Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Immigration and Ethics

By Martin Cook
This article responds to Manuel Velasquez's "Immigration: Is Exclusion Just?"

For good or for ill, the current immigration debate takes place in the context of international law, where the moral agents are not human individuals but states. To assess immigration policy, we must look at the nature and rights of states, and, by implication, the moral responsibilities of state leaders to their citizens and to foreign nationals.

Manuel Velasquez addresses this question in his article. His criticisms of the international system of independent states — with their rights to territorial integrity and political sovereignty — are well-founded. Given the obvious artificiality of states and the historically arbitrary and morally dubious ways in which those states came to have their boundaries, one might be tempted to wish them away in favor of a universal human community of individuals, equal in their economic and political rights. But there is a history to the current arrangement that might give us pause.

The present international order results from the wars of 16th- and 17th-century Europe, all driven by the desire to re-impose a universal and "correct" order on the religiously shattered post-Reformation world. Grudgingly, all sides accepted the reality that different states had different ideas of the good life, and Catholic Spain need not fight Protestant England forever in the hope of universality.

Sovereign states — free to run their internal affairs as they see fit and free to protect their borders from incursion — are still acknowledged as a crude, but so far unsurpassed, international system. To date, they have provided the best means of creating the space (literal and spiritual) where groups of people can try to hammer out what philosopher Michael Walzer has called a common life. No state does it perfectly; most do it badly.

Nevertheless, if individuals care about being Americans or Nicaraguans or Israelis, they do so because they share something in their hearts and minds arising from a generations-long struggle to build institutions and values together. In many countries, these cultural values — such as religion or language — are inherently divisive. But the American case is, in certain respects, unique. Historian Sidney Mead once called the United States the "nation with the soul of a church," pointing out that unlike more "natural" or ethic (ethnic ?) countries, the United States was built on a common creed and a shared set of national myths and symbols.

Velasquez correctly points out that the desire for a shared culture can sometimes hide racism. Yet, although vigilance against racism in other guises must be constant, it is not racist to note that uncontrolled immigration can threaten to dissolve the already somewhat strained cultural glue that binds us together.

We need to respect the cultural aspect of states if we are to preserve the current international order. One often unpleasant consequence of this system, however, is that human individuals — after all, the only real bearers of rights (Confusing, since earlier you talk about the rights and obligations of states.) — are cast upon the "tender mercies" of their states for the protection of those rights. International law is very loathe to recognize the right, or even the obligation, of other governments to reach through international boundaries and take upon themselves obligations for citizens of another state. Only the extreme cases of genocide or other massive violations of the rights of whole peoples have been acknowledged as a reason for intervention.

Although this reluctance often leads to toleration of abuse, the reasons for it are morally weighty. In its absence, states are only too likely to find excuses to interfere in the internal affairs of other states, cloaking their actions in the high-sounding rhetoric of humanitarian concern.

Of course, there are instances when the plight of foreign nationals is legitimately our concern, as when their circumstances are partly an effect of our actions. This has often been the case in Latin America (specify or use as example requested above.)

But generally, if citizens of other countries are suffering economic hardship or deprivation of rights, the primary responsibility for those citizens is on their own governments. Velasquez's analysis, it seems to me, neglects this fundamental fact.

I would argue further that taking on the responsibilities for foreign citizens can be morally counterproductive. Insofar as immigration provides an escape valve for political and economic grievances, one might just as often be protecting oppressive or incompetent governments, which, if their citizens had no option but to live under and suffer from them, would be replaced.

One might long for a millennial future where the one human moral community is represented in one human political community — or one might fear its tyrannical possibilities. Much in world affairs these days suggests that national sovereignty is in the process of being rethought and reformulated, and much in the interconnectedness of the world seems to demand such changes. Be that as it may, the current international system places fiduciary responsibility on governments first and foremost for their own citizens.

This brings us to Velasquez's economic arguments. He maintains that, contrary to conventional "wisdom," immigration is an economic benefit to this country. The considerations he cites certainly cause us to think more carefully about the costs and benefits of such immigration.

But note that this argument fits quite comfortably into the state sovereignty framework I've sketched. Velasquez argues that our leaders should allow immigration because it is good for us — a view completely consistent with their fiduciary responsibility to their own citizens.

Whether this is true or not in economic reality is a vexed question indeed. Harry Truman once wished in exasperation for "a one-handed economist" who could answer such questions straightforwardly. I do not claim to know what the economic facts are, nor do I believe Velasquez would make such a claim. But I do agree with him that determining those economic facts is crucial to devising a just immigration policy for the United States.

Martin Cook published a rewiew article on the recent literature on ethics in international relations in the winter issue of Ethics in International Affairs, the publication of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

Further Reading

Hudson, James L. "The Ethics of Immigration Restriction." Social Theory and Practice 10.2 (1984): 201-39.

Mead, Sidney E. The Nation with the Soul of a Church (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

Reimers, David H. "History of Recent Immigration Regulation." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 136.2 (1992): 176-87.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977).