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Immigration: Is Exclusion Just?

Manuel Velasquez

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 7, N. 2 Spring 1996.

From California's Proposition 187 — restricting services for undocumented workers — to proposed federal legislation that would drastically reduce the flow of legal immigrants, Americans have been preoccupied recently with the question of immigration. Although much has been written about specific proposals, there has been less attention to the moral underpinnings of the issue.

We asked former Center Director Manuel Velasquez to look at the fundamental question: Do the citizens of one nation have the moral right to exclude people from another nation? This article does not address legal vs. illegal immigration, nor does it analyze particular policies. Instead, Velasquez examines some of the ethical issues underlying the debate. A response to Velasquez's argument is offered by Martin Cook, associate professor of religious studies at SCU and a Center scholar.

It is a fact that the United States, like most nations today, limits immigration across its borders. But the question before us is not one of fact. Ours is a moral question: By what right do the citizens of one nation exclude immigrants from another nation?

To focus our discussion, let's assume we're talking about immigration from less developed nations — like Mexico or the countries of Central America — into an industrialized, developed country like the United States.

One moral argument people use to support limits on immigration goes something like this: Each country has a limited pool of goods, which are used and enjoyed by its citizens. Immigrants from developing countries will take some of these goods away from citizens, leaving them worse off.

For example, because immigrants from less-developed nations are usually willing to work for less than citizens, employers hire the immigrants, pushing wages downward. At the same time, aliens take advantage of government services such as schools and health care. So nations have a moral right to exclude immigrants because they harm citizens by taking away jobs, reducing wages, and draining social services.

Although this argument is popular, it has a fatal flaw: It falsely assumes a nation has a fixed quantity of goods — including jobs. In reality, the quantity of goods a nation produces depends on many factors including the nation's productivity and the size of its labor pool. Other things being equal, the larger a nation's labor pool, the greater its productive potential.

Immigrants add to a nation's labor pool, so they actually increase the nation's productive potential, thus increasing the quantity of its goods. Even the displacement of workers is balanced by several not-so-obvious economic benefits. First, the lower wages accepted by immigrants allow employers to produce their goods for less money, which brings about a general drop in consumer prices. Because immigrants are willing to work for lower wages in the fields, for example, the food on our tables costs less.

Second, and more important, new workers are also new consumers. When an immigrant enters a country, he or she must pay for food, clothing, housing, and transportation. This creates new jobs in those industries, which means that the original displacement of native workers is only temporary. Eventually, if the economy is healthy, the displaced worker finds one of these new jobs.

Finally, immigrants are not a net drain on government services. While immigrants make use of many social services provided by government, they also pay the same income and social security taxes that citizens pay to support these services.

The economic costs of immigration, then, are counter-balanced by the less obvious benefits of job creation, lower consumer prices, expanding productivity, and added tax revenue. In other words, the argument that it is morally legitimate to exclude immigrants because they impose substantial social costs is plainly unfounded.

Despite the weakness of the argument from social costs, many people still oppose immigration. In too many instances, the real reason is covert racism. Immigrants speak a different language; their skin color is different; they have a different culture and behave differently; their beliefs about family, work, and property are different; they may smell differently, dress differently, walk differently, talk differently. And many citizens just do not want to live side by side with people who are different.

Of course, such racism is rarely cited as the reason behind exclusionary practices. Racism, obviously, is not a good moral reason for doing anything. But, in this case, the racism is disguised by a second claim — that whatever their personal reasons for exclusion, citizens have a moral right to determine who may cross their borders.

What gives citizens this right? One widespread view is that the citizens of a nation own the land and assets of their country, and this gives them the right to exclude whomever they want. In this view, a country and its assets are like a piece of property and citizens are like owners. Just as an owner has a right to do what he or she wants with a property, so the citizens of a country have rights of ownership that entitle them to do what they want with their country.

This response, however, raises another question: What gives this particular group of people ownership rights over this particular piece of land? In the case of the United States, the rightful owners of the nation's assets would appear to be the native Indians, who were the first settlers. Europeans never paid for the land; they took it by force.

Perhaps we can say that the land now belongs to citizens by right of conquest. According to this view, citizens own the land because their ancestors had the power to force others off, so their descendants now have a moral right to the land.

The problem with this argument is that if force makes an action morally right, the difference between right and wrong collapses. Any successful use of force — rape, mugging, terrorism — would be justified. We could not even say it was wrong for immigrants to force their way into our nation. For any successful exercise of power would, ipso facto, be morally right.

But if we cannot argue that citizens own the land by right of conquest, why do they have the right to say who can cross the border into their country? Perhaps the best way of approaching the question is by noticing that national borders are conventional systems, just as governments, property, money, and economies are conventional systems. All of these are human artifacts, not natural things like rivers and mountains.

These conventions are justified only to the extent that they meet the needs and promote the well-being of those they affect. National borders satisfy those criteria in a number of ways. First, they provide clear demarcations between sovereign governments, and this clarity promotes peaceful relations among nations. Second, national borders enable us to systematize the machinery of government by defining who is subject to the government and its laws. Third, national borders enable us to identify clearly who is a citizen, so the rights and duties of citizenship can be fairly allocated.

Thus national borders are justified, and citizens certainly have a sovereign right to determine what happens within them. Yet that right, like any other, is not absolute. In this respect, the international system of borders is much like a system of property. Comparing the two will clarify the limits on citizens' rights over their land.

As everyone will grant, property rights must be limited when they conflict with the rights of others. In particular, owners cannot use their property in ways that injure others; they cannot start a fire on their property if it may cause another person's property to burn down. They cannot manufacture poison gas on their property if it drifts into the noses of their neighbors. Similarly, the sovereign right citizens have to determine what happens within their borders does not give them a right to do things that will harm the citizens of other nations.

But a deeper limit to conventional systems arises out of human need. If conventional systems are justified because they meet human needs and promote well-being, they lose their justification when they become an obstacle to those goals. As long as systems of international boundaries and private property serve everyone's needs, they should be respected and maintained. But when these artificial systems stand in the way of serving human needs, they can and should be set aside.

Lately, national borders have become an obstacle to serving the pressing needs — arising out of economic destitution and political persecution — that afflict inhabitants of less developed countries. These needs can be alleviated by opening our borders. We have no moral right to maintain a closed system of national borders in the face of such need.

Does this mean that developed nations like the United States must allow all the needy to enter without limit? No, unlimited immigration would overwhelm our ability to take in new people. But the artificial nature of borders implies that they cannot confer on citizens any absolute moral right to exclude others; such a right simply does not exist.

Immigration policies must be carefully crafted so that they address human needs while remaining sensitive to the importance of absorbing any influx of newcomers. Such policies cannot be based on the covert racism sometimes lurking beneath claims that citizens have an absolute moral right to exclude whomever they want.

Manuel Velasquez, Dirksen Professor of Business Ethics at Santa Clara University, is the author of Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 3rd ed. (Prentice Hall, 1992).

November 21, 2015

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