The United States Should Open Its Immigration

by Nathan Smith

Writing to a libertarian audience, I can take some parts of the case for open borders for granted. When people are acting nonviolently, harming neither persons nor the property of anyone else, the government shouldn’t use force to stop them. Therefore, peaceful immigrants shouldn’t be interfered with. Either the government has no right to demand to see the passport of one entering the country, or at most, it can demand a passport so as to run a background check and exclude those who can plausibly be regarded as a national security threat. The current immigration system, a monstrous tangle of authoritarian micromanagement and economic irrationality, violates this principle. It should be jettisoned.

But what about the welfare state? Today, the social safety net more or less guarantees a standard of living higher than what most people in the world enjoy. If we let foreigners come in and live off social safety net programs at taxpayer expense, we would be ruined. But as Milton Friedman understood, open borders are incompatible not with the welfare state per se, but only with giving immigrants full access to the welfare state. The solution is not to keep immigrants out, but to deny them welfare, as we already do to some extent. It may also be reasonable at first to restrict their access to the ballot box through which they might lobby for access to welfare. This is both feasible and legitimate, as immigrant welfare dependency is not a big problem at present.

Open borders would undermine the legitimacy of the welfare state by taking away the border as blindfold. Such policies would make it obvious that the welfare state does nothing to help the world’s poorest, so why have it at all? Indeed, since open borders are far superior to foreign aid or the welfare state as means of helping the desperately poor, advocating open borders is by far the best way to seize the moral high ground against statists. And open borders would allow people to vote with their feet against predatory governments.

Deportation separated over 1 million family members between 1997 and 2007. “DREAMers,” who were brought here as children and have no other home, were subject to deportation until the Obama administration instituted its deferred action policy in June 2012. Decent people who are aware of these disgraceful practices can see that they must be stopped. But adult foreigners who aspire to immigrate to the United States to escape poverty, or to give their unborn children a brighter future, or simply because they love American culture and want to be part of it, should also be able to come. Human liberty means being able to act for all sorts of creditable motives, and indeed, not to need bureaucratic approval for one’s motives at all.

For the United States to open its borders to free immigration would represent a major expansion of liberty, not only for foreigners, but also for Americans who would gain new freedom—to hire, sell, or lease real estate to, teach or learn from, worship with, and fraternize with foreigners, as well as to marry them without going through the lengthy, stressful, expensive, and uncertain process of applying for a fiance visa. 

Meanwhile, immigration enforcement is a dire threat to civil liberty at home. Imagine a society in which you are not even allowed to walk about the streets without permission in the form of a government-issued ID. The Soviet Union? Yes, but also, in effect, Arizona under SB 1070, a harsh anti-immigration law passed in 2010, and Alabama under HB 56, an even harsher anti-immigration law passed in 2011. The deportation regime violates due process, and we could not remove the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants from the United States without many more wrongful deportations of U.S. citizens.

Economists estimate open borders would double world GDP. Such estimates sound implausibly optimistic, yet they are actually rather conservative. For comparison, if all the world’s people moved to the United States and earned what the average American earns, world GDP would multiply more than fourfold. Given that unlikely scenario, economic estimates compensate in various ways and arrive at lower figures. Immigrants to the United States usually see large income gains relative to their home countries, even when they look poor to Americans. But U.S. natives, on average, see their wages rise thanks to immigration. In more immediate terms, freer migration would be one of the best ways to pull the U.S. economy out of its long slump, by increasing demand for housing and bringing in more entrepreneurs, while helping to shore up the finances of Social Security.

For the first century of its existence, the United States had virtually open borders. It was not unique in that respect. Most other countries, too, permitted free migration. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the United States began excluding the Chinese and inspecting newcomers at Ellis Island, but most aspiring immigrants could reliably enter the United States. Comprehensive passport control became the norm during World War I, and by the 1930s it was tight enough that German Jews seeking to escape from Nazi Germany could not find a refuge anywhere. There have been modest changes since—crackdowns and amnesties, visas created and abolished, adjustment of quotas—all of which indicate a broken system. To simplify, however, before 1914, human beings could move and live where they wanted to. Since 1914, they are mostly trapped in the countries where they were born. Gallup has tried to measure the extent of these frustrated desires to migrate and found that one-quarter of the world’s population would like to move. Only a small fraction will be allowed to do so.

Open borders is a radical proposal, and a certain Burkean gradualism and respect for the precautionary principle may be warranted. But ultimately, justice demands that we recognize the right to migrate.

Nathan Smith is also a contributor to Open Borders: The Case.