My "The Hill" Article on Similarities Between Immigration Restrictions and Racial Discrimination

Among other parallels, both restrict liberty and opportunity based on arbitrary circumstances of birth.


Earlier today, The Hill published my article on similarities between immigration restrictions and racial discrimination. Here's an excerpt:

On few if any issues was there a bigger contrast between the parties in the 2020 election than on immigration. President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear that he intends to reverse Donald Trump's highly anti-immigrant policies, including repealing his travel bans and greatly increasing the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. Race discrimination has likewise been a major focus of public debate, and Biden promises to make combatting it a major focus of his administration.

But the link between the two issues is often ignored. Exclusionary immigration policies are unjust for many of the same reasons as is racial discrimination by the state. Both restrict freedom and opportunity based on arbitrary circumstances of birth. And both have historic roots in bigotry…

Racial discrimination is a grave injustice because it penalizes people for a morally irrelevant characteristic over which they have no control. When racial segregation in the United States prevented black Americans from living where they wished, their liberty and opportunity was constrained based on an arbitrary trait determined by parentage. As Martin Luther King famously put it, people should "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…."

While most Americans condemn racial discrimination, it is much less widely recognized that our immigration restrictions violate the same principles. Like racial segregation, immigration law restricts where people live and work based on circumstances of birth….

Whether your parents were American citizens is just as much beyond your control as whether they were black or white. The same goes for whether you were born in the U.S. Neither trait says anything about the "content of your character…."

In many cases, immigration restrictions stifle liberty and opportunity even more than domestic racial discrimination. Many excluded migrants are consigned to a lifetime of poverty and oppression under the control of brutal regimes whose depredations go beyond those currently experienced by any American minority group.

Consider, for example, the fate of Cuban refugees forced to live under a totalitarian state, or Syrians forced to endure mass murder and terror….

[T]here should be a strong presumption against migration restrictions. Perhaps it can be overcome in situations where violating it is the only way to prevent some great harm. But, as with racial discrimination, a heavy burden of proof must be met before we consign people to oppression and poverty based on circumstances of birth.

I address many of the issues covered in the article in much greater detail in Chapters 5 and 6 my recent book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. In that book, I also criticize claims that particular ethnic or racial groups are the "true" owners of various territories, and thereby entitled to exclude those with different backgrounds.

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  1. Another Somin conflation

    1. I don’t like Trump therefore he is like Sauron.
      An immigrant was on the team that created a COVID vaccine therefore any immigration restrictions will prevent America from turning into a sci fi utopia.
      You can’t help what race you are or your location therefore immigration laws and racism are exactly the same.

      Honestly this is embarrassing. I’d expect better writing from a college freshman with grammarly. Its not even that I disagree with it, theres tons and tons of writings I disagree with but its just the logic and rhetoric is just laughable. Almost like if I wrote a parody of a leftwing article for the Babylon Bee. I guess this is what passes for Hill or WAPOO content these days.

  2. Hey Professor will you give me your bank password and let me withdraw whatever I want? Will you let me into your house to take whatever I want? After all I cannot help that I was not born into your family or as you. Why can’t I have the same privileges? Are you a bigot or something?

  3. Libertarians care about “come here and live free in this shining city on the hill!” Be free from corruption and dictatorship!

    Libertarians care about, in an economically free society, the more the better, as advancment is faster and faster.

    Donald Trump is wrong.

    But so are Democrats, who want these folks so they can win more elections, and thus have the power to harm both points above by making business more difficult.

    Ever-increasing regulatory burdens approximate corruption in the lands these people flee, more and more, as business has no stability and must be concerned with kickbacks.

    Sorry, political donations, junkets, and mysterious hot stock tips.

    A pox on both houses.

    1. Open borders, as it is practiced in Europe and America is basically a war waged by the elites on their populations. They want to dilute your vote and drown out your voice in a flood of slaves so they can do as they please.

      You get it sheep? Let me pull an Ilya style analogy and illustrate it for you. Voting is a zero sum game. By intentionally importing tons and tons of people from specific locations they’re basically dumping your ballots in the shredder. The intention and the end result is exactly the same. They know all of this, they’re doing this on purpose.

      1. Don’t the racial cross-tabs from this past election put the lie to your ‘immigration is a war on your vote’ melodramatic nonsense?

      2. Yup, they couldn’t convince Americans of their destructive leftist ideas, so they imported 80 million mestizos from Mexico to outvote us.

        1. And we’d all rather have those 80 million than one of you.

          1. Who is “we?” certainly not Americans.

            1. “We” being a small subset of Americans maybe. You certainly don’t speak for all of us.

              1. Interesting that controlling mass immigration bears popular support among Americans, and not just among Americans whose families have been here for a few generations, which is really what’s relevant.

  4. Some 7.8 billion people suffer from arbitrary circumstances of birth. As the US is 3.8 million sqmi in area, that’s only ~2000 people/sqmi if we let them all in. Like Memphis, TN shore-to-shore. Divide the US GDP up fair and square and that’s $2750 per person.

  5. And in other news…

    Biden promises to open up the immigration gates to boatloads of cheap, mostly unskilled labor. This will effectively act to suppress wages of poor Americans citizens, especially minority American citizens.

    This is notably effective in the recovery to the COVID pandemic. As thousands of African Americans attempt to go back to work, they will find that they are competing for their jobs with thousands of new immigrants, who are willing to work for pennies on the dollar.

