Immigration Control: Is the Price Worth Paying?

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What consequences does immigration control have for our freedom? This question becomes even more apposite when states invoke citizens’ rights to justify immigration control. Immigration, so understood, constitutes a threat to the citizenry if not strictly regulated. That states often discriminate between citizens and non-citizens — apropos of movement across borders, access to essential services, and the right to shape state policies — is deemed justified by many, even by some pro-immigration academics. However, as Chandran Kukathas argues, this first requires distinguishing between citizens and immigrants — hardly a straightforward task and accomplished only after a substantial loss of freedom for both groups.

In his book Immigration and Freedom, Chandran Kukathas makes the right to freedom his fundamental concern. He investigates what repercussions immigration control has for not just immigrants but also citizens in terms of their freedom, for controlling the movements of the former requires controlling that of the latter.1 Today, governments seldom limit immigration control to state borders but increasingly deploy it to shape even the most mundane interactions between insiders and outsiders, curtailing the freedom of both groups thus. As Kukathas points out, citizens are nowadays vested with the responsibilities of immigration officials: teachers are required to report their undocumented pupils, doctors their undocumented patients.2 For the author, immigration control exacts an enormous price from both citizens and non-citizens for negligible gains, and its intrusion into private and commercial lives risks the militarisation of public life by replacing law and politics with regulations and police.3

Chapters in the book’s first part shed light on the nature of immigration, the dangers immigration control poses for freedom and how it undermines the rule of law and the ideal of equality. The author finds immigration a contested concept because an immigrant is not a natural kind with specific characteristics but a normative notion. In the same vein, while migration is a naturally occurring phenomenon, immigration is artificial, for it cannot be understood without borders, and since borders are drawn arbitrarily, they, too, are artificial.4 Equally complicated is defining a national, as Kukathas aptly observes. Not only can states deny citizenship status to a native-born and grant one to a foreign-born, but changes in the law may turn a national into an immigrant and vice versa overnight.5

Kukathas points out the consequences of states pushing their frontier checkpoints outwards and outwards to secure their sovereignty. When pushed outwards, they violate the sovereignty of other nations, as in Calais. Pushed inwards, as in the Schengen hinterlands, they infringe on the freedom of both locals and travellers.6 To deter undocumented immigrants from participating in civic and economic life, governments are increasingly introducing surveillance mechanisms and regulations that demand strict compliance from citizens: employers are barred from hiring labourers, individuals are stopped from starting families, and families are torn apart.7

Kukathas persuasively argues that preventing employers from exploiting undocumented labourers requires abolishing anti-immigration labour laws since these very laws designate them as illegal — making exploitation possible.8 He notices an eerie parallel between apartheid South Africa and the West, where the latter’s immigration policy is inspired by that of the former. Like apartheid South Africa, which exploited its black labour force without compromising its white population’s privileges, Western governments attempt to strike a balance between the need to maintain a steady supply of labour to keep the machines running and a hierarchy of privilege between natives and immigrants in accessing state resources.9

The author observes that despite pouring millions into curbing the inflow of immigrants, governments fall short of their targets as the rule of law often stands in the way.10 Immigration policies are shaped by fearmongering and arbitrariness without accountability — bringing them into conflict with the rule of law that upholds equality and generality.11 Any strict immigration policy undermines the rule of law by changing the law’s contents, restricting institutional capacity to monitor the law’s implementation, and often violating the law outright.12

Furthermore, as a selection procedure, immigration control violates human rights when selection is based on race.13 By drawing attention to the virginity test in the UK to which South Asian women were subjected, Kukathas lays bare how immigration control upholds patriarchal understandings of sex and gender.14 He invokes Hayek to contend that effective control will ultimately require transforming people’s consciousness, subordinating law to social control, and normalising arbitrariness and inequality.15


Kukathas wants us to seriously contemplate how the promise of an easier, happier life has accustomed us to being constantly monitored by the state, how we have become used to migrants being hounded down and asks whether the price is worth paying when it’s paid by our indifference to the freedom we have lost.

Kukathas anticipates a few objections to his argument and responds to them in the second part of his book. He investigates the merit of counterarguments that, in part, find his claim of immigration control undermining freedom and equality exaggerated and, in part, view the restrictions on both as justified, even necessary, when considerations of economy, culture, and national self-determination are taken into account. Kukathas considers the widely propagated claim that immigration control protects the host economy in his chapter on economy. He adduces a number of studies to highlight that immigration only benefits the host economy, both in the short and the long term.16

In particular, he examines George J Borjas’s claim that the net gains made by removing restrictions on immigration are negligible as billions of immigrants are required to make gains that amount to trillions — an improbable scenario.17Kukathas, however, points out that those who immigrate to wealthier nations experience improvements in their economic circumstances, which is by no means negligible, and immigrant labour adds more producers and consumers to the market and channels resources from non-market to market employment.18 Because immigrants improve their economic well-being through work, they leave their native counterparts better off, allaying any fear about unjust wealth distribution.19

The author finds no evidence that immigrant workers undermine native labourers’ well-being by lowering wages. Local workers are not particularly keen on working in certain jobs like crop picking — mainly performed by immigrant workers — nor do they reap benefits when technology replaces immigrant labour.20 By contrast, innovation-driven economic growth stalls if immigration is tightly controlled, as seen in the case of Japan, which has recently reversed its highly restrictive immigration policy to attract more foreign workers.21 Kukathas meticulously engages with concerns about immigration’s impact on fiscal policy, the provision of public goods and services and the environment, behavioural norms, and legal and political institutions and shows how they are based on faulty assumptions.22 As he shows, immigration control is a costly endeavour with direct and indirect costs, and its costs outweigh the benefits it brings in any cost-benefit analysis.23

