My last post about migration focused on the predictions of economists about the effects of open borders. Commenter Oliver made the point, surely correctly, that, given social, cultural, economic, and political feedback effects, it is simply impossible to know. But there are other ways of thinking about the issues other than looking at the aggregate consequences. For example, we can focus on the rights of individuals to seek new lives, associates and opportunities and on the rights of groups, peoples, states and nations to exclude outsiders. The unilateral right to exclude is well-represented in the literature, especially be the work of Christopher Heath Wellman (see his contribution to the excellent Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? (with Phillip Cole arguing the opposite cases)).
Such works, though, typically address the issues at a somewhat idealized level, asking what rights (properly constituted legitimate democratic) polities do or don’t have. That doesn’t necessarily provide adequate guidance in the actual world; nor does it tell voters who think their state has the right to exclude whether or not to support exclusionary policies. Those strike me as very pertinent questions. Proponents of highly liberalized migration policies are often chastised for being insufficiently alive to the political realities. But a fair response to the self-styled realists is to ask, given the way things are, what they are actually prepared to countenance.
So let’s just assume that, at the ideal level, the “democratic exclusionists” (to coin a phrase) have the best of the argument. That covers people like MacMahon, but also people in the earlier thread such as MPAVictoria for whom it is up to first-world electorates to decide whether or not to allow third-world immigrants into their labour markets.
Meanwhile, in our non-ideal world, consider two imaginary families: the Hernandez family who live in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, and the Masud family, who live in a small village in Bangladesh. The Hernandez family live in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with hundreds of murders every year due to violent turf wars between drug cartels. The Masud family, who have worked their family farm for generations, face the loss of everything and a move to a marginal and impoverished existence in Dhaka because of the effects of climate change. Both families would move to other countries, if they could. If the Hernandez family could make it over the border into the United States their children would have much better prospects (including a better chance of not being drawn into crime or murdered); if the Masud family could move to the United Kingdom (the former colonial power) or Australia, their children would also do much better.
Currently, none of those countries will permit these families to immigrate. (They are unskilled, so they don’t fill skills gaps in the economies of the wealthy nations.) If they try to immigrate illegally, the wealthy countries have a formidable apparatus of coercive power to keep them out: border obstacles, guards, fences, detention centres, etc. If caught trying to immigrate (perhaps with the aid of professional traffickers) they will be sent back.
Do our democratic exclusionists want to endorse these uses of state power to keep these poor would-be migrants out? Do they think these uses of shackles, dogs, fences and tripwires against such people legitimate?
What ought to give them pause, I think, is the responsibility of the states and societies claiming the right to exclude for the plight of the excluded. The reason why the situation of the Hernandez family is so desperate is largely because of the domestic demand for illegal drugs in the United States, the violent policies used to suppress that demand and trade (the “war on drugs”) and the supply of weaponry into Mexico from the United States. Isn’t it a bit much for the state that has made these people’s lives hell then to block their means of escape? The same goes for the Masud family. The reason they now face destitution as internal environmental refugees is because of the carbon emissions of wealthy people in industrialized countries. The per capita emissions of Americans, Australians and Europeans far exceed those of the people they are flooding out of their livelihood. Again, given their responsibility for the rising waters, by what right do they now claim the right to exclude their victims? Note that this isn’t merely about the rectification of some historic injustice but about how, in each of these two cases, states wanting to exclude bear direct causal and moral responsibility for the dire situation of those they would detain, shackle and deport.