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.