Yearning to Breathe Free: The Foundations of a Rational Immigration Policy
One of the critical insights made by individual rights champion Ayn Rand is that ideas and philosophy are what move history. The purpose of this article is to apply that lesson to the topic of immigration. Specifically, I will show that ideological screening of immigrants is an appropriate immigration restriction – not just in today’s welfare state or War on Terror context, but also as a necessary requirement for the survival of any free society which is an island of liberty surrounded by an ocean of collectivism.
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. Even in popular culture, Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty refers to welcoming those immigrants who “yearn to breathe free.” Yet today, some leading voices – including many of Ayn Rand’s intellectual champions – advocate totally open immigration that admits entry virtually indiscriminately to anyone, absolutely irrespective of whether the prospective immigrant brings with him collectivist and anti-Constitutional ideals from his home culture. Many open immigration advocates claim that so long as proper limits on government with respect, for example, to the welfare state, are in place today, there is nothing that even hordes of cultural collectivists from abroad may import which will ever breach those proper governmental limits. Many of these voices also claim that their position on open immigration is the only moral position.
Harry Binswanger, board member of the Ayn Rand Institute, advocates a policy of “absolutely open immigration, without border patrols, border police, border checks, or passports,” and that entry into the U.S. should be “unrestricted, unregulated and unscreened, just as is entry to Connecticut from New York.”*1 Binswanger also argues that amnesty for illegal entrants is not enough – they are owed an apology, too.*2 Binswanger further advocates that “the principle of individual rights demands open immigration,” so this is a moral issue for him.*3 What matters most to Binswanger is that government immigration restrictions which interfere with the right of free trade violate individual rights.*4. Whether the prospective entrant is an ideological friend or foe of individual rights is not something Binswanger believes should be a consideration in determining whether someone should be allowed entry into the United States – if the political institutions protecting individual rights are strong enough, he believes they will protect the United States from any barbarism that an immigrant may be carrying from his home country.
Craig Biddle at The Objective Standard similarly advocates a policy of open immigration as a moral crusade, although he appears to accept slightly more screening than Binswanger does. Biddle concedes that there should be checkpoints and an objective screening process at the border – but Biddle contends that such screening process must be limited to excluding only those carrying infectious diseases and those who have previously established themselves to be criminals and/or enemies of America. Like Binswanger, Biddle also believes that illegals currently in America are entitled to amnesty and a presidential apology.*5 Biddle also agrees with Binswanger in reducing the issue to one primarily of free trade. Again, this position does not allow for any screening of prospective immigrants to determine whether they are friendly or hostile toward individual rights.
Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, also advocates a policy of open immigration.*6 In his public debate with Ayn Rand’s intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, Brook rejected the notion that immigration poses any risk of harm to America. *7 Brook also maintains that ideologically screening prospective immigrants for their cultural background and beliefs is wrong, and agrees with Binswanger and Biddle that employers should be allowed to hire any foreigner that they please.*8
The position advocated by these intellectuals upends Ayn Rand’s teaching of the power and importance of ideas. This position also undercuts Ayn Rand’s teaching that capitalism and free trade are derivative issues – not primary first causes. The politics of a society is a consequence of the ideas held by the people living in the society – and if enough new individuals with ideas contrary to the existing political order are introduced into a society, it will not be long before cultural change renders the old political institutions obsolete and discardable. Indeed, this is precisely the plan of the Democratic Party today, which rather than seeking to change minds seeks to change the composition of the electorate.*9
A free society with a government limited to protecting individual rights is a monumental achievement in the history of mankind – it is not the product of random happenstance or chance, as tens of thousands of years of tyrannies demonstrate. It is not something that occurs in nature, waiting for man to come and pick it off trees as though it were low hanging fruit. A free society has certain cultural requirements and prerequisites, without which it could never be created and without which it cannot be maintained. Proper immigration policy must reflect these facts and must serve to preserve the cultural factors on which a free society is based.
What are these cultural requirements and prerequisites? At a bare minimum, they include that the people living in the society have an understanding of and a commitment to individual rights and personal responsibility. Included in this understanding is the politically incorrect and anti-multiculturalist notion that the American system of individual rights is better than the cultural tradition of the country from which the prospective entrant has arrived. In the context of immigration policy, it also requires of all prospective immigrants a commitment to using American freedoms to make a better life for himself rather than an intention to use those freedoms for the purpose of destroying individual rights.
Exposing cultural collectivists to good political/cultural institutions and ideas does not magically awaken some (non-existent) innate respect for individual rights. Instead, such exposure corrupts the delicate respect for the law and the institutions of freedom which has taken generations of shared experience and hard work to achieve. That was the central flaw in Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom: providing American political ideas to the Iraqis and Afghanis was not enough to transform them into a people that respect and understand individual rights.
Freedom is a value, and like all values it must not only be earned but also requires a certain course of action to preserve it. People who reject the ideas prerequisite to a free, rights respecting society will not take the actions necessary to protect those cultural institutions simply because they have been exposed to them – and this is true whether the institutions are brought to the cultural collectivists by the US Military or if the cultural collectivists come to the institutions via immigration.
Ironically, Biddle implicitly acknowledges all of this in arguing 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.
As former chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute Peter Schwartz wrote many years ago in another context, “the desire to advance liberty without any concern – indeed, with militant unconcern – for the values and ideas on which it genetically depends is fundamentally in opposition to Objectivism.”*10 In applying that principle to the current immigration debate, those who promote open immigration are advocating that “liberty be treated as an axiomatic truth regardless of context.”*11 The open immigration advocates’ claim that the use of force to keep people out is *necessarily* evil is made without checking the context of whether the person kept out is *himself* evil. Advocating for liberty as a contextless absolute – without first ensuring that the necessary prerequisites for liberty exist – does not promote a free society, but in fact destroys the foundation of a free society.
Stating Schwartz’s cogent remarks differently, the idea that a free society can be maintained by any random group of people exposed to the institutions of a free society is an example of multiculturalism that Ayn Rand vehemently opposed. It is simply not the case that rights respecting political solutions can survive indefinitely irrespective of the cultural beliefs of the people living under those institutions. Not all cultures are equal, nor are they equally capable of supporting the tenets of a free society grounded upon the principles of individual rights. The institutions of a free society will not long survive unless there is a critical mass of popular understanding and support for them by the people being governed. Reality teaches us not only that free societies with a critical mass of rights respecting people are rare, but that the majority of men throughout history have been cultural collectivists of one kind or another.
Thomas Jefferson understood the dangers of unlimited immigration from the monarchical dictatorships that existed during the Founding period. He warned that such immigrants
“will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”*12
Jefferson further noted that “[e]very species of government has its specific principles” and that the American one is “more peculiar than those of any other in the universe.” He expresses great skepticism that the principles of America could long be maintained if large numbers of emigres from the absolute monarchies of Europe came to America and imported their cultural traditions with them – even though he admittedly did not do anything to erect legal barriers to such immigration, other than with regard to the slave trade.
John Adams wrote that the American constitution was written for a moral and religious people, and would be wholly inadequate to the government of any other.*13 Leaving aside the reference to religion, Adams was exactly right – and his commentary applies to the current immigration debate. The American system of government is not proper to any cultural collectivist who might show up at our border and demand entry. Nor was the American system designed to function as a remedial institution for those who are hostile to individual rights. As Adams noted, the American system is only proper to a moral people who understand and value individual rights and personal responsibility. It is not adequate to withstand the demands of hordes of cultural collectivist immigrants who have no experience with the requirements of individual freedom nor the inclination to adopt them.
Leonard Peikoff expressed a similar skepticism about importing large numbers of people whose cultural beliefs are antagonistic to America’s principles, at least insofar as the present political context is concerned. In an August 26, 2013 podcast, Peikoff stated that
“And the other thing I want to say that’s going to come as a bombshell to Objectivists, and that’s too bad, you can stop listening, as far as I’m concerned, I am against the immigration bill 100%, not just one clause or another, for one very simple reason: it happens to be the case that we are teetering on the edge of a dictatorship, it happens to be the case that if the Democrats continue to have or grow their political power we will be over that edge. And it happens to be the case, whether you like it or not, that of all Hispanics in America, whether they are rich or poor, self-made men or anything else, 80% are reliably and continually Democrat, so if you are talking about a bill, I don’t care whether it’s fair, unfair in any other respect, if you are talking about a bill that infuses into this country a massive amount of Democratic supporters and thereby guarantee the destruction of this country, that is what immigration means today. And there’s no use asking me in theory what do I think, we’re at the end, so it’s a question of buying time, that’s it.”*14
In his subsequent debate with Yaron Brook, Leonard Peikoff suggested that even America’s golden age of immigration during the 19th century may have been responsible for the importation of the German philosophy of Progressivism through the free immigration of German immigrants, which Progressivism is presently destroying the country.*15 However, Leonard Peikoff’s advocacy of the need for immigration restrictions as a temporary necessity is ultimately grounded in the conclusion that we are presently in an emergency situation. It is true that we are in an emergency situation, but a large part of the reason for this emergency is that, for the better part of American history, waves of immigrants have been admitted without regard to whether they did indeed yearn to breathe free, indiscriminately and without any ideological standards whatsoever. Because the American concepts of individual freedom and limited government always were and remain rare in the world, rational immigration screenings and restrictions will continue to be required so that new “emergency” situations do not continuously arise.
But what of the claim that the people fleeing dictatorships – such as Ayn Rand herself – need a landing place to escape the evil of their home countries? At the outset, notice the appeal to altruism – the need of those trapped in dictatorships to have a place to go is treated as superior to the right of Americans to protect themselves from any cultural collectivists who might similarly seek to emigrate from those toxic cultures. Proponents of this view insist that this position is grounded in self-interest, but they simply presume that the contributions of a brilliant mind like Ayn Rand will necessarily outweigh the detriment caused by the importation of waves of cultural collectivists. However, this calculation is not something that may properly be presumed without question or empirical evaluation. In a truly free society, rational immigration policy cannot be based on the gamble that the rare gems of genius will offset hordes of cultural collectivists.
As sad as individual cases may be, the plight of oppressed refugees of dictatorships is the fault of their own statist governments. They are not America’s responsibility, moral or otherwise. Indeed, this is well recognized when it comes to proposals to bomb those dictatorships and *kill* even the innocent people who are victims of those regimes. So despite the reality that the plight of such refugees is unfortunate and even deplorable, the moral responsibility for the misfortune of those unfortunate souls lies with the dictatorships terrorizing them – not with America for protecting herself from potentially being infected with the same poison.
Nonetheless, it may well be worth having a targeted exception to the general rule of ideological screening which allows refugees fleeing certain dictatorships to enter and remain in the United States, so long as they respect individual rights while here. But the key point here is that this must be a *targeted exception* and not the general rule for immigration policy.
So what is the solution to our immigration problems that is consistent with the requirements of a free society and limited government? Any solution must recognize, as Thomas Sowell has,*16 that immigrants are not widgets, and they are not all interchangeable with each other. Unlike real widgets, immigrants are people who carry with them cultural values that they introduce into their new cultural milieu. Blanket statements that all immigrants are good are as invalid as blanket statements that all immigrants are bad.
Recognizing that immigrants are not widgets has important implications. It means that screenings, ideological and otherwise, must be performed on an individualized basis parallel to the way, for example, that El Al Airlines individually screens for terrorists. Of course, this also means that quotas and blanket prohibitions are typically improper. It further implies that as many Ayn Rands and Ayan Hirsi Alis as want to come here should be allowed to come here – but that indiscriminately welcoming every collectivist from a communist country like the Soviet Union or a tribalist country such as Somalia would not be rational or wise. Moreover, ideology and ideas have no racial component, so the claims of racism, bigotry and xenophobia often made by proponents of open immigration are nothing more than invalid attempts to argue by intimidation.
One objection to ideological screening for immigrants is that it improperly grants the persons running government the power to impose their own personal judgments in determining which prospective immigrant is rights respecting. But in fact, every law enacted even by a proper, rights respecting government embodies a determination by the persons running the government as to what is rights respecting. This complaint represents a resistance to objectivity in general and to government as such in particular. The fact that objective standards for immigration policy must be crafted and implemented by actual persons in government is not a valid reason to dispense with standards altogether, nor is it a reason to allow virtually indiscriminate entry to anyone not having a communicable disease.
As Biddle notes, rights respecting people should be allowed to enter – but this necessarily implies that the screening process for entry include a check for whether the prospective entrant is, in fact, rights respecting. This implies an ideological test even though Biddle rejects one. Prospective entrants should thus face an ideological screening prior to entry in the United States in a process that would be akin or analogous to the current screening done by the citizenship test. This screening should generally take place in foreign embassies and consulates, and would be a prerequisite to obtaining a visa for entry. The screening would aim to ensure, as best as reasonably possible, that the prospective entrant is not hostile or averse to the American system of individual rights.
Curiously, most open immigration advocates have no problem with such a screening being performed at the citizenship level – as it has been done since the early days of the Republic – after the foreigner has already peacefully resided in the country for a period of years. But if there is a threat that warrants such a screening at the citizenship stage – after much is already known of the foreigner – surely it is not a rights violation to perform such a screening when nothing is known of the foreigner as he stands at the gates to the society.
Moreover, foreigners can and do impact the culture in myriad ways even without voting. They can join groups like La Raza and CAIR and engage in political protest; they can write letters to the editor and become journalists; they can become schoolteachers and teach our children; they become consumers of television, movies and other art whose diffusion impacts the culture; and of course they can import cultural traditions such as Sharia law and create neighborhoods in which the police are afraid to enter, as is happening in cities in Europe and even America. Indeed, Ayn Rand’s observation that ideas and philosophy move history underscores the fact that foreigners with different ideas and philosophies can and do have a strong impact on American culture even without the right to vote.
Capitalism and free trade are not the primary questions to be asked and answered in any political debate: they are critically important, but they are not the most fundamental. Ayn Rand noted that capitalism is a derivative issue of secondary importance to more fundamental issues. Or as Mark Steyn writes, “culture trumps economics” when it comes to the immigration debate.*17 As Dagny Taggart eventually came to understand in Atlas Shrugged, capitalism and free trade are of no benefit when dealing with cultural collectivists. So while the free trade arguments refuting the mercantilist fallacy “immigrants steal our jobs” are correct – the open immigration advocates’ dismissal of the even greater importance of cultural ideas makes them more off the mark than the nativist mercantilists.
As noted above, Leonard Peikoff, the leading authority of the ideas of Ayn Rand, argues that restrictions are necessary to deal with the current immigration crisis. Dr. Peikoff is precisely right, and his voice needs to be heard and heeded. America *is* in crisis and the American republic *is* in grave danger. It is in danger in large part because America has not been careful enough in the past to ensure that those who entered the country would understand and respect the principles of individual rights. Past failures to properly screen prospective immigrants and protect American culture from mass influxes of cultural collectivists are a significant component of our current crisis.
The true justification for immigration restrictions is the need to protect those who respect individual freedom from those who are cultural collectivists – not the need to protect the welfare state from overload or even the need to protect innocent Americans from jihad. Even if the welfare state were repealed today and all jihadists were terminated tomorrow, the ideological requirement to protect a free, democratic, and rights respecting society from masses of incompatible cultural collectivists would still remain. The real crisis in immigration is not demographic but intellectual, and it exists not in the immigrants themselves, but in those who refuse to recognize the requirements of a free society in the real world today.
