Shaking up Complacency: The Immigration Debate

Milica Uzelac

In the past year, one report named Canada the best country in the world according to millennials, while another named it the second best country in the world overall.

While these rankings are impressive, Joseph Carens, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, presented a captivating lecture on January 11, 2017, aimed at avoiding complacency by focusing on immigration, a controversial issue on both domestic and global fronts.

As part of the Science for Peace weekly series of lectures hosted by University College at the University of Toronto, Carens’ lecture entitled “The Ethics of Immigration,” was based on a moral argument. His discussion centred on “democratic principles,” which he defined as “broad moral commitments that undergird and justify contemporary political institutions throughout North America and Europe.” These principles included the idea that all human beings are people of moral worth; that we have a duty to respect the rights and freedoms of individuals; and that all citizens should be equal under the law. According to Carens, the acceptance of these democratic principles constrains the answers one can give to questions of immigration.

These principles included the idea that all human beings are people of moral worth; that we have a duty to respect the rights and freedoms of individuals; and that all citizens should be equal under the law.

First, the lecture focused on “irregular migrants,” commonly referred to as undocumented or illegal immigrants. Stemming from the discussion of democratic principles, Carens argued that regardless of immigration status, irregular migrants are entitled to basic civil, social, and economic rights, and should be able to exercise them without fear of being exposed to immigration authorities. For example, while everyone has the right to not be assaulted, in many cases irregular migrants do not pursue the legal protections they are entitled to in fear of coming to the attention of immigration authorities.

welcome-refugees

As a remedy, Carens proposed the creation of a “firewall,” which would prevent one set of officials from passing information to another set of officials. This is also commonly known as the idea of a “sanctuary city.” Notably, in 2013, Toronto became the first city in Canada to adopt a policy allowing irregular migrants access to city services without fear of being turned over to immigration authorities. Furthermore, Carens argued that, “as time passes, irregular migrants acquire a right to stay in the country as they create attachments that generate strong moral claims. After a while, conditions of admission become irrelevant.”

The second topic of the lecture was refugees and the responsibility of rich, democratic states to those fleeing their home states. In the midst of the current global refugee crisis, this discussion is especially relevant. Carens asserted that whether or not a rich, democratic state bears any responsibility for conditions in the refugee-generating country, they are still responsible for accepting refugees–but are not doing this nearly enough.

As a rich, democratic state with an established economic and social capacity, are we truly doing enough?

For example, while the Syrian crisis has produced an estimated 11 million refugees since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Canada has welcomed 39,671 since November 2015. As a rich, democratic state with an established economic and social capacity, are we truly doing enough? Sure, we are doing better relative to others such as our southern neighbours. The United States, which bears some level of responsibility for the conflict in Syria, has admitted around 12,600 refugees despite having a population ten times the size of Canada. Furthermore, with a new president in power who has in the past expressed a desire to cut admissions for Syrian refugees, it remains unclear how the administration will proceed on this issue.

In this regard, moral standards tend to be considered in comparison to what others are doing. From this view, Canada seems to be doing great, but that is only because others are not doing as much as they can. However, that is not to say that all rich, democratic countries are performing the same way. For example, of the Western countries, Germany has accepted the largest share of Syrian refugees- an estimated 600,000 since the start of the civil war.

a_line_of_syrian_refugees_crossing_the_border_of_hungary_and_austria_on_their_way_to_germany-_hungary_central_europe_6_september_2015

A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany. Hungary, Central Europe, 6 September 2015.

On this note, it is also important to remember that refugees often flee to neighbouring countries due to geographical proximity. As a result, in many cases, the largest burden of accepting and providing for refugees falls on countries that are close to conflict zones who may not have enough resources when compared with rich, democratic countries. For instance, by the end of 2016, Turkey had the largest number of registered Syrian refugees at 2,814,631, meanwhile, Lebanon, a country with a population of only about 4.5 million, registered 1,017,433 Syrian refugees.

Overall, Carens noted that this pattern leaves important questions unanswered such as: “What do we expect to happen to these refugees if those states that have the greatest ability to support them are not doing as much as they should?”

In the last portion of the lecture, Carens challenged the conventional view of borders. He presented the idea of open borders, indicating that people should be free to settle wherever they want for three reasons:

First, borders limit the freedom of movement, which is an important human freedom. Second, open borders would establish equality of opportunity, as current barriers to immigration mean that opportunities largely found in rich, democratic states are not available to all. Finally, the commitment to equal moral worth requires some commitment to economic, social, and political equality. In this sense, freedom of movement would contribute to a reduction in existing inequality because millions of people in poor states searching for freedom and opportunity could find those in Europe and North America.

The argument for open borders ushered in concerns from the audience regarding the implications of such a policy. One audience member asked how order would be kept in such a system. For example, she wondered how this could have consequences on health care systems. Another audience member felt that politics would move to the extreme right, posing a threat to the integrity of the democratic system.

However, Carens stressed that the point of the discussion was not to present a policy proposal for the open borders argument. Rather, it was to unearth the conventional view that “states have a right to exercise discretionary control over immigration in an attempt to get people to see what is fundamentally wrong with the way in which we structure the world.” With such a complex topic, it is easy to get weighed down with questions regarding responsibility and accountability. Yet, as Carens pointed out, “if you try talking about everything, you ultimately end up talking about nothing.”

“States have a right to exercise discretionary control over immigration in an attempt to get people to see what is fundamentally wrong with the way in which we structure the world.”

While some were persuaded by this argument, it was obvious that others remained hesitant. Regardless, the discussion shed important light on the issue of immigration and how to think differently about the legitimacy of existing arrangements. As thinkers like Carens push us to consider the moral foundations of borders and laws governing migration, it is up to policy scholars and practitioners to devise practical strategies that advance human rights in the messy context of the real world.

To conclude the lecture, Carens ended with a powerful statement: “Even if we take existing social arrangements as given, for purposes of immediate action in a particular context, we should never forget about the assessment of their fundamental character, otherwise we end up legitimating what can only be endured.”

Milica Uzelac is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, where she completed a double major in International Relations and Criminology. Her policy interests include immigration, criminal justice reform, as well as international affairs.

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One response to “Shaking up Complacency: The Immigration Debate

  1. Pingback: Bridging Boundaries – February 15, 2017 | The Public Policy & Governance Review·

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