Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership, Sarah Fine and Lea Ypi, eds.

| December 2016
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9780199676606Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership, Sarah Fine and Lea Ypi, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 288 pp., $90 cloth.

This collection of twelve (mostly) original essays by some of the most distinguished political theorists, philosophers, and legal scholars working on the normative issues surrounding borders and migration addresses a wide range of theoretical and practical topics: the scope of the right to freedom of movement, justice in labor migration and guestworker programs, fair admissions and membership policies, the nature of refugee-hood, and the limitations of the current international refugee regime. What is more, despite this impressive range, Migration in Political Theory is a well-edited volume united by a few core themes, with some essays engaging directly with one another. The result is a coherent and exciting anthology, offering fresh perspectives on familiar theoretical debates and broadening the field of normative inquiry to include real-world migration issues previously overlooked by mainstream theorists.

The book is divided into three parts. The first explores core issues of entry and exit. According to the conventional interpretation, the right to freedom of movement includes the right to move freely within one’s state and the right to leave one’s country, but it does not include the right to enter the territory of another state. The essays in this section engage with this “asymmetry thesis” in various ways. David Miller and Kieran Oberman defend opposing views on the question of whether freedom to immigrate should be considered a basic right. Christopher Heath Wellman defends the moral asymmetry between emigration and immigration, but concedes that his argument may justify restrictions on internal movement. Finally, Anna Stilz reinterprets the right to exit, arguing that legitimate states may justifiably regulate emigration.

The essays in the second part address themes of equality, fairness, and justice. Arash Abizadeh mounts a powerful case against the “special-obligations” challenge to open borders, which maintains that immigration restrictions are permissible if migration would harm the domestic poor. Sarah Fine takes issue with arguments that purport to consistently defend some form of immigration restrictions while rejecting racial and ethnic exclusions. Lea Ypi argues that guestworker programs contribute to the exploitation of workers as a collective class, if not to individual guestworkers themselves. And Ayelet Shachar draws out the tacit assumptions underlying merit-based immigration admissions policies and the issues of fairness that they raise.

Part three focuses on questions of membership and obligatory admissions. Joseph Carens defends the practice of birthright citizenship against the criticism that it violates liberal democratic ideals. Sarah Song defends a model of differentiated membership, which assigns different bundles of rights to various categories of territorial insiders. Chandran Kukathas denies that a morally relevant distinction can be drawn between refugees and migrants. Finally, David Owen offers a new conceptual framework for justifying and distributing responsibilities for refugees, which construes such obligations as mechanisms of “legitimacy repair” as opposed to humanitarian duties.

Some of the most interesting essays in the volume offer novel arguments for well-known (though not uncontroversial) positions in familiar theoretical debates. Oberman’s chapter is an excellent example. Some advocates of open borders, including Carens, have argued that a right to immigrate to another state follows from the right to move freely within the boundaries of a state because the same fundamental interests ground both rights. The right to free internal movement is designed to protect people’s interest in being able to access the full range of life options when making important decisions, particularly those involving marriage and family life, employment, religion, and culture. However, since some important life options exist only in foreign states, a right to immigrate is also necessary to protect this essential interest.
Oberman extends this argument to include political interests. In his view, the right to free internal movement also protects people’s interest in free political activity, since people must be able to travel to participate in demonstrations, engage in political dialogue with distant compatriots, and obtain reliable information about political affairs. Furthermore, he argues, this same fundamental interest supports a right to immigrate. Even if we assume that people have no right to political participation abroad, they must be able to interact with people living elsewhere and to see the effects of their government’s policies on foreign countries.

Other standout essays stake out innovative new positions with respect to familiar ethical questions. Song’s essay, which considers how a liberal democratic state should treat the noncitizens present within its territorial borders, is particularly noteworthy. There is a strong presumption among liberals that states should treat all long-term territorial insiders in the same way, namely, by providing them with a path to citizenship. Song raises three objections to this view: (1) it wrongly presupposes that all territorial insiders wish to become citizens; (2) it could lead host societies to reduce or eliminate temporary worker programs that benefit migrants and reduce global inequality; and (3) it is at odds with the practice of group-differentiated rights. Given these concerns, she draws upon three key liberal principles—affiliation, fair play, and coercion— to develop a framework of differentiated membership rights that assigns distinct bundles of rights to sojourners, residents, and members.

These contributions advance our thinking on many of the core issues that define the mainstream philosophical literature on migration. However, some of most exciting essays in the volume address real-world considerations that have not been given the attention they deserve in this literature. For instance, Fine’s thought-provoking essay considers how the deeply problematic history of racial and ethnic discrimination in immigration policy ought to bear on theoretical arguments for immigration restrictions. Most liberal proponents of the state’s right to restrict immigration explicitly deny the permissibility of excluding prospective immigrants on grounds of race or ethnicity. However, Fine contends that simply ruling out racial and ethnic exclusions fails to address the important issue of how to avoid perpetuating the discriminatory effects of past practice. Moreover, she argues, a coherent defense of this position must be able to explain why racial and ethic exclusions are impermissible in a way that is consistent with its author’s favored justification for the right to restrict. However, Fine concludes, the prominent arguments for immigration restrictions fail to meet this requirement.

Other chapters explore real-world migration arrangements hitherto overlooked by most philosophers and political theorists. For instance, Abizadeh considers how receiving states can fairly balance the interests of poor citizens against those of unskilled labor migrants. And Ypi and Shachar reveal the injustices involved in migration practices that covertly favor corporate interests and relatively privileged migrants, such as guestworker programs and so-called merit based admissions policies. In doing so, these essays make considerable progress toward bridging the distance between theoretical discussions of migration and real-world migration practices.

In their introduction to Migration in Political Theory, the editors claim that its essays will “highlight and scrutinize [the] central, prevalent assumptions about migration” that “inform current political thinking about migration, as well as countless migration and naturalization policies” (p. 2). The book delivers on this substantial promise, while also interrogating many of the core normative claims advanced in the theoretical migration debates. Although some essays echo arguments that have been advanced before, this is a largely original volume, as well as a timely and significant contribution to the field.


Shelley Wilcox is professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. She has published numerous articles on migration and global justice and is currently writing a book on urban environmental ethics.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 30.4, Migration

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