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Why Immigration is a Right: The Case for Open Immigration

By Michael Niren January 7, 2014 (Updated December 9, 2019) 13 min. read

What is Immigration?

“Immigration” properly defined is the movement of individuals from their homeland to a new country for the purpose of permanent settlement. The phenomenon of immigration has existed from the beginning of human travel. People have been “on the go” for centuries. From the time we learned to walk, the movement of people has always been a part of the human experience.

In more recent times, immigration has come to mean more than just leaving one’s homeland in order to move to a new country but also encompasses temporary travel such as visitation, work or study across borders. These days when we use the term, it can mean anything from the traditional concept of moving to a new land, to accepting a job offer located thousands of miles away. Open Immigration

But regardless of how broadly defined immigration is used, for most of history, people have enjoyed the right to freely move where they wished. Of course depending on the circumstances and the historical period, human mobility was not always achievable or was made very difficult due to factors such as economics, health and social issues.

Immigration Laws were not always the case

But it was only until the turn of the century that specific laws regulating immigration per se or the movement of people began appearing. The concept that one had the right to leave a place and take up residence elsewhere was essentially respected until only historically recently starting in the late 18th century.  Since the 1790s when Naturalization Act , in the United States was passed dealing with Citizenship entitlement, we have seen a rapid increase in legislation restricting immigration in general.

Today, virtually every aspect of immigration is regulated. Countries like the US and Canada have quotas as to how many people can come, what type of people are welcome, how long they can stay, and when they can be forcibly removed. These days, the right to go where you want, when you want and stay as long as you want is a thing of the past. Now, if you want to move, you have to be legally qualified in order to travel. Free movement across borders is a thing of the past.

Why Regulate?

But should this be case? Should governments regulate peoples’ movement from one country to the next? What is the justification given for immigration law? The answer is the same arguments made for any law that purports to control peoples’  lives for some higher purpose:  that the State must force people to act against their own judgment in order to serve the needs of others. Of course this isn’t explicitly stated in the legislation or in political speeches. Rather we use terms like the “common good”, “social justice” or the economy to justify State control. But whatever the term, there is always two parties at play: a master and a servant.

In the case of immigration law, the needs of citizens (the masters) already living in the destination country always take precedence over the interest of the intending immigrant (the servants). Citizens, the argument goes, are entitled to be to be protected from outsiders from competition for jobs, overpopulation and access to social services. Therefore we must block immigrants who may take away our benefits and welcome those who will serve them. And once they arrive, then they can join the ranks of masters over time. If this sounds far fetched like something out of the the movie Gladiator, think twice. Immigrants waiting in the queue are scrutinized from head to toe and only the fittest (or in modern terms, the best and the brightest) are admitted though the gates.

Altruism is behind all Immigration Regulations. But is that good?

So why this regulatory approach? Why control the flow of people, most of whom just want to make a better life for themselves and their families? The philosophical basis underlying this approach is the ethics of Altruism. Altruism is what is at the root of all laws that seek to control all and any aspect of our lives including mobility.  What is altruism? The late philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand defines it as follows: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value”.

The morality that fuels immigration law is the self sacrifice on the part of the immigrant for the perceived welfare of others (citizens)  who are to be beneficiaries that immigrant’s entry into their country. Therefore an immigrant is legally qualified to immigrate only if his or her entry benefits citizens living in that country. For example, when a specific labor shortage is identified in a given industry, a potential immigrant who fills that need would be generally be welcomed. The idea is that it’s the need of citizens that drive immigration policy not the rights of immigrants to move.

Of course, once an immigrant arrives, he or she can expect to be treated in the same manner as citizens in terms of basic privileges afforded to all except the right to vote or in cases of temporary residents, the right to stay indefinitely. However, immigrants in the queue have no rights.

Further there are exceptions like Refugee or Asylum protection. In such cases, the government relying on international conventions will admit asylum seekers who demonstrate a well founded fear of persecution in their home countries. But even in such cases, the government holds the all the cards and will rely on appointed judges and administrators to decide whether someone is “in need of protection” and therefore admitted. Note that once again, it is needs not rights that are the drivers behind policy.

So is there an alternative?

The altruist approach is the dominate ethics behind all immigration policy. In fact it’s at the root of all government policy that seeks to regulate our affairs (beyond just protecting us from the initiation of force domestically and by foreigners)

To put things into perspective, altruism has been the dominant moral code for the last 2000 years. All religions as well as even non-religious ideologies, subscribe whole hardly to the doctrine of self-sacrifice as the given for morality. In fact, to suggest an alternative is not even conceivable to most people.

The only thinker in history who has provided an alternative is Ayn Rand. Though her novels and non fiction work, Rand has provided a comprehensive philosophy (called Objectivism) which advocates for rational self interest. Rational self interest is the opposite of altruism.  In essence, rational self interest tells us that concern for one’s self is good; that you are your highest value and the moral purpose of your life is your own happiness. She argues that that you should pursue and/or keep values and that there is no conflict of interest among people who are rationally self interested. For a complete explanation of Rand’s philosophy read Atlas Shrugged and her non-fiction works such as The Virtue of Selfishness.  How does this apply to Immigration law? Read on.

But what are Rights?

But to be clear, when I refer to “rights” in this context, I am using the term in the classical liberal sense, not the modern, distorted version applied by entitlement State. In the classical sense, rights simply mean, the right to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” . They do not mean the right to something produced by others such as education, healthcare, housing etc. The modern version of rights really is an inversion of the concept in order to accommodate altruism. Saying you have a “right” to health care means in practice you have a right to the labor of the doctors and other heath care workers who are forced to provide it for you, though taxation, based on your need. But there is not such thing as the right to the products and services provided by others, unless you believe that someone’s need is a claim on the lives of those that are able to fill that need.

The concept of rights is a complicated topic but for the purposes here, consider them to mean the freedom to act according to your own judgment, to pursue and keep your values.. And so long in the pursuit of your own life, you don’t interfere with others, then you are entitled to be protected by the State in exercising your rights.  Rights are based and justified by the ethics of self interest.

Are Rights respected today?

A society founded on the principle of individual rights existed for a brief period. It was called America and for its first 100 years, it was the greatest nation on earth. Sadly, America lost it’s way as it never had a solid philosophical foundation that supported its political system designed to protect individual rights. Consider the following quotes from two American Presidents. The first from Barak Obama, the second from Thomas Jefferson.

In 2014 President Obama states that wage gap is the “defining challenge of our time”.

Back in 1816, Thomas Jefferson said “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, ‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.'”

Note what Obama is saying: that inequality of outcomes (wages) is what is the most challenging problem. What this means in essence is that its wrong, its immoral that some people have more than others and that it’s the government’s role to level out the playing field. Of course, in practice this means to force some to serve the needs of others. Pure altruism.

And what does Jefferson think is important? That regardless of one’s starting point, people are entitled to keep the fruits of their labor; that it’s the role of government to guarantee the protection of people achieving values though work and keeping the products of their labour. The ethics behind Jefferson’s statement is clearly rational self interest.

So for the following 100 years to the present day, we have witnessed a steady increase in government regulation and consequently an erosion of personal freedoms. All our economic and social ills can be directly attributed to this trend. Immigration is no exception.

Is Immigration a Right? Open Immigration

So what is a right-based approach to immigration as opposed to the regulatory system we have today that is based on altruism? It’s called Open Immigration which means there are no restrictions as to who can come as a permanent or temporary resident. Whether someone’s credentials will serve a need is not a factor. Open immigration is really immigration without borders. It is like crossing State or Provincial lines–a seamless transition hardly noticed. Of course, I am not saying that ports of entry will be unmanned but the pre-qualifcation restrictions imposed on intending immigrants would be eliminated.  Open immigration is based on the concept that people have mobility rights and just as governments have no business in telling people that they can go (exit visas), they shouldn’t regulate the admission of people into a counrty (entry visas).

