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Nativism, the Citizenship Union, and Barriers to Movement


The day is rapidly approaching when the epithet “nativist” will carry as much power as “racist.” Not only is nativism — the practice of favoring the established inhabitants of a country over recent immigrants — hateful and based on a fallacy; its destructive consequences are becoming more apparent by the day.

Nativism, and its manifestation in debates over American citizenship, is a form of discrimination deeply embedded in common parlance and the minds of many people. That it is widely accepted, however, does not mean that it is logically coherent or moral.

On the contrary, as a practice of excluding outsiders, nativism amounts to little more than a nefarious type of union membership. It grants legal monopoly privileges under the misused banner of patriotism. The union leaders (anti-immigrant pundits and politicians) pretend to defend those who carry official American citizenship as though they were inherently more important than the “aliens,” the nonunion members.

Consider these two statements:

“This is without question a terrorism on a community … and boy it is time the community itself spoke up and said ‘get the Hell out of here, we don’t want you.’… We’re going to mobilize our union, and scabs are not coming through.” — Bob Chernecki, Canadian Auto Workers Union

The invasion of illegal aliens … places the very life of our nation in jeopardy.… These people are a clear and present danger to all of us; so we need everyone to roll up his/her sleeves and get to work to stop this flood of problems.” — Kevin Collins, Western Center for Journalism

Regardless of the particular choice of words, the sentiment is the same. The only clear difference is that Chernecki (the union boss) fears people are supposedly stealing the jobs of his union members, while Collins (the anti-immigrant pundit) fears for the jobs of American citizens, as he explains in the rest of his article. Both are misguided, and in the end, we all suffer from their unfounded fears.

Given a respect for freedom of contract and association, people are welcome to form or join any voluntary union. Similarly, in the absence of special union legislation, employers may choose to hire or not hire union employees. So violence against the people Chernecki calls “scabs” — people who compete honestly with their labor for employment but do not possess union membership, is merely naked aggression.

What is so different about attacks against noncitizens, carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement?

The fallacy

At first glance, the underlying distinction may seem simple: some people were born within the borders and others were not. Why someone is more or less important based on where his mother gave birth is problematic and discriminatory enough, but the arbitrariness of the classification gets worse.

Consider that the borders of the United States have changed vastly over the years. As Alamo historian, Richard Winders, explains, “One of the concepts we have as modern people is that borders are stagnant, that they don’t move. But throughout history, what we can see is that borders do move.… You have people who, because of a shift in border, change nationalities.”

Further, some parts of the United States are still not actually states, and the leaders there never voluntarily joined the union. That includes American Samoa, the occupants of which find themselves treated as noncitizen “nationals,” subject to different legal treatment than citizens.

The writers and enforcers of such laws also ignore geography when it suits them. For example, if you’re born to military parents outside of the current borders, as John McCain was in the Panama Canal Zone, no problem. On the other hand, a majority of nations withhold citizenship if the mother does not have government approval to be present in the region, and staunch American nativists want to eliminate birthright citizenship in the United States as well.

For those born without American citizenship, the legal process for becoming a citizen — the immigration, or, should we say, union-membership application — is incredibly time-consuming, expensive, and arbitrary. Even worse, it’s basically closed to a majority of people, despite the U.S. government’s public-relations strategy of holding a literal lottery for immigration, the “Diversity Visa.”

In fact, the legal process is just another protectionist barrier to entry. Like the myriad of occupational licensure laws that are proliferating across the United States, it is a counterproductive attempt to keep out people who are supposedly competitive threats.

The destructive consequences

Take the case of Mikhail Sebastian. He was originally from the Soviet Union, but his former nation no longer exists, and Azerbaijan, where he was born, will not grant him citizenship. He is one of an estimated 12 million people with no legal tie to any nation — an “alien” everywhere he goes. Until recently he was stuck in American Samoa for more than a year, with no legal capacity to leave or provide for himself.

Sebastian is actually relatively fortunate. Immigration controls incentivize human trafficking, and many illegal immigrants die as they attempt to enter the United States. Government officials in the Kleberg and Brooks Counties of Texas claim that “so many undocumented immigrants are dying in the area that they are running out of space to bury them.”

All of the purported justifications for barriers to noncitizens — that they are criminals, that they increase citizen unemployment (PDF), that they use up welfare funds (PDF) — fall flat under any scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the destructive consequences of nativism and of enforcing the citizenship union, including a record 400,000 deportations in 2012, are simply enormous. The National Bureau for Economic Research has estimated that net gains from open borders would be “about the same as the gains from a growth miracle that more than doubles the income level in less-developed countries.” Immigration is an effective yet forgone way to help people from poorer nations, and it wouldn’t require any redistributive taxation; imagine that.

Perhaps without realizing, enforcement proponents are also facilitating the rise of an expensive police-state apparatus, and not just at the border. The reality is that one can only enforce strict movement controls and legal inequalities with police-state tactics such as inland checkpoints, encroaching surveillance, a militarized border, and the imposition of law-enforcement duties on private individuals.

Each deportation costs at least $12,500, and the Department of Homeland Security, which did not exist just ten years ago, now employs 240,000 people and costs an annual $59 billion (PDF)!

A way out

Whether lawmakers like it or not, people are going to engage in civil disobedience and defy these laws, as millions already do in the United States. The lawmakers can, if they so choose, continue to waste money and ruin people’s lives fighting against this. An understanding of nativism and its fallacies, however, leads us to realize that immigration is not a problem but an opportunity — an opportunity to open our minds to genuine legal equality and the value of freedom of movement.

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    Fergus Hodgson is host, editor, and founder of The Stateless Man radio show and e-newsletter and a policy advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation.