The Ethics of Migration and Immigration

The United States, the European Union, and countless other nation-states and political bodies are struggling to define attitudes and policies towards immigrants and immigration for the 21st Century. This national and global debate usually revolves around economic impacts and the legal status of individual or groups of immigrants.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University believes another perspective on these critical policy questions is needed – a perspective which seeks to understand the ethics of migration and immigration. Only by adding this human perspective can policy makers shape solutions which achieve the most good in the short run and create policies which are themselves most stable in the long run.

The ethics of migration are complex. There are many perspectives on why people migrate, how people migrate, what impact migration has on receiving, transit and sending countries, and whether countries should encourage, discourage, or limit migration. This paper raises some issues and questions in order to encourage a thoughtful, in-depth discussion of the ethics of migration.

The Story of the Human Race

Migration is fundamentally the story of the human race from its origins to the present. Migration is an integral aspect of life on this planet. People move to survive. They move in search of food. They move away from danger and death. They move towards opportunities for life. Migration is tied to the human spirit, which seeks adventure, pursues dreams, and finds reasons to hope even in the most adverse circumstances. Such movement affects the communities migrants leave and the communities that receive these migrants. This movement also impacts communities along the route of transit.

Ethical Issues of Migration

When discussing ethics in the context of migration, it is important to remember first and foremost that migration is about the movement of people. Because the ethics of migration hi-lite the tension between individuals and nations, these discussions should always begin and end with the acknowledgement of the humanity of those who are moving and those who do not move.

The human condition is complex, as are the reasons for migration. To simplify and objectify the issues does not serve any useful purpose. Information and discussions on migration should be honest conversations, where the interests, agendas and concerns of all members of the affected communities are addressed in the context of the collective humanity.

Reasons for Migration

Human beings have migrated since their origin. This migration has ranged from journeys of a few miles to epic travels across oceans and continents. Drought, plagues, floods, or other natural disasters have triggered migration. Slavery, escape from slavery, invasions, and exile have created forced migration. Adventurers have sought new land, fame, fortune, or power. Formation of empires, colonies, and nation states have taken people across Asia, Africa, Europe, Russia, the Americas, New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland.

Traditional Explanation for Migration

Age old debates about migration frequently point to “push” and “pull” factors. This debate continues today in public policy circles, with a focus on such “pull” factors as family, employment and public benefits and “push” factors such as poverty, conflict and disaster.
With the exception of human trafficking and refugee flight, migration is generally viewed as a choice. The “push” and “pull” theory of migration looks at individuals and their decisions to migrate.

Theories of Migration

One author, Peter Stalker, describes migration theory in terms of individual approach, structural perspective, and networks or systems theory. The individual approach focuses on individual choices, including family or group choices. It is also labeled the ‘human capital’ approach, according to this scholar, because it is looked at in terms of education, skills, and health investments in persons. The structural approach deals with influences that are more social, economic, or political, such as population pressures and unemployment. Networks and systems theory involves more than individual decisions and structural forces. It combines movement of goods and capital with political and cultural elements.

Migration theory has also been challenged in the context of gender. Scholars have argued that traditional migration theory does not help explain “the circumstances that encourage women to become transnational migrants, to enter into trafficking channels, or to seek refugee resettlement.” According to these scholars, gender influences the migration process, in particular pre-migration, transition across state boundaries, and experiences in the receiving country.

Complexity of Migration

Migration is discussed in terms of “push” and “pull” factors most often. Yet, there are other scholars who point to a more complex set of factors affecting migration and immigration. Sometimes migration is addressed in terms of broader forces such as structural or social factors. Some would argue that the reality is much more complex.

Impact of Global Economic and Environmental Interdependence on Migration

Globalization is frequently viewed in economic and environmental terms. Goods and services move easily across regions and national boundaries. With this growing economic interdependence, some would argue that it is only natural that people (labor) follow the capital, wherever that might take them. Similarly, some argue that people should not have to move for jobs, but instead governments should encourage capital to remain in the nation and should protect jobs for citizens.

Global warming and resource depletion have no boundaries. Some feel that these environmental issues cannot be addressed by nations acting individually. Thus, they might argue that the movement of people around the globe becomes the province of the world, not that of individual nations. Others believe that in order for countries to protect their environment they need to restrict immigration.

