A moral conversation about immigration

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The debate about immigration and asylum, especially on the southern border of the United States, has reached a fever pitch, and is even on the cusp of civil disturbance. In the language of a previous post, the moral conversation is NOT happening here, either between people or even, I would argue, inside the heads of most people.

In that post I presented a diagram showing several ethical “vectors” that have deep roots, not only in our historical theologies and philosophies, but also, I have argued, inside our very brains. In this post, I would like to apply this approach to exploring this current immigration dilemma.

The Moral Conversation

The moral conversation

Recall that, in this diagram, the boxes represent four general “vectors” to analyzing ethical dilemmas by theologians and philosophers over many centuries now, with the arrows indicating their primary weaknesses in providing a complete solution to the dilemma. We will “walk around the circle” in this post.

In an earlier post on the ethics of abortion, I also introduced a related concept called ethical nuance. Ethical nuance says that you can’t resolve any ethical dilemma of consequence with a one-line quote from a preacher or a politician, or rather these days in a single “tweet.” Every difficult ethical dilemma remains difficult precisely because it is complicated and messy. You need this “moral conversation” to parse out the messy parts and to try to filter out the worst ideas.

My emphasis in this series of posts about “why good people disagree” also asserts that there are at least four, and likely more, different ways in which the human brain processes these ethical dilemmas. We disagree with each other because, if we spend any time thinking about it, we disagree with ourselves. The debate coming from inside my head below is far from complete, but it illustrates this “multi-vector” and “ethically-nuanced” approach to thinking about immigration.

Follow the rules!

Let’s arbitrarily start this moral conversation about immigration with the common trope of “Follow the law!” and “walk” clockwise around the ethical models from there. The deontological approach to ethics searches for rules and duties that can be universally applied to fairly resolve moral disagreement (or blindly just applies the few rules that you think you know). The key in this immigration issue is in understanding what the actual “rules” are, a problem of widespread misunderstanding.

The first-time offense of crossing the United States border without proper documentation is, by law, a misdemeanor, a low-level offense. [1] Indeed, it is likely that you, the reader, have committed one or more misdemeanors in your life that could have been prosecuted under “strict enforcement,” yet you escaped uncaught or uncharged.

On the other hand, Jared Kushner’s omission of significant contacts with Russians from multiple submissions of his security clearance application could have been prosecuted as a felony (and similar omissions have been prosecuted). [2] Likewise, knowingly signing a false tax return for a charitable foundation, which has been charged regarding the Trump Foundation, is also a felony. [3] We clearly have two standards in America for “following the law” and for our prosecution of offenders.

You may not agree with me here, but I can’t put a lot of credence in this approach to addressing immigration violations. Similarly, an assertion that “my ancestors followed the rules” in coming to the United States runs into problems of fact. My own grandfather came in through Ellis Island in 1901 “legally,” but he needed no visa because he was from Sweden, and was released into the U.S. after a cursory physical examination. Different rules for different races, even at that time.

Give me my exceptions!

As noted in the diagram above, the “Achilles Heel” of the “rules and duties” approach to ethics is that every rule has an exception, and people want exceptions that make the rules apply only to other people, from Ted Cruz’s Cuban father (and Ted’s own Canadian birth) to the wife of the President himself and her family, who are currently “chain migrating.” [4]

On the other side of the coin, political asylum seekers are also eligible for certain exceptions to immigration laws, both within the U.S. statutes themselves as well as in widely-accepted international law. [5] There is strong evidence that those rights have not been well protected of late.

The “good end”

Teleology is the search for ethical “good ends,” and this area broadly includes classic utilitarianism, seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Here, too, there is great debate. Iowa Representative Steve King openly advocates for keeping white cultural dominance in the United States as his end goal for immigration policy. [6]

On the other side, recent studies suggest that immigration provides net economic benefit, and that crime rates by immigrants are less than for native-born Americans. [7] I am a numbers guy, and the data indicate to me that, without an influx of young, productive workers, Social Security funding will soon face serious problems. And in the rural Midwest, many towns would dry up and blow away if it were not for Hispanic immigrants in particular. We actually need more. Affordable housing and jobs are available throughout the rural Midwest. Congressman King is just upset that “the right kind of people” are not coming into his district.

