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The Tyranny of Immigration Controls


Imagine the following conversation:

John: Oh, my head hurts so bad. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Jack: If you stopped beating your head against that wall, your headache would go away.

John: You libertarians are always so impractical and extreme. My headache has nothing to do with the fact that I am beating my head against this wall. I am meeting with my doctor today. He is an expert on headaches, and I am certain that he will come up with a plan that will rid me of my headache.

That exchange encapsulates the immigration debate in America. For decades, people have wailed about the ongoing, never-ending immigration crisis. But when we libertarians say, “If you abolished your system of immigration controls and embraced a system of open borders, you wouldn’t have an immigration crisis anymore,” we are hit with the same type of response described above.

I grew up on a farm on the Rio Grande just outside the city limits of Laredo, Texas, which is situated on the Mexican border. We hired undocumented immigrants on our farm, which was not illegal at that time. Our farm workers were the hardest-working people I have ever seen. During summers, my brothers and I often worked alongside them. During off-hours, we played football with them. We were always saddened whenever the U.S. Border Patrol would come onto our farm without a warrant whenever it wanted and took away our workers. We knew that we would never see them again, since a subsequent arrest would result in a felony conviction for them.

None of the busts that the Border Patrol made on our farm had any impact on America’s decades-long immigration crisis. In fact, no matter how many immigration busts have been made across the nation for the past 70 years, no matter how many raids on private businesses have been conducted; no matter how many reforms have been adopted; no matter how many warrantless searches and seizures have been conducted; no matter how many people have been arrested and jailed for hiring, harboring, or transporting illegal immigrants; and no matter how many miles of immigration fencing have been constructed along the Texas-Mexican border, the immigration crisis has continued.

(As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that the situation is the same with respect to the federal government’s decades-long war on drugs.)

Throughout the decades of immigration crisis, a common refrain has been that Congress has failed to come up with an “immigration-reform package.” The assumption has always been that there is some plan out there that will, once and for all, bring an end to the decades-long, ongoing, never-ending immigration crisis. If only the members of Congress would get together, retain the most brilliant immigration experts in the country, and employ the fastest computers, an “immigration-reform plan” could finally be adopted and signed into law that would, once and for all, bring an end to the long immigration crisis.

It’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. No “immigration-reform plan” is ever going to work. As long as the United States continues to adhere to a system based on immigration controls, there will continue to be an ongoing, never-ending immigration crisis.

There is a simple reason for that: It’s the system of immigration controls itself that is the cause of the crisis, because a system of immigration controls is inherently defective. That means that it can never be made to work, no matter what.

I wish that point would sink into every single American. It’s a critically important point. Once a person comes to the realization that a system is inherently defective and thus can never be made to work, what then does he do? Does he nonetheless continue supporting a system when he knows it can never be made to work? Does he continue devoting his time, money, and energy trying to come up with an immigration-reform plan that he knows is incapable of working?

It seems to me that once a person comes to this realization — that a system of immigration controls will never work and can never work and that, in fact, it produces an ongoing, never-ending crisis — he is logically and rationally left with searching for an alternative immigration paradigm — one that is capable of working and that does work.

That paradigm is open borders — i.e., the free movements of people, back and forth, across borders. That’s the only immigration system that works, which makes it the only practical solution there is. Not only does this solution end the immigration crisis, it also is the only one that is consistent with moral, ethical, and Biblical principles regarding people’s relationship to one another.

There is a simple reason that a system of immigration controls does not work and does nothing but bring about death, misery, suffering, and crises. That reason is socialism, an economic system that inevitably produces those types of perverse results.

Impossible planning

When we hear the word “socialism,” we often think in terms of an economic system where the government owns and operates everything and in which most people are government employees. The Soviet Union, North Korea, and Cuba come to mind. It’s not surprising that in those nations, people have suffered economically with lower standards of living, deprivation, shortages, and even starvation.

A variation of socialism is central planning, in which the government plans and directs, in a top-down, command-and-control fashion, the economic activities of multitudes of people. Central planning was a core element of the Soviet Union’s socialist system. The government planned the production and distribution of clothing, food, automobiles, and other important items. The idea was that such things were too important to be left to the vicissitudes of a “free market.”

The results of central planning? Crisis and chaos! The central planner, as the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek pointed out, lacks the necessary knowledge and means to plan complex economic activity, which necessarily entails constantly changing economic conditions and constantly changing economic valuations among people. The planner is simply unable to keep up with it all. The result is inevitably an ongoing series of crises, or what Mises called “planned chaos.”

