Accusations of racism in the immigration debate

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 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.

4 thoughts on “Accusations of racism in the immigration debate”

  1. Good points. A deeper question is: why is racism wrong? I think the real answer is: it isn’t fair to treat people differently because of things they can’t help. By “real” I mean that I think that’s the reasoning, perhaps not quite conscious, that makes people have the attitudes to racism that they have. As I stated it, the principle is not quite satisfactory, and it probably wouldn’t be possible, and it might not be desirable to attempt, to apply it universally and consistently. For example, people can’t help beauty or ugliness, but would it be a good idea not to discriminate on the basis of personal beauty in one’s choice of whom to marry? Is it wrong to discriminate on the basis of beauty when deciding whom to marry? So it may be a bit arbitrary that American society has stigmatized racism, or perhaps the extreme stress we put on the principle of non-racism is defensible in terms of larger historical narratives and policy objectives rather than through a simple appeal to justice such as I articulated above. Still, as far as justice is concerned, it’s just as unfair to discriminate against someone on the basis of their place of birth as on the basis of their skin color.

    I’d almost want to coin a term like “birthplacism” to define the morally objectionable element in the attitude Vipul calls “citizenism.” Citizenism is in some cases, partly, a choice. You might be a Green Card holder with the option to apply for citizenship, and you don’t. I don’t think that’s morally wrong, but it does signal a lower degree of investment in a certain polity and probably, in some cases, justifies different treatment by that polity and its citizens. I have no objection to a rule that only citizens can vote. I’d regard with skepticism a rule that only citizens can hold certain jobs, but I’m open-minded about that; certainly a policy like that would be nowhere near as bad as wholesale migration restrictions. The injustice comes in when certain people, in fact most people, can never become citizens, and are treated differently on that basis.

    1. Nice points, Nathan. I think you use the word citizenism (not a standard word by any means!) differently from how I do. Your focus seems to be more on whether citizens should have additional rights/privileges. My use of the word citizenism is borrowed from immigration restrictionist Steve Sailer. Sailer means that political decisions (including decisions about immigration law) should be made taking into account only the *interests* of *current* citizens.

      What he’s effectively saying (I think) is that the moment somebody becomes a US citizen, that person enters into Sailer’s moral calculus (or at any rate, gets a significant boost in that moral calculus). But the decision of whether to allow a person into the moral calculus would, per Sailer, be based on the interests only of those already citizens. I think Sailer’s one of the few people to articulate it so clearly, but I think this is roughly the view held by many people on both sides of the immigration debate. I don’t think Sailer bears any ill will to those not currently American citizens, he just doesn’t think that immigration law needs to consider the rights or interests of these people.

      Your use of the word citizenism is more in line with a rights-based perspective (natural for a natural-rights libertarian!), while Sailer’s use of the term is from the perspective of “which people’s utility functions do we include in our cost-benefit analysis?”

      I don’t think Sailer is a “birthplacist” because he doesn’t support automatic citizenship for people born in the United States to foreigners (see here for instance). I don’t know how Sailer would justify automatic citizenship for the children of American citizens. [Who knows, may be he wouldn’t?] Probably, a first cut explanation for him would be that it is something that the parents of the child want, and the interests of the parents count, because the parents are American citizens.

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