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Is Immigration a Right or a Privilege?

I write. I analyze. I philosophize. I criticize. I . . . am trying to fill the required amount of characters for a bio—aaaand, there we go.

A man searches for his family members among a group of refugees from Hungary.

A man searches for his family members among a group of refugees from Hungary.

Arguments For and Against

In this article, I will present ethics philosopher Michael Huemer’s argument for immigration rights, the possible objections that he considers, and subsequent rebuttals to those possible objections. I will present several possible circumstances (Sam and Marvin, Bob, and Marvin’s daughter) that Huemer authors as a moral comparison to that of immigration.

After presenting all of Huemer’s arguments, I will then offer a response to his argument regarding economic instability and burden in correlation to immigration. Subsequently, I will offer a possible objection that Huemer might make to my response. Then, I will concede and offer my personal belief on whether or not immigration is a right or a privilege.

The Abstract Argument for Immigration

Huemer is a firm believer in immigration as an inherent human right. Huemer splits his argument into two parts: one discussing the prima facie violation when blocking immigration, and the other part a counterargument to the prima facie argument, as well as a rebuttal to that counterargument.

Firstly, Huemer believes that immigration is a prima facie right and anyone, or any country, that denies someone this right is directly harming and infringing upon that someone’s inherent human rights. Prima facie rights violation simply means, in Huemer’s words, “an action of a sort that normally—that is, barring any special circumstances—violates someone’s rights. For example, killing a human being is a prima facie rights violation: in normal circumstances.” In the case of immigration, blocking any person from immigrating to a country that they are considered foreign to is a direct violation of their prima facie rights, their inherent rights as a human.

To support this theory, Huemer offers the case of Sam and Marvin as evidence. In regards to the Sam and Marvin case, suppose that Marvin is a man who is starving. Marvin is on the brink of death and, if he doesn’t consume food soon, he will certainly die of starvation. Marvin decides to go to the local grocery store to buy some bread. Under normal circumstances, assuming that the store is open and has bread in stock, Marvin would obtain the bread and eat it, thus saving him from starvation. However, consider Sam, an individual who knows that Marvin is trying to get bread from the store, stops Marvin from going into the store, and Marvin goes home and dies of starvation.

Intuitively, most would agree that Sam has certainly harmed Marvin by stopping him from acquiring food and saving himself from starvation. In fact, if Sam knew Marvin would starve if he didn’t let him through, Huemer says that most must even, intuitively, consider Sam’s actions as equal to that of murder.

Huemer then connects the Sam and Marvin case to that of the US government and immigrants wishing to enter the country. The US government would be Sam, and the immigrants would be Marvin. Immigrants are wanting to immigrate to the United States, but the government blocks them from entering.

Huemer's Objections and Rebuttals

Now consider the counterargument, and Huemer’s subsequent rebuttals to this counterargument, to Sam and Marvin, aka the US government and immigrants. Many simply state that the US is not directly harming any of these immigrants by keeping them from entering the country; it is their home country that is harming them. Furthermore, withholding benefits—in this case, immigration—is not a direct harm.

Huemer disagrees with this counterargument wholeheartedly, because it is possible to harm these immigrants if the US government is explicitly disallowing them to escape harm from their home country. Whether it be persecution, terrorism, or famine that these immigrants are trying to escape, the US government would be an agent of harm if they did not allow these immigrants to escape these threats. Many would also even state that immigration hurts American workers and decreases job security. Though Huemer states that this is obviously false, even if it were true, the restriction of immigration would still fail to outweigh the prima facie right to immigration.

This brings us to Huemer’s second objection to anti-immigration arguments—that the US government is also directly harming immigrants by barring them from trading with Americans and being employed by Americans. As Huemer says, “many Americans would happily trade or employ these would-be immigrants, in a manner that would enable the immigrants to satisfy their needs.” Just as Marvin has the right to buy bread from his local store and Sam stops him from doing so, immigrants have the right to trade with and be employed by any American, though the US government would stop them from doing so.

Though Huemer is pro-immigration rights, he does offer two reasons why restrictions might be permissible. Firstly, Huemer believes that harmful coercion is permissible in order to protect someone from being harmfully coerced. In terms of immigration, it might be permissible to stop a criminal from emigrating to the country for fear that he may harm one or more of the country’s citizens. Or, some might believe, that harmful coercion may be necessary to balance “severe economic inequality.” Also, it is quite widely accepted that the US government has special obligations to its citizens: therefore, the US government has the right to protect its citizens.

