Book Review: Restricting Immigration Harms Everyone

In his new book, Immigration and Freedom, Chandran Kukathas argues that immigration controls equally harm immigrants and native-born individuals

U.S. border crossing. Image Credit: LilliDay/Getty Images

Plenty of books have been written on the charged topic of immigration, but in Immigration and Freedom (Princeton University Press, 2021), the political theorist Chandran Kukathas develops the underappreciated theme that controls aimed at immigrants inevitably curb the freedom of the native-born as well.

Immigration control is not just about who crosses the border, Kukathas writes, but about the controls necessary in domestic society to enforce the law. Those controls include limits on whom citizens can hire and associate with, what sort of documents can be demanded from them, and to what extent their government and neighbors can expand surveillance of their activities. “Immigration controls are ultimately limitations on the freedom of insiders as much as they are of the freedom of foreigners,” he concludes.

Laws That Harm Natives and Foreigners Alike

In his critique of immigration controls, Kukathas draws on knowledge and experience gained from living and working on four continents. Born in Malaysia, he was educated in Australia and England, receiving a Ph.D. in politics at Oxford University. He’s taught at U.S. universities and the London School of Economics, and he is currently professor and dean in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. He’s the author of Hayek and Modern Liberalism and a Distinguished Affiliated Fellow at the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

As a global citizen, Kukathas writes in detail about the American, Australian and British immigration systems and explains how each of them encroaches on a healthy understanding of a free society. For the native-born of those nations, immigration law “limits their freedom to associate, whether for economic, cultural, political, or simply personal reasons: it imposes not only compliance costs but also the risks that come with compliance failure—fines, loss of income, business collapse, institutional closure, separation from loved ones, or imprisonment.”

For American citizens, immigration controls can impose one of the most draconian penalties of all: deportation. Kukathas cites documentation that since anti-immigrant “sweeps” began in the 1930s, more than 1 million American citizens have been mistakenly apprehended by their own government and deported. He notes the irony that when government agents demand documentation, native-born or naturalized citizens tend to be more vulnerable because they are typically not in the habit of carrying documentation to prove their legal status.

Immigration controls also undermine the rule of law. Those who want to restrict immigration often argue that all that is missing is the will to enforce existing law. Kukathas counters, persuasively in my view, that U.S. immigration law is fundamentally unenforceable because it goes against the grain of civil society—the sum of the choices tens of millions of ordinary people make every day. The result is widespread violation of law by undocumented immigrants and the native-born who associate with them. “Should the law be out of step with customs or the mores—or more broadly, with the way people live—it is unlikely to command assent or obedience,” Kukathas notes, “and lawmakers will find themselves trying to enforce rules that are not widely accepted, or are honored only in the breach.”

The Remedy: Expanding Legal Immigration

The answer is not more controls but expansion of legal immigration. As many of us have long argued and Kukathas neatly summarizes, “Legalization is less expensive: immigrants tend to identify themselves voluntarily, pay fees and fines, remain in work, and continue to pay taxes without burdening their employers, who would otherwise have to replace them.”

As America wrestles with questions of race and criminal justice, Kukathas contends that immigration laws are by necessity about classifying and discriminating against people perceived to be different from the native population. This approach was explicit in past decades when Australia, for example, implemented its “White Australia Policy” favoring immigrants from Europe, or when the United States applied national quotas from 1924 to 1965 aimed at favoring immigrants from Northern Europe and largely excluding those from Asia.

“Immigration control in the liberal democratic West has, to a significant extent, been about limiting the entry, or keeping out altogether, people of the wrong ethnicity, religion, color, or (more recently) culture,” Kukathas writes. President Trump was channeling such thinking when he expressed his opposition to immigrations from “s—hole” countries in Africa and Latin America or when he imposed travel bans against several Muslim-majority nations.

Behind many of the economic concerns people express about immigration lie more subjective worries about culture, political cohesion and a state’s “self-determination.” As a political theorist, Kukathas dissects those terms and finds them lacking in any objective meaning.

Kukathas rightly notes that immigrants do, of course, influence the culture of the host country, but cultures are fluid, especially those of more dynamic and open societies such as the United States. And cultural influences can come from many sources and go in both directions. “In a world in which it is not only human beings who are mobile but also corporations, practices, and ideas that cross borders all the time, limiting who may settle more or less permanently in one place or another seems like a rather feeble mechanism for determining the cultural shape of human societies,” the author concludes.

To critics who contend that immigration undermines a nation’s political cohesion and sovereignty, Kukathas observes that the native-born population is typically quite divided itself over political preferences and views of the nation’s history. Immigrants are not the only or even the main source of political strife. As the 2020 U.S. election highlighted, political divisions seem to run far deeper among native-born citizens than between citizens and the foreign-born.

Views on immigration and national sovereignty can hinge on whether the nation is seen as an “enterprise association” or a “civil association.” In the former, members of society are supposed to be “engaged in a common political project and they are mobilized in actions orientated towards that goal.” In the latter, the nation exists primarily to protect the rights of its citizens to their own ends—one could say their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness—all within the rule of law. Those who favor more controls on immigration typically fall within the enterprise association camp, with the result, Kukathas argues, that “the more a state resembles an enterprise association than a civil one, the less free will its members be.”

Immigration and Freedom won’t persuade everyone. The book is less an argument and more an extended exercise in applying political theory to the question of immigration, all under the strong presupposition that we should value preserving a free society. What Kukathas has achieved with this thoughtful book is to remind us that immigration controls come with yet another cost that is arguably just as important as the well-documented economic cost of controls—a society that is less free and more under the watchful gaze and control of a state that does not necessarily act in the best interests of a majority of its citizens.

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