I recently finished a paper about illegal immigration. Here is my question: Is it wrong to immigrate illegally? Added challenge: Assume (contrary to fact) that immigration laws are justified, and that people typically have a duty to obey the law.

My thesis: Even with those assumptions, the answer is no; there is no moral reason not to violate immigration laws.

Here is a small piece of the reasoning. Say you use the social contract theory to explain the duty to obey the law. Still, this duty wouldn’t apply to illegal immigrants, since

(1) Before migrating, they are not party to our social contract, so it’s not wrong for them to come initially.

(2) After they have illegally joined our society, the social contract could not require them to leave. A valid contract involves an exchange of value, and it cannot include a clause according to which a party to the contract has to exclude themselves from receiving any of the benefits of signing the contract. E.g., a rental agreement could not contain a clause whereby the tenant may never use the apartment in any way. Similarly, a social contract could not include a clause whereby one of the signatories has to completely exclude himself from society.

Or suppose you accept a democratic theory of political obligation, along the lines of Tom Christiano. There would still be no duty to obey immigration laws, since

(a) The illegal immigrants, who were the group most affected by the immigration laws, were given no say in those laws or the election of the legislators who made them.

(b) The theory holds that the authority of democracy derives from the value of equality; as Christiano says, this means that that authority cannot extend to laws that are explicitly (unjustly) discriminatory. But the immigration laws are explicitly discriminatory towards certain individuals, seeking to completely exclude them from the benefits of our society, solely on the basis of the location of their birth.

Those are just two examples. In general, I claim that on any leading account of political obligation, it turns out that illegal immigrants would have no duty to obey immigration laws in particular. So it’s fine to immigrate illegally.

28 Replies to “Illegal immigration is fine.

  1. Why could not advocates of either such theory appeal to international agreements in some way like the following.
    Citizen C1 is a member of State S1 which contracts with State S2 of which Citizen C2 is a member. In virtue of whichever theory, C1 is obliged by the contract of S1 and C2 by that of S2–not as the arguments above entertain C1 by S2 and C2 by S1. In virtue of an international contract, S1 and S2 have contracts regarding immigration. Those contracts become part of the contractual terms that bind C1 and C2 (to S1 and S2, respectively). (Of course, how that works is going to depend on a given theory, but I don’t see how there is any particular problem here for immigration that doesn’t manifest for usual executive, bureaucratic, or congressional action). Hence, C1 owes S1 not to illegally immigrate to S2, and C2 owes S2 not to illegally immigrate to S1. Perhaps (depending upon one’s General theory of contracts) C1 even owes S2 and C2 even owes S1 (because there is some obligation to comply with the duties created by a representative that speaks for one and the original contract or constitution of the democratic assembly includes such representation in its content. Not sure how this would get spelled out on different theories, but it seems like I can promise to do whatever some third party agrees to on my behalf (though the defeaters for such obligation may be stronger and I may have stronger powers to revoke on the obligation than if I promise directly).
    All of this would depend on empirical matters that would settle whether or not such international contracts exist, meet the requisite terms, etc., but it sounds like the arguments above are supposed to be conceptual.

  2. Thanks, Will. How would the contract between the states go? Would it be something like this?:
    The U.S. and Mexico sign a treaty, whereby Mexico agrees (in exchange for something the U.S. does) to prohibit (most of) its own citizens from leaving Mexico to go to the U.S. Pursuant to the treaty, Mexico in fact passes such a law.
    Then you might think Mexican nationals would be obligated to obey their own country’s laws, and thus not to emigrate. But I would say,
    1. I am pretty sure there is no such treaty and no such laws. I don’t think it likely to occur in the future either.
    Of course, you can imagine possible situations in which illegal immigration would be wrong. But in fact, in most cases it is really fine.
    2. Even if it happened, I’m not sure that a “no emigration” law would be legitimate, even if the Mexican government is otherwise generally legitimate.
    Why? Think about other sorts of long-term contracts. There is always a way out. If you get married, despite the “til death do us part” clause, you can still get out of it. If you sign a multi-year employment contract, you can still quit your job. You might have to pay damages in some cases, but you aren’t obligated to just keep working for the company. Notice, btw, that you don’t even need very strong reasons in either of these cases. You can just leave because you don’t want to be in the marriage/job anymore, and possibly pay damages. I assume this is all ethically (not only legally) correct.
    So I don’t think the social contract could require you to stay in the society for as long as the government wants you there. Think also about other cases of “no emigration” laws. Almost no one thinks that it was okay for East Germany in the communist era to prohibit exit, or the Soviet Union, or any of the other countries that in fact prohibited emigration. It wasn’t wrong for anyone to leave those countries. The social contract is not an indentured servitude contract.

  3. I think the view is plausible. I suspect it is correct.
    I worry a bit that the use of legal contracts to capture/model whatever it is that social contracts think make social “contracts” binding needs some justification. Most legal contracts can’t be enforced to require specific performance (as in a way your point highlights) but it seems like at least some social contract theorists would be OK with requiring such and even that for the central duties they thinks such contracts generate, they think enforcing specific performance is fine. (He said without actually going through and listing such theorists and showing that is what they think, so perhaps I’m wrong.)

  4. This argument seems to attack a legal straw man. I am not a legal scholar, but immigration laws do not seem to claim to obligate those trying to come in, but they claim to obligate and empower officials and nationals in attempting to stop and regulate the influx of migrants. In other words, the political obligation that Huemer speaks of is on citizens and officials, but not on would-be migrants.
    However, I share the sentiment that is expressed in Huemer’s note: our attitudes vis á vis sans-papiers need some very critical revision.

  5. Michael
    thanks for posting this – a very cool question. And, as someone who might potentially be an illegal immigrant in the future after the Brexit, I hope there isn’t anything wrong with being one. Let me though try to play the devil’s advocate.
    Imagine that me and few others voluntarily form a group in order to play a game. Let’s assume that there is also someone outside the group who really badly wants to join in and so she insist on beginning to play the game too with us. In this case, my intuition is that both (i) we should let that person join the game and (ii) if we don’t do so there would be at least something objectionable with her continuing to insist on joining.
    Now, here comes the devil’s advocate: it could be suggested that, whatever is the wrong-making feature in the game case, the same consideration is also a wrong-making feature in the illegal immigration case. The concern is that, if your discussion of the social contract based argument and others like it shows that there is nothing wrong in the illegal immigration case, a similar discussion would also show that there would be equally nothing wrong to keep on insisting to join in in the game case.
    Of course there are also relevant differences between the cases. One such important difference is that in the immigration case it seems like, even if there were wrong-making features present, these could be outweighed in many cases by other right-making features for immigration, which apply to the prospective immigrants. Illegal immigration can be right even if there were something wrong about it.
    I should also say that you seem to run two things together (and so am I). It’s one question to ask whether there is anything wrong about illegal immigration. It is another thing to ask whether doing so violates any political obligations. It seems like there is a step in the post from it not violating political obligations to there being nothing wrong about it and that might not be the case.

  6. Your thesis is that “there is no moral reason not to violate immigration laws.” My worry is that perhaps it doesn’t take very strong considerations at all to make something a moral reason not to do something.
    Suppose that by breaking immigration laws, you risk getting taken away from your family and locked up in prison. Couldn’t there be consequentialist grounds that suggest that taking such a risk is a bad thing, even if all things considered the badness of that risk is outweighed by other considerations? In that case, wouldn’t the badness of the risk, even though it’s outweighed, count as a moral reason not to break the law?
    I don’t have a well-developed view about any of this. It just strikes me as plausible that moral reasons to do (or not to do) something might be relatively easy to come by on consequentialist grounds, and that what we moral agents do is weigh up the reasons for and against.

  7. A few thoughts from an immigration attorney and philosophy grad student with research interests in immigration law and ethics —
    1. In response to Bruno’s comment, U.S. immigration law does expressly provide for incarceration for certain forms of unauthorized entry, so I don’t think Michael is attacking a straw man here at least as U.S. law is concerned (though my impression, which may be wrong, is that using these provisions is generally considered more trouble than it’s worth – better just to deport).
    2. In (qualified) defense of Will’s comment, I didn’t understand him to be suggesting that the state could prohibit emigration itself, just illegal immigration into another state. So the Soviet Union analogy seems misplaced. The citizen would be free to emigrate and to *legally* immigrate. With that said, I’m not aware of any treaties with the primary effect of implementing the kind of agreement Will is talking about, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some treaties that have provisions along those lines as part of a larger immigration (and/or free trade) agreement. But the U.S. Supreme Court has sometimes invoked the idea that the power to regulate immigration is a necessary incident of national sovereignty under international law, so perhaps an argument could be made that there’s a tacit agreement between states of the sort Will suggests. Regardless, Michael’s point about “no emigration” remains a worry because, with the possible exception of refugees, absent some agreement to the contrary states are thought to have no duty to afford a person a legal basis to immigrate (this is an ever-present — and heartbreaking — reality of immigration practice, at least in the U.S.), so people could be de facto prevented from emigrating even if not prevented de jure.
    3. My impression is that within legal circles (and, I suspect, among its more thoughtful proponents in general) the view that illegal immigration is wrongful would often be most readily cashed out within a version of a broadly natural duty theory of political obligation, with the central idea being that illegal immigration is wrongful because it causes undue harms to the members of the receiving state (by reducing employment opportunities, increasing strain on public resources, etc.). I take it Michael has philosophical reasons for not focusing on this sort of theory of political obligation, and if one does accept it, whether the worry should be seen as compelling, overblown, or mere pretext is going to depend a lot on the particular case, but this nevertheless strikes me as a more influential line of thought in the legal (and perhaps public) sphere than the ones Michael addresses.

  8. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts.
    Mark, I take your point, but I think the issue is not so much about specific performance as about what is the content of the contract. Since the alleged contract is only implicit, there is a lot of “interpreting” to be done. I would say that we should interpret it so that it would be reasonable, so that all parties get something (fair) out of it. It wouldn’t be reasonable if the contract said that if you were born somewhere else, you have to completely exclude yourself from the society — in that event, those people, if they follow the contract, get nothing out of the deal. Why would they possibly make such an agreement?
    Bruno, I don’t think it’s a straw man; I think there are people who think illegal immigration is wrong. This came out when the “gang of 8” was trying to pass immigration reform in 2013, and again in the current Presidential campaign season. Politicians and candidates say things like, it would be wrong to offer a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, because we mustn’t reward people who broke the law. Politician soundbites are not extremely clear, but I thought I heard a note of moral disapproval toward the people who “violated our laws”. The disapproval comes out when people discuss punitive or semi-punitive measures that could be taken toward illegal immigrants.
    Landon, of course there can be moral reasons not to illegally migrate in specific cases. What I mean is something like: there aren’t any moral reasons that generally apply in typical cases of illegal immigration.
    More comments to follow.

  9. Jussi, you’re right to observe that I only considered political obligations in my post. In the paper, I have separate discussions of whether illegal immigration is malum in se, or malum prohibitum.
    I also discuss whether illegal immigrants violate people’s rights of free association, like your person who insists on joining the club. My view would be:

    1. Free association rights include the right to refuse certain significant associations with others, such as living together, being friends, or working for another. If I don’t want you as a friend, I can unilaterally reject you.
    2. But they do not include the right to reject very tenuous “associations” with others. Thus, I can’t complain about your merely being in the same broad geographical area as me; that is not a sufficiently robust association that I can complain of an infringement of my freedom.
    3. They also do not include the right to veto third parties from voluntarily forming associations with others that I don’t want. Thus, I can’t complain that some third party hires a person whom I did not want the third party to hire. My free association rights let me control my own associations, not those of my compatriots.

    Now, it seems to me that the immigration opponents are going far beyond #1. They think illegal immigrants are violating their free association rights by being in the same very broad geographical area as them, or by forming mutually consensual associations with third parties. But we would not accept such a “rights-violation” claim in other cases.

  10. Chris, I sort of discuss your #3 in the paper. But I don’t talk in terms of a theory of political obligation. Rather, I look at the leading reasons that are usually offered for restricting immigration, and ask: even if these are reasons for the state to restrict, are any of them moral reasons for the potential immigrants not to migrate? My answer is no. E.g.,

    1. “Immigrants steal American jobs”: This reason is explicitly partial, i.e., one has to argue that the state has special duties to its own citizens, to place their interests ahead of those of foreigners. But the illegal immigrants have no such duty.
    2. “Immigrants cost the government money”: True. But this is also true of low-income citizens, for the same reason. (They pay lower-than-average tax rates.) No one says that low-income citizens therefore have an obligation to exclude themselves from the society, so it’s hard to see why immigrants would have such an obligation merely because they are doing the same thing the poor Americans are doing.
    3. “Immigrants will change our culture”: Consider a native-born citizen who does the same things that the immigration-opponents are worried about: maybe he speaks a different language, or practices a different religion from most natives. Would this be wrong on his part? No. Then it is hard to see how it would be wrong to migrate merely because after doing so, you might do the same thing as this native-born citizen who isn’t acting wrongly.
    4. “Immigrants will change our politics, voting for the wrong people”: Illegal immigrants don’t vote, so even if their voting patterns would be wrongful if they could vote, illegal immigrants don’t act wrongly.
  11. Thanks, Michael! I completely agree with your responses to (3) and (4), but I’m less sure about your responses to (1) and (2). As far as (1), I don’t see why one has to appeal to the state’s special duties to its citizens at all. What about an argument along the following lines: (a) we all have a duty not to impose unjustifiable risks on each other, and (b) under certain conditions one’s immigration into a country can impose an unjustifiable risk of unemployment for members of the new country, so (c) if violation of immigration laws would impose such risks (assume the laws restrict immigration only to those circumstances where no such risks would be imposed), then (d) we all have a duty not to immigrate illegally? If an argument like this is sound, then there seems to be no need to appeal to the special duties of the state to its own citizens. I suspect that something similar could be said about (2) as well (e.g., if the laws in place only prevent people from immigrating where the government services available to them in their own state do not fall below some threshold).
    Looking forward to the paper!

  12. Hi Michael
    thanks, that’s helpful and I agree. One of the interesting and tricky questions would probably be just exactly which free associations create rights to exclude others. Once we have a principled answer to this question it will then be easier to consider whether or not co-citizenship would be that kind of association. It’s certainly the case that being in the same geographical area cannot be sufficient to satisfy the relevant condition but presumably there is more than that to co-citizenship too.

  13. I’m sympathetic to Suikkanen’s posts here. One such consideration for free association leading to exclusion of others is the benefit produced by the free association.
    So the idea is that things like economic and safety benefits may result from a particular social contract. And participants in the social contract have a right to those benefits simply because they are a party to and contributor to the sustaining of the contract. Illegal immigrants seek to benefit from the contract without being a party to it. This may even be by crossing the border, as a secure border is a benefit to society, and the security of the border is made possible by the functioning of the social contract. Imagine Suikkanen’s game, where a non-participant sought to avail themselves of some benefit that accrued from the playing of others.
    This idea would also justifying giving long-term illegal residents a path to legal status, since one could be reasonably be considered a contributor to and sustainer of the social contract (through work, commerce, tax-paying), after a time.

  14. Sheldon: well, the claim was that *under certain conditions* presenting a risk of unemployment can be an unjustifiable risk, not that presenting a risk of unemployment is necessarily an unjustifiable risk. And my aim wasn’t to personally insist that it’s true. I really don’t have a well-settled view on it, but my suspicion is that it’s either false or only true of a very limited set of circumstances, and it may be a moot point anyways given that there’s economic research suggesting that immigration has an overall positive effect on job creation. But it seems to me to be an influential basis for thinking illegal immigration is wrongful, and I don’t see that its force is dependent on an appeal to the state’s special duties to its own citizens.

