The Ethics of Immigration symposium: On Method

by Phillip Cole on June 2, 2014

The appearance of Joseph Caren’s book, The Ethics of Immigration, has been a long-awaited event and it does not disappoint. The breadth and depth of its vision is extraordinary and it will shape the debate for many years to come as an indispensable text. It also gives those of us who teach the ethics of migration on our courses the chance to introduce our students to that vision in its entirety, instead of guiding them to glimpses of it in journal articles and book chapters.

However, my task here is not to praise Joseph and his book, but to raise challenges to which he can respond so that we can continue the dialogue he began in the 1980s. Therefore I have to do something that is very difficult and strange to me, and to write contra JosephCarens.
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This is a fantastic symposium inspired by a fantastic book, and it is clear that all the contributors agree on at least one key point: Joseph Carens’s majestic The Ethics of Immigration is an intensely important text and all of us are deeply in debt to Carens’s work on this crucial subject. There is no doubt that over the years Carens has done more than anyone else to bring the ethics of immigration to the attention of mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy, and he has set the agenda for the discussion for many years to come.

From that shared starting point, the commentators then fall into two groups. There are those who are in broad agreement with most of Carens’s conclusions and are generally sympathetic to his overall agenda (but may disagree with parts of his approach, and even may wish to push his open borders arguments further). And there are those who disagree with a number of Carens’s conclusions and are less sympathetic to his overall agenda. I fall in with the first group; my comment is intended as a friendly intervention, which also takes seriously some of the concerns of the second group (concerns not necessarily expressed directly in the symposium pieces, but which appear in writings elsewhere). And rather than go over terrain that has already been covered in the symposium, I want to concentrate on one particular point regarding Carens’s argument from democratic principles.
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Political theorists are much indebted to Joseph Carens for his 1987 article “Aliens and Citizens: the Case for Open Borders”. Written in a period of increased restrictions on migration, Carens’s article was pioneering in two ways: it introduced the migration question to political theory’s agenda and set the terms of the debate from the free movement side. Carens’s recent book, The Ethics of Immigration, is less pioneering. It explicitly aims to engage with the “conventional view of immigration” and to show that it can accommodate some measures which improve citizenship and admission policies. The open borders argument is not abandoned but is left to only one of the twelve chapters. Carens’s main concern, however, is to show that the open borders argument does not conflict with the measures he proposes.

It is possible to have the opposite concern: are the proposed measures a way to advance towards a  world of open borders? In other words, is Carens still advocating open borders? My analysis here will be limited to the first measure he proposes in the book, this is that “justice requires that democratic states grant citizenship at birth to the descendants of settled immigrants” (p. 20). Whether justice requires this or not, many “democratic states” already conform to this principle and my argument is not that they should stop. Rather, my worry is that such an argument is not a way to advance towards an open borders world.
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