My New Article on "Migration and Self-Determination"

The article, which is available free on SSRN, criticizes claims that governments have a right to exclude migrants based on various theories of self-determination.



The Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, recently published my article "Migration and Self-Determination." Here is the abstract:

Free international migration has enormous benefits. But many argue that governments can legitimately restrict migration in order to protect the supposed "self-determination" of natives. Some claims of this type are based on group rights theories, which hold that members of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group are the "true" owners of a particular territory, or that democratic self-government inherently requires a right to exclude immigrants. Others are based on notions of individual freedom of association, which analogize the rights of national governments to those of private property owners or members of a private club. This article criticizes both collective and individual rights theories that purport to justify a power to exclude migrants. It also critiques claims that the governments of migrants' countries of origin can rightfully curtail emigration by forcing them to stay. I address these issues in much greater detail in my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, on which this article is in part based.

The article, which is available for free download on SSRN, is part of a symposium on "The Ethics of Democracy," held at Georgetown University in 2019. Publication of this symposium was delayed by the pandemic. But I hope and expect that the issues we address remain as relevant as ever!

As noted in the abstract, the issues raised in the article are addressed in greater detail in my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. In that book, I also address arguments that migration must be restricted in order to deal with potential negative side-effects of having "too many" immigrants, such as overburdening the welfare state, increasing crime, or spreading harmful culture values, among others.

NEXT: "Litigants Flout Court Rules at Their Peril"

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  1. Again, home address. Immigrants from shitholes will love your bedrooms. Your wife is adorable too.

    1. Ilya. Native Americans failed to control illegal immigration. Can we not learn from their bitter experiences?

  2. Estonia has 1.4 million people, including a fair percentage of Russian-speakers from the USSR days. Let's say Russia started providing incentives for Russians to move there, with the idea that once there was a majority of Russian speakers, they would vote to rejoin Russia, leaving the ethnic Estonians to be a tiny minority in an authoritarian Russia. So is Estonia not allowed to ban these Russian from immigrating to Estonia, or would that be an exception? If that's an exception, what if the Russians were sent by Russia, but just started migrating on their own, and gradually began to agitate for rejoining Russia. Does Estonia have to continue to allow free immigration from Russia? It strikes me that the answer has to be "no" in both case, that Estonia can block this immigration, and the resulting conclusion is that these principles are situational, not absolute.

    1. An excellent example. If "Free Migration" would lead to a loss of freedom, is it acceptable to halt it?

    2. The same considerations explain why Israel, for example, does not permit unrestricted immigration, and in particular why it does not recognize any "right of return" for Palestinian Arabs who once lived, or whose ancestors once lived, within what is now Israel.

      Of course, had the inhabitants of Palestine been able to exercise self determination between the wars, the same considerations would have led *them* to restrict immigration that would have led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

    3. "Can" they? Could Hawaii restrict the immigration that led to the overthrow of their monarchy by Sanford Dole aided by 300 American Marines? A meaningful answer has to include what you mean by "can".

    4. Are there any principles that aren't situational, to some extent? I haven't read the paper (or the book) yet, but it seems to me Prof. Somin is addressing specific arguments for restricting migration, rather than making the case for unrestricted migration in every case.

  3. It's lifeboat ethics, Ilya, and you're so glad you were pulled out of the sea, you're going to sink the boat.

    1. Can’t say it much better.

      Making things worse, we have essentially guaranteed significant benefits to our immigrants. Paying for those benefits costs the rest of us in terms of taxes and lower incomes. What are your limitations? You seem perfectly happy if 8 billion or so people moved here to avail themselves of our generous benefits.

      1. Of course both your and Brett's comments are based on the assumption that mostly unrestricted immigration would be a net negative for the economy of a country. I'm guessing Prof. Somin would disagree with that assumption. But I haven't read his paper or his book yet, and I'm guessing neither of you have either.

        1. on the assumption that mostly unrestricted immigration would be a net negative for the economy of a country

          It would be kind of hard to predict. According to Gallup, 158 million people would like to immigrate to the U.S. Apparently, 33% of Sub-Saharan African adults say they would leave if they could; 27% of Latin American and Caribbean adults feel the same way. One source estimates that 158 million people would bring 227 million children with them, for a total of 385 million. Of course, once it became clear that immigration to the U.S. is a real possibility the number could increase. I guess if there weren’t 158 million jobs available, or if the available jobs weren’t to their liking, the remainder could go on welfare. As of 2020 there were 257 million people in the country of voting age, so the newcomers would make up 38% of the new voting age population. Doubtless there would be politicians eyeing 158 million potential votes as a prime constituency and waiting on the border to get them registered. Before we could predict the effect on the economy we would first have to predict what kind of economy we would have. Some form of socialism and/or radical property redistribution would sound like a possibility. Unfortunately, according to Prof. Somin, reason and natural law prohibit the current U.S. residents from standing in the way of this.

          1. On December 31, 406, the Alani, Suevi, and Vandals entered the Roman Empire en masse across the frozen Rhine River. How'd that work out for the Romans?

            1. Not to mention the Germans who wished to cross the Rhine in May, 1940.

            2. Yes indeed, that happened despite the Romans' best efforts to keep them out. The Romans were not proponents of open borders.

          2. " According to Gallup, 158 million people would like to immigrate to the U.S. etc."

            I'm sure they would like to. Do you imagine that US immigration law is the only thing preventing them?

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