Frederick Douglass: Migration is, and always has been, a fundamental human right

It is almost impossible to make it through an explanation of the right to migrate without a listener interrupting: “But you can’t let everyone come! You just can’t!” There’s often a litany of plausible-sounding reasons.

Now, I suspect that these plausible-sounding reasons are actually much less defensible and plausible than you might think. But before we get into a deep discussion of the evidence here, the interrupting interlocutor often concludes: “What you say sounds nice in theory, but will destroy us. Your fancy moral theories will sink our ship of state. You are stupidly blinding yourself to the consequences of recognising a right to migrate.”

Yet when I probe into why our objector believes this, I often find he has no evidence for his belief that freedom of migration will destroy his country or the world. All he has to go on is the insistence that it’s a theoretical possibility that recognising the right to migrate will be disastrous. Yes, that’s a possibility — one we’ve thought about a lot.

But you could make such objections against just about every right. We restrict freedom of speech for much less than catastrophic disaster: most countries’ laws ban libel and slander, and many go even farther than that. This doesn’t mean the right to freedom of speech must be exterminated and never recognised — it just means that the right to free speech must be balanced against others’ rights. Such is the case with the right to migrate.

Peculiarly, people often seem allergic to the idea that foreigners have rights at all (never mind that humanity has recognised this ever since the first laws of war were drawn up), let alone the right to migrate. One of the most common objections I hear is that while such a right was feasible to recognise in earlier times, such a right is infeasible in the modern world.
Statue of Liberty(Image source: Christian Science Monitor)
But these objections are not new. They are so old, in fact, that they were anticipated almost 150 years ago. Here is Frederick Douglass, speaking in 1869 against the movement to ban Chinese immigration:

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.

But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself.

People often say that the words of the Statue of Liberty no longer apply today, because things are just fundamentally different. No longer should we declare:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Whether stated or unstated, the suggestion is that the people of the 19th century who so eagerly embraced the right to migrate would, today, agree we ought to shut the door and wall out the “wretched refuse” of the world. But reading Douglass’s words, I find this difficult if not impossible to believe.

The same concerns people have about migration today were the ones raised to Douglass in the 1860s. Yet Douglass did not contemplate any reduction or circumscription of the right to migrate. He recognised the theoretical problems that the spectre of migration raises — and he rejected arbitrary prohibitions on human movement as the only solution to these problems.

He did not say they are categorically unfounded, nor did he say they should not be managed. He simply insisted that these theoretical problems are not a good enough reason in of themselves to restrict “essential human rights” — such as the right to migrate. It behooves us to solve these problems with solutions that least-infringe upon fundamental human rights.

People say that times change and that what was once a right might not be valid today. But how then can they answer Douglass’s insistence that the right to migrate is universal and indestructible? How can they explain that restricting migration isn’t really so wrong, when in Douglass’s time it was clear that this constituted an “essential human right”, one that he asserted for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever?

I say that Douglass’s words ring as true today as they did well over a century ago. Migration is a fundamental human right. Like all rights, there may come a time when it must be restricted. But restrictions have to balance one set of rights against another — not to categorically declare that a right simply does not exist, and that we have carte blanche to utterly disregard it. As did Douglass, I assert today the universal and indestructible right to migrate equally for all human beings — now, and forever.

Source for featured image: Wikimedia Commons, original photographer unknown.

Open Borders Editorial Note: See also Open Borders guest blogger Ilya Somin’s blog post Frederick Douglass on immigration at the Volokh Conspiracy.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


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