Calibrating the Moral Compass: Latinx Philosophers on the Ethics of Migration

By Lori GallegosDecember 11, 2023

Calibrating the Moral Compass: Latinx Philosophers on the Ethics of Migration
The aim of this curated series of essays is to address the question: why is philosophy important at times like these? For many, philosophy is a field of inquiry that remains so esoteric, narrow, and specialized that it has little or no relevance to the everyday world of “ordinary” people. Indeed, philosophers are often characterized as introverted, absent-minded thinkers who are obsessed with analytical minutiae, isolated in their academically cloistered spaces (offices and personal studies) in a monologue with dead white guys, and prone to encouraging dispassionate argumentation and one-upmanship. For the thinkers writing for this series, however, philosophy is a social enterprise that strives for clarity of thought and encourages the formation of multiple cultural spaces of philosophical practice that are welcoming to a diverse range of scholars and laypeople, rather than simply those who look alike and share the same hegemonic meta-philosophical assumptions about the field.


THE SO-CALLED “BORDER CRISIS” is a topic that many US Americans hear about often. It’s one of the hot-button issues that Republican politicians lean on in order to gain traction with their electoral base. Democrats, meanwhile, have failed to unite to support broad overhauls of the immigration system for fear of alienating their constituencies. Conservative media has dominated the coverage of immigration, and the discourse surrounding the subject has thus been severely limited. Relatively scant attention has been paid to how immigrants and their families actually fare in this country or to how we can rise to meet the challenges as opportunities that emerge from inevitable cultural change and a shifting demographic. The restricted scope of our conversations about immigration has led to political inaction that reflects poorly on our national character.

In the last decade, the abhorrent treatment of migrants has reached new levels. Here is just a handful of examples:

· Beginning in 2017, the US government implemented Zero Tolerance, an initiative that separated thousands of children from their parents. Years later, some families are still separated, and the harm caused by many of these separations has been irreparable.
· Migrants in immigration detention centers have been subject to appalling treatment, including dangerously overcrowded facilities; unsanitary conditions, including lack of access to soap and toilet paper; inadequate access to food and drinking water; cells that are kept extremely cold; and other conditions that cause sleep deprivation.
· From 2014 to 2018, many migrants—including thousands of children—have reported sexual abuse in US detention centers.
· In 2020, a whistleblower complaint led to an investigation that found that some migrant women had undergone excessive, invasive, and unnecessary gynecological procedures without their consent.
· This year, a series of investigative reports found that migrant children, mostly from Central America, are working in some of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, as well as for household brands like Cheerios, Cheetos, and Ford.

In the midst of our struggle to maintain a balance between humanitarian principles and the imperative to protect national interests, we confront challenging new iterations of classic philosophical questions:

· What treatment are migrants morally entitled to?
· Which groups of migrants are disproportionately harmed by our immigration policy?
· How do we benefit from the exploitability of migrants?
· What responsibility do we have to address the conditions that lead people to migrate?
· What ought to be the basis for the right to asylum?

It’s urgent that we attend to these sorts of questions with rigor, bravery, empathy, and honesty, because it is expected that climate change will exacerbate issues of migration in ways most of us haven’t even started to imagine. Scientists predict that over the next 30 years, 143 million people are likely to be uprooted by natural disasters. The UN International Organization for Migration cites estimates that there will be as many as 1.2 billion environmental migrants by 2050. Problems of this magnitude demand that people with diverse strengths, perspectives, and areas of expertise collaborate in order to address them. Ethicists have an important role to play here. As journalist Gaia Vince puts it, “How we manage this global crisis, and how humanely we treat each other as we migrate, will be key to whether this century of upheaval proceeds smoothly or with violent conflict and unnecessary deaths.”

Fortunately, there is a growing diversity of views and methodologies among philosophers working on the ethics and politics of immigration.

