A Right to Immigrate?

By Steven A. Camarota and Steven A. Camarota on September 3, 2010

I recently came across a paper by University of Colorado philosophy professor Michael Huemer entitled "Is There a Right to Immigrate?" Huemer's answer is clearly "yes," there is such a right. By a "right to immigrate" he means the right to enter another country of one's choosing, rather than just a right to leave one's country. While only a tiny share of the American people would agree with Mr. Huemer, such people constitute a large share of immigration thinkers on the far left and the libertarian right. Although generally not part of the public immigration debate – few if any actual elected office holders imagine a "right" to enter our country – many advocates of high immigration seem to either privately agree with Huemer or at least strongly sympathize with his position. Thus, his perspective is important, even if it is not currently discussed openly outside of academia circles. Below I list some of my objections to his formation, in no particular order.

First, the idea that you have a right to enter any country you like runs against centuries of tradition, which recognizes the right of sovereign states to regulate who may enter their territory. Certainly our constitution names no such right to migrate. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the federal government's right to regulate and limit immigration. No international treaty, including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asserts a general human right to immigrate to a country of one’s choosing. The public statements of all major religious groups, many of which I have studied closely, recognize the right of a country to regulate and limit immigration. (Most religious groups in the U.S. do want amnesty for illegal immigrants, but they also all claim that a country can enforce its immigration laws.) As far as I can see, the idea of a general right to migrate into a country of one's choosing runs counter to the entire history of the modern state and all established national and international legal principles.

Second, an argument for a right to migrate into a country is fundamentally anti-democratic because citizens in every country favor some form of restriction. Certainly the overwhelming majority of Americans clearly think we have a right to limit immigration. Those that think there is a right to immigrate are generally confined to universities or a few think tanks, mostly based in Washington. Some Americans want more immigration, some want less, but almost the entire public thinks it is for us to decide. Citizens in a country have an enormous stake in who enters the country. If we ever adopted an open immigration system it would have to be shoved down the throats of the public, which itself raises profound moral questions. If a people cannot limit who enters their country, then they do not have a democracy because it means they have no self-determination. Self-determination means there is an identifiable people which has a right to control its own destiny and this must include the right to regulate who enters its lands.

Third, on more philosophical grounds I think that Hans-Herman Hoppe, who has written on this same subject, is probably correct in seeing the country as a kind of private property. Interestingly Hoppe is, I think like Huemer, a libertarian, but he holds very different views on the immigration issue. A central part of Huemer's argument is that stopping someone from bettering his life by entering our country is like stopping someone from going down the street to buy food. Huemer seems to be a libertarian and he feels that if the private store owner wants to sell the person food, then stopping the buyer is morally wrong and the person must be allowed into the country.

In my view the analogy between entering a country and going down the street to a store to buy food is wrong. For one thing open immigration implies, in effect, that the public spaces in the United States are owned by the world and anyone can use them. In this view all roads and public lands are like the high seas. If Huemer is correct there is no country – there is, I guess, just private property in the United States, which itself seems like a problematic formulation since for private property to exist, as a practical matter, it requires a government of some kind to protect it. I think public spaces in the U.S. are owned by the American people. And if the American people, through the laws enacted by their elected representatives, decide to keep people out who are not part of our country, that is our right. So even if it is true that private land holders can allow immigrants on their land without the permission of the country (a position I am not conceding), they have to pass through public land countless times to live here. The fact that someone may be made worse off by our barring them from entering what is rightly ours does not override our control as a nation over public spaces.

Moreover, the going-to-the-store-to-buy-food analogy is also wrong because it trivializes immigration. Any sensible country will regulate immigration, taking into account things like the absorption capacity of public schools or the health care system. If you are a libertarian like Huemer, perhaps you might say we should have no public money for schools or health care. But in the world in which we actually live, every country puts public money into these things. It is inconceivable that public funds would cease going to school, no matter what reform of education he might have in mind. It is therefore irresponsible for a nation not to consider these and other factors when setting immigration policy.

Fourth, Huemer's argument is grossly impractical. As Milton Friedman pointed out, you can't have open immigration and a welfare state. Even if you want to curtail these programs for everyone – a position I am not endorsing – it is entirely impractical to have an open immigration that ignores their existence. Again, in the real world, adding lots of low-wage workers means there will be enormous pressure to deal with this reality by including these individuals in existing social welfare programs. The March 2008 Current Population Survey shows that 53 percent of households headed by an immigrant with one or more children (under age 18) use at least one major welfare program.

