FLASHPOINTS #4: Is there any such thing as an ethical immigration policy?
An interview with Sahar Akhtar
Immigration has been in the news recently, as it almost always is. Millions of Ukrainians displaced from their homes are being accommodated in neighbouring countries. Britain has announced a new policy on asylum seekers which will see some of them shipped out to Rwanda. New figures show that Brexit - to which immigration was central - has led to a steep rise in non-EU migrants to British shores. Many Afghans and Syrians are struggling to find new homes.
Immigration is a hot political issue, here and in most developed countries. It also raises fundamental questions about what it means to be part of a country, and what a country’s responsibilities are to those who are not part of it. Obviously, each country has its own debates but the underlying ethical and economic questions are similar everywhere. How many migrants should a country accept, and according to which criteria? Who should we turn away and who do we want in? Should we just throw the doors open to anyone who wants to come here? If not, why not?
I thought it would be useful to take a step back and think through these questions. I’m very happy that Sahar Akhtar has agreed to help me do so. Sahar is a philosopher and economist who is currently Visiting Professor at the University of Georgetown, and immigration is one of her primary interests. She has a book on the subject currently under contract with Oxford University Press (“Antidiscrimination Beyond the State”) and is editing another for Routledge Press. After I came across her paper on the ethics of racial and ethnic immigration criteria I decided to invite her to take part in Flashpoints.
Sahar writes elegantly and lucidly about a subject that generates a lot more heat than light in the media, which makes her a perfect interviewee for this series. One of the things I love about her responses is that she doesn’t pretend to have arrived at settled answers to all the questions she raises.
Hi Sahar. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to be interested in the economics and ethics of immigration? Is it connected to personal experience of immigration?
Before studying philosophy, I studied economics and had for some time been interested in the economic impact of immigration–both on host countries and globally speaking. I think the idea that there would be tremendous gains to global GDP from open borders (or virtually open borders) is pretty widely known by now, though I think this idea sometimes rests on problematic assumptions. But contrary to most perceptions, much of the empirical literature seems to successfully show that so-called “low-skilled” immigration does little to depress domestic wages.
As for my philosophical interest in the subject, I’m an immigrant to the U.S. and for most of my life I believed that anyone who wanted to move to the U.S. should be able to. In other words, I believed borders should be open (and by open borders, scholars mean the way in which borders within a country typically are open–for instance, I can move from Virginia to Florida without having to gain permission from the state of Florida or qualify for residence there in any way.).
Because of the actions taken by my parents to leave Pakistan, then move to the UK, and then eventually move to the U.S., I was able to make a great life for myself in the States, while my extremely poor female cousins in (very Muslim) rural Pakistan never had those chances because their parents weren’t able or willing to make the same decisions. I thought “Why should I have these amazing opportunities in the States, and not my cousins, by virtue of the decisions my parents made (not me)?”. It just seemed so morally unfair to me. My concern wasn’t just about my cousins of course–it was about any poor person living in countries without stable political and economic conditions, especially when they’re women, and have so few opportunities in many societies (this is certainly not limited to Muslim societies). So I’ve always had a very strong personal interest in immigration and thought for years that the only ethically justified position is that borders must be open. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I came to the conclusion that it is much harder to morally defend open borders than I originally thought.
To read on, subscribe! You’ll get access to the rest of this fascinating conversation and to previous Flashpoints on the gender gap in mental health, the rise of crypto, and how we can tell if someone is irrational. Plus the whole stash of brainfood behind the paywall in each edition of The Ruffian.
Below the fold: how immigration philosophers think about open borders, the ‘right to exclude’, whether it’s ever OK to exclude immigrants based on race, and the role of patriotism.
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