Thinking Clearly About Immigration

All human beings share certain universal human rights. But I am not just a human. I am also an American, a Kansan, a university instructor, and a member of a church body. Each one of these relationships generates specific goods, rights, and responsibilities that are unique to me. The same is true for nation-states, each of which have a distinct culture and unique responsibilities to its own citizens.

The debate over immigration is typically cast in economic terms. Arguments for and against certain policies usually make reference to the costs and benefits of immigration, legal or illegal. But while economic considerations are certainly important relevant to any sound immigration policy, they should not be what primarily guides our thinking on immigration.  

This is because immigration policy raises a number of foundational questions about the nature of the state, its justification, and the scope of its claim to sovereignty. What is the state? How is it justified? And how much authority does it possess? Our view of immigration policy depends crucially on our answers to these questions. We cannot debate the merits of immigration restrictions without first disentangling these issues.  

This essay offers a brief overview and defense of immigration restrictions according to the classical conception of the state. The view I outline may be characterized as a kind of natural law nationalism. 

The Foundations of the State 

No man is an island. Human beings are inherently social creatures, a fact made evident by our very biology: we are endowed with abilities to communicate, relate, and reproduce. In pursuing these activities, we thrive as human beings and fulfill our human nature. They are part of what makes for a flourishing human life. 

In other words, life is not meant to be lived alone. Social life completes us and makes human civilization possible. The fundamental unit of society is therefore the family, which both fulfills human beings relationally and grounds the very possibility of new human life. But while the family is the fundamental unit of society, it does not exhaust the social structure of society. This is because social life requires cooperation among various parties, and cooperation requires the presence of an organizing authority. Accordingly, the natural outgrowth of the family is the state. It exists in order to coordinate social activity toward what is good and fulfilling for its members. Political authority is therefore natural.  

The state’s purpose is to govern, and the purpose of government is to protect and pursue the good of those under its authority—in other words, “the common good.” This term refers to goods that are shared by all human beings in virtue of possessing a common human nature. We may think of it as the set of goods that are common to all human beings as human beings (such as life, health, and knowledge). These goods and their prerequisites compose the foundation for universal human rights.  

Cosmopolitanism vs. the Nation-State 

Based on this description, one might be tempted to think of the common good in unbounded terms: since the common good is the same for all, all must be treated as if they are members of a single communitythe world community. This view, known as political cosmopolitanism, states that all governance must be completely impartial: on account of our common humanity, there is no distinction to be drawn between citizens and non-citizens, residents and aliens. All share the same set of rights. 

Such a view is mistaken. Since human beings are essentially social creatures, we all stand in various special relationships to others. While the defender of cosmopolitanism is right in noting that we are all equally human and thus in possession of the same basic human rights, this description does not exhaust who we are. I am not just a human. I am also an American, a Kansan, a university instructor, and a member of a church body. Each one of these relationships generates specific goods, rights, and responsibilities that are unique to me. Indeed, there is no such thing as being simply human. Every person, on account of his or her social nature, stands in special relationships of some kind. The exact shape of these relationships will differ from person to person, but the fact that we each stand in some kind of special relationship is true of all of us. Thus, the common good must also include the category of goods that we have in virtue of our special relationships.  

Just as there is no such thing as being simply human, there is no such thing as being simply a state. All states are as a matter of necessity states of some kind. They are constituted and individuated by special relationships that center around shared culture, values, and norms. These special relationships are what form the basis of the nation-state, a state whose members are bound together by a common relationship. What defines a nation-state is the presence of a single unifying culture and value system that brings together members of various smaller communities. This all-encompassing culture is what makes a nation a nation, as opposed to a loose and fractured conglomeration of communities. 

Putting Nations First 

The nation-state’s first and fundamental obligation is to protect and pursue the common good. Recall, however, that the common good must also include the category of goods that we have in virtue of our special relationships. The protection and preservation of the common good of a nation-state, therefore, must include the maintenance of its defining culture, values, and norms. Now, since a nation-state’s first obligation is to protect the common good, and since the common good consists of a nation-state’s interests as a particular kind of state, a nation-state should put its own interests first. As President Trump aptly remarked in his address to the United Nations General Assembly 

Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens—to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values. As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first. 

What this means is that America should put America first, France should put France first, and Japan should put Japan first. A nation-state’s obligation to put its own interests first means that its decisions cannot be neutral with respect to its conception of the common good. Because the common good can only be fully defined by tying it to some particular vantage point, nation-states must each privilege a particular conception of the common good, one that makes special reference to the culture, values, and norms that define it as a nation-state. The kind of neutral impartiality demanded by cosmopolitanism is impossible: all state decisions must privilege some nation-specific conception of the good.  

Sovereignty and Immigration  

Now, a nation-state cannot discharge its fundamental obligation without the freedom to determine its activity. Governments must therefore be entitled to sovereign authority over their affairs. The scope of this right of sovereignty is limited by the purpose for which it is given, which is the protection and pursuit of the common good. Sovereignty is to nation-states as bodily autonomy is to the individual. Neither nation-states nor individuals can discharge their obligations to pursue what is good without a certain domain of control over their affairs.  

In acting to preserve the common good, a nation state may—and should—exercise its right to sovereignty to control and exclude that which is incompatible with its culture, values, and norms. This means that it may act so as to limit immigration from nation-states whose cultures are at odds with its own. After all, studies have shown that immigrants import their cultural and economic institutions with them 

Defenders of open borders argue that this violates the right of immigrants to move about freely. Immigration restrictions, they contend, unjustly coerce immigrants and prevent them from exercising their right to immigrate. But freedom of movement is not unlimited. It is constrained by the rights of others, including the sovereign rights of nation-states. The right to freedom of movement does not ordinarily give one the right to enter another nation’s sovereign territory without permission any more than it gives me the right to enter another person’s house without permission. Indeed, sovereignty is the public equivalent of property rights. Barring extreme circumstances, nations may use coercion to secure their borders in the same way that property owners may use coercion to defend their property.  

The view of immigration I have sketched is one in which nation-states may exclude those whose cultures, values, and norms are incompatible with those of the receiving nations. However, this is not to say that nations have the right to deny immigrants for any reason whatsoever. A nation’s right to sovereignty exists for the purpose of facilitating the common good. Since the common good includes (but is not exhausted by) respect for universal human rights, nation-states have duties to accept those who are forced to flee their nations due to real and sustained oppression, with the condition that their value systems are in alignment with those of the receiving country. It would be self-defeating for a nation acting under the guise of the common good to admit refugees whose value systems are discordant with the common good of the receiving nation.  

To sum up: the social nature of human beings gives rise to the family, and then to the state. But all states must be nation-states of some kind, given the special relationships that define who we are. Nation-states, as a means of preserving what is distinctive about them as nations, possess the right of sovereign authority over their own affairs. This entitles them to enact immigration restrictions so as to exclude those with discordant value systems. 

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