The restriction of movement along the borders of the United States is generally accepted as a fact of life, much like the sun rising in the morning and setting at night. Those on the right-wing of the political spectrum typically argue that those who cross the border illegally should face harsh consequences, up to and including jail time or deportation. Those on the left often support relaxing immigration regulation, but both usually agree that some level of enforcement is necessary.
Even many libertarians (and others who claim to be in favor of individual freedom) commonly spout rhetoric about “securing our border.” It is argued that the act of crossing the border illegally is wrong given that, by definition, one must break the law to do so. It is viewed as common sense; illegal immigrants are committing a crime, and because of this, they deserve to be punished. But this position rests on a flawed assumption: the idea that law has any kind of moral authority.
A sizable portion of Americans practice an almost cult-like following of the law, in that they will follow it without moral justification even when they are in no danger of any repercussions. Some are even willing to take this to the extreme of calling the police on others who are hurting no one (such as a neighbor who is smoking marijuana). When challenged, those who advocate this position often say things like “it’s the law” and “you do the crime, you do the time.” They seem to believe that morality derives itself from law and not the other way around.
This argument is easily debunked, unless one believes that the most horrible atrocities committed by governments around the world have been morally justifiable (in which case any discussion of morality will likely be futile). If morality is based on law, it means that anything legal is morally acceptable. In accordance with this, one would have to believe that Stalin’s acts of mass murder, Adolf Hitler’s extermination of Jews and others he deemed to be undesirable, and the actions of any other brutal dictator were permissible; these leaders created and maintained the law and could do as they pleased. It would mean that those who aided runaway slaves in the United States were committing a moral wrong, as the Fugitive Slave Acts made this illegal. It would mean that Middle Eastern countries who execute homosexuals are not doing anything wrong, as said homosexuals are committing a crime. It would also mean that morality varies depending on which country an action occurs in. In the United States, genocide would be morally wrong, but in a country where genocide is legal, it would be perfectly just. Suppose a law is passed legalizing the murder of anyone with green eyes. The law also stipulates that anyone harboring a green-eyed person or attempting to stop their murder will be convicted of a felony. Who is morally wrong in this situation: the person breaking the law or the one following it?
Unless one is willing to defend these previous examples, the idea of law dictating morality must be discarded. Law is simply the decree of those in power; it has no moral authority behind it. Breaking the law, in itself, is morally neutral. There are cases in which breaking the law is morally acceptable, and there are cases in which following the law is morally wrong. One must look at an action independent of law to determine if it is justifiable.
In the case of illegal immigration, a person breaking the law is crossing an arbitrary line. The location of this line has been chosen by a small group of people who have almost definitely never been to the place where the person is crossing. The immigrant is probably committing this action peacefully. If they are not, they are committing a different crime, and their act of crossing a line is not the issue. When someone says that they are in favor of penalizing those who cross the border illegally, they are saying that they want violence (or the threat of violence) used against someone who is aggressing upon the rights of no one. They want an armed police officer or immigration official to detain this person; this detention is done under the assumption that any attempt to run away or any attempted self-defense will be met with escalation on the part of the law enforcer, up to and including lethal force. They want this person to be kidnapped and thrown in a cage, eventually being forcibly moved to the place that they were trying to escape from in the first place. Again, this is all because the previously referenced person crossed an imaginary line, harming no one in the process; anyone who was not conditioned to find this normal from a young age would likely find it to be patently absurd.
Many would respond to my argument with the assertion that illegal immigrants are trespassing on the government’s land; this response shows a lack of understanding of the differences between government “property” and the property of an average person. An average person lives on their property or conducts some sort of business on it; most government officials have never even been to a tenth of the areas that the government claims to own. An average person buys their property or inherits it from a relative; government typically takes it by force. Government can take land, simply because it feels like it, through the process of eminent domain (compensation for “fair market value” is required, but the definition of fair market value is decided by the government). The 2005 Supreme Court case Kelo v New London expanded this even further; it established that the government can take land to sell to private businesses if the government believes this transaction is in the interest of the greater good. This effectively means that government can use eminent domain on almost any land that it wants; it simply has to make the argument it did in Kelo. If any other individual or group of people forced sales in this way, their property ownership would surely be viewed as illegitimate. Government should not be afforded special privileges; the rights of those who participate in it are not more important than the rights of others. A group of people who can choose to own vast swaths of land at will does not fit into a theory of just property ownership.
Many people who are sympathetic to the argument outlined above have one major reservation to the idea of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants: the use of government benefits by illegal immigrants. Libertarians especially say that while they agree with the philosophy of open borders, they can’t support it at the moment because illegal immigrants will take advantage of government programs. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is actually government programs, not immigration, that the anti-immigration libertarian is arguing against. It should make no difference what side of an arbitrary line a person receiving these benefits is from. This categorization of immigrants is a form of the collectivist thinking that libertarians typically argue against. It is generalizing a group of people and taking away their right to freedom of movement in order to prevent a small amount of them from doing something, which is analogous to banning gun ownership for all because someone may commit a gun-related crime. Even citing statistics about the use of government programs by immigrants (regardless of their validity) should not be enough to generalize vastly different people. These people should be viewed as individuals, not groups. Those on one side of a line are no more deserving of life and liberty than those on the other side.
Closed border advocates sometimes argue that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from hard-working Americans. In reality, this is misleading, as illegal immigrants often take low-skilled and low-paying jobs that many Americans would not want in the first place. But even if it were true, this would not be a valid reason to restrict their ability to work. Competition for employment from an illegal immigrant is no more a violation of anyone’s rights than competition from a neighbor. If one wants to ban people from other countries because they may “take jobs”, than why not ban people from other states? Why not ban people from other towns or even other neighborhoods? Being born between the arbitrary lines of another government does not make a person less deserving of opportunity. We should not be basing our identities on the government that rules us, but on our shared experiences as human beings.
Someone who cares deeply about freedom would not advocate for banning free speech in order to maintain order. In that same vein, they should not argue for banning freedom of movement. We should all be wary of vague, consequentialist arguments arguing for the restriction of freedom for our safety or “the greater good.” We also must remember that law is not infallible. It is the duty of good people to disobey laws that trample on our rights and the rights of others.