The Philosophical Case for Open Borders

I want to share an argument with you. It’s not my argument, but it is an argument every American needs to consider right now. It is Michael Huemer’s argument that immigration restrictions are prima facie rights violations. That is, it’s wrong to use force to prevent someone from entering this country.

Huemer begins with the ethical question: is it morally right to forcibly prevent would-be immigrants from living in the United States? He argues that those excluded seem, on the face of it, to suffer a serious harm. Why are we justified in imposing this harm?

Huemer has a very important assumption from the outset. He argues we’re not worrying about international terrorists, criminals, or fugitives from the law.  We have a right to exclude those people.  The focus should be on ordinary people who are seeking a new home and a better life.

As for the President’s recent ban, he’s not simply excluding terrorists from coming to America. He’s banned anyone from a specific country for seemingly arbitrary reasons (unless you count his personal business interests, and then it doesn’t appear quite as arbitrary). He is excluding refugees fleeing from terrorists, and so Huemer’s argument that follows certainly applies.

The reason I’m sharing Huemer’s argument is because his method is absolutely genius. He first describes a case in which nearly everyone will share an intuitive evaluation of some action, and then draws a parallel from the case described to the more controversial case of immigration. If you’re absolutely convinced in the simple case, and you cannot undermine the analogy, then you ought to be convinced in the harder immigration case, too.  

Let’s start with the simple case:

“Marvin is in desperate need of food and is in danger of starvation (for some reason outside of his control).  To remedy the situation, Marvin plans to walk to the local marketplace, where he will buy bread.  Without any outside interference, Marvin would be able to walk there and exchange something he has for the food.  Another individual, Sam, is aware of all this and is watching Marvin.  For some reason, Sam decides to detain Marvin on his way to the marketplace, forcibly preventing him from reaching it.  As a result, Marvin returns home empty-handed, where he dies of starvation” (Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Immigrate” 431-32).

Was Sam’s action wrong?  Does Sam violate Marvin’s rights?

Imagine if you were starving, and you head to Kroger to buy the cheapest thing you could buy. (Note: you’re going to the store to buy some bread not steal it.) In the parking lot, some guy confronts you, points a gun in your face, and prohibits you from entering Kroger. Because of the threat on your life, you return home empty-handed, where you then die from starvation.

I think we can all agree that what Sam does to Marvin is morally wrong. Huemer argues Sam’s behavior is both extremely harmful to Marvin and a severe violation of Marvin’s right to be free from harmful coercion.

Coercion occurs when one person forces another to do something without his or her consent. Sam forces Marvin to leave the marketplace, thereby violating Marvin’s right to be free from such harmful coercion.

The focus should be on ordinary people who are seeking a new home and a better life.

Huemer’s conclusion from the simple case, then, is that individuals have a prima facie, negative right not to be subjected to seriously harmful coercion (432). A prima facie rights violation is an action of a sort that normally—that is barring any special circumstances—violates someone’s rights (431). Killing a human being is an example. We each have a prima facie right not to be killed. However, such a right is prima facie because other considerations may override that right (such as if I am trying to kill you. In that case, you may kill me in self-defense.)

It’s important to note that Huemer is not arguing Marvin has a positive right to enter the marketplace. He’s not saying that anyone has a right to food. Huemer is a libertarian, and as such, he doesn’t believe in positive rights. Instead, he only believes in negative rights such as the negative right to not have someone coerce you.

Now let’s see how the simple case applies to the hard case of immigration. In the analogy, the role of (Starvin’) Marvin is played by those potential immigrants who seek escape from oppression or economic hardship.  The marketplace is the US economy.  The role of (Uncle) Sam is played by the government of the US.

The US government restricts entry into the US marketplace through coercion: armed guards are hired to patrol the borders, physically barring entry, and armed officers of the state forcibly detain and expel immigrants who are found residing in the country illegally (433-34).

And so, the actions of the US government, prima facie, constitute serious violations of the rights of potential immigrants to be free from harmful coercion (434).

The real genius of Huemer’s argument is this shift of the burden of proof. In typical immigration arguments, whoever is suggesting an open border bears the burden of proof—that is, the default position in the US is immigration restriction, and so typically those who advocate change have the burden of convincing the status quo. To accept that an action is a prima facie rights violation has the effect of shifting the burden of proof to those who advocate the harmful act. In this case, the burden would be on people advocating immigration restriction to prove such restriction does not violate the prima facie right, or that if it does, it is still justified for some other sufficient reason.

