Immigration and Self-Governance

Three issues—the right to secure borders, the moral costs of illegal immigration, and the virtues of generous neighborliness and forgiveness—must be clarified in order to address the problems of immigration reform.

The recently passed immigration bill in Arizona has rekindled our national debate over the problem of illegal immigration and potential immigration reform. Our public discourse on this issue is severely hampered, however, because we lack the necessary categories for thinking about and discussing such a social issue as this. The prospect of an adequate treatment is unlikely to be furthered without some reflection on the principles underlying the rights of nations to secure their borders, the moral costs of illegal immigration, and the virtues that could be called on in resolving our current crisis. While a proper treatment of these matters, to say nothing of the Arizona bill, would require much more than a short essay, I seek to elucidate these three topics below.

What, then, justifies the right of a nation to secure its borders? What, that is, justifies a nation’s right to exclude?

Consider first the idea of self-governance. The forms of self-governance characteristic of Western liberal democracies—free and fair elections, representative government based on public deliberation, checks and balances, and the like—are not, I think, the primary reasons for which political authority is warranted. These primary reasons include needs closer to necessary conditions for human flourishing: protection from threats internal and external to a community, coordination of a common form of life, and provision of some basic welfare needs to those who would otherwise be incapable of providing for themselves and who would also not be adequately cared for by others.

These needs could be met by a largely authoritarian form of political authority. Yet something in such an arrangement would clearly be deficient from the standpoint of our sense of human dignity, freedom, and equality. The role of subject, we have come to see, is not as fitting as the role of citizen.

So the need for citizenship, while not primary, is nevertheless of considerable importance to a people who wish to obtain forms of political rule compatible with their human dignity, freedom, and equality. And citizenship, in turn, can be understood, as Will Kymlicka puts it, as “membership in a self-governing political community.” Thus, self-governance is a legitimate and important political aspiration of a free people.

This ideal of self-governance clearly constrains the variety of ways in which a society could understand both itself and its relationships to other societies. But any self-governing society, in order to maintain its existence as such a society into the future, must possess and exercise a robust, though on occasion defeasible, right of exclusion.

The reason for this is simple. Self-governance requires a shared self-understanding. A society that has no shared sense of who it is, and of what common values, history, language, and cultural forms bind its members together, is not a single society after all. It is precisely through exclusion—through demands that entrants to the society meet certain requirements tied to shared values, history, language, or culture—that society maintains that shared sense of self. Were there no right to exclusion, or only a very weak right, then society would be in such a state of flux as to be incapable of deliberating, choosing, and acting as a single social reality. Mere contestation, or worse, would become the primary mode of politics.

Of course, the rights of self-governance and exclusion have limits. The exigent needs of refugees from political persecution and natural disaster can generate demands that must, morally, be met by a people with the resources and the ability, perhaps due to geographic proximity, to meet them. Yet to deny the right to exclusion altogether is ultimately, as John Finnis has noted in discussing liberal multiculturalism, to risk the “self-destruction of liberal states by the admission and fostering of illiberal minorities.”

It would appear, in consequence, that when the right of exclusion is flouted or inadequately enforced, then the society in question suffers from the standpoint of the standard of self-governance. That society does not, perhaps, deliberate adequately; or perhaps it does not come to a judgment; or perhaps it does not put its judgments into action; and, in any case, its deliberations, judgments, and actions fail to meet the forms of cooperation from others necessary for success. This is one moral cost to society of unchecked illegal immigration.

A society can be morally injured in other ways by illegal immigration. In the United States illegal immigration is in large part a function of a desire for work; but this desire could be effective in motivating immigration to the U.S. only if there was, in fact, work for illegal immigrants to do, often for less money than would be otherwise paid, and without any tax burden on employers. And thus the U.S. is in the untenable position of saying both “no” and “yes” to illegal immigration. We condemn it, while at the same time we collectively and individually benefit by it, and allow ourselves to depend upon it.

