Nativism is an ideological cancer that corrupts the principles conservatives claim to hold dear. In order to defend immigration restrictions, conservatives must embrace arguments that are bitterly antagonistic to their vision of a free and self-responsible society. And when conservatives embrace nativism, they drive away people sympathetic to their independent rhetoric.
First, any broad immigration restrictions will conflict with basic human liberties – the freedom to travel, the freedom to work, and the freedom to choose a place to live will all be infringed. Whatever considerations conservatives use to justify immigration restrictions, they will have to suppose that individual rights are weaker than these considerations. Conservatives may later find themselves incapable of defending supposedly weak rights against restrictions favored by progressives.
This is more than a theoretical problem. The arguments in favor of forced unionization and trade restrictions are almost identical to the “utilitarian” arguments against immigration. In all three cases, arbitrarily restricting the opportunities of some impoverished group – poor immigrants, unemployed workers, poor workers in foreign industries exporting to America – keeps the wages of other American workers higher. These American workers are generally poorer than the consumers who would benefit from freer competition, but they are not as poor as those whose options are limited by regulation. Immigration restrictions create a de facto “American Union”.
Conservatives sometimes try to distinguish these cases by insisting that American liberties are for Americans. Things that can be legitimately done to foreigners cannot be done to Americans. Americans derive certain special rights from their citizenship that foreigners do not. This line of reasoning is antithetical to the traditional natural rights foundation of conservative thought. Consider, for example, the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
The Declaration of Independence explicitly rejects the doctrine of special American rights. It asserts that all people naturally have equal rights. Governments do not create these rights, they merely protect them. Furthermore, immigrants have no voice over the laws that govern their right to immigrate, so these laws are not “just powers”. By espousing “American Rights”, conservatives have rejected the moral theory of the Declaration.
Instead, they implicitly accept some sort of communitarian ethic – in which rights are not natural, but a creation of the community. Communitarian theories, popular among progressives, insist that rights are the product of, not the constraints on, legitimate democracies, because carefully constructed democratic institutions give people the ability to reason together carefully about difficult moral issues. Conservatives should be very careful before they embrace communitarianism, because it ultimately supplants substantive morality with a supposedly moral process. That process may produce immigration restrictions, but it will just as easily produce gun bans, progressive taxes, and the modern welfare state.
Finally, opposition to immigration makes the conservative movement attractive to people who are not conservatives, but merely bigots. The nature of democracy may lead many conservative voters to unconsciously neglect the moral worth of immigrants, but other people are quite conscious of their vicious loathing for strangers. They may hate Hispanics, foreign languages, people of color, or members of other religions, especially Islam. It is politically infeasible for them to persecute these people directly, but they can put their prejudices into policy by supporting conservative immigration restrictions. Creating a space for bigots within conservatism makes conservatism deeply unattractive to freedom-loving people who dislike bigots.
Immigration restrictions are not merely inconsistent with conservative principles. They are an ideological cancer. Political ideologies are not locked in stasis. They shift with the conflicting pull of their competing components. They grow or shrink in a marketplace of ideas. Contradictions cannot continue indefinitely – they will either be expunged or take over completely. Conservatism is no different. Immigration hatred can drive people who love freedom out of the conservative movement, or it can drive the love of freedom out of conservatives. Is this worth it?
To my ear, arguments against immigration sound like rationalizations. I suspect that most people simply oppose immigration whether or not they have a reason to oppose it. So perhaps we need not a policy argument for nativism, but a psychological explanation. If I had to explain anti-immigrant sentiment, I would tentatively explain it this way.
Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, argues that conservatives score highly on their “ingroup” moral foundation in surveys. The ingroup instinct leads us to identify with and subsume ourselves to a larger social group. In tribal human society, this instinct must have been extremely important. The prehistoric (and much of the historic) world was a constant war between and within competing bands, and in this world the protection of the group would have been critical. One way to secure the group’s protection was to display absolute devotion to that group – tribal patriotism if you like.
