The Morality of Borders

By John Wahala on July 28, 2021

Crisis Magazine, July 28, 2021

The ability to immigrate is increasingly seen as a human right. There is a growing belief that nations should not restrict the migration of people across borders but should embrace or even facilitate this movement, regardless of the costs or benefits. This belief is not, nor has it ever been, held by most Americans. But it is now pervasive among our elites and has become an overriding conviction of the party in power.

In one of his first acts as president, Joseph Biden signed a proclamation declaring that “no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall.” The act was both a tangible and symbolic commitment to prioritizing the right of the migrant over national sovereignty and it was quickly followed by several more proclamations that eviscerated enforcement and loosened legal immigration requirements.

In just a few months, the Biden administration has either paralyzed immigration agencies or changed their mission entirely, creating a border crisis they intend to solve by effectively dissolving the border and expediting the resettlement of a seemingly endless stream of newcomers. Their actions have emboldened cartels and brought about a staggering amount of human suffering. Not to be outdone, the Democrat-controlled House has already passed two massive amnesty bills that contain allowances and subsidies for millions of illegal aliens — including violent criminals — that shock a healthy person’s conscience.

What the administration has already done to the federal immigration program may be the most conspicuous manifestation of what R.R. Reno calls the “open-society consensus,” the globalist dream of ripping down all cultural and economic barriers. While this vision goes all the way back to the Tower of Babel, it has just recently asserted itself into everyday politics. As Reno notes, it was Barack Obama who was so effective at making this vision seem synonymous with American values and then countering objections with “that’s not who we are.” But not even President Obama was able to dismantle the immigration system as thoroughly as his party is doing now.

Advocates of unlimited immigration, who are typically driven by powerful self-interests or ideology, tend to veil their positions in moral arguments. Like Obama, this allows them to demonize or dismiss their opponents’ positions. Many who attempt to shut down the immigration debate in this way may actually believe their position is virtuous. To understand why, it is helpful to look at a philosophical shift that occurred in the 17th century, where the moral defense of unlimited immigration has its origins.

In his book Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, Catholic philosopher D.C. Schindler examines the change to the classical conception of freedom that was made by thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant. While these three men had differing philosophies, they all came to the fundamental conclusion that freedom is power.

As Schindler explains, all three agreed on a view of freedom as “spontaneous and unconditioned causality, or as active power that produces effects as a result of self-originating energy rather than receiving determination from outside of itself.” This understanding of freedom “relentlessly separates potentiality from actuality” and places a “priority of potency over actuality, which reverses the classical order.” Schindler calls this change to the conception of freedom, which ushered in the period known as the Enlightenment, “a flight from reality.”

Schindler’s work meticulously exposes the inherent contradictions in modern thought and its implications. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to understand what this new conception of freedom meant for personal autonomy. The individual came to be viewed as separate and distinct from his environment, which no longer had a special claim on him. Traditional influences — the created order, culture, relationships — did not command the same authority. This change in perspective took time to be fully realized but was radical from the start. The will became its own god, a little immovable mover. Personal choice became the highest virtue. Any interpretation of reality became valid and any action could be rationalized. Where one was born became an accident of history.

The United States came into existence during this philosophical shift. While the founders were heavily influenced by Locke, they managed, with the help of more traditional philosophers like Edmund Burke, to avoid the excesses of the Enlightenment that ravaged France. Over the years, there was a tension between these competing conceptions of freedom, but a more traditional understanding of the individual’s place in society remained influential. Even during the great waves of immigration, for example, the right to immigrate was balanced with the ability of the society to assimilate newcomers. When the numbers got high enough to overwhelm the process, restrictions were implemented and the existing order was maintained.

Today, the modern conception of freedom dominates our institutions. The individual is seen as radically autonomous from all outside forces. Every attempt at self-expression, even to the point of attempting to change one’s own gender, is celebrated as authentic and distinctly American.

As evidence of this institutional view, Schindler cites the plurality opinion in the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey. As Schindler notes, at issue in this opinion is the core of the human relationship, the relationship between mother and child. In trying to define this relationship, Justices Kennedy, Souter, and O’Connor wrote: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

In pondering the scope of this conception of freedom, Schindler writes, “Who in history, even in the periods of the greatest confidence in man’s capacity for achievement, would ever have dreamed of having the power to determine the very meaning of existence, of the universe, of life itself? The very idea not only taxes the imagination, it kills it. This power, which exceeds the gargantuan aspirations of the most megalomaniacal of ancient tyrants is hereby not only offered to, but thrust upon, all people without exception, however meek and unassuming.”

Such a view has been thrust on the public, a view that absurdly attempts to grant the individual purview over the entire created order. The prerogative of the migrant seems almost trivial when thinking about the larger implications of this conception of freedom. But the prerogative of the migrant is not only preeminent; any national interest to offset this prerogative has been abolished. In other words, there is no longer any recognized culture to preserve. American values or “who we are,” as Obama is fond of saying, have been reduced to the subjective desire of the individual will.

Since 1980, the United States has added more than 106 million people to its population, nearly the entire populations of France and Spain. Driving this growth is the federal immigration program, whose scale has no historical or international precedent. According to recent Census Bureau estimates, the immigrant population has grown to more than 45 million and immigrants and their children number 62 million — accounting for about one in five residents. It is estimated that by 2040 nearly one-third of all children will be raised in immigrant families, and before mid-century the country is projected to be majority-minority, with no racial or ethnic group accounting for 50 percent of the population.

This is a recipe for an atomized population with no common principles on which to unify. Human beings, however, are not made to be radically autonomous, so the void of national identity is being filled by identity politics, which divides along distinctions of race or sex. Exacerbating these divisions are the growing economic disparities that result from mass immigration, creating further antagonisms. All of this becomes a great power struggle that must be mediated by an increasingly powerful state. This, as Schindler points out, is the irony of the modern conception of freedom — it inevitably leads to the creation of an overbearing state that must restrict freedoms in the name of freedom.

There is a sensible alternative to all of this that starts with the recognition that we did not create ourselves and we are part of a much larger order. By definition, this order is hierarchical, both spiritually and temporally. As Thomas Aquinas explains, we must prioritize the way we express duty and devotion, and all the other qualities of love because, for one, we are finite creatures with a limited ability to give of ourselves.

The inherent inequality in the created order that makes modern minds so uncomfortable is precisely what makes general cooperation and unity possible. One glance at loved ones affirms this principle. Of course, we prioritize their well-being. By the same principle, we should prioritize the needs of our neighbors, who we can see and touch, over the needs of distant others. On a national scale, this means prioritizing the needs of fellow citizens, who share a common culture, over an abstract notion of humanity. This is the only way to create meaningful relationships, and it is the only way to maintain a free and functioning society in which diversity and inclusion are truly possible.

Such a society requires limits. It is necessary to have a viable immigration system that enforces the law fairly and humanely and is predicated on a vision that balances the prerogative of the migrant with the national interest. This requires restrictions on who is admitted. While our ruling class now sees these restrictions as human rights violations, they, in fact, protect the most vulnerable among us while providing those who do come with a better opportunity to succeed. They do not create major social disruptions here or abroad. And they foster conditions that empower civil society. This is the order of charity, which stands in stark contrast to the globalist vision of a world without borders.