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The Ethical Case for an Open Immigration Policy

The United States had an “open door” policy for white immigrants from the nation’s founding until the passage of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. As a result of the Naturalization Act of 1790, all “free white persons” of “good moral character” arriving on our shores were offered a short, simple path to full citizenship. In one of their often unheralded yet non-the-less remarkable contributions, the first generation of American statesmen welcomed Catholics ineligible for full citizenship in Great Britain, and Jews unable to naturalize in France. Over the next century, despite occasional bursts of nativist braying—most notably, the No Nothing Movement of 1854-1856—this nation remained largely faithful to those celebrated lines of the poet Emma Lazarus that are now inscribed upon the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearing to breathe free. While this promise of welcome rang undeniably hollow for Africans and Asians—one of our greatest causes for national shame—the very essence of American “exceptionalism” was our open gate.

As the issue of immigration returns to our national agenda, policy makers should remember that there is a third alternative to either deportation or amnesty for so-called “illegal” aliens: a return to the “open door” policy that built our nation. I do not have the professional expertise to speak to the economics of such an approach—although my personal intuition tells me that new immigrants will generate jobs rather than consume them—but the ethics of open borders are strikingly clear. Treating human beings differently, simply because they were born on the opposite side of a national boundary, is hard to justify under any mainstream philosophical, religious or ethical theory.

That is not to say that all “birthrights” are unjust. For example, while being born into a particular family is the result of chance, the right to inherit some of one’s parents’ property serves useful and meaningful social purposes—such as encouraging mothers and fathers to work and save for their offspring. The “birthright” of nationality serves no such social purpose. In contrast, the freedom to travel and to settle where one wishes, in pursuit of political freedom or economic opportunity, is among the most basic of human rights. I am grateful that my grandfather was admitted to this country, fleeing Belgium in the days before World War II. I am horrified by the sealed borders that prevented boatloads other Jewish refugees from following him. From an ethical point of view, however, it is difficult to distinguish such political refugees—to whom we do grant asylum today—from the millions of economic refugees who seek freedom from abject poverty.The principal difference between the Irish peasants who once fled the potato blight on coffin ships, and the desperate Haitian rafters that our navy forcibly repatriates today, is bad timing.

Any reasonable “open door” immigration policy should still exclude those who pose a danger to our current citizenry: would-be terrorists, wanted felons, tuberculosis patients unwilling to accept treatment, etc. From an ethical standpoint, a liberal democracy might also restrict immigration should newcomers threaten to use the political process to dismantle existing freedoms—if, for example, ten million advocates of Taliban-style fundamentalism were to demand entrance into Luxembourg. Considering the size and diversity of our nation, any meaningful threat to American democracy from immigrants seems highly far-fetched.

This is not a policy proposal. I acknowledge that developing a functional, open borders regime could take several years, and might even require the progressive elevation of existing immigration quotas over time until the point where supply exceeded demand. That does not mean that open borders should not be the long-term goal of any ethical immigration policy. The modern version of Martin Luther King Jr’s “dream” is that any child, born into the poorest slums of Africa, Asia or Latin America, should have a right to claim those same freedoms and opportunities of American citizenship that far too many of us take for granted. In an era when we are divided in so many ways as a nation, this should be the sort of visionary policy to which all people—religious and secular, traditional and progressive, Native Americans and descendants of immigrants—can say, Yes We Can!


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