Over 20% of Canada’s population is made up of immigrants. Every year, Canada welcomes migrants from various countries for work purposes, family reunification and as refugees. But are the conditions on which they are chosen ultimately fair?

Joe Carens is a professor for the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto and believes that democratic states in North America and Europe should take a good look at their immigration policies and think about whether these policies live up to their principles.

In his latest book, The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2013), Prof. Carens argues that there are ethics and morals that authorities should consider when making decisions regarding who gets in, who doesn’t, and what rights immigrants who do get in should have.

Prof. Carens sat down with us to discuss specifics on the views expressed in his book.


What are the ethics specifically that you discuss in your book and how do they differ from what is already socially accepted in our society and government today?

When I talk about an ethics of immigration, I mean that we ought to think about what’s right and wrong, and not just about what’s efficient or good for some segment of the population. We ought to think about how we’re going to justify our policies in moral terms. But what I’m trying to do in the book is not just say, here’s what I think is right. I’m trying to appeal to moral views that my readers hold, though this often involves persuading them to think more deeply about those views. So it’s an attempt to contribute to a public debate. I’m trying to go beyond what most people might say in a public opinion survey to what society announces as its principles. And broadly speaking, these are what I call “democratic principles” or “liberal democratic principles.” For example, almost everyone today accepts the principle that it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity... But that doesn’t mean that discrimination doesn’t go on! It goes on all the time. We know that that’s one of these areas where social practices don’t correspond to social principles. And there is a lot of that. But it’s still important to think about the principles and what they require.

What is your opinion about what current policies should be changed because of these democratic principles?

When most people think about immigration, they think that every country has the right to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. I call this the conventional view. Now, I actually want to criticize the conventional view, but I know that I’m not going to persuade most people about that, so I set that to one side for most of the book and I’ll set it aside for most of this conversation. Let’s assume for the sake of most of this discussion that the conventional view is correct. Even so, there are some things that are right and wrong about how people are treated once they are here.

One of the most controversial issues in the area of immigration concerns people who are present without authorization. They are called “illegals” by some and “undocumented” by others. I call them irregular migrants. Let’s start with their children. Suppose somebody is born and raised in a country. Should they get citizenship? I think they should. And does it matter whether their parents were citizens, or legal residents? I say, no it shouldn’t. What matters is that there’s a child who was born and raised in the country. That child is a member of the society and ought to be given citizenship. And here’s one of the places that Canadian policy isn’t too bad. If you’re born in Canada, the immigration status of your parents does not matter. You are a citizen. So that’s good. I think that’s a place where other countries can imitate Canada.

On the other hand, if your parents are irregular migrants and you arrive after being born, you won’t get citizenship automatically, even if you arrive at a very young age. I’d like to see that changed. This is a big issue in the United States. There are many people who arrive as young children and spend their whole lives in the country. And now that they’re 18 or 20, they can’t get into university because they don’t have legal status. They can’t get jobs. But they’re Americans. And we have such people in Canada too. They’re Canadians. So we should recognize them as such and give them citizenship.

I have a story in my book about a woman who was born in the United States, so she was an American citizen. But her mother took her to Scotland at the age of 4. And at the age of 80, she left the UK to go on a family vacation to Australia. When she came back, the immigration officer said, you’re not a British citizen. You have to leave! You have to go back to the United States! In the end, everybody could see that that was ridiculous. It was crazy, and she did get to stay. So that’s an extreme case but we see similar cases all the time where people built their whole lives in a society and then somebody says oh, now you have to go back. And that makes no sense.

Even when people arrive as adults and settle without authorization, they should eventually gain legal status and citizenship. They’ve been here. They’ve been working. They’ve been raising a family. They’ve made connections in the community. So, in my view, after a while the fact that they settled as irregular migrants just shouldn’t matter anymore (though, we can debate about how long it should take before they get regularized).

Are there other areas of immigration policy that you think should be reconsidered under the ethical grounds that you talk about in your book?