Shifting Destinations

While migration trends used to be from developing countries to industrialized countries, those patterns do not necessarily hold today. With the “dot com” bust many professionals have left the United States and returned to India. Small farmers in the U.S. are moving to Latin America. As businesses expand to sites abroad, migration among developing countries increases.
There are also “new” considerations in determining destination. Language and customs have a significant role in determining destinations.

For example, human rights organizations in Colombia prefer to send their persecuted members to Spanish-speaking countries. Second, they choose to send their members to more “welcoming” nations. Indonesian women are going to Saudia Arabia to work, because the Muslim families in Saudia Arabia want Muslim women working in their homes and caring for their children.

Methods of Movement

Many methods of migration are similar to ancient methods of travel. People continue to migrate on foot and by rickety boats. More recently, movement of people has occurred via containers on ships and trucks. Attempts to migrate have also included hiding in the wheel-wells of airplanes. Ships and airplanes account for much of the migration that occurs legally across borders.

The methods of movement mean that migration can take place at a much faster rate. The newer methods of moving surreptitiously across borders are proving to be more risky and dangerous. As movement is restricted by the building of walls and increasing use of technology, people turn to those who are sophisticated, organized, and possess the resources to move them around the barriers. This reality leads to increased vulnerability to human trafficking. People find themselves in situations of debt bondage forced to pay off the large debts incurred to those transporting them, while others fall victim to human traffickers who make false promises.

Ability to Adapt to Changes in Migration

The growing interdependence of economies regionally and globally is a good predictor that migration will not be stagnant and that it will follow increasingly more complex patterns. Some might argue that this trend is a positive one. Others might disagree and would urge the use of national resources to stem the tide of globalization in order to protect the integrity of nation states, their boundaries, and their economies. Some might posit that globalization is occurring in spite of nation-states, while others would argue that globalization is the product of decisions and actions taken by nation-states.

Decisions Regarding Emigration

Some sending countries believe that borders should be monitored and exit permits should be restricted in order to stem the flow of labor and intellectuals. Other sending countries choose to offer incentives to those who pursue overseas employment and travel. Sending countries also struggle with issues of citizenship of their nationals who adopt a new country. There are countries such as Mexico and Ireland that recognize dual or multiple citizenship.

In other words, a citizen of Mexico or Ireland retains that nationality even if she or he obtains citizenship in another country. Other countries do not recognize dual citizenship, so once their citizens obtain citizenship in another country they lose all rights of nationality in their home country. Another question facing sending countries is the extent to which they will protect their citizens who are residing in another country. There are rights of embassies to protect and advocate for their citizens in another country. But such exercise of protection requires use of political capital and resources to commit to effective advocacy of their citizens abroad.

Benefits of Emigration

Some benefits of emigration include a reduction in population stress. This in turn reduces stress on the land – land needed for food production and land needed for homes. It also reduces stress on resources such as water, heating oil or wood, and services. Emigration brings to the sending country capital in the form of remittances. It serves as an inexpensive form of foreign aid. Emigrants also send new ideas, culture, technology, and products home to family. Emigration rids a country of malcontents, dissension, and criminal elements. The government can use emigration as a mechanism to maintain its political control. Emigration also shifts the care of elderly to receiving countries.

Losses from Emigration

The energy and strength of young people are often lost by the sending country through the process of emigration. There are “ghost” towns in countries such as Mexico, where the only residents for most of the year are women, young children, and older persons. Many also decry the “brain drain” that occurs with emigration. These persons note the investment that sending countries have made in education and health, only to lose these intellects in the prime of their lives.

A further loss is the community infrastructure. Older people and children are left in many sending countries without mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. The traditional families and communities are disrupted, and this disruption, some would argue, dominos into other parts of the social structures in sending countries. Finally, some argue that there is a loss of capital that travels with labor and intellectuals abroad. Others see this departure as part of the necessary growth of intellectuals, and the natural result of capitalism.

Decisions Regarding Transiting Migrants

Countries of transit also face important decisions in the face of migration. Some countries believe they must close their borders, especially when large numbers of persons are crossing into their countries. For example, Honduras posted soldiers at their border with El Salvador during the 1980’s barring entry to Salvadorans who were attempting to flee the conflict by crossing the Sumpul River into Honduras. Countries hosting refugees in transit face a huge drain on their resources (food, water, land) and conflicts between refugees and the local population.

