It Can’t All Be About (the) U.S.

In February, National Public Radio aired a segment, part of its Planet Money series, in which it asked three immigration experts what sort of immigration system they would have if they “controlled the borders.” To NPR’s credit, one of the experts was the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh (a contributor to the Open Borders site). He proposed letting all immigrants in, except for suspected terrorists, criminals, and those with serious communicable diseases. He noted that this policy would benefit the economy and would mean that people wouldn’t have to put themselves at risk crossing the border.

Not surprisingly, the other two experts chosen by NPR did not propose open borders. One expert was the economist Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, who has researched the economic impact of immigration on the U.S. and found it to be mostly positive. His ideal immigration system would be one in which employers would bid for permits allowing them to employ individual foreign workers, including low-skilled workers. The other expert was Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (we’ve critiqued Baker before). He would admit immigrants with families in the U.S. and would provide visas to highly skilled individuals who, in the words of NPR’s host, “would benefit our economy the most.” Mr. Baker said he “would like to make sure that you had a lot of immigrants at the high end” but is “less concerned about farm workers.”

The proposals from Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker seem designed to maximally benefit the U.S. and apparently make the interests of immigrants who are excluded from their systems irrelevant. Formulating such an immigration policy probably makes sense to many Americans. After all, some may think, the government should look out first and foremost for the interests of its citizens. Joseph Carens of the University of Toronto articulates this view: “The power to admit or exclude aliens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community. Every state has the legal and moral right to exercise that power in pursuit of its own national interest…”

Mr. Carens suggests, however, that this nationalist position doesn’t justify immigration restrictions. He explains that “When the stakes are high (e.g., legal proceedings) we normally create institutional rules to try to prevent people from being able to favor their friends and relatives. In other words, our notion of justice constrain the extent and ways in which we think it is acceptable for us to favor family members… even if we are morally entitled to favor compatriots in some ways, it is not self evident that we are entitled to favor them by excluding potential immigrants. Perhaps that form of preferential treatment goes too far.” Restricting immigration in effect would be nepotism writ large, an attempt to favor those identified as being more closely connected to us by giving them access to the U.S. labor market and denying access to those deemed less connected.

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University (who has also guest blogged for Open Borders) echoes Mr. Carens in his critique of the analogy between the nation and a family: “…almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone’s arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason for even petty offenses – like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son’s a contestant.” Despite this, Mr. Caplan points out that at the national level citizens tend to lose this sense of morality and use nationalism “as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.” Nationalism leads to immoral treatment, such as interfering with the right to immigrate.  The logic of Mr. Carens and Mr. Caplan discredits nationalist arguments around the world supporting immigration restrictions, not just those in the American context.

Given Planet Money’s focus on economics, the underlying question posed to the three experts about their preferred immigration regime may really have been: “From a purely economic standpoint, which immigration policy do you believe would most benefit current American citizens?” (Even within these parameters, the proposals of Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker are questionable; open borders, as Mr. Nowrasteh suggests, may have the most beneficial economic impact on the U.S.) Actual policymaking, however, should not exclude moral concerns. NPR should air another segment asking guests, “What would be a moral immigration policy?” That would help Americans think more profoundly about immigration policy.

Cato’s March 21, 2013 immigration event

The video is embedded below.

  • For the first twenty minutes, Shikha Dalmia argues for more “low-skilled” immigration, citing some of the studies discussed at the suppression of wages of natives and US-specific suppression of wages of natives pages.
  • For the next twenty minutes or so, Stuart Anderson makes the case for “high-skilled” immigration and discusses some of the politics and real-world constraints related to green cards and H-1Bs.
  • For the next ten minutes, John Tyler of the Kauffman Foundation argues that immigrants are entrepreneurial based on some studies. The studies and related stuff are discussed here.
  • For the last ten minutes, Alex Nowrasteh discusses the impact of immigration on native wages, repeating some of the material covered by Shikha Dalmia from a somewhat different perspective. His discussion here builds upon his blog post on the subject. On the subject of the welfare state/fiscal burden objection, Nowrasteh discusses a Cato bulletin (and working paper) that I blogged about here.

