The Case for Open Immigration

by Jacob G. Hornberger

November 8, 2019

Every American living today has lived his entire life under an immigration crisis. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. America’s system of immigration controls is based on the concept of central planning, which is a core feature of socialism, which, as anyone from North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela will attest, always produces crises. Government officials centrally plan the movements of millions of people, mostly in a complex international labor market. The government’s plans involve allocations of immigrants that will be allowed entry from certain countries and designate the qualifications and types of skills they are required to possess for entry into the United States.

It cannot be done. Even if the government put the top 100 immigration experts into a room that contained the 10 most powerful computers in the world and came up with what the mainstream media call a “comprehensive immigration-reform plan,” it would not work. There is a simple reason for that: Central planning is an inherently defective system, one that is incapable of working and that produces crises, or what the economist Ludwig von Mises called “planned chaos,” a term that perfectly describes the immigration situation in the United States for the past 90 years.

There is but one solution to the immigration mayhem that America’s system of immigration control has brought into existence. That solution is open immigration — the free movement of peoples into and out of the United States.

Let me repeat that for emphasis, because it is a critically important point: Open immigration — or, better yet, open borders, which is encompassed by the principle of free trade — is the only — I repeat, only — solution to America’s decades-long, ongoing, never-ending, perpetual immigration crisis. Any “comprehensive immigration plan” that leaves a system of immigration controls in place is doomed to fail. Trying to come up with a central plan that will work is nothing but a waste of time, energy, and money.

The most important point about open immigration is that it is consistent with the principles of individual liberty, free markets, morality, religion, and limited government.

Freedom consists of the right to live one’s life any way he chooses, so long as he isn’t initiating force or fraud against another person. Therefore, as long as a person isn’t murdering, stealing, raping, robbing, or committing some other act of violence or fraud against another person, he has a right to live his life any way he wants. That is what genuine freedom is all about.

As the U.S. Declaration of Independence points out, everyone in the world possesses the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is, such rights are not limited to American citizens. They inhere in Mexicans, Russians, Cubans, Guatemalans, Egyptians, South Africans, and everyone else. These rights are endowed to people by nature and by God and, therefore, preexist government. In fact, as the Declaration also points out, it is the responsibility of government to protect, not destroy or regulate, the exercise of man’s natural, God-given rights.

Freedom encompasses the principles of economic liberty. Those principles entail the following: (1) the right to engage freely in any occupation or trade in order to sustain one’s life through labor; (2) the right to enter into mutually beneficial trades with others, including labor contracts; (3) the right to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth; and (4) the right to do whatever one wants with his own money.

Freedom also encompasses the principles of private property and freedom of association. In fact, when Thomas Jefferson described “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as natural, God-given rights that inhere in all men, he was drawing on the phraseology of the English philosopher John Locke, who had referred in his Second Treatise on Government to life, liberty, and property as natural, God-given rights.

Your home belongs to you. You are the owner. As such, you have the right to invite anyone you want into your home. That is what the rights of private property and freedom of association are all about. Other people might not like your invitees, just as they might not like other peaceful choices that you make in your life. But their dislike of how you choose to live your life is irrelevant when it comes to the exercise of your natural, God-given rights. Other people have no right, either directly or indirectly by employing the force of government, to interfere with whom you decide to invite into your house,

The same principle applies to your business. You have the right to hire whomever you want. It’s your money. It’s your business. It’s your private property. No one else, including the government, has the right to interfere with how you choose to run your business.

That’s not to say, however, that your invitees have the right to enter into the homes and businesses of others. Everyone has the same rights of economic liberty, private property, and freedom of association that you have. Everyone has the same right to invite anyone he wants into his home and hire anyone he wants in his business. In fact, if people don’t like the people whom you hire in your business, they can express their displeasure by choosing not to patronize your business.

Crossing borders

When a person crosses a political border, he is violating no one’s rights. On the contrary, he is exercising his natural, God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, especially given that freedom of travel is another aspect of the natural, God-given right to liberty.

For example, every day countless Marylanders cross the Potomac River and enter Virginia. No one knows how many because neither the federal government nor the two state governments keep count. By simply crossing the border and entering Virginia, those Marylanders are not violating anyone’s rights. If they commit a crime after entering Virginia, such as murder or theft, they obviously violate someone else’s rights and should be punished for it.

Suppose it could be established that 5 percent of Marylanders who cross into Virginia commit violent crimes inside Virginia. Would it be appropriate to amend the Constitution in order to permit the government of Virginia to station border guards at the interstate bridges that span the Potomac so that they could monitor and control the movements of people from Maryland? Of course not. That would violate people’s natural, God-given rights of economic liberty, private property, freedom of travel, and freedom of association.

