Immigration, Borders and Screening under Capitalism

by | Sep 4, 2015 | Immigration

A proper screening for immigrants does not include ideology, but screens for rights violating actions.

Over at Rule of Reason, Ed Mazlish published a piece in which he argues against what he sees as the “Open Immigration” policies of leading Objectivist intellectuals, and proposes what he sees as a proper immigration policy, one flowing from Objectivist principles.

I think he makes a few errors in that piece, and I’d like to explain these briefly, while clarifying my own position for my listeners and readers.

In the second paragraph of his piece, Mazlish writes:

Since the early days of the American republic, Federal law has contained the ideological requirement that prospective immigrants swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States before becoming citizens.

Is this an ideological requirement, or simply a requirement that citizens promise to act to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States? I take it as the latter, and I don’t even see how you could screen for ideology, apart from action. This is the same reason I disagree with Mazlish’s interpretation of Biddle’s position. Mazlish writes:

Biddle [argues] that “all rights respecting individuals should be allowed entry.” But how does he know which prospective immigrant is “rights respecting” and which is not, when he is opposed, *on principle*, to any kind of ideological screening prior to entry? Of course, he cannot know that – he simply takes it as an article of faith that anyone appearing at the border must be presumed to be rights respecting and that an ideological screening represents the wrongful use of government force.

This is an unfair interpretation of Biddle’s position. Why would anyone in their right mind assume that “anyone appearing at the border” is rights respecting? I take Biddle to be advocating some form of background check, to make sure that the person appearing at the border has a track record of acting in a way consistent with being rights respecting. We cannot be, nor should we try to be, mind readers here. We can judge prospective immigrants only by the way in which they act.

In addition, I think Mazlish wrongly applies Peter Schwartz’s views about libertarianism to the issue of formulating a proper immigration policy. The refusal to agree with the policy of ideological screening for immigrants does not make one a context-dropping libertarian. And it does not mean that you think the ideas that immigrants hold are unimportant. It simply means that you believe government is limited in what it can properly do about the ideas that immigrants hold.

I agree with Mazlish that the creation and maintenance of a proper government depends on at least a significant, influential minority holding the right ideas. However, this does not mean that a proper government can use force to maintain ideological consensus. A proper government enforces objective laws which describe the acts people do (or refrain from doing) which violate others’ rights. Why should immigration law be any different? How is an ideological screening of immigrants any different, in principle, from prosecuting “hate crimes”?

Incidentally, Mazlish doesn’t say exactly how this ideological screening should be conducted; he only talks about what sort of ideology we should screen for. Do prospective immigrants take a test? If so, what would ever prevent them from lying on the exam?

Finally, Mazlish recommends conducting the ideological screening, not only for citizenship, but also as a prerequisite for people living and working here. Would he similarly support stripping voting rights/citizenship from those citizens who exercise their free will and adopt the wrong ideas? Maybe we should go ahead and deport them, too?

What I would propose, in broad outline:

First, of course, we need to eliminate the welfare state–or at least not make welfare or other “public assistance” available to immigrants. Conducting a proper war against Jihad would help to create the right context for a proper immigration policy as well. Also, importantly, I would legalize discrimination by employers, landlords, property owners, etc. In a proper society, we would not be forced to transact business with people who do not share our values. We may choose to, at least in certain contexts, but we would not be forced to in any context.

Then any prospective immigrant must, at his own expense (or at the expense of his prospective employer), undergo screening for infectious diseases, criminal background, or any other history that shows the prospective immigrant is not rights respecting. In this last category, I would include membership in or support of any group that advocates using violence, other than in self-defense–including advocating the violent overthrow of a generally rights-respecting government. If people want to bring “refugees” into our country, private charities are welcome to pay for the screenings, find them jobs, etc.

If the prospective immigrant passes the initial screening, he would be permitted to live and work here and, after many years (we can debate about how many), apply for citizenship. At that point, at his expense, another screening would be conducted, to ensure that the applicant had continued to act in a way consistent with respecting individual rights. He would also be required to take a test of knowledge and an oath, similar to what we require today. Obviously, if the prospective immigrant, during his stay here, commits significant criminal acts (we can argue about what these are), he’d be deported; similar for joining or supporting any group that advocates using violence other than in self-defense.

I agree with Mazlish and others that our country is in cultural free-fall. Still, I don’t think an ideological screening of immigrants (or anyone else) is the solution.

For a recorded podcast of Amy Peikoff discussing this article please click here. — Ed


Amy Peikoff, J.D., Ph.D., is a philosopher and lawyer who blogs at She is currently writing a book, "Legalizing Privacy: Why and How," which discusses the value of privacy for the virtuous life and the proper means of protecting it.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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