The Ethics of Immigration by Joseph Carens

| June 12, 2015
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9780199986965_p0_v1_s260x420The Ethics of Immigration, Joseph Carens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 384 pp., $35 cloth.

Joseph Carens is arguably the most important figure working today on the normative dimensions of migration, and he deserves credit for having worked out before anyone else that migration has these normative dimensions. The current ethical debate about the legitimacy of migration controls would not exist but for his writing. We have been waiting for the book-length version of his arguments, though, for quite a long time. At last that book has been released, and it has justified its long gestation.

The Ethics of Immigration collects the more specific arguments Carens has made about migration over the past twenty-five years, and places them within an attractive and consistent normative framework. While many people will find things in Carens’s view with which they  disagree—I disagree with much of it myself—it is the view against which competing visions of migration must justify themselves. That view is set out in The Ethics of Immigration with more clarity and elegance than ever before.

The book has two parts, with a brief methodological appendix. The first half deals with the concept of social membership, which Carens understands as something that places normative limits on the rights of democratic communities to expel people who have made lives within their borders. The argument here ranges over such topics as the legitimacy of birthright citizenship, what limits can be placed on  naturalization, the moral permissibility of temporary residency, the rights of permanent residents to political participation, and the membership rights of the undocumented. Throughout these chapters, Carens defends the view that those who are members in fact—that is, those who have built lives and relationships within a particular place—have a right to be recognized as members by the institutions governing that place, and to treatment as moral equals by others who have made lives for themselves within that society.

The argument is far-reaching, with implications that stretch beyond discussions of immigration proper. For example, Carens deals with the moral nature of social inclusion in the multicultural state (pp. 62–87). For Carens, humans are creatures who create value for themselves  through the places, people, and projects they choose. Programs that propose to use force to disrupt this value are, on this vision,  presumptively wrong, and many contemporary political practices—such as the expulsion of the undocumented, or the refusal to recognize permanent residents as entitled to political rights—are similarly wrong.

The second half of this volume collects Carens’s writing about admissions decisions—that is, about who should get in. This includes Carens’s arguments about the moral illegitimacy of many types of discretion in the selection of migrants, for a strengthened regime of family  reunification, and for a revised and more inclusive concept of refugee law. It also presents in a slightly expanded form his famous argument that migration controls are, themselves, illiberal, or at least that whatever considerations could defeat the right to migrate would have to be considerably unlike the justifications offered by contemporary states. Carens ends with a reply to critics, many of whom have been eager to rebut his argument that borders must be, on pain of illiberalism, open.

For several years I have been one of Carens’s critics. I continue to disagree with his argument about open borders and have, therefore, given short shrift to his other writing; it has always seemed to me somewhat suspect that Carens should write a paper about why it is wrong to  prevent the undocumented from continuing to live in California when his own view was that everyone should have the right to live  in California. The Ethics of Immigration, however, has changed my mind. There is, I think, a coherent and attractive view that combines and  incorporates the various contexts in which Carens has made his argument. (Carens argues for a similar conclusion in his appendix, but I think what I present here is slightly unlike his own presentation.) This view is that humans are entitled to build value for themselves, with the help of the resources and relationships offered by particular places; coercive acts that propose to interfere with that building of value by forcibly destroying what has already been built—or by preventing the migration that would allow the creation of such value—are  presumptively wrong.

Not all coercion, though, is of the same form, and some coercive acts do more to rob the world of value than others. To refuse the migration of an alien into our political and social community is presumptively wrongful because of what it prevents from coming into the world: the relationships and projects that would have existed had the migration occurred. To expel the undocumented, though, or to refuse admission to those suffering abuse elsewhere in the world, is to do something much worse; it is to directly destroy value in the world, or to allow political evil elsewhere in the world to destroy that value where we could save it.

This way of reading Carens means, though, that the topics in the first part of the book are not merely instances of nonideal theorizing, or ad hoc arguments given in the service of political advocacy; they are, instead, some of the most important contributions made by the book. Carens’s argument about youth and migration—that the young have an interest in playing at political agency, even when they are too young to vote, and that only permanence in residency allows this sort of play—seems extraordinarily powerful to me, and could be accepted even by someone who disagrees with Carens’s other conclusions. This argument, though, is grounded and motivated by Carens’s more general argumentative framework, and this framework is carried consistently through the various arguments given in the book.

This general view of value, though, is subject to some important criticism. The best way to see this criticism is to note that Carens’s argument is structurally similar to that of Christopher Heath Wellman, who argues that states have a right to close their borders against virtually all undocumented migrants because people have an interest in living within a society that reflects their associative choices.

Wellman and Carens are often presented as polar opposites—certainly, I present them as such when teaching them to undergraduates—but they have a deeper agreement: both begin with the notion that people have an interest in building a life for themselves in a particular place, that they derive value from the success of their project of self-creation, and that whatever interferes with the success of this project is prima facie immoral. Wellman focuses on the interest of people in not facing unwanted association, and thus arrives at the conclusion that the  political community can keep out anyone that the current residents do not want to admit. Carens focuses on the interest of people in being  able to build value for themselves with the resources offered by particular places, and so insists upon the right to enter into such places, even against the wishes of current residents. The arguments begin with similar premises and end up in strikingly different places.

I think a similar difficulty can be ascribed to both views: they both focus on interests, rather than focusing more directly on the notion of right. It seems true that the prospective migrant has an interest in moving to a particular place; it also seems true, though, that the people already in that place have a legitimate interest in seeing what they have built not transformed or undermined through the choices of others. Carens focuses on the former interest, placing no weight at all upon the latter; Wellman, of course, does the reverse. But why should we think that either one is an adequate account of migration?

Take Carens’s insistence, for example, that it is wrongful for a state to refuse naturalization for long-term residents who are fundamentally opposed to democracy itself. Carens has two arguments for this conclusion: first, democracies do not coerce on the basis of thoughts; and, second, it is unfair for a state to refuse membership to an undemocratic longtime resident when they would not take it from a birthright citizen. I am not convinced by either of these lines of reasoning. The first seems simply wrong: democracies coercively insist upon civic education for their young, and no democracy is neutral between students who emerge from that process as democratic agents and those who emerge as committed theocrats. We do not punish on the basis of thought, but that does not mean that we cannot work coercively to privilege democratic agents and seek to add to their number.

The second point, though, is more central. Carens insists that the interest of the undemocratic citizen to full recognition and legal rights within her country of residence must be set as a trump, whereas the interest of other citizens in not living in a country dominated by  nondemocratic agents is set as having no moral value at all. This seems as unconvincing, though, as if we were to take Wellman’s path and insist that the interest of current citizens in the preservation of their particular form of life should be set as a trump. (International law seems to reflect some idea that communal integrity is intrinsically valuable. Why, for instance, does the Fourth Geneva Convention make settlement during occupation illegal, if not because of this interest in not seeing one’s society transformed through migration?) We have reason to think that Carens has identified a powerful interest; I think we have comparatively little reason to believe that that interest is legitimately translated, without some due consideration for the other side, into a notion of political right.

This means that the best view of migration is likely one that has yet to be written; we need a view that is sensitive to the interests of all affected parties, rather than one that takes a particular form of interest as politically dispositive. I do not know what that view would be. I do know, though, that such a view will likely only emerge from some scholar’s serious engagement with Carens’s work. All of us who think and write about the ethics of migration owe Carens a debt of gratitude. The publication of this book is a milestone in the history of our shared debates.


The author is a professor of philosophy and public affairs and director of the Program on Values in Society at the University of Washington. He writes on global justice and on the ethics of migration. His most recent book is Debating Brain Drain: May Governments Restrict Emigration?, written with Gillian Brock.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 29.2, Migration

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