Scholars Discuss Ethics of U.S. Immigration Reform
by Andrew Duncan
As the so-called “melting pot” of the world, the United States has been celebrated as a bastion of racial and cultural diversity. However, times of economic uncertainty and social transformation have complicated American ideas about national and racial identity and have raised moral dilemmas concerning America’s obligations to immigrants from neighboring countries, according to participants in a panel sponsored by the Conference on Public Service and the Law February 17. The panel, “Love Thy Neighbor? The Ethical Underpinnings and Racial Politics of Immigration Reform,” was organized by students working for the Law School’s Center for the Study of Race and Law.
“The immigration debate tends to be very much focused on specific reforms, but when issues of ethics or race are brought up, they often are brought up accidentally or in embarrassing ways,” said moderator Kerry Abrams, a law professor and codirector of UVA’s Center for Children, Families, and the Law. Frequently, the racial dynamics of immigration in the United States are overlooked or ignored by policymakers and public officials, who tend to focus on the significant and highly disputed effects of immigrant populations on U.S. employment and economic growth rates.
“Immigration law is really the codification of our admissions policy in the United States.” said panelist Naomi Mezey, a law professor at Georgetown University. “I’m interested in the ways in which immigration laws serve a very powerful and symbolic function in how we imagine ourselves as a nation,” she explained, “and they are a very strong part of the stories we tell about ourselves and our identity.”
To provide a historical perspective on immigration reform, Mezey described the U.S. response to the soaring number of Chinese immigrants to the United States in the late 19th century. “It generated an intense amount of racial and national anxiety that there was a group of people that was incapable of being assimilated,” she reflected. As a result, “a very strong, virulent anti-Chinese campaign began, and in a lot of ways it was led by people who were themselves recent immigrants, people who were at the bottom of the ladder.” Mezey added that many American nativist movements have been launched by populations that fear an economic threat from immigrants willing to work for lower wages.
By the 1880s, 99 percent of Californians polled said the government should ban Chinese immigration, Mezey said. This xenophobic sentiment would soon lead to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, she explained, “and it was the first and last time that the U.S. banned an entire group of people from entering the country.” The act remained law until the end of World War II and remains a salient example of a time when American citizens deeply feared that immigrants would “contaminate” the nation’s ethnic and cultural purity.
More than a century later, Haitians desperately seeking refuge from economic chaos and political persecution ignited similar debates about American identity and the ethical components of immigration and refugee law. “Some people have an even greater claim to take up legal residence in a country other than their own because of what they have suffered or because of what they might suffer in the future,” explained Susan Benesch, a clinical fellow at Georgetown University Law School and a former director of the refugee program at Amnesty International USA.“Asylum and refugee law is the most ostensibly and explicitly ethical part of our immigration policy,” Benesch asserted, “however, when it is actually carried out, it is not always carried out according to ethical principles.” Too frequently, she claimed, debates concerning U.S. immigration policy often focus on the effects of immigrants, both legal and illegal, on wage-labor and employment in America. “The total immigrant population is generally thought to be about 38 million, which means that about one in every eight people in the United States is an immigrant or foreign-born,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. Many of these immigrants have
not received a high school education. “The effect of that is to significantly increase the numbers of some types of workers much more than others,” he said, “and generally the bottom end of the labor market experiences a very significant increase in the number of workers.”
From a policy perspective, Camarota explained, responses come down to the basic economic principles of supply and demand. “The debate among all serious economists is not whether there is a shortage of less educated workers. The debate is about what effect, if any, immigration is having.” Overall, he agreed with those who argue that immigration adversely affects low-income U.S. citizens by lowering hourly wages in certain industries.
Camarota described the enormous influence immigration has on education and health care in the United States. “The entire social safety net is clearly strained by the arrival of large numbers of less-educated immigrants, and this has a huge impact on less-educated natives” he explained. Furthermore, “if we really care about our own poor and believe that we have a greater obligation to them [than to immigrants], then what we should want is as little unskilled immigration as possible.”
Professor E. Ann Matter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences, concluded the panel by commenting on the role of solidarity in informing ethical debates and moral questions about American identity. “Solidarity is not pity,” she reflected, “it involves respect for others and an appreciation of different points of view—a belief that other experiences and other people are every bit as important as you are.”
Referring to the role of immigration in Italian politics, Matter said opinions about immigration can often be colored by personal experiences rather than reason. She asked, “will we find a way in the 21st century to really stand in solidarity with other people, including those who need our help and those we can help? Will we be able to form a culture based on mutual respect?”