The September 11 terrorist attacks awakened a remarkable amount of anti-immigration furor in America, which has persisted for many years since. And now, Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (known as Senate Bill 1070) has re-sparked the immigration debate. In this essay, I will briefly frame the immigration issue as a whole, and argue why we should oppose the new Arizona law.
In a free society, people are free to do peaceful things. Since moving from one place to another is a peaceful act, and is often essential in pursuing one’s happiness, freedom of movement flows easily out of any feasible philosophy of liberty. As it pertains to people moving to America from another land, two freedoms are at stake: the freedom of immigrants to move here, and the freedom of Americans to associate and trade with them. The latter is an often-overlooked aspect of this issue: we should be free to hire, rent to, or date whomever we please, regardless of their geographical origin.
Thus, immigration should be an easy issue for the liberty-minded: America should adopt an open immigration policy, save for whatever controls are needed for national security, if any. Unfortunately, the status quo is a virtual prohibition. Most would-be immigrants are not permitted to move here. While we allow a few hundred thousand immigrants per year, they are bucketed into various visa programs capped with hard quotas. (For example, the H-1B visa for skilled professionals is capped at 65,000 per year. It’s even worse for agricultural workers.) These quotas are set far below the needs of the American labor market, and keep out countless entrepreneurs from all over the world. Because they have no feasible legal path, poor and desperate laborers from Mexico and Central America stream into the country illegally, often at great personal risk and cost. We are fighting a war against these workers that parallels and often intersects with the War on Drugs, spawning the inevitable distortions and disorder that are the hallmarks of prohibitions. Indeed, nothing would make the border a quieter place than legalizing drugs and immigration.
America should adopt an open immigration policy.
I won’t address here all the arguments made against open immigration. However, there is one argument made so often that it would hover distractingly over this essay if ignored. It is the welfare argument, often structured as follows: Some immigrants are on welfare; therefore, we cannot allow open immigration. This is a non sequitur that fails to meet many burdens. First, it fails to demonstrate a net fiscal cost due to immigration (most studies show a net fiscal surplus, a wash, or a small net cost). Second, and more importantly, it fails to project the fiscal picture to a legalization context, where the demographics of immigration would be much different (including far more degreed professionals). Finally, even if we assume a net cost, it fails to argue why adding more violations of liberty (militarized borders, severe restrictions on our freedom to hire and associate with foreigners) is better than simply focusing on the existing violation (the welfare state, which was already rolled back in the 90s and can be rolled back further).
Now let’s turn to Arizona’s new law, key parts of which are currently on hold. Among other things, SB1070 requires police officers to determine an individual’s legal status when they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in America illegally. Some have lauded Arizona for taking up the enforcement of immigration laws where the federal government has failed to do so. Notwithstanding the fact that the Arizona bill does much more than mirror federal law, such a position is awkward if we care about liberty. People have the right to move here, and we have the right to deal with them. Laws that criminalize immigration and our associations with immigrants are unjust. Why would we want to ratchet up their enforcement? For some voices in the freedom movement, Arizona’s effort is a praiseworthy win for the “rule of law”, a principle that treasures consistent enforcement of the law, whatever the law happens to be.
The freedom of people to move, trade, and associate is a straightforward elaboration of the freedom to live.
When faced with the reality of widespread violation of law, such as in the case of immigration (or marijuana use), we should ask ourselves this question: Is the law just? That is, does it protect us from acts of force or fraud, consistent with due process? If the answer is yes, we should campaign for better enforcement. If the answer is no, we should campaign for abolition. While the rule of law is an important value, it cannot be the overriding principle of our political philosophy. We cannot place legality above liberty, or the motions of enforcement above the substance of the law. To do so would make ours a content-free philosophy, and we would be compelled to champion the enforcement of any law any government passed at any time: laws against keeping one’s money, sodomy, marijuana, immigration, and harboring Jews, to pick a few.
Also keep in mind that we have a finite store of political capital, and we shouldn’t waste it. Given that we hold a minority view in today’s political landscape, every breath, every drop of ink that we spend championing the consistent enforcement of unjust laws makes us less and less relevant in the fight for liberty. Better that our breath and ink be spent on the substantive fight. Finally, given the often horrifying human cost of enforcing laws against immigration, drugs, and the like, our very identity as defenders of freedom is severely weakened when we call for such enforcement, and rightly so.
In conclusion, immigration should be an easy issue for Objectivists and like-minded libertarians. The freedom of people to move, trade, and associate is a straightforward elaboration of the freedom to live, and coercive intrusions on these activities abrade against dignity and purposeful lives. Notably, this issue serves as a reminder that Objectivism is incompatible with political conservatism, and with the nativist impulses that currently animate the conservative rank and file. Instead of adding our voices to theirs in a misguided zeal for enforcement, we should mark our own ground in this debate – as the true and vigorous defenders of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Joe Duarte is a graduate student at Arizona State University, earning a PhD in Social Psychology.