You can also view the event on the Cato page here.

The Iraq War and open borders

As the ten-year anniversary has made the Iraq War topical again, I thought it might be interesting to draw a few parallels between the Iraq War and open borders. For me, one of the most striking features of the Iraq War is the generosity of the war aims, at least as publicly declared. I find many of the critical suggestions made about the Bush administration’s motives, e.g. war for oil, as implausible as they are uncharitable, but if we put to one side the question of the “real” motives, the generosity of the motives that the Bush administration claimed to have make the Iraq War, as far as I know, a unique episode, and Bush a unique figure, in modern history. On the eve of the invasion, Bush said to the Iraqi people:

Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you.

As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need.

We will tear down the apparatus of terror, and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.

In free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms.

The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near.

It is too late for Saddam Hussein to remain in power. It is not too late for the Iraq military to act with honor and protect your country, by permitting the peaceful entry of coalition forces to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Our forces will give Iraqi military units clear instructions on actions they can take to avoid being attacked and destroyed.

I urge every member of the Iraqi military and intelligence services: If war comes, do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life.

Here the stress is on liberation. The war aim is to deliver freedom to the Iraqi people, freedom from poison factories, execution of dissidents, torture chambers. Of course, just because this was a motive of the war doesn’t mean it was the motive. Maybe you could deny that Bush was even claiming that liberation was even a motive. That is, you could say that (Bush thought) the war was in the US national interest, but we happened to intend to conduct it in a way that would benefit the Iraqi people too, and by publicizing this intention beforehand we would reduce resistance and make the military’s job easier. But then consider Bush’s Second Inaugural.

We have seen our vulnerability – and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America’s influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.

Note the universalism of Bush’s speech. Bush wants to “end tyranny in our world.” While he does represent this as being in the national interest, it is difficult to read this speech and think that Bush regards “ending tyranny in our world” as merely a means to an end (US national security). What other major public figure alive today has even paid lip service to such a lofty objective?

To critics of the Bush administration and the Iraq War, I would pose the question: Were Bush’s ideals too high? Was he wrong to (at least claim to) aspire to end tyranny in our world?

If so, why? Is it because he overestimated the value of freedom? Maybe freedom isn’t suitable for everyone? Maybe some peoples are “not ready for democracy,” or have different cultural values that make them prefer what a Westerner like Bush calls tyranny? Or is it that Bush was unrealistic, over-reaching, over-estimating America’s power to effect change? Is tyranny too entrenched, too grounded in human nature, to be overcome?

If not, what’s your alternative? How should we pursue the goal of ending tyranny in the world, if not by the means that Bush championed? It seems to me that the great disillusioned masses at both the popular and the elite levels have largely shirked this question. The general response seems to be to sneer, to dismiss Bush as dumb or whatever, to spin conspiracy theories or impute– possibly with justice, but that’s not the point– ulterior motives, and to try to forget the whole episode. The disillusioned have not tried to answer Bush’s high ideals with better high ideals. Rather, high ideals in general seem to have gone out of fashion. This is unfortunate.

Certainly, it seems unlikely that tyranny in our world will be ended in the fashion that America ended it in Iraq since 2003. The war was costly– perhaps $2.4 trillion— and neither the US nor other developed countries can afford to do that routinely. The regime in North Korea is still standing, possibly a worse tyranny than Saddam’s Iraq, and while there may be no other really totalitarian regimes left, Belarus, Vietnam, China, most of Central Asia, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries are unfree to an extent that a charge of “tyranny” might be appropriate. And while the war in Iraq has created a messy quasi-democracy in place of totalitarianism, in Afghanistan, where conditions were less favorable for democracy, a full Taliban restoration seems likely enough. Exporting institutions directly, via liberation, is too expensive and unreliable to be applied globally.

