A Question for Immigration Restrictionists

The current refugee surge into Europe has caused a lot of my friends who are immigration restrictionists to say this proves that I am naive.

During the Cold War, we (including most Conservatives) considered it immoral that Communist countries would not let their people leave (Berlin Wall, etc.).  Now, however, it is argued by many of these same folks that it is imperative that the Western democracies build walls to keep people out.

So here is a question -- not of practical consequences, but of pure morality.  Consider this picture of people being prevented from crossing the border.


Explain to me why this scene is immoral if the wall and police forces were put there by the country at the right (the leaving country) but suddenly moral if the same wall with the same police force were put there by the country on the left (the receiving country).  Don't they have exactly the same effect?  Same wall -- How are they different?


  1. Mike:

    I'll take a stab at it. When a country bars immigration from within, those affected can go no where. When a country bars immigration from crossing into its border, those affected can move on to another border. Not ideal, but they still have options.
    The US of A has been taking in economically displaced immigrants by the millions for decades from Central & South America. That Europe is bitching about just one surge is very telling regarding the xenophobic tendencies of the Continental set.
    When I was in college, in San Diego, I lived in a cheap apartment that had 4 families from El Salvador and Nicaragua. Their stories were heart breaking, but they were very appreciative of the opportunity to be in the US of A and I thought they were very nice people that this country would benefit from. Hopefully those successfully immigrating into Europe will be able to help their new host countries as well.

  2. me:

    Impressive - I've once read that it's not so much the new answers that drive our understanding of the world forward, but hitting up on the new questions.

    Thank you for contributing something qualitatively new to the discussion!

  3. johnbr:

    Your argument only works if there are two countries. Not the same level of responsibility if there are 200.

  4. Ed Misley:

    I am an immigrant from South America, my parents immigrated here when I was a child, we were economic migrants, not escaping any kind of political persecution. I assimilated and I consider myself to be an american, my much older parents feel the same. We recognize the opportunities we were able to take advantage of here are unique. We never took any government benefits of any kind.

    I fully understand that my country of birth is a socialist hell hole, it is not a place to be celebrated or to think upon fondly. That society was broken, the political system corrupt, a nation of takers and whiners, not producers.

    This is hard for me as a staunch libertarian, but I am against our nation's current immigration policy.

    I despise the immigrants that come her and refuse to assimilate, the ones that use the myriad of government benefits to live an easy life, not as a stepping stone to move up in the world. Those same people and their kids vote for the Democratic-Union-Socialists not realizing they are voting for the same policies that turned their home countries into socialist-shitholes they left.

    So, if we keep this current system, then I say no, keep them all out.

    You want more immigration ? So do I, but eliminate all government benefits and resurrect the "Ford English School".

    I want the immigrants that we let in to understand that this is a great country, if they want to live here they need to live as americans. The reason they want to live here is because of what our country stands for. If they bring all of your third-world backwardness with them, they will just ruin this county, like their grandparents ruined theirs.

    It sounds harsh, but we should not commit national suicide.


  5. Matthew Slyfield:

    Your argument only works where it is possible for a person to cross more than one boarder simultaneously.

  6. sailor116:

    Is this supposed to be a trick question? It doesn't sound like it.

    Each country has primary moral responsibility to protect the interests of its own citizens. That is the entire point of what citizenship is. It's like a mutual support club. Non-citizens' interests are (and should be) secondary, if they are relevant at all.**

    So the country on the right has an obligation to its own citizens. If it builds a wall to keep them in, it is probably violating the general obligation of all governments, which is to serve (with reason) the interests of its citizens. It fails the moral test. Or in more likelihood, it fails the initial "is this a democratic government" issue in the first place.

    The country on its left has an interest to its own citizens, not the citizens of its neighbor. If it wants them in, it can invite them--no matter what the other country prefers. Similarly, if it wants to keep them out, it can build a wall--no matter what the other country prefers.

    Of course, I could surely come up with some bizarre hypothetical in which that would flip around, i.e. "if the USA secretly but convincingly threatened nuclear war against Mexico unless Mexico built a wall on its border and prevented anyone from crossing it, then the Mexican government would be justified in building a wall even if Mexican citizens opposed it." But that would be pretty bizarre.

    **To illustrate: the U.S.' moral obligation as a government to act in the interests of non-citizens stems from two similar sources:

    a) the degree to which the elected government concludes that such help will benefit the country as a whole--be it trade, security, or whatnot.

    b) the degree to which the government is enacting the wishes of its citizens, for example by satisfying their personal moral desires to assist others in need.

