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Ethics, Undocumented Immigrants, and the Issue of Integration: Making a Better Life for Everyone in New York City

Grand Central Terminal, New York City. CREDIT: Pixabay/Public Domain (https://pixabay.com/en/grand-central-station-new-york-690180/) Grand Central Terminal, New York City. CREDIT: Pixabay/Public Domain

This essay is in response to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs video clip "Nisha Agarwal: IDNYC & the Undocumented Community," part of the event "Is Successful Integration Possible? Best Practices from North America and Europe." It was first published on the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education website on January 4, 2017.

According to a study conducted by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an estimated 643,000 undocumented immigrants live within the five boroughs of New York City. Advocates of the New York City Municipal ID card hoped that government-issued photo identification would bring many of those undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. With the newly elected president of the United States, Donald Trump, many are wondering whether the NYC Municipal ID was the right thing to do as the cards can put undocumented cardholders at greater risk of being harassed by government authorities and even of deportation.

Nisha Agarwal, commissioner at the NYC Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, argues that the NYC Municipal ID card has helped many undocumented immigrants do things such as pick up their kids from school, access public and government buildings, interact more easily with police officers, and open bank accounts. Furthermore, the commissioner argues that the Municipal ID has helped many undocumented immigrants increase their sense of belonging to New York City and to the United States. Given that 60 percent of NYC's population is foreign born and less than half of the city's population has a driver's license, the Municipal ID proves to be an effective legal response to cope with the need for identification in NYC.

One of the biggest misconceptions about undocumented immigrants is that they take job opportunities away from American citizens. Many believe that immigrants do not pay any taxes and that they do not want to assimilate to the United States. However, studies conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that these opinions are a product of anti-immigrant context which has been sustained and reproduced by the political climate. It is both unethical and immoral to punish individuals for choosing to migrate to another country without having the proper documents. The United States takes in a certain number of refugees per year, would it not be morally wrong to ignore and punish those already living in the country?

Additionally, many undocumented immigrants living in the United States migrated from their native countries due to the negative impact of United States interventions in their homelands. For instance, there are immigrants from Central America and Mexico who have migrated after the United States government's political, military, or economic intervention. In particular, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) led to considerable levels of unemployment in Central and Southern Mexico. Thus, the right to survive and to thrive both socially and economically justifies the actions of the undocumented community and those helping them with their cause.

Moreover, from a theological perspective, it can be morally right to disobey certain laws. Many Biblical heroes, such as Prophet Daniel and saints like Saint Peter and Saint Paul, became martyrs by refusing to obey unjust human laws. Even though most people will argue that disobeying the law is morally wrong, it is morally right to disobey human laws when they are not in accordance with the Natural Law principles of justice and fairness. Thus, legislators who condemn undocumented immigrants and choose to close the doors of opportunities for these members of our society act negligently, unethically, and immorally.

There is no doubt that Trump's presidency, with his lack of ethical and moral rhetoric and behavior, poses a greater risk to undocumented immigrants. His narrative fails to acknowledge the tremendous contributions of immigrants in the United States. Is escaping crime and poverty an illegal offense? Is it a moral offense to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities? Is it an unethical offense to give undocumented immigrants a sense of belonging and security? Is it a criminal offense to safeguard immigrant families from harassment and discrimination? These families are already in the United States; therefore, our government officials should enact legislation to provide them with a prosperous future.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have vowed to protect cardholders' personal records by deleting their information if it is requested by the Trump administration. It is both the legal and moral obligation of New York elected officials to protect the most vulnerable members in our communities. Even though critics might claim that these actions are completely irresponsible because undocumented immigrants have broken the law, the end justifies the means. In addition, it is important to recognize our moral obligation in helping the most vulnerable members within our communities and giving each other the support we need to get through these difficult times of uncertainty and sense of insecurity.

Given that many undocumented immigrants live invisibly for a long time, the Municipal ID card truly acknowledges their existence. The NYC Municipal ID card was, and still is, worth the risk and the right thing to do. We owe undocumented immigrants a certain obligation of hospitality. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "the right which nature has given to all men of departing from the country in which choice, not chance has placed them" (1774). Whether critics like it or not, the NYC Council and Mayor de Blasio acted as responsible politicians by doing the fair thing for undocumented immigrants with the creation of the NYC Municipal ID card.

Read More: Cities, Justice, Ethics, Migration, United States

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