Migration seems to be at the heart of the rising wave of right-wing populism: a major motivator for Brexit, a major campaign issue for Trump and the European Neo-Nazis who look to him for inspiration. I’m probably going to talk a lot about this being a problem, and what to do about it, so I should probably start by articulating my own starting point for thinking about migration, why I think migration is a right and why the drive to ‘take back control’ of migration flows and make border controls tougher and more stringent is not just misguided, not just needlessly cruel, but fundamentally illegitimate.
The anti-migrant position has two layers. The first, usually implicit, is the feeling of ownership over a territory: that our government has the right, on behalf of ‘us’ the people of X nation, to decide who does and who doesn’t enter, and to imprison or forcibly deport those who disobey. That frames the debate as a question of how ‘we’ should exercise that right – more carefully or more generously.
The second layer is then a certain answer to that question: ‘we’ should exercise that right very carefully, because letting in too many people could be harmful and dangerous, and any harms or dangers to people already living here ought to be assigned the highest priority. It’s ‘our’ country, so we are entitled to (for instance) weight the slim chance that one out of a thousand refugees might harm someone over the near-certainty that hundreds of them will be brutally killed if turned away, or the very certain harm inflicted by holding them in indefinite detention. ‘America First’, adjusted to local tastes.
A lot of progressive responses engage on the terrain of that second question, arguing that ’we’ ought to exercise our right to control entry in a generous, compassionate, open-handed way. They say – we ought to let them in because the alleged dangers and harms are incredibly over-stated. Or – we ought to let them in because they bring all sorts of benefits, paying taxes and working in our public services. Or – we ought to let them in because that’s what ‘we’ stand for, that’s the kind of virtuous collective we should try to be (see ‘give me your tired, your poor…’, or the image to the left).
I think these kinds of response are completely right. Migration is usually beneficial, and the supposed harms associated with it pale into insignificance next to the harms caused by border controls – deaths in illegal transit, customers generated for people-traffickers, lives wasted in refugee camps, lives wasted in detention centres.
But there’s a deeper problem with the anti-migrant position. That first layer, the assumption that we have the right to exclude and include at our collective discretion, is already wrong. People have the right to move and live and work peacefully, and any infringement of these rights needs to be justified by specific evidence of wrongdoing or danger.
I could support this just by claiming that people’s right to exercise basic human functions like movement and habitation is more basic than the the rights of states and other institutions. Travelling between countries is like travelling within a country, or like having children (the other major determinant of population dynamics), a simple human action that institutions should collect data on and regulate the safety of but shouldn’t directly interfere with. Even when the pattern of how many people are having babies, and where and when, is socially inconvenient (too many babies born here, too few born there, pressure on housing, pressure on healthcare, etc.)! When the overall ebb and flow of human lives causes problems, institutions can and should look for solutions to those problems, but those solutions can’t include forbidding people from travelling or breeding, let alone declaring that only people who enter or are born with official sanction are ‘legal’. Babies or migrants, no-one is illegal.
But it might be more persuasive to argue negatively, by explaining why the opposite view seems to me self-undermining. So, here’s a question: if a national population has a right to control entry to its territory, is that because of history or present reality?
You might say it’s from history: ‘we’ have been here for a long time, that makes it ours. But if history matters, then I think actual history has to matter, and actual history is largely a succession of forcible, illegitimate, seizures of power. If ‘we’ took the land by force, then it never became legitimately ‘ours’. This problem is particularly obvious with settler societies like Australia, Canada, and the US, and that’s why it makes sense to ridicule anti-immigrant movements in those countries using cartoons like these, where Native Americans sardonically comment on white people calling for an end to illegal immigration.
I think the same self-undermining logic is present in non-settler societies too. Even setting aside the competing claims on British land of the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons and so on, there’s also the fact that the reason why those lands have their current governments and borders is, ultimately, because some factions won and others lost in various wars in the 17th century.
Of course 17th-century wars seem pretty irrelevant to modern politics – but doesn’t that just suggest that what matters is what’s going on now, not back then? Maybe national groups get ownership of land from the fact that they’re living there right now? But, for a start, that makes it hard to deny that someone who has lived in a country ‘illegally’ for 20 or 10 or 5 years has thereby acquired a right to stay, so it undermines any case for deportations.
But more basically, this approach is self-undermining too. If the idea is that the ongoing process of people living their lives generates a right to the land where they do it, why does someone’s living their life in Oregon give them a right to a say in who can enter Texas, but someone else’s living their life just over the border in Mexico doesn’t, even though the latter is way closer? The only answer is: because the person in Oregon lives under institutions that also rule Texas, and the person in Mexico doesn’t. But now we’re in a circle – we’re appealing to the very facts about borders and governments that claim rights over territory that we were meant to be justifying.
The upshot is, we can’t really say that we own our national territory. It would be better to say that we borrow it from humanity, and our institutions administer it in a kind of stewardship. If that stewardship is to be legitimate, it can only be because it serves the interests of human beings – all human beings.