Political philosophy is often dismissed as being overly abstract and as utopian—too unrealistic to provide guidance in the here and now. Within the philosophy of immigration, scholars identify a distinction between the “Classical Open Borders Debate” and the “New Open Borders Debate.” The body of literature in the Classical Open Borders Debate tends to consist of highly abstract, right-and-principle-based arguments. It addresses philosophical questions without referring explicitly to particular borders, or to migrants with particular social identities. It also tends to occur in the realm of ideal theory.

The body of literature referred to as the “New Open Borders Debate,” meanwhile, avoids charges of utopianism by remaining grounded in the nonideal context in which we live—one of great inequality and full of practical challenges. Many contributors to this literature have utilized feminist or race-critical frameworks in examining immigration injustice. For example, in her 2020 book Just Immigration in the Americas: A Feminist Account, philosopher Allison B. Wolf uses a feminist framework (based on Marilyn Frye’s and Iris Marion Young’s theories of oppression) to examine how nations, national governments, territories, international organizations, and transnational communities in the Americas are implicated in global oppression. Wolf’s hope is that her historically focused structural analysis will allow us to appreciate how different harms fit into larger patterns of domination of members of certain social groups, and that the impact of US policies on particular groups is not “random or accidental but rather a systemic, structural aspect of U.S. immigration policy that targets nations and transnational communities and their members […] only because they are members of those nations or communities.” Wolf holds that understanding the nature of global oppression allows us to more effectively resist particular manifestations of those patterns of domination.

At the same time, Wolf’s text focuses on particular policies and migrants of specific identities, and it includes immigration policies and practices throughout the Americas. In addition to chapters that discuss DACA and the Trump administration’s family separation policy, Wolf has a chapter on Costa Rica that examines the differing treatment of migrants from Nicaragua and those from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Another chapter focuses on femicide and injustice towards Venezuelan migrants in Columbia. In that chapter, Wolf makes the unorthodox decision to list the names and ages of some of the victims. These moments of specificity are especially poignant. They remind us that those who are impacted by immigration injustice are individual human beings—people who have bodies that get sick and hurt and tired and cold, bodies that give birth and die; people who have dreams and loved ones that are taken from them; people with rich inner lives that are shattered by trauma. These references to particulars are the moments that outraged me and brought me to tears as I was reading. They are the moments that bring about a shift from knowing what counts as an injustice to believing that the injustice matters.

Another weakness of the traditional philosophical literature that some scholars on the ethics of immigration are seeking to correct is that it tends to prioritize the experiences of primarily white citizens of the Global North and employs Eurocentric theoretical frameworks. It thus operates from assumptions that arise from positions of privilege. For example, in his 2016 book Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration, political theorist David Miller raises concerns about the ways in which immigrants might diminish social trust within a society. As political philosopher José Jorge Mendoza points out, though, liberal egalitarian views (such as Miller’s) tend to focus on the political tension generated by cultural outsiders, and they fail to appreciate the social tension that societies produce in response to the perceived threat (e.g., harsher immigration enforcement). The point here is that whether one is a citizen or a “stranger” will influence the ways in which one is attuned to these complex social dynamics. Of course, the perspectives of US-born citizens matter very much. Yet, as philosophers Amy Reed-Sandoval and Luis Rubén Díaz Cepeda note, “the overall Eurocentrism of this literature limits the scope of the philosophical conversations at hand.” It limits the available conceptual resources. It limits exposure to and understanding of the experiences of members of minority groups and people from the Global South (and, as a result, hinders empathy). It limits the range of arguments for how to address our most pressing and perplexing problems. It allows problematic assumptions to go unchecked.

Hoping to broaden the discussion of immigration ethics, Reed-Sandoval and Díaz Cepeda edited the 2021 volume Latin American Immigration Ethics. All of the chapters in the book focus on moral challenges of immigration that arise within Latin America or that relate to Latina/o/xs within the United States. As in Wolf’s book, the text decenters the single-minded focus on migration from the Global South to the Global North by including several chapters that focus on South–South migration. There is a chapter on the migrations of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, another on racism in Chile, and another on the movements of landless people in Brazil. In addition, the volume aims to transcend Eurocentrism by employing a range of theoretical frameworks, including liberation philosophy, decolonial theory, Indigenous philosophies, Latina/x feminisms, and others.

In the chapter “Decolonizing Immigration Justice,” Mendoza calls on philosophers to “decolonize their theoretical resources” by consulting non-Western philosophers. “Why not consider Frantz Fanon’s notion of the ‘damnés’ in place of Giorgio Agamben’s ‘bare life’?” he writes. “Why not approach questions of immigrant identity and oppression through the frameworks offered by Gloria Anzaldúa and María Lugones rather than those offered by Judith Butler and Iris Marion Young?” Mendoza says that, fortunately, we do have some examples of a decolonized approach, which come to us from the work of Latinx philosophers. He points to José-Antonio Orosco’s work on civil rights activist Cesar Chavez and his underexamined arguments on the rights of migrants. He also mentions Natalie Cisneros’s argument that Anzaldúa’s autobiographical and genealogical account of the social construction of “illegal” identities offers us a helpful alternative to Foucault’s notion of biopower. The failure of philosophers to venture beyond the Western philosophical canon reaffirms “the perspective of the Global North when addressing the ‘immigration problem’ and the belief that there is nothing of theoretical importance taking place outside of the West,” Mendoza contends. “This, in turn, has stifled the creativity of organic intellectuals who address the issue of immigration justice from the perspective of the Global South.”

Meanwhile, an especially innovative demonstration of the insight of organic intellectuals appears in the chapter “A Purgative Against Despair: Singing with Mexican Immigrants,” in which Mexican philosopher Carlos Pereda analyzes the content of corridos sung by Mexican norteño bands about the migration of so-called illegal aliens. His analyses disclose the kinds of interactions between migrants and others that form the basis of the migrant experience and are the site for potentially more ethical relations. In the corrido “The Other Mexico,” popularized by Los Tigres del Norte (with lyrics by Enrique Franco), the singer warns: “Don’t criticize me because I live on the other side, / I am not a rootless [one], I came here of necessity.”

Pereda notes that part of the singer’s message is that leaving the place where one has lived and has family and friends cannot be truly voluntary, and so the migrant ought not to be judged by their family and friends as if it were. Elsewhere in the song, the lyrics refer to “The other Mexico that we have built here / In this soil that was once national territory.”

The song speaks to the communities migrants establish in the United States (the “other Mexico”), but given the way that migrants are positioned within US society, these communities never amount to a safeguard from colonial interactions that “tear apart the identities of migrants.” As Pereda puts it: “This gives rise to an overwhelming situation of nonbelonging—and perhaps absolute non-belonging: because living ‘neither here nor there’ is like camping in the open air of a nonplace.” Pereda’s discussion of the ethical insights contained in these corridos gives readers access to concerns, intuitions, and arguments that are otherwise overlooked in mainstream representations of migrants in the United States.

The view that Latinx philosophers have something important to contribute to the ethics of immigration is continuing to shape the field. Philosopher Eduardo Mendieta recently organized a symposium on the ethics of birthright citizenship through the lens of Latinos, who have been citizens for as long as the United States has existed but whose citizenship is often suspect. A volume based on the symposium is being put together. This exchange of ideas comes at a time when Donald Trump has vowed to end birthright citizenship for children of undocumented migrants if he is reelected in 2024. Hopefully, the promising developments in the ethics of immigration, such as those I have highlighted, will play a role in calibrating our moral compass.


Featured image: Alice Rahon, La cañada [The Glen], ca. 1946. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, University Purchase, 1966; Transfer from the Harry Ransom Center, 1982.1130. CC0. Accessed December 5, 2023.

LARB Contributor

Lori Gallegos is an associate professor of philosophy at Texas State University. She is the editor of APA Studies on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy and is currently co-editing, alongside Manuel Vargas and Francisco Gallegos, the first anthology on Latinx philosophy for classroom use, The Latinx Philosophy Reader (under contract with Routledge).


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