The Immigration Paradox: Alien Workers and Distributive Justice

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in Citizenship, Borders, and Human Needs (Rogers M. Smith ed., forthcoming)


The immigration of relatively unskilled workers poses a fundamental problem for liberals. While from the perspective of the economic welfare of natives, the optimal policy would be to admit these aliens as guest workers, this policy would violate liberal ideals. These ideals would treat these workers as equals, entitled to access to citizenship and to the full set of public benefits provided to citizens. If the welfare of incumbent residents determines admissions policies, however, and we anticipate the fiscal burden that the immigration of the poor would impose, then our welfare criterion would preclude the admission of relatively unskilled workers in the first place. Thus, our commitment to treat these workers as equals once admitted would cut against their admission and make them worse off than they would be if we agreed never to treat them as equals.

A liberal can avoid this "immigration paradox" by adopting a cosmopolitan perspective that extends equal concern to all individuals, including prospective immigrants and other aliens, which suggests liberal immigration policies for relatively unskilled workers. I argue that liberal ideals require a global view of distributive justice and that attempts to defend more limited conceptions of distributive justice that apply only within nations are ultimately question-begging. The problem with policy prescriptions based on global justice is the failure of most citizens to adopt such a cosmopolitan perspective. As long as citizens are reluctant to bear the fiscal burdens that cosmopolitan liberalism would impose, constraints of political feasibility may imply that guest-worker programs are the best policies that cosmopolitan liberals can obtain with respect to many aliens.

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Immigration Law, Law and Equality, Moral and Political Philosophy, Politics, Race Relations, Social Science and the Law, Economics