Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Migration

Migrant's Eye View of the World - Alex Sager

2017 was a grim year for migrants.

The Migration Policy Institute’s Top 10 Issues of 2017  include the  cancellation of DACA and the narrowing of legal immigration under the Trump administration, the Rohingyas’ flight from ethnic cleansing, and the EU’s outsourcing of immigration controls to Libya. It was a year in which mobile people were routinely brutalized and excluded, in many cases by democratic regimes allegedly committed to humanitarianism and human rights.

When compared to the atrocities committed against the Rohingya or the migrants sold on slave markets of Libya, it is easy to downplay #9 of the Migration Policy Institute’s “Top 10”, the mainstreaming of nativism. After all, the success of far right parties in Europe is nothing new. Less predictable was the election of Donald Trump on a nativist, anti-immigration platform that would come to fruition under a dysfunctional bureaucracy and the influence of the nefarious Steves (Bannon and Miller).

The Trump Presidency will end sooner or later. The nativist legacy that teaches people to see immigrants as dangerous strangers with different, threatening customs and values is more likely to endure.

My monograph Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility is written with the conviction that we need to change how we think about human mobility. Advocates of more open immigration policies find themselves mired in the assumptions that migrants are threats and that exclusionary policies are natural. Immigration advocates are trapped by stereotypes of “good” or “deserving” immigrants, hardworking, economically productive, churchgoing, community-minded. Their attempts to secure mercy for these “model immigrants” simultaneously play into racist stereotypes that many immigrants aren’t “good”. As a result, progressive action on immigration struggles not to transform systems, but rather to slightly improve a status quo in which millions of migrants suffer violence, exclusion, and deprivation.

A major task for political philosophy is to determine the most adequate concepts and categories for normative analysis

Our concepts and categories determine which parts of the world capture our attention. They also limit our imagination, leading us to think that today’s social and political world is natural and inevitable. Political philosophy remains very much beholden to methodological nationalism, taking for granted and legitimizing the nation-state’s point of view.  From the perspective of the nation-state, immigration is an anomaly, something to be alternatively resisted, tolerated, or encouraged depending on its perceived benefits and harms. Immigration is an exception to the sedentariness, the view that people are meant to be rooted to one place and that nomadism is abnormal.

Methodological nationalism misleads us about the nature of the world. The nation-state tries to remake the world in its image, but its success is at best partial. Political philosophers need to engage social scientists that challenge the narrow, nationalist vision. In particular, they need to engage the mobility turn in the social sciences and recognize that mobility is a natural, necessary activity – migration is part of the human condition. They also need to take into account the transnational reality of many people’s lives. And they need to recognize how borders are constructed, excluding and including people and distributing goods and opportunities in complex (and often morally problematic) ways.

Migration, not immigration (or better yet, mobility)

We need to stop writing about immigration. “Immigration” is a concept mired in methodological nationalism. It sees people as rootless outsiders. If their presence was not authorized, they must be detained and deported. If they meet the approval of the state, they are to be assimilated or integrated to the national culture. “Immigration” leads us to ignore “emigration” and how regions are connected, often by economic and political policies that expel vulnerable members of sending communities. The concept of immigration also obliterates circular migration (again, connecting regions, often through migration systems) and transnationalism – the fact that many people’s lives cross national boundaries.

In fact, the term “mobility” is preferable to “migration”, since it reminds us that mobility is part of our everyday lives (think of the morning commute) and that international migration is in most respects similar to internal migration. Whereas international migration is automatically considered a problem, much internal migration goes unnoticed, despite the fact that it is often a result of political violence or economic expulsion (see, for example, Beijing’s brutal expulsion of rural migrants living on its outskirts). This prevents us from making normative connections between similar events – for example, seeing climate migration, eviction, gentrification, refugee camps, and segregated neighborhoods together as examples of expulsion, exclusion, and confinement.

Need for an ethics of borders

Methodological nationalists reduce borders to national borders (and often conceive of them crudely as lying on the edges of nation-states, ignoring how border enforcement in fact takes place within territories, on international waters, and through proxies located in other states). This overlooks the multiple types of borders that make up our social world, many of which are porous and inclusive. In our daily lives we continually negotiate borders surrounding our families, colleagues, social groups, communities and much else. Though these borders are rarely enforced with the sort of violence that is commonplace in immigration control, they nonetheless mark off groups of people, distinguishing insiders from outsiders and allowing people to jointly carry out projects.

For this reason, calls for open borders or for no borders are insufficiently precise. Though border controls need to be justified (and often are not), borders are inevitable. They are also necessary for human flourishing. We need to better understand the many functions of borders and evaluate them ethically. What we need to evaluate are the reasons for and functions of exclusion. Exclusion is often done for morally repugnant reasons – racism is the most prominent. Borders can also serve to exploit workers by depriving them of crucial rights, prevent social groups from accessing opportunities, and redistribute resources upwards. An ethics of borders needs to evaluate these reasons and functions to determine when borders are permissible and even laudable and when they should be reformed or abolished.

Cosmopolitanism needs to be critical

An ethics of migration or mobility should be cosmopolitan. But it should be a critical cosmopolitanism. This means three things. First, we should engage social scientific research that shows that much of our world is banally cosmopolitan. As much as nationalists want to pretend that their societies are impermeable containers of homogenized citizens, the world intrudes on all of us. Privileges are unevenly and unjustly distributed – globalization excludes and exploits as well as liberates. Nonetheless, our social world is the product of centuries, if not millennia, of migration of people and ideas.

Second, all people are worthy of equal respect and dignity. Place of birth is morally arbitrary and should not determine people’s life chances. Nonetheless, treating people equitably often demands treating them differently. We need to move away from an abstract notion of human equality and examine the systems and structures that actually determine people’s life chances. We must recognize that people are situated differently and are thus affected differently depending on their relative privilege and vulnerability. We need to be alive to the possibility that our views are ideological, systematically serving the interests of powerful actors who seek to shape the world to their benefit. For example, if we endorse open borders (and I do), we need to ask about how it would be implemented and how it will affect people.

Finally, critical cosmopolitanism aims at human emancipation. It seeks to understand why the world falls short of cosmopolitan ideals and ventures proposals for what would be needed to achieve cosmopolitan justice. Migration justice will be achieved only with systemic change – it will not be achieved within the strictures of the nation-state system. This in turn will not be possible unless we rethink how we think about human mobility and membership.

You can purchase Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s Eye View of the World directly from Palgrave MacMillan or from Amazon.

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