That’s why there has been a decades-long, ongoing crisis in immigration and, equally important, why there will continue to be an ongoing crisis in immigration so long as the system is based on immigration controls. Immigration controls are nothing more than a system of socialist central planning, one in which government officials are planning, in a top-down, command-and-control fashion, the movements of people in an extremely complex labor market.

A picture of open borders

We begin with a natural assumption. Lots of people from around the world want to come to the United States. There is a simple reason for that: money. America is a place where people can make money. They can sustain the lives of their families back home. They can improve their economic well-being. They can even get rich. It stands to reason that people would not want to go to countries that are extremely poor or where people are starving to death, such as North Korea. It makes sense that people want to go to countries where they have a chance to survive and prosper.

The United States was founded on an economic system that is the opposite of socialism — a system that we know as “the free market” or a “free-enterprise system.” It entails a way of life in which people plan and direct their own personal economic activity, with no interference from government. That’s why it’s called the “free” market or “free-enterprise” system: because economic activity is free of government control, regulation, or interference.

That system was reflected by America’s system of open immigration for the first hundred years of the country’s existence. No government official, agency, or department planned or directed the movements of people into or out of the United States. In fact, there weren’t even any passports. People came and went as they wished.

Yes, there was an inspection station at Ellis Island that checked people for tuberculosis. If an immigrant was diagnosed with TB, he was placed under quarantine.

But that was it. So long as a person didn’t have a serious communicable disease or serious mental disability, he was free to enter the United States and travel wherever he wanted.

No government quotas for different countries. No qualifications. No lists. No keeping track of people. No passports. No visas. No green cards. People freely entered the United States and went to work wherever they wanted, so long as employers were willing to hire them.

It was even more open in the American Southwest because there weren’t even any TB checkpoints there. No Border Patrol. No immigration stops at the U.S-Mexico border. For some 50 years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, by which the United States acquired the northern half of Mexico (along with its inhabitants, culture, laws, heritage, city and street names, and language), people were free to cross the border back and forth, touring, working, investing, or opening businesses.

There is something important to keep in mind about open borders: They don’t affect citizenship, which is an entirely different concept. When Mexicans would cross into, say, El Paso, to open a Mexican restaurant, that didn’t mean that they would automatically become American citizens or even that they cared to do so. They would retain their Mexican citizenship. They were Mexican citizens living or working in El Paso who owned a restaurant in El Paso and continued paying taxes to the Mexican government and voting in Mexican elections.

Today, there are more than a million Americans living in Mexico, mostly retirees. They retain their American citizenship. They continue paying taxes to the U.S. government. They continue eating hamburgers. They speak English to each other. They cheer for American sports teams. They provide a hint of what life was like in the United States in the 1800s, when Mexican and American citizens were free to cross the border back and forth without being pressured to give up their citizenship.

My hometown of Laredo, Texas, is the only city in the United States, as far as I know, that has a big celebration in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The week-long celebration includes a debutante’s ball, a downtown parade with floats led by Pocahontas riding a horse, and a big jalapeño festival.

In the 1950s, local and federal officials would open the border for Mexican citizens to freely cross the international bridge to participate in Laredo’s George Washington birthday festivities. When the downtown parade occurred, the streets would be filled with people from both nations enjoying and clapping for the participants in the parade. Of course, given that Laredo’s population was about 97 percent Mexican-American, about 20 percent of whom couldn’t speak English, no one could tell who was a citizen of Mexico and who was a citizen of the United States, and no one cared.

That open border between La-redo and Nuevo Laredo did not cause either city to fall into the Rio Grande. There was no crisis or chaos. Mexican citizens retained their citizenship. Everyone had a great time. And, needless to say, Laredo stores loved the influx of new customers.

The free market in general and open borders in particular harmonize people’s interests. They enable everyone to pursue happiness in his own way, especially by enabling people to freely coordinate their activities with others. The free market works, which makes it a practical solution.

Conservative doubts

A system of immigration controls, on the other hand, necessarily interferes with people’s freedom to plan, direct, and coordinate their activities. It produces crises. And it doesn’t work, which makes it impractical.

The planner, for example, decides that Mexico should have a quota of, say, 50,000 immigrants who can enter the United States. Mexicans are told to get in line for the limited number of permits to be granted. People are told that it could be years before they are awarded a permit.