The current Democratic Party is intentionally exploiting this intellectual crisis by attempting to bring as many cultural collectivists to America as it can. Those immigrants can be expected to vote, legally or illegally, to further the collectivist policies of the Democratic Party with which they are familiar from their own cultures. Indeed, this bloodless coup strategy is not a new one for the Democrats: even going back to the golden age of immigration in America, Democrats in the big cities greeted the Irish, the Italians, the Jews and other immigrant classes and found them government jobs as policeman, fireman, teachers, and other members of the bureaucracy – which solidified these groups’ big city support for the New Deal, then the Great Society and now for Obama.
Refusing to oppose the Democrats’ proposed coup amounts to advocating national suicide for America. The indiscriminate entry across America’s southern border of MS-13 gangs and Islamic terrorists who leave their prayer rugs behind is a clear and obvious threat to America. To those, add the tens of thousands of children, illiterate in English and unable to care for themselves, who are obviously not self-supporting and thus pose a threat to the individual rights of taxpaying citizens already in America. None of this is of concern, however, to the open immigration absolutists, who insist that undertaking such dangerous risks is morally mandatory. Not even if the number of cultural collectivist immigrants were to mushroom into the millions would the open immigration advocates admit any limitation in their theory, for the precise reason that they are dedicated to their abstraction regardless of the facts of reality. Those who insist that Americans have no moral right to oppose such obvious dangers as these are taking a patently absurd position, and their unwillingness to see the most manifest of threats strips them of intellectual and moral credibility in advocating the application of Ayn Rand’s ideas in other contexts.
Advocating a supposedly ideal course of action as “moral” without regard to consequences in the real world – especially when those consequences amount to suicide – is Platonism. Philosophy is not a tool for helping us acquire morality chips to be used in heaven – it is a tool for helping us live successfully on earth.
Ayn Rand devoted the prime of her life to explaining to the world the meaning of the island of freedom known as Galt’s Gulch, and she devoted the final years of her life, with all her waning strength, to showing men of independence that they must withdraw their sanction for being victimized by cultural collectivism. The central lesson of Atlas Shrugged is that men of freedom must protect themselves, by separation when and as necessary, from the cultural collectivists of the world.
An immigration policy proper to an island of freedom in a worldwide sea of collectivism must recognize the power and importance of ideas. It must acknowledge that cultural morality drives the world, and that the cultural morality of the people who comprise a society determines its future. It must acknowledge that the right of an individual to protect his life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is in fact, as Jefferson said, inalienable. And it must recognize that because these rights are inalienable, they are not lost when men act together – and it is just as necessary for men acting together to exercise it to maintain their freedom through rational immigration policies as it was for John Galt acting individually to exercise it to exclude people from Galt’s Gulch.
Those who wish to immigrate to a free country, but are excluded by a rational immigration policy, have no more claim to argue that their “freedom of movement” has been taken away than did those who were excluded from Galt’s Gulch. And those intellectual leaders who, within a free society, fail to see the justice in keeping out cultural collectivists are no more representative of the ideas of Ayn Rand than was Dagny Taggart, who in her confusion and lack of understanding voluntarily chose to leave Galt’s Gulch. In regard to the issue of separation from cultural collectivists, Dagny was wrong.
Any free society that wishes to survive must institute and maintain policies that neutralize the threat posed by immigrants who have no cultural affinity for individual rights and personal responsibility. In short, traditional rules of ideological screening currently used at the citizenship level should not only be maintained, but strengthened. Only by fully recognizing the power of ideas – by following John Galt’s example of separation from cultural collectivists – can a free people survive and secure its happiness and safety.
Ed Mazlish writes political commentary from an Objectivist perspective. He has been a Student of Objectivism since 1993. When he is not writing political commentary, Ed is an attorney in New York City and New Jersey. He can be reached on Facebook and via email at EdMazlish@aol.com.
*10 Peter Schwartz, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty,” page 52.
*11 Peter Schwartz, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty,” page 48.