Immigration is now an issue facing all liberal societies and Europeans and Americans alike are unsure about how to react to it.
When it comes to time-tested policy consideration such as how and whether to regulate the economy, these societies have a historical theory upon which they can rely.
The same is not true when it comes to dealing with immigrants. In this especially contentious arena of public debate there is not all that much in the liberal tradition to which they can turn.
As a result of this liberal vacuum, a substantial part of the public debate over immigration is dominated by illiberal voices.
The most insistent of such voices in both Europe and the United States belong to those politicians who promise to protect the imagined cultural integrity of the homeland against supposed evil of the alien.
There can be little doubt that the bulk of the messages conveyed by the more extreme anti-immigrant politicians in both the United States and Europe are illiberal through and through.
One finds in them no generosity of spirit toward people whose conditions of life have been difficult in the extreme.
No heart-warming accounts of their courage in leaving one land to try and achieve success in another. No sense that all cultures have something to value. And no appreciation of the underlying universality of all people whatever their national differences.
Nor is their recognition of the fact that peace among cultures is a worthier goal than war between them. Or an acknowledgement that the protected society is far from being flawless.
That an interjection of new ideas and entrepreneurial energy could be good for it.
Nowhere do the populists of this particular inclination seem more deserving the term ‘reactionary’ than when it comes to immigration; mobility of people around the globe is a fact of life; and they react to it out of anger and fear.
Eighteenth Century Philosopher Kant is a helpful guide here. He teaches us that we should judge the circumstances in which we find ourselves against the circumstances in which, but for an arbitrary role of the dice, we might have found ourselves.
From this perspective, it is unfair that someone born in the West is likely to live longer and to have a greater capacity to choose the kind of life he or she wants to lead than someone born elsewhere.
This does not mean that the countries of the West should open their borders to everyone who wishes to come.
An accident of birth
But it does mean that a Western citizen should recognise that any advantages she may have over the rest of the world are as much to an accident of birth as they are to the notion that she may be a more deserving person.
No system of perfect justice is ever possible. From the perspective of a Kantian commitment to openness, however, the least a Westerner can do is to welcome a certain amount of immigration.
No society can close its borders to the deserving and call itself liberal. However broad liberalisms’ definition, xenophobia never meets it.
If openness is something we value in one direction, however, it is also something we must value in the other; once a society admits new members, those members are also under an obligation to open themselves to their new society.
There is a liberal bargain with respect to immigration as there is with respect to religion. Its basic premise is this: we will be open to you if you are open to us.
If the native-born refuse to reach out to newcomers, racism and xenophobia follow. But if the newcomers do not reach out to the native-born, exclusion and isolation follow.
Immigration does not follow the usual left-right lines that divide liberal societies. Opponents and proponents are on both sides of the ideological divide.
Big business generally likes it while labour does not; some racial minorities fear it even as others welcome it.
It also frustrates those looking for clear and unambiguous rules that can resolve the tensions immigration brings.
No society can completely close its borders. Even if it tried to do so, immigrants would still arrive. And no society can completely open its borders, for if it did so, no conception of citizenship worth possessing would remain.
If one is looking for an abstract principle to follow on questions of immigration, liberalism cannot provide it.
But liberalism can offer other things. One is a guideline. A liberal society will allow people in and make exceptions for conditions under which they are kept out.
Better this, than keeping people out, and making an occasional exception for when they should be allowed in.
Another is willingness to view the world as teeming with potential.
Although this potential is threatening to ways of life taken for granted it also forces people to adapt to new challenges rather than try to protect themselves against the foreign and the unknown.
And the third is a focus not only on what we can offer immigrants but on what they can offer us.
The goal liberalism seeks – openness – is a goal worth seeking.
Especially if openness encourages those on both sides of once firm national borders to become better people in the process.