Why You Have a Natural Right to Immigrate: The Right to Immigrate As Implementation of the Right to Live

Stuart K. Hayashi

Screen shot from the motion picture “Born in East L.A.,” prod. Peter Macgregor-Scott, dir. Cheech Marin, (Universal Pictures, 1987).

In the comments section of a website I often frequent, I was struck by this comment, as it demonstrates so much of what so many “immigration skeptics” either do not understand or wish not to understand:

I really don’t see what facts of reality give rise to the idea that one has a natural right to cross a foreign border. That’s about as correct as thinking he has a right to a roof over his head. I hate to start from an abstraction here, but to short cut, I think we all agree at least that a man has a natural right to his life. That is not a right to my life or to any of those that make up my group, America.

The presumption in that statement is that your peaceable immigration imposes a burden on other people, comparable to demanding that other people provide you shelter at their own expense. It implies that your ability to immigrate to the United States must be incumbent upon everyone else — or, more accurately, the State — granting you permission. Mark Steyn states this more explicitly, “…immigration has to benefit the people who are already here” (emphasis Steyn’s).

No, there is but one condition that can rightfully be placed upon the implementation of your plan to immigrate: you must do it peaceably. Were someone to immigrate to the United States for the conscious purpose of commencing a planned terrorist attack, of course that person has no right to immigrate. This is because the sole condition that a constitutional liberal republican Night Watchman State can morally plan on any action is that the action must be peaceful, not initiating the use of force upon anyone else.


Presuming That Immigrants Are Crooks Justifies Restricting Immigration? A Presumption of Guilt Is Not Enough
Many people try to stereotype immigrants as rapists or terrorists, and say that this presumption of guilt would justify the United States banning immigration from countries with which the USA has not so much as declared war.  In actuality, the legal presumption of innocence that all U.S. citizens deserve does rightfully apply to non-citizens from nations at which the U.S. is not at war. Note that the United States Constitution properly recognizes that if someone suspects a would-be immigrant of desiring to commit a crime, that the would-be immigrant deserves the same legal presumption of innocence as a native-born citizen.  The Fifth Amendment states,

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger;…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use… [emphasis added].

Observe the second word. The Bill of Rights does not say “No citizen shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime…nor deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process…” It says no person. That includes non-citizens: human “aliens.” That is, if the United States has not formally declared war against a country, the U.S. government must treat those born of that country with the same legal presumption of innocence as it does its own citizens.


Freedom Means That, Legally, You Need No One Else’s Permission to Do What Is Peaceful
Yes, you do have a right to cross over the parts of a national border that are not private property. In a free society, freedom of action is the default. The default is: non-involvement on the part of the State. If someone wants to use State violence to restrict your freedom, the onus is upon that person to justify the exercise of State violence upon you. If the migrant is intruding upon your private plot and trying to be a squatter on your private property, that is a trespass against you, and you would have the moral right to call the police and ask the police to dispense force to protect you. But if the migrant crosses into my private plot and I consent to that, it is not incumbent upon me or the migrant to beg for the permission of people outside of my private plot that the migrant be allowed by third parties to lodge on my private plot.

Here is the fallacy in how the first quotation conflates my right to immigrate with a demand on my part that the State compel you to provide me shelter and other forms of wealth. If I said I have a right to a roof over my head at your expense, that would be initiating the use of force to compel action on your part. If I cross the national border and find refuge on the private plot of someone who consents to me being on the private plot, that does not violently compel any action on your part. It actually happens without your help.


What About When People Cross Over Private Plots That Are Along the Border?
There are private plots along parts of the U.S.-Mexican border, though, and sometimes impoverished people from south of the border do have to resort to a quick crossing over the landholders’ private plots in the absence of the landholders’ permission. Some landholders consider this intolerable and demand federal action to stop it. In most cases I would side with the landholders. However, there are important considerations in these cases that merit attention.

First is the “coming to the nuisance” doctrine. That is the legal doctrine stating that if a “public nuisance” already existed in a particular location, and then you choose to move yourself to that location, you implicitly consent to the nuisance and thereby rightfully forfeit the legal authority to take action against that. Suppose there is a factory emitting soot; it has been there for fifty years. Then, last year, I chose to move next to that factory, failing to anticipate how much the air pollution would bother me. I would be forfeiting the authority to sue the factory’s owner, as I was the one who “came to the nuisance”; the factory’s actions have been grandfathered in. In the case of private homes on the U.S.-Mexican border, those border crossings have already been numerous since 1965; this has already been recognized throughout the 1980s. were it the case that I moved to one of those plots in the year 2004 and only then started to notice the border crossing, I would be coming to the nuisance, and it would be silly for me to demand State action only now.

Second, there are cases of emergencies where the law should take the emergency into consideration and grant leniency where it would otherwise judge that someone violated private property rights. Suppose that you were on the continental United States in winter in the wilderness and, through a rare error in judgment, you found yourself caught in a snowstorm. However, you find a secluded cabin and recognize that the one way for you to survive the night is to enter the cabin. You find that no one is in it. If you break into the cabin and stay there for the night, that would normally be recognized as violating private property rights. However, if this is an unusual occurrence for you and the cabin’s owner, the law should take into consideration both that rarity and the urgency of the situation.

Ordinances and statutes are not deontological categorical imperatives that the State is duty-bound to enforce for their own sake.  Ordinances and statutes must exist and be enforced only for the greater end that is maximizing each person’s ability to live freely in the long term. For you to demand that other people always provide you food, shelter, education, and health care over the course of years is an entirely different matter — that is not a sudden emergency situation. For people in Third World kleptocracies, the choice is either to immigrate to a freer country or die. In the cases of impoverished people in Ecuador and Syria, they are in an emergency situation. I don’t find it proper for any government to demand that people give them long-term housing and social services. But considering that their choice is to migrate or die, their decision to cross borders — sans any government’s approval — is reasonable.

To the degree that impoverished, desperate people — people who would otherwise die early if not for the migration — are resorting to trampling over private land to reach the United States, the long-term solution is to make it easier for such people to enter the USA legally so that they can do so over no one’s private land. That would involve removing the cap on the number of visas issued annually or, better yet, abolishing the visa system altogether.

And much of the U.S.-Mexican border is not private property.


The Right to Migrate Is the Right to Live
Hence, the first commenter contradicts herself with these two statements: (1) “I really don’t see what facts of reality give rise to the idea that one has a natural right to cross a foreign border” and (2) “a man has a right to his own life.”

A man’s right to his own life is the very fact of reality that gives rise to the idea that one has a natural right to cross a foreign border.

That is, the right to immigrate peacefully is a logical corollary to the right to live peacefully. Peaceful immigration is a noble enterprise, and to deny free immigration is to deny free enterprise.

Recall that in an earlier post, I asked you to imagine the following: that you are a slave in the early 1800s but have a relatively benign master. For the most part, the master lets you do what you want: the master lets you open your own business on the side and you can keep most of your own money. The master allows you to read and write. The master allows you to speak your mind and argue back at him without violent reprisal. The master lets you do what you want in ways similar to a permissive parent permitting adolescent children to do as they please.

This would raise the question over whether your situation would be considered relative freedom, and the answer is no. You do what you want, but this is merely at the master’s mercy. If the master undergoes a change of heart, or if legal control over you changes hands to another party, it may be the case that you won’t have as much leeway in the future. Even if we assume that your master will outlive you and will not change in temperament, it is unjust that what you do, you do merely at the master’s permission. A free man or woman is free to do what he or she wants peaceably in the absence of anyone’s permission — that is what it means to have a right to one’s own life.

To live is to take peaceable action. That is, in order to live, you must take peaceable actions — you must find a means of obtaining food, either as gifts from willing givers, or growing your own food, or exchanging your services for such food. You must make choices on whether you will marry and, if you marry, whom that will be. You must make choices on whether to have children and, if you do have children, you must make choices on how to raise them. And, if you were born in a country that is impoverished due to a kleptocratic government discouraging long-term entrepreneurship and investment, you must make a choice on whether to remain in this danger or to immigrate to a freer place such as the United States. Insofar as your legal ability to perform these actions actually hinges on permission from the State, you are not free to perform these actions. Nay, you are free to perform these peaceable actions insofar as other people are unable to request that the State veto these actions of yours.

When you immigrate, that is no less of an action that you take to live than is your choice to start a business or to write a poem or to marry. The right to start a peaceful business — even without anyone else’s permission — is an implementation of the right to live. The right to express oneself freely — even without anyone else’s permission — is an implementation of the right to live. The right to immigrate — even without anyone else’s permission — is an implementation of the right to live. And to deny my right to peaceful immigration is to deny my right to live.

For the benefit of someone like the first commenter, that cannot be stated often enough. To have freedom does not mean that, as a consequence of other people continually approving your requests, you are largely able to go through life doing what you want. To have freedom means that your legal authority to perform any peaceable action required no one else’s permission in the first place.

What this means is that if I want an immigrant to stay on my land, and that immigrant travels from his own country to my plot of land, the immigrant has a moral right to do this — regardless of what the federal laws are concerning visas — no matter how much that first commenter disapproves and wishes the State would quash this action.

For those who have not yet read Ayn Rand’s We the Living, I caution that I will provide a spoiler in italics:

when Kira Argounova decided that she would attempt to cross a national border illegally, she implicitly and properly recognized that the justness of that action required no one else’s approval. She sought no one else’s permission; the idea did not so much as enter her mind. Nor should it have.  Her survival and freedom are what mattered. That was a direct consequence of Kira Argounova cherishing her right to her own peaceable life as paramount.

Equally unjust is Mark Steyn’s presumption that a person’s right to immigrate to another country — that is, that person’s right to live — must hinge on whether the people in that country believe that this will be of benefit to them. If I want an immigrant on my land, and that immigrant agrees to lodge on my land, that immigrant is living justly even if it is widely believed that the immigrant is benefiting no one but himself.

Poor people migrate to freer countries because they are trying to avoid an early death — that is, they migrate to freer countries to live. To say that they have no natural right to do this peaceably — that their ability to migrate must be at your mercy — is to deny them their right to their lives.