An Analysis, Comparison, and Critique of Conservative Immigration Theory
By Adam Graham
Can I be honest? Immigration is not a pet issue of mine.
It has never ranked highly in my political awareness, I don’t tend to traffic in the latest statistics or partisan trends, and I don’t subscribe to any of the sensational viewpoints. As with so many other policy areas, the debate has been forced into two largely opposing viewpoints: those who would seemingly allow unhampered immigration and those who would crack down heavily and spend more resources attempting to wall off vast stretches of border territory.
But I’ve been a bit frustrated by some of the talking points that have been floating around in conservative, even Christian, circles around the issue. Often, in politics, we like to boil our arguments down to sloganeering or pithy retorts that, while sometimes powerful for a moment, don’t actually amount to adequately capturing or explaining the true issue at hand. Immigration is no exception. So, as I’ve done with other topics in the past, I thought I might attempt to bring some clarity to the issue to help you think more clearly the next time you find yourself discussing this heated subject.
A Fundamental Misunderstanding of the Union
Conservative arguments regarding immigration are unsurprisingly often rooted in a sense of national unity, a sense of patriotism and common culture. Conservatives also commonly consider themselves staunch supporters of Constitutionalism and believe that their positions represent an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and the views of the founders themselves.
The problem with this view is that it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the original union of states. The United States has never constituted one nation, a singular entity with common culture. Undoubtedly, most European colonists did share some common values in regards to political culture but they also widely differed both in demography and politics as well. Take, for instance, the difference between the more Puritan northeast with its varying degrees of religious intolerance, with church membership requirements and trinitarian laws, and the southern states like Virginia, with its much more religiously tolerant political climate.
As Brion McClanahan adroitly states, “We can’t be a ‘nation’ because a ‘nation’, by definition, is a people with similar language, customs, traditions, religion, etc. Northern and Southern Americans certainly have some things in common, maybe many, but their differences are often night and day. Everyone knows it, they just don’t understand why that is important.“
It is from this fundamental founding fact that we further consider that the states reigned supreme in early America as the primary political entity. An American was a citizen of his/her state first and foremost, then secondarily a citizen of the United States. And, under that original Constitutional order, the primary task of immigration was reserved to the states, not the general government.
This sentiment was expressed well by the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts earlier passed by Congress, the relevant resolution explaining “That alien friends are under the jurisdiction and protection of the laws of the State wherein they are: that no power over them has been delegated to the United States, nor prohibited to the individual States, distinct from their power over citizens.“
Given this background, the Constitutionality of immigration proposals changes perspective dramatically. Consider that so-called “sanctuary cities”, within this paradigm, become not some exclusively progressive phenomenon of gross unconstitutionality, but a bold act of nullification in response to federal encroachment. Consider as well that the Constitution gives states the freedom to define voting requirements apart from a handful of protected categories. This offers much needed perspective to past outrage over states giving illegal aliens driver’s licenses or the potential right to vote. Whether those actions are positive or wise is one matter, but their Constitutionality is another.
Many may confuse the powers of the general government to control the process of naturalization vs. the powers of the states to control immigration into their borders. Michael Boldin of the Tenth Amendment Center refers us to the 18th century definition of naturalization as “The act of investing aliens with the privileges of native subjects“, which is far different from any sense of control over whether one is free to enter, reside within, work in, or leave any given state. Granted, at the time, those “privileges” of native subjects did not include vast welfare program benefits and access to public infrastructure and resources. But that is not in itself an argument against proper Constitutionality.
As much as conservatives may like to view their position as Constitutional, the history begs to differ. Allowing immigration control at the state level, allowing federalism to handle conflicts and differences from state to state, would help greatly in achieving a more just state of immigration in America.
Despite the way that it might be portrayed, there are no clear two, three, etc. solutions to immigration within any of the prevailing political philosophies. And libertarianism is no exception. There is a spectrum of positions within libertarian circles that are held, spanning from completely immediate open borders, to some form of border security and immigration restriction, even up to a wall, with a myriad of positions between.
