Ethical issues in US Immigration Policies

The sun seems unrelenting as it beats down on the two families huddled together in a rickety makeshift boat. The rafters have been floating in the open sea for what seems to them like years. Their food and water supplies have run out and the littlest ones cry out of hunger. But the keep going. Because they know that once their feet touch the land of opportunity their prayers will be answered. Finally, their raft makes it to the ankle-deep waters and they are only a few short steps away from dry land and freedom. As quickly as the wave of relief and happiness rushes over the rafters, so does it disappear. The Coast Guard is there and telling them that they will be shipped back. So close to freedom.

Other families know what its like to have freedom snatched away. After years of working six days a week for miniscule wages, sewing dresses or picking vegetables, they have had freedom and the opportunity of a better life taken away after being rounded up by Immigration Naturalization Services and deported back to Guatemala, Honduras, or Mexico.

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These are only two examples of the travesties that occur daily in the land of opportunity and freedom—the Unites States of America. The United States was built by immigrants, many seeking a new life in a new land. Before 1882, anyone could move to the United States. As the population grew, however, the Federal government decided to control immigration. But they have done this in a very inconsistent manner, letting some people in from one country more than others from another country. The current U.S. immigration policy is immoral, unethical and inconsistent in its dealings with immigrants.

Early immigration laws aimed to preserve the racial, religious, and ethnic composition of the United States, which was then largely European (Wilbanks, 1993, p.1). The first immigration laws were aimed at nonwhites. In 1882, for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended immigration from China for sixty years. In addition, in 1907, President Roosevelt, negotiated an informal “gentleman’s agreement” with Japan, under which the United States promised to desegregate its California schools in exchange for the promise from the Japanese government to stop the immigration of its citizens (Anderson, 1998, p.2).

Soon, however, Americans were complaining about European immigrants as well, especially those of eastern and southern Europe. As a consequence, Congress passed a new law in 1921 based on quotas; only a certain number of individuals with a given background or heritage could move to the United States. And only 30 percent of those could be from eastern or southern Europe (Anderson, 1998, p.2). Again in 1952, we see the same kind of discrimination when President Truman signed the McCarran-Walter Act. Under this law, ideology became a criterion for admission. Political beliefs were questioned as the government sought to weed out people with even a marginally communist background (Wilbanks, 1993, p.4).

In the last half of the century new laws emerged seeking to abolish quotas that discriminated against nationalities, replacing it instead with an overall limit of immigrants allowed into the country. These new policies, however, not only did not end discrimination and unethical treatment against immigrants but also touched off a serious illegal immigration problem. The latest and most extensive of these laws came with the 1996 Immigration Act which doubled the U.S.-Mexico border control force to 10,000 agents over five years and adds fences to the most heavily trafficked areas of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The controversy over immigration emerges between advocates of the open door policy and those who support restrictions on immigration. Those Americans who support restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States annually feel that our country is “running out of room” (Carr, 199, p.2). They also feel that we are being overrun by immigrants who intent on draining our resources. On the other hand, those who support an open-door policy, feel that the unethical treatment of immigrants must stop.

These open-door supporters argue that the 700,000 immigrants allowed into the country annually is not enough. This overall limit should be lifted and replaced with an open-door policy, which would allow any number of people in without question. These supporters also feel that shipping rafters back even if they are inches away from dry U.S. soil is immoral. And worse yet, deporting families who came here illegally but worked in the fields or did numerous other jobs that most U.S. citizens do not want to begin with is unethical.

These policies demonstrate that this country has a hypocritical value system. On one hand we value our heritage and the fact that we are all descendants of immigrants overcoming enormous obstacles to come to the land of the free. We value the ideal that Emma Lazarus penned on the Statue of Liberty when she wrote “Send these, the homeless, the tempesttost to me, /lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Now the consensus and un-American attitude has become “shut the door behind you.” We value our heritage so much that almost every generation has drawn up some barriers to immigration. Now we value keeping out the same people as our ancestors once were, looking for a better life and freedom. As pat Buchanan wrote in 1996 in a column against immigration, “ When did we vote to rid America of her ‘dominant European culture’?” He supplies the answer to his own question: “Never” (Wilbanks, 1993, p.4).

In a recent article in the Miami New Times, Defede (1999) writes that the “immorality of America’s immigration policy exists not in its treatment of Cubans, but in its treatment of the rest of the world when compares with Cubans” (Defede, 1999, p.13). Defede feels that the United States is inconsistent with its immigration policy and is especially lenient towards Cubans. According to Defede, it is immoral to repatriate a Cuban refugee caught in the surf, so close to dry land and freedom. But he says the problem exists because the U.S. allows Cubans who reach dry land to stay in the U.S. and grants them residency 366 days after they arrived. That is the lure that brings the Cubans and the promise that they risk their lives for. Eliminate this and the illegal immigration from Cuba would slow to a trickle, according to Defede.

The U.S. policy towards Haiti, however, couldn’t be any more contradictory. According to an editorial written in America (1992), a U.S. District Judge tried to halt U.S* efforts to ship back some two-thirds of the 15,000 Haitians who had left their homes after the military coup that overthrew the government of Jean Bertrand-Aristide. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban and the Coast Guard began removing more than 10,000 Haitian refugees being detained at the U.S* Naval base in Guantanamo Bay. This led to a hunger strike by the then 82 year-old humanitarian Katherine Dunham. Also, according to the article, an outcry erupted from U.S. Catholic bishops who said it was “morally irresponsible” and “morally questionable” (America, 1992, p.1). The article also quotes the Catholic Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy who said, “It is only natural that the refugees experience should spawn well-founded suspicions that the treatment received by Haitians is the result of institutional racism. Only 55 out of 9,000 Haitians are granted political asylum, while there is no publicly recorded case of any one of some 10,000 predominantly white Cuban boat people being denied admission” (America, 1992, p.1).