    (a) is primary, at least in a representative and democratic-ish government. If the government won't match your moral wishes, the solution is to elect a new government.

  7. aczarnowski:

    What's morality got to do with it? This looks like classic property rights to me.

    The country that has put up the wall has decided it doesn't want to give up its property. Fair enough.

    The side that's trying to get in has decided to give up whatever property it had and go looking for another place to start over. Also fair enough.

    The party with the stuff has no moral obligation to give it to the people who gave their previous stuff up.

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    You need to consider what happens if every country takes the same stance in your moral argument.

  9. mckyj57:

    Because one is preventing people from leaving and the other is preventing someone from entering.

    I assume that you no longer expect to have locks on your doors. I hope you have nice stuff -- I'd like some.

  10. Daublin:

    Unless the country is communist, though, the property is not owned by the country. Most of the property in any given country is owned by private individuals.

    This may sound sophist, but it's an important point. Let the people who actually own the property decide who can go on it. It makes for a much better society to live in, and it also leads to more efficient use of property and of human resources.

  11. Daublin:

    Ed, do you think that idea applies to you? If so, have you left the country yet?

  12. ECM:

    The people *do* decide, via their elected reps, even in Hungary.

  13. Ed Misley:


    It does apply to me. I have assimilated, I have paid taxes all of my life and never collected welfare/food stamps and, most importantly I don't vote for democrat-union-socialists.

    I do recognize the potential hypocrisy heres so I will state it another way, hopefully humorous way: "I made it in bitches, you other poor bastards say out, or you will ruin my country".


  14. Titan 28:

    You're being silly. And, apparently, you are about as ignorant of Islam as is the current inhabitant of the white house. Do yourself a favor: read the Koran. Consider the meaning of the Abrogation. Spend some time reading Bernard Lewis.Then ask yourself this: why should any nation welcome into its land a group that despises everything said country represents and stands for, and, when once inside, said group fully intends to dismantle the very freedoms that make it possible to immigrate? Consider General Sisi of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Now you're on the side of the Brotherhood? You do understand these 'refugees' have no intention of assimilating, right?

    When you get going on topics like this, you reveal a central weakness of Libertarianism: it rarely collides with reality. Remember what WF Buckley said? Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.

  15. johnbr:

    In the spirit of civility, I'll ask you to explain your logic, because your assertion makes no sense to me.

  16. NL7:

    In your analogy, you are saying that the US government owns the entire country as personal property. Therefore, you are advocating a collectivization of property and a seizure of private property rights.

    Yeah, I have a right to lock my door. I also have a right to open it. The US government has decided that it has the power to decide who may visit my property. So apparently the US government is our landlord, and all our property is really just being borrowed from the government on terms the government finds acceptable.

    Maybe don't use an analogy that assumes away private property.

  17. johnbr:

    In that case, just like every other situation where bad things happen in one country, every other country only has a very modest ethical responsibility to help alleviate the bad thing.

    Not saying that this is fair, it's just the nature of the nation-state - as a member of nation-state X, I am not (and should not be) held responsible in full to alleviate bad things that happen in nation-state Y.

    And if every other country also fails to alleviate the bad things that happen in nation-state Y, that is a tragedy, but that still does not make it my responsibility.

    IMO, the only way to surmount that dispersion of responsibility is a single global state, to which all people are members.

  18. NL7:

    Over half the voters in the country have voted for a Democrat at least once. We can't use that as a reason to kick people out.

    Nor does it seem appropriate to make language skills a reason to exclude people, considering that the US has never had that rule before. Millions of people came here without knowing English a century ago, and large numbers of those people lived out their lives here without becoming fluent.

  19. NL7:

    This is just democratic socialism. By this argument, we consent to any searches the government authorizes, we consent to all gun control measures passed by elected officials, and we consent to all other laws duly passed and enforced. Under that view, the only laws that might be invalid are those laws limiting the franchise.

    Liberty is when each person decides for himself. Democratic socialism is when the majority makes all economic and personal decisions for the whole.

  20. NL7:

    I don't think that, from a moral standpoint, a "country" has a moral responsibility. I think it's wrong to stop peaceful people from living and working where they want, especially when those people are fleeing a civil war or terrible repression, like Syrians, Eritreans, or Afghans.

    But in the pragmatic sense that the burden can be spread across many countries, what happens when middle-income countries like Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan start kicking out refugees and xenophobic governments like Hungary start excluding all refugees? If you allocate refugees to all countries, but some countries don't meet that target, are the excess people just screwed? This is why I don't like your stance that each country should take a little bit.

