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The Illegal Way In and The Moral Way Out

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At the heart of the current debate about immigration we find a conflict of convictions. Many people seem to believe that a country has a right to decide who to let in and who to keep out, but quite often they appear equally committed to the view that it is morally wrong to expel someone from within the borders of their country if that would seriously jeopardise the person in question. While the first conviction leads to stricter border controls in an attempt to prevent would-be immigrants from entering the country illegally, the latter conviction ensures that aliens with a legitimate claim on protection will not be removed forcibly. It is not strange, therefore, that the task of pinning down a morally sound immigration policy is such an elusive enterprise.

In this paper I take it for granted that no electorate would be prepared to accept the kind of policy they ought to, and that we in consequence will continue to let in as few immigrants as is currently the case. Given this constraint I argue against two common assumptions concerning a viable immigration policy. First, granted that certain conditions are satisfied, professional smugglers should not face legal sanctions for bringing asylum seekers to a potential host country. Second, countries that limit immigration should not treat people seeking family reunion preferentially or on a par with other immigrants, but rather act so as to maximise the number of refugees allowed to enter.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia, Email:

Publication date: 2007-08-01

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