Illegal immigrants and runaway slaves

From my friend Seth Vitrano-Wilson, a Christian missionary:

Throughout the history of the United States, there have been people who didn’t have the freedom to go where they wanted to go. They couldn’t work for themselves in the US and earn their own money legally. If the government found them entering an area illegally, they would deport them back to where they came from. A lot of people believed none of them should be allowed to live freely and legally in the US at all, but even those who accepted they could be in the US free and legally made a distinction between those who earned their free presence in the US by following the rules, and those that broke the law by moving locations via a secret network of human traffickers.

Two hundred years ago, these people were called slaves.

Today, we call these people immigrants.

Nearly everyone today would agree that slavery is wrong, that sending a runaway slave back to their master is wrong, and that helping a runaway slave is right. We wouldn’t care if someone gained their freedom to move and work by “legal” or “illegal” means, because the whole premise that you could justly restrict people’s movement and employment via slavery is an affront to justice. We find it reprehensible that people would keep others as slaves simply for their own economic gain, or because of some supposed inherent superiority by birth, or because we fear how “they” will change the character of “our” country.

So why do we think differently about immigration restrictions today? Why is it wrong to restrict people’s freedom to live and work where and how they want if we call it “slavery,” but somehow right if we do the same thing and call it “immigration policy”? Two hundred years ago, runaway slaves were treated as criminals and deported back to their masters—a terrible stain on our nation’s history. Today, we do the same thing to illegal immigrants—breaking up families, ruining lives, impoverishing the impoverished.

If we look to the example of the abolitionists, the underground railroad, and the brave runaway slaves who risked their lives for freedom, we see just how hypocritical and unjust so much of our rhetoric about immigration is today. “Illegal” immigrants are brave defenders of the principles of freedom and justice. “Legal” immigrants are those blessed with masters kind enough to give them a sanctioned path to freedom. Would we ever dare tell a slave hoping for freedom to “get to the back of the line”? What line?? How many slaves could realistically expect to gain their freedom by legal means? And how many poor immigrants-to-be can realistically expect a legal visa under the current draconian restrictions?

Rather than debating about whether we should spend $20 billion versus $100 billion on the border patrol, or whether we need to catch 90% of the runaway slaves (I mean, “illegal immigrants”) crossing the border, we should be opening up the floodgates of freedom. Let people live and work where they will.

Editor’s note: See this much longer post on the lessons for open borders from the abolition of slavery.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

3 thoughts on “Illegal immigrants and runaway slaves”

  1. It’s true that there are similarities between slaves seeking freedom and migrants seeking a better life. But the analogy is far from exact. Many migrants seek to leave conditions that are very different from actual slavery. We should not simply notice the similarities and stop there.

    Nathan’s friend asks, “So why do we think differently about immigration restrictions today?” We could answer him by pointing to all the harms and objections documented on this website, or to websites that argue for restricted immigration.

    1. Erik, the analogy is definitely far from exact. Thank God, illegal immigrants typically (though not always) have much more freedom in their homelands than slaves did in American society. But my point is simple: If we believe that people have a fundamental right to live and work where they will, as long as they do so peacefully, then helping illegal immigrants is morally obligatory, and there is no moral distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigration. I acknowledge, of course, that many people (probably most, if they haven’t thought about it or been exposed to the arguments for the idea) would reject the concept that we have a natural right to freedom of movement. But the fact that this right has been masked by false arguments does nothing to change its existence and its moral force. Slavery had a whole industry of moral justification in its day; so too today do the passport police. We should not let opposition to this universal human right deter us from pushing for its recognition and application.

  2. It’s not a perfect analogy, but a useful one. As with the fugitive slave laws, all of us have a moral obligation to disobey these unjust immigration laws and to assist others in doing so. We need to create an underground railroad … it exists in bits and pieces already.

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