Can Restricting Immigration To Protect Culture Be Justified?



One common and persistent objection to increasing immigration is an appeal to the protection of a society’s culture. Letting more immigrants into a country, according to the cultural objection, would have the undesired effect of changing the cultural landscape and social customs of the destination country. Implicit in this view is an inherent right of natives to the preservation of their own cultures.

Is restricting immigration on cultural grounds justified? I argue that the answer is no. To see why, consider the popular Starving Marvin parable by the libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer.

In the parable, two scenarios are considered. In the first, Marvin is starving, malnourished, and in need of food. Through my refusal to share my food with Marvin, he dies. One might say that such an act was morally questionable, but certainly less morally culpable than actively murdering Marvin. Now consider the second case.

In the second scenario, Marvin seeks to enter a busy marketplace to look for food. This time, I stand in his way and demand that he leaves, on the justification that his presence alters the economic conditions of the marketplace in a way that hurts the locals, or that his cultural beliefs will shape the culture of the marketplace differently. Again, Marvin starves to death.

What is the difference between both scenarios? In the first, Marvin’s death is the consequence of me turning a blind eye and failing to act. In the second case however, not only do I fail to assist Marvin, I actively take an extra step to threaten him with violence and restrict his freedom of movement. By doing so, I deprive him of the opportunity to save himself from starvation and subsequently death. In other words, I may not be responsible for Marvin’s original circumstances, but I have undoubtedly caused his death in the second, and surely be said to have played an active hand in killing him.

The Starving Marvin parable parallels the realities of modern day state immigration policies. Immigrants from poor nations who wish to pursue better economic opportunities in rich nations are forcibly restricted from doing so. Rich, developed nations cannot be said to be responsible for conditions of abject poverty in the developing world. However, its immigration policies restricts the fundamental liberty of movement of the poorest of the world from pursuing a better economic destiny. As a result, the poorest in the world are trapped in their place of birth with nowhere to go.

Can immigration restrictions then be justified on the grounds that natives have a right to maintaining their cultures and way of life?

Clearly not. Just as it is not permissible to use force and restrict Marvin because he may influence the culture of the marketplace differently, it’s unclear why restrictive government immigration laws can be justified on the grounds of protecting cultures.

Even if one would concede that certain cultures should be protected, the logic of this argument if taken to its logical extensions could be conveniently equipped to justify all forms of government protectionism in the name of ‘culture protection’. To what regulatory lengths should a state go to in order to restrict such cultural influence? For instance, the influx of Western Hollywood media into the rest of the world has undoubtedly transferred cultural attitudes that has had large impacts on social issues such as gender equality and women liberation, LGBT marriage or the legalisation of drugs. Are we to restrict all Western media products then? If a ban could be justified for international media, should the state go after food cuisines, fashion clothing and literature next?

Cultural beliefs are simply ideas. As such, it can be said that the cultural objection to immigration is essentially a state-enforced effort to police ideas. If ideas cannot flow freely, then such a society cannot be said to be free. Protecting a society’s culture by restricting culturally different people is simply to impede different ideas while favouring existing ones.

Furthermore, while it is undeniably true that immigrants influence the cultures of the area that they settle in, it is not at all evident why that is necessarily undesirable. Even homogeneous societies are comprised of individuals who value and want different forms and extent of immigration. As Chandran Kukathas explains,

… many societies have experienced significant cultural or social transformations and not only survived but prospered. The United States in the nineteenth century welcomed immigrants from all over the world, incorporated large parts of what was once Mexico into its territory, overturned a three-century old tradition of slavery and yet began the twentieth century a prosperous and vibrant democracy. Canada and Australia have seen their societies transformed by postwar immigration into multicultural polities, while continuing to enjoy economic growth and social stability.

Cultural concerns should not be overestimated. But nor should these concerns be discounted. Even the most grievous cultural concerns however, does not merit a position anywhere remotely close to the current state of modern immigration policy where migrants make up less than 4% of the world’s population, while a Gallup poll tells us more than a billion wish to seek employment abroad.

In other words, there is room for increasing immigration quotas, or to opt for keyhole solutions like imposing literacy, language or cultural tests on immigrants – even after taking the most serious cultural concerns into consideration. Defaulting on an anti-immigration stance like that of many right-wing populist political platforms is to take a needlessly extreme position to a problem of disproportionate weight.

As of 2018, at least 600 million of the world’s population remain in poverty. For most of them, simply immigrating into the developed world would mean a better life for their family members and themselves. To forbid them from immigration is to subject them to a life of dire poverty and impoverishment where most of their human potentials will go unfulfilled.

It is exceedingly easy for us who were fortunate enough to be born in the First World to adopt anti-immigration views when we have already have an abundance of food, sanitary water and easy access to high-quality healthcare. For the rest of the world who have lost this lottery of birth however, immigration remains a moral imperative.

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