On the Supposed Right to Immigrate

My church has been having an adult Sunday-school class on immigration. They’ve hosted a Democratic state representative, a professor from the local seminary, etc., all on one side of the question. I’ve been stunned that people who think that there’s a right to immigrate and a corresponding duty (at least for Christians) to promote open borders feel no compulsion to listen to the other side. In particular, ask any of the advocates leading the class how they respond to the arguments of Immanuel Kant or John Rawls, the two philosophers who have written much about immigration from the point of view of ethical and political theory, and you get a blank stare.

Start with the idea of a social contract—the idea that, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, “to secure these [unalienable] rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”—and the problem with justifying a right to immigration is obvious. People band together to form a government to protect their rights. A right to immigrate cannot be a natural right, for it makes essential reference to political organization, and so makes no sense in its absence. But it cannot be a civil right either, for the prospective immigrant is not a member of the political organization against whom he or she wishes to exercise such as right.

Kant observes this, and says that our obligation toward people in other nations is hospitality. In contrast to many contemporary Christians, however, he spells out carefully what this means. Kant uses a domestic analogy. Suppose some people show up at your door. You are obliged to be hospitable. What does that mean? You must not be uncivil; you must not harm them. But you are under no obligation to invite them in. If you do, you again must not harm them. But you are under no obligation to permit them to stay any longer than you want them to stay.

Rawls outlines the law of peoples, one of which is a law of noninterference: peoples must not interfere in the internal affairs of other peoples. But it’s important to note what’s not there. Peoples do not have a right to immigrate into another people’s territory without their consent. Indeed, recognition of such a right would contradict the law of noninterference. Peoples may restrict immigration to protect their own cultures and governing principles.

Kant and Rawls argue that there is no right to immigrate. They do not argue that countries or peoples should not admit immigration; that is up to the host country, and there may be good reasons to allow and even encourage immigration. But a country that restricts immigration, or allows immigration only of certain kinds, or from certain areas, does not violate anyone’s rights.

6 thoughts on “On the Supposed Right to Immigrate

  1. Philo, Philo, Philo: when will you ever learn?

    Kant? Rawls? the Founding Fathers?

    If you believe that history is just a series of disconnected events (I think that’s Kantian, actually) then you look at anyone who mentions anyone or anything that is, oh, like, you know, a hundred years old, to use Ezra Klein’s formulation, and think, “What is he on about? So sad. Such a nice guy. Too bad he’s conservative. Where did I put my hand sanitizer?”

    Why would you cite Kant when the argument is about Christians supporting illegal activity? Stick with the Founding Fathers and ask where exactly the ideas of modern Protestantism have diverged from those of 250 years ago. Most of the people you would be talking to can’t articulate that. It would be interesting to listen to a really rip-roaring discussion about the emergence of the modern nation state and how Christianity (a) influenced it; and (b) what the relationship between belief and politics really should be.

    My personal opinion? I think it’s rare to find anyone in the pastoral orders who is competent in matters of politics and economics, much less the rule of law and the ethics of enticing people here so that they can form a permanent underclass. But they are terribly eager to use Christ’s name to lend credence to their notions, however ignorant.

  2. You’re right, as always. You hit the nail on the head: “enticing people here so that they can form a permanent underclass” captures it precisely. I had thought that the Left wanted open immigration to give themselves a new voting public. They in effect inverted the thought of the Declaration: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them [or their Budgets] under absolute Despotism [to wit, the Tea Parties], it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such [Voters], and to provide new Guards for their future security.” But increasingly I think it’s about producing the inequality that then provides grounds for expansion of government power.

    Here’s an image: the free enterprise economy is like an escalator that quite effectively moves people up to higher and higher levels. Those who want the escalator destroyed—say, because they own the elevator company, and want to sell elevators and man them to make sure only the “right” people move upstairs, charging smartly for the privilege—need to make the case that it isn’t working, and that lots of people are being left behind on the bottom floor. So, they entice people into the building and have them mob the escalator at the bottom. “Look at the mass of people who can’t get access! And look at the growing gap between them and the people at the top!”

    Here’s a conjecture: the increase in inequality found in the U.S. and other Western societies since the mid-1960s is due, in large part, not to the failings of capitalism or even an increased return on education as we moved to a knowledge-based economy, but instead to increased immigration.

  3. “Here’s a conjecture: the increase in inequality found in the U.S. and other Western societies since the mid-1960s is due, in large part, not to the failings of capitalism or even an increased return on education as we moved to a knowledge-based economy, but instead to increased immigration.”

    I would say, rather, that there is a failure to assimilate. The rise of the multi-culti mentality (all cultures are equally valid, how dare we commit cultural imperialism) and the coincident but not unrelated phenomenon of dumbing down our public education system. In one of my last gasps of NPR listenership, I heard a report on a lawsuit in Arizona about bilingual education. The mother could not speak English, the daughter, who had lived in the US since she was 3, was enrolled in a BL kindergarten. She was mainstreamed in 2nd grade, but was completely traumatized by the fact that she had to speak English to make her food choices known at the school cafeteria. Lawsuit ensues.

    I know this is a little politically incorrect, but do we really want immigrant children who don’t know how to point to the mac ‘n cheese after 5 years? Do we really want parents who are so colossally bad at raising their kids that they can’t turn on Plaza Sésamo for their kids 2 hours a day? And then we sit back and let them sue us? It’s values. Some immigrants, like my sister-in-law, want to be American. Some want to be (whatever) only in a place where they actually have human rights. They want to keep all the crappy values that created the hell hole they came from, but they want our legal system to game. I say, let as many of the former come as possible, and keep the others out.

    Oh, this cuts several ways: Apparently there’s a big brouhaha over Georgetown hospital pulling the plug and the feeding tube on an immigrant woman whose family refused to pay and/ or find a long term nursing facility (I think the latter had much to do with the former.) Ethically and morally, it’s murder to starve anyone to death. But the family apparently knew they had G’town over the barrel and refused to move her. Where they came from, however, they would have been responsible for her after the first crisis and she never would have gotten a feeding tube to begin with.

  4. Oh, and lest I forget: doesn’t my little anecdote tell you everything you need to know about bi-lingual ed?

  5. philo:

    Your post brought up some painful memories. My wife is a legal immigrant from Tanzania in eastern Africa. We were married in her country in 2003 (at the time I was a missionary with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA), and afterwards we started working on getting her visa to come to the US.

    When we requested help in dealing with the USCIS from the ELCA we were ignored. The ELCA loves to play politics with immigration reform (read: amnesty for illegal aliens), and especially loves accusing opponents of racism and xenophobia. But the ELCA could care less about legal immigrants like my wife.

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