The Limits of Open Immigration

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Wed, Dec 16 - 9:00 am EST | 3 years ago by
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The Good Life - Open Immigration

When I immigrated to the United States, the experience was not quite a nightmare but more like a series of bad dreams.

I was from friendly Canada. I had a Ph.D. and a job offer from an American university. Yet the process — over several years — was a series of frustrations and indignities as I filled out dozens of forms, waited in lines, and followed the instructions of unmotivated, condescending, weary, semi-informed, and sometimes surly immigration officials.

So I sympathize with immigrant hopefuls everywhere. And sometimes I wonder how the process would have gone for me if I’d had less education, didn’t speak English or have an Anglo-Saxon surname, or if I’d had brown skin.

(To be fair, I did also deal with a few immigration officials who were competent and pleasant, and my citizenship ceremony itself was a great pleasure.)

But the immigration issues we are grappling with now are not so much whether American policy is cumbersome but what a rational immigration policy should be.

The outlines of such a policy should be clear. If we want a free society, then that requires both formal institutions — including governments — that protect individuals’ rights and a broader culture that is open to new people, ideas, products, and services.

So free societies develop institutions of open exchange, e.g., markets, for those who want to trade voluntarily with each other, and they develop institutions of compulsion, i.e., governments, against those who want to violate others’ rights.

Sometimes those two institutions are in tension with each other. In the case of immigration, our impulse to openness pushes us to embrace open immigration, while our impulse to protect rights pushes us to erect barriers against those who might pose a threat.

This year we are worried about Syrians. In previous years, Mexicans. Before them, the Pakistanis. And before them, the Irish, Italians, Germans, and Chinese. Yet while the details of each case have varied in the past and will vary in the future, we should hold firmly to the general principles of a free society in dealing with them.

One principle is that we should limit the immigration only of those who are objective threats to the life, liberty, or property rights of our citizens. That includes, for example, those with communicable diseases — or those who have joined organizations committed to putting violent ideologies into practice — or those who are parts of a mob — or those who are actively violating the rights of their family members with whom they are seeking entry — or those with criminal records in their origin country for behavior that is also criminal here.

A related principle is that a free society is individualistic, and it treats human beings according to their individual qualities — not as undifferentiated members of a collective — no matter whether that grouping be racial, national, religious, ethnic, or sexual.

A free society also presumes the innocence of individuals, so it will deny entry only if it has reasonable evidence for doing so.

The above principles put the burden on the immigration authorities — to err on the side of treating immigrant-candidates as acceptable individuals unless compelling evidence indicates otherwise.

Yet such a liberal immigration policy does also make free societies vulnerable to our two big, persistent fears.

Fear Number One: We will let in many criminals and terrorists.

Of course that is a risk. But that is what we have police forces for. All sorts of people who are inside the nation’s boundaries can be potential criminals — citizens, tourists, business travelers, diplomats, foreign students, and recent immigrants. So absent prior evidence of an immigrant’s likelihood of being a criminal, their presence once admitted should be treat as internal police matter. And, fortunately as professors Ramiro Martinez and Matthew Lee have argued, “the bulk of empirical studies conducted over the past century have found that immigrants are typically underrepresented in criminal statistics.”

As for potential terrorists who slip through immigration, they should be treated as one more risk group for the police to monitor — along with the Neo-Nazis, the revolutionary socialists, the eco-fascists, and dozens of other groups that are committed to anti-liberal ideologies and have organized to use force against liberal institutions. Domestic terrorism is not primarily an immigration matter but a police matter.

Fear Number Two: They will not assimilate and they will infect our culture.

Here the important point to remember is that a free society does its cultural work voluntarily, not through the government, which is an institution of force. It is not a proper function of government to manage the culture by encouraging or discouraging assimilation or by deciding which values — apart from respect for individual rights — count as healthy or infections. That’s our job.

It is to our interest — as members of a society that aspires to be free — to create, maintain, and make attractive the cultural traits of a genuinely liberal society. It is up to us to do the art, the business, the philosophy and the religion, the education, the creating of families — and to create the institutions of civil society that foster healthy values and our ongoing debates about which values are in fact healthy.

But if we don’t have confidence in our ability to make a free society attractive to people who already want to immigrate here, then what’s the point of a free society?

So just as we separate government and religion, we should separate government and art, government and business, government and love — that is, government and culture generally. Governments should have very delimited powers: to use rights-protecting force. Everything else in society is up to us to make happen voluntarily.

All of that applies to the current case of Islam, which in some of its manifestations is now the unhealthiest of the world’s religions. But whether Islam is true or not — whether its practitioners’ sometimes-traditional family practices are optimal — whether Muslims are more or less likely to assimilate — whether some of the many varieties of Islam are more or less open to Enlightenment philosophy, and so on — all of those issues, excepting the ones that involve individual rights violations — are ones that we must take up culturally, and not by means of government institutions of compulsion such as immigration policies.

Here I recommend Elahe Izadi’s article on how Jefferson and some other Founding Fathers defended Muslim rights. And, fortunately, recent surveys tend to show that Muslims are more likely to self-identify as Americans first and to support tolerance.

So, in my view, the limits of open immigration are minimal. They are outlined above only as high-level principles and require much detailing and discretionary judgment when applied to practice.

Yet while my generally open policies alienate those who advocate closed doors and walls to various immigrant groups, they should also alienate some who wish to do away with immigration policy altogether.

So let me highlight a final point by reference to the separation of economics and politics. Economics teaches us that free trade across political boundaries is mutually beneficial, and I agree with Jeffrey Tucker’s point that Europe’s Schengen Agreement, for example, is a model for how different national political units can foster economic openness.

But respect for the separation goes both ways. It’s equally important to acknowledge the political necessity of having a variety of nations with distinct governments empowered to protect their citizens’ rights. Neither one-world government nor anarchy is a rights-respecting option. Rather, the existence of many nations is desirable so that if things go bad in one, others are an escape option.

Just as the possibility of emigrating to America and other free countries has historically been of life-or-death importance for people in countries that have gone bad — the existence of other free nations to flee to is an important insurance policy should America go bad.

Photo by Jordan Pix/Getty Images

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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