Immigration Is Ethical at Heart


Immigration and immigration reform are hot topics around the United States and the world. Most articles refer to reform, stopping immigration and/or asking what should be done with the hundreds of illegal children crossing into the U.S. At its heart, immigration is an ethical issue. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University takes the perspective that there is a need for understanding by politicians and government in regards to the ethics of immigration and migration.

At the center, the human perspective is most important. It is the only way policy makers can create short- and long-term solutions to the immigration problem. It is a complex problem which will require complex solutions. Migrants immigrate for a variety of reasons, including food shortages where they currently live, lack of opportunities and  the need to find a potential safe haven. Their reasons may encompass all of these reasons as well.

There are different ethical philosophies one can follow when deciding the immigration debate. A popular idea that is repeated in the news is the idea of duty. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is deontological in nature and takes a rational approach to problems. His emphasis is on having good will and the duty to be morally respectful, which extends to others as well. This means that to act out of moral duty, one must act in a way that would be acceptable for everyone else to act. Human beings, following Kant’s rules, are not to be treated as simple means to ends. In this sense, duty requires respecting others and is similar to the “Golden Rule” found in Christian ethics, psychology and other philosophies.

Humans have a duty to other humans. Duty does not mean providing everything for everybody all of the time, but working with people to provide help is a duty. Treating immigrants as human beings and not as numbers to be shipped back or for economical approximations is important. Immigrant children, especially, pull at the hearts of many, further creating an ethical dilemma.

Some would say there is a duty (Kantian) to help the children crossing through U.S. borders. Others say the duty is to the United States citizens only, and that it is necessary to send all of the children back regardless of the cost or what will happen to them upon their return.

Taking the idea of duty a step further is the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Their argument is that the earth belongs to the global community in common. Any land touted as in common is land owned by all, and could be a common park for a neighborhood or a state forest that every person living within 10 miles owns. The Council’s thinking progresses to a global context in saying that the United States could satisfy its duties by helping immigrants, which is also helping the global poor.

From the Council’s perspective, building fences is not a viable option nor is it a moral option. The invisible line in the sand created private property centuries ago. This idea goes back to the seventeenth century philosophers who believed the earth belonged to all of mankind. Taking this viewpoint, immigration should not be an issue. Children and adults would be able to come and go as they please to any country, but a free-for-all would not be acceptable either. Laws are needed to create order.

Rules are set in place for travel, work and even vacations for a reason. Safety is the biggest of those reasons and why many people do not complain about carrying multiple pieces of identification. Immigration rules and reform are needed for much the same reason. People entering into a country need to know they will be protected under their new country’s laws, and those within a country such as the United States need to know they are safe from unsavory potential immigrants.

Duty is important to both groups of people – current residents and immigrants. Policy makers struggle to consider both when discussing immigration reform partly because the human element seems to be lately missing. Duty and the ethics behind it are at the heart of immigration and should be discussed by government officials – both Democrats and Republicans – in deciding upon what to do with the recent influx of immigrants into the U.S.

Opinion by Sara Kourtsounis

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Relations
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Santa Clara University

One Response to "Immigration Is Ethical at Heart"

  1. stephanie valenzuela   July 19, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    I totally agree.


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