Ethics in Immigration Debates (April)

In April 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topic, and how would including them increase understanding or contribute to progress on this issue.

Issues of immigration are extensive, twisting and knotting into other global issues like climate change, violence, poverty, education, health care, racism, religious persecution, the list goes on. Refugees, asylum-seekers, and unauthorized immigrants in the United States are affected especially deeply by many existing social, political, and economic debates.

First tent camp
First tent camp. Source: Flickr

Consider the current pandemic we are experiencing globally— one could see how undocumented immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees might be particularly affected since they typically have limited access to healthcare, have less secure employment and housing, and may not receive the same benefits as citizens. This raises a number of ethical questions: Is it more pertinent to prevent the movement of people or to secure the safety of those refugees and asylum-seekers who are fleeing their country of origin for fear of their life? How do we prevent the spread of COVID-19 in refugee camps? Whose responsibility is it to provide resources to refugee camps to prevent the spread? In the United States, should we aid undocumented immigrants who may be out of work? Can we morally prevent asylum-seekers from entering the country during this time? By working out ethical dilemmas such as these, we can further the advancement of human rights worldwide.

Despite considerable coverage in the news, there is a general lack of competency surrounding issues of immigration and an absence of ethical considerations. Many people don’t know the various statuses an immigrant can have, the legal implications of those, and the processes for obtaining different statuses. As I wrote about last month, this perpetuates various stereotypes and can lead to a spread of misinformation. In one moment of Jose Vargas’s Dear America autobiography, a woman asks him, an undocumented immigrant, why he doesn’t simply get legal status if he wants to stay in the country, demonstrating the general misconceptions many people have. One significant barrier to increasing the public’s understanding of immigration processes is the general lack of clarity from the government regarding these proceedings. Policies about immigration are complex and change frequently making it difficult to stay up-to-date and informed. Another obstacle is the growing xenophobia resulting from a shift in the demographics of migrants, which I discussed back in February. A distrust of migrants may discourage authentic analysis by the public on such topics and lead to biases when reading about issues of immigration.

Doctor distributing medicine at a Sarvodaya camp
Doctor distributing medicine at a Sarvodaya camp. Source: Flickr

Redirecting our debates towards ethical considerations, we need to focus more on providing the resources for people to help themselves and empowering hospitality and compassion among our compatriots. Securing people’s right to work and linguistic rights of representation at the U.S.-Mexico border are good starting points. The debates surrounding these policies should concern the level of rights to foreigners from an ethical perspective rather than an economic or social one. This needs to be taken out of the framing of “innocent children” or “vulnerable families,” which inadvertently degrades other immigrants (see March blog post), and instead, emphasizes our universal and essential human rights. In doing so we create a political atmosphere that is more inclusive and not only respects the human rights of others but ensures them and fights for them. In order to do this though, ethics need to become more of a concern among voters. Perhaps the current pandemic crisis, through the exacerbation of social problems, will spark an increase in ethics as a priority for the 2020 presidential election. The inspiring and incredible efforts by many people during this crisis have already demonstrated the compassion that drives people to do what they can to help. In the wake of COVID-19, hopefully, this momentum can persist and lead to more ethical approaches to dealing with homelessness, poverty, health care, and policies related to migrants.

This blog series has worked to create a more informed view of immigration issues and to introduce the ethical considerations of these debates. Going forward, I hope that immigration policy will become more transparent, so that the public can be better informed, and that policies aimed at migrants will further consider the human rights consequences of their implementation. Moreover, I hope there will be a shift in the rhetoric used by politicians, media, and the public when discussing immigration issues, from a socioeconomic-centric perspective to an ethical one.

Migrants in the Media (March)

In March 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what role has the media played in covering the topic and what effects, positive and negative, has the media had on their topic, and what role ought the media to play.

One of the most common arguments in debates over immigration is whether immigrants represent a net economic gain or loss for their host countries. The problem with this framing is that both sides risk reducing immigrants to what they either contribute to or need from host economies, rather than their intrinsic human value. To say that immigrants are beneficial to the economy or in great need is defining their worth by their economic contributions or level of vulnerability.

A study published in the Journal of Social Issues found that the media is, in effect, dehumanizing immigrants and refugees by taking advantage of uncertainties to transform “relatively mundane episodes into newsworthy events that can be sold to the public” often with “depictions that suggest that immigrants spread infectious diseases, that refugee claimants are often bogus, and that terrorists may gain entry to western nations disguised as refugees”. Tweets made by President Donald Trump in early 2019 about the crime and incarceration rates of immigrants similarly show exaggeration and a lack of context. With all the conflicting reports about unauthorized immigrants, President Trump was able to use that confusion and the ignorance surrounding incarceration rates of nationals to misrepresent immigrants. Half of all federal arrests are immigration-related offenses, explaining the high rates of unauthorized immigrant inmates. Furthermore, 90% of all inmates in the United States are not in federal prisons and are instead in state and local facilities. And while border arrests were up in 2018, the number of illegal border crossings has been declining for years. Conviction and arrest rates are also lower for unauthorized immigrants than native-born Americans. Furthermore, the statistics regarding the crimes he mentions were the crimes people had been accused of, and not necessarily crimes people had been convicted of.

Because of the general lack of knowledge and understanding surrounding issues of immigration, the media has an immense ability to shape our perspectives on these matters. The effects that television shows and movies can have on our ideas and opinions are well-documented and the role of immigrants in these forms of entertainment is no exception. According to a study by the

Source: Twitter

University of Southern California’s Media Impact Project, the first problem with the representation of immigrants in popular television is a lack thereof. Through their analysis of 143 episodes from 47 popular television shows that aired in 2017-2018, they found a significant underrepresentation of immigrants. The shows analyzed were known and chosen for their inclusion of immigrant roles, suggesting that the underrepresentation of immigrants in all television is likely even more severe. Of the depictions of immigrant characters that there are, many have historically been promoting or creating stereotypes. For instance, the study found that immigrants were often portrayed as less educated and more criminally involved than actual statistics show. Although some shows and movies recently have been aimed at disproving these ideas, too many continue to reinforce negative concepts of migrants in the United States. Additionally, sometimes even the media curated specifically to improve the public’s opinion of migrants and refugees, or to help them, end up furthering negative stereotypes.

Advertisements asking for donations to support humanitarian aid, for refugees displaced by war for example, often use powerful images in attempt to evoke people’s emotions. Images show malnourished children or toddlers crying, often in dirty settings with captions about how you can help with just a few dollars. While this can be effective at getting much-needed donations, it runs the risk of diminishing the autonomy and humanity of people affected by these issues and furthering the white-savior complex. The portrayal of refugees in the media, where they are cast as “simply very needy”, results in people “tend[ing] to ignore their agency and see them as passive, ‘client-ized’ aid recipients”. This attitude decreases the obligation felt by affluent countries to do more than provide charitable aid.

The news we watch and read also has a large influence on our opinions. Often times, the news we follow may inform our voting behaviors and political beliefs. News sources tend to lean towards one party or the other, which directly impacts how migrants and refugees are being represented. In 2019, President Trump spent $500,000 on tv ads about immigration and $5.7 million on immigration-related ads on Facebook. Meanwhile, Democrats have spent significantly less time discussing immigration issues and neither Biden nor Sanders has made it a clear priority in their campaign. This means Americans see a disproportionate amount of conservative media concerning immigrants. Furthermore, while one source may speak of unauthorized immigrants, another may use the term illegal alien. Although its use has been criticized and to some extent decreased since then, a study by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that the word most commonly used with ‘immigrant’ in newspapers and broadcasts in 2012 was ‘illegal’. Still, many politicians, including President Donald Trump, continue to use the phrase ‘illegals’ and ‘aliens’ when describing unauthorized immigrants. Just earlier this month, when the Supreme Court allowed Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Policy to continue while the lawsuit against it plays out in court, the Justice Department said that the court’s decision ensures “the government’s ability to manage the Southwest border and to work cooperatively with the Mexican government to address illegal immigration”. They used the phrase ‘illegal immigration’ despite the fact that the policy deals with asylum-seekers. This insinuates that asylum-seeking is an illegal way to enter the United States. Under both international and U.S. law, asylum-seeking is a legitimate way to enter the nation. These derogatory terms are not only dehumanizing but also undermine legal procedures such as asylum-seeking when repeatedly broadcast by politicians and the media.

