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Posted Feb. 23, 2007

Scholars Discuss Ethics of U.S. Immigration Reform

Gov. Tim Kaine

Naomi Mezey


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 Feb. 17. The panel, “Love Thy Neighbor? The Ethical Underpinnings and Racial Politics of Immigration Reform,” was organized by students working for the Center for the Study of Race and Law.

Prof. Kerry Abrams

Prof. Kerry Abrams

“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 co-director 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.

Susan Benesch

Susan Benesch

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. In the area of refugee law, ethical dilemmas arise due to disputes regarding the definition of suffering. For example, “starving is not a form of suffering that qualifies you to enter another country or to stay in that country and eat under asylum law,” she noted.

In 1994, the U.S. Coast Guard apprehended thousands of Haitians attempting to reach American soil. They were denied refugee status and were taken to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that, under the U.N. Refugee Conventions, there is no legal obligation to hear a refugee claim from someone who does not physically reach U.S. soil. Furthermore, policymakers began to argue that Haitians needed to be kept out of the country based on reasons of national security. “What happens when national interest allegedly conflicts with some sort of ethical or moral obligation to people who are not inside our borders and who are not citizens?” Benesch asked.

“It has often been argued that too many people arriving and trying to take up residence in the United States is bad for Americans and bad for the national interest,” she continued. Displaced Haitians, however, accounted for less than 2 percent of immigration into the country. “It’s hard to see why an increase in the numbers of Haitians arriving might have seemed detrimental to the United States, particularly because they only arrive when their boats get picked up and brought to U.S. territory,” she commented. She explained that although 21,000 Haitians sought refuge in the United States between 1981 and 1990, only six were given the opportunity to apply for asylum.

“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, concerns about national security trump profound questions of America’s moral obligation to help and protect those in dire need.

Steven Camarota

Steven Camarota

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,” he said, “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.”

E. Anne Matter

E. Anne Matter

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?”
• Reported by AndreW dUNCAN

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