They also are forced to deal with incursion by armed groups who are pursuing the refugees. Some of the refugees become permanent residents in these host countries, but many are in transit to a permanent resettlement country. Safe third country policies generally provide that the country of last presence of a refugee will be the country responsible for that refugee. Not all countries close borders to refugees. Many welcome and attempt to assist them even when facing shortages of food and water for their own people. Under other circumstances, transit countries welcome visitors because of the money they spend in the country while in transit help the economy of the transit countries.

There are many families that live along borders and transit back and forth. These families were split by shifting borders. These families are not transiting through, but are transiting back and forth, visiting family or doing business on both sides of the border. Historically, the United States has taken the position of encouraging this cross-border connection. Many who live along the border have been issued Border Crossing Cards to allow shopping, visiting, and work across the Mexico-United States border. But this situation is different from the transiting of large groups of refugees, and thus transit nations may develop different policies depending on the circumstances and numbers of transiting migrants.

Benefits of Transit Migration

Benefits from those transiting, as mentioned above, may be capital spent in tourism and shopping. Some other benefits include labor provided to local merchants and farmers. For families with members who live on both sides of a border, the benefits can include strengthening family ties. The transiting migrants are not likely to need long-term services, such as retirement, health care or schools. The migrants also bring technology and products with them and may leave them in route. Thus, countries of transit may encourage people to visit them in route to their final destination.

Losses from Transit Migration

Costs of services and stress on the land for long-term transiting populations, such as refugees, put a strain on the countries that host them. A current example is the country of Chad, which is hosting and caring for refugees from Darfur, Sudan. Long-term population increases may displace local populations or encroach on local land and water.

There is a cost to insure the safety of transiting populations. There are expectations from the international community that countries, which are already poor and struggling to provide for their own people, will be able to find resources to care for the transiting population. Some transiting countries view this migrating population as violating their national sovereignty, and do everything to close borders or remove people in transit from their land.

Decisions Regarding Immigration

In some respects, receiving countries face decisions similar to countries of transit. In other respects, the decisions are much more complicated. The decision whether to close a border(s) and which border(s) depends on the relations the country has with the sending nation, the type and number of immigrants that arrive from that country, and the political, social and economic environment which exists at the time of the immigrant’s arrival.

Questions which factor into decisions about closing borders include the cost of closing the border (financial, technological, and human resources needed), the human cost (loss of life crossing deserts or seas), the geography and feasibility of closing the border(s), and the political will to close the border(s). Receiving countries must decide whether they will accept any immigrants at all. If they choose to accept immigrants but with limitations, then they must decide which immigrants will be given preference (ethnicity, education, skills, family already in the receiving country), how many immigrants will be allowed to enter over what period of time, and what process will be used to facilitate immigration (will it be rigid or will there be discretion).

Benefits of Immigration

The benefits of immigration include the influx of labor, capital, and innovation. Many countries find that new immigrants are willing to fight and die to protect their new homes, and so incorporate new immigrants into their military. New immigrants bring enthusiasm, energy, and culture to share with those already living in the country. They pay taxes which support services to those living in the country. Immigration also unites family members and promotes more stable families and communities.

Losses from Immigration

Others say that new immigrants strain already overburdened service providers. They need education, health care, housing, and support services. Some feel that immigrants disrupt existing practices and beliefs and power structures. There are some that feel national unity and cohesiveness disintegrate with the arrival of new people.

Justice System

The justice system is one of the systems generally thought to be open to all. Yet, immigrants may not have the same rights or access to the justice system as those given to native-born persons. Some would argue that justice should apply equally to everyone who is found within the borders of a nation. Others argue that the laws cannot and should not apply the same to all.

There are those who caution that immigrants strain the criminal justice system. They point to the number of immigrants in jails and the amount of law enforcement resources dedicated to dealing with immigrant-related crimes. On the other hand, recent studies in the United States show that native-born citizens are more likely to commit a crime than immigrants.

Law enforcement is torn between needing the cooperation of immigrants to help solve crimes and the financial incentives and political pressures to help enforce immigration laws.

