TGIF: No One Has a Right to Make Immigration Policy

by | May 19, 2023

TGIF: No One Has a Right to Make Immigration Policy

by | May 19, 2023

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says “no one has a right to immigrate” to the United States. “We determine as Americans,” he says, “what type of immigration system benefits our country. When you’re doing immigration, it’s not for their benefit as foreigners. It’s for your benefit as Americans. So if there’s legal immigration that’s harming America, we shouldn’t do that either.”

I’d turn that around and say that no one, including a state legislature, has a right to forbid or restrict immigration, the peaceful movement of individuals from outside to inside America. That doesn’t mean that landowners cannot set rules for who enters their own property. That is not immigration policy.

We’re talking about a political concept. You can see this in DeSantis’s words “We determine as Americans.” Apart from immigration, “we” do not “determine as Americans” who can and cannot come to my home. I do that as the owner. Normally I need no one’s permission to invite or exclude. (It’s more complicated in the business context, where association can be legally required rather than forbidden.) But if the person I wish to invite lacks the government’s permission to be in the country, then it’s a different story. That’s not a natural limitation on a normal and natural right. It’s the result of a decision by a group of politicians, a decision that may well conflict with what many people want to do. How dare the politicians interfere?

DeSantis says that a good immigration policy should benefit the country, or “Americans.” It’s hard to miss the conservative collectivism in theory and elitism in practice. The collectivism lies in what appears to be decision-making not by individuals, but by a purported entity, namely, the “country.” What about dissenters? They don’t matter. What counts, presumably, is the Rousseauian general will. Dissenters must be forced to be “free” by going along with the majority. In theory the majority rules.

But the elitism lies in the fact that majorities don’t really rule. They pick the officeholders (although not the bureaucrats), but what happens next can hardly be called rule by the majority because what the majority may want on a given issue must pass through a very thick filter before it becomes enacted. That filter is administered by special interests inside and outside of the government that typically have preferences that can differ vastly from the majority of voters. To keep the people in the dark about this, those interests not only lie and propagandize, but they also obfuscate and use other tactics to make it difficult for the people to know what the government is really doing or to change it if they find out. (Charlotte Twight’s Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans spells out the theory and history of this.)

The upshot is that DeSantis’s position — which is widely shared on the right and left– is incoherent. “America” does not and could not make immigration policy. Democracy is a facade that blocks our view of reality.

But even if “America” could make the policy, it would be unjust, not to mention self-defeating, to block or restrict immigration. No one, not even a majority of congressmen backed by a president, has the right to tell individuals, wherever they were born, that they cannot consensually enter other people’s property to live, rent, buy, work, or otherwise associate peacefully. Even if a lot of people band together, they can have no right to block free exchanges between Americans and foreigners. A group cannot have any rights that its individual members do not have. Zero multiplied by any number is still zero. So “America” has no right to keep immigrants out. The right to move about while respecting other people’s rights is universal, and anyone is innocent until charged and proven guilty. The Declaration of Independence speaks of rights that precede government as belonging not only to Americans but to all people. Those rights include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What’s so hard to understand about that?

The idea that the country ought to control immigration should disturb advocates of individual liberty. According to classical liberal principles, a country is not a country club with a membership committee. Rather, it’s a free association where individuals and their associates may live and prosper in peace. And they are left in peace unless they harm other people’s bodies or steal or damage their belongings. If one of them wants to sell to, rent to, employ, or befriend someone whom others regard as an outsider, no one has a right to interfere.

If anyone does interfere, he’s not only interfering with the “outsider”, he’s also interfering with “insiders.” It can’t be otherwise, as political scientist Chandran Kukathas points out. Kukathas “put[s] freedom at the centre of the immigration question. At stake are the liberty of citizens and other residents of the free society and therefore the free society itself. To put it simply, immigration controls are controls on people. and it is not possible to control some people without controlling others. More to the point, it is not possible to control outsiders (aliens, foreigners, would-be immigrants) without controlling insiders as well…. The conclusion … is that if we value freedom–as we should–we ought to be wary of immigration control.”

Going further, Kukathas challenges the view that society is “made up of members“ and that it’s “some kind of unit comprised largely of people who belong together in some way, and whose belonging entitles them to determine who may or may not become a part of that unit, or indeed even enter the geographic space or territory it occupies.”

“The thought running through this book [Immigration and Freedom],” he writes, “is that membership is an ideal that is not only overrated but also dangerous from the perspective of freedom. It is at odds with the idea of people living together freely, for it subordinates that freedom to an altogether different ideal–one that elevates conformity and control over other, freer, ways of being. If we are to live freely, we must be able to relate to one another not as members but as humans.”

Where there are members, there must be nonmembers — which licenses the politicians to do unlimited mischief. The young century has taught this lesson well.

DeSantis and all others who think “America” can forbid or restrict immigration without violating the natural rights of both foreigners and Americans, or without reducing all our own well-being, are knowingly or unknowingly mistaken. Once again we’re being ruled by presumptuous social engineers, cheered on by unreflective supporters.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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