So Huemer’s next task is to determine whether there are any circumstances that justify the harmful coercion involved in immigration restrictions (436-37). Just as making meth in my basement might justify the state seizing my property or breaking into your house and pointing a gun at you might justify you’re killing me, are there any such considerations that might override the immigrant’s rights?

Given that immigration restriction is a prima facie rights violation, the burden of proof is on the advocate of such restrictions to show some reason that’s sufficient to override this right.

Individuals have a prima facie, negative right not to be subjected to seriously harmful coercion.

Huemer considers 5 different candidate reasons to override the immigrant’s rights to be free from harmful coercion. These reasons range from economic reasons to cultural to consequential reasons. I’m only going to discuss one such reason in detail, the reason most take to be sufficient: immigrants will take jobs away from Americans and force Americans to work for lower wages.

Huemer’s response to this candidate reason is two-fold. First, he addresses the economic concern. Second, he gives another simple case and shows how our intuitions about the simple case may again be applied to the hard case.

As a fact of the matter, economists are nearly unanimous in agreement that the overall economic effects of immigration on existing Americans are positive (437). Here’s a brief overview of the economic effect of immigration all taken from the Center for American Progress

First, here are the population statistics:

  • The foreign-born population consisted of 40.7 million people in 2012. Broken down by immigration status, the foreign-born population was composed of 18.6 million naturalized U.S. citizens and 22.1 million noncitizens in 2012. Of the noncitizens, approximately 13.3 million were legal permanent residents, 11.3 million were unauthorized migrants, and 1.9 million were on temporary visas. By 2012, immigrants made up 13 percent of the total U.S. population.
  • Six states are home to the majority of the undocumented population. As of 2012, 22 percent of the nation’s undocumented population lives in California. Fifteen percent lives in Texas, 8 percent lives in Florida, 7 percent lives in New York, 4 percent lives in Illinois, and 4 percent lives in New Jersey.
  • Undocumented immigrants comprise a disproportionately large percentage of the labor force relative to the size of the overall population. In 2010, 8.4 million undocumented immigrants were employed in the United States. They represented 5.2 percent of the U.S. labor force, although they comprised only 3.7 percent of the U.S. population.


Second, here are the economic statistics:

  • Immigration reform would increase the earnings of all Americans. Immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in five years would increase the earnings of all American workers by $618 billion over the next decade.
  • Permitting undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and citizenship would expand economic growth. Naturalized workers earn higher wages, consume more goods and services, and pay more in taxes, which in turn creates economic growth. If the undocumented immigrants in our nation were granted legal status today and citizenship in five years, the 10-year cumulative increase in U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP, would be $1.1 trillion.
  • Granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants would create jobs and increase tax revenues. If undocumented immigrants acquired legal status today and citizenship in five years, the economy would add an average of 159,000 new jobs per year, and formerly unauthorized workers would pay an additional $144 billion in federal, state, and local taxes over a 10-year period.
  • Undocumented immigrants currently pay billions of dollars in taxes annually. Households headed by unauthorized immigrants paid $10.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2010. This includes $1.2 billion in personal income taxes, $1.2 billion in property taxes, and more than $8 billion in sales and excise taxes. Immigrants—even legal immigrants—are barred from most social services, meaning that they pay to support benefits they cannot even receive.
  • Research shows that immigrants complement, rather than compete with, native-born American workers—even less-skilled workers. Research by renowned economists such as David Card, Gianmarco Ottaviano, Giovanni Peri, and Heidi Shierholz shows that American workers are not harmed by—and may even benefit from—immigration. This is because immigrants tend to complement the skillsets of American workers, thus helping them be more productive.


Third, the US spends a ton of money on immigration enforcement:

  • The United States spends more on immigration and border enforcement annually than the annual gross domestic product of 80 countries. In fact, the United States now spends $3.5 billion more on immigration and border enforcement—a total of nearly $18 billion per year—than it does on all other federal law enforcement combined.
  • Mass deportation of the undocumented immigrant population would cost billions of dollars. Deporting the entire undocumented population would cost $285 billion over a five-year period, including continued border and interior enforcement efforts. For that price, we could hire more than 1 million new public high school teachers and pay their salaries for five years.


As you can see, refusing to document immigrants costs us tremendously, allowing more immigrants would grow our economy, and paying all immigrants a fair wage (rather than exploiting them) would raise the wages of American workers. Illegal immigrants are not “taking our jobs” and forcing Americans to work for lower wages. It is the exact opposite.

The overall economic effects of immigration on existing Americans are positive.

