The events of the day, and the presence of some sharp commenters, prompt me to repost the following entry which first appeared in these pages on 3 July 2010.
. . . U.S. immigration policy is fundamentally unjust. It disregards the rights and interests of other human beings, merely because those persons were born in another country. It coercively imposes clear and serious harms on some people, for the sake of relatively minor or dubious benefits for others who happened to have been born in the right geographical area.
Huemer's argument stripped to essentials and in his own words:
1. It is wrong to knowingly impose severe harms on others, by force, without having a good reason for doing so. This principle holds regardless of where one's victims were born or presently reside.
2. The U.S. government, in restricting immigration, knowingly and coercively imposes severe harms on millions of human beings.
3. The U.S. government has no good reason for imposing such harms on potential immigrants.
4. It follows that U.S. immigration policy is morally wrong.
Before addressing Huemer's argument, some preliminary points need to be made.
A. First, a difficult issue such as the one before us cannot be resolved via some quick little argument like the above. Numerous considerations and counter-considerations come into play.
B. Here is a consideration in the light of which Huemer's argument has an aura of the fantastic. The U. S. is a welfare state. Now no welfare state can hope to survive and meet it commitments to provide all sorts of services at taxpayer expense if it opens its borders wide. Without trying to estimate the tsunami of humanity that would flood into the country from all sides were immigration restrictions removed, it is clear that open borders is a wildly impractical proposal. And note that this impracticality itself has moral ramifications: if bona fide citizens have been promised that they will be taken care of by some such system as Social Security into their old age, and the government reneges on its promises because of an empty treasury, then the rights of the retirees will have been violated -- which is a moral issue.
If state functions were stripped down to 'night watchman' size as certain libertarians would advocate, then perhaps an open borders policy would be workable; but obviously such a rollback of governmental powers and functions has no chance of occurring. Let the quixotic rollback occur; THEN and ONLY THEN we can talk about open borders. Meanwhile we do have border control, half-hearted as it is. It is not obviously unjust to those who immigrate legally to allow others in illegally?
C. An open borders policy is impractical not only for the reason mentioned, but for many others besides. I catalog some of them in Immigration Legal and Illegal.
Now to Huemer's argument.
I see no reason to accept premise (2) according to which the U. S. government imposes severe harms on people by preventing them from immigrating. Suppose you have foolishly gone into the desert without proper supplies. You soon find yourself in dire need of water. Coming upon my camp, you enter it and try to take my water. I prevent you from doing so. Have I harmed you? I have not inflicted any harm upon you; I have merely prevented you from getting something you need for your well-being. But you have no right to my water, even if I have more than enough. If you steal my supplies, you violate my property rights; I am therefore morally justified in resisting the theft. You are morally obliged to respect my property rights, but I am under no moral obligation to give you what you need, especially in light of the fact that you have freely put yourself in harm's way.
Similarly, the U. S. government does not harm those whom it does not allow to enter its territory, for they have no right to enter its territory in the first place, and in so doing violate the property rights of the U. S.
Once this is appreciated it will also be seen why (3) is false. The U. S. does have a good moral reason to prevent foreigners from entering its territory, namely, to prevent them from violating the property rights of the U. S.
Now at this point I expect someone to object as follows. "I grant you that illegal aliens are not justified in violating private property rights, but when they cross public lands, travel on public roads, use public facilities, etc. they are not violating any property rights. The U. S. has no property rights; there are no public property rights that need to be respected."
This objection is easily rebutted. It is based on a false analogy with unowned resources. An incursion into an uninhabited region not in the jurisdiction of a state does not violate property rights. But the public lands of the U. S. are within the jurisdiction of the U.S. These lands are managed and protected by the state which gets the werewithal of such management and protection, and in some instances, the money to pay for the original acquisition, from coercive taxation. Thus we taxpayers collectively own these lands. It is not as if the land, roads, resources and the like of the U.S. which are not privately owned are somehow open to anyone in the world who wants to come here. Just as an illegal alien violates property rights when he breaks into my house, he violates property rights when he breaks into my country. For a country belongs collectively to its citizens, not to everyone in the world.
The fundamental point is that foreigners have no right to immigrate. Since they have no such right, no moral wrong is done to them by preventing them from immigrating even though they would be better off were they to immigrate. Furthermore, the U.S. government and every government has not only the right, but also the moral obligation, to control its border for the the good of its citizens. After all, protection from foreign invasion is one of the legitimate functions of government.