Last year Pope Francis visited the United States and addressed Congress. A significant portion of his speech was devoted to how people should respond to immigrants. While not appealing for specific immigration policies, Pope Francis reminded his listeners that immigrants deserve to be treated humanely:
“… thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.”
Open borders supporters can highlight certain remarks that appear to support our cause, especially the sentence “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.” For immigrants from developing countries to enjoy the same opportunities as people living in developed countries, they must be allowed to enter and remain in advanced countries. And it seems impossible to treat immigrants in a way that is “humane” and “just” under a policy of restrictions. (The group No One Is Illegal states that “the achievement of fair immigration restrictions… would require a miracle.”) At the same time, those opposed to open borders could reference a remark in the Pope’s speech (not quoted above) in which he states that the world refugee crisis “presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions.” One might infer that those decisions might involve accepting some migrants into destination countries and refusing others.
But what about the Golden Rule itself? Is it a foundation for open borders? One approach to the Golden Rule would seem to support open borders. Consider Bryan Caplan’s remark that all that we really owe strangers is to leave them alone. If this is applied universally, “Do unto others…” could mean that you wouldn’t have anyone block you from shopping, living, or working where you please, even if it’s in another country, so you shouldn’t interfere with others’ ability to do the same, regardless of their nationality. This seems to be what the Pope means when he says, “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”
The Golden Rule also could be seen as supporting a limited version of open borders. It would support open borders for citizens of countries with comparable economic prosperity. For example, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have roughly the same per capita GDP. It would make sense that citizens of any one of these countries would have the other two countries allow them to migrate freely to those countries to pursue economic opportunities, so they should have open borders for citizens of the two other countries to enter their country.
However, the Golden Rule’s support for open borders could founder when applied to citizens of countries with wide economic disparities. This is because citizens of the Third World generally have much more to gain from moving permanently to the First World than citizens in the First World have to gain from moving permanently to the Third World. Citizens of developed countries, who generally have little desire to migrate to developing countries, probably wouldn’t have developing countries open their borders to them, especially if it meant they would have to, under the Golden Rule, reciprocate. Therefore, they wouldn’t be obligated to open their borders to citizens from developing countries. For example, most Canadians likely would be okay with Bangladeshis telling them that they couldn’t migrate to Bangladesh, so Canadians wouldn’t have to open their borders to Bangladeshis. On the other hand, most Bangladeshis probably would have Canada open its borders to them, so they would have to open their borders to Canadians. This difference in perspective reflects a weakness that others have noted about the Golden Rule: the difficulty of applying it to “differences of situation.”
Pope Francis’ comments about treating immigrants with compassion are inspiring. However, I disagree that the Golden Rule “points us in a clear direction” about how to respond to immigration. It is too malleable to provide a moral foundation for immigration policy.