  15. Chris, I think there are some (rare) cases in which it could be wrong to compete with someone for a job. But it just isn’t plausible that immigrants are in that situation, in any but a vanishly tiny portion of cases. The country with the most emigrants to the U.S., by far, is Mexico. The overwhelming majority are poor people seeking work to support themselves and/or their families. They are on the whole in much greater need than American workers. And these are the people that immigration restrictions are most designed to exclude. (That’s why the Trump-heads want a wall at the Mexican border.) Well-off people from wealthy countries have a much, much easier time being allowed to immigrate.
    Notice also that the conditions for being morally required to not compete for a job are pretty narrow. For example, say you are a professor with a TT job. Nevertheless, you want a better job, so you apply to other schools. This puts you in competition with some people who have no job, and others who have only temporary jobs. Are you acting wrongly? Hardly anyone would say so.
    So it would be crazy to think that Mexican migrant workers are acting wrongly by competing with low-skill Americans.
    Jussi, you’re right, co-citizenship isn’t just occupying the same geographical region. But it is just an extremely weak association — I have essentially nothing to do with the overwhelming majority of my co-citizens (for most, I don’t even know they exist). Some of my co-citizens are doubtless people who I would rather not be co-citizens with, but I really can’t say that my liberty is being significantly infringed. It’s not like if I was forced to share an apartment with them.
    Ajkreider, I think it could be wrong to take benefits without paying the cost. But I think illegal immigrants are not doing that, or not doing it any more than low-income citizens are. When the illegal immigrants receive material goods, they pay for it — they do productive work, which is how they get paid. Surveys show that the overwhelming majority of economists (unlike lay people) agree that immigration benefits the economy.
    If the concern is about receiving government services without paying enough taxes, I note that it would be easier for immigrants to pay taxes if they all had legal status. So it’s more the government’s fault than the illegal immigrants’. Also, many of them pay taxes anyway (using false social security numbers). Finally, note that low-income citizens also pay lower taxes than the cost of the government services they receive, yet hardly anyone says that low-income citizens are acting wrongly.
    Are illegal immigrants parties to the social contract? Well, if you think the social contract theory makes sense at all (which I don’t), then presumably it’s because you think it’s possible to impute “implicit agreement” to people because of some aspect(s) of our conduct. What aspect(s)? The most popular things cited are (a) living in the territory, (b) willingly accepting government benefits, (c) participating in the system. Immigrants do (a) and (b) just as much as native-born citizens. They do (c) less than some (because the government won’t let them vote), but about the same as most citizens (since most citizens don’t vote anyway). So if citizens are parties to the contract, it’s unclear why illegal immigrants aren’t also parties.

  16. Michael, I think you’re right–illegal immigration is fine, morally speaking. But I worry that you can’t really get to this conclusion if you assume that immigration restrictions are justified. You seem to implicitly accept this in your comment about democratic authority.
    A theorist of democratic authority says that we should obey the laws authorized by democratic procedures out of respect for these procedures and their participants. This seems like it could apply to potential immigrants too. Potential immigrants should also respect the democratic procedures of other state by complying with their imigration laws.
    In response, you note that immigration restrictions are discriminatory and foreigners lack rights to participate in the democratic procedures of other states. People like Christiano will say that, if democratic procedures authorize laws that disenfranchise people or violate their basic liberties, then we have no reason to obey these laws. Fair enough.
    But I don’t think you can take this line if you’re assuming that immigration restrictions are justified. If it is justified to exclude potential immigrants from these procedures and immigration restrictions are permissible forms of discrimination, then the injustice of these laws doesn’t undercut the duty to obey the law. At least, I think more needs to be said here.
    One other note. Some political theorists argue that states (or their citizens) have rights to collective self-determination and that these rights justify immigration restrictions. It’s a stretch, but it seems possible for a person to argue that illegal immigrants violate citizens’ right to collective self-determination. Some people even argue that citizens have rights over their territories or political institutions that are analogous to property rights. Maybe, on these views, illegal immigrants are wrongfully violating state’s rights to control access to their territories.
    So, to establish that illegal immigration is morally permissible, it seems to me that you need to reject the assumption that immigration restrictions are justified.

  17. Michael, I fully agree that’s the right sort of response to the argument (though, as alluded to in my reply to Sheldon, I may actually be less sympathetic to that argument than you are). My point was just that whether the state owes special duties to its citizens and whether that duty constrains illegal immigrants don’t seem to be at issue. But it also seems that if you do think that it can be wrong to compete with someone for a job, your claim that illegal immigration is not wrongful is in need of an accompanying qualification. And I’m not so sure that that qualification would be trivial because migration between equally or roughly equally wealthy countries isn’t rare. The majority of the for-profit part of my practice has been in representing professors, doctors, and others seeking high-preference visa classifications, and I’d estimate that approximately half or more of my clients are from countries of comparable wealth. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also released a study earlier this year that estimated up to 40% of unauthorized migrants are due to people overstaying their visas, and visas are often denied to people from Mexico and other less wealthy countries precisely due to fears that they will attempt to illegally immigrate. And I think it’s worth noticing that one rhetorical move you often encounter in the recent European debates over immigration is along the lines of “It’s wrong for people to immigrate to Country X and increase competition for jobs when they have equally good [or at least good enough] prospects in Country Y.”
    As far as the example of the TT job, I’m not sure the analogy is apt. It seems reasonable to me to think that the losers in the competition for the TT job are sufficiently compensated by the fact that they could potentially move to take the job you left, but much less reasonable to think that losers in the competition for the job against the immigrant are sufficiently compensated by the fact that they could potentially emigrate to take the job the immigrant left. But in any case my point was about competition for employment per se (or at least gainful employment per se), not about competition for employment in a particular job or job type.
    Of course, none of this in any way vindicates the wall-builders. But I find it hard to believe that the vast majority (if any) of them should be considered among “the more thoughtful proponents” of the view that illegal immigration is wrong in the first place!