Those are the facts, but suppose you’re still not convinced. Consider the following philosophical argument then.

The simple case: I am being considered for a job, for which I know that Bob is the only other candidate. Bob is willing to work for a lower salary. On the day of Bob’s interview, I accost him and physically restrain him from going into the interview.

Is this okay? No, of course not.

The mere fact that Bob is competing with me for a job that I desire, or that Bob is willing to accept a lower salary than I could obtain if I did not have to compete with him, does not invalidate or suspend Bob’s right not to be subjected to harmful coercion (438).

Now consider a variation of the Marvin/Sam case: Marvin plans to go to the marketplace. Marvin is poor, and so he will have to buy the cheapest bread available. Sam’s daughter also plans to go to the marketplace, slightly later in the day, to buy some of this same bread. This bread is often in short supply. Sam’s daughter could buy more expensive bread, but she prefers not to. Knowing all this, Sam fears that if Marvin is allowed to go to the market, his daughter will be forced to pay a slightly higher price for bread than she would like to. To prevent this, he accosts Marvin on the road and physically restrains him from traveling to the market.

Is this okay? No, of course not (439).

Huemer’s ultimate conclusion: A person’s right to be free from harmful coercion is not so easily swept aside by very small economic concerns (439).

Here are the four other reasons Huemer considers:

2nd Candidate Reason: the state has a general duty to serve the interests of its own citizens, including their economic interests, and no such duty, or no duty nearly as strong, to further the interests of foreign nationals. As a result, when the interests of American citizens come into conflict with those of foreign nationals, the American government must always side with its own citizens (440).

3rd Candidate Reason: immigrants impose a substantial financial burden on government providers of social services, such as health care, education, and law enforcement (440).

4th Candidate Reason: states are justified in restricting the flow of immigration into their territories for the purposes of preserving the distinctive cultures of those nations (447).

5th Candidate Reason: there will be catastrophic consequences that allegedly would result from the ocean of immigrants that would flood over America if the borders were opened (450). Some say at least 1 billion people would pour into America.

To each of these reasons, Huemer’s argument is roughly the same: some small economic, cultural, or religious loss to Americans cannot be offset by violating another person’s most basic human right to be free from harmful coercion.

A person’s right to be free from harmful coercion is not so easily swept aside by very small economic concerns.

The Wall is not just a barrier; it is a symbol of prejudice. Americans are in some cases ignoring the harms done to immigrants, and in other cases willingly inflicting those harms. Why? It’s not really about money, culture, language, religion, taxes, over-crowding, or American pride. It’s about thinking Americans are somehow better than or more deserving of a good life than someone who happened to be born on the other side of an invisible line.

If we build this wall, we’re sending a message to the rest of the world: We are superior, and you are inferior. When Trump declared “America first” over and over again in his inaugural speech, he was not expressing an innocuous pride in where you’re from. He was saying that even the smallest American interest overrides the most important rights of all other human beings.

The ban on immigrants from certain Muslim countries isn’t just a policy; it is an act of discrimination.

Huemer says this best, I think, so I’ll let him have the last word:

“Why do most citizens of Western democratic countries oppose the opening of their borders? I believe the best explanation is that most of us suffer from a bias that makes it easy for us to forget about the rights and interests of foreigners. Racial bias once caused white persons to view members of their race as more important than those of other races, and to ignore the rights of members of other races. Sexist bias caused men to view themselves as more important than women and to ignore the rights of women. In modern times, great progress has been made in overcoming these biases. But some prejudices remain socially acceptable today, not even recognized by most as prejudices. Among these privileged prejudices is nationalist bias, the prejudice that causes us to view our countrymen as more important than citizens of other countries, and to ignore the rights of the foreign-born.

“When American’s today recall the unabashed racism of earlier generations, we may easily feel ashamed of our forebears. Most of us would cringe at the suggestion that our race is better than other races. We feel that we cannot understand what it would be like to be so prejudiced. How could one not see the injustice in slavery, or racial segregation? But most Americans, like most human beings around the world, in fact have very easy access to what it was like to be an unabashed racist. It was to feel about one’s race the way most of us now feel about our country. Today’s Americans do not cringe when we hear the statement that America is the greatest country on Earth, any more than white people a century ago would have cringed to hear that whites were the best race. We do not cringe to hear that American businesses should hire native-born Americans rather than immigrants, any more than Americans three generations ago would have cringed to hear that white-owned businesses should hire white people in preference to blacks” (Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” pages 460-461).




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