Why Trump is Right About Immigration

Conventional wisdom, widely propounded by the US’s opinion shapers and power brokers, says that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump’s stance on immigration, from his oft-repeated promise regarding the US’s southern border — “Build the wall!” — to his “temporary ban” on Muslims’ entering the country, tars him irredeemably as a racist, xenophobic bigot. But is there a deeper truth to his characteristic bluster on the issue? I believe that there is, but that it remains a deeply unpopular truth except in newly resurgent neoreactionary circles, and in the party platforms of the not insignificant number of populist movements, such as France’s National Front, from which Europe is now reeling. Obviously, people’s gut tendency to associate a proponent of tight borders immigration policy with such groups, specifically the Alt-Right¹ — which, to be frank, have not endeared themselves to mainstream discourse — lessens the prima facie appeal of a “secure borders” case, but bigots are not wrong about everything² — indeed, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Those who maintain that we must rethink our approach to both legal and illegal immigration — i.e., not simply slowing their rate, but actually halting the influx of people entirely, and perhaps even eventually going so far as to reduce existing numbers of (illegal) immigrants — inevitably open themselves up to venomous attacks by social justice and human rights crusaders who stridently assert that they are nothing more than xenophobic, racist, nativist, bigoted fools for desiring such things. But concerns over immigration are not unfounded. The Center for Immigration Studies notes that “more than three million new legal and illegal immigrants settled in the United States in 2014 and 2015 — a 39 percent increase over the prior two years.”³ The result? “The number of legal and illegal immigrants settling in the country is now higher than before the 2007 recession.”4 So ordinary, decent, law-abiding, patriotic citizens the world over are justified in maintaining, in direct defiance of their countries’ cultural and intellectual elites, what is in reality an eminently commonsense view about the relationship between nation-states and non-citizens: A state has the unilateral right to regulate its borders so as to exclude, at any time, any foreigners for any reason. In other words, the US is fully within its rights to completely seal its borders tomorrow to exclude anyone on any grounds whatsoever (even if the reasons provided are arbitrary, vacuous, or capricious).

That assertion will fall harshly on the ears of those who benefit from mass migration — progressives, those who urged Britons to vote “Remain,” and those at home in an increasingly fluid multicultural-globalist world — but it is the most philosophically, legally, and practically consistent position to hold. The simplest justification for the aforementioned right of a state to control its own borders is this: No state is required to justify its own “self-regarding” policies, those which affect those within itself, to those without itself. There is no general right to immigrate to the country of your choice, or any country at all, just as there is no general right to enter a stranger’s home without permission. It is that simple. Those outside of a particular state have no standing to demand that they be granted entrance. I am permitted to exclude anyone from my property for any reason at all, just as the state can exclude any foreigner from its territory for any reason at all. Furthermore, there exists no general obligation for a state to increase multiculturalism and diversity within its territory via its immigration policy: to become ever more “inclusive.”

In fact, such an “open borders” posture is deeply unwise and clearly harmful. The sex attacks in Cologne, Germany,5 which the government shamefully attempted to cover up, are a prime, experientially rich example of why this is the case. Swinging open wide our proverbial doors to vast quantities of persons who possess deeply ingrained values inimical to our Western ones and who hail from cultures whose practices and customs are, to put it lightly, wholly incompatible with our own commitment to pluralism and the rule of law is to flirt irresponsibly with worldviews potently hostile to our collective way of life and our very own cultural heritage and Founding ethos. Perhaps for good reason, however, people nowadays are quite unreceptive to an argument which does not account for personal autonomy and consent, relies so heavily on a position stemming from privileged authority (in this case, the state’s) and which is out of their direct control, and appears on the face of it to be manifestly unjust. Despite the objections of these critics, there remain three powerful and intertwined justifications for Trump’s immigration position: evidence from philosophy (I will draw heavily upon the scholarship of philosopher Christopher Heath Wellman),6 the Constitution, and practical/research experience.

