Opinion: Afghan Refugees, U.S. Immigration Policy, and the Demands of Justice

We’ve all seen the harrowing headlines and the gut-wrenching videos. After President Joe Biden officially announced his decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. military presence from Afghanistan in mid-August, thousands of panic-stricken Afghans flooded Hamid Karzai International Airport, some of them clinging onto the landing gear of U.S. planes as they prepared for take-off. The body of a dead Afghan, so desperate to flee the country after the Taliban takeover, was discovered in the landing gear of an American transport aircraft days later. 

Immigrants and refugees are, like the rest of us, human beings with needs, interests, and desires. They are also moral subjects to the extent that, just like citizens, immigrants and refugees possess a kind of moral dignity and autonomy that deserves our consideration and respect.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat critiqued the U.S. withdrawal as “stumbling.” He’s not wrong. But this is almost like saying that the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was “misguided”—in both instances, the word “disastrous” probably does the job better. According to estimates by researchers associated with the Association of Wartime Allies at American University, there are roughly 250,000 visa-eligible Afghans that have not been evacuated from the country. These are Afghan citizens that risked their lives and the lives of their families to assist the operations of U.S. troops in their country—troops that were there as a result of a NATO invasion that scholars argue contravened international law—by serving as interpreters, guides, and soldiers. And Biden’s promise that “we’re gonna stay to get them all out” rings painfully hollow when hearing the stories of all who were left behind during the haphazard and frenzied U.S. withdrawal process. 

I’m not going to discuss in detail the U.S. withdrawal, or the circumstances surrounding the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan here. From what I’ve read, much of what the U.S. has done in Afghanistan and the Middle East has been stupid, ideologically driven, and amoral. But the issue is complicated, and I’m not an expert in U.S. foreign policy, so I’ll leave that discussion for others more qualified to speak on this topic. 

Instead, I wanted to focus my attention on thinking about issues involving immigration and refugees. My thoughts on this topic were set off by another recent New York Times piece, titled: “Americans Stretch Across Political Divides to Welcome Afghan Refugees.” The Times piece highlights the ways in which Americans of all stripes have come together to advocate for, and mobilize in support of, the thousands of Afghan refugees who are fleeing the Taliban and arriving in the United States. The piece quotes Caleb Campbell, the lead pastor of the Phoenix-based evangelical church Desert Springs Bible Church, who says that “even the most right-leaning isolationists within our sphere recognize the level of responsibility that America has to people who sacrificed for the nation’s interest.”  

Surely, this is good news. The fact that Americans who are so deeply divided on issues ranging from healthcare to reproductive rights to racial justice can come together in support of Afghans that risked their lives to support U.S. operations in the Middle East should be a cause for optimism. We should do all that we can to support the evacuation and resettlement of all the Afghan individuals and families who fear for their safety and lives under the Taliban.   

But in reading articles about Americans’ response to Afghan refugees, I’ve also noticed that the discourse surrounding this issue highlights a critical deficiency in the ways in which many of us talk and think about U.S. immigration and refugee policy. The key term that often emerges in these discussions is that of “national interest.” Campbell, for instance, says that Americans have a responsibility to help “people who sacrificed for the nation’s interest,” and I believe that this statement captures the view of many commentators and pundits on this issue of Afghan refugees. They helped us, so we should help them; they promoted America’s national interest, and it would be in America’s national interest to welcome them to the United States. Biden, too, has framed his response to Afghan refugees in these terms. In his remarks on the Afghanistan withdrawal on Aug. 16, Biden defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan on the basis of American “national interest,” and he spoke of the debt that America owed to all of the Afghan “allies” who assisted in U.S. military operations in the country. The underlying message is clear: the U.S. should support Afghans who assisted the U.S. military because these individuals worked to promote America’s “national interest,” and turning our back to them would thus tarnish America’s reputation and interests abroad. Yet again, the notion of “national interest” assumes center stage. 