The recent change to immigration policy by the Trump administration that has generated this very crisis was a teleological attempt at a “good end” of “zero tolerance” and “strict enforcement” of immigration law with the intent of scaring potential immigrants and asylum seekers from attempting to reach the United States. That expected “end” did not turn out as expected…

Unintended consequences

…because policies like this one almost never turns out as expected. Because the change was unplanned, it first ran into the problem of sheer numbers of cases, human beings who needed to be confined indefinitely, followed by hard choices on what to do with the children that accompanied them. It was that family separation policy that appeared to have been the “last straw” for many observers across the political spectrum.

I see a major failing here on pure mathematical stupidity terms before even tackling the humanitarian problems. The rate of human intake initially (and likely still) far exceeded the rate of “exit” from the review system, with no apparent plan to fix the problem, which then caused the President to propose abandoning due process, a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution which, by Supreme Court decision, applies to non-citizens as well as citizens. [8]

The Empathy response

When the unintended consequences begin to affect real human lives, especially innocent children, our innate senses of empathy and compassion invariably kick in to the ethical foreground, unless we have some brain impairment. The best religious and philosophical ethical systems bring empathy into a prominent decision-making role, because, in the end, ethical behavior is humane behavior.

In an earlier post I wrote about the John Rawls model of social justice, part of which involves the mental exercise of donning an imaginary veil of ignorance. With this “veil” we try hard to imagine that we are coming out of the womb not knowing where we will be born, and under what physical and economic limitations. In this case, if you were born recently to a family fleeing certain death in El Salvador, try to imagine what you would consider to be a just set of rules to be faced at the U.S. border.

I think it safe to say that even most loyal Republicans would not choose the current policy at the border.

Dealing with the flood of humanity

Here is where I have to hand the ethical ball to the conservatives. The world has seen several major refugee crises in the last few years, and the quantities of displaced people is huge. At some point even Mother Teresa would have to say, “I can’t save them all.”

Our typical response to that realization is to effectively “give up” and try to force some simple, but usually counter-productive and overly-harsh, solution. Which is what happened. There are always alternatives to giving up.

Who am I?

The flood of humanity, if handled more wisely, requires that we “step back” a bit mentally and look at the “Bigger Picture.” What is causing this mass exodus? Is there something we can do back at the source to reduce the flow of people? What are the “big principles” or “core values” or “essential virtues” at stake in our decisions? And finally, what kind of person am I? Am I the kind of person who will snatch babies from their mothers’ arms and secret them far away with no plan to reconnect mother and child?

The moral conversation is hard. If anyone claims that the answer is easy, they are, by definition, harmful to the conversation itself and need to be tossed out in order to protect the “reality-based” society that is ready to address hard questions with rationality, compassion, and some basic math skills.

And…we’re back where we started

And so, after we have laid out our “Big Picture” principles, we are still faced with the “Now what?” question. We need to collectively act, preferably with a bit more wisdom this time, and very often this begins with a new set of rules. Generalized principles are usually too vague to define on-the-ground action, so we need to get specific. But the rules need to support those principles, and our “good ends,” and our empathy.

And the conversation continues, because it is a difficult one. Yet we need to keep talking this through without threats of violence. A little shame projected onto the worst players, however, can go a long way.

This blog post has gotten long, but it is still far too incomplete. If I missed something here, then write your own conversation. Start at any point in the circle and see where it carries you.

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  1. Snider, Brett. “Is Illegal Immigration a Crime? Improper Entry v. Unlawful Presence.” Law and Daily Life, 9 July 2014.
  2. Becker, Jo, and Matthew Rosenberg. “Kushner Omitted Meeting With Russians on Security Clearance Forms.” The New York Times, 7 Apr. 2017.
  3. Fahrenthold, David A. “The Four Times Trump Signed Tax Returns for His Foundation That Contained Incorrect Information.” The Washington Post, 22 June 2018.
  4. Board, Editorial. “Melania Trump’s Parents Will Soon Be Citizens. They Can Thank ‘Chain Migration.’.” The Washington Post, 23 Feb. 2018.
  5. Gil-Bazo, María-Teresa. “Asylum as a General Principle of International Law.” Oxford University Press, 3 Feb. 2015.
  6. Bump, Philip. “Rep. Steve King Wonders What ‘Sub-Groups’ besides Whites Made Contributions to Civilization.” The Washington Post, 18 July 2016.
  7. Ingraham, Christopher. “There’s No Immigration Crisis, and These Charts Prove It.” The Washington Post, 21 June 2018.
  8. Fisher, Daniel. “Does The Constitution Protect Non-Citizens? Judges Say Yes.” Forbes Magazine, 30 Jan. 2017.

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2 thoughts on “A moral conversation about immigration

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