The very first day of 2019 saw a group of migrants violently attempt to storm the U.S. border, forcing Border Patrol agents to use tear gas to repel them. In December 2018, two children died while in U.S. custody after being picked up with their parents for crossing the border illegally. Meanwhile, another caravan that could comprise thousands of people began the trek to the United States from Honduras around mid-January.
Unless something substantial changes in our immigration policy, we have every reason to assume that events like these will continue.
The reasons why migrants are seeking to enter the United States and the reasons why these children died are various and complicated. One thing is certain: The status quo is hazardous to the welfare of migrants and taxing on Americans. All citizens—of both political parties—should agree that something must change. At this point, our taking no action has increasingly grave consequences that would be immoral to ignore.
There is no easy solution to the situation. Before we can begin to consider a change we hope will be good, we must first understand the moral context for thinking about immigration.
A Question of Justice
At the heart of the political divide in the United States regarding immigration is a disagreement about exactly what we owe our fellow citizens. This disagreement has led to a capricious and diffident approach to immigration policy. Thus, to answer the question “What should be done about immigration?” we must first answer the question “What are our duties to our fellow citizens?” This is a question about justice.
The answer to this question involves both a general principle and a particular circumstance. The moral principle that should guide our thinking—what has been called “the fundamental law of nature”—is that we ought to preserve as many people as possible after securing our own safety and that of those for whom we are directly responsible (anyone who has flown in an airplane and heard the safety instructions regarding oxygen masks is familiar with this injunction).
One particular circumstance that should inform our application of that moral principle is that—as citizens of the United States—we are already joined by bonds of rights and duties to a particular political community.
The Declaration of Independence explains that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle the United States to a “separate and equal station” among the nations of the world. This separate station implies that one owes a primary duty to one’s fellow citizens, and any duty to others must be secondary.
Just as citizens have a duty to serve the interests of those who are members of their political community before all others, so also they have a right that their fellow citizens do not neglect their interests when serving the interests of non-citizens.
As citizens of the sovereign political community of the United States, who consent to the same government, we enjoy certain rights and submit to certain duties. First, U.S. citizens have a civil duty to care for the welfare of their fellow citizens by obeying laws and performing various obligations of citizenship (e.g., serving in public office, voting, participating in various civic associations, and even being willing to die for fellow citizens in time of war).
Thus, in accordance with that duty, citizens of the United States have a right to allow into their country and to grant citizenship to whomever they please and a duty to refuse entry and citizenship to all those they deem dangerous to the public welfare. Further, they rightly expect their government to protect this right and enforce this duty.
Second, U.S. citizens have a natural duty to protect the natural rights of all non-citizens living within the territory of the United States (i.e., legal visitors as well as illegal immigrants). Illegal immigrants, as such, are subject to lawful consequences and various restrictions on rights enjoyed by legal residents, though they may not be treated as anything less than human.
Citizens may—as they are willing and able—generously allow legal visitors to participate in the prosperous economy of the United States, made possible by citizens’ hard work, sacrifice, and submission to the rule of law. This duty to non-citizens is more circumscribed than the duty they owe fellow citizens, but it is nevertheless morally binding. In accordance with that duty, citizens of the United States have a right to provide measures to limit abuse of their generosity that would prevent them from fulfilling their primary duty to their fellow citizens as well as their secondary duty to non-citizens, whom they have allowed to live among them.
Those living in the United States illegally presume on the generosity of citizens and strain their ability to fulfill both their primary and secondary duties.
The unforeseen election of Donald Trump suggests that—rightly or wrongly—many citizens believe that our government no longer views protection of the rights of American citizens as its primary duty. Further, the popularity of and hostility toward the slogan “America First” demonstrate that there is a fundamental disagreement about what we owe our fellow citizens.
Only after we understand what we owe our fellow citizens can we understand what we owe all others. Only then can we formulate a prudent and just immigration policy.
Until we come to some constitutional agreement on what we owe our own citizens, we will maintain a broken, inconsistent immigration policy. Justice demands that we find such an agreement.
Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.