Immigration, Borders and Screening under Capitalism

by | Sep 4, 2015

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., is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA. She runs a blog at

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.


  1. There has been some excellent discussion over at Amy’s blog.

  2. Having government ban ideas to limit immigration is like setting fire to your own house as a response to burglars breaking into it. Such action will, sooner or later, be applied to citizens. So much for a free–or even semi-free–America. That would mark the death knell for what’s left of the U.S. Constitution. (As proof, look at the effects of Bush’s Patriot Act, warrantless searches, TSA gropings, non-habeas corpus, indefinite detention policies on non-terrorist Americans.)

    In the case of cultural “free-fall”, as well as the welfare state and all the other bugaboos generally cited to rerstrict immigration, Dr. Harry Binswanger has a daunting and, in my opinion, devestating rebut to those using such things as their (pragmatic) excuse to limit open immigration:

    “On what principle should we act if we are not going to act on the principle by which we should act?”

  3. I think you are reading Harry wrong. What he’s saying is that Objectivists disagree about immigration because the things that are needed for open immigratio – such as ending the welfare state – are no where in sight.

    Harry is certainly consistent. He believes that Israel should have open immigration even if becomes Islamic.

  4. The primary principle is rational self interest. It is a sad and unfortunate thing that the initiations of force by the American government on its own people have created a situation in which supporting an enlargement of freedom by welcoming immigrants from even more tyrannical countries actually works against the persistence of a remnant of freedom in this world, and thus, against one’s own rational self interest. Certainly this statement can be argued, but should pursuing liberty for some be contrary one’s rational self interest (by way of a forced situation), then it would be wrong to pursue it, for the time being anyway. The good is ever the enemy of the best. So, the counter argument to open borders, or open immigration with screenings, is not a pragmatic disregard for first principles, but rather a proper remembering of what is THE first principle, and a disagreement about whether rational self interest is or is not served by large scale immigration to the welfare state (including some 120-something handouts, tax supported infrastructure, and most notably, tax supported schools.)
    If men are to live together cooperatively, with respect to each man’s rational self interest, and best secure a condition that maximizes each man’s good as a human, THEN, men must respect right to life and the corollaries of liberty and property. Sometimes I wonder if some objectivists do forget this and start believing the unexplained religious view point that these rights are ‘poof’ bestowed on men in a sort of infusion sort of way rather than existing as rational deductions from the contextual statement above, derived from each individual man’s prime moral imperative. If you start to assume the latter, then it becomes an easy mistake to start supporting actions that may well indeed work against rational self interest in the name of supporting ‘liberty’ for others. It is a perverse situation to be sure, caused by the initiation of force by our own government. But to get the principles out of their proper order is to lose all the values they are meant to secure.
    Morally, I should think the question ought not be about immigration until we have each asked ourselves if we are doing absolutely everything in our power to destroy the collectivist infection of our government (and done it).

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Help Capitalism Magazine get the pro-capitalist message out.

With over 9,000 articles online Capitalism Magazine is completely free. We rely on the generosity of our readers to keep us going. So if you already donate to us, thank you! And if you don’t, please consider making a donation today. One-off donations – or better yet, monthly donations – are hugely appreciated. You can find out more here. Thank you!

Pin It on Pinterest