Tag Archives: sovereignty

What do governments owe non-citizens?

A common intuitive response to the case for open borders is, “What do I owe someone I’ve never met, who shares no creed, affiliation, or allegiance with me? What does my government owe someone who isn’t even a citizen?” Co-blogger Nathan has already addressed this line of thought in his own way, but I would like to further grapple with the assumptions underlying this citizenist logic.

The problem I see with this intuition about immigration is it totally denies the existence of any human rights. It presumes that all rights must flow from the existence of a nation-state, and that without the state, one would have no rights. From a law enforcement perspective, this is trivially true: the state is the instrument by which human beings mutually guarantee our rights. But from a moral standpoint, it hardly follows that states only owe anything to their constituents, and owe nothing to anyone else.

Suppose it is true that governments’ only role and mandate is to maximise the welfare of their citizens. Would that justify the hostile annexation of a neighbouring state? Would that justify permitting the theft of non-citizens’ property, or assault against non-citizens? Clearly not.

One can argue that the reason modern states prohibit crimes against foreigners is because of the threat of retaliation from foreign states. Does that imply that it would be fine for any one of us to rob, rape, or kill a stateless person, since we have no retaliatory threat to fear?

You could argue then that this would still be a net welfare loss for the nation, because other states might refuse to protect my nation’s citizens in their jurisdictions, unless they see that my nation too upholds the sanctity of human rights. Precisely! Many rights do not flow from the state; they flow from the innate worth and dignity of every human being.

When the topic of open borders comes up, skeptics are quick to say: “But we can’t let everyone in! What do we owe foreigners? We can’t afford to give everyone welfare! And look, not everyone is entitled to be a citizen of my country.” But welfare, suffrage, the privileges of citizenship — those are all political rights, which obviously and by necessity flow only from a state. Beyond political rights, there are fundamental human rights, which the international community and all reasonable human beings recognise derive from no earthly governing body.

Defenders of the status quo love to say “the law is the law; it must be followed” when it comes to immigration. When asked to defend the law on its merits, they insist there is no need to, because every sovereign nation is entitled to its own immigration policy. That may be true, but every human being is entitled to rights of their own too.

We accept that governments have the right to kill people. We accept that they have the right to coerce people. But we would not take it lying down if tomorrow our government told us “I’m going to kill 5,000 people, because I feel like it.” Americans would not be happy if their government said “I’m going to reinstate the draft, because I have the right to do that.” Even the most hardcore restrictionist would probably be unsure about defending the merits of an immigration policy that executes all illegal border-crossers on sight — even though illegal immigrants supposedly have no rights which a foreign state is bound to respect.

None of this is to say that human rights dictate that sovereign governments have no right to an immigration policy, any more than most understandings of international trade would suggest that sovereign governments have no right to a trade policy. But human rights create a strong presumption that governments must rebut before implementing policies that restrict human rights. If a government wants to conscript its residents, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.” And if a government wants to tear families apart, or prevent people from looking for gainful employment, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.”

When government policies destroy families and destroy jobs, there is a clear obligation to justify these policies. You can argue that the benefits of denying certain rights outweigh the costs. But you cannot suggest that the costs are irrelevant. It is amply evident that every human being has rights, and yet that all these rights can be infringed as long as nation states exist. But we must be clear about why we make the difficult choice to declare some human beings’ rights not worth respecting.

Were the UK and US right to deny visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust? Is it right for the UK or US to prevent a native-born child from living with his mother, because she is an unauthorised immigrant? Maybe — there’s a plausible argument that what these governments did and do here is right. But it is not an easy, slam dunk argument to make. The conventional response is that there is no need to make such an argument: governments have no obligations to foreigners; foreigners have no rights or dignity as human beings that are worth respecting. I think this conventional response does not actually make the difficult questions around these policy decisions go away.