If we really want to end tyranny in our world, open borders will surely have to be a big part of the strategy. By realizing the right to emigrate on a global scale, we would free people to free themselves from tyranny. Emigres might then be a potent force for liberating their homelands, as I argued in “American Hajj: Towards an Open Society.” Unfortunately, the reaction against Bush has dispelled any consensus one might have hoped for in 2004 that we should be trying to end tyranny in our world. So this argument might have limited force just now. Incidentally, compare Bryan Caplan’s recent post “The Rights of the World’s Poor.” I like Caplan partly (let me mischievously suggest) for the same reason I liked Bush. High ideals.

Exposing the fundamentally immoral bedrock of most immigration laws

I recently stumbled across this blog post from 2010 by Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the US Supreme Court for 3 decades, about how morally troubling she found a (then recent) Supreme Court decision. She starts:

The Supreme Court’s ruling recently that lawyers have a duty to warn their noncitizen clients about the potentially disastrous immigration consequences of pleading guilty to a criminal charge seemed so sensible that it left me wondering why a question with such an obvious answer needed to be debated by the Supreme Court in the first place. Surely if the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of effective assistance of counsel means anything, it means that lawyers must advise their clients that admitting to even a minor offense can earn a noncitizen a quick one-way ticket into what immigration law delicately calls “removal proceedings.”

Yet a bare majority of the court agreed. Instead, two out of the nine justices took the federal government’s opinion: lawyers have no duty to advise their immigrant clients that they might destroy their lives by how they handle their criminal case, but if they choose to give legal advice on this count, it must at least be accurate (in the case in question, the advice was plainly wrong). Another two felt that since immigration law does not always automatically deport people who plead guilty to a crime, there is no obvious legal duty for an attorney to advise their client that doing so might ruin their lives.

Greenhouse found this morally troubling because:

That it took the Supreme Court in 2010 to tell us that non-citizens are entitled to be made aware of the full dimensions of their legal peril should be understood, I think, as a kind of wake-up call. In this nation of immigrants and their descendants, we have become so obsessed with rooting out, locking up and packing off those whom we decide should not be permitted to remain among us that we are in danger of losing a moral center of gravity.

She goes on to cite 3 other immigration stories, each worst than the last:

  1. Mentally-ill people deported without their families or lawyers being notified
  2. People being detained for deportation after they were found guilty of misdemeanours like smoking a joint of marijuana
  3. Haitian refugees, brought to the US by Marines on a military transport, jailed pending deportation

Greenhouse closes by quoting from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the proceedings of a case then before the Supreme Court:

Here we are talking about two crimes. One is a small amount of marijuana. He gets 20 days in jail. The other is a pill that I never heard of, a Xan-something, and he gets what, 10 days in jail for that. If you could just present this scenario to an intelligent person who didn’t go to law school, that you are going to not only remove him from this country, but say ‘Never, ever darken our doors again’ because of one marijuana cigarette and one Xan-something pill — it, it just seems to me that if there is a way of reading the statute that would not lead to that absurd result, you would want to read the statute ….

The lawyer representing the US government:

“What controls is Congress’s judgment,” Ms. Saharsky replied, “and Congress has taken a hard line over the past 20 years on criminal aliens, particularly recidivist criminal aliens.”

I suppose one could come up with research showing that deporting occasional marijuana smokers or prescription drug abusers, while unjust in individual cases, on average makes the country better off. But I don’t know why that is supposed to justify such blatant discrimination between citizens and non-citizens. What makes the drug addicted citizen who never chose to be born in your country that much morally superior to someone else who was unlucky enough to be born elsewhere, but consciously chose to join your country?

We are not even talking about authorised versus unauthorised immigrants: most, if not all, the people in Greenhouse’s stories are legal US immigrants. The man facing deportation because he listened to his lawyer’s horrible advice has lived in the US for 40 years, and served in the Vietnam War. Fortunately for him, the Kentucky Court of Appeals recently ordered a retrial of his case because the original conviction that was on the verge of getting him deported was unsound. And fortunately for many others cited by Greenhouse, media attention led to happy endings (though at least one of the incorrectly-deported mental patients was never found again by his family, and seems to be presumed dead). But how many millions of sad stories must there be, not just in the US, but around the world, all because our immigration laws are built on fundamentally immoral presumptions?

