By Dallin Overstreet

Is there a moral right to immigrate? The philosopher Michael Huemer argued that humans have a distinct right to immigrate and that any government barring peaceful immigration was violating a basic right. He provided real life examples and analogies that help to understand the logic behind the right to immigrate.

He uses two individuals, Marvin and Sam, in order to explain this belief. Marvin represents an individual wishing to immigrate while Sam represents the U.S. government. The excerpts below come from his paper “Is There A Right to Immigrate?”.

Suppose that, through no fault of mine, Marvin is in danger of starvation. He asks me for food. If I refuse to give him food, I thereby fail to confer a benefit on Marvin and, at the same time, allow Marvin to go hungry. If Marvin then starves to death, those who accept the doing/allowing distinction would say that I have not killed Marvin, but merely allowed him to die. And some believe that this is much less wrong than killing, possibly not even wrong at all. But now consider a different case. Suppose that Marvin, again in danger of starvation, plans to walk to the local market to buy some food. In the absence of any outside interference, this plan would succeed—the market is open, and there are people willing to trade food for something that Marvin has. Now suppose that, knowing all this, I actively and forcibly restrain Marvin from reaching the market. As a result, he starves to death. In this situation, I would surely be said to have killed Marvin, or at least done something morally comparable to killing him.

The actions of the federal government of the United States are more analogous to the case in which I restrain Marvin from reaching the market, than to the case in which I merely decline to provide him with food. The government’s immigration policy is not a merely passive one—the government does not, for example, merely fail to assist people in coming to the United States. Rather, the government hires armed guards to stop people from coming in and to forcibly expel people who are already here. The federal government spends almost $13 billion a year on actively excluding or expelling unauthorized immigrants.The United States is like the market where would-be immigrants could satisfy their needs. There are Americans willing to hire immigrants, to rent them living spaces, and in general to engage in all other kinds of needed interactions with immigrants. My charge is not that the U.S. government fails to give Third World inhabitants what they need. It is that the government actively and coercively prevents many Third World inhabitants from taking a course of action that they otherwise would undertake and that would in fact succeed in enabling them to meet their needs. This is much closer to inflicting a harm than it is to merely allowing a harm to occur.

It is clear that if Sam, an individual, were to inhibit Marvin, another individual, from obtaining food or any other type of good that did not infringe on Sam’s rights, there would be a clear violation of rights. But many who defend immigration restrictions wish to grant the government the power to do just that. Clearly, the government would be infringing on an immigrants right to migrate wherever they please, as long as they are peaceful.

This next example from Huemer’s article explains why the immigration-welfare argument that many who are in favor of immigration restrictions does not hold up.

Consider again the case of starving Marvin. In the last version of the story, I coercively prevented Marvin from reaching the local marketplace, on the grounds that doing so was necessary to prevent my daughter from having to pay a higher than normal price for her bread. This action seems unjustified. Would I succeed in defending my behavior if I pointed out that, as a father, I have special obligations to my daughter, and that these imply that I must give greater weight to my daughter’s interests than to the interests of non-family members? Certainly the premise is true—if anything, parents have even stronger and clearer duties to protect the interests of their offspring than a government has to protect its citizens’ interests. But this does not negate the rights of non-family members not to be subjected to harmful coercion. My special duties to my offspring imply that, if I must choose between giving food to my child and giving food to a non-family member, I should generally give the food to my child. But they do not imply that I may use force to stop non-family members from obtaining food, in order to procure small economic advantages for my children.

Next, consider the charge that immigrants create a fiscal burden due to their consumption of social services. On the whole, immigrants pay slightly less in taxes than the cost of the social services they consume. This is mainly because immigrants tend to have lower than average incomes, and thus pay relatively low taxes. Some economists believe, however, that in the long run (over a period of decades), increased immigration would have a net positive fiscal impact.