Those extremes are not held by only fringe figures within the movement. “Open border” libertarians usually include more progressive-leaning converts and those from policy think tanks like the CATO Institute, as well as some within the “Anarcho-Capitalist” category of libertarian philosophy. But there are just as many prominent figures who do not support unhindered immigration. Many of those affiliated with the Mises Institute or influenced by its benefactors, like Lew Rockwell and Hans Herman-Hoppe, find completely open borders to be antithetical to liberty. Even Murray Rothbard, patron saint of pure Anarcho-Capitalists, adjusted his view over time and, in later life, made what many consider to be an aboutface on the principle of immigration:
However, on rethinking immigration on the basis of the anarcho-capitalist model, it became clear to me that a totally privatized country would not have ‘open borders’ at all. If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no immigrant could enter there unless invited to enter and allowed to rent, or purchase, property. A totally privatized country would be as ‘closed’ as the particular inhabitants and property owners desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.
But it is here that we see both a commonality and departure with the modern conservative argument for restricted immigration and the libertarian argument for the same. Whatever position the libertarian of today holds regarding immigration, they hold it, if they understand the philosophy, based on a full and healthy regard for property rights. Whereas the conservative argument is often made that one cannot have a welfare state and open immigration more or less on the merits of pragmatism more than principle.
It is here that I want to call into question the purity of the conservative’s intentions with this argument. It is good and well that they recognize the insolubility of the welfare state and free immigration and in some examples they may even cede the case that, in an ideal world, without that welfare state, immigration should be free. If this is the case, then I’d argue the conservative actually holds a libertarian position already. As with arguments regarding the feasibility of socialism, once the ideal is ceded, for instance that “in an ideal world, socialism would be possible”, the argument forever becomes how to approach that ideal; the argument is basically already won and becomes a mere simple exercise in logistics.
For modern conservatives who argue against free immigration on the basis of the welfare state, I would also call into question their consistency. With the demise of the Tea Party movement of the previous decade, honest conservative opposition to the welfare state is virtually nonexistent. Where do we truly see conservatives pushing for rolling back Great Society programs like Medicare or Medicaid? When has the repeal of Social Security been a leg of a party platform? Where is the abolition of the Federal Reserve, effectively welfare for the financial sector, a priority? As we have said before, at root, almost all government programs at some level represent a form of welfare. And yet, a conservative would not dare question the existence of most of these programs. Their political support and, indeed, their own livelihood often rests on their existence and health.
But, worst of all, arguing for tougher immigration restrictions and border security investment while also mourning the existence of the welfare state represents unwitting hypocrisy.
How? Simply this. That the erection of such a wall, the protection of such borders, all represent the effective subsidization of those whose property is located near those borders. It is wealth redistribution at a foundational level.
If this point does not resonate immediately, let us consider another similar example. Every year, hurricane season in the United States threatens to damage billions of dollars in lives and property along the eastern coastline of the United States. Federal and state programs like FEMA flood insurance and disaster response are large programs which reduce the burden of those living in the affected areas in the case that damage should occur. But if the brunt of paying for these programs rests with those who receive no direct benefit from them, these programs effectively shift the burden from the property owners to others. Instead of making pure economic decisions of cost and benefit of living in an affected area, they are distorted by subsidized programs; in other words, welfare programs.
Border security is very similar. Only a small number of states border non-US territory and far fewer residents live in close proximity to it. Those residents would receive greater benefit from such programs at the expense of those who see far less benefit. Instead of choosing to relocate or bear the costs of security themselves, that security would be subsidized and the costs distorted.
Would other U.S. citizens benefit? Most likely. But let’s call it what it is. Immigration restrictions, a border wall, all represent a growth of the welfare state, not a reduction.
A common refrain concerning free immigration that seems to have grown in popularity in many circles is that of locks on the doors and windows of a home. “You want free immigration?” they ask. “Would you not lock your doors or your windows? Then leave your home open for anyone to come in at anytime, your property and persons unprotected? This is what you must accept in order to have more open borders.”
