Open the Border

June 6, 2010

My philosophy colleague, Mike Huemer, has an op-ed in the Daily Camera. I’m sure it will stir up all sorts of nuttiness.

According to government estimates, 11 million people presently reside in the United States illegally. This number is up 27 percent since 2000. What should be done about this apparent problem? Demands that the government “secure the border” are increasingly prominent, with many calling on other states to follow Arizona`s lead.

I have a different proposal: America should open the border, and grant amnesty to the 11 million undocumented residents. My argument is not that immigration benefits America, though that is true. My argument is that 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. The question Americans should be asking is not “What is best for current citizens?” but “What right do we have to exclude others from the same freedom and opportunity that we were given by an accident of birth?”

My premises are simple. First: 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.

Second, the U.S. government, in restricting immigration, knowingly and coercively imposes severe harms on millions of human beings. Consider a simple analogy. Marvin is desperately hungry and plans to travel to a nearby marketplace to buy food. Sam intentionally stops Marvin and coercively prevents him from reaching the marketplace, knowing that this will prevent Marvin from obtaining food. Sam did not cause Marvin to be hungry to begin with. But when he coercively intervenes to stop Marvin from obtaining food, Sam becomes responsible for what results. If Marvin dies of starvation, Sam will be responsible for the death.

That is the behavior of the U.S. government. The government hires armed guards to stop people from crossing the border, and to forcibly expel those who are found residing in the country without permission. The U.S. government knows, when it does this, that many of these would-be immigrants will suffer severe poverty, oppression, and greatly diminished life prospects as a result. The government is therefore responsible for these consequences, just as Sam would be responsible for Marvin`s starvation.

Third, the U.S. government has no good reason for imposing such harms on potential immigrants. Immigration restrictions are typically defended by the claim that immigrants “steal American jobs” or dilute American culture. Now consider this analogy. After stopping Marvin from reaching the marketplace and thus causing Marvin to starve, suppose that Sam tries to defend his action by saying that it was necessary to prevent Marvin from competing with other buyers in the marketplace and thus driving up the price of bread. Or suppose Sam argues that his action was justified because Marvin has a different culture from most of the people already in the marketplace. Surely these justifications would not succeed. The desire to limit marketplace competition or cultural influence is not normally an adequate reason for coercively imposing serious harms on other people.

From these three premises, it follows that U.S. immigration policy is morally wrong. This typically goes unnoticed in the immigration debate, because most Americans are prejudiced against foreigners, in the same way that we were once prejudiced against blacks. No one today would dream of arguing that the government should stop white people from hiring blacks, so that blacks don`t “steal white jobs.” But we are not bothered by the prejudice displayed in arguing that the government needs to stop Americans from hiring foreign-born people so that the foreign-born don`t “steal American jobs.” This can only be because prejudice based on nationality has outlived prejudice based on race. But neither attitude is morally defensible.

Michael Huemer is a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado.


  1. Ben, where would you place yourself in the spectrum of US politics? In British terms, you’d be an Independent-reader with Lib-Dem tendencies.

  2. This isn’t my view. This is Mike’s view. But trust me, he’s a pretty heavy-duty libertarian.

  3. There are plenty of knee-jerk reactions to Huemer’s argument, but it might help contextualize his position if you read some of his other work. It may surprise you:


  4. I’m trying to figure out if this is a joke post or if it’s serious?

    Regardless, let me take it one step further. America is a county that many millions of people world-wide aspire to live in. Our ancestors have built a nation, rich with natural resources and folks with a strong work ethic, that is the wealthiest in the world.

    It’s well known that on the journey from South and Central America, thru Mexico, that many “illegal” immigrants are preyed upon because they are trying to get to the US. Some are robbed, some are raped, some are murdered. “Coyotes” are a name for those who prey upon some of them.

    Americans should step up and pay for safe passage of these immigrants. It’s our responsibility, since our country and way of life is the reason for the immigrants to make this unsafe journey. It’s morally indefensible that we allow the predation to occur. In addition, since families are separated because some come to the US to work, while other stay back wherever their home country is, how can Americans morally allow this family separation to continue? America should use it’s wealth to bring the families, extended or otherwise, to this country, also making sure of their safety. Any health problems that exist in the family should be addressed once they are on US soil, children should be housed and educated. Full healthcare provided. Unemployment benefits. Full citizenship. After all, we created this problem by having a country that so many wish to live in. It’s our duty to make it possible for all those who wish to live her to come here and be full citizens.

    It’s our DUTY!

  5. I finally got around to reading some of Huemer’s essays – and I was indeed surprised. He certainly is a heavy-duty libertarian. (Also a heavy-duty contrarian and poseur.) I confess that I assumed he was the usual anti-state statist leftie. He’s more of a straightforward anti-state anarchist.

    All the same, I’m puzzled by your suggestion that his libertarianism somehow makes his ideas OK. Perhaps you were repaying my knee-jerk assumption about your politics with an assumption that I am a libertarian. If so, fair do’s. If it was something else, I’m all ears.

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