One of the tactics that many people on the pro-immigration side of the immigration debate adopt is to point out the unsavory “racist” and “eugenicist” associations that some immigration restrictionists have, or might have. I’m going to argue here that focusing on these associations, whether or not they are true, does not do much to advance the case for open borders, and detracts from the substantive debates.
Examples of accusation of racism
The Southern Poverty Law Center collects evidence suggesting that various immigration restrictionist groups have “racist” and “white nationalist” themes. In particular:
- The immigration restrictionist website VDARE has a page on the SPLC website noting its white nationalist roots, in particular the fact that Jared Taylor, a self-proclaimed white nationalist and editor of the American Renaissance magazine, writes for VDARE. VDARE has responded at many places, such as here, here, and here.
- The Center for Immigration Studies, an immigration restrictionist think tank that bills itself as “low-immigration, pro-immigrant” has a page on the SPLC website, where they critique CIS’s origins.
- Numbers USA, an anti-immigration group, also has a SPLC page.
- FAIR, another anti-immigration group, also has a SPLC page (and another).
The accusations by the Southern Poverty Law Center play an important role in the arguments of many who choose to engage restrictionists. For instance, in a blog post on Haiti, Michael Clemens references some of SPLC’s claims about the Center for Immigration Studies while engaging CIS’s critique of some of his policy proposals. Similar accusations have also been made by pro-immigration advocates who choose to engage (or sometimes, refuse to engage) with critics of immigration in the UK, as this Spiked Online article illustrates.
Racism versus citizenism
The majority of the actual arguments made by restrictionists are not racist, but citizenist: they argue that immigration hurts the interests of those who are currently citizens, and that the interests of citizens should be weighed higher than those of foreigners. While the specific empirical claims of restrictionists are subject to debate, the philosophy of citizenism per se is something that has wide appeal throughout the world across the political spectrum. This does not mean that citizenism is correct. But it leaves open borders proponents with two strategies.
The first is to concede citizenist premises but argue for the benefits to immigrant-receiving countries, or point out that the harms to immigrant-receiving countries can be mitigated through keyhole solutions.
The second is to question and debate the underlying premise of citizenism. In this context, the proposition that needs to be challenged is that the interests of current citizens should be weighed higher than those of foreigners to the extent that foreigners may be forbidden from entering the country. Libertarian arguments involving the right to migrate and obligations to strangers aim to do just that. If, however, this is the strategy being employed, it must be conceded that what is being questioned is a widely popular and universally accepted ideology (citizenism/nationalism), not a relatively fringe position (racism) that is denied even by those who hold it. It’s fine to point out the analogy between racism and nationalism. Pretending that racism and citizenism are the same thing, however, only makes it easy for restrictionists to believe you didn’t understand their argument in the first place.
More importantly, almost nobody calls themselves racists, but many people call their intellectual opponents racists. As a general principle, it is good to accuse others only of the things that they would freely admit to being — and “citizenist” is something that many immigration restrictionists would freely admit to being. “Racist” most definitely is not.
Ad hominem attacks, principle of charity, and mind reading skills
Accusations of racism also border on being ad hominem attacks: they focus on the character of the person making specific claims rather than on the substantive merits of the claims themselves. They violate the principle of charity, which, per Wikipedia, “requires interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies or falsehoods to the others’ statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available.”
Further, accusations of racism open a weak point in one’s debate, because they rely on mind-reading skills that most of us don’t possess. What if the restrictionist is able to convincingly demonstrate that he or she is not a racist? In that case, those making the accusations have undermined their own personal credibility.