Greenhouse rightly questions the moral presumption that immigration laws are primarily about finding ways to keep people out, as opposed to finding ways to let them in. She closes by obliquely hinting:

[The Congress that takes a hard line with people who smoke a single joint and take  a single unprescribed pill] would be the same Congress that spent months tied up in knots over how conclusively to prohibit insurance coverage for abortion under the new health care legislation, ostensibly out of concern for the unborn. Maybe someday, members of Congress will display the same concern for those who happened to have been born, but on the wrong side of the border. Maybe, just maybe, the Supreme Court will show the way.

She should have been more explicit, and perhaps even a bit more daring in taking on more than just US law. Beyond the fundamental immorality of a regime focused on ways to keep good people out, we need to attack the fundamental immorality of a regime focused on ways to discriminate against good people purely because they were unlucky enough to be born the wrong way. Greenhouse’s stories may illustrate the need for better handling of mental illness or the reform of drug laws, but they all point in the same direction: the fundamental assumption behind most laws is that you can do to non-citizens unconscionable things that you would never dare do to citizens. We need to end this global apartheid: we need to demand legal systems in our countries that properly recognise the worth and dignity of every human being.

Immigration and the US Constitution

This is a guest post by Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University and blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy (posts by Somin only). Somin has argued for substantially freer immigration, particularly in the context of immigration to the United States, on both moral and practical grounds. A list of some of his writings relevant to open borders can be found at the Open Borders page about Somin.

The US Constitution does not in itself tell us what kind of immigration policy is right and just. But it is relevant to debates over immigration in at least three important ways. First, some opponents of increased immigration mistakenly argue that the Preamble and other parts of the Constitution commit the US government to ignoring the potential benefits of immigration to would-be migrants themselves. Second, there is a strong case that the original meaning of the Constitution restricts Congress’ power to limit migration, though it does give Congress broad power to deny citizenship to migrants. Finally, some structural aspects of the Constitution help limit the potential “political externalities” of open immigration, thereby weakening claims that the only way to prevent immigrants from having negative effects on public policy is to keep them out of the country entirely.

I. The Constitution does not Justify Ignoring the Benefits of Immigration for Immigrants.

The Preamble to the Constitution states that the document’s purpose is to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Some opponents of immigration claim that the inclusion of the phrase “ourselves and our posterity” suggests that the Constitution was only meant to benefit present US citizens and their descendants, thereby justifying the US government in ignoring the rights and welfare of potential migrants in making decisions on immigration policy. However, the term “posterity,” as used in the Preamble, is probably metaphorical rather than literal – denoting future residents of the United States in general rather than merely just those who were citizens in 1787 and their descendants. In the 18th century, as today, the word “posterity” was often used to denote “future generations” in general rather than merely the biological descendants of a particular group of people. In 1787, and for almost a century thereafter, the US had a virtual open borders policy, and the Framers of the Constitution had no intention of changing that. They knew that millions of immigrants would be among the “posterity” referred to in the Preamble.

Even if we assume that the “posterity” referred to in the Preamble really does refer only to those who were citizens in 1787 and their descendants, it does not follow that that the Constitution justifies ignoring the effects of immigration restrictions on would-be immigrants. As the Founding Fathers well knew, there are moral limits on what governments are allowed to do in pursuit of the interests of their citizens. For example, the United States has no right to invade Mexico and enslave its people – even if doing so would enhance “the general welfare” of Americans. Similarly, there are moral constraints on the extent to which the US government is justified in forcibly consigning would-be immigrants to lives of poverty and oppression in Third World countries. Neither the Preamble nor any other part of the Constitution states that the US government is entitled to ignore moral constraints on the means it uses to achieve the goals of the Constitution.

A closely related restrictionist argument is the claim that aliens are not entitled to the various constitutional rights enumerated in the Constitution. In reality, most of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are extended to all persons who enter areas governed by the United States, whether citizens or not. As James Madison put it at the Virginia ratifying convention for the Constitution, “[I]t does not follow, because aliens are not parties to the Constitution, as citizens are parties to it, that whilst they actually conform to it, they have no right to its protection.” In the few cases where the Constitution really does protect only citizens, the term “citizens” is explicitly used, as in the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, Section 2. Such explicit references to citizens would be unnecessary if there was an implicit understanding that all constitutional rights are limited to citizens alone.

