no duty to obey migration law: a kingian analysis
How do we know if restrictionism is unjust? Is it ethically good or bad to prevent migration between countries? In this post, I draw on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to argue that restriction laws are unjust. King sets out the problem and offers a solution: “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” In other words, there is no intrinsic demand that the law be followed. You don’t have to follow the law just because it is a law.
But there arises a problem, how do we know if a law is in accordance with “moral law?” King begins by pointing out that just laws try to help people, but unjust laws degrade people and create privilege and superiority: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”
King makes a behavioral argument. If a law were indeed just, the group that passed the law would apply it to themselves. “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”
Let us now turn to border controls and deportation. How do these laws “uplift human personality?” Restrictionist laws clearly do not “uplift” the people who are banned from entry. People who migrate may want jobs, or they want to be with family, or they simply want to be in another place that they deem safe. By preventing people from being with family, they clearly degrade people. By preventing people from earning a living and peacefully enjoying property, they degrade people.
What about the native citizen? How do restrictionist laws “uplift” her personality? They can’t because they are aimed at others. One’s moral standing is based on their action, not the action of others. Simply living in a nation that excludes others does nothing for one’s moral worth. To the contrary, the active approval of laws that degrade others decreases one’s moral standing. Supporting migration restrictions and deportations gives, in King’s words, the restrictionist a “false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
King’s behavioral criteria implies that migration restrictions are unjust. If these laws are so wise and proper, then why do we not see border controls between the states of the Union? Or between different cities? If the restrictionist is truly concerned about the dangers of outsiders, why shouldn’t Northerners build a fence to keep Southerners out because of their different values? Should Catholics and Protestants dig a moat around Utah to stop Mormons from entering their territory? If the restrictionist is truly concerned about outsiders exploiting public assistance, why doesn’t New York City build a wall to prevent New Hampshire’s citizens from exploiting that state’s more generous government services? The fact that such walls do not exist, and the restrictionists do not ask for them, says to me that these laws can’t truly be just.
From the founding of the United States to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, this nation had 106 years of free movement across its borders. Millions of Jews, Poles, Chinese, Mexican, German, and Russian people came to this shore, relieved that they could live their lives as they saw fit, free from deportation, exile, and murder. Since then, wave after wave of anti-immigration law has been passed by this nation’s citizens. It is time to recognize that these laws are unwise and unjust and have same moral standing as the laws of Jim Crow. They do not command respect or honor and should be seen for what they are: attempts to harass people who, by chance, were born in another nation. Ignore them at will.