It’s a difficult balance to strike but the media should strive for more accurate representation both in the amount of representation and content of the representation while furthering the ideas of basic human rights– not out of charity but out of obligation.

Demographics, Displacement, and Division: A Decade of Displacement and Division (February)

In February, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss how a topic has evolved throughout the past decade (2010-now) and look at the issues that have changed significantly during this time period and how these recent changes have affected current approaches to this topic from governmental and non-governmental actors.

Resting Syrian refugees at a train station in Hungary. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1. Source data from: Department of Homeland Security

In the time period of 2010 to 2020 DACA was implemented and repealed, the refugee arrival cap went from an almost two-decade high to the lowest ever in the span of 3 years, and the number of defensive applications for asylum exceeded the affirmative applications by the largest margin in history. We’ve seen an increase in deportations, the reintroduction of a zero-tolerance policy at the border, and a state of emergency for border wall funding. Rhetoric on both sides is saying that our immigration system is broken but have very different ideas of what will fix it.

Although a significant amount of differences are the result of the change in the presidency from Obama to Trump, immigration has inevitably also been impacted heavily by world events. The demographics of immigrants to the United States, for one, have shifted. The countries of origin of refugees, for example, has changed (Figure 1). Even in all other forms of migration, there has been an increase in immigrants from Asia, Africa, and South America, while migration from Mexico has decreased.

World events have had a counter-intuitive effect on the approaches of the current government in regard to refugee policy, however. While the number of refugees worldwide is at an all-time high, the admittance cap is at an all-time low. Furthermore, Syrian refugees, which represent more than a third of all displaced people worldwide ( 6.7 million), make up less than 3% of the United States accepted refugees (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Source data from: Department of Homeland Security

Overall, asylum claims in the United States have actually decreased in recent years. There has been a greater number of defensive claims (claims made once apprehended at the border or a port of entry) than affirmative claims (filed in advance), which makes sense considering the policies of the Trump administration. However, the admittance rate for both has decreased from 43% to 29% and 31% respectively. The demographics of asylees have also changed drastically in the past decade (Figures 3 and 4) largely as a result of growing conflict in Venezuela and the Northern Triangle region. In addition, an increasing number of migrants arriving at the border are families or unaccompanied minors rather than young male workers.

The change in the racial and nationality composites of migrants to the United States is reflected in the various policies proposed and implemented in recent years.

Many of these are aimed at preventing a more diverse migrant population from entering the country. For instance, the travel ban in 2017 and the safe third country rule in 2019 both restrict migrants from specific regions of the world from entering the U.S.. Under the Trump administration, there have also been efforts to restrict immigration to the wealthy. This can be seen in the recent Supreme Court case upholding the idea of public charge.

Figure 3. Source data from: Department of Homeland Security

The reasoning behind this is that immigrants of lower socioeconomic status would take up too many public resources that the United States does not have to spare. However, a study from the Department of Health and Human Services found a positive net economic gain from the resettlement of refugees in a ten-year span. Regardless, the United States still has vastly more resources than most other countries, especially compared to nations that the Safe Third Country Rule applies to and many others that host a large number of refugees. In fact, a third of all refugees are hosted in the Least Developed Countries, as defined by the UNHCR’s 2018 Global Trends Report.

There need to be changes to the process of immigrating legally. Requiring a certain level of socioeconomic status may even worsen the problem of unauthorized immigration. In order to effectively control unauthorized immigration, changes need to be made to legal immigration. Specifically, reform of the asylum system is urgent. Because of the change in demographics, policies must be updated in order to deal with the years-long backlog of applications. In doing so, the number of unauthorized immigrants would decrease and the acceptance rate of those who qualify would increase. The militarization of the border creates a more dangerous environment and is minimally effective. Policy reform could reduce the number of applicants, provide incentives for legal immigration, and increase the amount of humanitarian aid the United States provides.

