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Heated debates surrounding the issues that plagued the four corners of the world ensue on a regular basis, and to this day these issues are brought up in discussions at length. However, one hot topic that comes up more often than not and has yet to find itself resolved in a timely fashion is that of illegal immigration, specifically that of border-crossing without a visa. With regard to the immigration crisis in the United States, which has led to tensions not only between political parties divided on this issue, but between the U.S. and Mexico during the tenure of the Trump administration which has sought to “build the wall” and have Mexico, at first fund this project themselves, and now the GOP’s rhetoric has shifted to coercing the Mexican government into reimbursing them after its completion. While some view the United States as under a moral obligation to permit illegal residents to stay in the U.S., a movement rooted in xenophobia and hostility towards foreigners has garnered much more support from others citing Constitutional precedence and immigration policy in removing these trespassers from the country as they pose a threat to “domestic tranquility” in the words of the Constitution. Despite no single philosophy of politics taking hold, and the internal struggles for leverage to either protect or deport these border-crossers only escalating in the wake of a government shutdown of the U.S., one system of ethics that could be useful in solving this problem and perhaps result in a bipartisan meeting of minds over this issue is that of Kantian ethics.
Kant’s most notable contribution to the field of ethics is the categorical imperative, his concentration during his study of ethics. Described as a supreme moral commandment from which a subset of moral laws derives from, a categorical imperative is most commonly stated as to “act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, and never as only a means.” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica) Succinctly, it puts forward the idea that people ought to treat themselves and each other as ‘ends in themselves’ i.e. as rational actors, and not as ‘means to an end’ i.e. pawns in their endgame. It is from this concept that Kantian ethics flows freely from this position of deontology, the idea that morality should be centered on duty instead of emotions or, as end games as mentioned prior. Kant uses a series of thought experiments to make the case that his system of ethics grounded in the performance of these moral duties, which he claims validates his ideas. He uses traditionally religious commands such as thou shalt not kill or thou shalt not steal and goes further to say that these commands are universal, even in circumstances that would require they be suspended for the safety or benefit of the person(s) that could be harmed in the process. Criticism on this extremism of the categorical imperative has been recorded, nevertheless the idea that people should be treated as equals in moral standing, and not classed as users and the used in the grand scheme of things is relevant in the case of whether these illegal immigrants should be treated as fellow human beings seeking to maximize their own happiness through committing nonviolent crimes, or should their crimes define their actions and deserve to be kicked out of the country they’ve called their home for many years.
The U.S. government, under the rule of Republican Party as the majority in both houses of Congress, has consistently pushed their agenda for tighter immigration and stronger patrolling of the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent this uncontrolled, illegal inflow of Mexican people. Since the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, now more than ever is the GOP’s agenda impelled and gaining momentum. On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic Party’s liberal values are more in line with Kant’s ethical precepts and oppose the GOP in their attempt to uproot whole families and communities in their policymaking efforts and try at every turn to derail them from enacting these morally questionable beliefs into law. Today’s erratic political climate is largely in part due to Trump’s attacks on his own department of justice, the media, and private citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. According to an article from the New York Times, ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has posed a serious threat to immigrant rights: “Ravi’s arrest is the latest in a series that makes clear that ICE is singling out immigrant activists and leaders for detention and deportation.” (Gottlieb) Trump’s White House is so far removed from the realities of these individual’s and families’ lives and how their stances on this issue and legislation affects a significant minority of the population. This disconnect is a reflection on the social hierarchy of the U.S., wherein the one-percent, often White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants wield enormous power which they then use to sway the lower-ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in whatever direction they like. Contrary to Kantianism, Trump and his officials have used their positions of power in such a manner that they’ve pitted those on the bottom of the proverbial barrel against one another, as a means to an end in which they safeguard their power from the majority. It is the hope that maybe the categorical imperative can be the coup de grace to Trump’s politicism.
Immanuel Kant, a product of the European Enlightenment and champion of liberal ideals, without a doubt would disapprove of Trumps’ manipulation of Republican values, as well as society and its problems, for his own personal gain as running counter to his professed belief in the treatment of all people as agents of their own instead of puppets. Kant’s formulations of the categorical imperative all frame the same basic idea in logical steps. His first formulation was to act according to a maxim such that it may become a universal law. In other words, it’s a moral obligation that should have an absolute necessity in being proposed. Is there not a moral obligation to act in accordance with the Golden Rule, that is to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated, as well as an absolute necessity in appropriating this idea to the immigration crisis at hand? Kant would argue that these illegal immigrants are people, just like ourselves, and are rational actors. Displacing and forcibly relocating them would be to strip them of their status as ends in themselves capable of acting on their own and would be accounted for as a means to achieving the desired end of enforcing a racially-oriented immigration control that would discriminate those of Mexican heritage from the rest of the populace. In the same vein, “Kant also argued that general obedience to the categorical imperative would bring about universal mutual promotion of individual ends because the imperative prohibits refusing to assist others” (Linden) Therefore, we the human species have a moral duty to help one another in times of need or crisis, and this immigration issue qualifies as such.
The argument could be made that any private residents of a country have a moral obligation to obey the law, and that committing illegal immigration is in fact breaking the law, and the onus is put on the government to enforce the law is their own moral obligation, and to leave the illegal immigrants to their own devices would be downright immoral following this line of reasoning. Furthermore, illegal immigrants are treating the U.S. as a means to an end: “There are people who desperately need these jobs but cannot get to them without breaking the law, so some illegally cross the border in order to escape the impoverishment and secure the means to provide for themselves and their families.” (Linden) However, this argument neglects the real-world conditions for which illegal immigrants cross the border, often in life-threatening and inhospitable circumstances that might incur severe injury and likely death, especially if coyotes, professional smugglers, abandon them if they feel the risks of capture outweigh the monetary rewards. Illegal immigrants are stuck between a rock and a hard place, between the inescapable poverty of their countries-of-origin, and the threat of violence from north of the border. To detain them or expel them from the U.S. would be to toss out the categorical imperative as it stands. In principle, the categorical imperative is an ideal everyone must live up to in order to bring about a better tomorrow. In practice, the scope of the categorical imperative has yet to be ascertained as the issues of today have evolved since the time of Kant.
While the complexity of the categorical imperative is matched only by its far-reaching implications, it is safe to assume that Kantian ethics would assert the fundamental importance of respect and dignity for the individual as a rational person, and to deny them this is to reject their personhood altogether and see them only as means to an end, which is what Trump’s America is in the process of ensuring this occurs on their terms.
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