to protect.”
This argument is wrong. For one thing, it is false that immigration restrictions only interfere with the liberty of foreigners. In practice, immigration restrictions interfere with the freedom of citizens too. States fine and arrest citizens for hiring unauthorized migrants, imprison citizens for participating in “fake” marriages with foreigners (in contrast, the only reason that citizens get married is surely pure romantic love), and forbid citizens from renting to unauthorized migrants. So, even if we only care about the freedom of citizens, there is still a strong objection to immigration restrictions.
Anyway, we deny that governments lack strong obligations to foreigners. Immigration restrictions are coercive. We have weighty obligations to refrain from coercing other people, including foreigners.
Here is a case to illustrate. Imagine that Sally and Robin are walking down a neighborhood street. One resident of this neighborhood, George, threatens to assault and kidnap Sally and Robin if they don’t immediately turn back. Now, imagine that Robin is a U.S. citizen, while Sally is Canadian. Does George have a weaker obligation to avoid coercing Sally in comparison with Robin? After all, George and Robin are compatriots, while Sally is a foreigner. Yet it seems equally wrong for George to coerce Sally and Robin. This same argument applies to government officials. Suppose that George is a police officer. We again think it is still just as wrong for George to threaten Sally as it is for him to coerce Robin, even though George is an official in the U.S. government.
Maybe you think that the U.S. government is justified in coercively restricting would-be immigrants in order to fulfill its positive obligations to its citizens. Take a standard worry: by driving up the supply of labor, immigrants will decrease the wages of some American workers. So, the argument goes, the state ought to forcibly prevent immigrants from entering the U.S. labor market to ensure that American wages don’t drop.
In reply, consider a case adapted from one of Michael Huemer’s. Suppose your daughter is one of two finalists for a job. You know that the other finalist is willing to work for less than your daughter. On the day of the other finalist’s interview, you decide to physically prevent him from getting to the interview to ensure that your daughter gets the job at a sufficiently high salary. Clearly, your use of coercion against your daughter’s competitor is not justified even though you have special obligations to look out for our daughter’s welfare. Similarly, a state’s use of coercion against would-be immigrants is not justified even if states have special obligations to their own citizens. The general point is that the state’s negative duty to not coerce foreigners typically outweighs its positive duty to benefit citizens.
Other examples abound. Suppose that a TSA agent at LaGuardia airport notices that there is only one Cinnabon left and that a Greek tourist is ahead of a native New Yorker in the line. So the TSA agent forcibly prevents the Greek tourist from buying the Cinnabon in order to save it for the hungry American. Or, suppose the TSA agent forcibly prevents the Greek tourist from taking the last spot in the airport chapel in order to keep it open for the same native New Yorker. In both cases, the agent is doing something wrong.
So, it is false that governments have relatively weak obligations to respect the liberty of foreigners and, even if they did, this wouldn’t vindicate immigration restrictions. This is more evidence that liberalism and immigration restrictions are inconsistent.