One issue is the terms under which immigrants should get access to citizenship. This is a place where I think Canadian policy is moving in the wrong direction. Say you arrive here and are legally admitted. You’re a permanent resident and now you want to become a citizen. It used to be that you had to pass a language test, which wasn’t very difficult, and then a relatively simple exam and then you could become a citizen. And it didn’t cost very much. But now the government has been escalating each of those requirements. And I think that’s just wrong. I’d even say that if you’ve been living here for a certain amount of time and functioning in the society, we shouldn’t require you to take a language test. You’ve proven that you can function. So, in principle, I think there should be no requirements beyond living in the society long enough. On the other hand, the old requirements were pretty minimal and everybody could pass them, so they weren’t too bad. Now it’s expensive and it’s become more difficult. People get scared off. We should make it more accessible.

One thing that becoming a citizen does is that it gives you protection against getting kicked out of the country if you do something the authorities don’t like. But I think those protections ought to be there for people who are legal long-term residents even if they are not citizens. So that’s another of the changes that I would suggest. Suppose someone has been living in our country for many years. Even if that person commits a criminal act, we shouldn’t kick him or her out. Even if they’re a terrible person... well, they’re our terrible person! Why is it OK to send them to some other country? People sometimes come here at a young age, say 5 or 6, spend their whole lives here, and then get into trouble in their 20s. Then we deport them and send them to some country where they’ve never lived, sometimes a place where they don’t know anyone and don’t even speak the local language. Maybe they are criminals. But they’re our criminals. We socialized them. We raised them. So I think that people who have lived here a long time shouldn’t be deported not matter what they do. It’s tempting to deport them because it’s permissible under international law and it looks like an easy way to get rid of a social problem, but it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the person being deported, and it’s not fair to the country to which they are being sent.

Don’t you think that it would be a deterrent to discourage illegal activity if we threaten legal residents with the idea of being kicked out of the country?

Well, there aren’t many people who would be deterred from a life of crime by worrying about getting kicked out of the country. I think that the prospect of going to prison is much more of a deterrent than the prospect of getting deported. In fact, most legal residents are probably not even aware that they can get deported if convicted of a crime. So, I don’t think that policy is much of a deterrent even though some people try to justify it on those grounds. And the sad thing is, many residents get deported for some relatively minor offense, often drug related. Most of the people who get deported aren’t, in fact, dangerous criminals or terrible people. They just got caught up in some incident and this practice wrecks their lives and the lives of their families.

Another thing that I would change has to do with temporary workers. It used to be that most of the people who came to Canada were admitted as permanent residents. And those who were admitted on a temporary basis could transition to become permanent residents pretty easily. But now the number of people admitted on a two-year visa is increasing vastly. The government may renew it for another two years but then the immigrants are supposed to go home. Some will, but we know that many of these people won’t really go home. So now we’re creating a population of irregular migrants and a corresponding social problem. This is an example of a policy that I would describe as unwise, rather than unjust. If you assume that the country gets to admit people on various terms, it’s not unjust to tell them that they can come in for two years and then they have to go back home. So it’s not unjust, but it’s a foolish policy.

Do you believe the argument that immigrants exploit the welfare state?

It’s true that some anti-immigrant folks say that immigrants exploit the welfare system but I think this is empirically inaccurate. It’s one of those popular myths. When immigrants first arrive, they’re not even eligible for welfare, except in emergency cases when something disastrous happens. You’re not eligible for unemployment insurance for a while either and so on. So in general, immigrants become eligible for these programs only when they have worked and contributed to them. And if they have worked and contributed to the programs, it’s unfair for them not to be eligible for the benefits of the programs. That’s what we call reciprocity, and it’s an example of a basic democratic principle. The people who claim that immigrants are exploiting the welfare state often ignore this sort of basic principle.

Why do you argue for open borders?

First, to consider the argument for open borders, we have to drop the assumption that the conventional view is correct. The previous arguments that I have presented are all compatible with the conventional view that states are normally entitled to control entry, but the open borders argument is intended to challenge that view.

