Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Faith and Border Ethics: Immigration and Human Dignity in Trump's America


Are borders necessary for modern nation-states? If so, what is the role of a border and what are its ethical implications? On Wednesday, September 26, 2018, the Boisi Center held a panel discussion of these questions with Kristin Heyer (Boston College), Daniel Kanstroom (Boston College Law School), Hosffman Ospino (Boston College School of Theology and Ministry), and Peter Skerry (Boston College).

Opening the discussion, Kanstroom spoke of the constructed nature of borders that often incites racism and racial discrimination, and ought to push a consideration of open borders. Heyer and Ospino agreed that borders ought to be open, but for different reasons. Heyer argued that open borders are needed on some level for the exchange of international capital. Ospino argued that nation-state borders ought to be understood as inherently open rather than unchanging; shifts in the natural land over time remind us of the politically constructed nature of modern borders. This constructed nature also makes them necessary, however, as Skerry reminded us that it is through borders that a political community is often defined and understood.

The conversation shifted to discuss the role of Trump and the rhetoric surrounding the U.S. border today. Skerry and Kanstroom both agreed that the contemporary rhetoric employed by the Trump Administration is a culmination of the past forty years of fears and anxieties of the American public; especially after 9/11. These anxieties include national security, protection of the rule of law, and border security. Heyer added that during times of economic downturns these anxieties are exacerbated and can take the form of xenophobia and racism.

Our discussion of borders turned to who is kept out and who is let in. Is it ethical to deny entrance at the border? If so, to whom? In Western nation-states, we often happily welcome immigrants who look like us, who bring wealth and social capital. Ospino argued that denying immigrants entrance based on their race and socioeconomic status is not morally permissible; we have an obligation to attend to the poor. Heyer reminded us that legal distinctions are necessary to help clarify the discussion, distinctions like that between migrants and refugees. The media’s focus on urgent symptoms often shadow the root causes of these issues and the complexities of these distinctions. Skerry furthered that when the public overlooks the fears and anxieties spoken of earlier, elite corporations are able to prey on those anxieties to serve their own hiring interests. Corporations have an interest in hiring cheap, undocumented immigrant labor; the fear that immigrants are taking American jobs misses the root cause and further perpetuates it. The media and political analysts’ quieted voices on these class interests leave the question at the border to only arise as the symptoms arise. Without treating the root cause and attending to the need for complex distinctions among kinds of immigrants, ineffective border legislation abounds.

The Q&A portion of the panel focused on the role of Christian ethics regarding the recent family separation at the U.S. border. Heyer reminded us that Christian ethics compel a strong interest in and protection of the family as essential to the good of the society. The separations at the border will have consequences not only for the individuals involved who may suffer psychological trauma, but also for society as a whole.