  21. NL7:

    Note that you are not "responsible" for the refugees. You only need to lower the guns and open the cell doors to let them take care of themselves in the US. You are assuming that it is charity to let somebody take refuge in this country. It is not. You are not providing charity to a person simply because you allow him to rent an apartment and work at a job. That is the basic libertarian maxim: to do you want, without harming people. Immigration restrictions harm people who aren't trying to harm anybody.

  22. CW:

    Rationalists long ago kicked moralist busybodies off the field. Morality is an arm of the church not the state and if the church wants to donate and give so that migrants may stay where they are and eat, let them sanctimoniously do that just as States continue to fund UNWRA in order to keep palestinians locked out of all other countries in the middle east because, for some reason, cough (Black September), nobody wants them. Muslims are truly dangerous and look what they did to air travel. They gave us the TSA.

  23. NL7:

    Letting somebody rent an apartment and work at a job is not charity. You are not donating anything to refugees by allowing them to cross the border. Am I donating things to you by allowing you to have a home, work a job, or hold a bank account? No. I am giving you the basic decency that libertarianism says we all owe each other: to not get in the way of peaceful people making their own choices.

    It's also far from "classic" property rights. The government has never argued it has a property right in the border to justify immigration restrictions. They are arguing for the democratic equivalent of the royal right of sovereigns to control the frontier, not the right of landowners to control entry. The government does not own all property in the country. That is communism.

  24. J_W_W:

    Its not about using language skills a reason to exclude, its about making native language skills a path to betterment. In my grandfather's home, my great grandmother spoke german, all of her children learned english, and they assimilated into the culture.

    Multiculturism (or rather cultural balkanization) has been a great evil for this country. What has made America great is how we have accepted others from other cultures and taken on good aspects and thrown out bad aspects. American culture is an amalgam of a bunch of different cultures. The Left, since the push to multiculturalism has tried to separate us culturally, for the most vile of purposes, to just maintain a voting block from which to draw power. The American 'Melting pot' is one of the great, dare I say exceptional, things about the US. Over time the melting pot has proven stronger than multiculturalism, but the Left is doubling down and one of the scary things is that Muslim immigrants have cultural beliefs that reject the American Melting pot, coming here and then walling themselves off. I hope the melting pot stays stronger, but it is under a sever decisive attack from the Left and ironcally those on the right are pointing to those attacks as a reason to "keep them out".

    The country having a rational immigration policy would be wonderful. Many many forces (almost all of which do not value preserving the nation, but value their own power and profit) do not want immigration to be solved or even organized in any way.

  25. johnbr:

    In theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice, they aren't.

  26. CW:

    Oh, I forgot to mention what muslims do to people taking the bus and people who take the train in Europe.

  27. NL7:

    Full agreement. If it's immoral to force somebody to be someplace, then it's immaterial whether that forcing is done by somebody standing inside the place or outside the place.

    It's also just immoral to control where peaceful people want to live and work and trade. So I agree that it does not matter if the wall to keep people in is built by the outside government or the inside government.

    The main emotional difference is that the inside government has some
    power to make the locked-in country not horrible, while the outside government has little direct power. But that's immaterial to the immediate question. If it's immoral to lock somebody in the country, then it shouldn't matter that the jailer is incapable of making the country better - in fact, the jailer outside a country has one main tool to promote better conditions for the jailed: let them out of a terrible country.

  28. johnbr:

    I totally respect your disliking my stance. I'm not particularly happy with it myself. But it's still the right stance - even if those unfortunate people are screwed, that does not increase the United States' share of the responsibility to alleviate the problem.

  29. Swami Cat:

    I suggest decentralizing the issue. Allow citizen families to voluntarily sponsor one immigrant family per decade. The sponsoring family is responsible for housing them and supporting them if necessary until they can stand on their own. Then create a path to citizenship which includes familiarity with our system and proficiency in English. Schools would be available for children, but no welfare safety net other than the generosity of the sponsoring family.

    Note that this would severely restrict large volumes of immigration, and would help lead to responsible selection. It does so with no government interference other than establishing the rules necessary to allow us to use the system.

  30. vikingvista:

    The point is, you are talking about a broad immigration policy, not getting to know very well each individual prospective immigrant and accurately predicting if she will inappropriately use government services or vote undesireably. If you could retrospectively have your way, you'd never have been allowed to immigrate.

  31. vikingvista:

    Why do you suppose those people are fleeing the groups that you think they support?

  32. vikingvista:

    Who owns the "doors" to this country? Who owns the airlines, taxis, and buses? Who owns the hotels and apartments? Who owns the houses and cars? Who owns the businesses that are hiring?

    I can't tell if you wish the US were a totalitarian socialist dictatorship, or if you think that it already is. What exactly is your gripe against private property?

  33. vikingvista:

    Sorry, but it was George Bush who gave us the TSA. Unlike governments and politicians, private entities tend to react to security threats with improved, not degraded, security.

  34. vikingvista:

    So, everyone in the country voted specifically on that issue and the vote was unanimous? Or do you not know what individual rights are?

  35. vikingvista:

    If the government were acting in the best interest of its citizens, immigration would be far easier than it is.

  36. NL7:

    Every wave of immigrants was accused of being unassimilable, dangerous, stupid, or all three. Every wave is "different this time" and uniquely unable to assimilate. Every new wave has some proposed incompatability. Asians, Catholics, Mediterraneans, Africans, etc. Even non-British Northern Europeans were considered unassimilable at one time. Restrictionists always claim that "the conditions are wrong this time, unlike every other wave of immigration."

    From 1790 until the 1940s, Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants were 100% ineligible for naturalization and it was widely believed (even by people who advocated tolerance for those of African or Native ancestry) that Asians, other than Filipinos, were incapable of ever being American.

    Italians and Greeks were considered violent members of a non-white race, who brought crime, gun violence and thievery into our cities, and refused to integrate or speak English. Even the Irish Catholics treated Italian Catholics quite badly.

    Jews were treated badly for a long time, considered poor farming folk with alien customs and beliefs that kept their American-born descendants out of upper crust society for several generations. Many were associated with the Red Scare, and Jews who fled Russia were tarred as sympathizers of Russian socialism.

    The Irish were berated as a monstrous and inferior race of ignorant brutes who clung to craven idols and could never be Americans.

    Of course, African slaves were considered subhuman and unable to integrate, but even most opponents of slavery - like Lincoln - thought up until the mid-1860s that the end of slavery would require black people to leave the country. Other than a few radical integrationists, before 1865 even those most likely to oppose slavery thought that African and European descendants could never mix in great number. Liberia was founded in part based on this idea.

    The Germans and Dutch were at one time considered quite foreign and racially distinct from English-descended Americans. Benjamin Franklin, who lived in the German-dominated Pennsylvania colony, thought that they were ignorant, numerous, ill-suited to America, and unlikely to ever be assimilated because so few spoke English.

    Today, Asian Americans are typically heralded as prospering with many achievement metrics averaging higher than non-Hispanic European Americans. Italian Americans are thoroughly Americanized today and gave our country much of its core culture, including iconic foods like pizza and moviemakers like Coppola and Scorsese. German ancestry is one of the most widely claimed national origins today, making German a thoroughly assimilated and unremarkably American origin. The contributions of black people to American culture are literally uncountable, and integration of African Americans is a principle almost universally hailed. The treatment of the Irish is infamous, yet today huge numbers of Americans are descended from Irish (and many more are descended from Scots-Irish Protestants). And I haven't even gotten to the success that Hispanic immigrants have had in this country. Every wave of "unassimilable heathen aliens" birthed true American descendants. How is it credible to think it's actually different this time?

    Every wave of immigrants sparks fears that "this time it's different." Well, how can you prove it's actually different? Restrictionists have always done so before and always been wrong. Why are Muslims (or Arabs?) somehow uniquely immune to becoming American? Is it racial or ethnic? No, people of German, Irish, Mediterranean, Asian and African stock have immigrated despite being considered transracial at the time. Is it religion? No, Catholics and Lutherans have integrated. Is it being non-Christian? No, buddhists, Hindus and atheists from Asia assimilate just fine, thank you. Is it being from a different Abrahamic religion? Doubtful, since Jews are easily an American integration success story.
    Maybe the best reason to doubt that "this time it's different" is that the US already has lots of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia, East Africa the Balkans, etc. Prosperous Muslim communities of Somalis, Bosniaks, and Iraqis exist in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Dearborn, respectively, just for example.

    We're still not done hearing from restrictionists that Latin Americans are uniquely unassimilable, so it makes it harder to believe the message that "this time it's different" about both Hispanic and Muslim immigrants at the same time. It's a lot easier to assume that calling immigrants unassimilable is much more an expression of anxiety than a statement of informed opinion.

