Sunday, March 6, 2016

Ethics of Immigration Policy

I wanted a teaching challenge for myself this spring, and I got one: I'm teaching a new course that I've never taught before, a course for the DePauw Philosophy Department on the Ethics of Immigration Policy. I wanted to teach it because the topic couldn't be more timely and urgent, with the heated presidential election rhetoric as well as the heart-wrenching refugee crisis erupting every day in Europe. And I wanted to teach it because I don't think there are any easy answers here, philosophically, politically, or practically, and I prefer teaching courses that pose genuinely hard questions for my students - and for me.

Well, that is definitely what I've gotten.

So far we've discussed the debate between philosophers like Joseph Carens, who defends the view that democratic commitments to freedom of movement and equality of life chances commit us to open borders between nations, and philosophers like Michael Walzer, David Miller, and Christopher Wellman, who argue that, like individuals, nations have a right to freedom of association, and that meaningful community is not possible without some closure of boundaries. The students wrote their first paper on this topic. Despite a first-day-of-class survey that showed almost no support for the open borders view, 12 of 20 ended up defending that view in their papers, with 8 of 20 defending the status quo that is our political reality. (Of course, one student told me that he didn't actually believe the view he was defending in his paper, that he likes to write papers arguing for views he doesn't hold!)

This past week we've been talking about what our admissions priorities should be in a world of at least partially closed borders. Family reunification? Advancing our own national interest through recruiting highly skilled foreign workers to strengthen our economy? Compensating those harmed by wrongful U.S. governmental policies that rendered their native lands all but unlivable? Next week we'll begin looking closely at the category where admissions seem most clearly morally obligatory: refugees.

Here are two things that are making the teaching of this course extra hard.

1) Each day brings new real-world developments I feel that the class - and I - should be keeping abreast of. To address this, I've instituted "Current Events Fridays" where teams of students present something from the news for our collective edification.

2) The issues we are discussing connect deeply with the actual lives of some of the students in the class. At least one student is a refugee: she told me her family came to the U.S. as refugees from Myanmar (Burma). Another student may be an undocumented migrant (a classmate told me this). So when other students defend not-unreasonable views that support stringent limitations on immigration, these views are not just abstract philosophical ideas; they are views that impact the lives of real people -including real people in our own class.

This latter challenge is tougher to deal with. I don't want to silence robust, wide-open debate where all respectfully presented views get a hearing. But I also don't want vulnerable students to feel unwelcome in our midst. So far the main thing I've done to address this situation is to have a guest lecturer to the class, a colleague who specializes in recent Central American history. He shared a heart-breaking story about a former DePauw student who was an undocumented migrant, deported shortly after graduation: taken down to El Paso and walked across the border to Mexico, with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, this although he hadn't lived in Mexico since he was three years old. That student, Daniel, has now died, either from suicide or as a victim of gang violence.

The students were visibly moved by this story. I was, too.

I console myself by the thought that even if it's hard to balance competing factors in designing and teaching a course like this, at least I'm trying. It's better to create a space where we can learn about these enormously difficult issues than to avoid engagement with them altogether. It's better to educate ourselves, and to try to formulate reason-based arguments while also allowing ourselves to experience the emotion any decent human being would feel from a story like Daniel's.

So that's what I'm doing this semester, each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 12:30-1:30.

1 comment:

  1. I am going to share this post with my fellow-trainees from a recent Theory of Knowledge session. Some in the course have trouble talking about Ethics in their classes. This post - inspiring and pragmatic (a Claudia combo for sure) - may help show the way!