Is there a human right to immigrate? Many defenders of open borders think so. Individuals, they argue, are entitled to freedom of movement, which entails the right to immigrate from one country to another. This view has found support in the newly elected president of Mexico, who remarked that there is a “human right” to move to the United States.
This appeal to freedom of movement is dubious argument for a number of reasons. For starters, freedom of movement is not unlimited: my freedom of movement does not give me the right to move into your home.
One’s freedom of movement is also limited by the sovereignty and property rights of other individuals. I may have freedom to move about in my own home, but that doesn’t give me the right to do so in a home that isn’t mine. Similarly, I may have freedom of movement within my own country, but that doesn’t give me the right to move to another sovereign country. So in whatever sense we have freedom of movement, it doesn’t generate a right to move across sovereign territory.
This Is a Ridiculous Circular Argument
But the more important problem with appealing to freedom of movement in support of open borders is that it assumes the very thing it tries to prove. In other words, it is guilty of arguing in a circle.
Here’s why: freedom of movement applies only to places where I already have a right to be. This explains why I have freedom of movement within my own home, but not my neighbor’s. I have a pre-existing property right that lets me occupy my own home, but no such right exists for me to occupy the house across the street.
Now, if freedom of movement applies only to places where I already have a right to be, then appealing to freedom of movement in support of the right to move to another country assumes in advance that one already has a right to be in that country. Since that is exactly the very point under dispute, such an argument amounts to circular reasoning.
To have freedom of movement is to have the right to access or occupy some location. But I only have the right to access or occupy a location if I already possess property or sovereignty rights over that location to begin with. Invoking freedom of movement in defense of open borders, therefore, smuggles in the hidden assumption that individuals possess rights to access or occupy the territory of sovereign countries. But that, of course, is the very issue at stake.
This View Obliterates Property Rights
So much for that argument. What about the idea that there is a human right to immigrate? This too is questionable. A human right is a claim to some good or activity that all humans need in order to flourish. We can think of rights as “moral shields” that protect us as we go about living.
On this view is easy to see why goods such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would count as bona fide rights: they are all things that every human needs in order to live well. But what about immigration, as defined as movement across borders? What universal human interest is served in letting people move from one country to another?
Certainly some freedom of movement is necessary for us to flourish—life would be pretty boring if we stood still all day—but this is a far cry from the freedom to move across borders that defenders of open borders envision. We may grant that individuals may sometimes gain the right to immigrate through societal breakdown, oppression, or natural disasters, but this is not the same as saying that there is a general human right to immigrate. Indeed, there can be no such thing because there is no basic human interest common to all humans that can only be met by migration across borders.
What’s more, a right to immigrate, if it existed, would be the right to demand both of individuals and countries that one be granted admission to their territory, regardless of whether that individual or country approves. This is tantamount to saying that individuals have the right to use and occupy someone else’s property against his will. Such a view would amount to the wholesale denial of property and sovereignty rights.
If individuals have an obligation to let others use and occupy their property, then in what sense do they really own their own property? The freedom to exclude others is essential both to property rights and sovereignty rights.
There Is No Such Thing as a World Collective
Yet some defenders of open borders embrace this conclusion. The earth, they argue, is the “common property” of all humans, fit for our collective use and settlement. On this view, known as cosmopolitanism, individuals are not citizens of particular countries, but “world citizens” and members of the “world community.”
The problem with cosmopolitanism, aside from its radical collectivism, is that is takes on an unrealistic understanding of human nature. Distinct communities and nation-states are necessary for at least two reasons.
First, human beings stand in special relationships to each other. I am not just a human. I am also a son, brother, friend, professor, and churchgoer. Each one of these roles generates distinct communities—which Edmund Burke called “little platoons”—of which I am a member. To assimilate them all under the category of the “world community” is to pretend that they do not exist.
Human beings are more complex than the cosmopolitan takes them to be. Dividing human beings into groups and communities is the best way of recognizing and affirming the intricacies of the human experience.
A Nation Is Crucial for Protecting Natural Relationships
Second, the multifaceted nature of the human experience means that distinct nation-states are essential. The nation state offers a way of organizing and elevating the special groups and communities that make social life possible into cohesive political units. It is the vehicle by which human social groups can come together and act for the sake of a common interest.
At the same time, in focusing on local and regional interests, the nation-state affirms the “little platoons” that render human social life meaningful. Whereas the globalism of the “world community” devalues these special relationships, the localism of the nation-state recognizes their importance.
The idea of a right to immigrate may sound compassionate and be well-intentioned, but it is both deeply flawed and based on a naive view of human social relations. In denying this right, I am by no means devaluing or discouraging immigration. I am, rather, calling for a view of immigration that puts national sovereignty first.