The news is filled with stories of migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers, struggling to gain access to safe states and of the poor treatment with which they are met when they finally do. In the United States, many governors near the border with Mexico have taken to rounding up migrants and forcibly sending them north. In the Mediterranean Sea, migrants drown in sinking ships waiting for states – and increasingly, humanitarian organizations – to send rescue missions. Migrants fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka landed at a small British Island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia, 60 of whom remain trapped there after nearly two years – in the words of one migrant, “We are the parrots, we are in a cage.”
These sorts of stories of migrants seeking safety but being excluded from the states that can offer it are at the centre of my newly published book Exclusion and Democracy.
It is conventional in international relations to treat border control as a key component, and indeed a key right, of state sovereignty; controlling who comes in and who can stay is central to determining the boundaries of a state’s population. Yet, border control strategies – strategies which control who can come in and who can stay permanently – are legitimately subject to moral and legal assessment and critique.
In particular, exclusion from a state’s territory and membership is nearly always harmful; so, while it may be the case that some exclusion is permissible, it should generally be avoided anyway, on the grounds that it is harmful, or so I argue.
In Exclusion and Democracy, I take for granted that states have a presumptive right to control their borders, so long as four legitimacy criteria are met. A state’s immigration policy must: 1) not be overtly racist; 2) admit asylum seekers and consider their claims fairly to ensure that no one forced to return to dangerous states; 3) include provisions for accessible family reunification; and 4) must include reasonable provisions for giving citizenship to long-term residents, whether they are present with or without authorization.
At least at the level of principle, these conditions are defensible and widely accepted. At the level of practice, all of them are violated by nearly all democratic states. Why then do I argue that they should remain at the forefront of our mind?
In my view, keeping these four criteria central enables us to evaluate immigration policies – with respect to admission to territory and to citizenship – in light of whether they get us closer or farther from meeting these legitimacy criteria, or what I term “immigration justice.” They provide a metric for considering when and where to approve, critique or modify immigration or citizenship policies to move in the direction of immigration justice. I defend, in Exclusion and Democracy, accepting incremental moves in the direction of immigration justice.
For example, while elsewhere I have argued that states should reject temporary labour migration entirely, because labour migration programs are exploitative, dangerous and disrespectful of migrant labourers, the approach I adopt in Exclusion and Democracy welcomes changes to allow migrant workers to travel with their families or to gain access to citizenship in time.
Or, to take another example, although I believe that states should admit returning fighters who wish to come home (rather than revoke their citizenship as a form of punishment), the approach I adopt in Exclusion and Democracy advocates strongly for enabling at least children (and one caregiver) to return home to access the full set of rights and privileges they are entitled to as citizens, even if they are born abroad. Ultimately, the argument is that citizenship is a powerful foundation for ensuring the protection of those who hold this status, and states have relatively wide obligations to ensure that those who are entitled to it can access these rights.
Who should be admitted to citizenship? To answer this question, I rely on a principle that is well-known to democratic theorists – the all-subjected principle. The all-subjected principle says that all individuals who are subjected to a state’s power over an extended period of time in life-shaping ways are entitled to a say in how this power is exercised. At the core of this principle is respect for individual freedom – if an individual is subject to state power but they do not have a say in how that power is exercised, their freedom is unjustly restricted.
For many scholars, this observation leads to the conclusion that individuals who are subjected are entitled to the right to vote – or at least the right to access some elements of the political sphere, and I agree with that. But, I observe the right to political access does not adequately capture what many immigrants desire or require to protect their rights – what they need is protection against forced deportation. As a result, I disagree with scholars who defend political access on the grounds that this access alone is sufficient to protect the rights of long-term residents of a state,. Instead, I argue that long-term subjection entitles residents to citizenship so they can be protected against forced exclusion. With citizenship status, they can freely use their political rights without fearing that their “misuse” would result in their exclusion.
Immigration and citizenship policies are foundational to states, since they profoundly shape a state’s population. Exclusion and Democracy attempts to press states towards adopting policies that are consistent with immigration justice.