Assume that immigrants impose a net fiscal burden on government. Would this fact justify forcibly preventing a large number of potential immigrants from entering the country? To answer this, first we must ask whether the state presently has an obligation to provide social services to potential immigrants, even at a net cost to the state. On some theories of distributive justice, it could be argued that the state has such an obligation, even though these potential immigrants are not presently citizens. If so, then the state obviously may not exclude potential immigrants for the purpose of shirking this duty.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the state has no such obligation to provide social services to potential immigrants, at least not without collecting from them sufficient revenues to cover the expenditure. If this is true, the state would perhaps be justified in denying social services to immigrants, raising taxes on immigrants, or charging special fees to immigrants for the use of social services. But it remains implausible that the state would be justified in excluding potential immigrants from the territory entirely. It is not typically a satisfactory defense for a harmful act of coercion to say that, because of a policy one has voluntarily adopted, if one did not coerce one’s victim in this way, one would instead confer a benefit on the person that one does not wish to confer.

Suppose, for example, that I run a charity organization. I have made a policy of offering free food to all poor people who enter the local marketplace. Unfortunately, my organization is running a little short on cash, so I am looking for ways to cut costs. When I learn that Marvin is heading to the market to buy some food, I decide to save money by forcibly preventing him from reaching the market. Marvin would be better off being allowed into the marketplace, even without the free food I customarily give out, since he could still buy some inexpensive food with his limited funds. But I have already made a policy of offering free food to all poor people in the marketplace, so I would in fact offer free food to Marvin, were he to make it there. Is it permissible for me to coercively inflict a serious harm on Marvin, in order to avoid having to either break my policy or give free food to Marvin?

Surely not. Perhaps I would be justified in altering my policy and refusing to give free food to Marvin when he arrives at the marketplace—this would be permissible, provided that I have no humanitarian obligation to assist Marvin. But whether or not I have any such humanitarian duties, I surely have no right to actively prevent Marvin from getting his own food. If Marvin had been coming to the market to steal my food, perhaps then again I would be justified in excluding him. Even this claim would be controversial; if Marvin’s condition of need were sufficiently urgent, some would say that I must let him take my food. But whatever one thinks about that question, surely I cannot justify barring Marvin from the opportunity to buy food from others, merely on the grounds that if I permit him to do so, then I will also voluntarily give him some food.

In this example, Marvin again is forcibly disallowed from entering the market to obtain free food because the hypothetical charity is running low on cash. Clearly, the fact that the charity is running low on cash is no justification for not allowing someone to enter. The problem is not with immigration then. The problem would lie with the design of the welfare state.

This final example from Huemer’s paper discusses problems with refusing immigrants based on the desire to preserve cultural norms. This argument is used by many who support immigration restrictions.

Imagine that I have coercively prevented Marvin from reaching the local marketplace, where he would have bought food needed to sustain his life. My earlier justifications for my action having fallen flat, I mention that I had yet another reason.

Marvin practices very different traditions from most of the other people in the marketplace. For instance, he wears unusual clothing, belongs to a minority religion, speaks a different language from most others (though he is able to get along well enough to purchase food), and admires very different kinds of art. I and many of the merchants who use the marketplace have become concerned that, if Marvin goes to the marketplace and interacts with the people gathered there, he may influence the thinking and behavior of others in the marketplace. He might convert others to his religion, for example, or induce more people to speak his language, rather than mine. Because we do not want these things to happen, we decided to forcibly prevent Marvin from reaching the marketplace.

This action seems wrong. The merchants’ desire to be surrounded by people who think and behave in ways similar to themselves does not negate Marvin’s right to be free from harmful coercion. It seems equally implausible to maintain that Marvin’s rights are outweighed by the merchants’ desires to avoid cultural change.

This example shows that it would not be permissible for an individual to bar another individual from entering a market in order to preserve a desired culture. While every individual has a right to associate with whomever they please, they do not have the right to prohibit someone from attempting to associate with others, regardless of the culture they are trying to preserve.

If it is obvious that individuals do not have the right to bar others from entering markets for these reasons, why should the government be free to do so? It seems there is a contradiction between how people view what individuals have the right to do and what the government has the right to do, with regard to immigration restrictions. If we believe that the government only wields powers delegated to it by the people it governs, then how could the government possibly own this power if the people don’t have this right to begin with?

Americans should reconsider any push to restrict immigration further. Restricting migration, by either a government or an individual, is a violation of a basic human right.

Dallin Overstreet is a Senior Policy Analyst at the American Freedom Institute

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