Immigration, emigration, and the rule of law

Large numbers of people in the United States (and possibly elsewhere) draw a sharp distinction between legal and illegal immigration. Common refrains include, “I have nothing against immigration, only illegal immigration.” Prospective immigrants are urged to get in line. Illegal immigrants are called “illegals” and questionable analogies are drawn with hostile alien invasions. Crossing borders without authorization is considered so fundamentally immoral that people who do so are punished more harshly than sex offenders. The kinder, gentler opponents of unauthorized border-crossing go far enough to concede that deporting millions of people isn’t practical, and instead favor attrition through enforcement, aka self-deportation.

For the moment, I’m interested specifically in those opponents of illegal immigration who explicitly argue that they have nothing against immigration per se, even dramatically increased immigration, but illegal immigration is bad specifically because it undermines respect for the rule of law. And given that people don’t have enough respect for US law (or the laws of the country they’re immigrating to) to immigrate legally, why would they respect the laws of the land once they have settled there?

This argument can be, and has been, critiqued from many angles (see the legal versus illegal page for more). Here, I’m going to critique it by contrasting it with emigration. A number of regimes, mostly communist, explicitly forbid people from leaving the country (fortunately, this number has been dwindling over the last few decades, with Cuba’s lifting of its travel embargo being the latest positive development). And yet, we know that emigration has been crucial for people escaping communist and other tyrannical regimes. And these people have helped shed light on the crimes of these regimes and helped end some of the worst practices of these regimes. Today, the only country that’s really hard to leave due to government restrictions is North Korea.

My question: when people illegally smuggle themselves out of North Korea to go to Mongolia and then to South Korea, or Cubans illegally escape their country to come to the United States, or East Germans cross the Berlin Wall to get into West Germany, why aren’t restrictionists equally worried about the lack of respect these emigrants display for the “rule of law” in their countries? After all, they are explicitly and clearly violating the laws of the country they were born into. If so, why should we expect them to follow the laws of the country they are migrating to?

You’d probably say I am attacking a straw man here. Clearly, the emigration laws of these countries are so depraved that it is morally permissible to break them, and morally impermissible to actively try to enforce them. And if somebody violates these laws, it does not mean that the person is likely to violate generally sensible laws in other domains of life.

But this raises the question: are immigration laws also sufficiently unjust that it is morally permissible to violate them? Although restrictionists often use the killing versus letting die distinction, the truth is that considerable violence is necessary to close borders — whether you’re closing them to prevent entry or to prevent escape. And does people’s violating immigration laws mean that they have no respect for the rule of law in general, or just that they simply don’t see immigration law as being on the same moral plane as, say, laws against murder and theft, or simple rules about what side of the road to drive on?

Now, my goal in this blog post is not to argue that opposition to immigration is obviously or always immoral, or that these moral considerations override the real-world costs of immigration (I do obviously believe that — or I wouldn’t have created this site and wouldn’t be blogging here — but that is not the purpose of this blog post). Rather, what I’m claiming is that people who specifically object to immigration because it’s “illegal” while claiming no objections to legal immigration are ducking the hard question of whether, in fact, immigration laws are sufficiently morally justified to make their violation immoral. Honest opponents of immigration would do better to actually engage the moral and practical considerations surrounding immigration rather than claim that their “only” problem with immigration is that it’s illegal.

4 thoughts on “Immigration, emigration, and the rule of law”

  1. In reference to people leaving their oppressive countries whose governments make it difficult (or “illegal”) to leave, you didn’t mention the United States. There are more and more restrictions against Americans, economically, and with passport applications, and so on, and it gets worse every year. And so-called “Border Control” goons are spreading farther and farther inland inside the U.S. America is becoming truly a USSA.

    And also, when conservative talk radio hosts discuss the immigration issue, my perception of their real attitude is that they just don’t want “outsiders” getting in, that’s the bottom line. So I believe that, yes, the anti-“illegal” immigration crowd is much more out of xenophobia than out of concern for the “rule of law.”

    1. Scott, you’re quite right that the US is a difficult country to leave in relative terms, particularly given their rules on worldwide taxation of non-residents. I don’t intend to downplay or undermine these difficulties. But I think the difficulty of physically leaving the US is quite small relative to that of leaving North Korea. I think it would be quite inappropriate to even mention the US’s restrictive rules in the same sentence as talking about North Korea.

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