Don’t Build That Wall

Don’t Build That Wall

Leaving The Door Open For Open Borders In The United States

By Professor Christopher Freiman (College of William & Mary)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Donald Trump wants to build a wall. More specifically, he wants to build “an impenetrable physical wall on the southern border” to restrict immigrants’ entry into the United States.[1] Trump argues that closing the border will create more jobs and higher wages for Americans, particularly poorer Americans. He also has spoken in favor of screening prospective immigrants to see whether they “share our values and respect our people.” [2]

There are powerful economic arguments against Trump’s plan and even stronger ethical arguments. Immigration makes America richer, not poorer. And even if it didn’t, the U.S. government would still be wrong to forcibly prevent immigrants from working toward a better life in America.

To start, it’s simply not the case that immigrants hurt the economies of countries that receive them. One reason why people think that immigration is bad for Americans is because immigrants compete with citizens for work. Just as competition between McDonald’s and Burger King drives down the price of burgers, competition between workers drives down the price of labor—that is, wages.

But this isn’t the end of the story. For one, immigrants don’t just increase the supply of labor; they increase the demand for it as well. Immigrants work for the same reason as anyone else: to buy stuff. As a result, they increase the demand for the labor that produces that stuff. An immigrant mechanic who spends some of her wages at Starbucks adds to the demand for baristas. So she creates opportunities for American baristas while she competes with American mechanics.

Moreover, the extent to which immigrants and native-born workers are in direct competition with each other is probably overstated. Immigrants often have different skill sets than native workers. To take the simplest example, immigrants will tend to have less familiarity with the native language and local customs, which will give native workers an advantage in competitions for jobs that require this sort of familiarity.[3] Indeed, recent studies suggest that increased immigration causes a modest long-term increase in the real wages of the average domestic worker.[4] Harvard economist Lant Pritchett estimates that a 3 percent rise in the immigrant labor force would produce a gain of $51 billion for residents of wealthy destination countries.[5]

Of course, even if open borders benefit Americans on average, particular Americans might suffer. Most notably, there is evidence that immigration causes a roughly 5 percent drop in the wages of those lower-skilled native-born workers who directly compete with immigrant workers.[6] If the U.S. government should prioritize the interests of its own citizens—particularly its poorer citizens—above those of immigrants, then perhaps it should restrict immigration.

But even if Americans have special moral obligations to help other Americans, there are limits. I have special moral obligations to my daughter, but I’m obligated to drive a dying stranger to the hospital even if it means my daughter misses her piano lesson. The harm my daughter suffers due to missing her lesson is far smaller than the harm that stranger would suffer due to inadequate medical attention.

The same point holds for our obligations to fellow citizens. Suppose you’ve picked up an American hitchhiker because you were both on your way to the same baseball game. As you’re driving him to the ballpark, you notice another man bleeding profusely by the side of the road. When you pull over, he asks if you can drive him to the hospital. You’re inclined to say “yes,” but you pause to ask him his nationality. He replies that he’s Greek, and so you drive on and watch the game. It’s clear you acted wrongly here. Even if you owe more to your fellow Americans than to Greeks in general, your special obligation is outweighed in this case because the ride is worth so much more to the Greek than the American.

Here’s why this matters. Even poor Americans are richer than the global poor. The 2nd percentile of income in the U.S. is in the 62nd percentile worldwide.[7] Open borders benefit the global poor significantly more than they harm lower-skilled American workers. Suppose the estimate above is correct and immigration restriction would make lower-skilled American workers about 5% richer. By contrast, as economist Michael Clemens writes, “Migrants from developing countries to the United States typically raise their real living standards by hundreds of percent, and by over 1,000 percent for the poorest people from the poorest countries.”[8] So even if the wages of relatively poor Americans decline due to competition from immigrant workers, the gains to those immigrant workers will be great enough to justify it.

