Opportunity means having the option to work towards a life with sufficient or even prodigious resources. Unfortunately, equal opportunity does not exist either within or between countries. Differences in opportunity are, however, especially pronounced between countries. This is a major reason why open borders is so attractive; open borders would reduce the opportunity gap by allowing those who live in countries with very little opportunity to improve their circumstances by moving to a country with more opportunity. It is also why efforts by the most privileged individuals in developed countries to deny open borders to the disadvantaged of less developed countries are so egregious.
The hierarchy of opportunity in the world looks roughly like this. The most privileged are those born into wealth in both developed and less developed countries. Next on the rung would be those born into the middle class of the developed countries. (It is unclear where the middle classes of the less developed countries would appear on the hierarchy; it probably depends on the individual country.) The working classes in the developed countries would follow, with those in countries with stronger safety nets above the U.S. working class. The poor in developed countries would follow, with the poor in less developed countries occupying the bottom. This group itself could be ordered according to the level of poverty and political dysfunction they experience. At the very bottom would be residents of Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan, where people must survive apocalyptic conditions.
The wealthy U.S. President Donald Trump has always occupied the top level of this hierarchy. He was born into wealth in a stable liberal democracy (which some would argue he is working to undermine). Chuck Collins, author of Born on Third Base, notes that Trump “was set-up for success.”
Rather than adopt a perspective of noblesse oblige, Trump is targeting those at the bottom levels of the privilege hierarchy: undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and would-be immigrants from poor and/or violent countries. (The majority of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico and other less developed countries.) The Trump administration has moved to make it easier to deport people. It is also attempting to ensure the detention of asylum seekers from Central America while their cases are pending and to punish Central American parents for trying to get their children into the U.S. His homeland security secretary even raised the idea of separating children and parents who arrive in the U.S. from Central America to deter others from coming, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to make cases against those who cross the border illegally a higher priority. Trump also has promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and has tried to stop the entrance of Syrian refugees into the U.S. altogether.
Trump is not the only very privileged American to target disadvantaged immigrants and refugees. Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is the chairman of the House immigration subcommittee. He supported a 2005 bill that would have made being in the U.S. without authorization a criminal offense. According to The New York Times, he “has no tolerance for illegal immigrants, either in his political life or personal life.” At the same time, he is also among the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth of almost $25 million in 2014. The New York Times reports that he received “a fortune” from a great-grandfather, and ABC News lists him among the “top five political heirs.”
While apparently not born into wealth, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s aforementioned attorney general, was listed among the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth of over $7 million in 2014. The Washington Post has noted that in his previous job as senator “Sessions has opposed nearly every immigration bill that has come before the Senate the past two decades that has included a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.”
At the same time, apparently more privileged Americans, as represented by a higher level of education, are generally more receptive to immigration than their less privileged peers. In fact, a National Academy of Sciences report suggests that well off Americans benefit from immigration. Thomas Edsall quotes from the report: “In summary, the immigration surplus stems from the increase in the return to capital that results from the increased supply of labor and the subsequent fall in wages. Natives who own more capital will receive more income from the immigration surplus than natives who own less capital, who can consequently be adversely affected.” (Note that some economists assert that immigrants have little or no effect on workers with relatively little education.)
So it is surprising when privileged Americans voice opposition to immigration, since they apparently gain financially from it. Of course, such individuals may be concerned about the cultural impact associated with immigration, or they may be concerned about its impact on their disadvantaged compatriots. Or, if running for public office, they may be cynically appealing to voters’ fears about immigrants.
Whatever their motivation, from a moral perspective it is appalling when privileged Americans, among the most privileged people in the world, oppose the immigration of individuals who are among the most disadvantaged. It is especially disconcerting when they have the political power to realize this opposition, as in the cases of Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, and James Sensenbrenner.