Earthly Kingdoms in the Shadow of the Heavenly: Understanding the Ethics of Immigration

by Peter Meilaender


Source: NBC News (April 5, 2016)

Immigration has been a recurring issue of political debate in Western liberal democracies over the past several decades. Already in the 1970s and 80s, soaring levels of both legal and illegal immigration in the United States and efforts to deal with the legacy of guest worker programs in many European countries made immigration a contested topic. In the years since then, its political salience has waxed and waned. Recently, however, it has provoked especially sharp controversy across the West. At least three major elections this year, in three different countries, have been significantly influenced by the politics of immigration.

Exhibit A: In the United States, immigration was arguably the single most important issue shaping the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. When Donald Trump entered the race, he appeared to be a most unlikely candidate. Yet one after another he drove his more experienced and plausible opponents from the race. And his successful appeals to fears about immigration were responsible, more than any other issue, for his success. His proposals may have sounded extreme or outlandish to many in the media or the political class: to force Mexico to build a wall along the entire US-Mexican border, to ban Muslims from entering the country. But they struck a chord among many Republican voters, precisely because of their emphatic and unambiguous nature. Particularly at a time when many voters feel rightly endangered by the threat of radical Islamist terrorism, Trump promised clarity and security.

Exhibit B: In April of 2016, Austria held the first round of a presidential election. The Austrian president is constitutionally endowed with considerable powers, including in theory even the power to dissolve the lower house of parliament. In practice, however, he has been largely a figurehead filling a ceremonial role. The president is elected in a two-round system: if no candidate receives at least 50% of the vote in an initial round, then a run-off election is held between the two leading vote-getters. For the past 30 years the position has always been filled by a representative of one of Austria’s two leading parties, the center-right Austrian People’s Party and the center-left Social Democratic Party.

This year, however, the election took an unexpected turn. Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing, Euroskeptic, and anti-immigration Freedom Party defied expectations by leading all candidates with an impressive 35% of the vote in the first round. There is no question that the European refugee crisis, which saw large numbers of refugees enter Austria either with the intention of remaining or of passing through to Germany, was a critical factor sparking the groundswell of support for Hofer. In that first round, the candidates of the two main centrist parties finished last, with neither advancing to the second round in May, where Hofer faced off against the Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. In that election, Hofer initially appeared to have won a narrow victory, but after absentee ballots had been counted, Van der Bellen overtook him and won by a mere 31,000 votes. The Freedom Party, however, alleged voting irregularities in the counting of absentee ballots, and in July Austria’s Constitutional Court agreed that almost 80,000 ballots had been improperly counted, enough to have called the election into question. So a new election will be held in October. As of this writing, Hofer leads the polls by a few percentage points. If he is elected, the immigration issue will have unexpectedly produced contemporary Europe’s first far-right head of state.

Exhibit C: The third example will come as no surprise and requires the least comment. It is, of course, the so-called Brexit vote held in June by the UK, in which 52% of British voters elected to leave the European Union. The reasons behind the Brexit vote may be more complicated than the dynamics in the other two cases. Britain has always had a somewhat distant relationship with the EU, and the broad question of national sovereignty, of which immigration is only one part, was clearly important in that vote. But nearly all commentators agreed that concerns over immigration and the desire to reclaim Britain’s control over its own borders were important factors driving the result.

Three countries, three elections–from Austria to the US in the North Atlantic–across the West, immigration, an issue that symbolizes democratic control over the nation-state, has been playing a pivotal role in shaping the current political scene. All the more reason, therefore, to think clearly about it, and all the more reason to be disappointed that so much of the rhetoric surrounding immigration tends not to produce clear thought. Too often the issue is described in terms aimed at generating media controversy rather than understanding: as a battle between those who want open borders and those who want high, impregnable walls, between the compassionate and the heartless, between those who cannot imagine ever denying entrance to a refugee and those who cannot imagine offering it to a Muslim.

