The U.S. Shouldn’t Relax Immigration Restrictions

By A. M. Fantini

Stories of the search for a homeland abound in most families’ personal histories. As the child (and grandchild) of immigrants to the United States, I’m familiar with the poignant reasons people have for leaving their native lands. It is never easy. And as debate over the Senate’s immigration overhaul bill intensifies, it’s important to acknowledge these universal themes.

As someone who is sympathetic to the idea of the common good, as well as to individual liberty and the principle of non-aggression, I am moved by the yearning of people around the world to find a better life elsewhere. Stories of poverty, persecutions, oppression, torture, and death worldwide almost make me want to advocate open borders. Almost.

But I can’t—not because I am heartless, but because of the fundamental importance I give to the classical liberal order and its prerequisites.

Most immigration arguments, for and against, are based in economics. Advocates for either position see immigrants either as a source of innovations that eventually add jobs (and wealth) to a country, or as a massive drain on public services. Milton Friedman pointed out that immigration is only good if it remains illegal, by which he meant that immigrants contribute economically as long as they don’t receive tax-funded goodies. Otherwise, free migration only ends up growing the welfare state.

My concerns, however, go beyond the economic. My experiences in Asia and South America, Europe and the Middle East, tell me there are legitimate reasons to restrict immigration—even if these reasons are not entirely consistent with the narrower logic of libertarianism.

Indeed, some of the best arguments against open borders have been expressed by Austro-libertarians like John Hospers and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Simply put, some considerations are more important than cheap labor, economic efficiency, and financial gains—principles like individual freedom, justice, and property rights. The ideology of open borders is a threat to these principles.

Throughout history, political communities have thrived so long as a majority of their members accepted certain principles—and the shared values that uphold them. This is necessary to “weave” a social fabric, develop intricate networks of trust, and forge common, unifying bonds. In the United States, learning about the political, philosophical, and moral foundations of the American experiment in liberty and self-government used to be essential for generations of immigrants. No longer.

My resistance to open borders stems from a concern over a lack of common principles and shared values. I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with ethnicity, race, or religion, or even Huntington’s stale arguments about preserving a civilization’s identity. Rather, I worry that supporters of open borders fail to recognize the dangers of welcoming immigrants who are hostile to classical liberal principles and values.

The riots in Stockholm last month illustrate just such dangers. While some pointed to ethnic, racial, or religious reasons for the violence (others blamed bad schools, over-regulated labor markets, and the welfare state), few addressed the reality that most immigrants are simply not ready—or willing—to live and work in Swedish society. There is virtually no pressure nor incentive for immigrants to embrace Swedish values.

Over the past few years, there have been similar riots in other European capitals, with immigrants railing against their adopted countries. During September’s London riots, rioters cried out, “some of [you] were calling for freedom of speech and democracy—but isn’t it time we made an uprising?”

Such statements are reflective of a wider attitude among immigrant youths across Europe. In Austria, France, Denmark, Holland, and Germany, they blame society for their isolation, marginalization, and poverty. Never mind the civics courses, free language classes, welfare benefits, and subsidized housing; at their cores, these immigrant groups reject liberal democratic values.

How should libertarians respond if immigrants are aggressively opposed to their values? Should libertarians allow immigrants to move into a community even if they seek to undermine such values and formal institutions? Should the libertarian then become a refugee himself?

Such questions point to a fundamental conundrum: In order to live in a free society, one has to abide by certain rules. The classical liberal order requires a certain degree of reciprocity among its members to continue. And there can be no liberty without some common principles and values. This implies libertarians should consider those who oppose their principles and values a threat. The free immigration of people opposed to that vision represents just such a threat.

When considering immigration controls, it’s important to be guided by classical liberal principles—and avoid increasing federal involvement. There are alternatives to spending $4.5 billion on extended border fencing and “continuous surveillance” as proposed in current legislation.

For example, apply the principle of subsidiarity. In practice, this means addressing the issue in the most decentralized (local) way possible. As Hoppe has argued, this can be far more effective in controlling immigration than depending on the state, while also reinvigorating the “intermediate social institutions and hierarchies” in society—thus ensuring the survival of classical liberal principles.

Such an approach also makes it possible to have local community involvement in the livelihoods of new immigrants. The diffuse knowledge that accrues in families, communities, and “their internal layers and ranks” can be more effective in detecting and staving off potential threats than, say, the NSA’s centralized PRISM monitoring system.

In short, we can apply libertarian principles to the real world. But this requires a modicum of realism that goes beyond the economic.

One can point to the advantages of having immigrant workers and trot out data showing the benefits of the “brain gain” from open immigration. But, in the end, if an immigrant arrives who eschews assimilation, derides local customs, rejects cultural norms and mores, and believes in ideas and values that are directly opposed to classical liberalism (the experience of contemporary Europe), then even the staunchest advocate of open borders should think twice. Without respect for institutions, the intricate web of rights and obligations and responsibilities on which a common political project depends will not long remain intact.

Mr. Fantini is the editor-in-chief of The European Conservative and serves as the secretary general of the Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria.