This is a (long) proposal that seeks to build a framework in which to discuss immigration policy. My goal was to keep it to 1500 words, but given the depth of the topic, I ended up with 3400 words. I finished this at Starbucks with electronic dance music in my ears, and a blond roast coffee at my side.
A Concise Proposal of a Broad-Brushed Immigration Policy
My elevator speech for an ideal immigration policy would look like this: the state ought to enforce strong border control while taking into strong consideration people’s right to freedom of movement, basic human rights for refugees who seek asylum due to self-preservation, and consideration for the cultural and economic impact upon the host country. These are noble considerations because they serve to protect the internal cohesion of the state through the self-determination of its people. These considerations are elevated for the sole purpose of demonstrating that solidarity through citizenship is a treasured ideal over and above an indiscriminate open border policy. For the immigrant, a process toward citizenship serves the purpose of civic integration into the culture at large. In doing so, a reciprocal relationship is created between the citizen and the state by which the citizen is enfranchised with basic rights and liberties to thrive while also assuming obligations to abide by the laws and policies of the state and participating in the democratic process.
In essence, this is an argument for what is called weak moral cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is defined as belonging to all the world; but not limited to just one part of the world. Thus, ‘weak’ cosmopolitanism places some restrictions on the free movement of individuals. The word ‘moral’ is added because immigration policy has principles that cross the threshold into rightness and wrongness. For instance, denying refugees completely when their lives are at stake is an example of the moral implications an immigration policy may have. Enough of defining terms, let’s move on.
Therefore, the state needs strong borders along with a pathway to citizenship that seeks to foster solidarity and national identity through civic integration. The reason is that the internal cohesion of the state is of utmost importance.
Suppose you are hiking through Yosemite National Park and come upon a stranded hiker in need of water and suffering from severe dehydration. To turn away and say that her plight is of no concern to you would be immoral. The basic point is that you owe her some consideration; you cannot ignore her. Now let us suppose that having her thirst slaked, she sees that you are carrying your personal journal in hand, and she requests to have it – outright. Do you oblige her newest desire? Not necessarily. You are justified in feeling obligated to nourish her back to good health if you have the means, but in no way are you obligated to give her your personal journal.
This illustration serves to highlight how we can approach immigration. For starters, states must consider the impact of the policies they pursue on both those outside and inside of their borders. With the recent diaspora of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries, it’s a matter of self-preservation and human rights. With economic migrants, it’s a matter of fleeing poverty. For others, it’s simply a search for something new, or to be near friends and family, or work and career. Going back to the analogy, the slaked hiker is akin to the refugee, in that there is an urgent need in which one’s life is at stake. The hiker’s request for the personal journal is akin to the Filipino person wanting to join her cousins in San Francisco – permanently. Thus, we are obligated to open our borders to refugees whose lives hang in the balance, but we should have restrictions for others whose human rights are not at stake.
Furthermore, we must always consider the effects of our actions on all those who will bear the consequences, no matter who they are or whether they are in any way connected to us. Second, if there are no relevant differences between people, we should afford them equal consideration. Immigrants are human beings, thus deserving of a moral standing just like us. We cannot act toward them in ways that violate their human rights, and in many cases, we have positive duties to help protect those rights. It also gives us reasons if we decide to refuse people’s demands or requests, even when no rights are at stake.
The Goal of a Good Immigration Policy: Internal Cohesion
Strong borders, a judicious state, and civic integration can act as a lever to control the flow of immigrants. This paramount for the pursuit of internal cohesion of the state. I discuss the need for strong borders and the judicious state later in the essay, but for now, I want to highlight the crucial element of civic integration.
Civic integration has to do with the ‘bringing together’ of people to a common understanding of the hosts country’s expectation and obligations for civility. This may sound like tacit paternalism, but it need not be if, and when, the host country adheres to the democratic process and respects the self-determination of its citizens. Civic integration helps immigrants understand the culture and values of their new society. This is crucial for any country that sees the virtue in a unified homogeneous society.
Critical to civic integration is an agreement (based on recognition and respect) that the immigrant makes with it’s host country. First, the immigrant must possess proficiency in the language of the host country. I note this first because communication is a vital element for building social bonds within a civil society. Second, the immigrant should have knowledge of how the government functions. Within a liberal state, voting rights and the legislation of laws help the immigrant gain a voice within the democratic process. Third, the immigrant should understand the laws and policies of the host country. Quite often, the liberal state has freedoms and liberties that are not embraced by most illiberal countries, thus, an understanding of laws and policies helps immigrants know what is expected for a well-ordered liberal society. Fourth, the immigrant should possess recognition of the cultural values. Families coming in that believe in, for example, arranged marriages or polygamy will need to learn the lay of the land in order to coexist within the liberal state. Given that every society has a unique culture with particular values, recognition of host country’s culture helps the immigrant understand what is important to the culture around them.