First, philosophy. On Wellman’s view, an individual has certain special obligations to those in her state that she does not share with those not in her state. This is clearly a plausible position, and it would be grossly unfair to claim that an individual who believes this is somehow morally bankrupt. Obviously, I have greater obligations toward members of my own family that I do not have toward my best friend, as well as obligations toward my best friend that I do not have toward mere acquaintances or complete strangers.

Importantly, however, note what I am not saying: I am not saying that that it is the case that she does not have any obligations to those outside of her state — just that she only has these certain special obligations to her fellow compatriots. Indeed, she (or at least her state) probably does have weighty duties to those outside of her state, especially to those fleeing war, natural disasters, and oppressive regimes; but this fact does not necessitate that states must indiscriminately and uncritically open their borders to the myriad poor and oppressed of the world.

Freedom of association, a weighty moral consideration most find crucially important (at least they used to; our recent debates over same-sex couples’ so-called “right” to wedding cakes and bouquets from Christian businesses has thrown our collective commitment to this value into serious doubt), “includes the right not to associate and even, in many cases, the right to disassociate.”7 Straightforwardly, then, on a freedom of association account of Trumpian borders one can indeed be committed to the idea that all human beings, whether citizens of one’s own state or not, are free and equal, possessing freedom and equality in equal measure with one another, while still emphatically rejecting a policy which would serve to severely weaken border security and increase their porosity. Just as one has the right and the freedom to choose who to marry or to reject all other suitors, and the right and the freedom to choose how to worship or to remain religion-less, the state has the right and the freedom to “exclude all foreigners from its political community.”8

Some undoubtedly find this conclusion reprehensible, but consider: If this were not the case, then the very idea of a referendum vote by Britons on June 23 to “Brexit,” to disassociate, from the EU is a conceptual impossibility; they have no right at all to even attempt to actualize such an outcome. Additionally, and more strikingly, there would be nothing to prevent a strong state such as the US from forcibly conscripting another, weaker state, into, e.g., a trade partnership such as NAFTA. At some level, then, we all accept the necessity and desirability of freedom of association, and there is good reason to believe that it applies just as robustly to matters of immigration as it does in any other case.

Second, the Constitution. Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, states bluntly that an immigration ban on Muslims would “probably not”9 be unconstitutional, citing a century of precedent on the matter — precedent which indicates that “constitutional protections that normally benefit Americans and people on American territory do not apply when Congress decides who to admit and who to exclude as immigrants or other entrants.”10 Under the “plenary powers doctrine,” broad discretion and authority are left to Congress and the president regarding immigration law and, accordingly, the courts have declined to rule on most of the corpus of immigration law in any meaningful, substantive ways. Indeed, the Supreme Court, while it has “not ruled on religious discrimination” has also “never given the slightest indication that religion would be exempt from the general rule.”11

As distasteful as this might seem, it squares perfectly with our philosophical conclusion above: Foreigners are not in any way owed entry to a state, and the rationale for their exclusion is not subject to typical Fourteenth Amendment equal protection, discrimination, and due process jurisprudential reasoning. Why? Because, again, they are non-citizens. Our state may and probably does in all likelihood have strong obligations to the globe’s downtrodden and marginalized—but this certainly need not and does not include their right to immigrate into our territory (and what would be our correlative duty to admit them if such a right did exist).

Third, and finally, in a practical sense, it simply boggles the mind that many progressives blithely believe that mass migration of individuals to our own Western democracies from cultures such as Afghanistan or Syria is or would be an unmitigated positive good at best and neutral at worst; it has been nothing quite so wonderful in practice. These persons hail from places, lest we forget so easily, where homosexuals are routinely persecuted, women are subjugated to their male relatives as “second class citizens,” and there reigns an über alles desire for theocracy.

A 2007 paper by Harvard’s Robert Putnam documents the true effects of immigration. He writes that —

[I]mmigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital [at least in the short run]. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer (emphasis added).12

The data confirm the lesson of Europe’s so far wretched experience with mass migration, brought about by Chancellor Merkel’s foolhardy decision in 2015 to accept untold numbers of Syrian refugees. The specter of Europe looms large before us as a cautionary tale, as it should.