  18. Thanks for the reply Michael.
    I had thought we were talking about the act of immigrating illegally, not simply being someone who at sometime immigrated illegally. As I mentioned, one can make a case for an illegal immigrant becoming a party to the contract. But they’re surely not party to the contract prior to immigrating or in the act of immigrating.
    My point is not a consequentialist one. It’s about who gets to decide who can partake in the benefits afforded by the social contract. Even if society benefits more from illegal immigration, that’s beside the point. It’s also beside the point that an immigrant might be willing to “pay” for those benefits, if the other parties aren’t selling them.
    When one immigrates illegally, one is seeking access to the benefits of a social contact to which one is not yet a party, without the consent of those who are parties. Access to as least some of these benefits happens immediately – in the case of certain legal protections, issues of safety, etc. (Consider perhaps the difference in merely crossing into Juarez, TX from Juarez, Mexico).
    Figuring out what constitutes a social contract is indeed fraught. But when there are explicit rules delineating who members of a society take to be full-participants (those who have gone through a residency process, are children born in a certain way, etc.) – and people immigrate in a manner that clearly violates those, there seems to be at least a prima facie case to be made that such violators are not participants in the contract (as with game participants). I don’t think a fully worked out social contract theory needs to be in place to support that.

  19. Michael, can you clarify what you meant by “assume (contrary to fact) that immigration laws are justified”? I agree with JH that it’s hard to see how the argument gets off the ground if we’re assuming both that the immigration laws are just and that there’s a duty to obey just laws. Presumably, the justice of the laws is a function of all the people it affects, not just the society which enacts it (e.g., Country X’s law directing it to attack innocent Country Y is unjust even if every single member of Country X supported it). So if the law is just with regards to the immigrant, she would seem to necessarily have a duty to obey it. Given your earlier comments, I was assuming you meant something weaker by the law is “justified” (e.g., that the state has compelling reasons to enforce it) than that it is “just.”

  20. Thx. JH and Chris: By “assume … immigration laws are justified,” I meant assume that the state has good enough reasons for making those laws. But I don’t mean that to contradict my own later claim that the laws are discriminatory.
    A certain amount of partiality is permissible. I think it’s pretty obvious (and not particularly controversial) that total utility would be increased by having much greater immigration. The proponents of restriction, however, think that it’s permissible for the state to discount or ignore the welfare of the foreigners in making immigration policy, to give much greater weight to the interests of current American workers.
    I don’t myself agree with that. But I’m saying, let’s bracket that: for now, I won’t dispute that the state could do that. It’s still going to be ok for the potential immigrants themselves to violate the law, because the reasons the state has for making the law are reasons that don’t have force for the immigrants. They would be only agent-relative reasons. And the immigrants also don’t have the other sorts of reasons for following that particular law that you might think apply in the case of most laws.

  21. Hi Michael,
    Sorry for the late response.
    (1) and (2) are both well-taken. Here are some further thoughts.
    Re (1): It’s not obvious that the law would have to be a dedicated law for “no emmigration.” It would only have to imply one, or imply the existence of one.
    Re (2) (and more importantly): It’s not obvious that the law would be a “no emmigration law” so much as a “emmigration must be through means X and Y law. For emmigration to be illegal, it seems to suffice that emmigration is performed in an illegal manner in addition to there being a law that says no emmigration.
    The marriage and job transactions seem like appropriate analogies when we think about the “no emmigration” law as claims about the means through which emmigration is legal or illegal.
    Those points seem to make the existence of such laws plausible. Indeed, various laws seem to (at least pragmatically) imply some sort of obligation, so I’m not certain that they aren’t incorporated into such laws. Of course, implication and the law is tricky and even trickier when its not a legislative action but one of the executive branch b/c of concerns about the legitimacy of such agencies. But it at least seems plausible to think there might be some such law.
    Of course, all of this leaves it open that in many cases the laws in question would be highly unjust and highly illegitimate, but I take it we knew that. The claim in question seems to be a stronger one.

