Over the last century or so, the definition of rights has been, through heedlessness and cynicism, expanded to include “rights” that are not rights at all—a process that has had a pernicious effect on human freedom and the ongoing respect of genuine rights. Nevertheless, most of us here in America, no matter what our political inclinations, tend to agree on the basics: that everyone has an equal right to things like life, expression, property, association, etc. and that those rights ought to be protected.
So what sort of immigration policy best protects genuine human rights?
The Left’s answer (often driven by cynical electoral considerations and a seemingly boundless need to virtue-signal) tends favor uncontrolled borders and unlimited immigration. Many libertarians also support open borders, asserting that people and labor should be allowed to move freely, and that restrictions upon this motion is a violation of rights. This is certainly better grounded in principles than the Left’s customary position. However, both positions suffer from the same problem: they privilege the wishes of non-citizens over citizens.
This raises two questions:
1. Do citizens have a right to have a say in who gets access to, or becomes a citizen of, their country?
align=”right” The tacit social contract that informed the founding of our system of government—and the documents and laws that explicitly establish that system—enshrine the concept of citizen consent. But a border that the federal government refuses to control, or is unable to control, specifically precludes that consent on matters of immigration. That is a violation of a core right. Call it the right of consent, or the right of social contract.
The answer here should be obvious. A consensual government is one in which citizens’ wishes are consulted when making policy. That cannot apply to domestic affairs, and to foreign affairs, yet somehow skip over immigration policy.
But a federal open-borders policy does exactly that. It says one of two things: “It is our policy to let everyone in, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” or “We have no control over the border, so everyone is getting in and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The tacit social contract that informed the founding of our system of government—and the documents and laws that explicitly establish that system—enshrine the concept of citizen consent. But a border that the federal government refuses to control, or is unable to control, specifically precludes that consent on matters of immigration. That is a violation of a core right. Call it the right of consent, or the right of social contract.
2. Are non-citizens’ rights violated when immigration is controlled?
This “social contract” is not an agreement between Americans and the rest of the world. It is an agreement among American citizens. Ours is an emergent social association that reflects our right to determine the rules by which we will be governed.
But what about the would-be migrants? Do they have any rights at stake here?
A thorough explanation of rights theory would require many pages, but here is the basic concept: Anything that must be provided at someone else’s expense is not a right.
You have a right to seek, work for, or voluntarily trade to get the things you want and need (food, shelter, medical care, entertainment, etc.). You do not have a right to be given these things, or to have a third party force someone to give them to you.
Similarly, a non-citizen has a right to seek citizenship, but there is no right to be given it. A non-citizen must have his actual human rights (life, liberty, conscience, etc.) protected while he is here, but there is no right to be granted entry or citizenship. Supporters of open borders not only seem to ignore the possibility that citizens have rights at stake, they are asserting a right on the part of non-citizens that literally does not exist.
And there are several other actual rights at stake for citizens . . .
The right of defense
Every human has the natural right of self-defense. When combined with our right of association, we have a right to mutual defense—we can work together to protect each other. This right usually finds its expression in the nation state.
A nation that fails to protect its citizens from external attack and internal predation is failing at its most basic duty—the core reason for its existence. We can argue about how dangerous the world is—about just how much security is needed—but we cannot pretend that there is no danger.
align=”left” A nation that fails to protect its citizens from external attack and internal predation is failing at its most basic duty—the core reason for its existence. We can argue about how dangerous the world is—about just how much security is needed—but we cannot pretend that there is no danger.
Yet all too often, open-borders advocates suggest approaches to immigration that seem to see the world not as it is, but as it would need to be in order to justify the suggested approach. Of course there is a risk to individual liberty associated with granting to government the power it needs to control borders. But suggesting that there is no danger—that migrants do not also include among their number criminals and others who intend to cause harm—is also dangerous. And factually incorrect.
A sensible and balanced approach must be found, but asserting that the citizens of a nation must accept open borders is tantamount to saying that those citizens do not have a right to self-defense.
Property rights are a sine qua non of a free society. Modern nations that have tried to eradicate property rights have been, without exception, human rights disasters.
Central to property rights is the concept of excludability. I have a border around my property. It tells everyone, “Here begins what is mine. I can exclude you from this.” If I cannot do this, then the property is not really mine.
When a migrant crosses a national border, he must either cross over private or public property:
If he crosses private property, and the government not only allows this but ties the hands of the property owner, the government is both suborning and perpetrating a violation of property rights.
Though we tend to forget this, public property belongs to the citizens of a nation. It is not reasonable to suggest that trespass across public land is of no concern to citizens simply because no one particular citizen owns it.
The free movement of peoples within a nation state is, without question, a core natural right. But does that also apply to moving across national borders? We let people move around the country, but they don’t get to violate the property of others. That’s why we build roads and sidewalks—to help balance the human right of property with the human right to move and travel. Why should that principle break down at the national level? Why are property rights fine within a country, but meaningless at its border?
Human beings have a natural right of association. This, by definition, must include the right to choose not to associate.
Some random man (or woman) might wish to horn in on the conjugal perquisites enjoyed by a married couple, but the couple has the right to say no. Theirs is an exclusive association. A violent psychopath may wish to study karate at a dojo, but for the safety of the other students, the sensei has a right to say no. A group of friends, neighborhood supper club, business, or any other group has the same moral right to exclude people.
Why should this right not extend to the citizens of a nation?
A nation involves a particular group of people; it does not presuppose all people in the world. For all intents and purposes, citizens are part of a national association.
So what if the citizens of a nation wish to preserve a particular culture, language, or national character. Is that not their right? Does the government empowered by such a people have the authority to say, “Sorry, you do not get to decide what your culture is going to be—we do”? Is it ethical to force a group of people to accept others into their association?
align=”right” The purpose here is not to judge the relative merits of various reasons why citizens of a nation might wish to control its borders. The question is whether or not they have a right to do so . . . and clearly they do.
What if the concern of the polity in question is not cultural but environmental? What if a large influx would further reduce already-dwindling wild spaces, habitats, or unique biomes?
Are the citizens of small nations—Andorra, Monaco, Vatican City—required to take in unlimited numbers of immigrants? Do they not have any say?
What if the concern is economic? Is that concern legitimate? And is it ethical to empower a government to pick and choose what reasons they do and do not deem reasonable?
The purpose here is not to judge the relative merits of various reasons why citizens of a nation might wish to control its borders. The question is whether or not they have a right to do so . . . and clearly they do. But an open-borders policy, whether de jure or de facto, makes the exercise of that right (and several others) impossible.
A wall along our southern border would be an effective way to control who gets into the country. With that control, we might decide to have a generous legal immigration system, or we might not. Without it, all we have is an ongoing violation of the rights of American citizens.