On the Discourse of Immigration


Until quite recently, serious conversation about immigration was all but dismissed from philosophical discourse. However, this consensus of silence imposed by opinion makers who found the topic distasteful or inconvenient was abruptly undone by a number of recent events - including the sudden rise of immigration as a topic in the last U.S. presidential election. In the limelight of this discourse, we find two prominent scholars of philosophy with polar opposite opinions on the matter; Wellman and Abizadeh. Wellman argues that insofar as a state is legitimate, it ought to have the right to close borders to would-be immigrants as it sees fit. Abizadeh argues, in contrast, for a moral right to not be excluded, such that states have no moral right to close their borders to any would-be immigrants without a unilateral democratic justification. The aim of this post is to identify and present each of their arguments, break down the concepts used to support them, and determine how, if at all, they can build upon one another.

Wellman argues that legitimate political states have a right to exclude would-be immigrants on the grounds of a state's right to self-determination and freedom of association. This statement provides a lot to elaborate on, namely Wellman’s criteria for a legitimate political state. For Wellman, a state is legitimate only in so far as “...it adequately respects the human rights of its constituents and respects the rights of all others” (Wellman 16). Meaning that, by virtue of achieving this legitimate status, political states have a right to political self-determination, or the authority of the state to address self-regarding matters as it sees fit. In other words, political states are not entitled to these rights of sovereignty simply by being a de facto state, but rather by adequately performing their political responsibilities. Furthermore, Wellman argues that to violate a state’s right to self-determination is to wrongly fail to give its citizens “...the respect they are owed as a consequence of their collective achievement of upholding a legitimate political institution” (Wellman 25).

Wellman continues his argument by considering immigration as a concern of association. By association, Wellman is referring to the agency individuals have over the different relations one may or may not have with other individuals. Wellman claims that as social agents, we enjoy a certain level of freedom to associate with others as we please. According to Wellman, this right to associate with whomever we desire also includes a right to not associate with whomever we desire not to associate with. Moreover, Wellman holds that a political state’s incidents of association are primarily a concern of the citizens of said state. Thus, the freedom of association is a self-regarding matter under the moral jurisdiction of a state's right of self-determination.

Wellman illustrates this by having the reader imagine a world in which the government can force its constituents into various relationships with others. In this analogy, Wellman points out that intuitively, we believe that it would be wrong for a third party to determine who can marry whom, who will be friends with whom, or who will remain single. This is because, as individuals, we value the agency we have in determining who we will associate with and who we will not associate with. Wellman then claims that, conceptually, this case of individual association is no different from that of the collective association citizens within a political state would have with non-citizens. In other words, for the same reasons we ought to have a say in whom we marry, as citizens of a state we ought to have a say in whom our state may associate with, as such association is at least an indirect relationship with all citizens within the state.

Therefore, according to Wellman, so long as a state is legitimate, which is to say, rights-protecting, it ought to have a right of self-determination. As the right to associate is a self-regarding matter, said legitimate state ought to have a right to determine who can associate with it. Since the right to associate includes the right to not associate, then it follows that legitimate states ought to also have a right to exclude would-be immigrants from associating with their country. So far, Wellman has not argued that all exclusion is justified, but rather that exclusion by itself can be justified.


A substantial concern that arises from this argument is the question of whether or not a state can exclude and be legitimate at the same time. If all individuals have at a moral right to not be subjected to the will of another, then a state that coerces non-citizens through border control might fall short of Wellman’s definition of a legitimate state. In “Democratic Theory and Border Coercion”, Abizadeh illustrates this concern by considering the role of coercion in the context of democratic theory.

Abizadeh argues that, in a democratic state, the use of coercion from the state is only legitimate insofar as it is justified by and to the very people over whom it is exercised (Abizadeh 41). In other words, what allows the state the right to coerce its citizens in a democratic nation is the fact that its citizens have equal control over the state, typically through voting and political representation. This is fundamental to the idea of the social contract we all adhere to, which Abizadeh more generally labels the democratic theory of popular sovereignty. It is important to note that, by putting forward liberal democratic values first, the democratic theory of popular sovereignty covers Wellman’s notion of a legitimate state. Simply put, they differ only in scale, not in principle. In both cases, the use of sovereignty is justified by the ability of the state to represent the values of its constituents. Moreover, a state that fails to adequately represent the values of its constituents also fails to achieve legitimacy in its use of force against said constituents.

In the scope of immigration and border control, it is clear that not only citizens are coerced by the state, but also non-citizens. At least in the sense that if you cross a border without permission, you can be forcibly detained and deported. However, as non-citizens have no avenue for participating in decisions regarding border control, such acts of force against would-be immigrants could not be legitimate. Meaning, unless there is a mutual agreement between all parties affected by a legitimate state’s acts of coercion, such acts are not justified. Furthermore, these acts of injustice demonstrate a failure to “respect the rights of all others” (Wellman 16). By failing to respect the rights of others (in this case, the right to not be coerced by a state other than your own) the state in question thus fails to be legitimate. In other words, by Wellman’s own account, in excluding would-be immigrants without providing the opportunity to vote otherwise, a state ceases to meet the conditions of legitimacy by which it would justify the exclusion in the first place, making such exclusion amoral.

However, this argument too has its own concerns to be dealt with. Namely, whether or not there is such a universal moral right to not be subjected to the will of a state that does not democratically represent you. Without looking too far, we can find situations in which there is no such right, such as if you were to travel to another country as a tourist. In such a situation, you would be expected to abide by the laws of the state in which you are a guest, even though you do not have a right to vote in this state. Furthermore, it is expected that reasonable force would be used against you if you were to break these laws. Clearly, this is an instance in which you are being coerced by a state that does not politically represent you, yet few would object to the state’s right to use force in this case.

There is, however, a distinction to be noted between being a tourist in another country and relocating one’s livelihood to another country. In the former, it is understood that a guest’s stay will be short, typically less than six months. In the latter, a would-be immigrant is moving with hopes of becoming part of the state they are immigrating to. Hopes of building a home of their own, contributing to the community, and becoming part of the political processes that take place within the state they wish to relocate to. It is in this spirit that a state displays its own hypocrisy, if nothing else, when it claims to be free, democratic, and legitimate - while also unilaterally excluding members of the global community who wish to join their effort for common good.


Abizadeh, Arash. “Democratic Theory and Border Coercion.” Global Justice, 15 Nov. 
      2017, pp. 301–329.

Wellman, Christopher Heath. “In Defense of the Right to Exclude.” Debating the Ethics
      of Immigration, 20 Nov. 2011, pp. 13–56.


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