II. Congress’ Power to Restrict Immigration.

The detailed enumeration of congressional powers in Article I of the Constitution does not include any power to restrict migration as such, even though it does include the power to make laws concerning the “naturalization” of foreigners and “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.” The Naturalization Clause does not create a power to prevent foreigners from entering the country. It merely allows Congress to set conditions for the grant of citizenship.

The scope of the power to regulate “commerce” has long been a source of controversy. But at the time of the Founding and for many decades thereafter, the dominant interpretation was that it merely gave Congress the power to restrict trade and other commercial transactions, not to forbid movement as such. The Commerce Clause also gives Congress the power to regulate interstate as well as international commerce. Yet few if any eighteenth and nineteenth century jurists would have argued that Congress therefore had the power to forbid Americans from moving from one state to another.

In recent years, some leading legal scholars have argued that the original meaning of the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate all “social interaction” that affects multiple states or foreign nations. But this interpretation would give Congress nearly unlimited power, and is inconsistent with the dominant original understanding that congressional power was intended to be strictly limited in order to limit infringements on the power of the states. For a more detailed critique of the interaction theory, see this article by Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett.

Congress can restrict the entry of some foreigners by using its other enumerated powers. For example, the power to declare war and to spend money for the “common defence” includes a power to forcibly restrict entry by enemy spies, terrorists, and soldiers. The power to “define and punish” offenses against “the law of nations” presumably allows Congress to restrict the movement of pirates and other violators of international law. But there is no general enumerated power giving Congress the authority to ban the entry of people simply because they are foreign nationals.

Not until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did Congress adopt a significant law banning migration as such, as opposed to restricting eligibility for citizenship or excluding individuals who posed a specific threat that Congress could address under one of its other enumerated powers. And, even then, there was considerable controversy over the law’s constitutionality, despite the fact that the Act was popular due to widespread anti-Chinese prejudice.

Modern Supreme Court decisions such as Gonzales v. Raich hold that Congress has the authority to regulate virtually any “economic activity” (defined broadly enough to cover most migration) and that it has “plenary” power to restrict immigration. It is unlikely that these doctrines will be reversed any time soon. Adherents of “living constitution” theories of constitutional interpretation can, consistent with their commitments, support this overriding of the text and original meaning. But professed originalists – who include many anti-immigration conservatives – are in a more difficult bind. This is especially true in light of the fact that conservative originalists have been in the forefront of those arguing for a narrow interpretation of Congress’ powers under interstate Commerce Clause. If the term “commerce” has a narrow definition when it comes to interstate commerce, the same applies to foreign commerce, since the Constitution literally uses the same word to cover both, giving Congress the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.”

A possible way out of this bind for originalists is the claim that the federal government has an “inherent” power to restrict international migration, regardless of whether it is explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. That was in fact the basis on which the Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of Chinese in 1889. But if the Constitution presumes such an inherent power to restrict migration, surely there is an equally inherent power to control naturalization. Yet Article I includes an explicit grant of the power to establish a “uniform Rule of Naturalization.”

Finally, even if Congress does have the power to exclude migrants for any reason it wants, nothing in the Constitution requires it to do so. The Constitution allows federal and state governments to do many things that are ill-conceived or unjust, and large-scale restrictions on immigration could be among them.

III. The Constitution and Potential Political Externalities of Immigration.

Sophisticated critics of immigration – particularly conservative and libertarian ones – often emphasize the problem of “political externalities:” the danger that immigrants will use the power of the vote to cause harmful changes in government policy. Several parts of the Constitution help restrict such dangers.

