Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Human Rights and Immigration

Article excerpt

Introduction

From ancient times, the phenomenon of the migration of human persons from settled homelands to, from the point of view of the migrants, new and strange parts of the world has raised questions about the place, position and treatment of newcomers into an existing, self-defined human community. "The United Nations (UN) defines as an international migrant a person who stays outside their usual country of residence for at least one year. According to that definition, the UN estimated that in 2005 there were about 200 million international migrants worldwide ..." (1) Koser summarizes the importance of migration to public policy and the close connection between migration and human rights:

   Migration is inextricably linked with other important global
   issues, including development, poverty, and human rights. Migrants
   are often the most entrepreneurial and dynamic members of society;
   historically migration has underpinned economic growth and
   nation-building and enriched cultures. Migration also presents
   significant challenges. Some migrants are exploited and their human
   rights abused; integration in destination countries can be
   difficult; and migration can deprive origin countries of important
   skills. For all these reasons and more, migration matters. (2)

While it is certainly true that in many historical situations migration may have been welcomed, encouraged, or forced (e.g., slavery) due to the needs and economic circumstances of the societies to which the migrants travelled, it would seem just as often if not more so that the opposite sort of attitude towards migrants has prevailed. Immigrants have been routinely portrayed as having a negative impact on the receiving nation or community by raising fears about employment for native workers, increasing the burden on social and economic resources, and threats people from other places may pose to the health and safety of community members. The backlash that occurs in the wake of such fears often takes the form of either direct violence aimed at immigrant individuals or communities or through exploitation of the relatively powerless position of immigrants by way of low pay, poor housing conditions, and threats of deportation.

In all of these experiences, the question of human rights becomes particularly cogent as immigrants are often seen as being guests, invited or not invited, into a country and, as such are not necessarily deserving of the same protections by the community as those who are considered citizens and/or native. And yet, if human rights exist, they adhere to the individual human person as a member of the human race irrespective of their membership or lack of membership in any other subordinate societies. Human rights ought to "trump," so to speak, any other laws, regulations, restrictions, or policies that are contingent upon the accidents of time or place as they appear in the history of local communities or nations. Without this priority of place in regards to human rights the term itself seems to be vacuous. The human rights of immigrants then, particularly those who have entered another country without the required documentation, may be seen as something of a test case for this priority of human rights: the extent to which such rights would be honored or respected or recognized for a given resident of a society regardless of the legal standing of that person within the official polity would testify to the actualized priority of those rights that adhere to the person as a member of the human community.

The difficulty with this form of reasoning is that it seems to beg the question of the existence of human rights as such: in a very real way the discussion is getting ahead of itself because the case for human rights has not been established. We tend today, perhaps more so in Western cultures than other places in the world, to assume the given-ness of human rights as part of the conceptual framework related to discussions of law, politics, policies and international relations. …