But how does the planner arrive at that number? He cannot possibly know whether that’s an accurate read on the supply of and demand for labor. He suffers from what Hayek called a “fatal conceit,” a malady that afflicts all central planners. If there are, say, 500,000 Mexicans who wish to cross the border to come here and accept jobs from American employers who wish to hire them, that’s when the crisis begins. Suddenly, there is pent-up demand for hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers, but a government quota that permits only 50,000 of them to enter the country. That’s when people begin to circumvent the official crossing points and look for alternative ways to get into the country, such as trespassing on ranches and farms, employing illegal transporters, and the like. The immigration controls do not stop people from wanting to sustain and improve their lives, and they don’t repeal the laws of supply and demand.

This immigration “crisis” inevitably gets some Americans angry and upset. Trying to make their socialist system succeed, they demand that something be done. Their belief is that stricter and more brutal enforcement of immigration controls will resolve the crisis. That’s how we got, for example, a law that now makes it a crime for Americans to hire illegal immigrants, unlike when I was growing up in La-redo. The idea was that if you make it illegal for Americans to hire illegal immigrants, that will deter immigrants from coming into the country without official permission.

But it didn’t. Immigrants began using fake IDs to secure jobs with eager American employers. Thus, immigration controls produced an entirely new industry involving the manufacture and production of fake ID cards for illegal immigrants, which made the immigration crisis even worse.

And it’s been the same with every single immigration-enforcement measure. The more governments try to make their system of immigration controls work with stricter enforcement measures, including domestic highway checkpoints, the more the crisis continues.

I repeat: A system of immigration controls will never work, no matter what “immigration-reform- plan” is adopted. The only thing that works and will always work is a system based on free markets and free enterprise, which necessarily means the free movements of people back and forth across borders.

Critics often say that we libertarians want to abolish borders. That’s ridiculous. I have no desire to abolish borders. I simply want people to be free to cross them, back and forth.

Consider the domestic United States, which is the biggest open-border region in the world. Every day, people, products, and services cross state and county borders without governmental interference. That obviously doesn’t mean that the borders are abolished or disappear. It means that people are free to cross them, and to send goods and services across them. The borders simply mean that when people and products do cross them, they are in a new political jurisdiction and subject to its laws.


One of the interesting facets of the immigration crisis has occurred in the libertarian movement. Over the years, many disenchanted conservatives have left the conservative movement and joined the libertarian movement. The problem, however, is that many of them have been unable or unwilling to embrace the full libertarian package. Some of them, for example, continue to oppose libertarian positions calling for the full legalization of drugs; the abolition of income taxation and Social Security, Medicare, and other welfare; the dismantling of the national-security establishment; the end of foreign interventionism; the repeal of occupational licensure laws; or the separation of education and the state.

But perhaps the libertarian position that conservative-oriented libertarians have found most difficult to accept after coming into the libertarian movement is the libertarian position favoring open borders. Some of them argue that libertarians should abandon their principles on this issue and join up with progressives and conservatives in their support of a system of immigration controls. In fact, some of them even make the bizarre claim that immigration controls, along with their enforcement measures, are consistent with libertarian principles.

The core principle of libertarianism is what is known as the non-aggression principle. It holds that people have the fundamental right to do whatever they want in life so long as their conduct is peaceful. To put it another way, libertarians hold that it is illegitimate to initiate force or fraud against another person, including murder, rape, burglary, robbery, trespass, or other violent crime.

Every single immigration-enforcement measure involves a violation of the libertarian nonaggression principle. That should provide a valuable clue that conservative-oriented libertarians are off-base when they argue that immigration controls are consistent with libertarian principles. After all, while it is theoretically possible to have a system of immigration controls without law enforcement, as a practical matter, that is a ludicrous notion. Most foreigners are going to ignore an official sign at the border that says “Do not enter without permission” when they know that there is no enforcement of the directive on the sign.

Conservative-oriented libertarians sometimes claim that immigrants violate people’s rights by crossing the border without permission. A close examination of domestic borders shows the fallacy of that position. Imagine that we are driving from Virginia to North Carolina. During our trip, we cross many county borders. When we do so, we are not violating anyone’s rights. The same holds true when we cross the state border. We haven’t violated anyone’s rights.

The principle applies to the crossing of international borders. The simple act of crossing a border, whether it be state, county, or international violates no one’s rights.

Why embrace a system that doesn’t work and cannot work and that inevitably brings crisis, chaos, poverty, suffering, and even death to people? Why not embrace a system that does work, that brings peace, harmony, happiness, and prosperity to people, and that is consistent with how one should treat his fellow man?

This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.