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Definition: Debates on immigration policies include a wide range of views, from those who think that any country may legitimately decide to admit or exclude immigrants as it pleases

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Restrictionism vs. Open Borders

Definition: Debates on immigration policies include a wide range of views, from those who think that any country may legitimately decide to admit or exclude immigrants as it pleases, to those who believe that national borders are artificial and that migration should be entirely free.

A key reason some people become interested in learning more about migration is that they find themselves confronted with a compelling political and ethical question: to what extent is it legitimate for a country to close its borders to immigrants? Most people believe that a country has the right to prevent non-citizens from entering, and/or to determine whom to admit. A minority view holds that restrictive borders are illegitimate and unjust: migration is seen as a human right – particularly migration of the poor to the world’s wealthiest countries, given the vast inequalities that characterize our world.

In a context shaped by modern nationalism, the idea that countries have a right to exclude immigrants is taken for granted by many, as a matter of common sense (“England for the English”). This idea is, apparently, taken for granted in certain instances of political theory as well: John Rawls constructed “a theory of justice” (1971) without any reference to migration, and The Law of Peoples (1999) considers “peoples” as having fixed membership and conveys his view that even justice considered at a global level does not require accommodation for migration.

Arguments in support of migration restrictions often point to a wide range of negative consequences for natives. These consequences fall into two categories. The first is economic: immigrants from poor countries are said to undercut wages for native workers, to the point that employers prefer to hire immigrants and natives end up unemployed. In the US, an important variant of this argument focuses on racial dimensions of economic consequences: Beck (1996) argues that mass immigration, with roots in legislation passed during the Civil Rights period of the 1960s, has undercut attempts to redress the disadvantages faced by African Americans, whose presence in the US can be traced to a particularly cruel form of forced migration. Another variant considers the possibility that mass immigration undermines the social solidarity underpinning the advanced welfare states of western Europe (e.g. Entzinger 2007).

The second major consequence relates to culture and identity. Some natives believe that immigrants, particularly in large numbers, “dilute” or threaten the destination country’s culture and sense of identity (Glazer 1994). This concern is perhaps more keenly felt in an era where expectations of assimilation are arguably weaker. Walzer’s classic statement of the argument asserts that immigration restrictions are justifiable as a means for preserving “communal independence” and “communities of character” (1983: 62 – though he also says there are inescapable obligations to admit refugees). The self-determination rights of democratic nation-states would arguably be undermined if they were unable to exercise control over membership (Miller 2007). People are not mere individuals, they are embedded in cultures which in the modern period are typically constructed in part as nations; the nation-state might be essential not only for democracy as a process but for the (eventual?) realization of liberal egalitarian goals at least internally (Kymlicka 2001).

A notable feature of some restrictionist arguments is that they rest on the presumption that negative consequences for natives amount to a sufficient justification for immigration restrictions. In this perspective, the interests of natives count more than the interests of outsiders (if the latter count at all). This assumption – or at least the manner in which it is sometimes left implicit – is becoming increasingly untenable. A more cosmopolitan perspective on justice requires that the interests of potential migrants – indeed, of all “foreigners” – be given weight. A right of exclusion can no longer be assumed, it has to be argued (Booth 1997, Carens 1999). Some restrictionists do argue it: Blake (2002), for example, develops the view that we have lesser obligations to outsiders than to compatriots, because the former are not subject to the coercive power of our own state (cf. Nagel 2005). But for much public/political discourse on migration, the identification of negative consequences is the end of the argument.

For some, a cosmopolitan perspective leads directly and easily to the view that borders and immigration restrictions are artificial, arbitrary and unjust. The fact of being born in a particular country has enormous consequences for one’s life chances. One cannot “earn” the consequences of one’s place of birth, and the attempt of people living in wealthy countries to preserve their standard of living by excluding immigrants originating in poor countries cannot be justified, in this view (Isbister 1996). In a watershed article, Carens (1987) argues that a Rawlsian perspective, in search of the choices people would make under the “veil of ignorance” (i.e., without knowing in advance what the consequences would be for oneself), leads to the conclusion that individuals would choose to live in a world of open borders: not being able to count on birth in a wealthy country, people would prefer opportunities for mobility for themselves over the right to exclude others. Liberal societies, in particular, cannot endorse liberal ideals for their own citizens and then hold that those ideals are irrelevant when considering the interests of “outsiders” (though Meilaender [1999] suggests that this argument might have nothing useful to say about immigration restrictions of societies that do not start from liberal premises).

Other open-borders arguments focus less on the interests of migrants than on the idea that there is a fundamental human right to free mobility (e.g. Sutcliffe 1998, Hayter 2000). Some draw an analogy between internal freedom of movement and (external) immigration, though Bader (2005) argues that this analogy is not very convincing. Others simply dispute the notion the consequences for natives are mostly negative, holding that receiving societies benefit from the fact that those who choose to migrate typically have high levels of initiative and ambition (Riley 2008, Legrain 2007). In addition, efforts to control migration are very costly (Martin 2003), not only economically but in the way they generate tensions and feelings of insecurity as well as the inevitable “illegality” of unauthorized immigration (Pécoud and de Guchteneire 2006, Wihtol de Wenden 2007).

The normative terms of debates regarding immigration restrictions are not always well specified. The implicit philosophical orientation of most ethical discussions about migration is “consequentialist” (though some arguments about culture are rooted more in “perfectionism”) – but what kinds of consequences matter? Many contributors emphasize economic and cultural consequences, as noted above, but here as well a great deal is assumed instead of argued. Why do economics and culture figure so prominently? An easy answer is: because most people consider them important. But the question bears pressing: why?

An intriguing argument emerges from the possibility that economic (and perhaps other “objective”) factors are not intrinsically valuable but are only means towards the more fundamental end of happiness (“subjective well-being”). The empirical study of happiness suggests strongly that increases in income do not reliably lead to increases in happiness (e.g. Easterlin 2001). Perhaps, then, economic migration does not generally result in greater happiness for the migrants (Bartram 2010). The widespread belief that migration is beneficial might be mistaken, if the benefit is specified as happiness. There is no shortage of mistaken beliefs about paths to happiness (Gilbert 2006).

Does that possibility undercut the open borders view? Perhaps, to a degree – though care is required here. One can hardly argue that immigration restrictions contribute to the well-being of those who are excluded; the paternalism of such a conclusion would be absurd. Even if some migrants have mistaken beliefs about life in the destination country, perhaps a proper conception of freedom includes the freedom to make mistakes (in the course of trying to make things better). Additionally, a great many migrants have non-economic reasons for choosing migration, and there would be no practicable bureaucratic way of distinguishing between different types in admissions decisions. Even so, a consideration of migration and happiness suggests that the open borders view might entail excessive optimism about the notion that migration can lead to greater happiness in the lives of significant numbers of people. Improvement in objective well-being might be a more reliable consequence of migration to a wealthy country, but it is not obvious how to value objective vs. subjective outcomes.

Even on objective measures, the impact of open borders might be limited and poorly distributed, with the benefits going mainly to people whose relative position is quite good in comparison to those who would still lack the resources to move (Bader 2005). Migration might also be an inferior strategy for addressing the problems that lead some people to choose migration (Seglow 2005, Carens 1992).

In practice, states adopt immigration policies that occupy a diverse middle ground between open borders and complete closure. Borders and restrictions are regularly breached and regularly reinforced, and no wealthy country tries or even wants to exclude immigrants altogether. A sharp review of the literature (Bader 2005) notes that arguments for closure become convincing only when receiving countries are otherwise meeting their “global moral obligations” – a condition that is by no means satisfied to a measure that justifies existing restrictions (cf. Tan 2004). It is not obvious that debates about the ethics of migration restrictions have a significant impact on the evolution of policies. Politicians negotiate a balance (different for different countries) between the desire of many voters for greater closure (though some significant subgroups oppose this) and the demands of employers for greater openness. Mostly the relevant decision-makers pay attention only to the interests of domestic actors, though the cosmopolitan idea has found increasing expression in court rulings and international institutions.


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