On the morality of immigration

If the U.S. is less crowded than the rest of the world, is it "fair" to keep other people out?

Published June 25, 2008 9:11PM (EDT)

Some statistics on population density:

  • Germany -- 600 per square mile
  • United Kingdom -- 600 per square mile
  • Japan -- 830 per square mile
  • Netherlands -- 1200 per square mile
  • Bangladesh -- 2600 per square mile

  • The United States -- 80 per square mile.

Based on these figures, Mathias Risse, a professor of public policy and philosophy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, concludes in "On the Morality of Immigration," published in the March issue of Ethics & International Affairs, that "the United States is severely underusing its chunk of three-dimensional, commonly owned space." From which it follows, argues Risse, that it is unfair for the U.S. to restrict immigration, legal or illegal, across its borders.

This is a perspective one is unlikely to hear espoused by presidential candidates in the U.S., no matter how liberal their views on immigration are. For one thing, it requires that one think about the world as if it was collectively owned by all of humanity, rather than divided into nasty little nation-states dedicated to protecting their most cherished NIMBY values with armed forces, fences and elaborate visa regulations. It is hopelessly utopian to imagine that national politicians would ever make decisions on topics as explosive as immigration policy on the basis of what would be best for the world.

But even as one shakes one's head at the uber-ivory-tower-ness of it all, one can still admire the sheer courage of such a stance. Risse argues that "as long as a country underuses its resources and refuses to permit more immigration in response, illegal immigration cannot be morally condemned."

Indeed, he turns the whole concept of fairness, as it is normally applied to the question of illegal immigration, completely on its head.

To speak of the United States specifically, one might also argue that the opposition to illegal immigration is based on commonly accepted notions of fairness -- including the notion of due process -- which loom large in the American psyche. For example, searches on Google using the keywords "wrong," "illegal," and "immigration" delivered a number of American Web sites on which the unfairness of illegal immigration was emphasized. Illegal immigration makes a mockery of those who abide by the rules, so this argument goes. To pardon illegal immigrants would be unfair because it lets them get away with their offense on the basis that they have succeeded thus far. This standpoint, however, presupposes that immigration is indeed a matter for the respective country alone to sort out, and that the "insiders" are entitled to determine how many and exactly who enters their country. But the argument offered here implies that this is not so. If would-be immigrants are being illegitimately excluded, one cannot complain that they are violating due process if they come anyway.

I'm going to amuse myself right now by imagining the sight of Lou Dobbs' head exploding after reading that last paragraph. Of course, the right to decide "how many and exactly who" enters their country is one of the foundational benefits of having a nation-state in the first place. Maybe someday this will no longer be so. Maybe the challenges of climate change and the constraints of finding enough food and water and clean air for nine billion people will force the world to deal with all its problems in a fashion that puts collective welfare above the interests of any isolated community. But we've got a ways to go before we get there. And is that John Lennon on the piano I hear in the distance?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration Immigration Reform