Newsletter Fall 211 Global Justice, Undocumented Immigration - Amnesty?

Submitted by Kate Goldyn on

Global Justice, Undocumented Immigration - Amnesty?

The world contains within it wealthy nations and poorer nations, and on any plausible theory of global justice the underdevelopment of the poorer nations is unjust. How, in light of this, should we understand the morality of amnesty for undocumented immigrants? Does the fact that such immigrants are fleeing unjust poverty give rise to a justice-based claim to remain within the society in which they have sought refuge?

Fully answering these questions would require a full theory of justice in immigration; in the present essay, I want only to provide some reason to think that we should answer the latter question above in the negative. To see this, note that the program of amnesty is only one means by which a wealthy society like the United States might seek to fulfill its duties to the global poor. There are any number of alternative policy levers available by which these pressing duties might be fulfilled. We might seek to aid impoverished societies in a number of ways, including programs of direct aid, economic engagement, or even humanitarian intervention. This fact means that the individuals who would be benefitted by any given program do not have a particular right to the benefits they receive from that program. They have, to be sure, the right to some sort of program; that would seem to be part of what describing the world as unjust entails. They have a right to have their claims heard by the institutions of democratic politics, and to have their rights in justice taken as of fundamental importance in the design of policy. But they do not have the right to any particular policy simply because that policy would happen to make their rights more secure or robust. To say otherwise seems to be to confuse token and type; it is to insist that, because we have a right to some sort of political action taken with our needs in mind, we have a right to the particular action imagined at present. The two are not the same.

Examine, here, the case of a democratic society with an unjustly large gap between the wealthy and the poor. Imagine further that the government of the society keeps a large stash of gold bars in the back yard of its statehouse; it has decided to simply store up gold as a (peculiar, but perhaps not insane) fiscal policy. The back yard is largely unguarded, although stealing the gold is (naturally) illegal. Imagine now that Robin Hood comes to the yard, takes a bag full of gold, and distributes it to a handful of the unjustly impoverished. The individuals who receive the gold were not in danger of falling below a threshold of decent functioning, but they are unquestionably better off now, and their objectionable poverty is certainly reduced. Do the individuals who have received the gold have a right, in justice, to keep it? While I suspect people may disagree on this point, I confess that I cannot see why they would have such a right. The society in question might have chosen from any number of policy means towards the alleviation of injustice. They might have chosen to sell the gold to foreign investors, and use the profits to increase educational funding for the worse-off segments of society. They might have chosen to increase progressive income taxation, or reduce the sales tax burden on the poor, or any number of other options. They might have done any number of things, each of them potentially a democratically available means to bring the society closer to the demands of justice. The individuals who receive the gold cannot claim that all of these options are forestalled, and that they must be allowed to keep the gold; to say that they are is to insist that only one policy lever is open to us, and there is no legitimate reason for us to think this is so.

All that such individuals deserve is status as one of the many people who deserve some program or other; they cannot claim that they deserve this program, even if it happens to provide them with the most benefits.

As should be clear, I think undocumented immigrants from underdeveloped countries are morally akin to the beneficiaries of Robin Hood's assistance. They have a right to some form of assistance, but not to the particular form of assistance - that is, residence in a more developed society - they currently enjoy. All this, I think, should make us question whether we owe amnesty to undocumented immigrants in virtue of the unjust nature of international development. Amnesty represents one possible means by which our obligations towards underdeveloped societies might be discharged, but it is only one means. None of this, I think, lets us off the moral hook; we have an obligation to make the world less unjust than we have found it. I have, in this essay, only tried to challenge the idea that amnesty is a necessary part of this task.

This article was written by Professor Michael Blake, who specializes in Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and International Ethics. He is the current director of the Program on Values in Society.