Preserving Americans’ Freedom Can’t Mean Closing Down Our Borders
Harsh immigration controls diminish—not protect—our freedom.
The commentary below is a lightly edited transcript of a presentation by immigration expert Chandran Kukathas at the May 17 Mercatus Center webinar “If Nativists Have Their Way,” hosted by The UnPopulist’s Shikha Dalmia. Kukathas, a dean of political science at the school of social sciences at Singapore Management University, focused on the question of how immigration policy affects America’s foundational value: freedom.
Also speaking that day was Michael Clemens, director of migration, displacement and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development; an edited transcript of his comments on the impact of immigration on a country’s economy and finances was published by The UnPopulist last Saturday. We will also be posting a commentary written by Mercatus Center Senior Fellow Jack Goldstone and based on his remarks as the webinar’s third panelist. Goldstone addressed the demographic impacts of immigration.
You can watch the entire May 17 panel discussion here, including a substantive question-and-answer session that begins around the 62-minute mark.
Remarks by Chandran Kukathas:
On the cover of my book Immigration and Freedom, published a year ago, is an illustration drawn from the “America Windows.” These are stained glass windows given to the Art Institute of Chicago by the painter and artist Marc Chagall. He donated these windows, which are really quite beautiful—this is just a small section of them—to commemorate the bicentennial of the American founding in 1776.
If you look closely, you’ll see that in the middle is an image of the Statue of Liberty. You also have a bird in flight, which I think is likewise intended to symbolize freedom, and I think this is really because freedom is what America has stood for, for most of its existence—not without controversy, since it has a long history of slavery, which it has struggled to overcome both before and since the Civil War. Nonetheless, the defining ethos of American life and of American politics is the idea of freedom.
So when I wrote this book and I was searching for a cover, this is the image that I wanted, not just because of its beauty, but because it speaks to something that has been neglected not just in American thinking about immigration, but in thinking about immigration more generally.
Most people who might be regarded as nativists or nationalists regard the problem with immigration as in large part the impact immigration or immigrants have on the well-being of natives or nationals. But there’s not just the question of whether natives are affected by immigrants—clearly they are, for better or for worse, and our previous two speakers [Jack Goldstone and Michael Clemens] have said for the better in economic terms. What’s been missing is a consideration of the impact of immigration control on freedom—and in particular, not so much on the freedom of immigrants, who are very obviously affected if they’re prevented from moving, but on the freedom of natives or nationals who have been prevented from engaging in trade or interaction both with immigrants or would-be immigrants and with each other, to the extent that any nationals’ interaction might have involved engagement with immigrants.
One of the things that nativists or nationalists are most worried about is the impact of immigration on their society, and in the case of America, there’s a fear that somehow American values will be undermined, and the most important of these values is freedom. But what’s been missing is an appreciation of the extent to which the freedom that’s undermined—that’s reduced, that’s limited, that’s diminished—is the freedom of natives. Now we’ve seen this in Michael’s arguments in particular very clearly—that if you prevent people from interacting with aspiring immigrants, you are preventing them from doing things. And to the extent that justifications are offered for this, it’s hard to see how they can really stand up except in the most extreme cases, like when a person wants to engage in highly dubious activities that are harmful to everyone. When the activities instead cause no harm to others, or when they even benefit others, it’s hard to see the justification for stopping them.
I think it’s clear enough that immigration control affects people’s freedom to the extent that it prevents them from engaging in exchange. But there’s actually a deeper level at which an impact on freedom is felt. And I think to understand this, we need to go back and take another look at the very idea of a “native” or a “national.” We take for granted that we know what these terms mean, just as we think we know what “immigrant” means.
But actually, an immigrant is not a natural kind. You can’t just tell by looking at someone or dissecting a body whether someone is an immigrant. An immigrant is a legal category. By implication, the same goes for a native. What exactly is a native?
An immigrant is defined by some United Nations agencies—there are different definitions around—as someone who’s outside of his or her country of nationality for a year or longer. But by that definition, many people would be classified as immigrants when they’re really not. Students who are coming to a country to study may be there for longer than a year, but then they go home. They’re not immigrants—or are they? Well, actually, it’s just a matter of legal definition. You could make it six months or two years to qualify as an immigrant. The whole definition is somewhat arbitrary.