Professions of ingroup loyalty continue in post-tribal society (e.g. Mike Pence calls himself “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order”). Hopefully, most such claims are posturing. But ingroup loyalties are fundamentally a commitment to treat similar people differently, according to their different group memberships. At its extreme it leads people to simply turn off their moral intuitions when considering members of the outgroup. Racists discount the rights of people of different races, fundamentalists discount the rights of people of different religious groups, and nationalists discount the rights of people born in different nations. But whether the people in the outgroup are members of another race, religion, ideology, or nationality, applying a different moral standard to them is unjust.
Because people frequently interact with other races and religions in a liberal democracy, ingroup tendencies toward racism and religious fundamentalism are costly and unstable. These biases have slowly collapsed as the groups intermingled. Christian ingroup bias against Muslims might be used as a counter-example, but it is a weak one in historical context. Such a bias is partially attributable to the small number of Muslims in America.
But by definition, Americans will not interact much with people from different nations. It is easy to maintain a group bias against an outgroup that the ingroup will never meet. A foreign outgroup has only limited recourse against domestic ingroup biases. If they are denied the right to immigrate legally, foreigners cannot openly petition for their rights. They don’t even have the meager protections of enfranchisement. And the foreign outgroup will always be a small part of society because their children will assimilate toward the native ingroup. Unlike racism and fundamentalism, nativism is electorally stable.
Progressives and libertarians score lower for ingroup sentiment than conservatives. They tend to be more universalist in their moral outlook. Although ingroup sentiment is important for survival in tribal society, I do not think it is morally defensible. A universalist moral outlook must be correct – though no specific outlook is correct merely by virtue of being universal. In encouraging conservatives to reject nativism, I am asking them to reject an immoral tribal instinct whose importance we have hopefully outgrown.
* Unfair Fairness
Bullies love to make others suffer as they have suffered, and even immigrants can be bullies. I sometimes hear naturalized US immigrants complain that “Illegal immigrants are jumping the line. They should have to wait their turn like I did.” My Vietnamese roommate told me this recently (ironically, while she was helping her brother’s fiance obtain a green-card marriage).
But as bullies are fond of saying, life isn’t fair. Or, to put it more reasonably, we should pass laws that are equally just, not equally unjust. The solution to slavery was not to make white people slaves; it was to free black people from slavery. The illegality of homosexual intercourse would not have been vindicated by making heterosexual intercourse also illegal. Like the rule of law argument, “fairness” needs some other substantive justification before it has any weight of its own.
* The Bad Analogy
You get to decide who comes into your house, or it wouldn’t be your property. America is the property of all the Americans who live there, so they should be able to make rules about the use of all of America. Right?
Wrong. These two ideas are contradictory. If your house is your property, then America cannot decide what you do with it. That is what it means to have property. If America was simply the property of all Americans, they could do whatever they wanted with your house. They could burn it, for example, or force you to let immigrants live there. But all America is not the property of all Americans together. It is the property of individual Americans in individual parts.
No one has to do business with immigrants if they don’t want to. If literally no one in America wanted to do business with immigrants, then no one would offer immigrants jobs or houses. Immigration would be practically impossible, whatever government policy was. Some people, however, don’t mind doing business with immigrants. They should have the right to use their own property to do so.
Sometimes immigration critics will make a watered-down version of the prudential argument. Instead of claiming that an increase in immigration will destroy the country outright, they object that immigrants inflict unnecessarily painful costs on their host nation. These costs can be roughly divided into two categories – welfare costs and crime costs.
If our nation cannot afford to give immigrants access to welfare, then the solution is simple. We should stop giving immigrants access to welfare. It does immigrants no favor to deny them both welfare and their right to immigrate.
