I watched with interest the debate on immigration between Dave Smith and Spike Cohen. I encourage everyone, libertarian or not, to watch it as well. Neither participant called the other a fake libertarian, a racist, a communist, or (insert pejorative here). On the contrary, Smith hurt himself by spending too much time praising Spike during his opening.
Instead of dumb name calling, the debate included thoughtful and thought-provoking arguments for both positions, which were “open borders” and “not open borders.” As to who won the debate, I’ll leave that to the judgment of the viewer. There were no knockdowns.
Like Dave, Spike, and host Marc Clair, I am an ancap. So, my ideal solution would be privatizing everything. And as for my personal feelings about all three, I can only say:
However, especially since it was largely representative of most libertarian discussions on immigration, I am compelled to point out a startling omission in the debate. That was the apparent false assumption by both Dave and Spike that the only options were between the federal government regulating immigration and open borders. Neither even mentioned the constitutional, historical argument: state regulation of immigration.
I was waiting for the conversation to get there until Spike made a statement (about the 43:43 mark), unrefuted by Dave, that since there was no Ellis Island or similar federal immigration enforcement operation for the republic’s first one hundred years, the United States had “straight up open borders” during that time.
No, they didn’t. It is true the federal government wasn’t regulating immigration because the states were regulating it. As I explained in more detail here, the federal government only got involved in immigration as a result of Supreme Court decisions dealing with state immigration enforcement, particularly Chy Lung vs. Freeman, arguably the most spurious decision the Court ever issued on the constitutionality of a federal power.
Without rehashing the linked article above, they didn’t really make an argument the power was delegated. Their decision was based solely on the reasoning that it would be disastrous if the federal government didn’t have the power to regulate immigration, so therefore it must have it. They explained why the federal government should be delegated the power, not that it had already been delegated the power.
It wasn’t the first time the federal government attempted this usurpation. Most people remember the Alien and Sedition Acts for their suppression of free speech, but that was only half the problem. The other half, emphatically argued by both Jefferson and Madison in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798, was that the Alien Act was unconstitutional because it exercised a power (regulating immigration) reserved to the states. Their argument for state nullification of the Alien Act amounted to the same argument made by “sanctuary cities,” only at the state level.
Conservatives often argue the power to regulate immigration is granted to the federal government because it is part and parcel of the power to regulate naturalization (becoming a citizen). This is ludicrous. The vast majority of people who cross the border have no intention of becoming citizens and the two powers are completely distinct.
Others point to the 1808 clause, which has slightly more superficial merit, but you can read my arguments against that in the linked article as well.
For the record, Jefferson addressed the 1808 clause in the Kentucky Resolution and Madison, who wrote the words of both the Naturalization and 1808 clauses, nevertheless stated regulating immigration was a power “no where delegated to the federal government.”
Since there hasn’t been an amendment to delegate this power since then, it must still reside with the states or the people.
The constitutional approach provides two alternative solutions to the immigration question that could work for both conservatives and liberals and be more tolerable to libertarians:
- Acknowledge the federal government does not posses this power and propose an amendment to delegate it to the feds.
- Acknowledge the federal government does not posses this power and allow the states to resume their authority as protected under the Tenth Amendment.
The amendment suggestion is more than just a formality. If an amendment were proposed, it would require a supermajority of states to ratify it. Out of the dogfight that would naturally follow, something agreeable to both sides might emerge.
If not, alternative #2 would be the default position. While that may appear unthinkable at first glance, allow me to point out that states are already availing themselves of this option right in front of our eyes.
Blue states are declaring “sanctuary cities,” meaning they won’t expend their own resources to enforce federal immigration laws. The governor of Texas says his state is building its own border wall. Florida governor Ron DeSantis wants $8 million from his legislature to “create a new program that would allow the state to contract with private companies to transport ‘unauthorized aliens’ out of Florida.”
Just like marijuana laws, states are beginning to nullify federal immigration laws and any honest proponent of strict construction of the Constitution should admit they have the right to do so.
It’s a far cry from a private property system, but it’s much closer than either federal enforcement of immigration laws or federal subsidization of immigration into the states. If we can’t have a libertarian solution, we can at least have a constitutional one.
Supporting this position checks all the boxes brought up by the participants in the debate. No libertarian candidate would have to support the disastrous federal immigration system. Instead, they could tell voters in each state they support their right to determine the rules themselves, without interference from Washington.
It would also be eminently more practical. It would not mean routine interstate travel would be disrupted by authorities attempting to physically stop people from crossing state lines. The federal government has already shown that to be futile.
State government immigration departments could focus on those people establishing residence within the state rather than attempting to prevent anyone from merely driving through. Those arriving at airports or ports from foreign countries could be processed the same way by state officials as they are now by federal officials, at each state’s discretion.
Not every state would regulate immigration the same way. Those states that wanted open borders could have them. Those that wanted border walls could build them. Those that wanted something in the middle could have that, too.
Nothing governments do can be truly called a market solution but allowing up to fifty different immigration policies would much more closely approximate one than the current one-size-fits-all approach. And it would allow a more scientific way to answer not only whether more or less immigration is good for the current state populations but how much or little regulation is optimal. There may be up to fifty answers to the latter question.
No, the constitutional approach is not perfect, just as neither solution proposed in the debate was perfect. But it beats a civil war between the very unlibertarian factions currently seeking control at the federal level. And it has the potential to evolve into something closer to a private property system than could ever emerge with Washington in charge.