At first, this sort of reasoning may seem persuasive. But is it an actual analog or parallel to something like a border wall or tougher immigration restrictions?
First, we should think on why, exactly, we have locks on our homes. The simple answer would be that there are valuable items, possessions and people, inside, in a concentrated quantity, and secure walls and entrances help to provide a mostly sufficient means of protecting those valuables from most undesired access. But no one that I am aware of is asking that immigrants be provided unfettered access to someone’s personal possessions or personal homes. Someone desiring to cross the border into another political boundary is actually more akin to a stranger walking in your front yard.
Now, many may very well object to free people freely moving within even their own personal land boundary and there are also solutions to that. The white picket fence around one’s yard is classic Americana and serves as a friendly reminder to neighbors and passersby that they are welcome, just at a distance. As well, many other options are readily seen surrounding homes and businesses, from chain link fences of various heights, to barbed wire, to electric fencing, etc. But, even so, out of those who would object to inviting a stranger into their own home, far fewer would object to a stranger passing through their yard on their way to somewhere else with no intent to harm property or remain unwanted. And, even so, this is an issue that already exists without the factor of immigration and the absence of fences around the average suburban home indicates that even a modicum of security granted by a fence around their own yard is not worth the monetary cost or peace of mind that it provides.
But even this analogy does not describe a massive wall protecting political borders. Instead, imagine that we had not a yard but an estate, spanning multiple acres. In this instance, a stranger passing through one corner of an otherwise vast property, the lengths of which would not even be visible, their presence not felt at all, would reduce that otherwise small number of objectors to a handful. And while that presence may still not be desired, the amount of labor and cost to erect and maintain a sufficient bulwark against intrusion upon a land of that size would make such a construction very rare.
And yet, this is still not a representative case. For one, the land that would be protected, in the case of even the smallest countries, much less huge swaths of land like the American Union, represent these same economic calculations but at a monumental scale. The land that might be trespassed upon in these cases belongs to no clear private owner with clear delineations of borders or is public property to which none has exclusive claims. We must ask ourselves: if a household would not find it worth the cost to erect even a decorative fence with little added security, what fiscal motive would there be to protect land with little to none of the same value as a home would contain?
But secondly, and more importantly, tougher universal immigration restrictions and border walls actually represent something even more unjust. It is obvious that those in America are viscerally split on issues of immigration and yet both sides within the spectrum seem to demand an “across the board” solution for everyone: wall or no wall; vetting or no vetting. Recall that government intrusion by force in any area of life, especially immigration, does not only restrict the freedom of those wishing to immigrate but it also restricts the freedom of those who wish to have them immigrate; those who wish to do business with, rent to, and live alongside those wishing to immigrate.
Indeed, imposing tougher border security on borders as vast and unrepresentative of the political populace is not failing to keep one’s own home locked.
In this example, imposing tougher border security on borders as vast and unrepresentative of the political populace is actually forcing others to keep their own homes locked.
This was very telling during the middle years of the Syrian Civil War crisis, when governments in Europe and the Americas were pressured to take on refugees. The debate largely centered on whether governments had a responsibility to take on these refugees and whether they were right to force their citizens to take on that burden. While it is right to make a distinction between whether any moral duty to care for the “sojourner” or refugee extends any further than the individual, it is equally heinous to actively prevent those who would desire to take on such a burden and responsibility themselves from doing so.
Any human being is free and just to determine what is done with their own property. It is quite unjust to force another to do what you yourself would rather have done with it.
The Bottom Line
I offer no sweeping policy proposition for reaching sanity or a lasting resolution on the issue of immigration in the United States. As with other situations where we find ourselves “between a rock and a hard place”, there may exist simple principles that would guide our ideal destination with no simple path available to realize them. But if we care about liberty, any possible solution must take into account these points and others.
Adam Graham is the founder of and primary contributor to NoKingButChrist.org and the No King But Christ YouTube channel. He lives in Virgina with his wife, two children, digital book collection, and comprehensive disdain for The State.