The evidence that immigrants commit more crimes seems shaky to me. But even if it were true, it would not follow that America should restrict immigration. Immigrant groups historically cluster together in the same neighborhoods. Immigrants will bear the brunt of their own supposed costs in crime. Although we may weep for them, if we shut our eyes to the suffering they would have experienced in their native country, we are only shedding crocodile tears. It is best to let them make their own choice between living in a high-crime neighborhood in the US and a possibly higher-crime one in their home country.
I haven’t put too much effort into rebutting the externality argument for two reasons. First, many of the stronger “externality” arguments are variations on the “prudential” arguments discussed before. Second, I find it difficult to care. The mere suspicion of externalities is not a justification for denying central human rights. We could not legitimately throw poor Americans in prison just because we hoped this would reduce crime or the burden on the welfare state. Nor could we deport them to Mexico. Nor should we be able to deport poor Mexican immigrants.
Some people reject arguments about rights and freedom. To these people, natural rights arguments ignore the fundamental importance of results. Humans don’t fundamentally care about means, they care about ends. That’s why they are called ends, Milton Friedman would say.
What are the results of immigration? In a capitalist society, people specialize in a certain profession and then trade their labor for the goods and services of other people. When an immigrant enters a profession, they compete with the people currently in that profession. If they provide a service at a lower cost, then people who purchase that service will have more money left over to purchase other goods and services. The total sum of human production will increase. These gains from immigration are equivalent to the aggregate gains from international trade.
Some utilitarians adopt a skewed view of utility. They value not increased productivity in general, but the increased income of the poor in particular. If immigrants enter the labor market, they may increase the total income of all Americans together, but competitive forces may decrease the incomes of the specific (poor) Americans that are most competing with immigrants. These concentrated losses are equivalent to the industry specific losses caused by international trade.
But immigrants moving into low wage industries in America are almost certainly moving out of even lower wage industries in other countries. Why else would they immigrate? A utilitarian ethic that supported immigration restrictions would value the well-being of poor Americans while ignoring the well-being of even poorer foreigners. This would be an obviously evil utilitarian ethic.
It may be inevitable for democratic processes to discount utilitarian gains to poor foreigners. But there is no reason for any individual utilitarian thinker to adopt the utilitarian constraints of their nation’s politics. Neither should a natural rights thinker accept the practical constraints of his political system as a moral constraint on natural rights. Justice is justice, whether or not it is procedurally obtainable.
The strongest argument that conservatives make against open immigration is the prudential argument. This is the only uniquely conservative argument (applied to any topic) that I ever find particularly compelling.
Civilization, conservatives like to argue, is a mysterious, fragile thing. Arguments about rights and utility are nice, but they presuppose a stable society whose roots we can never fully understand. This implies cautious prudence. Traditions and culture have evolved to safeguard civilization in ways we may not realize. A massive influx of foreigners who do not share the American love of freedom and its self-reliant ethic could undermine our democracy. If dominant American western traditions are diluted too suddenly, the cultural prerequisites for social cohesion may disappear, and America will be mired either in race wars or European style social democracy, depending on the doomsayer.
This has the form of a valid theoretical argument. But none of its specific premises are particularly plausible. For one, civilization is not as mysterious as conservatives like to argue. When conservatives used this prudential argument to attack socialism, for example, they were missing the point. The failure of socialist systems might have been mysterious to the socialists, but economists and classical liberal theorists from Adam Smith to Ludwig von Mises had already given tangible reasons why planned societies would fail to match the dynamism of the free market.
What is mysterious to me is that conservatives believe America possesses a unique culture of liberty and self-reliance. This view, inspired by a romanticized vision of the American past, is simultaneously blind to the American present. As I see it, the United States is a run-of-the-mill bloated social democracy with all of the welfare state’s hallmarks – progressive income taxes, managed social insurance for the elderly and poor, heavily regulated public utilities, free public schooling through high school (perhaps soon through college?), guaranteed health care for the elderly and now for all citizens, consumer safety regulation. What is left to be added to this cradle-to-grave behemoth? These entitlements are guarded hungrily by an electorate that only pauses to decide which problem government should “solve” for it next.