Maybe you’re still unconvinced. Maybe you think we have few, if any, positive moral obligations to foreigners—that is, obligations to actively help them. So Americans are under no obligation to set back the interests of their fellow citizens to help out foreigners. Still, we surely have negative obligations to foreigners—that is, obligations to not harm them. Suppose you’re in an airport food court when you notice that the pizza place only has one slice of it left. The person at the front of the line happens to be Greek, with a hungry American behind her. You leap into action and threaten to shove the Greek out of the line if she doesn’t leave willingly. Why? Because you want to eliminate the American’s competition for that last slice. Needless to say, you acted wrongly. Just because someone isn’t an American citizen doesn’t mean that you may threaten to physically force her out of the way to enrich your fellow Americans.

Notice that when the U.S. government restricts immigration, it doesn’t simply ask immigrants to remain out of the country. It builds walls on the border and empowers guards with guns to arrest those who cross it. In short, border controls employ coercion and the threat of coercion to stop would-be immigrants from competing with American workers. But insulating Americans from foreign competition isn’t adequate justification for threatening foreigners with physical force.

It could be the case that immigrants don’t have the right to enter the United States, at least not without the approval of its current citizens. Countries are often analogized to clubs. A club has the right to deny membership to applicants. If the free masons don’t want me to join their group, they don’t have to let me join. What’s more, they can hire security guards to forcibly eject me if I enter one of their meetings. Similarly, if Americans don’t want immigrants joining their country, they don’t have to let them. And they can employ guards to enforce this restriction just as the free masons can.

This view looks plausible at first glance but it suffers from a big problem. How should the United States determine who gets citizenship and who doesn’t? As things stand, someone who is born one inch north of the Texas-Mexico border gets lifetime “membership” but someone who is born one inch south doesn’t. But what is the moral justification for this distinction? After all, this is a distinction that makes a serious difference: an American worker earns over twice as much as a comparable worker in Mexico.[9] So the American government needs a powerful reason to justify excluding the person born an inch south of the border from its labor market.

At first glance at least, it seems unfair that whether you receive citizenship and all of the benefits that come with it is determined by which side of the line—i.e., the border—you fall on. That is, the only reason why the Texan gets access to the American labor market but not the Mexican is because they are on one side of the line and not the other. But a person’s position relative to a line isn’t a good reason to forcibly deprive him of the chance to more than double his lifetime income.

To see why, imagine that you return to work from your lunch break and find that your boss drew a line down the middle of your office. She announces that everyone to the left of the line will be allowed to compete for a very lucrative promotion but no one to the right of the line will be eligible. This isn’t a fair way of distributing employment opportunities. It’s arbitrary: whether you get the opportunity to advance doesn’t depend on your merit or your potential; instead, it depends on a characteristic of yours that’s totally irrelevant.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “It’s not that the position of people relative to the border matters in itself; it’s that people on the American side share certain characteristics that are morally important.” Many philosophers think that partiality toward our fellow citizens is justified on the grounds that we speak the same language, practice the same moral code, and follow the same culture norms. Indeed, Trump has even floated the idea of an “ideological screening test,” such that we admit only immigrants “who share our values and respect our people.” [10]

The reason why this argument doesn’t work is because plenty of American citizens don’t share conventionally American values (even if there were a single, monolithic “American” culture, which there probably isn’t). Consider the case of Morty. Morty was born in Texas and still lives there. But he speaks Esperanto, reveres Mussolini, and hates The Simpsons. In short, Morty doesn’t speak the language typical of Americans, adhere to the politics typical of Americans, or enjoy the culture that most Americans enjoy. So if we’re entitled to the benefits of American citizenship in virtue of sharing conventionally American values, then Morty should be excluded from citizenship. But Morty is entitled to the benefits of American citizenship. Unless we think his citizenship should be revoked, we have to reject “shared values” as the criterion for membership in our political community. Since Morty gets membership, it looks like arbitrary discrimination to deny immigrants membership on the ground that they don’t share typical American values.

The same goes for other arguments for restricting immigration. Maybe you object to opening the border because you think that immigrants will consume more in government services than they’ll pay into the system through taxes. Setting aside the empirical objections to this claim (the evidence suggests that immigrants are a net fiscal benefit)[11], it doesn’t fare any better than the values argument. Let’s check in with Morty again. As chance—or rather, philosophical stipulation—would have it, Morty consumes more in government services than he paid into the system in taxes. He worked for a low wage as a cashier at McDonalds and so he never paid much in taxes. Now he is retired and living on Social Security and Medicaid. Morty remains entitled to the benefits of American citizenship despite being a “net tax consumer.”

Here’s a variation on the club analogy that looks promising. One reason why you might be entitled to the perks of club membership is because you pay for them. That is, you pay dues. Similarly, citizens pay taxes and foreigners don’t. So denying foreigners access to the perks of citizenship isn’t arbitrary discrimination. The trouble is, Morty’s friend Rick—also a Texan—has never paid taxes and he still gets into the club.

Maybe the United States is more like a co-op where everyone needs to take a turn doing certain jobs to earn their keep. You have to make a contribution. Along these lines, citizens contribute to the functioning of a political community through voting, running for office, and so on. Foreigners haven’t made these sorts of contributions. By now, you probably know where I’m heading—Morty doesn’t vote. Indeed, he has never made any sort of political contribution whatsoever. But he still gets the full rewards of citizenship.

Here’s the takeaway. Granting one person access to a wide array of benefits and opportunities that are denied to another person simply because of their different positions relative to a line amounts to arbitrary discrimination. Using that criterion is no less arbitrary than refusing to hire blonde mechanics. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Morty should be stripped of his citizenship and denied access to the American labor market. On the contrary, my point is that he shouldn’t need special qualifications to seek out work, buy a home, and start a family in the United States—but neither should anyone else. In short, closing the border is a policy that takes unethical means to a destructive end. Trump’s plan is indefensible on economic or moral grounds.

Footnotes & References



[3] Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri, “Rethinking the Effect of Immigration on Wages,” Journal of the European Economic Association 10 (2012): 152-197.

[4] See, e.g., Giovanni Peri, “The Effect of Immigration on Productivity: Evidence from U.S. States,” Review of Economics and Statistics 94 (2012): 348–358; Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, “Task Specialization, Immigration, and Wages.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1 (2009): 135–69; Christian Dustmann, Tommaso Frattini, and Ian Preston, “The Effect of Immigration Along the Distribution of Wages,” Review of Economic Studies 80 (2013): 145–173.

[5] Lant Pritchett, Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility (Washington DC: Center for Global Development, 2006), 3-4.

[6] National Research Council, Panel on the Demographic and Economic Impacts of Immigration, The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, James Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds. (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 1997), 7; Ottaviano and Peri 2012, 191.


[8] Michael Clemens, “The Biggest Idea in Development That No One Really Tried,” The Annual Proceedings of the Wealth and Well-Being of Nations, edited by Emily Chamlee-Wright. Beloit, WI: Beloit College Press, 2010, 25-50, 29.

[9] Michael Clemens, Claudio E. Montenegro & Lant Pritchett, “The Place Premium: Wage Differences For Identical Workers Across The U.S. Border.” Center for Global Development. Working Paper #148 (2008), 11.


[11] National Research Council, Panel on the Demographic and Economic Impacts of Immigration, The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, James Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds. (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 1997).

Christopher Freiman
Christopher Freiman
Christopher Freiman is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of William & Mary. He is a graduate of Duke University (B.A. in Philosophy) and the University of Arizona (M.A., Ph.D. in Philosophy). His research interests include democratic theory, distributive justice, and immigration. Freiman’s forthcoming book, Unequivocal Justice, criticizes the role of idealization in contemporary political philosophy. His work has appeared in venues such as the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. His website is and he blogs at
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