I’d be remised if I didn’t call upon a distinction between integration and assimilation. In considering civic integration, it is not expected that the immigrant abandons their culture and values and adopt the culture and values of the host country. For this is what assimilation assumes. To the contrary, my argument for civic integration assumes the immigrant holds on to what is dear to them, while also recognizing and respecting the new culture they find themselves in. The is not paternalism, rather the goal is for a society that aims at the internal cohesion for the good of all people that inhabit the country.
Immigration Policies that Promotes and Protects National Identity
Integral to the internal cohesion of the state is the concept of national identity. In today’s parlance, national identity is equated with white chauvinism. This is in part due to a postmodernist attempt to deconstruct ‘white colonialism’. However, I choose to use national identity to describe the solidarity felt and expressed by a diverse group of citizens. Strong borders, a judicious state, and civic integration help control the influx of immigrants while keeping a watchful eye on the resentment or hostility felt with the change to culture.
Germany serves as an example of how a sharp spike in multi-culturalism actually erodes national identity. With thousands and thousands of accepted refugees – without much burden-sharing from neighboring countries – Germans are now brewing with resentment. I am sure that talk of anti-multiculturalism strikes many as inherent racism, but this is a misnomer. The reality is that human beings have proclivities to be around people who are like them. For an in-depth study on this subject, please see: “Who Trusts Others?” Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara (Journal of Public Economics). We are disposed to sympathize with, help, trust, and take responsibility for those with whom we feel we have something in common. A sense of identity creates this feeling of likeness even with people with whom we are not in direct contact. The evidence shows that those who adhere to a richer, and therefore potentially more exclusive, understanding of what it means to belong to nation X are also likely to identify more strongly with X – and therefore more willing to display solidarity with other members of X, provided they see them as members in good standing.
Solidarity is the aim of national identity. As David Miller notes, “a nation-state has a more communitarian character by virtue of the way that its members identify with each other, making it easier to adopt policies that favor the less well-off, especially those who are able to make little or no contribution to the productive economy (Strangers in our Midst).” It seems true that the states whose citizens have been most ready to promote egalitarian forms of social justice, such as the Scandinavian social democracies, have also been those in which national identity is at its strongest.
Why Not Completely Open Our Borders?
One can begin with the idea that the earth as a whole is the common property of all the human beings who inhabit it, from which some draw the corollary that it is wrong to refuse anyone access to part of what they own. This idea of common ownership has a long history that can be found in classical sources from Hugo Grotius and Kant. The idea rests on the premise that God has given the world to mankind as a common inheritance, which means that each person is entitled to take the natural resources that he needs to sustain himself on the assumption that this is not to the detriment of anyone else.
A lot can be said in refuting the complete open border policy, so I will limit my response to three short arguments. First, open borders could very well lead to a “tragedy of the commons.” Let’s face it, people want to live where people are thriving, the quality of life is high, and there is ample opportunity for success. What meets these criteria? Liberal democracies. Thus, if everyone emigrates their homeland to, say, the United States or the Scandinavian countries, there will be an overuse of resources in that particular area. Imagine millions and millions of Syrians and Eritreans descending upon New York City or Zurich. Think not just of the overuse of resources, but also of the upheaval to the economy, infrastructure, employment, and culture.
Second, open borders will lead to brain drain. In other words, a rapid depletion of the brightest minds. This argument has to do with the notion that many poorer countries best and brightest will leave for greener pastures. Many of the West African, especially India, are experiencing this now with their best doctors and engineers leaving for the United States.
Lastly, open borders will change the cultural landscape which will negatively impact social cohesion and instill distrust. A rapid population spike with one or several groups from the outside will be almost impossible for the host country to immediately embrace. For such growth will result in a clash of cultures and values, thus causing the host country to lose its social equilibrium. A slower integration policy may be more manageable for a host country. As I mentioned earlier, research demonstrates empirically that multiculturalism can foster distrust and undercuts the social capital in communities with a shared identity (A. Alesina, E. Ferrara, “Who Trusts Others?”). Throughout history when we see large swaths of one culture descend upon another culture who already possesses engrained values and norms, hostility and suspicion become the ‘new normal’. One need only look toward the West Bank to see the net result of multiculturalism. This argument rests on the premise that we are disposed to sympathize with, help, trust, and take responsibility for those with whom we feel we have something in common.
Why Not Completely Close Our Borders?
If we are going to discuss closed borders, then we need to consider two key points that are tied together. First, a closed border policy is completely antithetical to a liberal society. Intrinsic to a liberal society are freedoms and liberties that embolden the self-determination of its citizens. By closing borders, the state would function less like a liberal one and, potentially, more like a totalitarian state with many protectionist measures that forces compliance and uniformity. Second, a closed border system violates our freedom of movement and freedom of association. To be fair, restrictions can often at times be justified given the consequences of have large swaths of people flooding a country. However, the reasons often given for closing one’s borders often cloak a whole host of illiberal ideas. Here are some common arguments for closing our borders followed by a quick rebuttal:
“We need to maintain our distinctive culture.”
If you think so, then to maintain a liberal culture, you should also in principle be willing to censor certain points of view or forbid or ban certain religions. You might favor forced indoctrination into liberal ideas. Again, if that’s a good reason to close borders, why is it not also a good reason to censor certain ideas, ban certain forms of music, or ban certain religions? Why not mandate that people support and participate in certain cultural practices?
