A leading argument in favour of a liberal democratic state’s right to restrict immigration is its right to self-determination. This refers to the right “to determine its own destiny” with regards to the political, economic, and social development of its society. It draws on the liberal “freedom of association;” the right of the individual to choose associates, such as whom ones’ friends are, or whom one marries. In a similar vein, American philosopher Christopher Heath Wellman writes that “a group of fellow-citizens has a right to determine whom (if anyone) it would like to invite into its political community.” 

The logic here is that, just as administering control over the people that you associate with in your private life is considered an important element of well-being, freedom of association at the state-level is important too. Typically, this is voiced in cultural terms: that to maintain the health of the state, admitted immigrants must preserve the state’s “cultural identity.” This concept is usually understood as the community’s dominant languages, ethnicities, ideologies, and values. The argument states that by preserving these characteristics, people enjoy a “social solidarity” that facilitates commitment, cooperation, trust, and a well-functioning democracy. 

This “right to self determination” argument, therefore, operates on two assumptions: that the right of individuals to choose their associates in their private lives is a valid criteria for a state to adopt a discriminatory immigration policy, and that promoting a homogenous national ‘cultural identity’ is a legitimate means to protecting the ‘health’ of that state. These assumptions, however, are misguided.

In liberal societies, the freedom of association is well protected as a private right of individuals and as a collective right. A group of people — such as a trade union, for example — has the collective right to limit its membership according to its own interests. The ‘right to self determination’ argument, therefore, correctly suggests that a national populace acts as a group which can make decisions about who may or may not join. 

The way a collective group exercises its freedom of association, however, has limits that individuals do not. In practice, the collective freedom of association is curtailed when it is seen as interfering with the principle of social equality, or as described in Canadian law, when a groups’ activities “are aimed at enhancing social imbalances.” In other words: when a group’s refusal to associate amounts to marginalization. The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited institutions like schools and businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, is an example of a justified restriction of a group’s freedom of association in the interest of promoting social equality.

This suggests limits to the ability of a state to use freedom of association to justify a discriminatory immigration policy. When a state only admits immigrants of a certain ‘cultural identity’ — a certain race, ethnicity, language — it is questionable that it is adhering to standards of social equality. Rather, it would appear that the result would be to enhance social imbalances within the population. To consolidate the presence of one dominant ‘cultural identity’ results in the marginalization of those who do not belong to that identity. 

Of course, the belief that the preservation of a state’s dominant ‘cultural identity’ ought to be the primary goal of immigration policy is, itself, dubious. As mentioned, this belief is tied to the conception that cultural homogeneity in a population leads to a “social cohesion” that is necessary for a healthy democracy. While it is true that a functioning democracy depends on cooperation between its members, it is not necessarily true that they all should share the same identity. 

Rather, the school of democratic pluralism suggests the opposite: that the principle goal of a democratic system is to guarantee the protection of a multitude of interests and identities within a society. To suggest that the ‘ideal’ democratic polity ought to be “unitary and undifferentiated” with regards to interests and identity is to fail to appreciate this fact. Democracy is a political arrangement that seeks to create conditions where different groups and individuals can pursue their interests in tandem, and without obstruction. It presupposes that the interests and identities within a society are heterogenous, and that this condition is desirable. 

From this standpoint, any action that has the goal of diminishing the plurality of interests and identities within a society — and instead homogenizing them into one, dominant cultural identity — impedes the ability of a state to be democratic. It is antithetical, then, to suppose that an immigration policy with this goal would be an act to strengthen the health of a democratic state. 

This, in turn, draws the second limit to the usage of the “self-determination” argument as a justification for discriminatory immigration policies. While these policies have limited justification in terms of freedom of association because they threaten social equality, they also undermine pluralism, which weakens democracy. Discriminatory immigration policy as a form of self-determination, therefore, is not only legally suspect, but functionally self-defeating. 

Edited by Neelesh Thakur

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by Elias Castillo and obtained via Unsplash.