Immigration is an extremely complicated issue with a variety of possible solutions. It’s also one of the many areas where all libertarians don’t agree. There is no singular libertarian position on immigration, but rather three main schools of thought.
The most ideologically pure faction maintains that the state has no right to restrict individuals freedom of movement. Therefore, people from other countries should be just as free to move to this country as we are free to move within it. There would be no restrictions on interstate immigration whatsoever.
In other words, there would be completely open borders – which is the term that grants these libertarians their namesake. Citizenship would be granted freely to all immigrants under such a system.
Although, the libertarians following this argument tend to be more anarchistic than others and don’t believe as strongly in traditional state sovereignty. Some even contend that there should be no state to determine borders in the first place. Under such a system, immigration and citizenship would be non-issues.
They may be a minority, but they are a vocal one, that believe in this libertarian argument for completely open border immigration.
The mainstream libertarian position on immigration
The most popular libertarian stance on immigration is the position advocated by the Libertarian Party:
We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. However, we support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a credible threat to security, health or property.
These libertarians contend that immigration is something that cannot be entirely left to the free market. The primary responsibility of government is security, and therefore government has the right has a right to check people as they come into a country.
Within this school, libertarians would be in favor of open legal immigration as long as criminals are prevented from entering a country. Although the majority of libertarians take this stand, they still disagree on exactly what the level of scrutiny should be.
There is also disagreement over whether immigrants should be granted full citizenship or temporary work permits. Nonetheless, this mainstream libertarian position on immigration captures the feeling of many classical liberals and advocates for liberty.
No open borders with a welfare state
Equal in size to open borders libertarians, the final category believes in significant restrictions on immigration as long as the welfare state remains intact. Government has a right restrict immigration because of various benefits that are available to immigrants who don’t pay income tax.
These libertarians don’t want to allow new immigrants into the country who may come to rely on the state, and eventually even vote to increase state power. This is an argument that even the economist Milton Friedman has made in the past. Such libertarians say they’d have no problem with immigration after the welfare state has been dismantled.
Until then, it would be of critical importance to maintain strict border security and a substantial deportation force. Citizenship, and even temporary work permits, would remain difficult to attain.
One problem with this last point is that statistics show that immigrants do not result in increased welfare spending. According to reports by the Cato Institute, there is no causal tie between increased immigration, legal or illegal, and social spending. In fact, immigrants tend to pick states with less social spending because that means freer economies, and more jobs. This underscores the fact that immigrants are coming to America to work, and not to freeload.
Cato Director of Economic Studies Jeffrey Miron even contends that increased immigration would hasten an end of the welfare state instead of expanding it. Since people are so universally opposed to immigrants receiving welfare, increased immigration would force that issue to a head and welfare would be cut.
With that said, while libertarians may have different positions on immigration, they can all agree that reforms need to be made to the current system.
This article was inspired by the following segment of Stossel:
(Image via Steve Hillebrand of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used with permission.)