Rand Paul's Refugee Stance, Alienating Libertarians

Paul has never highly valued free immigration as a liberty Americans should care about.


Sen. Rand Paul's response to the Paris terror attacks, caused in case it matters not by Syrian refugees, contains a lot of anti-refugee statements and proposed legislation, including one that would "suspend visa issuance for countries with a high risk of terrorism and impose a waiting period for background checks on visa issuance from other countries until the American people can be assured terrorists cannot enter the country through our immigration and visa system."

DonkeyHotey / Foter / CC BY

That proposal includes further demands that:

the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) certifies and Congress votes to approve that:

1) Aliens already admitted from high-risk countries have been fingerprinted and screened, pose no terrorist risk, and are being monitored for terrorist activity

2) Enhanced security measures are in place to screen future applicants and prevent terrorists from entering the country

3) DHS' visa entry-exit system is 100 percent complete and a tracking system is in place to catch attempted overstays

and impose a 30-day waiting period for all entries to the U.S. in order for background checks to be completed, unless the traveler has been approved through the Global Entry program.

One of Paul's other amendments targeting immigrants was both libertarian in practice (as it involves ceasing a federal payout) but still reads by its odd specificity as more rooted in anti-immigration feeling than libertarian spending purism: denying federal housing aid to refugees or asylees from a list of 34 countries. Paul is peeved that no vote has happened yet on that one.

The first bill is overkill to solve a very rare and unlikely problem. As I've tried to argue when Paul began aiming legislation at immigration "sanctuary cities," demanding government spend lots of cash and effort toward a goal that will overwhelmingly merely bedevil the innocent, not solve any real problem, is an instinct anyone of even libertarian sympathies should doubt. I see analogies to gun control, an area where Paul (and most Republicans) recognize that "a far-off chance of preventing some unpredictable crime is not a sufficient excuse to waste government resources and restrict peaceful people's lives."

Turning to refugee control as a response to terror is not new for Paul; he did the same thing after the Boston bombing.

Politico today surveys various libertarians annoyed with Rand Paul over all this, crediting him for standing strong against more phone surveillance as a response, but causing Cato's David Boaz, the new-ish, libertarian-ish Niskanen Center, and the Libertarian Party's John LaBeaume all to complain more or less that, to quote the Niskanen Center's David Bier, 

"I think he has staked out a position that is definitely at odds with the broader libertarian coalition," said David Bier, the author of the Niskanen post and the director of immigration policy for the think tank. "His position is that essentially the actions of a few individuals within the societies renders all of the persons in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries guilty by default."

As with other areas where he's not fully satisfying the GOP base or matching his opponents' rhetoric, the folks in the Politico article point out that those who really want to stick it to potential refugees have other places to go than Paul.  

But this kind of thing isn't political opportunism. It does represent where Paul actually stands on immigration. It's like he is quoted in that Politico article:

Paul insists he will be vindicated, eventually, as long as he sticks by his guns. "You know, this is who I am and what I stand for," he said Thursday.

Like Paul says, an anti-immigrant streak is not a new thing with him. Shikha Dalmia here at Reason did a thorough accounting of Paul's clear discomfort with aspects of free immigration.

Paul has never been anything close to an open-border libertarian. He's sensible enough to reject e-verify (though not sensible enough to realize it's a natural result of worrying about the supposed dangers of immigrants working here illegally) and to admit at least occasionally that we can't get rid of every illegal immigrant now here (while still afraid to say the word "amnesty,") but he's never really valued it particularly as a liberty that already-legal Americans should care much about.

The libertarianism of the Paul family has often acted more or less that, as far as the U.S. government should be concerned, liberty is the business of Americans, that is, the Americans already here, and need not be actively extended to others.

That's helpful when it comes to recognizing we shouldn't be thoughtlessly waging war for their alleged freedom, but it also leads Rand to not give much moral or political weight to the idea of letting outsiders in here to live and work (even though that impacts the freedom of the people already here who might want to hire or otherwise associate with the would-be immigrant).

The politics of it are obvious though awkward. They are obvious in that a Paul who isn't going to have "go over there and kick ass" as a first instinct in response to Middle-East rooted terror home or abroad wants to be able to seem like he's doing something to protect Americans from ISIS, so he settles on "don't them them come here" (leaving aside whether there is reasonable cause to fear that letting in refugees is in any way the equivalent of "letting them (as in ISIS) come here," but conflating ISIS with a mass of displaced people trying to escape ISIS seems to be popular these days). The politics are awkward in that any anti-refugee voter has plenty of more congenial places to go.

Freer immigration remains, for reasons likely pre-rational (hysteria over it, in terms of the economy, destruction of culture, or terrorism, all far outweigh the actual risks more immigration poses), a hard sell, apparently even to politicians with as many libertarian instincts as Rand Paul.