    Meanwhile, America’s rich, corporate class will reap the benefits of cheap labor, and continue to donate heavily to Democrats…to encourage future policies.

    1. Pure, uncut, nativism.

      Your lump labor theory is really bad economics. Immigrants increase demand as well as supply.
      Immigration helps the economy, including poor blacks.

      1. Yes, they increase demand, but only with government transfer programs. Do you really believe the crap you spew?

        1. Says the openly-racist, closeted-homosexual bigot.

          Someday you’ll be banished from this site, and it will be glorious to not have to read your persistent ignorance and hatred.

      2. Actually we know from the Katrina evacuees experiences in Houston and Atlanta that illegal immigrants depress wages AND make working conditions worse AND create a language barrier for low educated English speakers.

      3. Immigration helps the economy as a whole. But it hurts poor African Americans, substantially.

        Here’s the deal. Take a chicken processing facility. They employ 100 workers, and pay their workers $12 an hour. But they’re short on labor. Normally, they’d have to raise wages, which would cut into the profit margins of the owners.

        Instead, they hire a bunch of new immigrants at $12 an hour, who are more than willing to take the jobs. Then they don’t have to increase wages, their profit margins stay high. Immigrant win. Owners win. Poor African Americans lose the wage increase.

        1. I’m aware of the simplistic economic argument. But it’s been roundly debunked.

          Labor economics don’t follow that simple a supply-demand curve. *Particularly* in the area of food production. Check out the 2016 U. Penn study on immigration and labor. Or, really, anything not by Borjas.

          And also think about the population concentrations – immigrants tend to live in rural areas or smaller cities versus the concentrations of blacks – and you have an argument that no one is buying these days.

          And, finally, immigrants are not exclusively lower class. It almost sounds like you’re rewarming old arguments about illegal immigration and applying it to immigrants generally. But you wouldn’t do that, would you?

          1. 1. Yes, labor economics follow a supply demand curve, like all other economics. It’s not perfect, for a number of reasons (it’s sticky, for instance), but it follows a supply – demand curve.

            2. You’re entirely wrong. Immigrants OVERWHELMINGLY reside in urban areas, making up 22% of the population there, while only making up 4% of the population in rural counties.

            3. No immigrants are not exclusively lower class (Though a large proportion of them are, and the effects can be felt particularly there). But, if you’re looking at other classes, a good place to look is the H1-B Visa program. Here’s a nice study from a non-Borjas paper, like you wanted, showing immigrants in the H1-B visa program suppress American wages, while feeding the profits to the firm owners.


  6. TL;DR: If you’re against open borders you’re a racist.

  7. Isn’t there a principle that nobody who is not a US citizen and is outside our borders has US constitutional rights? I fail to see why immigration should be an exception. Nor do I read the 14th Amendment as requiring one.

    1. Congress shall make no law.

      Is that limited to laws applying to US citizens?

      1. Professor Somin isn’t talking about constitutional law. He’s talking about his personal philosophy. It’s very similar to what a pro-life law professor would say about abortion.

        1. jdgalt is talking about constitutional rights though.

      2. Like racial segregation, gravity restricts where people live and work based on circumstances of birth….

        If there were no gravity we could live on Mars -well maybe not “on” Mars, but we could float nearby and raise unicorns.

        Gravity is a very, very bad thing. (use Elmer Fudd voice when saying very, very)

  8. It appears anti-social bigots and right-wing misfits dislike libertarian content.

    You deserve better colleagues and audience, Prof. Somin.

  9. It could be argued that the main basis of anti-discrimination laws etc. is that the state doesn’t want competition for people’s loyalties. It wants the nation state to completely replace concepts of ethnic solidarity etc. A state is, after all, essentially artificial. Perhaps this is why it finds biologically based loyalties so dangerous.

    1. The constitutional argument, of course, is that the concept of racism applies only to persons. It isn’t racism to distinguish between breeds of cows, even though it is equally an accident of birth that one is born human and not a cow. Without personhood, the concept of racism isn’t really meaningful.

      The relevant comparison is again abortion. Courts have struck down laws prihibiting gender discrimination in abortion decisions. And while Congress can decide not to have race or gender-specific immigration laws, it can also decide to have them. The question of whom to allow into ones family is a question of autonomy, of sovereignty.

      Professor Somin philosophy would place an undue burden on the right to choose. And if what people said about Indiana’s abortion law prohibiting sex discriminatory abortions is true, Professor Somin’s real purpose is similarly not to promulgate “morality,” but to stick it to Americans, keep them from being equal partners on the international stage and able to control their own destinies by inhibiting their freedom of choice, under the guise of opposing discrimination.

      If it’s fair to characterize any restraint on unfettered free choice in abortion as anti-woman, why shouldn’t opposition to unfettered free choice in immigration be similarly characterized as anti-American?

    2. Considering how the US was formed, and what it took to get to the point of anti-discrimination laws, I don’t think that’s a very strong argument.

  10. Ilya … what a STUPID argument … just, WOW.

  11. I feel really blessed to have been born in the USA. With hard work I have had a comfortable lifestyle. I am not opposed to immigration, but I fear that uncontrolled immigration, will lower the living standard of Americans and limit their opportunities. I believe most countries have some restrictions on immigration.

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