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The Ethics of Immigration Policy


Nils Holtug

Centre for the Study of Equality and Multiculturalism, University of Copenhagen, DK
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This article concerns the normative basis for immigration policy. In particular, I consider the implications of three fundamental liberal values, namely democracy, liberty and equality. First, I argue that democratic theory seriously questions the right to national self-determination when it comes to immigration. This is because potential immigrants may be coercively affected by immigration policy and, on a standard account of democratic legitimacy, this implies that potential immigrants should have democratic influence on such policies. In particular, I defend these claims against David Miller's defence of national self-determination. Second, I consider the importance of the right to freedom of movement and argue, again against Miller, that this right constitutes a weighty consideration in favour of allowing immigration in many cases. Third, I consider the importance of equality. In particular, I consider an argument for restrictive immigration policies, according to which immigration threatens to undermine social cohesion and so the basis for the welfare state. I challenge this argument in two respects. First, I point out that the empirical evidence for the claim that ethnic diversity undermines the welfare state is not as clear as some have assumed. Second, I point out that this argument for restrictive policies assumes that equality has domestic rather than global scope. Finally, I suggest that even if we are global egalitarians, we should aim for something less than (completely) open borders.

How to Cite: Holtug, N., 2011. The Ethics of Immigration Policy. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 1(1), pp.4–12. DOI:
Published on 01 Aug 2011.
Peer Reviewed


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