In my view, restrictions on immigration are ultimately a way of protecting privilege. The analogy that I use in my book is that we live in a world that’s a lot like feudalism in the Middle Ages. Under feudalism, there were a relatively few people who were members of the nobility, and most people were peasants. Most of the peasants were poor and didn’t have much. Today, nobody thinks that that is okay. They think, why did they put up with it? Why didn’t people see that was wrong? But that’s still very much the kind of world we live in. Except today, those of us who live in the rich countries in Europe and North America are like the nobility and the vast majority of people in the world who live elsewhere are poor and impoverished like the peasants. This isn’t given by nature. It’s a social system. States don’t fall down from the sky. Human beings head these institutions and maintain them. Every day in Canada, we have to perpetuate a system that creates vast inequalities between international states. And I’m saying that’s wrong.

You can’t keep that system without closed borders. If you say that people have the right to move freely, you can’t maintain this international inequality. Because people will move. They’d rather stay home, in many cases, if they can have a decent life at home. But if they can’t, they will move. We’re supposedly committed to freedom as a basic human right, but then we keep people from freely moving. So I’m trying to point out the contradictions between what we announce as our principles – human moral equality and freedom – and the institutions and practices that we’ve set up.

I don’t think the solution ultimately is to have everybody move from other countries to Canada or the United States or Europe. But the solution is to transform the conditions so that people don’t feel compelled to move.

And it’s not that we should go into those impoverished countries and transform the conditions ourselves or try to control what they do.. But we should change the terms of trade. We should provide development aid. We should change the rules of the international system so that countries are not so disadvantaged. That’s a big project and there’s a lot of contestation about what would work best, but this is the right thing to do. And then the final test of whether we have succeeded would be to eliminate control over borders.

Some people say that the idea of open borders is a fantasy. But we actually have a very practical experiment with open borders in Europe, where people are free to move from one country to another. These are still independent states. They have governments and their own policies. Yet, they’re not overwhelmed even though there are big differences between, let’s say, the average income in Germany and the average income in Portugal. Yes, some people move from Portugal to Germany but not so many because, well, they speak Portuguese and they have their family and their friends in Portugal. So some move but most don’t, even in difficult times like today.

So that’s what I see as a model for the world: a transformation of conditions and a global order in which people are free to stay at home or move as they choose. There will be some differences but I think that most people won’t be driven to leave. That’s the heart of the argument for open borders – an attempt to challenge the present global structures.

So open borders isn’t the main goal. The main goal is to work towards creating a world where open borders can exist...

That’s exactly right. When I argue for open borders, it’s not exactly a policy proposal. I know it’s not practical. Nobody is going to accept this today. So there is no danger of this being actually adopted. People construct imaginary objections to open borders to make it seem impossible, but I think the European example is very useful. Yes, there are problems and issues but these are normal policy problems that can be sorted out.

For example, you can’t just move from one European country to another and immediately gain access to their welfare programs. You have to have lived and worked there for a while before you become eligible. But you can move and get a job and live there and so on. And that’s reasonable because you don’t want people being able to take advantage of a generous program in another country if they haven’t contributed to it. So whenever you have jurisdictions that have responsibilities, it’s okay to say that you should become a member before you take advantage of the programs we’ve set up. That’s reasonable.

But when you make that argument about open borders, without context, don’t you think that many may be concerned about how to keep out criminals and terrorists and what not?

Again, I think it’s helpful to think in the context of Europe. They’re worried about terrorists too. And if you have some reason to believe that someone is a terrorist, you don’t have to admit him or her just because you have a regime of open borders. But on the other hand, we’re supposed to live in a world in which people are innocent until proven guilty. So suspicion isn’t a reason for locking people up. People get scared when they hear about terrorism and all of their normal principles go out the window. We’re better off taking our principles seriously and thinking about how best to put them into practice. I hope that my book will help with that effort.