In his blunt and imprecise way, Trump has shifted the Overton window on immigration, borders, and national security. The fact that he did so insensitively and that his approach lacked nuance does not make his deeper observation and critique erroneous, however. Those in favor of increased immigration and more open borders wax poetically about the wonders of increased economic growth, their own virtue signaled, steadfast commitment to diversity and openness, and our duty to obliterate ancient prejudices and systems of oppression, but all of that belies a more immediate truth which their endless prattling cannot obscure: Immigration cuts to the heart of the question of whether a nation possesses a right to self-determination, to sovereignty, as well as the authority to regulate the character of its people and to keep them safe.

Mass migration and open borders threaten to undermine the very stability and prosperity of nation-states which appealed to prospectively immigrating foreigners in the first place. Whatever we think about immigration, or about Trump, we should not lie to ourselves and pretend that to close our borders would “betray” our “American values”; to the contrary, we would in truth be exercising our fundamental right as a nation-state: the right to chart our own path, to control our own destiny.


Deion Kathawa is a senior at the University of Michigan and the Editor-in-Chief of The Michigan Review. Follow him on Twitter @DeionKathawa



[1] Young, Cathy. “You Can’t Whitewash the Alt-Right’s Bigotry.” The Federalist. April 14, 2016.

[2] Douthat, Ross. “When the Wrong Are Right.” The New York Times. May 14, 2016.

[3] Camarota, Steven A. “New Data: Immigration Surged in 2014 and 2015.” Center for Immigration Studies. June 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Smale, Alison. “As Germany Welcomes Migrants, Sexual Attacks in Cologne Point to a New Reality.” The New York Times. January 14, 2016.

[6] Wellman, Christopher Heath. “Immigration and Freedom of Association.” Ethics 119.1 (2008): 109 – 141.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Posner, Eric. “Is An Immigration Ban on Muslims Unconstitutional?” EricPosner.com. December 8, 2015.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Putnam, Robert. “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.” Scandinavian Political Studies 30:2 (2007): 137 – 175.


Filed under: Features


Deion Kathawa is a senior at the University of Michigan and the Editor-in-Chief of The Michigan Review.


  1. Gregory Gorelik says

    Although progressives’ blithe dismissal of the dangers of unfettered immigration is asinine, allow me three rebuttals:

    1. The philosophical argument in favor of national sovereignty over border control is presented as either being equal to, or greater than, a nation’s obligation to non-citizens. If we accept a system of ethics such as utilitarianism, there may be scenarios wherein the life of an immigrant should be prioritized over the potential inconvenience experienced by a native citizen. Such was the case when the St. Louis was denied entry into the US, which ultimately led to the death of hundreds of Jews in Hitler’s death camps.

    2. Although formulating an immigration policy that discriminates entrants based on religious affiliation may be constitutional, this presupposes that constitutionality trumps (forgive the pun) other moral principles. For example, private colleges and universities are not bound by the Constitution to defend students’ and professors’ First Amendment right to free speech. Many, however, would nevertheless view the school’s abridgment of that right as morally wrong, even if it is constitutionally permitted.

    My point is that you prioritize national (1) and constitutional (2) sovereignty over other moral principles but do not make a case as to why they should be so prioritized.

    3. Finally, as your direct quote from Putnam indicates, immigration and diversity do tend to decrease short-term social capital, but the same paper that you cited also suggests that the long-term effects of immigration are generally positive, both socially and economically.

  2. Liam says

    Wouldn’t dispute the ethical arguments, particularly right of liberal democracies to be selective about who they allow in – thinking of prevalent attitudes towards women, gays, atheists etc in the Muslim world – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. All the evidence suggests a net benefit to immigration.

