Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Guided Discovery of the Moral Questions Raised by Immigration

This BBC podcast was recommended by a Flophouse reader and it's absolutely brilliant. It's part of a series called The Public Philosopher and in this episode Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel led what I would call a "guided discovery" about the moral principles that lie under the surface of immigration policy.  Sandel is a philosopher but the people talking aren't - these are regular people answering as honestly as they can why they believe as they do.  Sandel and company are Americans and that I think that is reflected in some of their answers but the questions and the moral issues would be the same anywhere.  Here are a few of my comments about what I heard.

It's the Law:  This is the point of departure for many Americans and it was one of the first points made. Americans have a reverence for the law that you don't find everywhere in the world.  This is not necessarily to their credit - it's just different and something I always notice when I go back to the U.S. Debates about immigration that talk about people coming to the U.S. and staying illegally always include this dimension which says that the law is the law and people should never be rewarded for breaking it.   An interesting attitude since the U.S. has an awful lot of people in prison and most of them are native born.

If you go to other countries that are facing the same questions, the legality of it is necessarily one of their top reasons for being against informal immigration and a path to citizenship for the "sans papiers." This is not to say that people in other countries have contempt for the law (just try it in France and see how far that gets you) but the fact that something is or isn't legal does not translate to "must be obeyed at all times under all circumstances until the law is changed."   In fact, in some places the law may on the books but there may be a tacit agreement among all parties (public and police) that breaking this or that one is tolerated.  In other places the law is clearly secondary to things like social harmony and relationships.  The law is obeyed when it reinforces these things and ignored when it doesn't.  Interestingly enough some of these countries have far fewer people in prison compared to the U.S. so clearly strong feelings about the rule of law do not necessarily translate into fewer people breaking it.

Emigration:  Completely absent from the debate.  The few immigrants who spoke did not even once invoke their status as emigrants from somewhere else.  Some of the native born did and pointed out that their ancestors were once immigrants as well.  But not one person talked about how immigration and emigration policy are intertwined - two sides of the same coin.  I don't think it occurred to one person in that room that they or one of their children might emigrate from the U.S. to another country making them or their children immigrants somewhere else.  Clearly Americans like French or Chinese or Brazilians do emigrate - the American diaspora is 6 million strong these days - but emigration is not even on the radar of the average American.  And I can't help but think that's a pity.  The immigration debate in the U.S. and in other places would be so much richer if people everywhere could contemplate the issues from the perspective of a potential migrant.

One of the points I wish someone had made is the fact that emigration and the right to leave one's country is enshrined in international law.  If you asked the average French person or American or German or Australian if he or she has that right, I'm sure they would reply with a strong affirmative.  However, the right to emigrate is limited because almost every country places controls on immigration and to my knowledge not one recognizes an absolute right to immigrate and enter their country.  And that's pretty strange when you think about it.

Citizenship:  Sandel makes a clear statement about this at the end - immigration/emigration policy is touchy because it raises some very fundamental questions about what it means to be a citizen and a member of a community.  One way to clarify things is to take whatever controls people wish to place on immigration and then apply them to citizens.

For example, one person argued that the U.S.  has limited space and resources and thus cannot allow large uncontrolled numbers of people into the country.  Sandel had a very interesting question in response to this.  Assuming that this is correct and that resources and living space are limited, why then do countries allowed citizens to freely procreate?  If there really is a danger of there not being enough healthcare, living space, jobs and so on, then shouldn't we be restricting people's right to have as many children as they want? Whether it's through immigration or births the result is the same - more people and if you really think that there are too many (or just the right amount) people already in a territory then it would make a lot of sense to control both immigration and the number of births.

For countries in demographic decline that don't want immigration the question is a little different. If what people in those countries want is to preserve the population they already have then isn't there an argument in there for forcing or strongly encouraging citizens to have children?  I actually made this argument in response to a Frenchwoman who was going on and on at a party about how there were too many immigrants in France who couldn't integrate and were diluting the native French population.  I made the observation that it was certainly within her and her fellow citizens power to fix this - just have three or more kids each, I said.  Every one of you.  Consider it your patriotic duty.  Needless to say, she got really mad at me. :-)

Another argument that is used in support of controlling immigration is the idea that a country needs to have certain entry standards and should only allow in those people a country needs or finds desirable.  The sick, the lame, the criminal, the poorly educated need not apply.  Fair enough but that does raise the question of what to do with citizens who are already in these undesirable categories.  Just by having these standards a country has set a definition of who are the best, the most desirable, the first-class citizens.  This has important implications for the existing citizenry. Is France, for example, sending a message through her selective immigration standards that the nation really needs and wants that French-speaking computer programmer from Canada?  Okay.  So what about that unemployed laborer in Brittany?  Is he an unwanted second-class citizen to be tolerated only because he's a French citizen by birth and under international law they can't throw him out or strongly encourage him to leave?

This is something that citizens need to think about.  Especially if they themselves do not meet the standards that they themselves think should be met by potential citizens.  If countries could rid themselves of undesirable unproductive citizens, would they?  The answer is "yes."  This has happened in the past when countries used emigration to rid themselves of the unemployed, the criminal and others who were considered to be a burden on society.  The UK used to take orphans (minors) who ended up in the poorhouse and shipped them to families in Canada to get rid of them.   Australia and the U.S. were originally places where countries could empty their prisons and clear the streets and welfare rolls of the indigent.  You don't see that anymore but the fact remains that by setting standards for immigrants (future citizens),  a country is also saying something about what it thinks of its existing citizenry.

A sincere "thank you" to the Flophouse reader who passed along this link.  I'll stop talking now and let you have a listen.  If you are so inspired I would love to hear what you think in the comments section.  Here's the link again:    The Public Philosopher - Immigration.


Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria
Glad you enjoyed the podcast. Thank you for the interesting summary.

If you have a minute, take a look at one of the episodes from Michael Sandel's series "Justice" available at
I came across this on-line educational opportunity by mistake. I had a look at the first episode and was hooked. Seeing him in action is really fascinating. I didn't think philosophy would be my cup of tea but this guy is such a fabulous professor that I couldn't turn it off! Now I understand why the French teach philosophy in Lycée.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, Wow! these are just extraordinary. I'm watching episode 4 and remembering all the joys of studying political science over 20 years ago.

Alas my Frenchlings lacked appreciation for their philosophy classes in French high school. My elder would come home complaining that Freud was a misogynist ass and she didn't see why he was worth her time. I didn't reply but I remember thanking my lucky stars that she at least knew enough about him and others to be able to have an informed opinion. :-)