Advocates of immigration controls claim that open immigration means no borders. But our example of Maryland and Virginia demonstrates that such is clearly not the case. Merely because people are free to cross borders it doesn’t follow that borders disappear. It simply means that people are free to cross them, back and forth.

The same principle applies to the concept of political sovereignty. Advocates of immigration controls assert, mistakenly, that open borders mean the destruction of sovereignty. Not so, as we see with our Maryland-Virginia example. When Marylanders cross the border and enter Virginia, the state of Virginia does not lose its sovereignty. Instead, once people enter Virginia, they are immediately subject to the laws of Virginia. If they violate Virginia law, they cannot claim immunity on the basis of their being from a different state. Virginia retains its sovereignty even though the border between Maryland and Virginia is completely open.

These principles apply, of course, to city and county borders as well. People who cross such borders are not violating anyone’s rights simply by crossing the border. Moreover, the fact that people are free to cross such borders doesn’t mean the borders disappear or that county or city governments disappear or lose jurisdiction. The borders remain in existence, as does each political jurisdiction.

These principles apply to international borders as well. Whenever someone crosses an international border, he is not violating anyone’s rights, any more than a person who is crossing a state, county, or city border violates anyone’s rights. A person who crosses the international border between the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and the U.S. state of Texas violates no one’s rights any more than a person from Maryland violates anyone’s rights when he enters Virginia. Moreover, the border between the United States and Mexico does not disappear. Texas retains its sovereignty, as does the United States. The person crossing the border from Mexico is now subject to the laws of Texas and the United States.

Immigration and the division of labor

The reason that Americans have trouble understanding the principle of open international borders is that they have all been born and raised under a system of border controls. If the Constitution had permitted the states to enact border controls and if that had been the system since the founding of the country, people would very likely have just as difficult a time understanding the principle of open domestic borders.

We take it for granted, but it was a remarkable achievement — the largest open-border region in history — the United States of America. And that wasn’t all. The Framers also brought into existence a system of open international immigration. Thousands upon thousands of penniless immigrants were flooding America’s shores on the east coast and west coast. Most of them stayed. Many of them returned to their countries of origin. After the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which enabled the United States to absorb virtually the entire northern half of Mexico, including its inhabitants, who were given immediate U.S. citizenship, people were free to cross back and forth over the new border for some 75 years.

America’s system of open immigration was one of the principal reasons for the tremendous rise in prosperity in the 19th century. Americans were discovering that the division of labor that comes with open immigration actually increases overall productivity, thereby contributing to rising standards of living for society generally.

Moreover, the poor were at first surviving, then prospering, and then getting rich. That was why people from all over the world were coming to America. Of course, there were other factors for America’s prosperity — no income tax, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, education grants, paper money, Federal Reserve, drug laws, welfare, public schooling, foreign aid, national-security state, Pentagon, CIA, NSA, FBI, or foreign wars, coups, invasions, or occupations.

Immigration and the price system

Unlike a system of immigration controls, which relies on central planning, open immigration relies on the price system that is part and parcel of a free-market economy. For example, Mexican laborers in the interior of Mexico learn that farmers in Oregon are paying $15 an hour to help pick their crops. The workers don’t have to know what the reason for the high wage is. They just know that it far exceeds the $1 an hour they are receiving in Mexico. They rush to Oregon and get hired. Once the crops are picked, the price of labor goes down. The workers either return home, flush with cash, or they seek out another part of the country where the wage rate is inordinately high, as reflected in the price system.

That’s how the price system works. It becomes an information-transmitting mechanism by which people make economic choices as to what they want to do. If wage rates go up in a part of the country, people respond by going there. If they go down, they return home or go elsewhere seeking to make more money.

That’s how the free market works. No central planning and, therefore, no crises and no planned chaos. Instead, there is a harmony of interests in which people are pursuing their own happiness and coordinating with others in the process of doing so.

Some people express concern that millions of people will suddenly come to the United States. Not likely, again owing to the laws of supply and demand. Why doesn’t everyone in the United States suddenly move to San Francisco, San Diego, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, all three of which are widely recognized as beautiful places in which to live? The reason: It’s too expensive for many people to live in those places. Moreover, as more people move into those areas, prices go up, thereby making it more financially difficult for more people to move there.