Although truth does not always lie in splitting the difference between extremes, in this instance we can identify a moral middle ground that attempts to do justice to the claims of citizens and outsiders alike. It is necessary first to recognize what we might call the shape of immigration as a moral issue. What do immigration restrictions actually involve? To borrow a striking phrase from the political theorist Joseph Carens (a defender of open borders), “Borders have guards, and the guards have guns.” When we deny entry to would-be immigrants, we exercise force, or the threat of force, against outsiders. We employ the state’s power of compulsion to defend our own interests–political, cultural, economic–against those seeking to enter. Our actions assume, implicitly, that we are entitled to give a kind of moral preference or priority to the needs of our fellow citizens, even at a possible cost to foreigners, perhaps even quite needy foreigners.

To frame it in these terms is to see that immigration presents us with a moral dilemma familiar in other circumstances: what we might call the problem of preferential love, or the challenge of weighing our particular obligations and commitments to those to whom we stand in special relationships against our universal obligations to all human beings. We are accustomed to thinking that we may legitimately give special weight to the needs of those with whom we share particular bonds. Thus I feed my own children rather than distributing food randomly throughout the neighborhood; I offer support and comfort to my own wife rather than to women in general (now, there is a recipe for disaster!); I care for my own aging parents rather than drawing the names of senior citizens from a hat. These preferences are not illegitimate or immoral; to the contrary, we would criticize a person who failed to recognize their weight.

In the same fashion, we should think of ourselves as having special obligations toward our fellow countrymen and countrywomen, and a duty to give a certain preference to their own needs and interests. It is important to distinguish this from mere selfishness: if I am concerned for the unskilled worker who loses his job to cheap foreign labor, this is not self-interest on my part, but rather an expression of charity. Arguments about immigration, therefore, are not usefully understood as competitions between the compassionate and the selfish; rather, they are about charity directed (in the first instance) toward our fellow citizens and charity directed (again, in the first instance) toward non-members. Because charity toward our fellow citizens carries greater moral weight, at least presumptively or under most conditions, it is appropriate for countries to limit immigration in order to protect their own polity, economy, and culture. We see, therefore, that the standard position under international law, and the ordinary assumption of most citizens–that sovereign states are entitled to regulate entry–has a moral justification.

At the same time, however, the priority of particular loves or obligations is not absolute. Though I feed my own children rather than random children in the neighborhood, I do not feed them ten sumptuous meals a day while watching neighborhood kids starve. There is a limit on the kinds of preference I may show and a point at which the demands of universal charity outweigh my special relationships. There is not, I think, any formula by which to identify that limit in the abstract, without judging a specific situation in all its detail. But the limit does exist. We recognize this to some extent in our treatment of refugees, who are properly thought to have a claim to assistance from (and often admission to) other states, and even more obviously in the practice of asylum, in which we refuse to return vulnerable people already in our own territory to countries where they would face persecution. Asylum is, to be sure, an imperfect solution, but its widespread (if sometimes reluctant) acceptance does show that we recognize the limits placed on our own special relationships.

This balance between the universal and the particular reflects the duality of our nature as embodied creatures called ultimately to a transcendent destiny. One day we shall share the heavenly kingdom with all of our Christian brothers and sisters, and there is an intimation of that kingdom even now in our recognition of the universal moral bonds of humanity. But as embodied creatures who inhabit a particular time and place, we do not live out our moral obligations universally. Rather, we learn to show love first by showing it to those whom God has especially entrusted to us: our parents and children, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners…and fellow citizens.

We can thus justify immigration restrictions and need not accept all comers–not even, indeed, all especially needy comers, if the pressures become more than we can bear without doing injustice toward those with a prior claim upon us. Yet the demands of universal charity also keep breaking in upon us, and therefore we must recognize also the claims of refugees, or long-term alien residents, or those whose need is desperate. To insist on total closure would be to claim for the earthly kingdom a level of control and finality that it cannot sustain and should not want to possess. Neither open borders nor high and impregnable walls should be our goal.

This does not take us all the way toward a concrete policy on, say, amnesty for long-term aliens in the United States, or refugee admissions from the Middle East in the European Union. It points, however, in constructive directions. To see clearly the shape of the moral problem that immigration presents is to have taken the first step, at least, toward policies that express proper love for both our fellow members and those seeking to join us.


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