William & Mary

Faculty on topic: Philosophy professor makes case on the morality of immigration

  • Ethics of immigration
    Ethics of immigration  William & Mary Associate Professor Philosophy Christopher Freiman discusses his reasoning that the United States has a moral obligation to allow immigrants the advantages of living in this country.  Photo by Justin K. Thomas
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Christopher Freiman, associate professor of philosophy at William & Mary, recently was compelled to write about his opinion on Americans’ obligation to allow immigrants the advantages of living in the United States.

He has had two opinion columns published this year and is working on a paper on the topic with Javier Hidalgo, an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. W&M News asked Freiman to expand on his reasoning.

What got you interested in this topic?

I had actually gotten interested in the ethics of immigration reform a few years ago. I was reading a lot about the economics of immigration and came across a number of compelling articles that suggested that labor market restrictions — restrictions on people’s ability to move and work — are probably the single greatest economic inefficiency in the world today.

This literature suggests that easing immigration restrictions might be an effective way of helping the world’s poor get richer. So that really piqued my interest.

As far as doing things that are more public policy oriented, that’s been a recent development in light of the controversy surrounding immigration since the election. I figured now would be a good time to talk about immigration reform.

{{youtube:medium:right|N6v6_-uPOv0,Freiman: How should we approach immigration?}}

Why is it important to look at immigration from the viewpoint of morality?

I think that economics, sociology, political science — these types of fields can tell us what is likely to happen if we ease or tighten immigration restrictions. But they can’t tell us what we should do, all things considered.

For example, suppose it turns out to be the case that, as some economists predict, if we increase immigration to a large degree, certain lower-skilled American workers will see their wages drop. But it could also be the case that the immigrants who come to work in the United States will see their incomes double, triple, quadruple and so forth.

Economists, sociologists, political scientists can’t tell us what the right way to make that tradeoff is. Can we accept, morally speaking, say a five percent drop in the wages of some American workers in exchange for a 400 percent gain in the incomes of immigrant workers? That’s a question for philosophy. That’s a question for ethics.

{{youtube:medium:right|XUhG5bo1dO8,Freiman: Current or future works concerning immigration}}

Do you think that gets lost in the crime and economics discussion?

I wish that people looked at the moral dimensions more closely. A lot of the debate is over empirical questions. What economic impact are immigrants likely to have, what sort of cultural impact?

But the philosophical questions don’t get enough attention. Go back to the case that I discussed earlier. On the whole, the economics literature tells us that immigration is good for almost everyone. It’s good for Americans; it’s good for immigrants. But like I said, even the most optimistic estimates suggest that there will be some American workers who are made worse off. The American workers who are in direct competition with immigrants for jobs probably will see their wages drop somewhat. Still, I don’t think that that means that we shouldn’t open the borders to allow more immigration.

{{youtube:medium:right|xDyfpUrfSEg, Freiman: How did you get involved with the immigration debate?}}

Consider an analogy. Maybe the United States has special obligations to American workers, just like I have special obligations to my daughter. But those obligations aren’t infinite; they don’t outweigh all other moral obligations. If I’m driving my daughter to ballet practice and we see a stranger by the side of the road who’s injured and needs to get to the hospital, then it seems like the right thing for me to do is to help the stranger and not take my daughter to ballet. Not going to ballet is bad for her, but not going to the hospital is far worse for the stranger. So even though I have special obligations to my daughter, the harm I can prevent for this stranger is so great that I’m morally obligated to do it.

Similarly, even if you believe that the United States government has special obligations to native born workers, I think the gains to the world’s poor by being allowed to immigrate to the United States are so great that they outweigh whatever losses are suffered by American workers. And I also think that there are better ways of addressing those losses than restricting immigration. For instance, if the worry is that some American workers will see their wages drop or lose their jobs, the solution is not to block immigrants from coming into the American labor market. It’s to address the problem directly, maybe offer the workers wage subsidies, unemployment benefits and so forth.

{{youtube:medium:right|lCjxFva7BL4,Freiman: Empirical versus the ethical outlook regarding immigration in the U.S.?}}

Do you have anything else planned along these lines?

I do. I’m co-authoring this paper with someone whom I’ve worked with before, Javier Hidalgo from the University of Richmond. We argue that even if you think that the American government has special obligations to its citizens, like I was discussing before, that’s actually a reason in favor of increased immigration rather than decreased immigration.

For one, increased immigration tends to be good for the economic well-being of Americans. It makes us richer.

Second, immigration restrictions infringe on the freedom of native-born Americans in important ways. Suppose I have a friend who lives in a foreign country, and I want them to come live with me in Virginia. Immigration restrictions prevent me from doing that. So immigration restrictions not only restrict the liberties of immigrants, they restrict the liberties of Americans as well.