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There Is Only One Libertarian Position on Immigration

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There is a common perception that there are two alternative libertarian positions on immigration: government-controlled borders and open borders.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is only one libertarian position on immigration, and that position is open immigration or open borders.

After all, government-controlled borders and open borders are opposite positions. How could opposite positions on immigration both be consistent with libertarianism? That’s just not possible. One is consistent with libertarian principles and the other isn’t. If a position that purports to be libertarian isn’t consistent with libertarian principles, then as Ayn Rand would have said, “Check your premises.”

Why do many libertarians believe in government-controlled borders and oppose open borders?

For the same reason that there are many libertarians who believe in the national-security state, an enormous standing army, and selective foreign interventionism: they came into the libertarian movement as conservatives, owing primarily to an attraction to libertarian free-market economic principles, but unfortunately have been unable to let go of their conservative views on immigration (as well, for some, on foreign policy and other issues).

It would be one thing for a conservative-oriented libertarian to be forthright about his beliefs by simply acknowledging that while he considers himself a libertarian, he nevertheless continues to align himself with conservatives on immigration. That would be perfectly understandable. When a person discovers libertarianism, oftentimes the process by which he applies libertarian principles to various issues is one that develops over time. Thus, one might immediately recognize why minimum wage laws are destructive of liberty and economic well-being but still be unable to see why occupational licensure laws are illegitimate.

A conservative who comes into the libertarian movement might even devote his efforts to persuading libertarians to abandon their libertarian principles in certain areas, such as immigration, and embrace the conservative position instead. We have seen this phenomenon with respect to the welfare-state issue where conservative libertarians have induced a number of libertarians to align themselves with conservatives on immigration until the welfare state is dismantled.

However, there are some libertarians who have come into the movement from conservatism who take the matter to a different level. They argue that the conservative position on immigration — that is, government-controlled borders — is actually the libertarian position and that open immigration or open borders isn’t. Having reached the result they want, which is government-controlled borders or closed immigration — they then resort to convoluted and bizarre justifications for claiming that their conservative position is consistent with libertarian principles.

But it isn’t.

For one thing, consider the enormous, ongoing crisis over illegal immigration. That crisis is a direct result of immigration controls, which is really nothing more than a system of socialist central planning, a system that always produces crises and chaos.

With open borders there is no such thing as illegal immigration because all immigration is legal. Therefore, the crisis entailing illegal immigration stems from laws that make unrestricted migration illegal.

Ask yourself: Can libertarianism really be a philosophy that actually produces ongoing crises and chaos? That should give you a clue as to whether government-controlled borders are consistent with libertarian principles.

The core principle of libertarianism is what is known as the non-aggression principle. It holds that it is morally wrong for one person to initiate force against another person. Another way of saying this is that freedom entails the right to live your life anyway you want, so long as your conduct is peaceful. That is, as long as you don’t murder, rape, steal, trespass, defraud, or otherwise initiate force against another person, you should be free to make whatever choices you want. To put it more simply, libertarianism entails any action that is peaceful.

Thus, if an action isn’t consistent with the libertarian non-aggression principle, then it’s not a libertarian position. To put it another way, if an action involves the initiation of force, it cannot be a libertarian position.

Suppose you have two adjoining ranches along the U.S.-Mexico border in the state of New Mexico. The ranches are individually owned by two brothers, one of whom is a Mexican citizen and other is an American citizen. Running along the northern border of the American ranch is a government-owned highway, which is about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

One day, the American brother invites his Mexican brother to come onto his ranch for dinner. The Mexican brother accepts.

So far, everything is peaceful and consensual. The dinner plans are entirely consistent with the libertarian non-aggression principle.

Enter the government, which claims that it has the rightful authority to control the border and prohibit illegal entry. To do so, it must enter onto the American brother’s farm in order to travel the ten miles to get to the border. It does so without a warrant under the guise of its “right to control the border.” That’s trespass, given that the American brother has not given his consent to the government agents to enter onto his property. Trespass involves the initiation of force against another person.

What if the American brother resists the trespass onto his property with force? They will meet force with force and, if necessary, arrest or even kill him.

When the government agents get to the border, they will interdict the Mexican brother who is doing nothing more than peacefully walking from his ranch onto his brother’s ranch, by mutual consent. Remember: the border is nothing more than an imaginary line dividing the two tracts of land.

Under a system of immigration controls, the government agents will initiate force to prevent the Mexican brother from crossing onto his brother’s ranch. If the Mexican brother proceeds to go further north in the direction of his brother’s home, the government agents will initiate force against him to prevent him from doing so. If he resists with force, they will arrest him or even kill him.

Ever since I posed this hypothetical many years ago, not one single libertarian proponent of government-controlled borders has been able to refute it. Their inability to refute that hypothetical is obviously persuasive proof that government-controlled borders cannot be the true libertarian position.

It gets worse.

Whenever you read an article or hear a speech by a libertarian who favors government-controlled borders, you will notice something important: He never talks about enforcement. There is a simple reason for that. He’s embarrassed to talk about enforcement because he knows that immigration enforcement measures, whatever they might be, inevitably constitute violations of the libertarian non-aggression principle.

Consider, for example, the law that makes it a felony for an American employer to hire an illegal immigrant. An employer-employee relationship obviously entails entirely peaceful and consensual acts. Yet, here we have the government raiding privately owned businesses, arresting and prosecuting employers for felonies, and forcibly deporting employees.

Can such initiations of state violence really be consistent with libertarianism? Not even in the remotest sense.

The same applies to the laws that make it a felony to transport or harbor illegal immigrants. How can such enforcement measures conceivably be consistent with libertarian principles?

How about those highway checkpoints where government agents stop people and demand to see their papers? If they refuse, they are forcibly dragged from their cars and put in a cage. Libertarianism? Not a chance!

Or how about that Berlin-type fence they built along the border? It entailed the forcible taking of people’s privately owned property through eminent domain. And even that didn’t solve the crisis. Donald Trump, who shares the same vision on immigration as those libertarians who call for government-controlled borders, is now calling for building the equivalent of a Berlin Wall along America’s southern border. Try reconciling a Berlin Wall with libertarianism. You can’t do it.

So, how do libertarian border-controllers justify their argument? They say that if roads and bridges were privately owned, the private owners would bar foreigners from using them and, therefore, since the government owns the roads and bridges, it’s okay for the government to bar foreigners from using them.

One fallacy of this thinking, of course, is the assumption that private owners of roads and bridges would bar foreigners from using them. What the libertarian border-controllers are doing is projecting their anti-immigrant prejudices by suggesting that private owners of roads and bridges would have the same prejudices.

Yet, real-life experience belies that assumption. After all, there are countless private owners of dwellings who have rented or sold houses or apartments to the 10-11 million illegal immigrants who are estimated to be in the country. If those private owners share the same anti-immigrant prejudices that libertarian proponents of government-controlled borders have, the color green trumps (sorry!) those sentiments.

And the same applies to stores. Do you ever see Wal-Mart asking for citizen identification of its customers in order to keep out illegal immigrants? Not on your life! They’re in the business of making money, just as most other businesses are. They don’t care what a customer’s citizenship is. All that matters to them is whether people are carrying that green stuff in their wallets.

There is no reason to believe that private owners of highways and bridges wouldn’t place the same high value on the color green as those millions of private owners of dwellings and stores.

But given that government owns the roads and bridges, do we really want government to have the power to discriminate in the use of its facilities. If so, then that’s going to take a constitutional amendment because of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction (including foreigners) the equal protection of the laws.

But I say: we shouldn’t want the state to have the power to discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin, or any other reason. If the state is going to own the roads and bridges, they should be open to all.

And even if it did have that authority, wouldn’t the decision on whether to discriminate or not against foreigners be a matter for the legislature to decide? Or would libertarian advocates of border controls want the governor of a state to enter a totalitarian-like decree favoring the controlled-border position regardless of the sentiments of the elected members of the legislature?

The newest argument that has arisen is that it would be okay for a state to discriminate against foreigners in the use of the highways and bridges because foreigners haven’t paid their pro-rata share of the building of the highways. Well, neither have people who live in another state. Should Virginia have the authority to prevent Marylanders from using Virginia roads because Marylanders didn’t help pay for the original construction of the roads? Should Americans who travel in foreign countries be barred from using the roads over there under the same reasoning?

The latest argument is as ridiculous, convoluted, and bizarre as all the other arguments that conservative libertarians have brought to the fore in their desperate attempt to justify immigration controls under libertarian principles.

But it is obvious what is going on here: These libertarians don’t want to let go of their conservatism on immigration but would like to appear like they are hewing to libertarian principles. So, having reached the conclusion they favor — i.e., government-controlled borders — then they have gone backwards by concocting strange and unusual rationales to buttress their claim that their position is libertarian.

But it isn’t. Libertarianism doesn’t involve crises and chaos or death and destruction or misery and suffering or infringements on liberty or impoverishment, all of which come with immigration controls.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of peace and harmony and liberty. It is a system of free markets and free enterprise. And that’s precisely what open borders are all about.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.