Indeed, the basic conviction that immigration policy should be driven by considerations of national interest is widely shared amongst partisans on both sides of the aisle, as well as by non-partisan commentators and analysts. On the one hand, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, conservative Republicans routinely evoke the concept of national interest when arguing in favor of immigration restrictions. The Republican Party’s platform for the 2016 election stated that “America’s immigration policy must serve the national interest of the United States, and the interests of American workers must be protected over the claims of foreign nationals seeking the same jobs.” Citing economic studies which purport to show the depressive effects of immigration on the wages of American blue-collar workers, many Republicans argue that the U.S. government should craft a set of immigration policies that not only protect American workers from foreign competition, but also prevent the unwelcome and purportedly uncontrollable encroachment of foreign values, customs, and cultures.

On the other hand, liberal commentators who express pro-immigration views also tend to justify their position by drawing on the rhetoric of national interest. Even as they loudly condemn the fear-mongering rhetoric and demonization of immigrants by the current Republican Party, the majority of politicians and policymakers on the American left challenge the empirical conclusions of the former Trump administration—that immigrants take jobs from Americans, hurt the economy, and commit “violent, horrible crimes”—while implicitly or explicitly reaffirming Trump’s basic presumption that the U.S. government possesses the right to design its immigration policies in ways that promote America’s national interest. Indeed, in their official party platform, the Democratic National Committee justifies their opposition to Republican-led efforts to restrict immigration by stating that “immigrants are essential to our society and our economy… They enrich our culture. They grow our food, care for our loved ones, serve in our armed forces, and provide critical health care services. Immigrants make America stronger.” Nonpartisan think-tanks such as the Center for Migration Studies routinely argue that “policymakers should… evaluate and adjust U.S. immigration policies based on their success in furthering the nation’s interests.” 

Thus, there actually exists a fundamental consensus that often remains hidden beneath the rancorous and hostile disagreements about immigration policy that saturate media headlines. Despite their many differences, the dual statements of the DNC and RNC reveal both parties’ shared belief that (1) a liberal state such as the United States possesses the prima facie right to control the entry and settlement of noncitizen immigrants; and that (2) the “best” immigration policy is once which ultimately promotes America’s national interest, in whatever way this term is defined. In our contemporary, post-WWII world of nation-states, it is widely taken for granted that, in the words of the famous economist of immigration, George Borjas, “immigration policy should be set in ways that further the national interest.”

The phrase “national interest” is a nebulous one, and it can be interpreted and employed in different ways by people with widely divergent political objectives and values. It’s not, in my view, an inherently problematic concept—I suspect that not many people would reject Borjas’ claim that U.S. immigration policy should be driven by “national interest” if what he means is that the U.S. government should consider the needs and interests of Americans when formulating its immigration policy. U.S. immigration policy impacts Americans, so it almost goes without saying that the U.S. government should consider the lives of Americans when determining their immigration agenda. 

But unlike domestic policies concerning taxation or education, immigration policy also impacts people who are not American citizens. The current situation surrounding Afghan refugees makes this point painfully clear—the details of U.S. refugee and visa policies may literally be the difference between life and death for Afghans fearing retribution by the Taliban. But the same point can be made for so-called “economic migrants” from, say, Latin and South America as well, whether or not these prospective migrants ever supported U.S. military operations or served in America’s “national interest.” This summer, I had the opportunity to work for a refugee resettlement agency in the Chicagoland area, and I was able to see firsthand the ways in which U.S. immigration regulations and policies exercised a profound influence on the lives of refugees who were trying to build a new life in America. 

Indeed, while the statement that countries should have the right to control the flow of immigrants over their borders, as well as design immigration policies in ways that promote the “national interest,” may appear to be relatively straightforward at first glance, there is a fundamental ethical assumption embedded within this claim that is far from uncontroversial. As political theorist Ryan Pevnick explains in his 2003 book Immigration and the Constraints of Justice, “the distinguishing feature of [the argument from national interest] is that the demands of justice are inapplicable beyond state boundaries and, as a result, the interests of foreigners do not impose constraints on justifiable immigration policy.” 

