Ongoing Violations of the Rights of Immigrants

Arturo Hernandez Garcia was working peaceably in Denver putting in floors when he was arrested by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Garcia is married with two children—both U.S. citizens—and he has no criminal background. Yet he was forcibly taken from his job and his life and confined, and he now faces the possibility of being forcibly ejected from the country. Garcia is one of thousands of people treated in this manner so far this year.

America’s immigration “policy” in many cases is to send out heavily armed thugs with badges to snatch peaceable people from their homes and jobs and rip apart families. This policy is a moral outrage and a profound violation of people’s rights.

Ah, but Garcia and countless others like him are “illegal” immigrants—and “don’t you know what EE-LEE-GAL! means?” Yes, I do know what illegal means in this context. It means that many peaceable individuals are legally prohibited from working for willing employers, from renting or purchasing property from willing providers, from living with their families, and generally from acting to improve their lives, as they have a moral right to do.

Many of the same conservatives who cheer on the rounding up and removal of “illegal” immigrants, when talking about themselves and their own interests and values, recognize that rights precede government and are not mere legal concoctions. Yet they pretend that somehow immigrants do not have the same rights the rest of us have, only permissions which government may deign to grant or not.

The fact that government bars many peaceable people from immigrating does not mean they have no right to do so. To draw a comparison from history, the fact that government used to permit some people to enslave others did not give them a right to do so, and the fact that government forbade slaves to escape their masters did not revoke their right to do so. Just laws recognize and protect people’s rights; unjust laws violate people’s rights and are therefore not morally binding. Excusing rights-violating government actions because “the law is the law” is intellectual default and moral cowardice.

The rule of law, in the context of just law, is indeed a foundation of a free and prosperous society. The rule of rights-violating law is a foundation of tyranny and, potentially, of totalitarianism.

No one who takes seriously the principle of individual rights denies that peaceable people have a right to migrate under normal circumstances. The rights to move from place to place, to seek out voluntary associations (including employment) with others, to live with one’s family—these are basic to all people. (See philosopher Michael Huemer’s remarks about this.)

To address the usual caveats: Yes, in time of war or other serious threat of widespread violence government may temporarily restrict freedom of movement in some ways for the sake of general safety. (Today the threat of violent jihad justifies some immigration restrictions.) Yes, government may check people at the border and keep out criminals and those with contagious diseases. Yes, government may remove immigrants who squat on public or private property or who otherwise violate rights. No, immigrants do not have a “right” to welfare (even though illegal immigrants now pay many billions of dollars annually in taxes). No, illegal immigrants should not have an easy or automatic (or necessarily any) path to citizenship.

None of the following facts justifies the violation of the rights of immigrants:

  • Immigrants sometimes compete with American citizens for jobs. There is no “right” to a job or to a particular wage; only a right to seek work on mutually agreed terms.
  • Other countries also restrict the migration of peaceable people.
  • Arrests of illegal immigrants (both criminal and noncriminal) were higher under Barack Obama the first part of 2014 than under Trump the first part of 2017. Rights violations are not justified because “the other guy is (sometimes) worse.”
  • ICE also arrests many violent immigrants. That’s great; it does not justify ICE arresting peaceable people.
  • Some immigrants violate government rules that the government makes practically impossible for them to follow, as by driving without a license.
  • Illegal immigrants didn’t “wait in line.” The existence of the line is an artifact of unjust government policy. Can you imagine making people “wait in line” to speak their mind or attend church?
  • Other people want to violate immigrants’ rights even more severely. (I was disappointed to see David Frum make this “argument” for the Atlantic.)
  • Some immigrants will commit crimes (even though immigrants commit proportionally fewer crimes). By comparison, the fact that some members of a given ethnic group (or gender) commit crimes does not justify the wholesale rights violations of every member of the group.

The rights violations of today’s immigration policy are widespread, and the resulting harms are severe. Government forcibly prevents countless individuals from seeking a profoundly better life for themselves and their families, with the result that many are left impoverished and in extreme danger of violence.

Outrage at the injustices at hand is appropriate—but not sufficient. We—meaning advocates of individual rights concerned about immigration policy—need strategies to spur others to take seriously the ongoing injustices and to prompt political change. We can aim for consistently rights-protecting policies while pushing for piecemeal reforms to reduce the scope and harm of rights violations.

Amnesty is an obvious reform in the right direction. I’m not talking about granting illegal immigrants the “right” to vote or anything along those lines. But immigrants who have long lived peaceably in the country, and who often have careers and families here, should be given an opportunity to achieve legal status.

Immigration for job seekers and students, especially for those with open offers in the United States, should be expanded, not further restricted. It is worth remembering here that current immigration policy violates the rights of U.S. citizens who wish to hire or otherwise associate with immigrants, no less than it violates the rights of immigrants. Such abuse comes at great economic cost, as Ilya Somin explains.

One possible approach is to federalize the issue. Why not let the states set their own immigration inflows? States could set immigration targets and terms, and immigrants could agree to live and work in a given state (with federal sign-off). It would be far easier for activists in a few states to achieve freer markets, freer migration, and restrained welfare than for activists to achieve comparable reforms at the federal level.

Regardless of particulars, people who advocate individual rights—and people who have a basic sense of decency—have got to resist the temptation to ignore the extreme harm that government imposes on many peaceable immigrants by violating their rights. Immigrants deserve better—and so do the rest of us.

Image: Quim Gil