Jun 8, 2010

Philosophical Phun - Immigration

There are a variety of important issues surrounding the morality of immigration, including difficult questions regarding the definition and moral status of refugees, the circumstances (if any) in which it is permissible to use guest workers, what obligations a rich country incurs when it actively recruits skilled workers from a poor state, and whether there are any limitations on the selection criteria a country may use in deciding among applicants for immigration.

 Arguments for Closed Borders
  •  Preserving Culture: The most popular argument for the permissibility and importance of closing borders to outsiders is that this exclusion is necessary in order to preserve a state's distinctive culture.
  • Sustaining the Economy: Another popular argument against open borders is that the influx of newcomers will hurt the economy. Some in the domestic economy may be harmed (typically the less skilled workers disproportionately bear the brunt of the costs, but the economy as a whole often benefits.
  • Distributing State Benefits: A related but distinct argument for closed borders focuses on the distribution of state benefits like welfare payments and health insurance.
  •  Establishing Security: Since 9/11, an increasingly popular justification for limiting immigration is the need to secure the safety of one's citizens.

There certainly are strong economic and security reasons for having tighter borders, but I think it is more of a national thing, not a state thing.

Arguments for Open Borders

  •  Cosmopolitan Egalitarianism: The cosmopolitan egalitarian case for open borders combines the core moral insight that all human beings, whether they are compatriots or foreigners, are equally deserving of moral consideration with the central empirical observation that one's country of birth often has a profound impact upon one's life prospects.
  • Libertarianism: When one thinks of the individual rights which conflict with a state's control over immigration, an outsider's right to freedom of movement is likely to come to mind. A state's exclusive immigration policy is doubly disrespectful of individual rights, because it interferes with both an outsider's freedom of movement and an insider's property right to unilaterally invite foreigners onto their land.
  • Utilitarianism: Restricting freedom of movement leads to obvious inefficiencies and is therefore impermissible. There are any number of ways in which it is suboptimal to forcibly restrain people within territorial boundaries, but one of the most obvious worries is that it is economically inefficient.


  •  Refugees: The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [Note that economic considerations are missing from the definition]
  • Guest Workers: This practice was a sensible solution for all, since it enabled one country to hire foreign workers to do various relatively onerous jobs for considerably less than it would have had to pay its domestic labor force, and the imported laborers also profited, as they were able to earn considerably more than they could have in their own countries. However, the outside workers are often not granted full rights/benefits in their host country. There are interesting and difficult questions about how long and under what conditions one can work in a foreign country without the standard rights and privileges of equal citizenship before one becomes objectionably treated as a political subordinate.
  • Recruiting Immigrants: Wealthy countries currently admit skilled workers from poorer states, often actively recruiting away from their native lands. It is thought to rise to the level of injustice when the wealthiest countries actively recruit professionals from developing countries where people with their skill sets are already in terribly short supply.
  • Selection Criteria: Finally, one of the most complex and controversial issues within the literature on the morality of immigration is what criteria a state may permissibly employ to distinguish among applicants for admission. Countries might use either a lottery or a first-come, first-admitted waitlist, but they might also screen the applicants and give preference to those whose language, culture and/or skill sets make them most likely to assimilate in the host state's economy and political culture. But what if a country's immigration policies differentiate among applicants on the basis of race, sex, religion or country of origin? What if a country flatly refused to even consider applications for immigration from Asians or Africans, for instance?

In all cases in which there are national or ethnic minorities—which is to say, the vast majority of actual cases—to restrict immigration for national or ethnic reasons is to make some citizens politically inferior to others…. Seeking to eliminate the presence of a given group from your society by selective immigration is insulting to that group already present.

To me, not withstanding all the above, democratic societies/states are obliged to treat all of their own constituents as free and equal. The key is to control the influx at the boarders (after all, we can not economically welcome all comers). Once in country, we have a more obligation to treat all humanely. I would rather have some illegal immigrants in our country than resort to police state tactics.



  1. Well, I know I'm a tree-hugging hippie, but I keep thinking about the randomness of it all. I was born in America, but that just makes me LUCKY. I am grateful I was born into these circumstances, but I did nothing to deserve it. Since that's the case, it makes it much more difficult for me to tell other people they don't deserve to be here. Who "deserves" any of it?

  2. Very interesting article Ken. One of the objections I've heard often about immigrants is the financial drain on our economy as they send money earned here back to their native lands. But how can this country complain about that when it outsources so much labor to foreign countries?


  3. Unlucky Bonnie, I don't feel any guilt for being lucky to have been born American. In fact, that would be a never ending feeling... I mean, you could have been born in any number of circumatances as an American where you could experience the disenfranchisement on par with those who seek entry to this country, with out being an alien.

    I think that excuses are being made for those who come to this country illegally and like the article you sourced and you pointed out, being poor is not reason to allow entry into this country.


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