Another author argues that the U.S. immigration policy takes away our freedom to act as humanitarians (Wilbanks, 1993, p.1). Wilbanks goes on to say that national governments make decisions about refugee admission on the basis of national self-interest and that humanitarianism takes a back seat. Wilbanks feels that the U.S. should view refugees from a religious point of view instead of a pure national interest view. In this way, Wilbanks feels, citizens will not see refugees as strangers or objects for receiving but instead as people made in God’s image with whom to enter into a relationship (Wilbanks, 1993, p.4).

In a recent article by Carr (1999), she examines the recent immigration laws as being unethical. As an immigration lawyer she deals with immigrants seeking asylum or fighting to not be deported. One case Carr gives as an example is of a young man who was guilty of the “crime” of working in the United States without permission. He was doing work that most Americans won’t do in order to support his American wife and child. Carr had to break the news of his deportation back to Mexico to him. In another case, a mother was deported away from her six-month old baby. There wasn’t time to arrange for the baby to travel with her so she was sent back to Mexico alone. In her desperation to get back to her baby, she died in the heat of the New Mexico desert (Carr, 1999, p.1.)

This is the kind of unethical treatment of immigrants by the U.S. that Carr speaks out against. One of the new laws that Carr is opposed to is the requirement that a petitioning relative provide a guarantee to support the new immigrant—even if the petitioner is a woman with young children who herself depends on the immigrant husband for his support (Carr, 1999, p.2). Carr does not understand why such laws were passed when several studies concluded that new immigrants contribute more to the economy overall than they take out. In addition, immigrants do not commit proportionately more crimes than American citizens do. Carr contends that immigrants bring energy and expertise to a jaded society (Carr, 1999, p.2).

Proposition 187, California’s notorious ballot initiative to deny schooling and medical care to illegal immigrants, spawned a wave of controversy when passed in 1994. In Rosin’s (1995) article she examines some of the un-American and immoral attitudes towards immigrants. Rosin (1995) quotes one Republican, Marge Roukema, as saying, “These criminals come here to prey on American citizens.” Another Republican, Lamor Smith, sponsored a House bill, which in part would put a cap of 330,000 family-sponsored immigrants. In addition, it would cut down the total number of immigrants by 25 percent from 800,000 to 600,000 by the end of the century (Rosin, 1995, p.1).

This un-American attitude, according to Rosin, is spurred by the belief that immigrants are welfare sponges. Republican Alan Simpson goes as far as to threaten deportation for legal immigrants who make ‘excessive use of welfare’ in their first five years (Rosin, 1995,p.2). According to the article, a recent Urban Institute study shows that working-age non-refugee immigrants are less likely than natives to be on welfare.

Activists to ensure a more ethical treatment of immigrants have suggested several strategies. For a more humane approach to reduce the influx of Cubans to our shores Defede (1999) suggests an end to the “wet-feet policy.” Defede also suggests curtailing smugglers who bring Cubans ashore by perhaps using the FBI or the Navy. As mentioned earlier, Defede feels the “wet-feet policy” is unethical and cruel to those Cubans who risk their lives only to be repatriated when caught before they could step on dry U.S. soil. Defede suggests ending repatriations altogether and says that if Castro threatens to unleash another flood of refugees that we encircle the island with warships and cut off all oil shipments to his country (Defede, 1999, p.13).

In response to the Haitian refugees, activists have suggested that all boat people be granted refuge for a time. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk said that even Haitians who cannot qualify for political asylum deserve the shelter provided by the legal remedy called Temporary Protected Status (America, 1993, p.183).

The United States Government and its citizens need to re-examine the immigration policy. Allowing 700,000 immigrants into the country a year is not enough. Instead we need an open-door policy. The overall limit gives the INS too much power to pick and choose whom they feel should be let in. A 700,000-year immigrants cap also encourages illegal immigration. American’s are always saying, “ If those people want to get in let them do it the legal way.” Well, given the means and resources most immigrants would most definitely choose to come legally as opposed to climbing high barbed-wire fences or floating for days on a raft. The fact that we allow people to die trying to get to our soil is an inhumane, immoral, and unethical as forcing Africans to this country and turning them into slaves. An open-door policy would also end the inconsistency of the current immigration policy. Presently, we allow thousands of Cubans to enter the U.S. and to remain as residents while the majority of Haitians are turned back.

We have an historic commitment to immigration and we need to remember that immigrants keep our nation strong, economically competitive, and culturally rich. The question of whether America’s doors should be open or closed will continue to be intensely debated in the courts, in Congress, and in communities where immigrants settle.


Anderson, George M. (1998). Fortress North America: the new immigration law. America, 178, 3.

Carr, Ann (1999). Deporting Resident Aliens: No Compassion, No Sense. America, 180, 6, 18.

Defede, Jim (1999). Life in the Echo Chamber. Miami New Times, 14, 13-15.

Rosin, Hanna (1995). Strange Days. The New Republic, 213, 11.

Wilbanks, Dana W. (1993). The moral debate between humanitarianism and national interest about U.S. refugee policy; a theological perspective. Migration World Magazine, 21, 15.

Throwing people back is no good. (1992). America, 166, 183.
Questions about the golden door. (1993). America, 168, 3.

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Ethical issues in US Immigration Policies. (2018, Jun 21). Retrieved from