President Trump is poised to issue a new executive order on immigration this week. It’s likely to be less sweeping than the initial ban so it has a better chance at passing legal muster. It will be implemented in the name of national security, but it will likely be based on the same dubious premise as before–that the people being barred, who are mostly Muslim, pose a significant threat to Americans, even if the evidence does not support this.
Still, it must be conceded that the argument behind the immigration ban had a certain plausibility for many Americans. For years, Americans have been told that (some) Muslims just hate the US because of our freedom. If that’s your understanding of what causes terrorism, banning some, or even all, Muslims from coming to the US probably doesn’t appear to be a crazy idea.
The case for restricting immigration from Mexico and securing the southern border of the US rests on a similar argument under Trump. As Trump said early on in his campaign, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” In the Trumpian worldview, it’s not that literally all Muslims or all Mexicans are going to cause harm. But he, and many of his followers, see them as a greater risk than normal. So restricting immigration as a preventative measure seems reasonable.
However, conservatives should be wary of this line of argument. Because when the exact same reasoning is applied in a different context, conservatives will be the most strident objectors.
In particular, consider the case of gun control. Here, the sides are reversed, but the argument is the same. Progressives support increased gun control because some people who buy guns do horrible things with them. No one would argue that all gun buyers are mass murderers or that every gun purchase is made with a nefarious intent. But, progressives would argue, there is a heightened risk that people buying guns could commit harm, so some preventative legislation seems reasonable.
The arguments are mirror images of each other. On immigration, conservatives argue that it is acceptable to restrict the freedom of some people (immigrants and foreign travelers) to increase safety, even though peaceful people will be adversely affected. On gun control, progressives hold that it is acceptable to restrict the freedom of some people (would-be gun buyers and gun owners) to increase safety, even though peaceful people will be adversely affected.
For progressives, this general line of reasoning fits in with their view of politics at large. They often emphasize the collective outcome over the individual, and they are not inherently skeptical of government action.
But this rationale ought to be repulsive to conservatives. It dispenses with any notion of individual liberty and replaces it with the worst sort of collectivism. It justifies expanding government power in order to punish individuals for crimes that were committed by others. This argument holds that people can be judged based on what they might do, not just what they actually have done. Once granted, that kind of power is begging to be abused.
Conservatives should think twice about cosigning on Trump’s immigration policies. The principle at stake here is the same principle at stake in the gun control debate–whether peaceful, law-abiding individuals should lose their freedoms because a few bad people commit atrocities. When it comes to gun control, conservatives usually side with individual liberty. They should be on the same side when it comes to immigration.