Is Open Immigration Dangerous?

But what about any harm to others that may result by admitting an immigrant? Shouldn’t we restrict certain individuals from entering if doing so may reasonably cause harm to others? Does Open Immigration have any limitations in, say, the case of criminals or people with communicable deceases? After all, most immigration systems today impose tight restrictions on people with criminal records or who have serious medical conditions.

The answer from a rights-based approach is that such persons would be treated in the same way as citizens in the same circumstances. In the case of criminality, if an individual has a criminal record for which he served his sentence, then on what basis should we restrict his admission–assuming the offence committed and the sentence imposed was equivalent to that of the host county? Under current immigration systems which are based on altruism, these people are considered “undesirables” . The justification given is that people with criminal records could harm others despite that they have already been convicted and served their sentence. The presumption of innocence has no place in altruist morality. The fear or general concern of others is what counts. In the 1800s such fears extended beyond just criminality but also included race, religion and other factors that today we consider irrational and unjust. But the principle remains the same: You can’t come in because we don’t want you.

So does this mean that Open Immigration will result in safe havens for criminals,  the sick and others who are perceived as adding little or no value to society? No because there is no reason why there would be a disproportion of such people coming though an Open Immigration steam than what already exists in the destination country. In fact, if the destination country itself respects individual rights, then that would be the last place criminals would want to go anyway. Criminals tend to thrive in places where there is widespread corruption not where the rule of law is enforced.  Same goes for people who are unproductive. Whenever there are socialized systems in place like health care, education funded though taxation, then expect the sick, the unemployed and other non-productive people to be attracted to such places. That is not to say that just because you are sick or unemployed, you are not productive. However, societies which are run by altruist-driven institutions will always attract people who want to take advantage of them.

Will Open Immigration result in more Terrorists threats?

The answer is the same one given above with respect to criminals. However, if terrorist nations are identified that clearly produce terrorists posing a threat to national security, it is obvious that safe guards must be in place to keep out those threats. But national security concerns are really best handled in the geo-political arena and not though immigration rules. Immigration law targets individuals and no terrorist threat can be properly managed though immigration legislation. Foreign policy and international law really is where terrorism should be addressed. Nations like Iran should be tackled head-on, not individual Iranians who wish to immigrate.

The Benefits

And insofar as individual rights of citizens themselves are violated due to altruistic laws, then the kind of immigrants such a society will attract will be always be substandard. Conversely, this is why societies which are generally free and protect rights, tend to attract the best and brightest. Western societies have always benefited from immigration. Of course in the early days, the social and economic gain from immigration was huge. And note, in the early days there were no restrictions on immigration, no quotas nor selection criteria restricting people based on arbitrary factors. And yet there were countless numbers of hard workers, some of whom were responsible for the great innovations and high standard of living we enjoy today. It is just a fact that many of these greats would never have made it to our shores if they were subject to the arbitrary system we have today. So don’t believe for a second that the current government system, in its twisted wisdom,  has any real practical value in selecting immigrants. There is no value in selection in the first place. People should be free to make their own choices and take their own risks. The net benefit of such freedom is unquestionable. But today, it is questioned–not on practical grounds but on moral grounds.

As long as altruism, self sacrifice of immigrants and of employers and family members, enforced by the government, remains the dominate morality, the doors will remain closed.

Today we have a closed immigration system completely controlled by the government who dictates who can come and go. The system is part of a wider systemic problem based on altruism as the driving morality. And only until it’s supplanted by the morality of rational self interest will the rights of immigrants be respected though an open immigration system. Until then the doors will continue to be closed with the government holding the key.  Immigration lawyers like myself make a living trying to help people navigate the bureaucratic maze. In an open immigration system supported by a free society that respected individual rights, I would likely be out of a job.  Nothing would be more gratifying.



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