Is There a Right to Immigrate?
By Bryan Caplan
That’s the title question of philosopher Michael Huemer‘s latest essay. Like his earlier piece, “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?,” this is a masterpiece of applied ethics. It begins with an explanation of the general concept of prima facie rights:
A prima facie rights violation is an action of a sort that normally–that is, barring any special circumstances–violates someone’s rights. For example, killing a human being is a prima facie rights violation: in normal circumstances, to kill someone is to violate his rights. But there are special circumstances that may alter this verdict: euthanasia and self-defense killings do not violate rights, for instance…
The claim that an action is a prima facie rights violation, then, is not a very strong claim… But nor is the claim entirely without force: to accept that an action is a prima facie rights violation has the effect of shifting a normative presumption. It becomes the burden of those who advocate the act in question to identify the special exculpatory or justificatory circumstances that make what tends to be a wrongful rights violation either not a rights violation in this case, or a justified rights violation.
Huemer then argues that immigration restrictions are a prima facie rights violation:
First, the laws are coercive. That is, immigration restrictions are implemented through threats of physical force. Borders are patrolled by armed guards, and armed officers forcibly remove those who are discovered residing in the country illegally.
Second, the laws are highly restrictive. That is, they significantly interfere with individuals’ ability to control their own destinies. They prevent individuals from living where they wish to live… Few decisions are so important as the choice of what society to live in…
Third, the laws are extremely harmful to most of the individuals who are thus restricted. Few Americans would have any doubt that, if someone were to force them to live in the Third World for the rest of their lives, whoever did this would thereby visit a great harm upon them. The harm to potential immigrants from the Third World who are denied entry to the United States, or to illegal immigrants who are forcibly expelled, is of the same kind and approximate magnitude.
After making a pre-emptive strike against immigration opponents’ attempt to hide behind the “killing/letting die” distinction (see here for my take), Huemer calmly reviews the main arguments in favor of restricting immigration. He finds them absurdly short of their burden of proof. Just one example:
Marvin is in danger of starvation. Fortunately, he can walk to a market and buy bread there, which will preserve his life… My daughter, however, also plans to go to the market, slightly later in the day, to buy some of this same bread. This bread is often in short supply, so that the vendor may run out after Marvin’s purchase. My daughter could buy more expensive bread, but she would prefer not to. Knowing all this, I fear that if Marvin is allowed to go to the market, my daughter will be forced to pay a slightly higher
price for bread than she would like. To prevent this from happening, I accost Marvin on the road and physically restrain him from traveling to the market. Is my action permissible?
Suppose I claim that my harmful coercion of Marvin does not violate his rights, because it is necessary to protect my daughter from economic disadvantage. Certainly this defense falls flat. A person’s right to be free from harmful coercion is not so easily swept aside. Likewise for the suggestion that my action, though a rights violation, is justified because my daughter’s interest in saving money outweighs Marvin’s rights. No one would accept such feeble justifications.
Yet this seems analogous to the common economic argument for immigration restriction. The claim seems to be that we are justified in forcibly preventing individuals–many of whom are seeking escape from dire economic distress–from entering the American labor market, because American workers would suffer economic disadvantage through price competition. No one claims that American workers would be disadvantaged to anything like the degree that potential immigrants are disadvantaged by being forced to live in the Third World. Nevertheless, the prospect of a modest lowering of American wages and narrowing of employment opportunities is taken to either suspend or outweigh the rights of Third World inhabitants.
In the past, I’ve criticized the philosophy profession. Michael Huemer does philosophy the way it ought to be done: He focuses on important questions, begins with plausible assumptions, reasons carefully from those assumptions, writes elegantly, and reaches answers. I guess that’s why Mike is my favorite living philosopher. Why not read him yourself and see if you agree?