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‘Moral argument belongs at the center of the immigration debate’

Resource type: News

Boston Review |

by Gara LaMarche

Joseph Carens’s proposal is so eminently humane and sensible, and so thoughtfully put, that it is possible to forget while reading it just why it is extremely controversial. Amid the anti-immigrant ravings of Lou Dobbs, the immigration debate in the United States has too often lost sight of the basic humanity of those it most concerns, and the voices most supportive of “irregular migrants” (not a perfect term, but better than “undocumented” and much preferable to “illegal”) have too often surrendered the moral high ground, or any morality-based argument at all. Carens’s essay is a welcome step in the other direction.

Carens is right to ground his appeal in stories because they force the reader to engage the moral issues at stake. In my role at two foundations, the Open Society Institute and The Atlantic Philanthropies, I have long been a supporter of generous immigration policies and a path to citizenship for those who came here irregularly. But I did not begin to approach the issue with the passion I now feel until a few years ago, when I had the experience of watching a batch of films on migration as a judge for a film festival. In one, a Salvadoran woman leaves home, her children in the care of a husband too ill to work, to journey across Mexico to the United States in search of a job that will enable her to send money back. It is a familiar tale. But to come to terms with every step of the danger and abuse she faces along the way—from violent bandits, corrupt police, rapacious employers—is to wonder, when she finally reaches the United States, why we treat her as a criminal. Why, indeed, do we not award her with citizenship upon entry? What moral claim have I upon the benefits of citizenship by virtue of the accident of my birth, as opposed to the hard-earned claim she built through her ordeal?

I am not seriously proposing either an end to birthright citizenship—a favorite target of the more vicious xenophobes—or that green cards should be granted instantly to anyone who makes it across the border, papers or not. But I do think Carens adds much to the debate by focusing us on the human realities and the equity that so many migrants have built in their communities.

He also contributes a welcome dose of human reality to the controversies over the myriad nets we use to ensnare irregular migrants, and why we might view differently the use of false papers by people who are simply trying to survive and to help their families survive. Where there is no choice—where there is no way to work, or rent property, or receive medical care, or drive without subterfuge—the desperate nature of such fraud deserves moral weight as the state seeks to invoke and apply otherwise valid laws.

For too many years, the periodically roiling debate over immigration has been characterized by barely coded appeals to racism on one side (“why don’t they learn English?”) and good-government policy briefs on the other. I am not proposing, in responding positively to Carens’s essay, that immigration advocates abandon their analyses of labor-market impact, their cost-benefit calculations. I am not advocating the abandonment of rights claims. But I do think the moral argument should rank higher, as it does for Carens.

Making a priority of the moral argument has implications beyond immigration. Advocates against the the death penalty, and, more recently, torture, have adjusted to the temper of the times by shifting heavily to pragmatic considerations: executions do not deter crime, torture produces unreliable information, and so on. These claims are are true, and they need to be made. But if they constitute the essence of the argument, rather than buttress a moral case, they can evaporate in the swarm of ideological combat, and we will have surrendered our common humanity, our most powerful appeals to our best selves, for the sake of debaters’ points. For Joseph Carens’s small effort to restore a moral dimension to discussions of the lives and futures of eleven million fellow humans, I am grateful.

Read the full issue below.

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Immigration & Migration


Gara LaMarche