Since my series on immigration is now finished, I thought it might be useful reposting a linking index for the series. Enjoy!
When I showed a rough draft of this series to a few people, they were confused. They wanted to know why, if I cared so much about rights, I didn’t insist that immigrants get political rights – i.e. citizenship and the vote. The reason is that political rights are not part of my conception of objective moral rights.
One may believe that fundamental justice is either a specific set of principles or a specific procedural system. You cannot, I think, reasonably believe both. I subscribe to a certain set of beliefs about freedom and personal autonomy. I believe laws are legitimate if they respect these things. They are illegitimate if they do not, whether or not they are democratically enacted. The holocaust is not legitimate if people vote for it.
If you believe that legitimacy comes solely from democracy, then you are a democratic fundamentalist. If people can legitimately vote for whatever laws they want, then they can legitimately vote for the holocaust. If you believe that there is a limit to what people can vote for, then there is a principle of legitimacy that is stronger than democracy. I believe that principle is freedom.
The ability to vote is neither necessary nor sufficient for freedom. Denying citizenship does not itself infringe on freedom. Because I believe that legitimacy comes from respecting freedom, freedom-respecting laws would be legitimate even if not everyone were able to vote for them.
Historically, some classical liberals have gone so far as to recommend restriction of the franchise. See, for example, Bastiat. I think Hayek or Milton Friedman may also have questioned the wisdom of allowing those who pay no taxes to vote for redistribution, but I can’t find the quote.
I don’t necessarily agree with Bastiat that it is useful to restrict the franchise. I tentatively agree with the Churchillian view that democracy is the “least bad” form of government. But it does not follow from my moral argument for immigration that immigrants must have citizenship. It would be an unnecessarily controversial argument to make, as I suspect every conservative worries (and every progressive hopes) that a legion of potential Democratic voters is camped outside of the country’s borders.
Ideally, immigration reform would start with nativists getting down on their knees and begging for forgiveness. But it always exceeds a bigot’s imagination that he is one, so I would settle for legal reform alone.
Congress should open America’s borders, grant residency status to all foreigners who apply for it, and grant amnesty (residency) to immigrants who live here illegally now. If Congress wishes, it can attempt to screen immigrants for those that it reasonably suspects intend to harm Americans. This is probably beyond the capacity of the United States government, but the attempt may be politically inevitable.
A less good alternative to open borders, still better than the status quo, would be for Congress to pass a guest worker program that granted temporary resident status to any foreign worker able to find employment. This would allow in all foreigners capable of supporting themselves – those who would not be a burden to the welfare state. Congress could also increase the quotas for permanent resident and worker visas instead of eliminating them altogether.
A less good alternative to amnesty, would be to establish a “pathway to citizenship” that would provide permanent residence status to all illegal immigrants who first voluntarily paid a small fine and temporarily left the country. This is a worse alternative to amnesty because it pointlessly harasses immigrants – a bit like offering freedom to runaway slaves provided that they first briefly returned to their plantations. But it is better than the status quo. Immigrants could of course continue to live illegally in the United States, if they preferred.
What do we not need to do?
We do not need to extend welfare benefits – social security, welfare, public education, or public health care – to immigrants. If immigrants do not have a right to these things outside of our borders, then they need not have a right to them inside of it. It is a marginal improvement to grant immigrants permission to live in our country without welfare benefits. Obviously, illegal immigrants prefer living here without benefits, even illegally, to living in their native countries with them. We do not need to extend the right to vote to immigrants, though I am not convinced that we should not. If immigrants prefer disenfranchised membership in our own society to enfranchised life in the country of their birth, then we should let them have it.
Ultimately, the goal must be to make legal immigration easy, not hard. We should do this not merely because it increases American productivity, not merely because it will allow millions of foreigners to raise themselves out of poverty, but because it is right: it is their right.
My defense of open immigration is mostly an attack against conservatives. But conservatives are not uniformly opposed to a more humane, just, and open immigration policy. An obvious example is the most recent conservative president – George W. Bush. I dislike George W. Bush immensely, partly for his initiative in expanding the welfare state. But I believe that he sincerely wanted to improve immigration laws by creating a guest worker program and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (i.e. some sort of amnesty). John McCain, hate him or hate him, also worked hard to keep the failed 2006-7 immigration reform push alive. Ronald Reagan famously signed a bill granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.
I suspect that the conservative elite is ahead of its base on immigration. Maybe elites value economic thinking more and support labor mobility. Maybe the elites have broader horizons – they are more cosmopolitan and have more contact with foreigners, so they are less able to ignore their humanity. Maybe conservative politicians are just worried about the future of the conservative party, given a shrinking Caucasian share of the electorate.
Their secret convictions notwithstanding, conservative politicians have failed to make progress in the last few decades. Politicians are professionals at giving voters what they want – so the blame ultimately falls on the conservative base that the politicians are afraid to challenge. Until the conservative base learns to see immigrants as equal human beings, the conservative party will continue its pointless war against foreigners.