Compassion and Logic clash in our Immigration Policy

I recently heard a sermon preaching on the virtue of compassion, “concern for the misfortune of others accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate that suffering.” Truly that seems a worthy human emotion and is the at the heart of our concern for refugees and immigrants from war-torn countries, oppression and economic hardship.

If this is a reflection of an appropriate ethical principle, what causes such deep divisions between those who would advocate an “open border” policy and those who promote limitations and selectivity?

This is the fundamental dilemma facing our country as we formulate a “just” and “rational” immigration strategy. Justice is behavior based on what is morally right and fair. Rational behavior is acting according to logic and reason. This implies carrying things to their logical conclusion if a course of action is pursued without external constraint. The problem stems from the fact that these two imperatives are in conflict when it comes to our immigration policy.

First, we are driven to reduce human suffering. Part of our national heritage is codified in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance…”with liberty and justice for all.” As a note, it seems ironic that some of those who would advocate a very liberal and expansive immigration policy that would most promote “justice,” are the very same group that would decry the tradition of saying this Pledge in public gatherings.

But, what does it mean “for all?” Is it all of humanity or is it for all citizens of the United States? While there seems a desire for justice for everyone, the rational extension of that (the imposition of our value system on others to ensure such a condition), if carried to its logical conclusion, would promote unlimited American intervention. Ah, that “rational” logic seems quite inconvenient at this juncture, leaving us with a conundrum.

Exactly how much justice do we really want and for whom? If we can’t provide it for everyone, what criteria do we use to decide to whom we will give it? To what lengths will we go to ensure it? Upon whom will we impose the burden of enforcing this (for there certainly is a cost in terms of resources and lives)?

I would posit that the primary responsibility of any nation is to its own “citizens.” Our laws and Constitutional rights and the requirement to protect them, do not extend beyond our borders except to American citizens. This is not to say that our concerns for the rights of others (compassion) is not appropriate. However, it does not mean that we have an unlimited obligation to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries unless they pose a threat to our vital national interests.

Furthermore, it seems logical that importing of foreign problems, often manifest in the displacement of refugees, should rightfully be considered a potential threat to national security. No responsible leader of any country would rationally espouse a complete open border policy. This would cede national sovereignty to a mass of people over whom they have no control.

However, once restrictions are imposed, it becomes a subjective evaluation. What constitutes a threat? What screening criteria is appropriate? Regardless, we should not confuse compassion with legal rights. Put succinctly, our Constitution does not legally grant rights to foreign citizens (refugee or not) outside of the borders on the United States. This sentiment was recently expressed by Senator Rand Paul’s statement that for prospective immigrants, “the constitution doesn’t apply to you, and we have every right to make any immigration law we want.”

However, all of this seems to beg the question of compassion.

First, we owe compassion to our own citizens. Before we open the floodgates, we should consider whether we have the capacity and will to provide for our own citizens as well as those we take in.

While we may not have a legal obligation to the rest of the world, as a society, we may feel that we have a moral obligation to assist those in need. The trouble is in the execution.

Ask Angela Merkel how her ill-conceived announcement of Germany’s willingness to accept half a million refugees has worked out. It uncorked a mass migration and untold suffering for those who stampeded towards Europe. The outcomes have been bitter for refugees and domestic populations alike. The deaths in the Mediterranean Sea are the direct result of her words. Is that compassion? The bombings and death in numerous European cities is likewise the result of uncontrolled migration. Is that compassion? Are Europeans more secure today?

Encouraging people to flee their homeland by publicly opening borders has proven to be a flawed concept. It encourages displacement rather than solution within their own borders. Both they and we are far better off creating solutions to the underlying causes of suffering rather than making it easier to leave. Yet, this in itself may entail intervention that creates more suffering.

On the other hand, is it right to abandon our allies, to promote overseas conflict then leave those who help us fight our wars to their own fate? It happened in Vietnam. It is happening in Iraq and, while perfectly legal, is morally unconscionable. Screening and allowing entry to those individuals and their immediate families as a matter of priority is both compassionate and manageable. In this regard, President Trump’s outright ban on all refugees from America’s overseas battlegrounds was imprudent.

Reason dictates that we temper compassion with rationality and logic. Unequivocal policies are untenable and simple-minded concepts (on either side) create as much misery as they abate. It is long past time we put aside childish notions and have a reasonable debate on how to blend national security and provide compassion to the rest of the world that is true to our founding principles.

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