It’s even more complicated when you think about how we decide who is and who is not a native. It bears noting that the law has not been stable on this. The definition of a national or a native has varied extraordinarily across American and European and British and Australian and New Zealand history. If you looked at people across a whole range of time periods, you’d find that they would be classified as natives or nationals in one time and not in another. I’ll give you an example. An American woman—a native-born, white American—who married a foreigner in 1900 would lose her nationality. She would be denaturalized. She would lose her citizenship. She would no longer be qualified as a national. A British woman in 1960, had she married a foreigner, would no longer be able to pass her nationality down to her children. This law was not changed until the 1980s.
I’ll give you a different example again. When my father was born in Malaya in 1929, he was a British subject. Under British law, he was a British national. He paid taxes to the British government when he was old enough to work; he had the right of travel within the empire; he had the right of abode within the United Kingdom. It was not until the 1960s and ’70s, after considerable debate in the United Kingdom, that rights of nationality were stripped away from British subjects in South Africa, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Malaya, in India, in Kenya—all of these peoples were at one stage British nationals. If you look at the 2,000-page tome Fransman’s British Nationality Law, you will see sections for every country within the empire. These people were all at one point nationals. At some point, some people decided that they would exclude these people from this nationality, just as Americans have excluded people from nationality and as Australians have changed the law to exclude people. This is true also in non-Western countries.
So this brings me to a fundamental point: The first step to controlling people and diminishing their freedom is not border control; the first step is classification, when we decide who is in and who is out.
And now the question we have to ask is, Who decides? It’s certainly not the majority of people. Even if it could be the majority, we couldn’t say the majority of what because that would beg the question. We don’t know the majority of what until we’ve established who is a national—who is a native. So you can’t say only natives can vote on who is a native, because we don’t know yet who a native is. Someone is making these decisions, but it’s definitely not you or me.
Instead, there is a body of people who gain access to levers of power to decide who is and who is not an American. One obvious consequence of this, which is rather shocking, is that between 1930 and 2000, 1 million American citizens were wrongfully deported. In other words, in an effort to deport people who were regarded as nonnatives, 2 million people were deported, and 1 million of those were discovered to have had American citizenship. We don’t know how many of the other 1 million did in fact have American citizenship, but the attempt to engage in these controls has had this sort of effect.
So if we’re really concerned about the impact of immigration on fundamental values that hold a society together—and in particular, a society like the United States—the first thing we have to ask is, Who are the natives? Who are the nationals? Who are the immigrants? And who is making these decisions?
Now clearly there’s a great deal of debate about this. Let me give you just one illustration. Many of you may recall that when the Capitol was stormed on January 6 last year, some of the protestors told the police that they should start behaving like Americans. Now, the implication was that they, the protestors, were the ones behaving like Americans, but the police clearly thought that they were behaving like Americans because they thought they were upholding the law. So without offering you an answer to this question, I’m pointing out that the question is, in itself, deeply contested.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we’ve got to just throw up our hands and say, “Well, we can’t do anything because we don’t know who’s who,” but it does draw attention to something important. The conflict over immigration is to a large extent a conflict for control over the narrative that is told in a country. And some people, whichever minority they belong to, want to say that they somehow have unique access to the correct answer to this.
In fact, there isn’t a straightforward answer to this. The answer to this question depends deeply on the commitment you have to particular values and which values you want to emphasize. And at this point, other considerations intrude: considerations not just about freedom, but about identity, and considerations of race and gender, because those who want to tell you who is and who is not a native—who is and who is not an American—all too often have a very clear but narrow account of the people who qualify as natives. Historically, nativists have typically been very, very small minority groups. They have perhaps been more vocal and therefore more powerful in the effects they’ve been able to generate. But they are in fact a minority of people. What they’re best at is not in representing the populace; what they’re best at is in telling everybody else who should be included and who should be excluded.
Anyone interested in the immigration question really ought to ask, If you are concerned about the fundamental values of this society, and if you’re concerned about the impact of immigration on those values and on this society, how much control do you want to exert? How much force and power do you want to bring to bear in order to achieve particular ends, knowing that the cost is going to be a diminution of the freedom of many people whom you would yourself regard as your fellow nationals, your fellow natives? I think once you start to look at the question in this way, you should start to be a bit more wary of calling for immigration control.
I don’t say that this means we’ve suddenly got to advance a theory of open borders. I think it does mean we’ve got to start thinking a little more carefully about the extent to which the calls for restrictions on immigration mean ratcheting up the instruments of control. This means a loss of freedom, which, I think, is something that would matter to Americans and to people in many other parts of the world.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.