Finding a Moral Heart for U.S. Immigration Policy: An Anthropological Perspective

By Coutin, Susan C. B. | Anthropological Quarterly, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Finding a Moral Heart for U.S. Immigration Policy: An Anthropological Perspective


Coutin, Susan C. B., Anthropological Quarterly


In this short but complex monograph Heyman uses his expertise as an ethnographer of both borderlands and border enforcers to devise moral and practical improvements in U.S. immigration policy. Heyman argues persuasively that current U.S. immigration policies are both unjust and unworkable. They are unjust, he contends, because they are fueled by antiimmigrationism, a sentiment that fails to recognize the common humanity of others. They are unworkable, he notes, because numerical controls have not prevented the influx of immigrants who are not authorized to live and work in the United States. Heyman reasons that as a member of a profession that is dedicated to analyzing the human condition, he is ethically obligated to promote policies that are both realistic and moral. Finding a moral heart for U.S. immigration policy is devoted to this endeavor.

Heyman proposes that immigration to the United States be governed by compacts between the local communities where immigrants reside and employers or relatives who want to bring an immigrant into the country. Local communities would assess the improvements in housing, education, and public services that would be needed to accommodate new residents. Immigrant sponsors would then contribute to the costs of these improvements. According to this plan, immigration would be decentralized, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service would become a clearinghouse, illegality and law enforcement activities along U.S. borders would be reduced, immigrants could travel more freely, and all immigrants would be legal permanent residents entitled to live, work, receive public services, and even vote in local elections within the United States. There is much to commend about this proposal. Shifting the focus of the INS from enforcement to regulation would make crossings less hazardous, thus reducing death tolls along the U.S.-Mexico border. The current artificiality of the categories of kin who can sponsor immigrants would be replaced by a system that more realistically reflects individuals' actual relationships. Immigrants would be able to come and go legally, instead of being "trapped" within U.S. borders by a pending legalization case or by a fear of being apprehended upon reentry. According immigrants greater (indeed almost all) legal rights would reduce discrimination. I do, however, have some doubts about the proposal. For instance, migration from one part of the United States to another also adds new residents to local communities, and could potentially burden local services. Why then should employers only have to contribute to local infrastructure if they hire individuals from outside of the country? Also, if employers face extra costs for hiring immigrant workers, immigrant workers may face job discrimination. It seems more equitable to hold the federal government responsible for allocating resources to local communities based on their population sizes and demographics. Financing such allocations through across-the-board taxes instead of through compact costs charged to immigrant sponsors would further reduce distinctions between permanent residents and citizens.

Heyman grounds his policy critique and proposal in what he characterizes as core anthropological values and the common characteristics of moral systems.

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