Justifying BordersFor my last discussion with the Merrimack Valley H.S. Ethics & Economics Challenge students, I brought up the issue of borders. We started our discussion with a little bit of improv theatre. I played a foreigner trying to get into the United States without documentation. Students volunteered to play a border guard trying to keep me out. Between us lay an invisible line, the border. I engaged them in a conversation about the moral justification of keeping me out. I have to say the students folded rather quickly! They brought up the fact that U.S. law forbade me from coming in without documentation, but when I questioned why U.S. law should apply to me, a foreigner, they conceded rather quickly.
I wasn’t satisfied with that. Even though the students seemed to be pro-open borders by default, I wanted to talk about why immigration barriers might be unjust. So we picked up Joseph Carens’ article, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” Carens argues that citizenship in the developed West is a kind of unfair “birthright privilege.”
He compares immigration restrictions to feudalism, the medieval system under which the rights, duties, and privileges of each individual were assigned on the basis of that person’s class of birth. Poor people around the world don’t deserve their fate, locked into countries with abusive rulers and poor economic prospects. Western governments therefore have a duty not to force these people to stay away.
The students seemed pretty persuaded by this argument, but then, they were already favorable to the open-borders case. So I tried to challenge them from the other side. What if a bunch of Communists, Nazis, or Islamic extremists tried to move to the United States all at once in order to influence the political system? Could the government legitimately keep them out? The students seemed skeptical: we already have big differences between Democrats and Republicans, one of them said, and it doesn’t seem right to determine citizenship on the basis of political beliefs. I pointed out the distinction between immigration and citizenship: perhaps it would be OK to let them live and work here, but without having the right to vote? Singapore, Switzerland, and the UAE have policies that let in lots of people but don’t give them citizenship. I also brought up the case of Israel: should Israel unilaterally adopt open borders? If so, the character of the country would likely change radically within a few years, given the ethnic and ideological makeup of neighboring populations.
Finally, keeping out invading armies, violent criminals, and those with serious contagious diseases seems justified. These people would likely be a net harm to those already here. If we can keep out thieves, though, why not keep out totalitarians who plan to vote their preferences? After all, a totalitarian government can take away a lot more than your property. For that reason, in a country like the U.S. with birthright citizenship constitutionally guaranteed, I favor modifying the open-borders position to exclude not just the three aforementioned categories of undesirables, but also those who favor a more expansive and abusive government.