What, exactly, does Pevnick mean? In other domains of life, moral deliberation involves balancing the (oftentimes competing) needs and interests of different actors in order to settle upon the best course of action. Let’s say, for instance, that two Reed students—Jack and Jill—are deliberating about who should eat a free sandwich that they found on an empty Commons table. When deciding who should eat the sandwich —that is, who has the right to eat the sandwich—we must assess the comparative moral weight of the needs and interests of Jack, who may wish to eat the sandwich because he is hungry and found it first, against the needs and interests of Jill, who may be less financially stable than Jack and for whom a free sandwich may go a long way. And while it may be impossible to arrive at a definitive moral conclusion about this situation, most of us would agree that it would be remiss to simply ignore the needs and interests of either Jack or Jill when deciding who should ultimately eat the sandwich. 

How does this logic apply to debates about state control of immigration? It goes without saying that many immigrants, especially refugees and asylum seekers, have particularly strong interests in migrating to another country; they may be fleeing religious persecution and political violence, or simply seeking to reunite with family members and pursue economic opportunities. The interest that Afghan interpreters have in immigrating to the U.S. is undeniable, just as the interest that a Mexican immigrant who is fleeing violence and economic deprivation is also without question. Thus, stating that liberal states possess the absolute and prima facie right to determine their own immigration policy regardless of its impact on foreigners is, in some ways, tantamount to saying that Jack should be allowed to simply ignore the needs and interests of Jill when deciding who should eat the sandwich—a claim that many of us would reject outright. We cannot simply ignore the needs and interests of involved actors when engaging in deliberation to decide upon a course of action, especially if we hope to be able to defend the decision in moral terms.  

What am I trying to suggest? By saying that states have an obligation to consider the needs and interests of foreigners, am I advocating for a completely open-borders policy in which national governments are completely deprived of the right to control or regulate their borders? Not necessarily. The U.S. government may be completely justified in prioritizing the interests and desires of Americans over foreign noncitizens by virtue of the value we place on the special political or communal relationship that exists amongst existing citizens—that we can justifiably, in moral terms, show “partiality” to our compatriots when we are deciding upon a course of action. By saying that the U.S. government must consider the needs and interests of foreigners when crafting immigration policy is not to necessarily say that the U.S. government must prioritize the interests of foreigners over that of Americans under all circumstances. More generally, I think questions surrounding states’ right to control their own borders, as well as the ways in which this right is constrained by the demands of justice, represent an enormously complicated set of issues that touch on thorny and obscure concepts such as sovereignty, communal self-determination, and human rights. I’m still working through these issues myself, and so are a handful of political philosophers and theorists who have focused their careers on thinking about immigration. Many of these philosophers are very smart people who think carefully, rigorously, and self-reflectively about the myriad of difficult problematics associated with the ethics of immigration policy.  But given the often-dismal track record of philosophical inquiry in providing definite answers to difficult moral questions, issues involving states’ right to control its borders are unlikely to ever find a definitive and absolute answer.  

Instead, I am simply suggesting that we reconsider our basic framework and orientation with which many of us approach immigration and refugee policy. Immigrants and refugees are, like the rest of us, human beings with needs, interests, and desires. They are also moral subjects to the extent that, just like citizens, immigrants and refugees possess a kind of moral dignity and autonomy that deserves our consideration and respect. This is a truth that we should not forget when thinking about how the American government should handle Afghan refugees seeking to flee to the U.S., and it is a truth that we should not forget when we think about immigration policy more generally. There’s nothing wrong with formulating immigration policy so that it satisfies the interests of American citizens. There is something wrong when we do not consider the real needs and interests of foreign non-citizens when we are engaging in moral deliberation to craft an immigration and refugee policy that is truly ethical and humane. 

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Stories


We would love your thoughts, please comment!x
%d bloggers like this: