Faith and Border Ethics: Immigration and Human Dignity in Trump's America
Crossing borders, for any nation, is as necessary as maintaining them. America, commonly touted as a nation of immigrants, was quickly defined by her borders: oceanic and political borders that were crossed in order to found her, and the national borders which rapidly expanded, across peoples and land, in order to define her. People have been crossing America's borders from the birth of America. However, it is also America's heritage to limit who can cross, why they can cross, and when. Immigration policy throughout American history is proof of this, and the agonizing images of children being separated from their parents at U.S.-Mexico border this past summer were a stark, recent, reminder of how quickly immigration policy can become depersonalized and inhumane. As people interested in the study and role of religion in public life, can we define an ethics of borders?
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.
Heyer, Kristin E. Kinship across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012.
Hoffsman, Ospino. Hispanic Ministry in the Twenty-First Century: Urgent Matters. Miami: Convivium Press, 2016.
Kanstroom, Daniel. Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Leal, David L., and José E. Limón, eds. Immigration and the Border: Politics and Policy in the New Latino Century. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013.
Wong, Tom K. Rights, Deportation, and Detention in the Age of Immigration Control. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Bier, David. “Why the Wall Won’t Work.” Cato Institute, May 2017, https://bit.ly/2Brcqrt
Chacón, Jennifer M. “A Diversion of Attention? Immigration Courts and the Adjudication of Fourth and Fifth Amendment Rights.” Duke Law Journal (2010): 1563-1633.
Maldonado, M. et al. “Latino Incorporation and Racialized Border Politics in the Heartland: Interior Enforcement and Policeability in an English-Only State.” American Behavioral Scientist 58, no. 14 (2014): 1927-945.
Matheis, Christian. “US American Border Crossings: Immigrants, Poverty and Suzanne Pharr’s’ Myth of Scarcity.” Philosophy in the Contemporary World 18, no. 2 (2011): 47-59.
Reihan, Salam. “Borders, but Why?” National Review, September 26, 2016, https://bit.ly/2NLnDdt
“The Battle over the Border: Public Opinion on Immigration and Cultural Change at the Forefront of the Election.” A roundtable discussion at the Brookings Institution. June 23, 2016, https://brook.gs/2PBxMKd
“Immigration by the Numbers.” An interactive graphic by the Brookings Institution. August 15, 2017, https://brook.gs/2MKjutH
In his newest documentary entitled, “Border Politics,” barrister Julian Burnside travels the globe to examine the state of human rights protections in the twenty-first century. Grounded in case studies of antiterrorism legislation in Australia and other western countries, he discovers that political leaders are leveraging fears around border policy to augment political power and challenge postwar democratic principles.