Refugees and the Humanitarians’ Dilemma

Refugees

The doctrine of humanity’s original, common ownership of the earth was a staple of natural rights philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These philosophers greatly influenced the natural rights philosophy of America’s founding generation, a philosophy which the founders articulated, among other places, in the Declaration of Independence. I’ve mused this last week on the arguments of one of these natural rights theorists, Hugo Grotius. Grotius devotes a great deal of attention to how (in his view) the original state of humanity’s common ownership of the earth continues to influence just claims even after the rise of nations and private property.

Of special interest given current events are Grotius’s arguments on the implications of the original condition for immigration and refugees. Earlier I considered Grotius’s argument that a nation must allow immigrants to claim “waste or barren land” in a country as a matter of right. But barren, unused land was not the only condition under which Grotius would require a nation to admit immigrants as a matter of (natural) right. Perhaps even closer to current events is Grotius’s discussion of “necessity” as a condition conferring a right to immigrate into other countries.

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What Do We Hold in Common?

3d earth

Nineteenth-Century Americans associated with the nativist American Party (a.k.a., “Know Nothings”) proposed extended probationary periods before immigrants could apply for U.S. citizenship. They also forwarded other policies aimed to press the assimilation of (mainly) Catholic immigrants, or at least to mold immigrant behavior to conform with the predominant scruples of American Protestants. (Some latitude was allowed German Lutherans, particularly with respect to temperance.) While nativist, however, the Know Nothing movement did not broadly advocate restrictions on immigration. I wondered in a prior post whether the Americanism of the American Party, namely, a commitment to the natural-rights position of humanity’s common ownership of the earth (consistent with the natural rights philosophy articulated in the Declaration of Independence at the nation’s founding), channeled their energies toward assimilation and away from restrictions.

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Limits on Limiting Immigration

While styled as an anti-immigrant movement, according to historian Tyler G. Anbinder in his book, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, the American Party (the “Know Nothings”) of the 1850s did not widely advocate laws that would cap the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. Rather, they channeled their anti-immigrant sentiments most directly into policies that would delay citizenship for new immigrants for a number of years (and sometimes even for decades). The delay aimed to provide time to insure a measure of assimilation for new residents prior to citizenship. (Policies also…

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