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Immigration Is A Human Right, But Borders Matter

By: José Azel - Jan 13, 2017, 2:21 pm
Immigration Is A Human Right, But Borders Matter
The US-Mexican border near San Diego.

Over three percent of the world population — 244 million — are international immigrants, and the immigrant population in the United States is approaching 50 million.

In our hemisphere, Mexico leads the way with 12 million immigrants in the US. They come from Honduras, the murder capital of the world, Guatemala and El Salvador placing fourth and fifth respectively in homicides. Thousands continue to flee violence and poverty from their homelands. In Cuba, since 1959, nearly 18 percent of the population has escaped that tragic island in search of freedom.

The motivations to leave one’s homeland are diverse, but essentially fall into an economic or political category, or both.  Fundamentally, immigration expresses a desire for the liberty to improve one’s quality of life.

The politics of immigration are highly contested across Europe and North America, and whereas liberal democracies can be open and inclusive, they are often restrictive and exclusionary. More recently, in response to acts of international terrorism, immigration has become linked with national security concerns and the politics have become increasingly hostile to immigrants.

Typically, the immigration discussion takes place over subjects like, “a nation has the right to refuse entry to foreigners; immigrants erode a nation’s culture; immigrants lower wages and take jobs away from nationals; immigrants want to live on welfare programs; immigrants commit a disproportionate number of crimes; security and health requirements mandate immigration restrictions.”

In the United States, conservatives build their case against open immigration on these issues, and liberals argue for open immigration on grounds of compassion, America’s welcoming tradition and the socioeconomic contributions of immigrants. This is an intellectually sterile political debate that leaves unanswered a fundamental moral question: Do individuals have a right to immigrate?

From the perspective of classical liberalism, the answer is yes to open immigration, but clarification is necessary:

Open immigration is not equivalent to unmonitored immigration. It does not mean that anyone may enter the United States in any manner chosen, or at any location. Open immigration does not imply a right to welfare benefits or government services. It does not mean eligibility for citizenship.

Open immigration means only that individuals may enter the country at designated check points where objective screenings are conducted to protect the nation from diseases, enemies and criminality.

But most importantly, it means that immigration is an individual right. And precisely because the libertarian case for open immigration is grounded on individual rights, it is seldom evoked by American liberals who favor collectivist policies in conflict with individual rights.

As individuals, we desire freedom to think and act on our best judgment. We want to produce wealth, and use it as we see fit to build better lives for ourselves and our families. And, we have a natural right to act in accordance with our judgment provided we do not violate the rights of others.

The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the right to act on our life requirements, the right to be free from coercive restrictions and the right to pursue our dreams. If our actions do not violate the rights of others, we are morally free to act. When immigrants chose to leave their homeland in search for a better life, they are acting on rational judgment.

There is little question that freedom of movement within a country is a basic human right, and there is no ethical argument to justify treating individuals differently just because they were born on the other side of a national boundary. Individual rights are not ours by virtue of our place of birth; individual rights are universal.

In contrast, nation-states are a relatively new (19th Century) European creation with limited jurisdiction circumscribed to within the borders of the nation-state. The restrictive movement policies of totalitarian nation-states violate the individual right of freedom of movement.

In the libertarian view, individuals who want to lawfully cross a border to pursue their happiness have a right to do so. Immigrants rightfully aspire to lives of freedom and happiness. Yet borders mean something.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.