“We need to prevent domestic wages from falling.”
This has minimal credence based on the Migration Observatory which concluded: “Evidence to date suggests little effect on employment and unemployment of UK-born workers, but that wages for the low paid may be lowered as a result of migration, although again this effect is modest.” (Dr Martin Ruhs, Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford). We may ought to be careful building a doctrine against open borders when the impact is “modest.”
Even so, this argument can still lead to a worse notion, for example, in forbidding women from entering jobs because of their effect on the wages for men. If domestic wages are the concerns, then the argument can be played out to highlight the economic impact between numerous groups and classes.
“Immigrants will eat up the welfare state.”
This is one argument that does lack empirical evidence. It also leaves out the vast population of (white) citizens who are unemployed and impoverished that eat a greater percentage from the welfare state. Furthermore, is this not also an argument for restricting births, or forbidding internal migration, or even requiring some people to give birth?
“Immigrants will cause crime.”
Isn’t this also an argument for eugenics or for internal migration restrictions? For instance, should Vermont ban young black men from moving there? If banning rap music reduced crime, would you favor that?
The Liberal Concept of Territorial Jurisdiction
A better argument that moves away from absolute closed borders is one that favors the state’s right to territorial jurisdiction. I contend that this is the best form of governance for immigration because it (1) helps with social order, (2) takes basic human rights into consideration, and (3) ensures the security of self-determination through democracy.
Before moving on, what do I mean by territorial jurisdiction? I mean having rights of jurisdiction over a given territory implies having the right to control the movement of people in and out of that territory, so that where a state can legitimately exercise jurisdiction it is also entitled to exclude immigrants if it so wishes. Territorial jurisdiction means the state possesses and exercises rights to make and enforce laws through a corpus of law that is applied uniformly to everyone. Having made clear that important distinction, I will now defend the three points above regarding why territorial jurisdiction works best.
First, territorial jurisdiction helps with securing social order through enfranchising the democratic process to all citizens as opposed to coercing individuals into submission. I will not speak any more about this point since I believe the democratic process is self-evidently better than coercion by the state. Second, territorial jurisdiction helps with consideration of basic human rights through a well-functioning legal system sets parameters of protection so that individuals can go about their lives without the threat of personal violence theft, and destitution. Third, territorial jurisdiction ensures the self-determination of its citizens by putting the power in the hands of the people rather than the state. A key feature to this point is that territorial jurisdiction gives it occupants representation from the state.
Closing borders may give inhabitants the feeling of security and protection, but ultimately it can potentially nourish totalitarian ideas. Liberalism, while only several hundred years old, provides us with a useful template to see how the expansion and extension of individual rights creates a diverse population with more opportunities to express their autonomy under a legal system that seeks to harness criminal behavior for the protection of its individuals. Territorial jurisdiction is thus intertwined with liberalism and acts as a lever to control population increases while keeping in mind social order, basic human rights, and the self-determination of its citizens.
One of the basic freedoms that we ought to possess is freedom of movement. But with all freedoms, comes distinctions that need to be made, along with consequences that must be considered. I have attempted to lay out an argument for weak moral cosmopolitanism that defends the claim that while people have the right of freedom of movement, it ought to be limited because of its consequences. Furthermore, immigrants are deserving of a moral standing as the citizens in the host country. Thus, basic human rights mean that any refugee fleeing terror ought to be given a country that affords them the basic rights to survive. Granted, there should be burden-sharing between countries so that, for example, Germany isn’t the only country that is willing to accept refugees.
The reason why I began with a thought experiment of the hiker is because it’s an oversimplified picture that helps us see the raw elements of immigration. There is an element that shows that we are obligated to do something when someone’s life hangs in the balance, and another element that shows that we are completely justified in saying “no” when, for instance, the hiker asked for your journal.
The current hot button topic revolves around economic migrants. The sad fact is that their undocumented status has created un under-class of Mexicans and Central Americans who are work hard but have such limited rights for basic care. The economic migrant is the person whose life is not in peril but simply wanting to flee an impoverished environment in the hopes of better opportunities somewhere else. It should be noted that economic migrants bring value to their host country if they go through the process of becoming a citizen. After all, it is expected that they will integrate with the ideals of their new country through work, pay taxes, and engage in the democratic process. And this is where the state, through the democratic process, ought to consider the consequences and benefits of the economic migrant upon the society at large. What we are seeing today are corporations exploiting the cheap labor of economic migrants, thus creating an under-class, all the while profiting with no repercussions to the suits and ties. Perhaps instead of using federal money to build a wall, we should discuss penalties for corporations that continue to exploit economic migrants.
Turning people away may seem harsh and unfair. However, the ideal of solidarity and national identity are crucial for the well-being of any country. An immigration policy that is built on the pursuit of solidarity is one that is deliberate about upholding the culture and values that engender pride for one’s country. My simple claim is that strong borders, a judicious state and civic integration can act as levers to control the influx of immigrants in order to allow solidarity to thrive.