    • KSterling says

      There’s a net benefit to immigration *if immigrants are vetted.* The “evidence” you talk about concerns immigrants who came here legally. There is no evidence re: illegal immigrants, b/c they’re invisible to the system. And if you talk to anyone who lives in Europe, they will tell you that many of the Muslims have no interest in assimilating – google the Muslim ghettos in places like Spain and even in the UK – there are areas where British police will not go for fear of being set upon by Muslim gangs.
      The fact is, in an age of terrorism, we cannot afford to be naive about who is crossing our borders, and we cannot continue to allow just anyone to cross. The head of the CIA says 15% of the refugees coming into this country are members of ISIS. Given that, explain why you want to keep the doors open. They pose a high risk to our citizens, and it is the stated purpose of the govt. – stated in the Constitution itself – to secure the borders. Right now the govt. is not doing its Constitutional duty. If you don’t like what the Constitution says, then by all means try to change it. But to ignore its mandates is to be lawless.
      The more people you allow in who are hostile to our way of life and to our principles and beliefs – for instance, that women are equal to men, and that gays have a right to marry – the more friction and chaos will descend on our society, until we are at war with ourselves in the same way Syria and other nations are at war. It will make 1861-1865 look tame by comparison.

  3. Liam says

    “there are areas where British police will not go for fear of being set upon by Muslim gangs.”

    “The head of the CIA says 15% of the refugees coming into this country are members of ISIS”

    Do you have any evidence for these assertions?

  4. santoculto says

    The fundamental question is ”why the mass immigration??”

  5. JOHN MAZRUM says

    From a strictly pragmatic position, we need immigration to maintain our standard of living as the birthrate of our native born has fallen below replacement and we need to admit people who are young and can be productive for many years to keep our society rolling as the Baby Boomers retire. We are fortunate to be a country of immigrants so we will not end up like Japan where an aging population and low birthrate combined with almost no immigration have caught them in a demographic trap which they cannot escape

  6. jade says

    i find it odd that the population of ALL developed nations are “dying out” (look it up) so they must bring in young people from undeveloped nations to keep their nations from falling apart. can someone explain it to me? did each nation decide on their own to quit producing offspring, was it a collective decision or is it bullshit?

    • Kay says

      Declining populations result when the birth rate lags behind the death rate. This may or may not be the consequence of a deliberate choice. Population levels can be kept stable (or increased) by production of offspring or acceptance of new members. It’s arithmetic.

    • Maureen says

      It’s because of an increase in women’s rights and middle class populations. Underdeveloped countries have low levels of education, high levels of poverty, and low women’s status, thus high birth rates. Women in developed countries decide if, when, and to whom they marry, and how many children they have. Maintenance of a middle class lifestyle typically requires that a family limit its offspring. Women in developed countries get educations, jobs, and have two kids, not ten. Women in poor countries tend to have chattel status, be forced into marriage at young ages, have low educations and no job opportunities, etc. The society defines having large numbers of (specifically male) children as a good thing. So the women are basically baby factories. Of course, this arrangement ensures lasting poverty for the family and country as a whole.

      But of course, the argument that we need unlimited numbers of immigrants from underdeveloped countries is based on an illogical premise that the population of a country should grow ad infinitum. Immigrant workers get old, too, and need younger people to care for them. So we admit even more immigrants to sustain the population of elderly natives and immigrants, on and on forever?

  7. Maureen says

    This argument is absolutely true. And it doesn’t even take into account the thousands of “U.S. citizens” born every year because of birth tourism. Thousands of foreigners come to the U.S. just to have a baby (usually having Medicare pay for it) and return to their home country, like China or Nigeria. The baby grows up in the foreign country with foreign parents, often not speaking English or learning anything about U.S. history or culture. But that child is a U.S. citizen, and can come to the U.S. any time he/she wants with a U.S. passport. The child does not count as an immigrant, even though he/she has no meaningful ties or loyalties to the U.S. beyond a piece of paper. And there is no way to vet whether that child grow up in extremist environments. Thank the 14th Amendment for this.

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