There is nothing particularly inspiring about this government. America today is only marginally different from other developed western democracies, the misconceptions of American and European leftists and rightists notwithstanding. If immigration upsets the social democratic order, so much the better. Why not suppose that determined immigrants would in fact import a culture of self-reliance now sorely lacking? One of America’s truly unique features is its immigrant heritage, its history as the product of individuals who took their destiny into their own hands and worked to build a better future. This, of course, is exactly the unique feature that “traditionalists” are trying to undo.
In point of fact, America’s immigration laws were not the product of any reasonable concern about democratic stability. Beginning most significantly with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they were the simple product of racist sentiment toward foreign groups Americans feared or (literally) could not understand. A culture of xenophobia, evolved or no, is not worth maintaining.
What if it were in fact the case that immigrants intended to vote away notional American freedoms? This would be unfortunate. But could we stop it? We were not able to stop the current 12 million illegal immigrants who came to this country. Their children will be citizens whether conservatives like it or not. If conservatives want to worry about the electoral problems of immigration, they should worry about the problem created by alienating a huge and growing chunk of the American populace.
Perhaps it would be nice if we could let foreigners exercise their natural liberty. But in an era of terrorism, America needs to keep its citizens safe from violent Islamist extremists. If we open up our borders, we risk another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 or worse.
This is the deeply irrelevant national security argument. It fails almost any conceivable test as a justification for the immigration legislative status quo (or most feasible restrictive alternatives to it).
The 9/11 terrorists, of course, entered the country legally, mostly on temporary visas. If immigration restrictions do not prevent terrorist attacks, then the need to prevent terrorist attacks cannot be a legitimate reason for restricting immigration.
The main immigration restrictions have nothing to do with national security. Instead, current law functions something like a lottery. A fraction of applicants to various categories of residency are admitted by an arbitrary bureaucratic review, or through an actual lottery. These quotas make life miserable for immigrants waiting to live or work in the United States, but they do nothing to prevent actual terrorists from entering the country on temporary or student visas.
In any event, American immigration is predominantly a Latin American phenomenon. Whatever prejudices Americans have about Mexicans, they are rarely suspected of wanting to wage Jihad or establish a new caliphate on American soil. Hysterical Islamophobia is not a reason to keep out Christian Latinos (or Indian Hindus, or Asian Buddhists).
The government would be morally justified in screening out specific people that it reasonably suspected of ties to terrorist organizations. I believe that even this is probably a fool’s errand. The government is not an all-seeing oracle. It is clumsy, inefficient, and operates without any proper incentives. This is one reason why, for example, it is unable to enforce our current immigration restrictions. Conservatives usually understand the impotence of government when it isn’t being used to oppress a disadvantaged minority group. How horrifically intrusive would a government need to be in order to track reliably the potential terrorist activities of the world’s more than 6 billion people? It would have a scope similar to the nightmare state from George Orwell’s 1984.
National security might be an argument for banning any foreigner from ever visiting or immigrating to America. It would be a fairly unhinged argument, but at least a logically coherent one. It might be an argument for screening immigrants for terrorist suspects in a timely fashion. But it isn’t a reason to subject low-skilled Mexicans to a 131 year wait list for an immigrant visa – effectively denying them legal entry to America.
Illegal immigrants violate American immigration laws. America is a society based on the rule of law. If we change American laws to accommodate criminal immigrants, we will be rewarding them. We will be encouraging them to break the law in the future and to scoff at the authority of law in the present. We must resist law-breaking criminals even if their crimes never end. After all, people may never stop committing theft or murder, but that isn’t a reason to stop punishing those crimes.
Or so the argument goes.
First some specificity. Granting amnesty (residency) to illegal immigrants does not incentivize people to immigrate, or to break laws. Immigrants do not break immigration laws merely because they rejoice in criminality. They break the laws because they want to immigrate, and the laws make it too hard to do so legally. The opportunities available to immigrants in America are their own incentive. Immigration amnesty simply decreases the disincentives to illegal immigration. Amnesty does not make it easier to commit murder, theft, or any non-immigration crime (one might say “real crimes”).
