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Why liberals should resist the call to open borders

Immigration Activists Demonstrate In Los Angeles
Students in Los Angeles protest the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Across developed societies, the issue of immigration has pushed its way toward the top of the political agenda. A large section of the public is concerned about how many newcomers are arriving (and also about who is arriving), and we can see the effects of this in the rise of Donald Trump, in the recent referendum vote in the UK to leave the European Union, and in the rise of anti-immigrant parties in a number of European societies — even social-democratic Sweden. Being tough on immigrants seems to be a good way for otherwise repellent candidates and parties to win mass support.

In this climate, it is widely believed that anyone who aspires to stand on the progressive side of politics ought to be pro-immigration. Opposition to immigration is fueled by racial prejudice and xenophobia, the thinking goes, and so anyone who wants to distance themselves from these despicable attitudes ought correspondingly to favor higher levels of immigration. And there is a parallel economic argument: Newly arriving immigrants are typically much worse off than existing compatriots, and they stand to increase their incomes considerably relative to what they earned in their home countries. How can it not be a progressive policy to allow them to enter, thereby dealing a blow to global poverty?

Immigration splits liberal elites from blue-collar workers

This idea that being progressive means being pro-immigration has unfortunate political consequences, because it tends to create a split between liberal intellectuals and political leaders (who share these assumptions) and their natural power base among blue- and white-collar workers (who do not).

Liberal elites typically find them themselves in an uneasy place when asked to think and speak about immigration. Their moral intuitions point them in one direction, their political instincts in another. As a result, they defend border controls when speaking in public settings, but rarely sound convincing while doing so.

But it’s a mistake to think that being liberal necessarily means being immigration-friendly. A democratic society’s immigration policy ought to be one that is driven by a concern for social justice, and decisions about how many and which immigrants to take in should be guided by that concern. Where the effect of immigration is to increase the unemployment rate, or to put pressure on education, health services and housing, it needs to be controlled.

The migrants themselves would no doubt be made better off by being allowed to enter, but the political community isn’t obliged to weigh their interests equally with those of existing citizens. A degree of compatriot favoritism is justifiable. Social justice itself depends on an implicit social contract whereby citizens support the state and most of the time comply with what it requires them to do (pay taxes and so forth) while in return it protects their interests in areas such education, employment, health care, and security in retirement. An open-door policy would run the danger of dissolving that contract, and with it the state’s claim to legitimacy.

Policymakers must weigh the effects on the "sending" countries

Of course in many cases, allowing immigrants to enter is of benefit to the receiving society, as they bring in professional or entrepreneurial skills, or take on low-paid jobs that native workers are reluctant to fill. But even here some caution is necessary. What impact will this movement of people have on the sending societies?

Favoritism for our compatriots doesn’t allow us to benefit them at the expense of exploiting poorer societies who are deprived of skilled workers that they badly need — doctors and nurses to staff their health systems, engineers and computer programmers to develop their industries. Remittances sent home may provide some compensation for the loss that exit causes, but there is no guarantee that they will produce a net gain. So if part of what it means to be progressive is to support the development of third-world countries, a progressive immigration policy must be a selective one that avoids brain-drain effects.

The special case of refugees

So far I have been discussing immigration in general and its effects on both the sending and the receiving societies. But we need to pay special attention to the case of refugees, for they, it seems, have claims on us that are even stronger than our compatriots’ claims for social justice.

By a refugee, I mean someone who is forced to leave her country of residence because there is no feasible way for her human rights to be protected so long as she remains inside it. This is somewhat wider than the formal definition given in the Geneva Convention (which refers to those who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted on grounds such as their race or religion), and intended to cover those fleeing conditions such as state breakdown or civil war for which no solution is in the offing. There is no question that we have obligations to such people. But does that mean that we must grant asylum to all those who claim it from us, and can provide evidence to back up their claim?

We should hesitate before accepting so great a liability. The problem is not just that the numbers of people in this category might be very large indeed, as events over the last two years in Europe have demonstrated. The question is whether the best way to respond to refugee crises is to allow refugees to choose the places where they will seek asylum.

In practice, most refugees now end up being housed in refugee camps close to the places from which they have fled, and although these camps often need to be better resourced than they now are, there is logic behind this. The cost of supporting a refugee in a camp is a small fraction of the cost of supporting her in a rich society; as a result, many more people can be helped in this way with limited resources. And most of those who are escaping civil war or the collapse of social order want to return to their homes as soon as it is safe for them to do so, so it makes sense for them to stay close by meanwhile.

Calculating nations’ "fair share" of refugees

Nevertheless, there will be some people for whom permanent resettlement is the only option that will give them the opportunity for a decent life, either because they are "classic" refugees who would be persecuted if they were to return to their homelands, or because the collapse in social order that prompted them to leave shows no sign of ending.

In this situation, liberal states have a moral responsibility to admit these refugees and grant them rights of permanent residence. But this is a responsibility that is shared between all of the states that have the capacity to provide asylum, so no one state is required to carry all of the burden alone. Ideally, these states would agree upon a burden-sharing scheme, with each state accommodating a quota of refugees according to its capacity to do, calculated on the basis of population size, land area, GDP per head, and so forth.

But as recent European experience shows, getting states to agree on such a formal arrangement is very difficult. So in the absence of an international system of refugee resettlement, states must make a conscientious attempt to work out what their fair contribution to solving the refugee problem amounts to.

Democratic states aren’t, then, obliged to take in every immigrant who wants to join them. In the case of economic migrants, they are entitled to be selective, so long as they don’t cherry-pick migrants who services are badly needed in their home countries. In the case of refugees, they must take in their fair share of those who need permanent resettlement, while providing financial support for the larger number who are temporarily housed in camps. If they are going to do more than that — as Angela Merkel promised on behalf of Germany when she said that asylum would be offered to all those who reached its borders — they must win the agreement of their citizens (which Merkel signally failed to do). That is what the implicit social justice contract demands.

Deportation may be reasonable — within strict limits

What about those who evade border controls and enter illegally? To preserve the integrity of its immigration regime, the state must have the right to deport people in this category. So long as they remain on its territory, however, it owes them a duty of care and must ensure that their human rights are properly protected.

Moreover, as time passes and the lives of irregular migrants becomes entwined with those of their citizen-neighbors, they must be given the opportunity to regularize their position and gain a right of permanent residence. A conditional amnesty which might include performing some act of public service looks like the best way forward here. So Donald Trump’s proposal to conduct mass deportations of illegal immigrants, many of who will have lived in the US for years if not decades, looks unconscionable. It would be a violation of human rights to expel people who have formed close attachments to their new home and have rebuilt their lives on the basis of staying there.

Our thinking about immigration tends to be over-influenced by individual cases. In both Europe and North America, the mass movement of people, by land and sea, continues to produce its fair share of individual tragedies. Moreover, the physical enforcement of border controls is rarely a pretty sight. But a defensible immigration policy has to consider the large scale and longer term consequences of migration — not only the impact it has on the receiving society, but also the incentive effect on potential future migrants. And it needs to strike a proper balance between the human rights claims of outsiders and the social justice claims of the political community’s existing members.

David Miller is Official Fellow and Professor of Political Theory at Nuffield College, Oxford. He is the author of Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Migration.