Open immigration is also impractical because it ignores the national security implications of the issue. Keeping terrorists out is something Huemer might agree to, but how does one deal with, say, radicalization in the Muslim world? For example, a Pew poll in 2006 showed that 61 percent of Nigeria Muslims (perhaps 50 million people) have confidence that Osama bin Laden is someone who will "do the right thing in world affairs." In 2005 it was 52 percent in Pakistan and 61 percent in Jordan. These numbers do jump around from year to year and support for bin Laden and al Qaeda have declined somewhat in recent years. But, these and other polls taken in the Muslim world are very troubling. It is certainly legitimate to think about treating immigration from this part of the world differently in terms of how applicants are screened and who is allowed in enter the country. But if there is a right to migrate into our country, it seems hard very hard justify having significant restrictions on immigration from this part of the world for those who are not known members of terrorist groups. Consider the admittedly somewhat unusual case of Israel: Do Arabs from other countries who are not known members of terrorist groups have a right to live in Israel? Life might be much better for them in Israel, which is prosperous and democratic, and many would like to live there. But surely Israel has some right to keep them out. If not, then Israel would cease to exist. At least it would cease to exist in a manner that most Israelis want. Shouldn't this matter? But a right to migration would seem to overrule these concerns.

Fifth, Huemer's discussion of the objections to open immigration indicates that he does not follow the immigration debate closely. He does not really know what the debate is about in some cases. For example, his discussion of concerns over culture and assimilation are quite frankly silly. The concern over assimilation is not that immigrants will not absorb aspects of American popular culture as he seems to imply. Of course most will drink Coca-Cola, eat at McDonald's, and watch American movies. So what? Many of the 9-11 hijackers did as well; one group apparently loved ordering out for pizza. The issue is will they "patriotically assimilate," as John Fonte of the Hudson Institute puts it, in such a way as to have a functioning country. That is, will they come to see American traditions and history as their history? Will they come to celebrate the great achievements of America or will they see them as something that others did. We may be very happy with the pace of assimilation or we may not even care about patriotic assimilation. But Huemer does not even understand what the concerns are.

One of the weakest parts of his argument is his discussion of how many people might move here in an open immigration system. First, he thinks about the issue from a static perspective. Yet the sociological literature is clear that the social networks of immigrants build on themselves. In an open system, immigration would be lower at first and then it would rise over time. Once immigrants arrive, more people in the home country learn from their friends and relatives about the benefit of migrating here. The new immigrants show the next wave of immigrants the ropes in America. This process builds on itself. This is the story of just about every major immigrant-sending country to the United States in the last 50 years and during the last great wave of immigration as well. Thus it is entirely wrong to think that there is a fixed number of people who want to come and we can just accommodate that number.

Huemer's discussion of the visa lottery is entirely wrong as well. Half of the world (e.g. China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.) can’t even apply for it. As he reports, nine million people applied for the 2009 lottery. (Though, again, he doesn't understand the issue – he wrote "In 2009, 9.1 million people applied," when, in fact, they applied in 2007 for the 2009 program.) He sees this as a sign that relatively few people would want to come. Yet nine million is quite a lot (and 13.6 million applied the following year). Further, he does not mention that most people, in the limited number of countries that qualify, don't even know the lottery exists. Moreover, the chance of winning the lottery is small and surely this has a significant impact on applications. Yet even with all these limitations we still got 9 million applications! Just allowing China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines to apply and advertising the program could double or triple the 9 million applicants we already get, even if the chance of actually winning remained small. If we increased the chance of winning, the number would almost certainly grow even more dramatically. The nine million applicants we got for just 50,000 slots is actually proof just how many people want to come to America.