However, Huemer offers two objections to these reasons. Firstly, Huemer offers the example of Bob: Bob and you are competing for the same job; Bob would get a lower wage for the job, and you would get a higher wage. Does that mean you have the right to stop Bob from going to the interview? Huemer says no, no matter your need or your desire to obtain this job, whether or not it be more than Bob’s need and desire, it is still wrong to harmfully coerce Bob into not going to the interview. The same goes for immigrants; even if your need is higher and you would obtain a higher wage, immigrants still have the right to compete for the job and not be harmfully coerced when doing so.

Secondly, and lastly, Huemer returns back to the example of Sam and Marvin, except, in this case, Sam has a daughter that also needs the bread that Marvin needs, which is why Sam is stopping Marvin from buying the bread himself. If Marvin buys the bread from the store, Sam’s daughter will be forced to buy more expensive bread from another store. In other words, Sam is trying to protect his daughter from economic inequality.

This is similar to how the US government would keep immigrants from disrupting the US economy and economically disadvantaging US citizens. However, Huemer still believes: Even if Sam’s daughter might have to spend more money, she has the money to buy the alternative and more expensive bread, and her desire to buy cheaper bread still does not permit Sam to harmfully coerce Marvin from buying the bread that he needs to live. Regarding immigration, the US government’s want to protect US citizens economically still does not make it morally permissible to harmfully coerce immigrants from entering the country.

An anti-immigration sign.

An anti-immigration sign.

My Personal Thoughts Regarding Huemer and Immigration

As an objection to Huemer and immigration: Though Huemer offers criticism against his own argument that immigration hurts American workers and can cause economic inequality, it is possible that he dismisses this concern far too quickly, and he doesn’t fully embrace the possible repercussions of immigration.

Suppose the US job market is stagnant and lacking; introducing immigrants into the job market and increasing competition would severely impact Americans struggling to find jobs. If Americans can’t find jobs, then they can’t work, if they can’t work, then they can’t accrue money; if they can’t accrue money, then they can’t invest in and consume things that would boost the economy. Furthermore, this would also lead to an increase in Americans on welfare and unemployment, thus giving us more people adding to the deficit and less contribution through taxes.

It would seem like common sense that the immigrants would simply pick up the slack for the struggling Americans; however, because these immigrants would take less pay, they would then have less money to invest and, therefore, they would make less of an economic contribution than what the other Americans could potentially add to the economy.

Less money for consumers means not as many products are being consumed. Also, more people on welfare means more people consuming exhaustible resources, which cannot be paid for without contributors. The United States already has a deficit problem, more than $22 trillion in debt as of 2019, and a serious issue with homelessness and poverty. Increasing the number of citizens in poverty would only add to the debt and give jobs to weaker, more unreliable consumers/contributors.

How Huemer Would Respond

As a response to the aforementioned objection, Huemer might say that: Even under extreme economic debilitation, the prima facie rights of immigrants still outweigh the possible economic burdens that society might procure because of immigrants. Though adding to the deficit and having less consistent consumption and contribution to the economy would be bad, it still doesn’t change the fact that these immigrants have a right to emigrate.

Furthermore, if these immigrants are facing persecution and possible death in their home countries, their lives and prima facie rights still outweigh and take priority over the current economic climate. Human life and human rights are still more important than the economy and the economic prosperity of American citizens. Huemer might even argue that the economic burden simply would never be that severe and that it could never justify harmfully coercing immigrants from entering the country just to protect job security and decrease competition.

My Concession: Huemer Is Correct

In light of all that has been presented, Huemer’s arguments, my objection, and Huemer’s possible reply to my objection, I concede that Huemer is correct in his arguments that support immigration. Personally, I cannot justify any reason in which someone may be harmfully coerced and stopped from immigrating when that is their inherent and inalienable right as a human. Like Huemer, I believe that no reason, economic or security related, outweighs the prima facie rights of immigrants.

While I can accept that screenings and background checks must be done to keep out criminals, the right to immigrate cannot be denied to non-aggressive immigrants. Immigrants have the right to emigrate to whichever country they wish, and they have a right to compete for any job in those countries, or purchase goods from those countries. Especially if immigrants are facing severe persecution, possible death, and harm in their home country, they have a right to immigrate to America, or somewhere equally as safe.

For example, take into consideration all that is happening in Syria and the Middle East; there are innocent, non-criminal humans wanting to escape persecution, possible death, and harm, and they have a right to evade any threats. Any governments that don’t allow immigrants to immigrate and escape from these severe threats are equally morally responsible for the harm that befalls these humans.

Though I offered an objection to Huemer that highlighted the possible economic burden that immigrants might have on society, despite the possible debilitations, their rights still outweigh the possible economic burdens. So, I would, therefore, agree with the response I constructed in Huemer’s honor: No matter the burden, prima facie rights cannot be harmed, even when under severe economic burden.

The video below shows a valid argument—but still, I disagree.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.