Kwame Anthony Appiah, of whom I have only had positive feelings up to now, has produced an opinion for the Ethicist column for the New York Times that it is “a good thing” when citizens report violations of immigration law to the US authorities. He produces this opinion in the context of a question about “green-card marriage” entered into merely in order to gain an immigration advantage, so it is unclear how far he relies on the specific features of the case he describes to generate a more general moral conclusion, but I, for one, find his reasons highly problematic.
First, he operates on the assumption that US migration policy is reasonable and reasonably fair and that states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally. Whether or not legitimate states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally (I’m a sceptic), I think it hard to argue that US policies are currently fair given who they exclude (and a fortiori who they are now excluding). Appiah argues that people who enter by unlawful means are queue jumpers who thereby act unfairly towards others. But the very idea that there is an immigration queue that people can join and wait their turn is preposterous. There is no such queue and many many people will never be in a position where they can realistically have a chance of a visa. The claim of unfairness to other would-be migrants is therefore unfounded.
Then there’s the whole question of “sham” or “bogus” marriages. There’s hardly any other context where states intrude into marriages to inquire whether the relationship matches up to some officially sanctioned view of what a genuine romantic partnership amounts to. Where people enter into marriages to gain a tax advantage or to avoid giving evidence or to have a trophy Slovenian former model to show of for business or political purposes, the state isn’t interested. But with immigration, suddenly, a highly prescriptive set of norms is backed up by the full power of the state.
There’s also the issue of snitching on your neighbours and what happens when there’s a culture of doing so. Sometimes, where specific harms are clear, there’s a duty to do so: child abuse, for example. But the idea that it is a good thing when people go reporting their neighbours for being stoners, for minor zoning infractions or for overstaying their visas….
Immigration is an area where states are increasingly placing enforcement and surveillance obligations on ordinary people. That’s a process that’s gone much further in the UK than it has in the US, though no doubt Trump will learn from May. But this is a bad thing, and it leads to fear, mutual suspicion and the erosion of trust.