Figure 3. Source data from: Department of Homeland Security

This decade’s immigration has mostly been defined by being partisan, ineffective and inhumane. In recent years, the U.S. has, in effect, been neglecting its international and moral duty by limiting the number of refugees and asylum seekers it accepts. Even those who are able to arrive often face poor treatment. Asylees who reach the border are often detained and, for a period of time, families were separated. Both detention and separation have been shown to have severe psychological impacts. We need reform, and we need it to be effective and ethical. The morality and reputation of the United States, as well as the preservation of core American values, have been tried in the past decade and will continue to be tried into the 2020s.

Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. Source: Flickr

Issues of Immigration in the 2020 Election (January)

In January, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss an issue in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion, if desired) – is any relevant legislation being debated? How are different branches of US government engaged with your topic? Consider particularly the 2020 presidential race.

Within the United States there are an estimated 11 million undocumented and close to 700,000 DACA individuals. Worldwide, more than 70 million people are displaced either as refugees, asylum-seekers, or internally displaced persons (IDP). Prior to the 2016 election, the United States accepted more refugees than every other country combined. The cap has since been reduced from 110,000 to 18,000 refugees per year. As a global leader, the attitude the U.S. adopts towards these migrants has ripple-effects on the policies of other countries around the world and immediately impacts people both inside and outside the country.    

In 2018, Texas resettled more refugees than any other state. This year, it became the first state to ban refugees under Trump’s recent executive order that allows states to opt-out of resettling refugees. Although some municipalities and organizations throughout the state are trying to push back against the governor’s decision, Governor Abbott believes that Texas has done “more than its share”. North Carolina is also among the top ten refugee resettlement states, but it has had quite a different response. Governor Cooper submitted a letter to the president in December acknowledging his intention to continue to resettle refugees in North Carolina. Durham, in particular, serves a large refugee population. Many organizations in and around Durham support both refugees and undocumented immigrants including World Relief Durham, Church World Service, Pupusas for Education, and even Duke University which has mentoring and tutoring programs for refugees. Within Duke’s student population there are also a number of undocumented and DACA students. There is also the Define American chapter at Duke which seeks to spread awareness and advocate for undocumented and DACA students and families within Durham. The University is also adopting a new policy beginning with the students entering Fall 2020, where undocumented and DACA applicants will be accepted on a need-blind basis as it does with all other domestic students. These populations are an integral part of both the Duke community and Durham as a whole and will be especially impacted by the election this year.

Chart of Democratic Stances on Immigration
Candidate images and source data from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/policy-2020/immigration/

A new president alone will not provide a lasting solution unless new legislation passes through Congress. Both Obama’s implementation of DACA and Trump’s halt to DACA were executive orders. Because of the nature of executive orders not being approved by Congress and being easily revoked by a later president, the chances of a more permanent solution are slight unless we have a more unified government. So, although the 2020 presidential election will impact millions of people, it is unlikely to produce long-term changes alone. For people living in this uncertainty, however, the actions of a new president, regardless of permanency, are still pressing. For instance, when Obama initiated DACA, it allowed those who qualified to apply for work permits and driver’s licenses, opening doors to many new opportunities. When Trump repealed DACA and stopped accepting new applications, those who were too young to apply during the Obama era suddenly couldn’t receive those benefits. They are unable to secure work legally and have no protection against deportation.

If President Trump is re-elected, he would most likely continue to pursue increased border wall funding, the removal of DACA, and a low refugee cap in his 2020 “Keep America Great” Campaign. The stances of the Democratic candidates, on the other hand, are outlined below:   

In addition to the election, 2020 is also supposed to bring a decision from the Supreme Court about DACA later this spring. The conservative majority may lean towards supporting the repeal by President Trump but there is little other evidence that suggests a decision either way.

If the Court upholds the repeal of DACA and new legislation is not passed, the livelihoods of DACA students, many of whom are in college or recently graduated, could be threatened. Without DACA or some new legislation, they will not be able to renew their work permits and work legally in the United States anymore. Throughout the Obama and Trump administration, both have claimed to focus deportations mainly on convicted criminals. But where does that leave those who cannot apply to change their status but who are also unlikely to be deported? Without a long-term solution, their lives are in limbo. In addition to this uncertainty among undocumented and DACA individuals, many refugees are also concerned and speaking out in opposition to the recent executive order allowing states to refuse refugees since many have family members and friends still awaiting approval in insecure areas around the world.

