Immigration and Discrimination

In this recent CNN column, Philippe Legrain explains the injustice of many current immigration restrictions:

It is no longer acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of a whole range of characteristics that they happen to be born with, notably their gender, their race and their sexuality. So why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?

The world is anything but flat: the biggest determinant of your life chances is not how talented you are or how hard you work, it is where you were born and who your parents are. Anyone lucky enough to have been born in the United States who doubts this should try to imagine how different their life would have been if they had been born in Africa.

A hard-working entrepreneur born in a remote African village has far fewer opportunities to achieve his dreams than a lazy dimwit born in America. Even if the African seizes all her chances and the American none, the American is still likely to enjoy a more comfortable life. And the surest thing that African could do to transform her (and her family’s) life chances is to go and work in the U.S.

But only if governments allow her to. Unfortunately, we live in a system of global apartheid, where the rich and the educated can move about increasingly freely, while the poor are expected to stay put, like serfs tied to the land where they were born.

For the most part, people are oblivious to the injustice of this: it is seen as part of the natural order of things, like slavery once was. But insofar as people try to justify this unnatural and unjust state of affairs, they claim immigration controls are necessary to protect people in rich countries from their poorer brethren. Yet if one thinks a bit more carefully, one realizes that these objections don’t stand up.

It’s worth noting that most of the standard objections to free international migration could also justify restrictions on internal migration within the United States and other Western nations. Consider migration to my home state of Virginia from neighboring West Virginia (which is much poorer). West Virginia migrants could take way jobs from Virginians, and put pressure on Virginia’s welfare system and other public services. They might increase our crime rate (West Virginia has a higher crime rate than Virginia). And they (combined with migrants from other poor states) could potentially change the local culture in ways that long-established residents might not like. Indeed, the culture of northern Virginia – where I live – has already been radically transformed by “carpetbagger” migrants from the north over the last thirty years – perhaps to the chagrin of more traditional southerners in the area. Yet no one seriously argues that Virginia should have the right to restrict migration from West Virginia or from the north. Even if the effects of internal migration on Virginia were larger than they are, it’s still unlikely that anyone would seriously advocate migration restrictions as a solution. Relatively few did so when many northern cities were enormously transformed by the migration of southern African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century. This double standard reinforces Legrain’s point that much of the support for immigration restrictions is the result of anti-foreign prejudice.

One might object to Legrain’s argument on the grounds that Westerners are not responsible for the poor conditions under which many Third World people live. However, as philosopher Michael Huemer shows, immigration restrictions don’t merely leave in place poor conditions created by others. They involve the active use of force to prevent people from bettering their condition through voluntary transactions.

I don’t think the above proves that immigration restrictions are never justified. If free migration poses a grave danger to natives sufficient to justify severe restrictions on liberty, and the danger could not be alleviated by less repressive measures, then we would likely be justified in excluding people who posed such a risk; for example if that were the only way to stop the spread of a deadly contagious disease. In such cases, restrictions on internal migration might be defensible as well.

Conservative and libertarian critics of immigration argue that the potential increase in the size of the welfare state arising from immigration, poses just such a threat. In this post, I explained why such claims are overblown; freer migration could well actually lead to reductions in the welfare state rather than increases. And, as with many other supposed dangers of immigration, this problem (if it does exist) could be addressed by less harsh measures than immigration restrictions, such as requiring immigrants to pay additional taxes to offset the fiscal burdens they might impose on natives.

Finally, it’s worth noting that today’s extensive immigration restrictions are actually an aberration in modern history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, both the US and many European nations allowed almost completely free migration, with results that were highly beneficial for both immigrants and natives. Migration into the United States remained mostly unfettered until the 1920s.

My point (and probably Legrain’s) is not that immigration restrictions are always unjustified. It is that they inflict severe harm on innocent people, and therefore require a heavy burden of justification. Some goods may be important enough to justify the use of force to consign would-be migrants to a life of poverty and oppression through no fault of their own. But surely not many.

UPDATE: I should note that some defend migration restrictions by comparing nation-states to private clubs that have the right to exclude members for whatever reasons they wish. There are many flaws in this club analogy. Michael Huemer’s article, linked above, describes them in detail. I summarized some of these weaknesses in my contribution to the 2010 International Affairs Forum on migration (pg. 42):

Many critics of immigration analogize… the United States, for example, to a private “club” that has the right to keep out unwanted entrants. However, there are crucial differences between a government and a private club. The latter includes only members who join voluntarily and agree to follow all of the club’s rules. If members wish to leave the club, they can generally do so while retaining all of their property and other rights. By contrast, most people do not choose to accept the domination of the government they live under; they are instead born into it. Even in a relatively free society that allows emigration, it is difficult for citizens to fully escape the rule of their government. Emigration is costly, and does not enable the migrant to take all of their property (especially land) with them. Democratic governments are more consensual than authoritarian states, but not nearly as much so as the private club analogy implies.