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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Three Lenses in Immigration Ethics: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and Democracy

Jonathan Kwan

Three Lenses in Immigration Ethics: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and Democracy

Jonathan Kwan (@MigrationEthics) is the Inclusive Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow in Immigration Ethics with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

One reason why immigration is such a hotly contested and controversial political matter is that, at their core, decisions about immigration policies are decisions about who we are and who we want to be. After all, immigration raises questions not only about who should be permitted to enter into a country but also who should be welcomed as new members of a demos or a polis (and who should be left out). Debates about immigration, then, are not only about what values we should hold but also how we conceive of ourselves as a people. Who is this we that is us?

To help navigate these controversial debates in immigration ethics, I will map out and describe three lenses: nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and democracy. These lenses can guide our ethical thinking in broad strokes and offer different ways of answering the question of how we should conceive of ourselves as a country. Each of these lenses can also be worked out more fully in different ways to apply to more concrete platforms and policies. I will also discuss one limitation or challenge that each lens faces.

According to the nationalist lens, nations understood as a distinctive sort of cultural group are ethically valuable and have a right to set their immigration policies in ways that are consistent with or serve to protect their national identity. Nationalism provides reason for admitting immigrants that are co-nationals and barring the entry of those who are not (or not willing to assimilate into the national identity in question). Of course, much hinges on how a nation is understood and defined. What after all constitutes American culture? Is there even such a thing given the diversity of cultures and ethnicities within the U.S.? Is a “melting pot” metaphor accurate or adequate in characterizing U.S. nationality? Different political theorists will emphasize different cultural elements when defining nationhood such a common history, a shared language, a set of beliefs or commitments, or a connection to a territory.

The very malleability of nationalism enables flexibility and at the same time raises some troubling worries. Who is seen as a fellow national, after all, can be interpreted in more or less expansive ways. The political theorist Michael Walzer, for instance, has suggested that Vietnamese refugees from the Vietnam war, due to the injury they suffered as a result of U.S. military action, can be seen in a moral sense as “effectively Americanized” (Spheres of Justice, p. 49). A similar argument could be made for Afghan and Iraqi refugees more currently or for any refugee whose dire situation has been caused by U.S. foreign intervention. Or perhaps any immigrant who expresses a commitment to U.S. values such as (debatably) freedom or democracy should be seen as a fellow national.

On the other hand, nationalism, instead of being interpreted in terms of culture, can lapse in troubling ways into ethnic or racial nationalism. The brand of nationalism that oriented President Trump’s immigration policies, for example, veers dangerously into conceiving of the U.S. solely as a white nation. The challenge for the nationalist lens, then, is precisely whether a stable and morally defensible conception of the nation can be developed.

The second lens that I will consider is cosmopolitanism. The word “cosmopolitan” comes from Greek and refers to the idea that the entire cosmos or universe, rather than any one nation-state (or city-state), should be seen as the polis. As a result, cosmopolitans are generally committed to universalist ideals, such as freedom, equality, or global justice, that encourage immigrants and citizens to be treated in similar fashion. Cosmopolitanism tends to support less restrictive immigration policies and even open borders. Some cosmopolitan theorists defend every individual’s right to the freedom of movement and to cross any border they choose. Others critique the current international border regime more fundamentally as a feudal system that concentrates wealth and opportunities in certain countries, making citizenship in those countries an inherited status acquired simply through the accident of birth.

The cosmopolitan lens serves as a valuable form of critique that helps to point out the unfreedoms, inequalities, and injustices engendered by the current international state system with its attendant immigration restrictions. However, it is not entirely clear that the abstract ideals of freedom, equality, or justice necessarily entail open borders and could not be made consistent with suitably reformed and moderately restrictive immigration policies. From the nationalist perspective, cosmopolitans tend to ignore our particular attachments and claims of belonging within national communities, which nationalists think have a rightful place in our moral landscape alongside otherwise abstract values.

This brings us to our final lens of democracy. Like cosmopolitanism, democracy also prizes the values of freedom and equality but interprets them within the context of a demos or a people’s right to self-determination. For democrats, a people has the right to decide for themselves the nature and course of their common affairs. Setting immigration policies, which has sociopolitical and economic implications for those common affairs, and deciding who should be a member of the people are integral components to a people’s right to democratic self-determination.

However, saying that a people should democratically decide their own immigration policies and their own membership notoriously raises a circularity worry (often referred to as the “boundary problem”). After all, who democratically decided the membership of the people1 that is currently deciding its immigration policies? A prior people2 seems to be needed. But yet another people3 would be required to democratically decide the composition of the people2! An infinite regress quickly ensues. As Sir Ivor Jennings put it in 1956, “On the surface, [the doctrine of self-determination] seemed reasonable: let the people decide. It was in fact ridiculous, because the people cannot decide until someone decides who are the people” (The Approach to Self-Government, pgs. 55-56).

Once again, immigration raises the thorny question of how we should conceive of the we who are the people. Democrats cannot define the people as a nation since appealing to cultural features is to appeal to non-political and thus non-democratic value. And unlike cosmopolitans, democrats do not circumvent the boundary problem by simply conceiving of the people as unbounded (the cosmos is the polis) and thus potentially open to everyone. My own proposed solution to the circularity worry in the democratic lens, which I can only mention briefly here, is to hold onto the core insight that a people does in fact have a right to self-determine its own immigration policies but that these policies must be constrained and limited by the moral claims of outsiders, in particular, their own rights to self-determination. Working out the self-determination claims of outsiders in more detail may entail that some outsiders such as refugees or long-term residents (even unauthorized immigrants) must be included as members of the people. The ethical commitments in the ideal of democratic self-determination, then, can give us a principled justification for deciding who should be conceived of as part of the people without lapsing into circularity. Or so I claim. More generally though, the core question within the democratic lens is how can a people justify its immigration policies in ways that are consistent with democratic norms and principles?

Regardless of which lens one is sympathetic toward when thinking about immigration ethics, it remains the case that immigration is fundamentally an issue that probes our moral convictions about who we are as a nation, a people, a polis. Do we think of ourselves as belonging to a national community whose distinctive cultural shape is worth protecting, as citizens of the world, or as a people committed to certain democratic values? Perhaps we see ourselves as a combination of these elements—after all, these lenses need not be understood as mutually exclusive. But then the tensions between these various understandings would need to be wrestled with and worked out as we seek to answer the question of how we should conceive and (re-)constitute ourselves.

Apr 5, 2021

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