In the chapter on culture, Kukathas examines the cultural argument against immigration that justifies immigration control in order to protect national languages and cultures. He finds that culture could be of value in two ways. In the first conception of the value of culture, which Kukathas calls the collective conception, culture is not set in stone, for its value is dependent on whether it serves the interests of the people who practice it, and when interests change, so does a culture to retain its appeal.24 In the second conception, the corporate conception, a culture is of value even when it no longer serves the interests of its practitioners, and its loss should evoke regret.25

Immigration poses little threat to national culture if its value is understood by the collective conception since culture will not remain static even without immigration.26 If a culture’s value is understood by the corporate conception, it is still unclear why every culture must be preserved. Certain cultures aren’t worth preserving. As Kukathas shows, the world is better off without certain cultural practices — slavery is one prime example.27 Furthermore, if it’s about arresting the transformation of a culture, immigration control seems ill-suited for this purpose, as not only do people cross borders but so do corporations, ideas, and practices.28

The chapter on state shifts attention to the right regularly put forward to restrict immigration — namely, a political community’s right to national self-determination. Kukathas considers the different arguments advanced in support of this right. He finds they share a common understanding of a political community with three critical dimensions: an ancestral collective effort to sustain the community, attachment to the land, and a sense of national solidarity.29 By engaging with each of these dimensions, Kukathas shows how they fail to support a defensible understanding of any political community that can exercise self-determination through immigration control. Distinguishing a political community by appealing to its collective history is problematic, considering that national histories are constructed through selective inclusion and omission and distortion of facts and events to serve the interests of particular persons.30

No less problematic is the claim of attachment to the land, especially when it is argued that a particular people own a territory because they have made it prosperous through their hard work. Given that states are not closed, autonomous systems and, instead, rely heavily on international cooperation to sustain themselves, Kukathas finds this claim untenable.31 Equally problematic is any suggestion that a state is bound by a common political project, where people attach themselves to a national group identity. Even though people like to join groups, this doesn’t suggest that some people naturally belong to a particular group, that people always join a group for important and not trivial reasons, or that it is not possible for others to manipulate them into joining a group.32

The final chapter is on freedom and investigates what it means to be controlled and why the loss of freedom matters. People are controlled in two ways: the first is overt, where spaces are regulated by specifying who can access them; the second is more subtle, where people’s consciousness is transformed by inducing them to behave in particular ways.33 By invoking Hayek once again, the author reminds us that in a controlled society, people are not only complicit in the crimes committed by the authorities but also lose the liberty to recognise their complicity.34 This has monumental implications for freedom, for, as the author argues, to be free is to be an agent of a certain kind: to judge and reflect on our actions and circumstance and to resist any constraints we find unjust.35 Kukathas wants us to seriously contemplate how the promise of an easier, happier life has accustomed us to being constantly monitored by the state, how we have become used to migrants being hounded down and asks whether the price is worth paying when it’s paid by our indifference to the freedom we have lost.36

Kukathas’s book is an exhaustive critique of immigration control and the dangers it poses to our freedom. The breadth of immigration-related issues it covers and its detailed engagement with anti-immigration rhetoric make it an indispensable read on the subject, even if it is not best suited for impatient readers. The most crucial idea Kukathas advances in his book and defends so eloquently is that membership, as an ideal, endangers our freedom, for it divides us between insiders and outsiders, and if we are to live freely, we must engage with and treat one another as fellow human beings.



Chandran Kukathas:

Professor Chandran Kukathas is Dean and Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Political Science at School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. He was Head, Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) from 2015 to 2019. He has authored / co-authored several books, including The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and FreedomRawls: A Theory of Justice and Its Critics (with Philip Pettit); Hayek and Modern LiberalismThe Australian Political System (with David Lovell, William Maley and Ian McAllister) and The Theory of Politics, an Australian Perspective (with David Lovell and William Maley).


  1. Chandran Kukathas, Immigration and Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 2.
  2. Kukathas, 5.
  3. Kukathas, 6.
  4. Kukathas, 12.
  5. Kukathas, 26.
  6. Kukathas, 46.
  7. Kukathas, 53–54.
  8. Kukathas, 60.
  9. Kukathas, 84.
  10. Kukathas, 96.
  11. Kukathas, 100–101.
  12. Kukathas, 104–105.
  13. Kukathas, 114.
  14. Kukathas, 120.
  15. Kukathas, 124.
  16. Kukathas, 126.
  17. Kukathas, 131.
  18. Kukathas, 134.
  19. Kukathas, 135.
  20. Kukathas, 139–141.
  21. Kukathas, 150–158.
  22. Kukathas, 158–162.
  23. Kukathas, 174.
  24. Kukathas, 176.
  25. Kukathas, 180.
  26. Kukathas, 183.
  27. Kukathas, 183.
  28. Kukathas, 193.
  29. Kukathas, 195.
  30. Kukathas, 202.
  31. Kukathas, 213.
  32. Kukathas, 234.
  33. Kukathas, 241–242.
  34. Kukathas, 245.
  35. Kukathas, 252.



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