Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Immigration: Should the Rules Change?

by David E. DeCosse

In the face of millions of human beings migrating around the globe, hundreds of thousands trying annually to get into the United States, the second-generation immigrant suicide bombers last summer in London, and the car-burning, disaffected North African immigrant youths last week in France, I am convinced that the moral philosopher Simone Weil described the heart of the ethical challenge of immigration that faces us when she said: We must come to see the immigrant or refugee "as a man or woman, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction."

Of course, the vast complexity of the issue of immigration requires attention to great questions of fact and to ethical principles that apply to the largest institutions in society. I would first like to offer three ways to approach these great questions of fact - ways that are crucial to a better understanding of the ethical issue of immigration.
First, the ethical norms and legal regimes that govern immigration today were not always what they are now. For instance, in times past, the right to enter a nation was seen on a parallel with the right to leave. Thus states were often not as active as they are now in barring people from coming or going. It may seem like a stale truism to say that things today are not what they once were. But in the face of the great ethical challenge of immigration today, we have to be confident that what often looks like the chaotic present need not be the case in the future. Things can change - and for the better.

Second, we have to accept that the vast movement of people on this planet is a fact to be worked with, not denied. Almaz Negash, the director of the Global Leadership and Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, a close student of this topic, and an immigrant herself, has said that no fence, no water, no vast desert is going to keep a hungry migrant from seeking a better life. Keeping this in mind invites us to consider the causes of such desperate journeys in the stark reality of global inequalities.

Third, we must see the reality of immigration today in light of the fact of interdependence. We really are dependent on each other, one country on another, one peoples on other peoples, one person on other persons. Thus it is not the case that, for instance, the Mexican citizens who walk across the desert and enter the United States without the prescribed paperwork are on a one-way street of dependence only on "us" for sustenance. Rather, the citizens of the United States are also dependent on these migrants for all manner of labor and ingenuity.

I would now like to identify three central ethical issues that should guide reflection on immigration.
First, whom do you admit and on what basis as a full member of your community? We are all part of some community - of a family by birth or of a school by attendance or of a city by dint of our address. But we shouldn't let the de facto nature of many of these communities stop us from responding to the demanding ethical challenge of how we define who is in and who is out of the fundamental moral communities that we inhabit. Here I think that we should be especially careful with how terms like "illegal alien" can work to define persons as part of our moral community or not.

The second central ethical issue is: How should we balance the right to migrate and the right of a sovereign state to limit migration? Are these rights of equal value? Is one greater than the other? Here we bump against a very hard issue - one that challenges our deepest ethical and national allegiances. But the issue cannot be avoided. If the right to migrate for the sake of sustenance is a basic human right for any person on this planet, on what basis can a sovereign state restrict entry or exit to migrants seeking that sustenance?

The third central ethical issue is: Have we separated rights and responsibilities in our discussions of immigration? To be sure, this applies to persons considered individually. The rights of being a citizen do not preclude the responsibility of taking care of the migrants in our midst, just as the rights of being an immigrant do not negate the responsibility to contribute to the community to which one has migrated. But the problem of the separation of rights and responsibilities applies to sovereign states as well. In international agreements, there are many defined rights for migrants. But often these rights are not responsibly respected by sovereign states.

I am aware that there are many other crucial aspects to this issue. I have not, for instance, spoken of the problem of the so-called "brain drain" in which highly-skilled and educated immigrants move from poor to rich countries. I have also not addressed the issue of solutions, although I think it would be fruitful to consider such measures as bilateral agreements on migration like the North American Free Trade Agreement. Why can we devise international measures to govern the movement of money and goods but not such measures to bring justice and order to the inestimable value of migrating human beings?

In closing, I would like to return to Simone Weil's remark and to the rich tradition from which it sprang. Often today it is said that our Western culture is threatened by the vast numbers of immigrants - often of different skin color or dress or religion - moving into our midst. But I think it is a matter of which version of Western culture to which we appeal. For at the root of the Western tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures the admonition could not be clearer: Not only are we to welcome the alien and stranger but we are to love that man, woman, or child as we love ourselves; we are to see them as "a man or woman, exactly like us." That is the beginning and the end of the ethical challenge of immigration.

David DeCosse, director of campus ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, gave this talk at the Ethics Outlook, Nov. 10, 2005.


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