The right question is, should we enforce our current immigration laws? Yes, say immigration opponents, because they are the law.
This is unthinking legalistic nonsense – the unthinkingly amoral idea that what is right is what the law says. By this reasoning, it was wrong for the American Colonies to revolt against British rule in the 1770s, wrong for black slaves to flee the plantation in the 1850s, wrong for Americans to drink alcohol in the 1920s – and it is wrong for immigrants to ignore immigration laws today.
The solution to bad laws or unjust regimes is to end them. Laws that conflict with our basic moral intuitions will never be made legitimate by brute enforcement. Enforcing unjust laws will make people cynically resent, not respect, the power of law. As I resent it today. As, I would imagine, most illegal immigrants must resent it. What person could love a legal system that treated him like an animal to be caged if caught? Illegal immigrants cannot comfortably participate in our justice system. They cannot even pay taxes. The only way to extend the rule of law to their communities is to make them legal.
Murder and theft are obvious violations of human sanctity. The law legitimately attempts to prevent these crimes. But immigration is a crime without a victim. It is a crime that is committed merely by exercising a person’s freedom to live with other consenting individuals. Enforcing these immigration restrictions makes the rule of law enemy to its legitimacy.
The case for open immigration is simple. It is simple, at least, for anyone who begins from an assumption of human freedom, rather than arbitrary authority. People should be free to live where they please. They should be free to travel. They should be able to do business or associate with whomever else is also willing. They should not be trapped in the country of their birth.
These are obvious, basic freedoms. Because they are so basic, they are extremely important. Any more complicated freedom we could pursue would almost without fail build on them. Life in America would be unimaginable without them. My family’s history would have been impossible. Without the ability to travel across the country, my mother from Chicago and father from Rochester would never have met. My father could not have taken his current job in Kansas City to support his family. I would have been unable to attend college in Massachusetts or work in the District of Columbia. How obviously unjust would it have been to prohibit all of these things?
Just as unjust as current immigration law, in America and world-wide. All of the things my parents and I can do easily within this country are, in various arbitrary degrees, restricted or prohibited across national borders. When we forbid people from immigrating from the third world, we condemn them to a shorter lifespan beset by poverty and disease, life in tyrannous police states or corrupt kleptocracies, and the chaos of civil war. What reason could we have for forbidding people to leave terrible places?
I’ll discuss and reject the possible reasons over the next couple of posts. I’ve moved through the moral argument quickly because it is simple. There is no need to make a thorough review of the strangling annoyances that exist under current law. If you do not share an instinctive appreciation for the value of human beings to live their lives freely, if you do not at least see the facial appeal of open immigration, I would suggest introspection. What moral principles could deny the right of people to freely seek a better life?
There are many things I like about the conservative movement. The conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, includes free enterprise, limited government, and individual freedom in its statement of guiding principles. These are principles are central to my own moral vision. On many political issues I find myself agreeing with at least the rhetoric of conservatives and even sometimes the proposals of the main conservative political party – the Republican Party.
But on the political issue I care most about, prevailing conservative opinion seems to me so audaciously, breathtakingly wrong that I doubt that I really have principles in common with conservatives. Or that conservatives have any real principles.
That issue is immigration. In my hubris, I continue to hope that most conservatives simply haven’t thought the issue through. Most, though not quite all, of their rhetoric, I believe, bears this out. I wanted to take the opportunity to lay out in moderate detail why I think the arguments against open immigration are either badly wrong or wrongly bad – or both. I will be posting a new section of my argument on this blog every day for the next week and a half or so. It may take a while before I get to your favorite argument for walling foreigners off from America, but if I neglect it in this series altogether then please let me know. If the arguments I do make are weak, sound off in the comments! The sections of my argument, subject to possible revision, will be as follows: