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Jeremy Waldron, Immigration: A Lockean Approach, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 15-37 (2015), available at SSRN.

Approximately eleven million people currently reside in the United States as undocumented aliens. Most of these are so-called “economic” immigrants, who do not qualify for political asylum.1 Due to armed conflicts in the Middle East, approximately 350,000 migrants illegally entered countries of the European Union in the first eight months of the current year. Many of these will qualify for political asylum, but many will not; for from a legal perspective they, like the vast majority of US “illegals,” have immigrated primarily for economic reasons.2 Not to pillage and plunder, but to seek a better life by taking up opportunities for work in these wealthier and more stable countries. In other words, they come and keep coming mainly in order to bargain freely with legal residents who will pay for their labor.

The nations of Earth claim the right to exclude non-citizens from their territories, and many actively do so. Except in extraordinary circumstances, would-be immigrants have no recognized human right to be admitted or to remain. Illegal immigration, then, can present a complex set of policy questions whose answers involve balancing a range of reasons, both for and against policies such as amnesty, adjustment of legal status, management of quotas, enhanced border enforcement, construction of physical barriers, and deportation. The reasons going into the mix include public attitudes, human hardship, monetary costs of many kinds, impacts on wages, crime rates, demand for public services, and intangibles such as community homogeneity and “quality of life.” Jeremy Waldron rightly rejects the view that the question is essentially one of policy or the application of a settled ethics of national sovereignty. Waldron has rarely shied from the role of public intellectual, and here he seems poised to embrace it with uncommon vigor.

“If there were no state or system of positive law, would individuals organized less formally into communities have the right to drive away strangers who approached their vicinity?” (p. 3)—so Waldron puts a question that ought to be central to any discussion of the justice of excluding migrants from territories. We tend naturally to accept territorial sovereignty of governments just as we naturally tend to accept the justice of individual private ownership of real property. Our acceptance is qualified, of course, but the usual presumption is that states have a right of some kind to exclude aliens at their borders, just as we have a right of some kind selectively to exclude strangers from our front porches. The sovereign right arises by aggregation of individual rights.

When the presumed right to own private property is challenged, educated English-speakers tend to turn to John Locke. Locke’s account of original acquisition, with its image of mixing labor and its proviso of leaving enough and as good for others, seems a plausible ground to stand on. So also, we may think, it supplies enough and as good a ground for the presumption that states have a right to exclude aliens, subject only to limited humanitarian exceptions. States are simply the assignees of natural individual rights.

Waldron carefully but remorselessly demolishes this comforting strategy. Assuming, for discussion’s sake, that Locke’s account of private property is valid, it cannot soundly be extended to the case of state’s claimed sovereign right over a territory. Lockean rights to real property are not “clubbable” (p. 12).  Waldron has written extensively on Locke, including a book on Locke’s theory of property, and so he writes with a well-earned authority on the subject. “The Lockean approach is not the only way of justifying state powers,” he admits, but rightly adds that “[i]f the Lockean approach does not vindicate the right to prohibit immigration, then the options for its justification are drastically reduced” (p. 6). Relatively few anglophone readers can comfortably turn to Hegel as a philosophical back-up; and Waldron takes up and disposes of a number of related apologies for territorial sovereignty.

Not only is the paper forcefully argued, it shows how deeply Waldron cares about what is happening to people. This accounts for the impatience evident in his swipes at former British Prime Minister John Major’s smarmy invocation of “long shadows on cricket grounds,” (p. 20) and at the now-fashionable notion that democracies can legitimately exclude migrants to preserve a homogeneous national culture. In language that will redden some ears, Waldron declares that “Modern political philosophy has really never been shabbier than in its invocation of ‘cultural rights’” (p. 19). The concept of a state-defined culture—(don’t they see?)— is just as antithetical to liberal democracy as a state religion.

Waldron goes even farther, arguing that justice limits not only what states may do, but what citizens may permissibly ask that they do.

we are inclined to think that—whatever states have a right to do—citizens have a right (a free speech right) to advocate whatever policies they like and also a right (a democratic right) to exercise their vote however they please. But in some areas where the legitimacy of state action is restricted, it is actually not inappropriate to infer restrictions on citizen advocacy. (p. 2, fn 2)

His suggestive case for the proposition that international human rights law imposes a content-based limit on what speech states are free to tolerate is bound to be controversial.   But he is right to deplore the demagogic pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment, by which many politicians try to show that they are not “out of touch.” Waldron reminds us that there are some popular sentiments that it is not a good thing to be in touch with.

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  1. Jens Manuel Krogstad & Jeffrey S. Passel, 5 Facts About Illegal Immigration in the U.S., Pew Research Center (July 24, 2015).
  2. Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe Explained in Graphics, BBC News (Oct. 27, 2015).
Cite as: W.A. Edmundson, Long Shadows and Clubbable Democracies, JOTWELL (November 6, 2015) (reviewing Jeremy Waldron, Immigration: A Lockean Approach, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 15-37 (2015), available at SSRN),