The Zero Tolerance Migration Policy: Two Moral Objections

June 20, 2018

Child at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, 2014. CREDIT: Eddie Perez , U.S. Customs & Border Protection, public domain

Ethical debates about migration concern a number of reasonable disagreements over whether—and the extent to which—political communities have the right to enforce their borders. What is hardly ever in doubt, even among those who support the “right to exclude” (at least those who defend the right on moral terms), is that there are limits to a political community’s exercise of this right: states cannot use force against those seeking asylum or basic human rights protection, and some means of policing borders are morally unacceptable.[i]

Although I am skeptical of arguments in defense of the right to exclude, here, I will assume that a convincing argument can be given. On this assumption, I will evaluate the Trump administration’s current zero-tolerance migration policy, which entails the separation of migrant children from their parents.[ii] I raise two moral objections to the policy, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. First, I argue that the policy interferes with the United States’ duties to foreigners suffering human rights deprivations. Secondly, I argue that the policy—subjecting children to trauma as a means of deterrence—is an impermissible means of enforcing what may be an otherwise legitimate goal. The ends do not always justify the means, especially when children are involved.

To read this article in full, go to Carnegie Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs.


Notes

[i] Michael Blake, in an article defending a state’s right to exclude, concludes, “We can only justify the coercive force of the border if we use it against people whose rights are adequately protected in their current homes. To use it elsewhere seems simply to use force to defend an illegitimate status quo; this is morally impermissible regardless of how just our foreign policy might otherwise be.” See Michael Blake, “Immigration, Jurisdiction, and Exclusion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 41, no. 2 (March 1, 2013): 126.

[ii] Here, I follow an example set by Joseph Carens in Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2013). In the first half of the book, Carens takes the exclusionary view as a given, but identifies moral constraints on the exercise of the right.

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