First, as noted above, the Naturalization Clause gives Congress the power to restrict migrants’ eligibility for citizenship. Under current law, most legal immigrants are eligible for citizenship only after five years, and only if they speak a modicum of English and can pass a citizenship test that many native-born Americans would fail. This ensures that immigrants will be at least partially assimilated before getting citizenship rights, and makes it less likely they would support laws that undermine core American values. If necessary, Congress could lengthen the waiting period for citizenship, make the test harder, or both. Living for many years in a nation that denies them citizenship rights may be unfair to immigrants. But most would prefer living as a non-citizen in a relatively free and prosperous society to life as a full citizen in poor and often oppressive Third World nations.

Second, the Constitution’s requirement that each state has two senators leads to overrepresentation of states with small populations. Most such states are relatively rural states far from the East and West coasts, and they tend to have few immigrants. The resulting overrepresentation of native-born citizens diminishes the relative power of immigrant voters, and thereby helps alleviate any political externalities they might cause. The Constitution also restricts most powerful elected offices to citizens, and allows Congress to restrict non-citizen eligibility for federal welfare programs.

The political effects of the Naturalization Clause and the Senate are double-edged swords. In some cases, immigrant voters might use their influence to improve American public policy rather than make it worse. When that happens, restrictions on eligibility for citizenship and overrepresentation of native-born citizens in the Senate turn out to be harmful rather than beneficial. But those who worry about the political externalities of immigration are likely to be pessimists rather than optimists in their assessment of the influence of of immigrant voters. Such pessimists should welcome the fact that the Constitution has many mechanisms for controlling such externalities without resorting the more draconian approach of banning migrants from entering in the first place, and thereby consigning many to a lifetime of misery in the Third World.

UPDATE: At the Originalism Blog, University of San Diego Law Professor Michael Ramsey raises an objection that has also been advanced by some commenters on this site:

Professor Somin argues, among other things, that the Constitution’s original meaning does not give Congress general power to restrict immigration…

I think his argument may well be correct. But if it is, I think it quite plainly leads to a result Professor Somin does not mention, and which the folks at Open Borders do not want hear: it would leave to the states the power to restrict immigration.

I agree that the states had the power to restrict immigration under the original 1787 Constitution. But matters are far less clear after the Fourteenth Amendment, which, among other things, restricts state government discrimination against aliens. As the Supreme Court pointed out in Plyler v. Doe (admittedly in an opinion written by non-originalist Justice William Brennan), several of the framers of the Amendment specifically stated that one of its purposes was to curb such discrimination.

But if it turns out that the price of limiting congressional power to restrict immigration is increasing state power to do so, that’s a tradeoff I’m more than happy to accept. Some states might choose to severely limit immigration, but – thanks to interjurisdictional competition – others will embrace it. And life in any American state is a far better deal for immigrants than being consigned to the Third World, which is the effect of federal laws banning migration.

UPDATE #2: Michael Ramsey’s colleague and co-blogger Mike Rappaport comments on this post here. Mike agrees with me that “the Constitution does not give Congress the power to regulate immigration as such.” But he also argues that Congress does have the power to regulate some other types of international movement, such as crossing international boundaries for commercial purposes. I largely agree. But such restrictions are a far cry from being able to ban mere migration across international lines.

Mike also raises the issue of state authority to impose migration, barriers, but concludes (as I do above) that state migration laws are unlikely to impede immigration as much as federal ones do, given interstate variation and competition. He does not address my point about the ways in which the Fourteenth Amendment might restrict state governments’ power to regulate migration.

Finally, Mike suggests that if the Supreme Court had struck down the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s, Congress might have been given the power to ban immigration by constitutional amendment. That is certainly possible. But the Constitution is extremely hard to amend, and it is far from clear that the supporters of the Exclusion Act had the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, plus winning the support of three quarters of state legislatures.

Related reading

These links have been edited by the Open Borders: The Case editorial staff and were not vetted by the author.

Other related material by the author: Obama, immigration, and the rule of law [updated with additional material on precedents for Obama’s action, and a response to Timothy Sandefur] by Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy (Washington Post), November 20, 2014.

Related Open Borders: The Case blog posts:

Relevant background material coverage on Open Borders: The Case:

The painting featured at the top of this post depicts the signing of the United States Constitution, and is available in the public domain.