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July 1, 2019 / 0 Comments / Uncategorized

The Ethics of Deterring Migration with Evil


While Joe Biden is unlikely to bring this up,
the Obama deported more people than any other president
. While this was criticized
by some, the anger and outrage against it cannot match that directed against
the Trump administration. As such, Trump supporters might think themselves
justified when they point out this fact about the Obama administration as a defense
of Trump. While Obama should not get a pass on his deportation record, it is
worth noting important differences between the two administrations. One
important difference is that Obama had a well-defined set of policies designed
to account for the reality of limited resources. Trump certainly does not take
this approach. Second, Obama focused on deporting those who had committed
crimes (other than crossing the border illegally) and new arrivals. In
contrast, Trump seems to be after everyone. Finally, and most importantly, the
Obama administration did not adopt a strategy of creating fear. The Trump
administration has made it clear that they regard using fear as a deterrent as
a legitimate immigration tool.

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At this point, you might be thinking the obvious: deterring
people by using laws and policies that create fear is a standard practice. That
is how we, as a society, try to keep people from committing crime ranging from jaywalking
to mass murder. So, you might wonder, what could be wrong with this?

While there are moral thinkers who oppose the use
of coercion by fear across the board, the general strategy of keeping people behaving
properly by the use of fear does have the approval of Aristotle and I will not
argue against the general principle that it can be acceptable to use fear to
deter immoral or illegal behavior. This is obviously analogous to the use of
force: not all uses of force are to be condemned, just the immoral ones. So,
the key question to be addressed here is whether Trump’s approach to deterring migrants
is morally acceptable.

As a general policy, the Trump administration seems
to have adopted the strategy of trying to deter migrants by engaging in behavior
that seems evil. First, the administration aggressively followed a policy of separating
children and parents and officials made it clear that this was a policy
intended to deter migration by creating fear that America would do evil to
migrants. It is, after all, no accident that a standard shorthand in fiction for
showing that a group is evil is to depict it as taking children from their
parents. Second, the Trump administration has become even more infamous for its
treatment of detained children. Caging children and denying them necessities is
also a stock behavior of evil characters in fiction, for good reason—such behavior
is evil. Once again, this is to deter migrants from coming here by creating fear:
if you come here, we will put your children into dirty cages without soap or
toothbrushes.

Proponents of this policy argue that people choose
to come here illegally knowing what will happen—hence what is done to them is justified.
On the one hand, this does have some appeal. If you tell someone that the pot
on stove is hot and they put their hand on it anyway to grab some food, they
only have themselves to blame.  On the
other hand, if people are being pushed into the situation, then the use of such
tactics simply means that people will be harmed rather than deterred. Going
back to the stove, if you keep the pot of food hot to deter starving people
from taking the food, you will just end up burning hungry people. Saying that they
knew they would be burned is not an adequate defense. In the case of migration,
many people are fleeing the nightmare we helped to create in Central America—they
are being pushed by things worse than what the Trump administration is trying
to scare them away with.

There is also the fact that, as Locke argued,
there are moral limits to how even a criminal can be treated. One of these is
proportionality—separating families and imprisoning children without the
necessities is a punishment that goes beyond the alleged crime. This is especially
important in the case of children—they cannot justly be considered guilty of a
crime and hence punishing them is utterly unwarranted. As such, using these
methods is wrong.

As a final point, even if using such wicked means
to deter people could be justified on utilitarian grounds, this would require
showing that they are effective. However, they do not work and thus we are
burning the hungry because the pain of the burn is less than the pain of the hunger,
to go back to the analogy. The Trump administration seems fine with this—while they
had hoped these evils would deter people, they seem to have no qualms about
doing wrong even when it does not achieve their stated goal. At this point it
would seem to be evil for evil’s sake, which would not be out of place as a slogan
for the Trump administration.

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