Migrants and Citizens

Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration

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Tisha M. Rajendra
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The opening sentence to Tisha M. Rajendra’s Migrants and Citizens itself demonstrates the global dynamics of migration. It refers to the 215 million people living outside their home country. But in the time it took for the book to go to press, that number rose to 244 million. Given that migrants include political refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, and economic migrants, Rajendra wisely restricts her analysis to this last group, economic migrants. And in contrast to some examples of a Christian ethics of migration, Rajendra intends to present an ethic primarily focused on justice rather than benevolence or compassion.

Chapter 1 focuses on the inadequacy of human rights theories to protect migrants. “Although a Christian ethics of migration can endlessly repeat that migrants have universal human rights,” Rajendra argues, “the nation-state system is inadequately structured to protect those rights. Human rights are too closely tied to citizen rights” (18). The key question that animates Rajendra’s analysis is who is responsible for guaranteeing migrants’ rights.

The most useful chapter in Migrants and Citizens is, in my judgment, chapter 2. Ethicists need more than data upon which to build their judgments. Explanatory frameworks are essential in making sense of the welter of data. Chapter 2 provides six such frameworks and evaluates each one. Two frameworks focus on migrants as agents. Neoclassical economics provides the familiar view of the migrant as an autonomous individual pursuing self-interest based on a cost-benefit analysis. A modification of this framework suggests that migrants are deeply embedded in their extended families and act to enhance the well-being of their families. In over fourteen years taking students to the Mexican-Arizona borderlands and talking with dozens of migrants, I have met none who fit the neoclassical economic frame. Rather to a person they have indicated that the well-being of their family is their principal reason for making this dangerous journey.

Rajendra next offers three “structure-dominant” theories. Segmented-labor market theories point out that advanced postindustrial societies have a two-tiered labor market with citizens striving to land a position in top-tier, well paid jobs, creating a vacuum that attracts low-skilled immigrant workers to work in agriculture, construction, and other grueling occupations. Historical-structural theories emphasize the continuing impact of colonizing empires, which have established a pattern of draining resources from colonies to meet their own needs. World-systems theories look at the role of multinational corporations in disrupting local economies, leading people to migrate to cities at home or abroad.

The problem with structural theories is that they virtually ignore the role of the migrant as agent. But “migration-systems” theories, Rajendra insists, recognize the importance of both micro and macro analyses while also attending to a meso-level. The history of migration creates grassroots networks linking sending and receiving countries. These significantly ease the challenges of migration, making it more likely that particular groups of migrants will move to particular countries.

Chapter 3 recognizes different kinds of migration systems in operation and specifically studies guest workers in Germany, formerly colonized people in Great Britain, and undocumented immigrants to the United States driven by the forces of global capitalism. Chapter 4 looks at John Rawls’s social contract theory of justice, Onora O”Neill’s deontological theory, and Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory. Rajendra points out the limitations of each of these theories, which offer only abstract universal norms to the the question of what we as citizens owe to migrants. For example, in Rawls’s case, the principles of justice, strictly speaking, pertain to those who are party to the contract. At best nation states have an obligation to “assist” “burdened” societies, apparently leaving both individual citizens and multinational corporations without specific obligations (81-82).

Chapters 5 and 6 develop a relational theory of justice that addresses the messy web of relations in particular migration systems (93). Chapter 5 argues that the Hebrew scriptures offer such a theory, concluding that “living as God’s chosen people requires what could be called a preferential option for the non-Israelite” (107). Chapter 6, focusing on “justice as responsibility to relationships,” argues that this model complements rather than supplants structural theories of justice. Its contributions to an overall justice framework derive from its attention to actual, historically evolved patterns and processes that constitute migration systems. Ultimately, Rajendra insists, unresolved issues regarding guest workers, colonial migrants, and undocumented immigrants derive from a failure of citizens to acknowledge their relationships with migrants (in and through, for example, the food that we eat) and citizens’ adoption of false narratives. For example, debates over “amnesty” are based on the neoclassical economic model which sees the migrant alone carrying moral responsibility for her actions. They cast the liberal citizen as an innocent bystander and ignore the “structures of sin” in which citizens are deeply complicit. The first responsibility of citizens is to put forward more accurate and complex narratives that map our responsibilities based on actual relationships. Rajendra concludes by stating that her argument differs not so much in its implications for policy but in its grounding of citizens’ responsibilities in complex relationships rather than in the “abstract cosmopolitanism” of structural theories of justice (138). However, in appraising any theory of justice we will want to examine the difference that it makes at the level of institutional change.

There is much to commend in Rajendra’s analysis. I found three topics particularly helpful: (1) the six explanatory frameworks and Rajendra’s evaluation; (2) the grounding of justice as fidelity to relationships in the Hebrew scriptures; and (3) the role of false narratives in reproducing unjust structures. How the meso-level of justice as responsibility to relationships actually intersects with critiques of unjust “structures of sin” remained opaque for me. If Rajendra goes a long way toward clarifying citizens’ responsibilities embedded in their relationships with migrants, the next step surely must be to ask: What must we, the citizens, do?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles R. Strain is professor of religious studies at DePaul Univeristy in Chicago, Illinois.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tisha M. Rajendra is assistant professor of theological ethics at Loyola University Chicago.


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