The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In debates over immigration policy, we often hear the argument that migrants should just stay home and "fix their own countries." If their government is unjust, corrupt, or oppressive, perhaps the migrants have a duty to try to improve it rather than seek greener pastures elsewhere. In a related vein, Donald Trump suggested in a speech at the United Nations that would-be migrants should "build more hopeful futures in their home countries" and "make their countries great again" (though he, at least, did not claim that they have a moral duty to stay).
Unfortunately, the "fix their own countries" trope has serious flaws. Consider the following paraphrase of an exchange I had with a questioner who came up to me after I participated in a public debate on immigration last year:
Questioner: Why do Middle Eastern refugees have to come here? They should fix their own governments instead.
Me: Do you happen to know where your ancestors came from?
Questioner: They were Jews who emigrated from czarist Russia.
Me: Do you think they should have stayed in Russia and worked to fix the czar?
I don't blame the questioner for failing to come up with a good answer on the fly. Anyone can fall short when put on the spot (it's certainly happened to me). Still, the fact remains that the "fix your own country" argument implies that the ancestors of most Americans (and also many Canadians, Australians, and others) were wrong to emigrate. The Russians should have tried to fix the czar and (later) the communists; the Irish should have stayed home and worked to fix the British Empire. Donald Trump's grandfather should have stayed in Bavaria and worked to fix imperial Germany. And so on.
The fact that the "fix your own country" argument implies that the ancestors of most Americans were wrong to come here does not by itself disprove it. We should not automatically assume that every longstanding American practice was necessarily right. Past generations of Americans erred in committing such injustices as slavery and segregation. Perhaps they were also wrong to come to the US in first place. I suspect, however, that most people are not willing to bite this particular bullet. And they would be right not to.
The claim that immigrants fleeing poverty or oppression have a duty to stay home and "fix" their countries is wrong for several reasons. In most cases, these people have little or no responsibility for the injustice and poverty they are fleeing. Russian Jews like the questioner's ancestors were not responsible for the Pale of Settlement and pogroms. Likewise, today's refuges from Venezuela, Syria, and other unjust and corrupt governments generally had no meaningful role in creating the awful conditions there. It is therefore wrong to claim they must risk lifelong privation in order to "fix" the unjust regimes in their home countries. That point applies with extra force in cases where efforts to "fix" the regime are likely to result in imprisonment or death at the hands of the state. We rightly honor brave dissidents who risk life and limb to oppose injustice. But such sacrifices are not morally obligatory, and no blame attaches to those who forego them—especially if they have family members to protect, as well as themselves.
In addition, most migrants have little if any chance of succeeding in "fixing" their home governments, even if they did stay to try to do so. In most such societies, the injustice and oppression is deeply embedded in the political system, and most would-be migrants lack the clout to fix it. Had the questioner's ancestors stayed in Russia, it is nearly certain they would not have succeeded in reforming the czarist regime, no matter how hard they tried. The same goes for most migrants and refugees today. At least as a general rule, there is no moral duty to take great risks to attempt the impossible.
This point is especially strong when it comes to authoritarian states, where ordinary people have little or no influence on government policy. But constraint also applies, though with lesser force, to many dysfunctional countries that are democratic. Even in advanced democracies such as the US and Western Europe, many harmful and unjust government policies persist because of widespread voter ignorance and bias. The same is true (often to a much greater extent) in the corrupt and dysfunctional democratic governments migrants flee from. In most cases, potential migrants have little or no chance of reversing this dynamic anytime soon.
Occasionally, an unjust political system comes to a turning point where change is more feasible than is usually the case. But such situations are difficult to foresee, and it is wrong to demand that people (often literally) bet their lives on the hope that such an opportunity is going to come up soon. And even when it does happen, it is still far from clear that the average would-be migrant could make a real difference to the outcome. Not to mention the very real possibility that a revolution could result in a worse government rather than a better one. Had the questioner's ancestors stayed in Russia long enough to see the czarist regime fall, they would have seen exactly that sort of scenario play itself out, when the communists won the resulting civil war and proceeded to engage in oppression mass murder on a vastly greater scale than the czars ever did.
In sum, at least in the vast majority of cases, would-be migrants have no moral obligation to stay and fix their own countries. Are there exceptions to that generalization? Perhaps a few. Consider the case of the Shah of Iran, who fled his country after his regime was overthrown in 1979. The corruption and repression of the Shah's government played an important role in stimulating the rise of the even more oppressive regime that replaced him. Quite possibly, the Shah had an obligation to stay in Iran and work to fix the horrible mess he himself had played a major role in creating. Maybe he even had an obligation to do so despite the fact that staying in Iran could well have led to his execution by the new government. Similar reasoning arguably applies to other powerful government officials in unjust regimes.
More controversially, this theory could be extended to cover people who have no responsibility for creating the injustices in their societies, but nonetheless have the ability to substantially alleviate them if they stay. In my view, such people still do not have an obligation to stay in their home countries. Their nations do not own their labor. But the argument that they are obliged to do so is at least somewhat plausible.
The vast majority of potential migrants, however, are neither morally responsible for the injustices in their homelands nor in a position to do much about them. In many cases, they can actually do more to help their compatriots by leaving, earning higher wages abroad, and sending remittances to relatives who remain at home (a major source of income for some poor nations). It is therefore wrong to claim they have a duty to stay.
Rejecting the "fix your own country" argument doesn't resolve all debates over immigration. Far from it. Immigration restrictionists have plenty of other arrows in their quiver, such as the claim that governments have the right to bar migrants for almost any reason they want, much as the owner of a private house can exclude unwanted guests (I address that common argument here). But we can still make incremental progress in this debate by eliminating bad arguments, so we can focus on better ones instead.