A Dark Week for the Ethics of Immigration


Protests around the world of Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban and the heroics of ACLU lawyers in obtaining a stay against some of its more appalling applications offer a glimmer of hope.

We hope that people will remain vigilant and active, that communities will continue to organize, and that the judiciary will protect individuals’ constitutional rights. We hope that politicians and people who have normalized this administration will come to realize that they are on the wrong side of history and that complacency is not in their self-interest.

Meanwhile, immigrants and their communities wait anxiously for the next assault.

Will violent and traumatizing raids and deportations blight our towns and cities, separating parents from children? Will hate groups become further emboldened by the anti-Muslim, anti-Latino invective of Trump and Bannon? Will some have to leave a country and communities they love – or go into hiding because they have nowhere to go?

Those of us engaged in the quixotic task of writing on the political philosophy of immigration need to take stock. Joseph Carens built the arguments in his humane and in many respects marvelous book, The Ethics of Immigration, around “democratic principles” that he thought enjoyed widespread consensus. By these “democratic principles” he had in mind

the broad moral commitments that underlie and justify contemporary political institutions and policies throughout North America and Europe – things like the ideas that all human beings are of equal moral worth, that disagreements should normally be resolved through the principle of majority rule, that we have a duty to respect the rights and freedoms of individuals, that legitimate government depends on the consent of the governed, that all citizens should be equal under the law, that coercion should only be exercised in accordance with the rule of law, that people should not be subject to discrimination on the basis of characteristics like race, religion, or gender, that we should respect norms like fairness and reciprocity in our policies, and so on (2).

Even then, some of us who follow migration news carefully were skeptical about the strength of this consensus (see Chris Bertram here and me here).

Nonetheless, Carens’ reconstruction of a moral vision of immigration based on commitments embedded in the laws and practices of many countries seemed reasonable and heartening. It suggested the possibility of advocating for a more just and more generous immigration policy based on values that many (most?) people accept.

Today, it is apparently this consensus was at best fragile. It is not only Donald Trump’s executive orders that bar people from seven largely Muslim countries from entering the United States or the reports of Green Card holders being handcuffed and detained as they arrived. The immigration system routinely separates families and denies people visas or entrance at the discretion of officials. The Obama administration set a record 2.4 million deportations and responded to Central American families seeking asylum by imprisoning them. The brutality of states’ treatments of immigrants and refugees is nothing new to anyone who has been paying attention.

Nonetheless, things feel different.

Perhaps it is the terrifying influence that Steve Bannon appears to wield in the White House. Perhaps it is the GOP non-reaction to Trump’s Muslim ban and the craven silence of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Perhaps it is simply that the legalistic euphemisms and humanitarian pieties that allowed many to ignore the racist nature of the immigration system have been abandoned in favor of a vocabulary of power, violence, and fear.

What does this mean for political philosophers who write about immigration?

Most political philosophers operate largely within Carens’ “democratic principles” – we disagree on what they mean and how they should applied, but largely agree that coercion must be justified, democracy upheld, and non-discrimination applied to honor people’s equal moral worth. What, if anything, should we make of the fact that a sizeable group of people does not share these basic commitments (as the slogan of “America First” suggests)? How should we address people who are impervious to compassion and moral argument (should we address them at all)? Can we continue in good consciousness to publish articles in journals read mainly by our peers?

I don’t have the answer to these questions, but here are some thoughts about writing on the ethics of immigration (and migration more generally).

Critical Analysis

Philosophers (and others) need to analyze and make connections. We need to connect the proposal to extend the US-Mexico border wall to the Muslim ban and not allow ourselves to become distracted by measures that seek to divert our attention and divide our communities. We need to remember our history and how so many times fear and hate led to tragedy. We need to clearly and honestly communicate what the social sciences tell us about immigration and attempt to understand the sources that drive anti-immigration movements to better oppose them.


We need to resist narratives that classify people as “good” or “bad” immigrants. It is sickening that green card holders and refugees are detained, but we need to remember that there are many others equally affected. It is easier to feel compassion toward those who we identify with already, but we cannot let this tendency lead us to forget our obligations to strangers or to compromise our unity. Xenophobia seeks to divide and thereby weaken opposition. The only response is to connect, communicate, and organize.


We must be cautious not to allow the present day reactionary attitudes toward migration to set the agenda. Conservative reforms that were common sense in recent decades are not victories we should endorse. Progressives have allowed the far-right to define the parameters of debate around immigration with a discourse of fear and exclusion. We need to take back and reframe the debates about immigration around love and inclusion.

Radical Imagination

We are frequently told that open borders are a utopian fantasy and that the phrase “no one is illegal” demonstrates a naive failure to understand how our social and political systems function. The most effective way of opposing change is to convince people of its impossibility or of the inevitability of the status quo. We need to be practical, but this should not hinder our ability to dream.



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