Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

From Principle to Policy: Navigating the Moral Terrain of Immigration Reform

Paul Brink


By Paul Brink

June 8, 2012

This article originally appeared as part of the Alternative Political Conversation Project, hosted by Harold Heie and co-sponsored by the Center for Public Justice.  For additional perspectives or to join the conversation, go to

If there is one debate in American politics where an “alternative political conversation” is most needed, it is the debate over immigration reform.  Perhaps because we are a nation of immigrants, perhaps because the debate connects with so many other sensitive policy issues or perhaps because of deeply felt but poorly articulated fears concerning those who are different, the rhetoric that opponents level at each other—and at immigrants themselves—has been the opposite of what anyone would call Christian.  

Christians in particular should be troubled by this, whatever their positions on the various issues at stake might be.  Remarkably, however, considerable agreement exists when it comes to identifying underlying moral principles.  Here, I suggest three, though no doubt there are more.

First, states have the authority—and indeed the responsibility—to police their borders.  As no country can admit simply everyone who wants to enter, states need to make decisions concerning the number of immigrants they can accept.  Moreover, states need to be concerned about cross-border criminal activity, including human trafficking.

Second, the desire of persons to migrate when they cannot find employment or other opportunities in their home country is legitimate and even praiseworthy.  While migration may not be possible in all cases, states everywhere have a responsibility to facilitate migration flows, both for the sake of the countries involved and for the migrants themselves.

Third, the responsibility of states to do justice extends to all: authorized and unauthorized residents alike. Justice may not mean treating everyone alike but will require recognizing that all persons have dignity that does not come from the possession of a U.S. passport or visa. Any number of implications may follow from this, but chief among them are responsibilities concerning hospitality and respect.

Now we can agree on the principles that should be brought to bear on a situation, and yet disagree as to where a reasonable balance of these principles might lead.  As I seek a balance of these principles, I can describe at least three possible conclusions.

First, refugees have a special status in immigration policy.  The right to asylum for those who suffer intolerable oppression cannot be denied.

Second, a commitment to the rule of law implies that it is appropriate for governments to set limits on numbers of immigrants who can be admitted.  Moreover, when a government does set limits, it is responsible to enforce those laws, even through deportation if necessary.

Third, one result of our unwillingness to establish a comprehensive immigration policy has been a backlog of millions of undocumented residents, who are here partly because of failures to enforce the laws at the border and at their places of employment.  Our commitment to justice and our recognition of the legitimate desire of persons to improve their situations means that we share responsibility.  Even if it were possible to deport all those who are undocumented, it would wrong to do so.    

From here we can begin to develop policy guidelines.  While the distinction is often overlooked in popular political rhetoric, the situations of authorized and unauthorized immigrants are so different that they require different treatments in terms of policy.  For instance, popular frustration with undocumented residents gaining access to public services should not lead to restrictions on such services for immigrants who are here legally.

Additionally, the state’s interest in protecting the weak as part of its justice mandate requires that it take special steps to protect the most vulnerable.  For that reason, children of illegal immigrants require special protection; legislation like the DREAM Act may be an important step in this regard. 

Finally, for those undocumented immigrants who have been working and contributing to our society for a long time, we should establish the opportunity for legalization and citizenship.  Theirs is not the preferred path, and indeed we should endeavor to close it for others. But our unwillingness to enforce our own laws, our failure to facilitate migration for those who most seek it and their demonstrated willingness to participate in American society all suggest moving in this direction.

These points together do not come close to a program for comprehensive reform.  But immigration is an issue in which vital moral principles are at stake: let’s continue to affirm those basic principles while we debate the policy solutions. 

—Paul Brink is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”