This is a failure of self-governance in a different sense from the one already canvassed. A society with such incompatible desires is, like an individual whose life is structured by warring motivations, lacking in integrity and self-control. Its failure is akin to that of an addict, committed to overcoming his dependence, but incapable of doing so today, and thus acting in ways contrary to his commitment. For such a person, or such a society, there is, in a sense, no one self to be determined yet, but two, in need of unification.

I wish to mention two further moral costs: to the illegal immigrant, and to legal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants to the United States are hardly in a better situation than a disunified society, from a moral standpoint. For, caught in a social world that both needs them but refuses to legally ratify their presence, they depend upon the bad faith and dishonesty of others, and acquiesce repeatedly in that same dishonesty. In this, the illegal immigrant is in something like the condition of the subject of a totalitarian society: The illegal immigrant must live a lie, and is encouraged to live that lie—to tell the truth would be to dismantle the structures on which his livelihood depends.

But a life pervasively structured by deceit and dishonesty is as bad spiritually and morally for the one lying as well as the one(s) lied to. The illegal immigrant suffers a profound failure of integrity, insofar as his external life and internal life are in constant tension. In a social world in which lying is a necessity, the illegal immigrant thus also suffers from a failure of self-governance: he cannot take charge of his personality and bring internal and external unity to it in a virtuous manner.

In addition to the costs to society as a whole and to the illegal immigrants in particular, there is the burden born by legal immigrants and even some citizens who can come under suspicion or abuse at least partly because they are suspected of being illegal. Such unfair treatment would not exist were there little or no illegal immigration, and it seems a serious problem with the Arizona legislation that it has the potential to increase this particular burden on legal immigrants.

Two conclusions can be drawn from these considerations. The first, following from the discussion of the right of exclusion, is that a state may legitimately restrict entrance in order to maintain the ability of its people to govern themselves and to pursue their common good. The second is that states should make a considerable effort to eliminate illegal immigration and the social structures that facilitate it, such as widespread employment of illegal workers. But neither of these tells us positively how states should think about either the prospects of future legal immigration, or how to deal with those immigrants currently in the country illegally. In conclusion, I wish to suggest that two virtues could be important in thinking about these problems.

The first I call the virtue of generous neighborliness. While it is true that in an abstract way all immigrants around the world may seem to have an equal right to try to gain entrance to the U.S., it is simply a brute fact that we, an extremely prosperous country, border a country in which many people struggle to make ends meet, and in which peace and justice are hard to come by. While the argument from self-governance allows fairly wide latitude to a country to determine how it will spend its resources and to whom it will provide aid, I think that the virtue of generous neighborliness, a virtue perhaps in decline at the individual and social level, would prompt a more permissive immigration policy toward our neighbors to the south, particularly insofar as their purpose in coming to the United States is generally to work and to escape near desperate living conditions. So a virtuous, although perhaps not an obligatory, response to our neighbors to the south would be a much more easily obtained work visa and a fast track for entrance for workers looking for jobs for which there is high demand.

The second I call the virtue of generous forgiveness. We are, to repeat, a prosperous and peaceful country; we make few demands of our citizens for personal sacrifice, and few of us know true want or desperation. Our form of self-governance—the way in which we determine what kind of a people we are to be—can take the shape of a willingness to forgive, as a society, the actions of our neighbors which were taken under duress and for generally noble motives, such as the desire to care for a family. This virtue prompts support for a general amnesty policy and perhaps a fast track to citizenship for some—not as an isolated act, to be repeated serially every ten or twenty years, but in conjunction with the meeting of our obligations as regards illegal immigration. Such an approach is not obligatory, but it would constitute us as a nation in a responsibly virtuous manner. This virtue would additionally need to be shared by those who had gained admission to the country legally, for they would need to forgive some amount of injustice done to them by those who had not followed the same legal protocols.

The right and obligation to enforce a non-vacuous immigration policy can thus go hand in hand with a virtuous approach both to our neighbors who wish to enter and our fellows who have entered illegally but from otherwise upright motives. What cannot co-exist with virtue or the fulfillment of obligations in justice is the maintenance of the current status quo.

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