What rights are at stake in immigration? The issue is often framed as an either-or question of whether would-be immigrants have a right to immigrate or the native-born have a right to exclude them.

I think that’s an unhelpful way of framing it; it’s collectivist. It seems to ask whether any and all immigrants should be free to go anywhere they wish, or whether (a majority of) the native-born may exclude all immigrants from going anywhere in the country. Isn’t there some middle ground, whereby some of the native-born may admit some immigrants to some places but not others?

A property rights approach can help us answer this question.

Imagine a representative scenario:

A group of poor immigrants heads for some US town to work on the farms there. They arrive at the US border. If they are allowed in, they get on a bus that takes them to the town, stopping at rest stops along the way to eat and stretch their legs.

When the immigrants arrive at the town with the jobs, they walk to a boardinghouse offering bunk rooms and simple cooking facilities. They pay their rent to the boardinghouse owner and get some rest.

The next day they go to the job sites in pickup trucks from the farms. They agree on wages with the farm owners; they go to work. In the evening, they go back to the boardinghouse. Soon they will be able to wire some money home to their families.

Whose rights are involved here?

Let’s answer that indirectly. Suppose it’s not an immigrant, but an American citizen, I myself, for instance, who wants to get on the bus, have meals at the rest stops, sleep in the boardinghouse, and work on the farm. Do I have a right to do that, as I have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?

No. I have no inherent right to get on someone else’s bus. But when the bus owner sells me a ticket, he grants me the contractual right to ride his bus on the route specified. I have no right to enter the rest stop restaurant for a meal unless I agree (the contract is implicit in this case) to pay the rest stop owner for the privilege.

Similarly, I have no right to sleep in a room in someone’s boardinghouse unless I get the landlord’s permission through a rental contract. And I have no right to a job at someone’s farm unless he or she hires me, in an implicit or explicit labor contract.

In each of these cases, any right I might acquire to ride the bus, have a meal, sleep in the room, or work on the farm depends on the agreement of the owner of the bus, rest stop, boardinghouse, or farm. The owners do have the right to determine who comes onto their property, so if they agree to do business with me, then I have a right, not an inherent right but a contractual right, to make the trip and take the job as described. The owners’ rights and choices to deal with me determine my acquired, contractual rights.

Should property owners be allowed to hire across national borders?

Now we come to the crucial question: Do those property owners have the right to contract not just with me, but with any people they wish, even if their home addresses happen to be in some other country?

I think the answer has to be yes. It’s the owners’ property. They get to decide who comes there and who doesn’t. If so, the immigrants they choose to welcome have a right to immigrate in the manner described.

The error in the claim that “we” have a blanket right to exclude immigrants from coming into the country at all, “to protect our border,” is that it ignores the property and free association rights of current citizens. The borders relevant to individuals’ rights are the borders of their property, not of political jurisdictions. Property owners have the right to control their own property’s borders – to exclude whom they choose and admit whom they choose.

Any government’s number one job is to protect the rights of the individuals who live within its jurisdiction. That includes the rights of those who own buses, rest stops, boardinghouses, farms, and the like to use their property as they see fit, admitting those they choose to admit. Accordingly, would-be immigrants have a right to immigrate as long as they have the invitation of the various property owners they deal with along the way. To block such immigration is to violate the rights of the native-born citizens.

What about the consequences of free immigration?

As for its practical consequences, this perspective should reassure those who worry that free immigration would lead to overcrowding. Property rights include the right to exclude. The boardinghouse owner in our example has only so many rooms. When they fill, he may and will turn people away. The farmer needs only so many laborers; when he has all he needs, he may and will turn people away.

Congestion naturally checks immigration. Word gets back to the immigrants’ home country that there are no more rooms available in that town and no more jobs at the farms. The flow of immigrants will naturally stop.

One might object that immigrants have no right to use the public roads because they have not paid taxes to build the roads. But that argument also ignores the rights of current citizens. They have paid taxes for the roads to facilitate the business of their lives, including their interactions with others – to drive their buses on, to allow others to rent their rooms, and to get to the jobs they offer. And that includes the riders and renters and employees they’d like to deal with who happen to have been born in other countries.

In this way of thinking, immigration policy is first and foremost about the property rights and freedom of association of those in the destination country. They have a right to welcome immigrants onto their property, or exclude them from it, as they choose.

As with most other areas of human affairs, immigration decisions should be made in a decentralized manner by property owners rather than centrally by governments.