I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion

To many, even those sympathetic towards it, I imagine liberalising immigration policy is just another pet bleeding heart cause — similar to saving the environment, helping battered women, aiding the homeless, etc. It can seem arrogant of open borders advocates to compare our cause to historical antecedents such as the abolition of slavery or apartheid. And I get these sentiments — in fact, I quite agree with them on a very fundamental level.

In the daily news, it’s rare to not come across a photograph or story of some activists fighting for an immigration-related cause. Sometimes it’s for the cause of allowing immigrants in the US to get in-state university tuition benefits; other times, it’s protesting the detention of asylum-seekers (whether in the US, UK, Australia, or elsewhere); most commonly, it’s a protest, somewhere in the US, demanding the cessation of deportations. Recently, the cause celebre has been, of course, the problem of children migrating to the US. Now, to be fully honest with you, I often look at these pictures and read these stories, and feel that I just don’t care.

Now, of course I do care very much about the issues at stake here: I spend a lot of time writing about open borders, for pete’s sake! So why do I read about immigration in the news and just go “meh”?

To add to the puzzle, this is actually a very personal and emotional issue for me. It’s impossible, actually, for me to understand migration without reference to emotion and personal experience. As a child, I lived for years knowing that my mother could be deported if she and my father were to separate, or even if she were to be widowed, thanks to my country’s immigration laws. As a student in the US, I wondered whether I’d ever be able to get a job here, with visa laws effectively banning me from taking a job outside investment banking or management consulting. And now as a US resident, I’ve seen my friends — and even my girlfriend — be forced to leave this country, thanks to its patently ridiculous laws.

So why then my disconnect from all these stories? My epiphany came when I read a story in the Washington Post about an American woman bidding her Bangladeshi husband farewell before his impending deportation. I’ve felt the same fears and worries they do and lived through similar frustration and farewells thanks to arbitrary immigration controls. I could put myself in their shoes.

Now this actually made me despair further: how can advocates of liberal migration laws win people’s hearts and minds with sob stories like these? Hardly any citizens will ever face the violent force of their own governments’ exclusionary immigration policies. How can citizens begin to care about the effects of their immigration laws, let alone be moved to support changing them? How, when even someone like me — one who deeply cares about immigration and demands open borders — can only be affected by a story that’s personally connected to my own?

Then, I read this comment on the Washington Post article:

Sorry, but she is making a choice here and it is not for her husband. If she is placing all these things before him, then it cannot be helped. If I were in her shoes there would be no way that I would not be on that plane with my spouse. I might miss Kansas, but I would make the necessary arrangements and I would be at his side.

Our actions reveal where are loyalties lie, and this lady appears to be more concerned with living in Kansas and the job she loves and all the rest, than in being with the man whom she married.

My reaction to this was anger. I fumed. To restate the cold logic here: “If the government forces your husband to live in a strange country where there are no jobs for you or him, and you choose to keep your job and the home you’ve both shared for decades, you clearly just love money and comfort more than your husband.” Pretty easy to say this when you’ve never had the government kick your partner out of the country — as has actually happened to me and to many of my friends.

After I calmed down, I asked myself why a commenter might react to the story in this manner. As a general rule, people are not randomly vindictive. So why the harsh reaction aimed at this woman and her husband? The obvious answer is that the commenter did not think to question the justice system’s decision to exclude someone; if the system has decided, the decision must be correct. Justice must be served.

But why is it that we don’t think to question the justice of this system? Why does this story not move us to ponder whether the law here was just? Why do the journalists and activists putting these stories out there not explicitly question the justice of an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth?

I’ve come to think that the reason I don’t care when I see pictures of hunger strikers protesting deportations, or picketers demanding immigrant access to certain benefits, and so on, is because these stories have always been framed in terms of compassion — not justice.

This is not to say I consider myself heartless or lacking compassion, although I am not in any place to judge myself. Rather, it is that when I read about stories which don’t directly affect me, it is simply difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. And when these stories try to engage me by asking me to feel compassion for those affected, I only feel a sense of weariness.

There are a million causes in the world, and almost all of them seem to be asking for my compassion when I open the daily papers. Today it’s genocide in Darfur; tomorrow it’s children being kidnapped in Nigeria; next week, it might be people rendered homeless in the wake of a natural disaster (tsunami? hurricane? earthquake?); next month, perhaps another school shooting. I don’t have the time or energy to be emotionally invested in every single one of these issues.

And to the degree that I might choose to invest my emotions, there’s no particularly compelling reason to choose immigration as my humanitarian cause du jour over, say, victims of domestic violence or poaching endangered animals. You can tell me all the reasons why I ought to care more about immigration, but if you have to give me a 21-point list of reasons why I ought to care — if your sob story cannot speak for itself — then you’re not likely to win me over.