The same principle applies to countries. As more people move into a country, the prices of housing and other essentials begin rising, making it financially unpalatable for others to follow. Just because people would like to move into a particular area it doesn’t follow that they are able to. The natural laws of supply and demand regulate the flow of people into and out of cities, towns, states, and countries.

There is something else to consider about a system of immigration controls: death, suffering, and tyranny. When people are trying to sustain or improve their lives, many of them are willing to take risks to do so. Thus, when entry into the United States is made illegal, there will be those who are willing to take the risk of getting caught. Given the tremendous disparities in economic opportunity between their country and the United States, the risk is worth it to them. That’s why people die of thirst or dehydration while crossing the desert in the American Southwest or in the back of an 18-wheeler that is packed with illegal immigrants or while carrying a child across the Rio Grande. Such deaths and suffering are the indirect consequence of America’s system of immigration controls. With open borders, foreigners would be entering the United States in the normal way, by simply crossing the border at public crossing points.

To enforce the immigration controls, officials enact an ever-growing series of harsh enforcement measures. Decades of immigration enforcement have brought into existence an immigration police state, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. The only reason that Americans put up with this police state is that they have become accustomed to it, even thinking that it is part and parcel of America’s “free” society and “free-enterprise” system.

Americans returning from vacation in a foreign country are subject to full-body searches, even the search of their body cavities. They are now required to turn over cell phones and divulge passwords so that officials can copy everything that is in the cell phone. It’s all part of America’s system of immigration controls, even though such actions bear no relationship whatsoever to preventing foreigners from illegally entering the United States.

Under America’s system of immigration controls, federal officials are authorized to enter onto farms and ranches within 100 miles of the border without a judicially issued search warrant. There are also roving Border Patrol searches, where agents stop cars and search them for arbitrary and capricious reasons, again without a search warrant. There are immigration checkpoints on U.S. highways, where federal agents have the same full authority to search people and their vehicles that they have at the border, even if the travelers have never entered Mexico. Immigration agents board buses and demand to see people’s papers. There are violent raids on American businesses. There is forcible separation of children from parents. There are detention centers with wretched conditions for both adults and children.

If one were to read that a communist or other totalitarian regime were doing such things, no one would be surprised. But since they are being done by officials who have an American flag on their sleeves, it’s all considered normal and part of living in a free society.

The police state

Among the justifications for all this mayhem, death, and destruction of liberty is the notion that a certain percentage of immigrants will go on welfare. The same point might be made about Virginians who cross the border into Maryland — that they are moving there to take advantage of more-generous welfare benefits.

Should we, therefore, permit Maryland to enact immigration controls to prevent that sort of thing from happening? Of course not. Rights are immutable. You don’t destroy the rights of the innocent just because some people are guilty. If 5 percent of immigrants are going on welfare, then people should focus on ending the welfare, not on letting the government destroy the natural, God-given rights of those who are coming to the United States for legitimate reasons. After all, even if a certain percentage of immigrants are causing an increase in taxes owing to their going on welfare, is that any reason for Americans to abandon their principles? Of course not. Throughout history, there have been those who have paid a much higher price for adhering to principle. What’s a few thousand dollars in taxes compared to the destruction of liberty and privacy under an immigration police state?

Is immigration the same thing as citizenship? Of course not. There is no reason that immigrants should be expected to give up their citizenship and become American citizens. Many of them would choose not to, especially if they were free to come and go. Today, there are more than a million Americans living in Mexico. Many of them are refusing to assimilate. They’re not learning Spanish. They retain their American citizenship. I say: So what? Leave them alone. They are pursuing happiness in their own way. The same applies to foreigners who come here. If they wish to apply for citizenship, fine. If they don’t, that’s fine too.

There are those who say that immigrants destroy America’s “culture.” Really? Which culture is that? Is it the culture of my hometown of Laredo, Texas, where 95 percent of the populace are Hispanic, where streets are named after Mexican heroes, where 20 percent of the residents can’t speak English, where many of the daily conversations are in Spanish, and where store signs are in both English and Spanish? America’s culture is one of liberty and diversity.

Moreover, open borders is the only system that is consistent with religious and ethical principles. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Throughout the world, there are people who are mired in poverty, oppression, or tyranny. Americans should lead the way out of this statist morass. The way to do that is by example. A great place to start is with immigration. Abolish ICE and the Border Patrol. Open the borders to the free movements of goods, services, and people. It is the only solution to America’s decades-old, never-ending, ongoing immigration woes.

This article was originally published in the September 2019 edition of Future of Freedom. Category: Immigration

This post was written by: Jacob G. Hornberger

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 and from Full Context. Send him email.