A Succinct History
Immigration is what created the country as we know it, whether your ancestors were on the Mayflower or you bundled up your life and came here yourself, it is undeniable that this country wouldn’t exist without it. After independence, immigration (like most things in this country) was relatively ungoverned, but in the early years it was also barely a trickle. It wasn’t until the 1840’s that things really got started, and more and more immigrants entered the country. The foreign-born population reached its zenith circa 1910 at 14.7%. Unsurprisingly, as the foreign-born population rose higher, more and more people found it objectionable and worried about the loss of cultural and political unity in the country (sound familiar?). Restrictions increased up until around 1965 when restrictions were significantly loosened. This was palatable to the public because the foreign-born population, around 5%, had reached a low not seen since shortly after the founding. The preceding waves of immigrants had seemingly melted into the fabric of the country. New and different waves of people arrived on America’s shores and the foreign born population exploded (sometimes literally) to 13.1% by 20131. Almost half of these are naturalized citizens2, meaning only approximately 7% of the US population are not considered Americans by the US government.
Current Immigration System
This is the confusing part. We only let in certain numbers of people from each country on certain visa categories, and have overall limits on each category as well. The wait for a highly qualified Indian or Chinese national on an H1B (skilled worker) visa can be tens of years while a Nepali (who is culturally similar to many Indians) can get in right away without any special skills. There are categories for every type of situation, I am not an immigration lawyer so I won’t pretend to know them all, but I will mention a few I’m familiar with. Student visas (F-1) allow people to stay here to study, these expire after their education ends. Holders of F-1 visas can apply for what is called OPT, Optional Practical Training, which allows them to stay in the country for 1 year to work a regular job related to their degree. Typically they do not pay all the payroll taxes (like SS/Medicare) and thus make attractive employees where industries are able to employ them economically without much training/pay or they expect to get them an H1-B visa after the F-1 visa expires.
Speaking of H1-B visas, this is a contentious visa which allows employers to petition for skilled workers they ‘couldn’t’ otherwise employ among the native population at the prevailing wage. The definitions of all these things (skilled worker, prevailing wage, couldn’t hire) are all points of contention between restrictionists and their critics. These visas are most famously given to ‘Tech’ and healthcare workers, my own wife was a recipient. It is by no means a sure thing for those who apply for them as the whole supply (the government limits the total number given out) is usually used up in a few days after the application process opens. There are also unskilled and migrant worker visas. I don’t have much experience with these, or much to say about them. There are also visas for highly skilled persons, who can provide something which no one else in the country can. I usually think of these as visas for professors with specialized fields of study.
Lastly are the family-type visas (ignoring tourist visas, which obviously aren’t immigrant visas). The so-called fiancee visa allows Americans to petition for their intended to stay in the country for just long enough to get married and apply for the spousal visa. These are given out to basically anyone who can show a legitimate relationship, maybe the complexity of this process can be best illustrated through an anecdote…
How the Sausage is Made, An Anecdote
My anecdote is to some extent second hand, but also my personal experience. I am a natural-born US citizen, but my wife is a relatively recent immigrant. She was able to take advantage of the relatively easy entrance to the US after gaining acceptance to a US university. Thereafter she spent 2 years on an F-1 student visa. As explained previously, these visas allow one to continue on OPT, ‘Optional Practical Training’, for a year or two. We became engaged soon after she graduated, but she took advantage of this OPT period to continue to work and live in the US. In February of the next year we were married, the timing of the marriage allowed us to file for her Permanent Residency. The so-called Green card is available to anyone who has been married to a US citizen. The process is confusing and costly, even if performed by oneself. I have a folder on my computer dedicated to this process and it contains over 120 documents, including financial statements for all my accounts for the year prior to application, photos of us together with family, and affidavits from the same testifying to the veracity of our relationship. The two main forms are i-864 (9 pages) and i-130 (2 pages), I needed an additional page (form g-325), because they asked for every place I’d ever lived or worked, which is a substantial number of locations for someone my age at the time (25). We also needed to file i-485 for her (18 pages) which queried similar information, and felt like a lot of duplicative effort, and was equally confusing.
What is least understood about this process is that it has to be initiated by the immigrant’s ‘sponsor’ or petitioner. All the forms were things I was doing to get her status in the country. Between form i-130 and i-864 I was vouching for her both in the sense that she would have a legitimate connection to this country (marriage to a US citizen in this case) and that she would never fall below 125% of the poverty line – any benefits she collects are a liability I need to pay back to the government. After all the work of decoding the forms and their instructions, finding and printing all the required documents and bugging relatives for their affidavits all I had to do was send them out to the correct office along with the low, low fee of ~$865 and wait (this fee is now $1,225). And get finger printed. And wait. And send more documents in. And wait. A few days before the deadline when my wife would have been eligible for deportation her temporary permanent resident card arrived in the mail. Valid for 2 whole years. Thats right, temporary permanent resident.
Things went well for 18 months, then we had to file to renew her green card. This application cost us something again, I’m not even sure how much. No, you cannot file to renew more than 6 months out. Yes, they are almost guaranteed to need more than 6 months for them to review your renewal application. We received two temporary cards so far since applying to get her permanent status renewed. By now she can apply for her citizenship, but once you start the application you cannot leave the country until this process is completed.
That was the complex and confusing process for two relatively well educated people to perform without the help of staff, and is also likely one of the easiest routes to permanent residence.
The Rights of Immigrants (Libertarianism and Immigration)
Libertarianism (well, my form of libertarianism, and thus the One True Libertarianism) recognizes the right to self ownership, and all the rights resulting from that right. Among these rights it is recognized the right to travel, as anything you own, you are typically allowed to transport, this is typically called freedom of movement when applied to persons. If you do not recognize this right, then one can be arbitrarily detained. That is tantamount to saying one can be imprisoned without trial. This line of thinking strongly boosts the case for a complete freedom of movement between and within countries, to stop someone, don’t you have to abridge their right to freely move, and thus their self ownership?
Arguments Against Open Borders: The Constitution
‘Aha!’ one says, ‘what about the constitution? That gives the government the power to enforce immigration laws.’
When questioned, proponents of this point of view often cite Article 1, Section 8 and 9. The relevant excerpts are as follows:
To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
-US Constitution Article 1, Section 8
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
-US Constitution Article 1, Section 9
Between the power to establish rules of naturalization and the implicit allowance on the prohibition of migration or importation of persons seen in section 9 there seems to be a solid enough constitutional foundation for restrictions on immigration, especially given the loose interpretations favored by most constitutional scholars.
Now, if the question was one merely of legality, I would find this convincing. However, when did legality mean morality to a libertarian? We’re almost exclusively whining about all the things that the state does which infringe on our rights. Yes, when something is both immoral and unconstitutional that is worse, but mere legality should never be sufficient justification to a libertarian (or indeed, anyone of moral standing).
Arguments Against Open Borders: National Sovereignty
I also call this one the practicality argument, and I am sympathetic. My ideal world would crib some notes from Mr. Lennon:
Imagine theres no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no one but Catholics too
Imagine all the people living in peace
Okay, but we all know that isn’t going to happen, right? At least not in the immediate future. The National Sovereignty argument says that we don’t have a country if literally anyone can enter. It is entangled with the fact that we are a democracy and thus, anyone living here will likely be able to vote eventually. I also feel it is closely related to a different, but similar, argument that we are culturally different from other areas of the world, and that letting unlimited immigration would effectively destroy the American culture (cue references to ‘magic dirt’). Proponents of both these arguments worry that immigrants will destroy the country either through their foreign cultural practices or their bad voting habits.
Typical concerns related to new immigrants are their attitudes towards: religious tolerance, free speech, voting for the public purse, gun rights, pot, ass sex, and well, not Mexicans.
The problem with this argument is that it flies in the face of our previously stated principles. Some will say that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, I will admit to never understanding the appeal of this statement. Yes, smart people can use convoluted logic which induces cognitive dissonance, it is rather a question of should you? People who hold inconsistent or non-existent principles are normally called SJWs and we rightly make fun of their lack of principled thought (If they didn’t have double standards, they wouldn’t have any standards at all). This position is also dangerously consequentialist or utilitarian, both things typically abhorrent to libertarians who base their moral and political views primarily on principles and reason. Of course, if you are the type who is a libertarian because of your utilitarian calculations, I think this is probably a pretty solid argument for you to use, if one can safely assume that (some) immigrants do have a negative effect on the country, and that you want to be collectivize the populace, aka be a nationalist (to be clear, I am not using this as a slur).
There may be other routes to a similar conclusion, I’ve heard some people float the idea of a national HOA, whereby it is assumed all property owners agreed not to let in certain people based on whatever the law may be, when the land was acquired. This is little more than an argument for the social contract, which I reject out of hand. No one really signed on to that, with the potential exception of the signers of the declaration of independence.
I cannot reasonably cover any and all arguments for or against open immigration here, but I think I’ve done a fair job presenting a few positions which I chose not only because I’ve heard them on this site or elsewhere, but also because I have held such views in the past. I wrote this up not because I am certain about my position (pro-open borders), but rather because I find myself torn in multiple directions on this issue. My gut says that our borders should be practically closed except to exceptional candidates, as this would have several net beneficial effects for the country (raise wages of lower income earners, reduce demand on food, power, water and housing, depressing the cost of living, reduce pollution, reduce welfare state, increase national cohesion, etc.), but I also am willing to let the consequences of supporting freedom be the deaths of tens of thousands in order to retain individual rights in other areas (gun ownership for one). As such I cannot with good conscience support unfettered restrictions on immigration, maybe some sort of process to screen out diseased people and those with obvious ill-intent would be moral. I am also not sure what a reasoned, rights-based argument in favor of such immigration enforcement looks like.
https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2016/demo/foreign-born/cps-2016.html (Table 1.1)