It may strike one as galling to so baldly rank and prioritise humanitarian or compassionate causes, but this is exactly what all of us as citizens and individuals do all the time. Virtually every one of these activism stories pulls at the humanitarian, compassionate angle, but none of us has the time to devote to more than a handful of such issues.

Now, the compassionate angle I think actually works especially well for many causes. But I think for migration it seems singularly unlikely to work; if anything, it can easily become counter-productive. Unlike with a cause like animal rights or famine relief — almost everyone’s played with a pet or felt the pangs of hunger before — few of us have experienced the feeling of being persecuted by the state under the aegis of arbitrary immigration laws. You can’t count on your audience to share the emotional experiences you might have as a migrant, activist, or journalist who has personally seen the horror of arbitrary immigration laws.

When you play up the compassionate angle in the story of a victim of deportation, what are you asking for? Unlike with many humanitarian causes, you are not asking for charitable donations. Rather, you are asking people to demand a change or an exception to settled law.

Now, we can certainly demand that laws be changed on compassionate or humanitarian grounds. But how convincing is this? If people believe the justice system has found someone guilty of a crime, are they going to believe the criminal ought to get clemency simply because we ought to have compassion for the criminal? In an ideal world, this could perhaps be true. But in the real world, people believe that if you’re a criminal, you ought to pay the price set by the justice system.

As a result, the constant framing of immigration as a question of compassion perplexes me. This is like asking for a slave to be set free, not because laws permitting slavery are barbaric and need to be repealed, but because poor Uncle Tom really needs to be free, and oh isn’t it such a shame that in this case the law is irrationally separating him from his family?

I mean, yes, the law is inhumane and barbaric and evil — but that’s the whole point! Asking for compassionate special pleading on purely humanitarian grounds, without ever questioning the barbaric law that is in place, simply throws your entire case away. Somehow, this is the modus operandi in how immigration activists campaign for liberal reforms!

Put more bluntly, the case for more liberal migration laws, and yes, open borders, cannot rest on compassionate grounds. Yes, one can make such a compassionate case. But there are a million things needing our compassion. What makes immigrants so special?

The point is not that immigrants are special. No, the point is that immigrants are just like you and me. The point is that our law owes them justice, same as the law owes any and all of us. We cannot use the force of law to exclude people from society in an unjust manner. We cannot allow our government to perpetrate injustice and oppression in our name.

That’s what makes immigration and open borders so compelling to me. I don’t see immigrants as some group in need of special pleading or special compassion from me or the government. I see migrants as ordinary people who, same as anyone else, need to be treated justly. The reason I care so much about this issue is not because I feel immigrants need my special attention — although I think there is a case for more compassion towards those who are strangers in our land. I simply believe that immigrants, like all of us, are entitled to just treatment under the law.

Rohingya being deported from Bangladesh

Immigration reform and open borders are not about making life better for a special, deserving class of people. They are about abolishing systems of injustice which unjustly oppress ordinary people. The woman who loses her deported husband does not need our compassion; she does not need a special exemption from our irrational laws. What she needs, what millions of others like her need, is justice.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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9 thoughts on “I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion”

  1. Justice and compassion are not mutually exclusive, but I agree that immigrant rights campaigns are too often framed around the latter, to the detriment of the former. I find the descriptor “humane” to be particularly irritating, e.g., “we need humane immigration reform.” I don’t even like the word used with reference to pets (animals have rights, too), much less to human beings.

  2. I really enjoyed seeing my own thoughts mirrored so eloquently in this article…a well written, thought provoking piece.

  3. Interesting comments. What’s really fascinating is the number of people claiming to be in similar situations who STILL didn’t have any sympathy for the couple involved. If they got their heads down, jumped through the hoops and did the time without questioning the system they have a psychological motivation to avoid criticising the system (‘I had to jump through those hoops, who is he to think he should get a green card more easily than me’!)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/System_justification

    “If she loved him, she’d move with him! Completely lame. My wife and I are moving back to her country soon, even though she already became a U.S. citizen”

    “My husband and I were separated for over a year while I waited for my immigration paperwork to be complete. This is the sacrifice you make when you fall in love with someone from a different country.”

  4. Not sure people are always asking for settled law to make an exception when fighting deportation cases. Often they are asking the state to live up to its own standards while exposing the injustice of it all. However, since so much of immigration law is about “tipping the balance” on the good side, you can’t help feel like you are trying to find all the polish in a story rather that fighting for the actual person that faces deportation, and that part of it is very frustrating. It’s like you’re giving in to the good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative even as you’re fighting against it.

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