does every country have the same moral obligation to migrants?

About 1 million US citizens, mostly retirees, currently reside in Mexico. According to one study, 92 percent of them don’t have their papers fully in order to live there. Even if they are fully documented, they hold ambiguous civil and political rights. The Constitution of Mexico, after stating that everyone shall have the basic privileges and immunities guaranteed by Chapter 1, goes on to say, “However,┬áThe Federal Executive shall have the exclusive power to compel any foreigner whose remaining he may deem inexpedient to abandon the national territory immediately and without the necessity of previous legal action. Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the country” (Article 33).

You might think that all human beings have human or natural rights to live anywhere. Then Mexico and the United States are both illegitimately blocking some migration. (This is a radical view with radical implications.) Or you might say that all people must have free speech and due process rights, regardless of their citizenship. Then Mexico’s Article 33 seems problematic.

My intuition is different. I favor equal rights for people who reside within the United States even if they don’t have legal citizenship. I recognize that in some cases, their entry was an illegal act, but I am inclined to weigh that very lightly, if at all. I am mainly concerned about how they may be exploited or dominated within this country if their rights are not guaranteed. I am particularly uncompromising about their civil and political rights. Meanwhile, I would object to US retirees entering Mexico against Mexican law and would not complain if they were deported. And while I’m not sure I’m a fan of Article 33, I can see plausible reasons for Mexico to ban resident aliens from political engagement.

In other words, I am sympathetic to people who migrate from the Global South to the US, but not vice-versa. I myself would enjoy living for a time in several foreign countries, but I would not claim a right to do so unless it was legal under those countries’ laws. And I would tend to respect any prohibitions they imposed on my political action within their borders. I might make exceptions if the local government had forfeited its legitimacy and I wanted to help the opposition, but even then, I would be inclined to defer to citizens of the country in question to be the leaders.

This is an inconsistent position if it’s all about human rights, abstractly. Why not treat migration the same way regardless of its direction? I think my view puts human rights in the context of justice among nations. Mexico is a lot less wealthy than the United States and has excellent reasons to worry about its national sovereignty. It is because I assume that the international order is unjust in this kind of way that I am prone to favor rights for migrants to the US, regardless of their legal status. I then end up favoring rights for wealthy migrants from wealthy countries only because it’s best not to discriminate within the class of immigrants. The paradigm case for me is a migrant from a nation that has been disadvantaged by global politics.

Two questions: 1) Is my stance justified? And 2) Does it help to explain the political disagreement about immigration? Many Americans don’t see the US as unfairly advantaged at the global level; some even think that we’ve been unfairly disadvantaged as a nation, as Donald Trump often claims. I wonder whether that premise helps explain why they are so unsympathetic to migrants.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.