Immigrants are drawn to the United States because of its success as a nation: it offers economic opportunities, liberty and safety. Some people come here legally, while others cross the borders illegally—often lured by jobs offered by American employers who care not about the rule of law or border security. While portrayed as a land of immigrants, America has been brutally hostile to the new waves—who then get their turn at deriding and excluding the next waves.
For those who wish to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States, a major challenge is off setting the great appeal of America with something terrible enough to serve as a deterrent. Since there are people fleeing death squads or utter poverty, a rather strong deterrent is needed. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has found what he thinks is an effective deterrent, namely the threat that parents and children will be separated if they are caught being in the country unlawfully. As Sessions sees it, when parents take their children across the border, they are engaged in child smuggling and he intends to put the full weight of the law on the backs of those trying to enter or remain illegally. This approach does raise some serious moral concerns.
On the one hand, it can be justified on utilitarian grounds. Sessions’ goal is to enforce the existing immigration laws and he regards this as a worthy end. While separating children from their parents as a matter of policy seems wicked, cruel and heartless, such a serious threat could be enough to deter people from crossing. In effect, Sessions is saying: we will take your children away—a threat that would terrify any caring parent.
Thanks to the Obama administration, this threat is especially terrifying. The ACLU reports that on Obama’s watch immigrant children were seriously abused—including being subject to sexual abuse. While it has been claimed that these problems have been addressed, the government lost track of 1,475 immigrant children in 2017, which is cause for concern about the current system. If potential immigrants are made aware of these facts, Sessions’ threat would have even greater deterrent value. In effect, this would be telling potential law breakers that the government will take away their kids, perhaps abuse them and possibly lose track of them. From the standpoint of reducing illegal immigration, this sort of threat could prove effective. Unless, of course, the potential immigrants are unware of these facts, think they are untrue, or face worse dangers at home.
On the other hand, there seems to be a moral problem with threatening parents in this manner—especially with the recent revelations about what immigrant children could face. On utilitarian grounds, while this threat might have deterrent value, the harm to the parents and children could easily outweigh the positive value of deterrence. As such, it would be wrong to do this.
There is also the concern that such a threat is simply wrong—that is, the state should not threaten to separate families. This raises the question about what it is acceptable to do to try to secure the borders. On one extreme, it would clearly be wrong to simply kill the children of illegal immigrants who are caught. It would also be wrong to simply leave the borders uncontrolled. The question is how far one can, morally, go in defending the borders. Since the threat is aimed at families, this fact must also be considered in terms of the severity of threat allowed. It would be one thing to aggressively deter people who are intent on committing violent and serious crimes, quite another to use severe methods to deter people who are, at worst, likely to only work illegally for an American employer. Put another way, this threat works best against people who are far from the worst—families who care about their children. As such, this would seem to make the threat even more morally problematic.
It could be countered that some people might be trafficking children into the country to provide them to Americans who wish to exploit them, and these traffickers would be deterred by this threat. The easy and obvious response is that there are already laws against trafficking children that do not also catch families in a broad net. As such, this approach would do little or nothing to deter child trafficking; instead it would harm families.
Defenders of Sessions’ threat would note a point made by Sessions: if parents do not want to be separated from their children, then they should not come here. While this might seem like a reasonable point, some people who come here are fleeing terrible circumstances that are worse than what might happen to them here. As such, the deterrence value of the threat will be lacking. To use an analogy, it would be like having people on shore with whips threatening to whip the shark pursued survivors of a ship wreck if they step on the shore to get away from the sharks. The sharks are worse than the whip, but whipping the survivors is a terrible thing to do.
Also, saying “don’t do that if you don’t want me to do something bad to you” often has a bad moral odor and a strong flavor of justification by victim blaming. For example, a partner who says “if you don’t want to get hit, make sure you have my dinner on the table and keep your smart mouth shut” would clearly be in the wrong. Likewise, saying “if you don’t want us to do bad things to your kids, don’t come here illegally” seems to be the wrong thing to say. Defenders of Sessions would contend that this is not analogous at all; they would presumably see it more along the lines of “if you don’t want to get shot, then don’t break into my house”—a justified deterrence rather than a cruel threat.
As should be expected, my own view that this approach of threatening children is morally unacceptable—there are better ways to address border security that would be more effective and would not create the impression that we are thugs who threaten children.