Are open borders the most ethical approach to immigration?

David Miller’s book doesn’t offer policy solutions. It does help us think clearly.

How to keep balanced on an issue like immigration? At one extreme, some want to build walls and exclude Muslims. At the other, generous souls (many of them Chris­tians) would extend unconditional welcome for unlimited numbers of uninvited arrivals. Is there a moral position between these two views—a position that would treat with dignity, compassion, and generosity those who seek to live in our country but would also honor a nation’s need to control its borders and reasonably limit immigrant flows? David Miller thinks so.

Miller, a careful philosopher and professor of political theory at Oxford University, begins by asking the fundamental questions: Why does a nation have a moral right to exclude anyone who wants to enter? If all human life is of equal worth, why should one’s fellow citizens matter more than “strangers” who want to enter and join the nation?

While Miller respects the strong cosmopolitanism that motivates such questions, he eventually settles on what he calls a “weak cosmopolitanism,” in which a nation is morally justified in limiting entry in accordance with the interests and wishes of its citizens, subject to two requirements: (1) that adequate provision be made for admitting genuine political refugees, and (2) as to non-refugees, that reasons must be given (subject to public debate) when exclusion is necessary. This stance, he contends, meets the minimum standard of justice; more expansive policies of entry may be desirable on humanitarian grounds but are not required by justice.