On the Ethics of Immigration: The Morality behind Closed Borders

In a world that is witnessing an unprecedented range of humanitarian crises, can it be ethical for states to shut their doors on victims of war, armed conflict, sexual violence or organized crime? Do these countries have the right to close their borders in the absence of such calamities alike? Notwithstanding, do all humans have a moral right to cross borders at will? While immigration has emerged as an important subject of debate and policies have been argued extensively in economic, political, and cultural contexts, the need for a nuanced understanding of the ethics of immigration has received little attention. There is an urgent need to address such questions whilst discussing the moral implications of immigration policies in light of global ethics.

This essay argues that legitimate states, regardless of reason, have a moral right to close their borders to potential immigrants, and that these would-be immigrants do not have a moral right to cross borders at will.

The first part of my essay argues that “legitimate states are morally entitled to unilaterally design and enforce their own immigration policies,” even if such intensive policies restrict the entry of prospective immigrants. Every state, by virtue of its territorial integrity and sovereignty, is entitled to have dominion over deciding who may enter and who may not, a view deeply rooted in the moral right of countries to be politically self-determining over self-regarding affairs. In numerous instances, the United States has been pulled up for promoting violent coups in Middle-Eastern countries or been accused of meddling with autonomous elections in Central and Latin American nations. Interestingly, it isn’t the illegitimacy and immorality of the interference itself that provokes the rightful criticism and censure of the United States but the very act of intrusion, that violates the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the targeted states. The essence of such criticism seems to stem from our expectation of political self-determination from the targeted countries. Therefore, political self-determination is an indispensable part of a state’s autonomy.

Even though it is for individuals and groups that international law prescribes self-determination and not states, I believe stripping a country of its political self-determination takes away the right of its citizens and groups to control their self-interested affairs as well. A country’s immigration policy determines who may contribute to shaping the future of that nation: economically, politically and culturally, among other ways. Such a policy holds deep importance because it has the potential to determine the political course of that country and hence the course of its citizens’ lives in turn. The right to political self-determination of a country is simply the collection of individual and group self-determining rights of its citizens.

Therefore, the politically self-determining nature of legitimate states is sufficient moral ground to let them make their own immigration policies regardless of the nature of such policies, whether restrictive or liberal, egalitarian or utilitarian.

The second dimension of my argument suggests that legitimate states have a right to freedom of association that includes the right to refuse association too. For instance, the freedom of association of an unmarried man emanates from his dominion over his own affairs, like any other person. While he may choose to marry a particular woman, he may choose not to marry that woman as well. At the same time, it is at the discretion of that woman as well, to marry him or not; it is a two-way process. While one may join a particular partner by virtue of one’s freedom of association, one may also not join that partner on accord of the same freedom. Similarly, legitimate states should be allowed to associate themselves with potential immigrants as well as refuse association.

One might argue that such an analogy is flawed since a matrimonial relationship is discretionary and can be avoided, while statelessness is not. Therefore, one does not have control over one’s citizenship as one does over a voluntary relationship such as marriage. Nevertheless, a different approach to the same argument could give us a clearer picture. What if we compared a state to property? International law requires a state to control a well-defined area under its jurisdiction for it to be called a state. Now, the right to property inherently includes the right to exclude others from its ownership. It can hence be inferred that a legitimate state, or more appropriately, a legitimate property, reserves the right to freedom of association with potential owners, and can deny such ownership by virtue of that freedom. While existent owners in the guise of citizens may rightfully denounce their ownership in the form of emigration, it is not obligatory for the state to entertain new ownership to its property in the form of immigration.

Therefore, the right to exclude prospective immigrants is a right born of the state’s indisputable jurisdiction over the property within its internationally recognized borders.

The final facet of my argument justifies that the previous two hypotheses are not adverse to the moral rights of potential immigrants by any means. The right of a country to reject association with would-be immigrants does not violate their rights as liberalists and egalitarians often try to portray. The main reason is that human beings do not have a moral right to freedom of movement beyond the territory of their citizenship in the first place! Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants us the right to freedom of movement within our own state only.

Yet, arguments in favour of open borders often advocate that ‘humanity is equal’ and that ‘every human has an equal right to the natural resources on the planet’. Liberalists are of the view that it is terribly unjust for a person’s life prospects to be so greatly dependent on something as uncontrollable as the country she is born in. However, my views are more in harmony with The Law of Peoples by John Rawls, who concedes to the inevitability of inequalities among states. As per Michael Blake, it is more thoughtful to accept that “membership is not itself a good whose distribution is to be evaluated by distributive justice; rather, membership in a territorial state is required before [the] theory of distributive justice [can] have applicability”. The goods at stake when discussing immigration are connected more to better political institutions and social opportunities rather than a yearning for natural resources. These prospects include better lifestyles, progressive education, developed healthcare, and assured safety among others. Citizens of countries rich in oil are fleeing to havens in Europe without blinking an eye. Why? They value their safety more than their natural reserves, so do the Rohingya Muslims of forest-rich Myanmar that are ever-increasing as refugees in India. Abundantly resource-decorated Chinese and Indian nationals number highest as immigrants in the United States. Why? They value better economic opportunity more than the natural resources back home.

Therefore, this explanation clearly corroborates that immigration today is applied as a technique to avail of better opportunities or safer sanctuaries, and not as a means to ensure moral equality among human beings. Thus, it cannot be judged a moral human right by any means.

To recapitulate my argument, I firstly assert that legitimate states have a right to political self-determination by virtue of their territorial integrity and sovereignty, and on accord of the right to self-determination of its people. Successively, I prove how the freedom of association is an important component of a state’s right to political self-determination, adjudicating next that it is the sole owner of all political institutions within its recognized borders. Therefore, the first two facets of my arguments help me justify why legitimate states have a moral right to close their borders to potential immigrants, regardless of a specific reason. Finally, the concluding facet of my hypotheses helps me validate that human beings do not have a moral right to cross borders at will. I rest my case by affirming that a state’s right to exclude potential immigrants is not detrimental to their individual freedom and states need not present reasons to exercise this innately moral right.


Shivang Singh

An ambitious, perseverant, and all-rounded parliamentarian in the making...

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