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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What is Immigration Ethics?

Jonathan Kwan

Immigration ethics refers broadly to the normative issues that arise from the movement of individuals across borders. One of the central questions in immigration ethics concerns whether states should restrict immigration or open their borders and what should be the values on the basis of which this determination is made. Although much of the public discourse on immigration is framed in binary terms (one is either for or against immigration), immigration ethics encompasses many issues beyond, though also including, the question of whether states should limit immigrant admissions. For instance, once immigrants have entered a state, what rights and privileges should they have? Should unauthorized immigrations have access to a path to citizenship?

Different classes of immigrants also raise distinct ethical issues and demands. At first glance, refugees including environmental refugees seem to be owed different entitlements and benefits than economic migrants or temporary workers. How a state enforces its immigration policies is another matter that is separate from whatever specific immigration policies are adopted. What are the moral limits on state coercion and the militarization of its borders? The intersection of race and immigration is also an area of important concern for immigration ethics due to the ugly history of racial discrimination in immigration restrictions. The worry remains that some of the rhetoric and arguments currently employed in immigration debates continue to be either explicitly or covertly racist.

This brief and incomplete survey of immigration ethics gives us good reason to think that the very scope of immigration ethics can be best thought of as itself subject to open-ended inquiry. New normative issues and dilemmas concerning immigration that arise due to changing sociopolitical circumstances can ever be brought to the table for careful and considerate ethical reflection. Regardless of whichever problems are considered within its purview, immigration ethics often involves conflicts between our moral values and principles (for instance, between the universal equality of all persons regardless of nationality and the special obligations we may owe to compatriots). As a result, immigration ethics concerns not simply the application of pre-existing moral positions to a concrete issue but also challenges us to rethink our philosophical theories and normative commitments themselves. 

Feb 1, 2021

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