Of course, Huemer is right when he argues that most people in the world would not come even if they could. But even if two-tenths of one percent of world's population came each year, which I do think is possible, it would be about 130 million people each decade. Huemer even seems to agree that if Rep. Brian Bilbray's assertion that 1 billion might wish to come is correct it would be a problem. Huemer states that we should start by increasing immigration by one million a year since he concedes he does not know how many will come. He goes on to state we should "continue increasing the immigration rate until either everyone who wishes to immigrate is accommodated, or we start to observe serious harmful consequences." But how do we decide "serious harmful consequences?" Is this not up to the public and their elected representatives? Polls show most Americans think immigration is already too high. So it seems most Americans think we are already at that level. Equally important, his whole formulation is wrong because there is no such thing as a threshold at which "serious harmful consequences" appear. Generally, the harm done by ill-conceived social policy is gradual and cumulative. Moreover, unlike, say taxes, which can be lowered quickly if we wish, once people have been allowed into the country the impact is permanent. It cannot be undone in the same way as excessive taxes or bad regulations can be quickly changed.

On an issue like immigration where the impact on society is both very large and irreversible, common sense requires that we first think about the consequences and then set policy accordingly. If we are not sure of the consequences and cannot agree as a society on what to do, prudence dictates that we should go slow and have a moderate pace of immigration of, say, 3 million each decade or maybe fewer. But this would, of course, run, smack into Huemer's claimed right to migrate to a country of one's choosing.

Another weakness of Huemer's argument is when he discusses the fiscal costs. I think he misreads the literature on the fiscal impact of immigrants. One clear mistake is that he uses the impact of current immigrants to think about the fiscal effect of open immigration, even though 70 percent of immigrants (the foreign-born) are legal residents, which means they have been subject to significant selection criteria and restrictions. A significant fraction of legal immigrants have been selected because of their skills. Also, the family members who sponsor immigrants must meet income requirements and are supposed to support those they sponsor if they need help, which also restricts who may come. With the exception of humanitarian immigrants (refugees and asylum recipients), all legal immigrants must show they will not be "public charges." Even lottery winners have to have a certain level of education. Immigrants already are hardly the product of an entirely open system. Even with the current restrictions, the balance between taxes paid and serviced used by legal immigrants looks to be negative. Certainly use of welfare programs by legal immigrant households is quite high. But if all selection criteria were removed it seems certain this situation would become much worse.

Following on the same point, Huemer ignores the key finding of most research on this question: education levels are the key determinant of the net fiscal costs/benefits. The National Research Council's estimates are clear on this point. This can also be seen by a simple cross-tab: In 2007 54 percent of households headed by an immigrant without a high school education used at least one major welfare program, compared to 13 percent for those headed by a college graduate immigrant. The New Immigrant Survey shows that the least-educated immigrants benefit the most by coming to American in terms of the percentage increase in their income. The share of immigrants in an open immigration system who would have relatively little education would almost certainly increase. But of course, less-educated immigrants are the ones who would seem to have strongest moral claim on coming here since they benefit the most.

Finally Huemer's position comes primarily at the expense of the low-income population in the United States. Like a many libertarians, he implicitly rejects the idea of concentric centric circles of obligation. Most Americans, including myself, feel we have a much greater obligation to our fellow Americans than we do the poor in other countries, even though our poor are often better off than the poor in other countries. I think it is clear that immigration lowers the wages and employment opportunities for the least-educated and poorest Americans; the only real debate among economists is how much. It also strains public services, particularly schools and health care, often in low-income areas where the services are most needed. It drives up prices for housing for low-income Americans as well. Moreover, a reliance on immigrant labor allows us as a society to ignore social problems among our own low-income population and in some ways contributes to them. Thus I find Huemer's position morally problematic, because a well-educated relatively high-income person claims to take the moral high ground, but does so at the expense of his fellow Americans who are general much worse off than he. His concern for the desperate people in other countries seems laudable. But why not advocate policy that redistributes income of high-income Americans to the poor in other countries. This could be done voluntarily or by the federal government. Such an approach could help those overseas who are poor without having a direct negative impact on our own low-income population. It would also have the enormous advantage of being democratic, because unlike the open immigration Huemer wants, such a policy would be arrived at either by Americans making an individual choice voluntarily to send money overseas or adopted as a national policy by our elected representatives.

In short, a right to migrate into a country of one's choosing is outside our tradition and that of the entire Western world. The policy it implies is fundamentally undemocratic and is clearly rejected by an enormous majority of the American people. As a result, it would have to be imposed, perhaps with force. The numbers who would come under such a policy and the consequences they would create are at best unknown, and unlike many other public policies, those consequences are in many ways permanent. Thus, Huemer's position is immoral, ahistorical, anti-democratic, irresponsible, and grossly impractical.