Social Benefits

The discussion of social benefits often occurs in the context of a cost-benefit analysis. How much will the programs cost the taxpayers and how much will be gained from them? Some would argue that availability of social services regardless of immigration status is a draw for people to enter the receiving nation. These persons believe that social services should be restricted or denied to those entering the country illegally and to recent immigrants in order to discourage immigration for the purposes of receiving benefits. They state that a nation cannot financially take on the burden of caring for large numbers of immigrants.

Others point out that immigrants, whether they have entered legally or not, pay taxes and thus contribute to the monies available to pay for these services. They also argue that immigrants are generally younger and healthier and are less likely to need social benefits.


The debate over language is often a heated one. Most nations encourage newcomers to learn the national language. Language can be seen as a mechanism for integration and acculturation. For full participation in the national and political life of a country, immigrants benefit from knowledge of the language. Language is seen as a unifying force. Some see language differences as a matter of identity, cultural pride, diversity, and a connection with one’s ancestors. Where language differences are accepted, there are costs such as bi-lingual education, multi-lingual signs and instructions, and a constant need for qualified interpreters.

Language is fluid and constantly changes. For language purists, the introduction of new languages may endanger the old form of the language. New hybrids are created, and for some these hybrids are the signs of the vitality and richness of language.


Jobs have been zealously guarded during economic decline. Many argue that citizens cannot get jobs because immigrants are willing to work for less. Yet, there are employers who simply cannot find laborers and must recruit from abroad or move their companies abroad.

Legal rights for immigrants in the work place help some, but many do not know their rights or are too afraid to exercise them. While one could argue that immigrants should not be encouraged to work illegally by providing such workers with employment rights, others would point out that creating an underground, unequal labor force only undermines the rights and protections of all workers.


Health care is a service generally provided to all, including immigrants. It is difficult to treat and care for only the native-born population, when dealing with contagious diseases. Diseases spread regardless of immigration status. Yet, the cost of providing even basic services is enormous. Often tax dollars are used to cover these services. It is true that immigrants pay taxes and thus help to pay for the health care services they receive. It is also true that much of medical care is being provided by health care providers from abroad. Nevertheless, a growing population from immigration puts an increased demand for services on health care providers.

Some have proposed to have healthcare providers report undocumented immigrants to immigration. Yet, others fear that parents will not take dying or sick children to the hospital if they are afraid that they or their children will be deported.

Civil Disobedience

The immigration debate has historically spawned civil disobedience. Civil disobedience cuts both ways. At the time of Proposition 187 and as recent as 2006, many service providers have spoken in favor of committing civil disobedience rather than complying with laws that would require them to turn someone over to immigration or deny the person services. Cardinal Mahoney encouraged members of the Catholic Church to take such a stand.

Then there are those who are taking a different stand. They feel that protection of the borders have failed and so they have taken up surveillance at the border between Mexico and the United States. They call themselves the “Minutemen.” Beliefs are strongly held when it comes to immigration and immigrants.

International Policies and Conventions

International policies and conventions are important to the discussion of migration because they illustrate migration priorities of countries generally, as well as solutions and concerns raised by the global community. These conventions and policies also offer opportunities to address migration on a broader policy scale. Since migration frequently involves more than the sending and receiving countries, bi-lateral agreements are insufficient.

There are numerous international conventions and agreements that deal with migration. Some among them specifically address migration, such as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, as well as the International Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

Others incorporate provisions dealing with migration, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Many believe these conventions and agreements should guide laws, policies and enforcement within individual nations. Others do not feel that international laws are in any way binding on sovereign nations.

Coalition/Regional Approaches

Regions, such as the European Union (EU), have begun to address immigration law and policy on a broader scale. “The European Union has as one of its objectives the establishment of an area of freedom, justice and security. This includes, along with police and justice cooperation, the development of common European policies in the areas of immigration and asylum.”

Nevertheless, regional organizations often find themselves struggling to resolve conflicting national interests and goals. There are those who feel migration in the context of globalization is an issue that needs to be addressed on a global scale, while others believe that individual nation-states reserve the right and have the obligation to decide who crosses their borders, as well when and how.


The immigration debate is a timeless one. It can be divisive, or it can unite a country or a region. Interests of citizens and migrants may sometimes coincide and sometimes diverge. As discussed above, there are a myriad of ethical issues and questions which should be discussed and debated.

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