  37. Matthew Slyfield:

    Boarder crossing restrictions are always a two country issue, because only one boarder involving two nations can be crossed by any one person at any one time.

  38. NL7:

    Why not skip the sponsor and just say they get no welfare? Or at worst, they have to put up a bond to deport them if they become destitute?

    If you're willing to let people die of deplorable conditions in a foreign country, I don't see why they must have means of support in this country. Dying here is as good as anywhere else.

  39. ColoComment:

    The Aviation and Transportation Security Act was passed by 210/9 in the House and 100/0 in the Senate, so I'd dispute your assertion that "it was George Bush who gave us the TSA." He only signed the damned thing.
    I totally agree that airport security should be privatized, esp. since internal tests have pretty well proven TSA ineffective.

  40. Adriana:

    Well said. I could not agree more.

  41. ColoComment:

    Sorry, typo: 410/9 in the House

  42. Adriana:

    But it's still the right stance - even if those unfortunate people are screwed, that does not increase the United States' share of the responsibility to alleviate the problem.

    'Responsibility' implies there's an affirmative moral action we must take, like calling the police if we see someone being stabbed or giving money to a homeless person who's clearly starving to death. In both cases, the argument would be that we have responsibility to positively interfere. In both cases, you could convince me that you only have a partial responsibility to alleviate the problem. After all, should you give everyone who's starving money when at some point you're running up against your own budgetary limitations? Should you call the police even if you're vulnerable to the attacker, too?

    In this scenario, though, the principle is solely non-interference. Immigration laws are the initiation of force.

    If your argument is only that, pragmatically, the US does assume responsibility and that responsibility has a negative impact, then you need to prove a few things. 1 - Demonstrate that there is indeed a negative impact. 2 - That the negative impact significantly outweighs the positive impacts of immigration. 3 - That there's no easier or more humane way of dealing with the problem than initiation of force onto people.

  43. Adriana:

    To second NL7's post, I thought I would offer some delightful quotes and passages that touch on America's contentious relationship with immigration.

    In 1911, the first person convicted for illegal gun possession under New York's Sullivan law was Marino Rossi, who was arrested in Manhattan on his way to New Haven from Newark. Mr. Rossi maintained that he had been cautioned by friends to carry his .38-caliber revolver for protection against Italian gangsters. To which the judge, after considering Mr. Rossi's testimony that "it was the custom of yourself as well as your
    countrymen to carry guns," declared: "It is unfortunate that this is the custom with you and your kind, and that fact, combined with your irascible nature, furnishes much of the criminal business in this country."
    The judge, who was not of Italian descent, sentenced Mr. Rossi to a year in Sing Sing.


    Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that
    all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.

    Attributed to Ben Franklin.


    Standing behind them are Christian employers of this land, who would rather import heathen willing to work for barely enough to sustain life than retain a brother Christian at a wage sufficient to live as becomes a Christian. We do not want Opium or the Chinese who grow it.

    Terence Powderly, labor leader, quote published in 1892 in the SF Chronicle

  44. johnbr:

    Sorry, I'm not going to let you put responsibility for the hard math on me. Not-completely-open-immigration is the default case.

    You're the one who has to prove things. It's your job to prove that it (open immigration) indeed has a net positive impact, that the net positive impact significantly outweighs the negative impacts of immigration, and that there's no easier way of dealing with the problem than open immigration.

    Let me be clear: I'm perfectly comfortable with a lot more immigration than we have now. More, not "unlimited". Coyote's original argument is that the country restricting immigration is as morally responsible for tragedy as the country restricting emigration. And I don't agree, and that's where my strong opinion on this topic begins and ends.

  45. Adriana:

    Not-completely-open-immigration is the default case.

    An initiation of force has to be justified. The default is always non-interference, non-force.

  46. NL7:

    The person who advocates police and detention centers needs to justify both the budgetary cost and the use of force.

  47. RTC:

    Is it as simple as which side of the fence is responsible?

  48. NL7:

    Responsible... for keeping people inside the fence.

    Note that in the picture above, I doubt anybody would say Serbia is to blame for the fate of the Syrians trying to enter Hungary.

  49. aczarnowski:

    And if we were living in that libertarian world I'd be right there with you. If there was no welfare state then, sure, come on over, earn your living and pay your money like everybody else.

    I wish we lived in that world but we do not.

  50. Adriana:

    So do we justify acts of aggression and force against innocent people because of the welfare state? Or do we treat these as separate moral problems that need to be reconciled? I'd rather do the latter. That makes more sense than implementing more bad laws premised on older bad laws.