I largely agree with what Vipul Naik writes about Jose Antonio Vargas and the Define American project. Philosophically, Vargas isn’t really a fellow-traveler of Bryan Caplan, Vipul Naik, and myself. He seems to still buy into arguments from the other side– as Vipul puts it, “people don’t have a right to immigrate, but once they’ve done so, they acquire various rights and privileges, and become part of the moral sphere of natives.” His position seems ultimately unstable, though possibly that’s true of everyone in the immigration debate except the open borders crowd on one end and some extreme restrictionists on the other. In his defense, though– even if this doesn’t come through in everything he writes or says– the terms of his own project seem to recognize the weakness of his position. For example, from the “About” section of the Define American site:
Our campaign is about asking: How do we define an American? Why do people come to this country? Who are the American citizens who help them? When it comes to undocumented immigrants, what would you do? As a teacher? A friend? A mother?
Define American, with your help, will answer those questions.
So Vargas isn’t saying that he has the answers; rather, he’s asking for help from… well, from whoever the audience of Define American is supposed to be… to find them. Maybe we’ll win him over to the open borders cause at some point.
More importantly, there’s something I think Naik doesn’t quite recognize, namely, that Vargas’s project is well suited to evoke in people the moral intuitions that underlie the concept of natural rights, also known as human rights. Rights seem a bit metaphysically mysterious and plenty of honest people have doubted their existence. But it’s part of human nature that we can recognize when human rights are being violated, when we are close enough to the victims to feel human empathy for them. We see the wrong, we feel injury and indignation, we feel that something deeper and more sacred is at stake than a mere cost-benefit analysis could account for, and our attempts to express, to justify, to articulate that indignation perennially bring us back to the idea of human rights. Vargas’s site emphasizes stories. That’s just what’s needed, because stories bring us close enough to the victims to feel the wrong of what’s being done to them. That the victims whose stories he tells are far from the worst-off victims of migration restrictions is a secondary issue.