Immigration: The Libertarian consensus solution of nullification

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by Thomas R. Eddlem

Despite a lot of acrimony among libertarians (both capital-L party members and lower case-L independent and Republican fellow travelers in the ideology) on the issue of immigration, there’s a ton of agreement:

Libertarians universally agree that people can’t just come to America if they’re going to hang out on someone else’s property without permission. Immigrants need a contract with a landlord, a job offer, or a sponsor who will be financially responsible for the immigrant while he gets himself established. 

Moreover, all libertarians oppose government welfare for immigrants, all the time. 

Welfare for immigrants wasn’t a big problem 20 years ago. Traditionally, immigrants didn’t qualify for welfare at the federal or state levels. And immigrants themselves used fewer tax resources than they contributed in the form of taxation, while their second-generation American-born children were initially net-tax-takers (only, however, until they became successful adults and paid even higher rates of taxes than third-generation-plus Americans).

But with the recent massive expansion of the “refugee” status of immigrants, that demographic of the first two generations of Americans being net-taxpayers (at least compared to 3+ generation Americans in a federal government running massive deficits where every generation is a net-tax-taker) is changing.

In Massachusetts alone, costs of housing refugees is costing taxpayers $1 billion per year, for housing just 7,500 families.

This means the state is paying more than $130,000 per family housed. And it’s costing taxpayers more than $350 for every household in Massachusetts in taxes. And that cost is rising, in part because government-funded NGOs are facilitating more immigration to the United States.

Libertarians also agree that the government shouldn’t be funding those NGOs to increase the waves of immigration to the US.

One of the considerations both sides have to take is the practical impact of backing either the untenable status quo or amping up the federal surveillance state in order to “solve” the problem.

America can’t go further down the road of federal control; Democrats are now talking about “smart border controls” and they don’t mean the Ukrainian-Russian border that some of them say is the US border. They don’t even mean surveillance on the US-Mexican border. They mean to create an internal surveillance state in the United States on American citizens.

Let’s face it, the last time the border hawks coalesced with the federal government on immigration, in 1986, they enacted a law that required (for the first time in American history) US citizens to have identification papers just to work. And it didn’t provide much of a barrier to entry for “illegal” immigrants, if any at all. What Americans see today is the legacy of that Simpson-Mazzoli law (technically, the Immigration Reform and Control Act) passed in 1986. 

The only people who were hurt by Simpson-Mazzoli were the American people, who now have to provide work papers for the first time in US history. And they’re implementing the Real ID on the foundation of that same law, updated to current times. American citizens today need “working papers,” the hallmark of all totalitarian societies, even as immigrants without those working papers have no problem finding work, and suffer no real consequences for forging false identification papers. 

This is a scenario our Founding Fathers would have risen up against.

Libertarians need to learn from this history. The federal government will make a prison of the country before it controls immigration in any meaningful way, and libertarians above all should understand that. 

The end-game – the only real compromise solution – is decentralization by means of nullification. The United States needs to have an open border, and the states need to be empowered to close up their borders to immigrants, or – if they choose – open them to immigrants as sanctuary states. 

Texas needs to be able to put up barriers to waves of immigrants who are causing property damage to people living along the Mexican border. Other states need to be able to provide protections for private property owners who find their property squatted on by foreigners who have been solicited by criminals abroad

Likewise, if Massachusetts wants to remain a “sanctuary state” in defiance of federal “law,” there’s no constitutional crisis there either. The transportation of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and other leftist sanctuary state, an act of political genius by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbot, can not be condemned by libertarians. After all, it’s simply the transportation of immigrants from where they have no jobs or sponsors to a place where they have sanctuary.

It’s incumbent upon us as libertarians to impress the folly of our state welfare policies for immigrants upon the voter-taxpayers. 

The first usurpation

The federal government wasn’t endowed with the enumerated power to control immigration in the US Constitution, and the 9th and 10th amendments prohibit the federal government from exercising this power. Most Americans don’t know that states managed immigration until the federal government took control of the policy in 1892, when it opened up Ellis Island. The federal takeover of immigration policy might be called the federal government’s first permanent usurpation of the US Constitution. 

Before 1892, each state with a port on the sea had its own immigration policy. Most immigrants entered the United States through New York state, the state with the most permissive immigration policy, at Castle Garden in New York Harbor. And New York state’s immigration policies almost mirrored libertarian Hoppean property rights criteria. 

Immigrants arriving at Castle Garden were first given a criminal background check, largely because England and other countries had a policy of “transportation,” allowing convicted criminals to emigrate abroad permanently instead of going straight to jail. Emptying prisons to America was not a novel innovation of the Castro regime in 1979. Criminals were not allowed to even disembark from the boat, and were returned to their country of origin on the same boat in which they had arrived. All libertarians agree that no criminal should be able to use political jurisdictions to run from their crimes. 

Also, immigrants with communicable diseases were quarantined until they were no longer a public health danger.


Lastly, Castle Garden would verify that the new immigrant had a means of support and wouldn’t become a public burden. Only immigrants who had either (1) a job offer from an employer, (2) a US citizen sponsor who would be financially responsible for the immigrant or (3) at least $50 cash – which was then enough for a poor man to live on for a month – to get started in society were allowed to immigrate into New York.

In practice, only two-to-three percent of would-be immigrants were refused entry through Castle Garden.

When the federal government usurped immigration policy in 1892, they initially copied the Castle Garden system in place from 1820-91, except with a ban on immigration from China (officially enacted in 1882). But by the 1920s the federal government settled on national quotas favoring white northern European nations. 

The culture warriors of the right fret about the Democratic Party’s “replacement theory” plan to import enough migrants voters to take control of the federal government. There’s no debate that this is the deliberate plan of some Democrats. They’ve boasted of it.

The problem is that the replacement theory doesn’t work. If immigrants brought their home culture here to America, as some conservative theorists have posited, Miami would be the most pro-communist part of America because of all its Cuban immigrants. As it happens, it’s probably the most anti-communist real estate in America for decades. That’s because immigration always brings a strong selection-bias; immigrants for the most part vote against the policies of their home country with their feet. 

I live in metro-Boston, in the wake of a wave of immigrants who refuse to assimilate. They built their own churches and schools by segregating themselves, hang their foreign flag over just about every bar in Boston, take over the city streets every March 17 with their drunken depravity, and even named the local NBA franchise after their race.

No worries there.

There is a solution on immigration, and it’s the same solution as on other issues.

Decentralization is the solution. Decentralization is liberty.

Thomas R. Eddlem is the treasurer of the Massachusetts Libertarian Party and a freelance writer published by more than 20 periodicals and websites, including the Ron Paul Institute, the Future of Freedom Foundation, the Libertarian Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, The New American, and LewRockwell.com.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the Massachusetts Libertarian Party as a whole. 

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