Acton Commentary

Migration Rights, Natural Law, and the Free Society


Freedom is an ideal long valued by citizens of the United States. By the very nature of the founding of the United States, the right to act freely is recognized and celebrated. Though their views were steeped in intellect and morality, many of the Founding Fathers embraced the concept of natural law when organizing the precepts of this nation. Natural law states that all men have certain rights endowed by God, their creator; it relates not only to American citizens but to all humans on God’s Earth.

Writers of positive law recently took steps to recognize the right to migrate as granted by natural law: the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000 was signed into law last month. Among other provisions this act increases the annual number of nonimmigrant H-1B visas, which grant temporary residence for those with Masters degrees or higher, for 2000-2002 by 195,000. In other words, more highly skilled people who desire to work in the U.S. will be allowed to do so.

From a moral perspective, the freedom of movement is a right all should be afforded in order to improve economic, political, and spiritual situations for the family. As Pope John Paul II explains in the encyclical letter Laborem Exercens , “Man has the right to leave his native land for various motives and also the right to return in order to seek better conditions of life in another country.” Why should a family be kept out of a country that offers better hopes for raising a family? Is that not the reason America was first settled?

As history has shown, the reasons for migration often exceed those of economic benefit (though these benefits should not be discounted). Some of America's earliest settlers traveled across the sea to avoid religious persecution. While the American Competitiveness Act does not directly address issues of faith, it does allow more people into the U.S. where they can benefit from many freedoms like the freedom to worship. Thus, loosening of migration restrictions contributes to the freedom and prosperity of families, as described by American Enterprise Institute . It seems contrary to the economic well-being of Americans to deny these educated, motivated, and hard working people access to jobs that technology firms are having trouble filling with homegrown workers.

Those opposed to increasing the number of H-1B visas, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform , argue that citizen workers are harmed by immigration because foreign workers tend to accept lower wages. In general, though, government controls on the economy (such as price floors like the minimum wage, which creates a surplus in the labor force) hurt homegrown workers more than immigration does. If the labor market were allowed to operate freely, wages and compensation packages would increase for jobs that are in high demand, despite the infusion of immigrants.

Even so, FAIR's demands seem rather unfounded considering the high-tech job shortage. Jobs that garner higher wages will grow in demand, prompting many people to pursue careers in those fields. More immigrants currently are entering these fields. Firms should not be required to incur greater costs to train a certain segment of the workforce when qualified potential employees are waiting for the freedom to fill those jobs. If such requirements are made on companies, an incentive is created to locate future sites outside of American borders. Thus, a free market in human capital, like the free market in material goods, is the most efficient institution for advancing human welfare in this country.

With the passage of this act U.S. lawmakers have, to a small degree, embraced migration rights as affirmed by natural law. When it comes to the question of migration rights, it is easy to see from both a moral and practical perspective that freedom and virtue are the best policies.

The Founding Fathers called this the land of opportunity. And by affording that opportunity to more people, the country prospers.