Together, the Supreme Court decision plus the actions of Congress and the newly elected president have the potential to determine the fate of millions of people worldwide. But, of course, those are all influenced by public opinion and the votes of citizens.

Immigration: The Pride of America? (December)

In December 2019, the Rights Writers introduced themselves and their general topic – who are the key actors, what are their goals/incentives, and what are the main debates? (How does the topic relate to human rights specifically?)

US Mexico Border Death Monument
U.S. Mexico Border Deaths Monument © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty

Despite being the foundation of the United States as we know it today, historically, immigration has been an extremely divisive topic. The balance of homeland security and helping those in need is difficult to achieve and each perspective has significant moral claims. The ensuing discussions essentially all stem from the ethical debate of whether we owe more to our compatriots than to foreigners, and if so to what extent.

This blog series will address the moral questions surrounding immigration issues, focusing specifically on asylum-seekers and refugees in the context of the United States. It is important when entering a discussion to clarify the terms that will be used in order to avoid unproductive disagreement that arises from different interpretations of specific words. In this case, I will be sticking to the legal definitions provided by international law. Therefore, a refugee, as determined by the 1951 Convention, is someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”. An asylum-seeker is someone who claims refugee status but their claim has not yet been evaluated. The UNHCR refers to this as Refugee Status Determination. Although these definitions have been contested, for the sake of consistency and clarity I will be using them accordingly.

Looking past legal obligations, such as the 1967 Refugee Protocol, many would additionally argue that the United States has a moral duty to uphold and defend the rights of all people– not simply its own citizens. However, it is difficult to effectively argue for an entirely cosmopolitan view where we care equally for all humans since this runs into the problem of familial obligations and other duties people have to groups that they identify with. Capitalism would collapse if we tried to maximize welfare across the globe. Nevertheless, it seems morally wrong to say that we have no responsibilities to anyone outside of our political boundary. Indeed, most can agree that specific human rights must be upheld no matter where someone is from. Just doing the bare minimum of not violating these rights, however, still allows for massive inequality and unfair treatment.

It is easy for the media to place all the blame on specific government organizations and officials, however, instead, understanding the complicated motives for migration around the world and the unique processes of various migration policies both at the national and international levels would reveal much more complexity. Now as much as ever, if not more since the events of September 11th, 2001 and the Syrian conflict, immigration has been hotly disputed. In recent years, political priorities have clearly shifted to greatly disadvantage refugees, asylum-seekers, and other migrants as evidenced by policies such as the Safe Third Country Rule and the severely diminished refugee arrival cap. Prior to the cut, the United States had a record for resettling more refugees than all other countries combined. The actions of the current presidential administration, in particular, have intensified these debates. There has been outrage over family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, indignation over the Muslim travel ban as it is commonly referred to, and controversy over the proposed elimination of DACA.

The two main groups of migrants who are the targets of hostility in the United States are Muslims and those of Hispanic origin. These attitudes are prevalent despite the all-time high of displacement worldwide. According to the 2018 Global Trends Report by the UNHCR, 70.8 million people are displaced worldwide but less than 1% are ever resettled. In the United States, asylum claims from the frequently labeled “economic migrants” of the northern triangle have increased by over 370% since 2008 while acceptance rates are at a mere 13%. The stark juxtaposition is further appalling when you consider that a study interviewing over 16,000 women from the region seeking asylum found that over 80% had a credible fear of torture or persecution which is the first condition of asylum. Misconceptions and prejudices against Northern Triangle Migrants prevent them from being granted asylum. The acceptance rate will drop even further with President Trump’s Safe Third Country Rule. While this is far from just, it is not unprecedented. Across the world, many affluent nations have attempted to outsource their obligations. While some argue that they are protecting their right to national self-determination, it jeopardizes the lives of already persecuted individuals and places additional strains on less stable nations.

Where the line should be drawn between securing the rights of foreigners and prioritizing nationals is an ongoing debate that reflects our values as a society and has serious implications for human rights.