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US Immigration Policy Should Be More Like Harvard’s

By Laura M. Nicolae
Laura M. Nicolae ’20 is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House.

A Justice Department lawyer recently suggested in court that the federal government should not be required to provide toothbrushes and soap for detained children apprehended at the border. The children in these detention centers are locked in cages and deprived of regular showers; some as young as eight have been forced to care for toddlers. Six have died in United States custody since September.

The inhabitants of these detention centers are not criminals; many have applied for asylum and credibly demonstrated a fear of persecution if they return to their native countries. Asylum seekers can legally reside in the US until their court hearings.

Our imprisonment of asylum seekers is a natural extension of an immigration policy that deprives foreigners of basic human rights. All policies that restrict immigration limit free association and exchange.

If allowed into the US, many immigrants would find Americans willing to hire, house, or rent to them. When the government restricts immigration, it bans these voluntary transactions just because one party is a foreigner. In doing so, it prevents prospective immigrants from improving their own lives through free exchange and forces Americans to discriminate against foreigners.

Harvard, for example, admits students with no regard to their immigration status. But for years, talented young people from across the world have missed their opportunity to attend because federal immigration policy prevents them from escaping poverty and violence in their native countries.

Harvard’s admissions policy recognizes that a lack of documentation should not limit opportunity. The US should learn from Harvard and open its borders to anyone who wants to immigrate. This would require repealing all border controls, visa requirements, and restrictions on legal entry, with a potential exception for narrow security screenings.

The US and Harvard both benefit when they admit immigrants. In the U.S., immigrants start new businesses at twice the rate of native-born Americans, and economic research consistently shows that immigration increases economic output. This year, a Harvard student became the first undocumented immigrant to win a Rhodes scholarship.

Philosopher Michael Huemer famously argues that all immigration restrictions would violate common-sense morality if practiced by ordinary individuals. He gives the example of Marvin, a man in desperate need of food, who goes to buy bread at the local market. The baker is willing to sell Marvin bread. But Sam, a bystander, decides to detain Marvin on his way to the market and forcibly prevent him from buying bread. Marvin returns home empty-handed and dies of starvation.

In this example, we would certainly argue that Sam harmed Marvin, and we would hold Sam largely responsible for Marvin’s death. Likewise, we should hold the federal government largely responsible for the deaths and suffering of people who could have saved themselves by freely transacting in the United States.

If New York imprisoned immigrants from Kansas, we would argue that it violates Kansans’ right to free association. Why are federal restrictions more acceptable?

One could argue that the US has a responsibility to prioritize the welfare of its citizens. But so does the state of New York. And the fact that the federal government should prioritize its own citizens does not justify violating the rights of others; most parents house and feed their own children, but they do not imprison other people’s children.

Consider also the argument that the federal government has the right to “enforce its borders.” On face, this seems reasonable; after all, I have the right to keep kids off my lawn. But if the government can prevent me from hiring an immigrant or subletting my room to one, then I do not really own my business or my house; the government does. And the next time the government wants to demolish someone’s home to build offices for a corporation, it is welcome to do so.

Proponents of restrictions claim that immigration drains the welfare budget. Surely, aiding the poor and persecuted is more important than keeping the level of federal benefits constant. And the law already limits immigrants’ access to welfare: legal residents cannot receive benefits for at least five years, and with few exceptions undocumented immigrants cannot receive them at all.

Immigrants are also less likely to use welfare than native-born Americans and, when they do, use a lower dollar value of benefits. At most, this argument may justify excluding non-citizens from federal benefits, but it is not a reason to limit immigration.

All sides of the political spectrum should reconsider their support for restricting immigration. The federal government’s treatment of immigrants may be the single largest human rights violation occurring within our borders.

For Democrats, opening our borders should be a top priority. Free association is a more fundamental right than free healthcare, and helping the global poor escape persecution is more important than canceling the student loans of college-educated Americans.

Republicans who oppose illegal immigration should also wholeheartedly support open borders. After all, the easiest way to eliminate illegal immigration is to legalize immigration.

The US should learn from Harvard and recognize that everyone benefits when we welcome talented, hard-working people from all over the world.

Laura M. Nicolae ’20 is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House.

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