Migration and Human Rights (29): Is Freedom of Association a Means to Promote or to Restrict Immigration?

Freedom of association is an important human right (see here for example). Linked to freedom of association is the right to exclude: groups that aren’t allowed to exclude whomever they want from membership aren’t free to associate. Another reason why the right to exclude is an important consequence of freedom of association is that association is meaningless without the concept of group identity. People associate in groups because these groups have a certain identity, and this identity is or becomes an intrinsic part of the individual identities of the members. Hence, groups should be able to have a coherent identity and that means allowing them to exclude people who don’t conform to or accept this identity.

For example, freedom of association means that Christians have a right to join a “truly” Christian group. And if the meaning of the word “truly” means excluding gay Christians or atheist (people who, according to some, don’t “conform to” or don’t accept “true Christianity” respectively), then that is what is required by freedom of association. (Which doesn’t mean that this freedom of association or this right to exclude is unlimited. Non-discrimination is also a right and sometimes we’ll have to make a trade-off. Non-discrimination can sometimes prevail over freedom of association. And yet, every exclusion from a group or every exercise of the freedom of association which in some way harms outsiders isn’t a case of discrimination. I, a non-Scot, may fail to be accepted in the clan of the MacDonalds, but I’m not discriminated against by this decision, even if it hurts my feelings and my sense of identity).

Some see a link between freedom of association and immigration restrictions. If groups are allowed to exclude, why not countries? Countries are also groups. If you force Americans, for example, to take in immigrants, despite majority opposition, then you violate their freedom of association and their right to exclude. In addition, you are accused of harming their identity – in this case national identity – because the stated reason they associated and continue to exclude, is precisely the preservation of their groups identity (made up of US values, the English language etc.).

People who don’t take a restrictionist position on immigration – such as myself – can respond in two ways.

  • First, one could claim that the rights of immigrants should be taken into account. The American freedom of association isn’t the only right in the world. When rights clash, they should be weighed against each other and the path of the “least violation” should be chosen. In the current case, one could easily argue that violations of the rights of immigrants (i.a. the right to a certain standard of living) caused by restrictions on immigration are much more severe than violations of the right to associate caused by relaxed immigration. After all, do people really believe that a culture as strong as that of the US would be harmed by immigrants? Or that immigration would change the nature of US society beyond recognition?
  • Another way to respond to the restrictionist arguments based of the right to associate, is to use the right to associate against the restrictionists. Many immigrants come or would like to come to a country because employers in that country (would) like to have them as employees. Immigration restrictions therefore violate the freedom of association of employers. Even if the country as a whole – or better the majority – feels that its right to free association is violated by immigration, it’s not obvious that the rights of the majority automatically trump the rights of a minority, however tiny this minority may be (and it’s not tiny in this case). If anything, human rights are there to protect minorities against majorities. You can make the same argument for nationals wishing to marry a foreigner, immigrants already in the country wishing their families to join them etc.
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