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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethical Principles for Immigration Reform in 2019

Woman at an immigration rally.

Woman at an immigration rally.

Kirk O. Hanson

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Kirk O. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Views are his own.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has published a series of essays over the past twenty years on the ethics of migration and immigration.  During this same period, several ethicists and philosophers have published excellent books on immigration.  This short essay summarizes very briefly the core values and ethical principles relevant to immigration policy identified in these previous works, and suggests how particular values and principles might help us address the critical immigration impasse we are facing as a nation in the year ahead.

Ethicists and historians recognize that the migration of peoples is a permanent feature of world history.  Wars and famines can stimulate the mass movement of peoples, but so can the search for economic opportunity, particularly in a globalized world.  Over time, a consensus has emerged on the values needed for governments and nations to address the movement of peoples.  Among these values and principles are the following:

  • A commitment to human and civilian rights. Too many of the mass movements of peoples have been triggered by conflict between combatants and the erosion of any security or regard for the welfare of civilians. 
  • A recognition, rooted in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (which just celebrated its 70th birthday) that every human being has a right to security, but also to basic food and shelter, even if these are impossible in their home countries.
  • A collective responsibility, shared by all in the global community, to provide this security to those who are immigrants because of conflicts, economic collapse, and threats to personal security.
  • A responsibility of individual countries to share the burden of that collective global responsibility, depending on the wealth and capability of each country.
  • A basic empathy for immigrants and refugees, built on an understanding that many, if not most immigrants, are forced to become immigrants, and that they may have suffered deeply.
  • A commitment to non-discrimination in immigration policy, implemented in a way that does not discriminate due to race, ethnic origin, or religion.

Immigration policy for any specific country cannot be set for all time.  Principles may be established, but the number, origins, and specific plight of immigrants create the need for different policies and efforts in different times.  In the post-World War II period, when the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights was written, the United States and other countries both welcomed large numbers of displaced refugees and immigrants, and invested billions of dollars in economic recovery and security in countries that needed it.  This aid limited the total numbers of postwar refugees and immigrants as war-torn economies were rebuilt quickly.

Immigration policy in the United States has become increasingly contentious over the past 20 years. The United States Congress has failed to pass a significant update to our immigration laws despite polls which show a substantial majority of Americans in favor of immigration reform and a reasonable consensus on the shape of that reform package. 

While the total number of wars and conflicts has declined, the persistence of conflict and debilitating poverty in many countries and regions has generated a significant and growing number of refugees.  Further, as developed countries have grown richer in the past 50 years, the flow of economic immigrants has accelerated.   Individuals and families have sought access to more developed countries in search of a “better life” and a higher standard of living.  Even before the regional conflicts in Central America and the Arab world broke out in the last decade, large numbers of Hispanic immigrants sought entrance to the United States for economic reasons.   Furthermore, the superiority of American education, particularly higher education, generated great demand for immigration access by East and South Asians in recent decades.   

These changed conditions have long required a new set of immigration policies in the United States and other developed countries, as well as consideration of significant foreign aid to the economies of Latin American and other countries.  Sadly, in the United States, policymakers in Congress have not been able to agree on how to respond to new immigration pressures.  Renewed policies are need regarding who and how many get in; what distinctions we make between economic immigrants, refugees, and the family members of U.S. citizens and residents; who gets to stay if they enter without authorization; what rights and resources are those who enter entitled to; and how we respond to individuals who present themselves at our borders asking for entry.

Applied ethics requires focused attention to current behavior and policy questions facing us at any particular moment.  I think there are four particular virtues or ethical principles which can help us address the immigration impasse in 2019:

  • First is a heightened empathy, based on a clearer understanding why people migrate and seek entry into the United States and other countries. We are at a global peak in the number of persons displaced by wars, failing economies, and environmental change.  It is tempting to limit our moral vision to the unlawful status of the “undocumented” and to the “hordes” or caravans of immigrants who seek entry.  It is a completely self-centered approach to immigration to admit only those who could enhance the American economy – the highly skilled and wealthy.  This approach would downplay empathy as the core motivation for immigration policy.
  • Second, a heightened commitment to non-discrimination and embrace of multi-culturalism. Sadly, America’s anti-Asian bias, which led in the early 1900s to the Chinese Exclusion Laws, has been replaced by a bias against Africans and Arabs, and to a lesser extent against Hispanics, whom some Americans feel are “not like us.”  Undoubtedly, the demographic fact that the American population will eventually include a majority non-whites has led to a xenophobia among some who advocate for closing the borders completely to put off the day whites become a minority. 
  • Third, the embrace of a new ethical principle which has been called by the author Joseph Carens membership rights. The notion is that those who have lived among us “as Americans” for many years should not be expelled without significant cause.  This principle would argue that the “Dreamers” should receive permanent protection and that some undocumented residents who have lived among us for many years should enjoy some type of protection, if not a “path to citizenship.”
  • Fourth, a heightened commitment to do our share to alleviate the plight of the refugees and immigrants seeking physical security and economic survival. Domestic politics in recent years have led the United States to do less than other countries in both foreign assistance and in the number of legal immigrants we have accepted.  The United States has long lagged most developed countries in foreign aid as a percentage of our GNP, and recently has also fallen behind in the number of immigrants and refugees we have accepted.  More foreign assistance could reduce the flow of economic immigrants at the same time we help deal with a backlog of desperate immigrants and refugees.

Unfortunately, these badly-needed ethical values and principles have been largely ignored in the debate over reforming immigration policy in recent years.  Executive Orders have moved us further away from these principles.  It is beyond time for the Congress of the United States to rewrite our immigration policies in 2019 based on ethical foundations, including these four principles.

Dec 17, 2018

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