Dr. Javier Hidalgo, political theorist and associate professor of leadership studies, gave a presentation on his book, “Unjust Borders: Individuals and the Ethics of Immigration,” on Sept. 17 as part of Boatwright Library’s The Visible Scholar series. Excerpts from his talk appear below.

Book themes 

I find it frustrating that a lot of debates in political philosophy about immigration are at a high level, focused on government policy. I want to talk about things that are in the control of individual actors. What should individuals do? I can’t control what the government does, but I can control my own actions. A couple of people deciding to change their actions in a way that advances justice—that’s worthwhile to me. 

The themes I talk about in my book include unjust immigration restrictions and the resistance of individual actors to subvert those restrictions. We have the migrants themselves, who are doing most of the work: they are slipping across the borders, evading border patrols, hiding. There are the smugglers—both the for-profit and nonprofit smugglers. Then there are the citizens of the state that is restricting immigration; these citizens are choosing to flagrantly disobey the laws [of their government].

I’m interested in the moral status of the actions of these actors. What does justice require? 

Immigration policy 

A recent decision by the Supreme Court says the United States can deny asylum to a huge number of people who try to claim asylum. So, we can expect that many people who [should] qualify for asylum [based on their refugee status] will be turned away. Many refugees never get to the borders in the first place, because they are actively stopped by governments.

Many other people have moral claims to immigrate, even though they are not technically speaking refugees who are in fear for their life from their government. Maybe they’re in fear for their life, but not from their government. Maybe it’s domestic violence or some kind of gang violence. Or maybe they’re just extremely poor. All these people have zero legal claims to immigrate. In my view, that’s not right.

I’m in favor of more immigration. Immigration is about individual liberty, foremost to me.  

Human rights 

Immigration restrictions clearly involve coercion—threats of physical force and violence against people who don’t seem to be doing anything wrong. 

People have a claim to liberty and lack of coercive interference. They have a right to freedom of association, the ability to be with the people you want to be with; to freedom of movement; and to freedom of employment. 

If someone threatens you in an unjust way, you have defensive rights. It makes no difference if it’s a government immigration official. I even go so far as to say that some defensive force against immigration officials is justified.

Individuals’ moral response 

What should individuals do? Consider past moral catastrophes. What did moral pioneers do in these situations? They often advocated individual resistance to moral injustices, such as the Quakers who were abolitionists. I am interested in a similar strategy, focusing on what individuals ought to do or can do. I believe migrants have the same moral rights to oppose unjust threats from government officials. 

I also believe third parties can intervene. Smuggling, to me, is more like a helping profession… in that it provides a crucial benefit to people.

We should also think about our own complicity in unjust immigration law. Some governments conscript individual citizens to enforce immigration laws for them. So, if you’re an employer, you’re barred from hiring an illegal immigrant. If you’re in the United Kingdom, for example, you can’t knowingly rent to someone who’s there without authorization. 

In his book, “Unjust Borders: Individuals and the Ethics of Immigration,” Hidalgo argues that citizens are justified in disobeying laws that compel them to harm immigrants.