  22. Sorry “some sort of obligation” should have been “such a legal obligation to only immigrate in certain ways” or something like that.

  23. “Say you use the social contract theory to explain the duty to obey the law. … [T]his duty wouldn’t apply to illegal immigrants”
    Does this permit aiming Internet scams or missiles into another country too? Or offering services or commerce across borders without constraint? The argument currently heard here is that there are lawful processes that limit migration to levels that minimize harm to the host economy. Both local unemployed people and law respecting migrants are disadvantaged.

  24. David, the argument does not claim that all bets are off, or that migrants have no obligations of any kind. The claim applies specifically to obligations that are supposed to be based on the social contract. If you’re not a party to a contract, then you have no obligations under it — but you still have ordinary, non-contractual obligations. E.g., you can’t kill someone just because you have no contract with them.
    What about “stealing jobs”? Doing productive work in exchange for money is not a rights-violation, nor is it otherwise morally wrong, even if there were other people who wanted that job. In a sense, competing with someone in the marketplace “harms” one’s competitors. But this kind of harm can’t be considered wrong, or else practically all economic activity would be wrong.
    It also isn’t harmful to the economy. If it were, then the richest country in the world would be one where either (a) no one ever did anything productive, or (b) every industry was monopolized.
    Almost all economists agree that immigration is beneficial to the economy. That said, something that benefits the economy as a whole can still be worse for one segment of the population. So the question would be whether it is wrong to harm one person or a small number of people, while benefiting both oneself and society overall. As noted, it depends on what the “harm” is. If the “harm” is simply normal marketplace competition, then the answer has to be no.

  25. Mike,
    Suppose I build a cabin in unclaimed woods and live there. You are wandering out in the woods and it starts raining. You enter my cabin, uninvited, because sleeping under a roof beats sleeping in the rain.
    Now I think most of us would say (a) it would be nice of me to let you sleep in my cabin, but (b) I have no duty to do so, and (c) you have a moral reason not to simply help yourself to my shelter.
    But it seems to me your arguments would show that in fact, (c) is false, you have no moral reason not to help yourself. That raises questions for me about the validity of the arguments.
    I think the general root of the objection is an appeal to what would loosely be property rights, or more abstractly, rights to self-determination: the cabin is mine not yours, and you have at least a prima facie duty to respect that.
    Likewise, the country is ours not theirs, and they have at least a prima facie duty to respect that. And yes I think that includes geographical areas, since even in this internet age, geography delimits things like the ability of police to enforce the law or where public roads can go. But I think “ours” includes things like culture and language too.

  26. Heath,
    I agree with you about property rights in a cabin. But how is the analogy to immigration policy supposed to work; what is the piece of property, and who is the property owner?
    It sounds as if you’re saying that the property is ‘the country’ (meaning the geographical area plus the culture, plus perhaps other things?), and the owner is “us”. Who is “us”?
    My problem with this is
    (a) I don’t think one can have property rights in a country, and surely not in a culture.
    If you could, then I suppose it would be morally wrong for someone to influence a culture without the consent of its owner? I don’t really have an argument against this; it just seems like the wrong sort of thing to claim as property.
    I think there are only property rights in individual parcels of land, and individual material goods (and perhaps copyrights and patents (?), but let’s not go into that issue now).
    (b) I think that for the analogy to work, the owner would have to be the state, since the state is creating immigration laws. But even if someone could own a ‘country’ or a ‘culture’, I don’t think the state would be the legitimate owner. How would it have acquired that ownership?
    The state also isn’t the owner of the land, because most of the land is owned by individuals and private companies.
    You might want to say that the owner is not the state but “the people”. However, I think that “the people” does not name anything that could be a property-owner. This is because only an agent can own property, and “the people” does not name any agent.

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