Sunday, August 12, 2012

Immigration and the "right to exclude"

Michael Blake has posted an interesting review in NDPR of Kit Wellman and Phillip Cole's Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude?. I'm especially intrigued by Wellman's argument for the legitimacy of immigration restrictions. Blake sketches it as follows:
Wellman's argument begins with three simple premises: first, legitimate states are entitled to self-determination; second, self-determination includes freedom of association; and, third, freedom of association includes the right not to associate (13). These three are developed into an argument for a deontic right to close the borders against even the most needy would-be immigrant: if a state has adequately pursued its obligations under international justice, it can -- simply by citing its self-determination -- refuse to allow any would-be immigrant to cross into its territory.

I suspect I would get off the boat at the very first step: I'm all in favour of perfectly benevolent and trustworthy aliens taking over our political institutions and ensuring that all individual rights are upheld. It seems a weird kind of fetishism to think that groups, and not just individuals, have fundamental rights or interests (though for my best attempt at playing devil's advocate for this "communitarian" view, see my 'half-pie atomism').

Further, given the existence of poorly-functioning states that trap their populations in poverty and oppression, I have difficulty seeing how we could possibly "adequately pursue our obligations under international justice" without granting those suffering individuals access to better-functioning societies. It at least seems a more historically successful solution than attempting to transform broken societies into functional ones -- though it would of course be wonderful if we could manage the latter, too.

Blake offers a powerful criticism limiting the strength of the alleged "right" to non-association:
Wellman's [view] seems to be that those who are members of a group legitimately care about its future direction, and the admission of new members changes the nature of that group and the policies it is likely to make: "since a country's immigration policy determines who has the opportunity to join the current citizens in shaping the country's future, this policy will matter enormously to any citizen who cares what course her political community will take" (40). But it seems hard to think that these considerations, however weighty, give rise to anything like the strong deontic rights discussed here. Imagine, for example, that the members of one demographic group begin to have children at a rate that alarms the members of a dominant majority. Can a legislative majority, in the name of shaping its country's legislative future -- and preserving a particular form of life -- prevent the members of that community from having babies, through compulsory contraception? Can they simply cite the fact that they do not want these prospective members "entering" the community as a reason to impose this policy?

The answer, of course, is no, which Wellman would readily accept; it would be dramatically unjust for the government to coercively prevent the births. This, however, shows us that the right to control the membership of a country is not the deontic right imagined; it is, in contrast, a right that might sometimes be trumped.

And if reproductive freedom can trump it, I don't see any barrier to thinking that an outsider's needs to escape grave poverty and/or an oppressive political regime should likewise trump any "right" of our nation to obstruct them.

Finally, it's surprising to see "freedom of association" presented as a reason for blocking immigration. For what about an individual citizen's freedom to associate with (e.g. by employing) foreigners? All else aside, even just balancing individual freedom of association against group freedom of (non-)association, I would've thought the individual level to be clearly more important. [There was no mention of this point in Blake's review, but I haven't read the book -- does anyone know if Wellman addresses this objection?]

1 comment:

  1. I think there can be an argument made for "free-trade" immigration - that people, like capital, should be able to flow back and forth without hindrance, so that states with better prospects flourish and negative political movements have more immediate ramifications (rather than four year election cycles). Some might say it would simply mean the "flooding" of highly developed countries from other countries with high population growth.. I'm on the fence.

    Having worked in an immigration role I've reflected on it. On occasion we would have people attempt to enter by deception for their own, or their children's benefit. I do not believe there is a moral justification for refusing those who only wish to immigrate to vastly improve their standard of living if they do not meet certain "requirements" based on letting in who we need - especially when you counterbalance it against the more idealistic refugee system which attempts to bring in those who most need it.
    At the end of the day I think the only unambiguous moral position is to allow free movement, but it would likely cause economic shock. To strike a balance in between is practical but whatever the system it will be arbitrary.
    I hope one day immigration controls will be a thing of the past.



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