The Ethics of Immigration

The Carnegie Council’s publication, Ethics & International Affairs, published in April, 2008 an essay by Mathias Risse, an associate professor of public policy and philosophy at the Harvard Kennedy School, entitled “On the Morality of Immigration.” Risse argued that the natural resources of the planet are the “common heritage of mankind” and that immigration policies that deny equal access to those resources are immoral.

An essay that set forth an opposing argument titled “The Environmental Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States” appeared in the Environmental Ethics journal. [Click here for that article] It was authored by Colorado State University Department of Philosophy professor of Philip Cafaro and wildlife biologist, Winthrop Staples III, They outline their view in the following points:

“The environmental argument for reducing immigration into the United States is relatively straightforward:

  1. Immigration levels are at a historic high and immigration is now the main driver of U.S. population growth.
  2. Population growth contributes significantly to a host of environmental problems within our borders.
  3. A growing population increases America’s large environmental footprint beyond our borders and our disproportionate role in stressing global en­vironmental systems.
  4. To seriously address environmental problems at home and become good global environmental citizens, we must stop U.S. population growth.
  5. We are morally obligated to address our environmental problems and become good global environmental citizens.
  6. Therefore, we should limit immigration into the United States to the extent needed to stop U.S. population growth.

… We don’t believe that the goals we share with our fellow environmentalists and with a large majority of our fellow citizens—clean air and clean water; livable, uncrowded cities; sharing the land with the full complement of its native flora and fauna—are compatible with continued population growth. It is time to rein in this growth—or forthrightly renounce the hope of living sustainably here in the United States.”

Then, in October 2008, Ethics & International Affairs brought the two sides together in an exchange of views entitled “An Exchange: The Morality of Immigration.” Joining Cafaro and Risse was Ryan Pevnick, an Assistant Politics Professor, New York University. This exchange is an insightful, intellectual analysis of the moral and ideological arguments about immigration restriction. The exchange is available on the Carnegie website.

A thumbnail, oversimplified description of the arguments is provided below simply to suggest the value of reading the original texts.

  • Risse argues that because resources are not distributed evenly around the globe, it is unjust for those with the good fortune to be born in resource-rich areas like the United States to exclude others from less well-endowed areas from entering the United States to share the wealth. [Comment: This concept of communal wealth of the planet is one that has been advanced for years, especially by Third-World countries. It has been codified in international treaties proclaiming the resources of the moon and the deep seabed to be the common heritage of mankind.] Risse argues that the United States is under-populated in terms of its natural resources compared to other countries, and that the United States, therefore, has an obligation to admit those more needy persons to create a more balanced distribution of resource wealth. In the October publication, Risse reiterates that the proper framework for understanding the morality of immigration is to think globally, not nationally. [Comment: Of course if you think globally, there is no immigration, only migration. Risse is in effect a one-worlder.]

  • Pevnick rebuts Risse by noting that there are countries like the Russia that are much less densely populated than the United States and which have vast natural resources, but that because those resources are not developed as well as in our country, there is little interest in migrating to those countries. He also notes that even if there were agreement that natural resources are a common heritage, there is no reason to have open immigration to share the benefit of those resources with those born elsewhere. Wealth can be and is exported to other countries. His argument also notes that a focus only on the rights of immigrants ignores the role of mankind as stewards of the flora and fauna of the planet. Population expansion necessarily impacts the ecosystem of non-human life on the planet as well as the human environment. [Comment: That concept is recognized in international treaties, for example, that regulate fishing or hunting of endangered species.]

  • Cafaro, acknowledges that immigration to the United States was very different when foreigners were coming in response to opportunities provided by the Homestead Act to expand the nation’s population and its agricultural base. He notes, however, that today’s immigrants come to compete for jobs in a largely urban environment and says that open borders, “…would take away people's incentives to create societies that produce and steward the very goods that immigrants are seeking.” He rebuts Risse’s dismissal of the legitimacy of national boundaries and nationality, saying, “But absent a plausible framework of citizenship, which provides both the means and the incentives for people to improve their societies, it is hard to see how a "race to the bottom" can be avoided in more successful countries, or how the vast majority of the world's poor—who under any plausible scenario will not immigrate, but will have to sink or swim where they are—can improve their lot.” He also insists that citizens of a country have a proprietary right to farsighted social capital planning to develop institutions that serve both current and future members of the national society. That means that they have the right to set policies regarding to what extent and on what basis to share that earned advantage by admitting new members to that society. And, finally, he argues that the morality of immigration, if properly understood, is an argument in support of reduced immigration to the United States not for open borders. [Comment: This is an age-old logic. An early form of this argument from 6th century BC may be found in Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper.]

  • Risse rebuts Cafaro’s arguments about the need to protect wages and working conditions for American workers, ”As far as labor markets are concerned, I do not think, however, that this effect on the wages of unskilled workers [driving them down] is a conclusive reason to keep immigrants out. Instead, it is a challenge to social policy to find solutions to these issues. … We cannot deny the legitimate claims of outsiders because they would require changes in domestic policies. If we did so, we would unacceptably maintain a certain balance in society at the expense of others.” [Comment: In a nutshell, that’s the crux of the debate. Does the US have the moral right to try to attempt to maintain a certain balance in its society?]

June, 2009