A Basic Ethical Framework for Immigration

 In Telling a Better Story

By Dr. Glenn Butner, Jr.

August 22, 2019

One challenge facing Christian engagement with immigration policy is speaking with ethical rigor and not mere emotion or rhetoric. While it is certainly appropriate to respond emotionally to the sorts of stories frequently in the media in recent years, emotion and rhetoric alone may not help us adequately analyze policy – or ourselves. A basic moral framework may help us argue for just outcomes more persuasively and accurately. Toward that end, I would like to recommend a seven-step analysis that I teach students in my undergraduate ethics courses: ethical questions should consider habit, intent, perception, rationale, the act itself, its consequences, and God’s purposes. In the paragraphs that follow, I hope to explain each of the seven steps with reference to immigration ethics. Unfortunately, arguing for the validity of these steps is beyond the scope of this short article.

The first three steps in this method of ethical analysis are to consider what we might call pre-reflective or non-rational issues. In other words, these three factors may come into play before we even stop to think about reasons for a given act or policy. Habit refers to an often-subconscious tendency to act in a certain way. An acquired habit to act in a good manner as appropriate to one’s social role is called virtue. Vices are the immoral absence or distortion of virtues. I emphasize to my many criminal justice students their urgent need to develop moral virtue to ensure they act ethically under pressure in situations where they may lack time to think through a decision. I have seen many enter law enforcement dedicated to developing such virtue. All citizens also ought to consider whether we have developed vices like fear that may distort our moral reasoning. There are circumstances where immigration can be ethically curbed, but a culture shaped by fear of immigrants would be morally formed in a way that their reasoning behind reducing immigration would always be suspect.

Moral reasoning may also be damaged by wrong perception or wrong intent. When we act or evaluate a situation, we often do so based on certain unstated perceptions that may not be accurate, leading to error. Sometimes these arise from basing our positions on anecdotal evidence, not statistical data. For example many wrongly assume that asylum is usually granted to individuals who have crossed a border illegally, but 60% of individuals granted asylum in 2017 had legal documents allowing them entry to the United States. Only part of the remaining 40% would have crossed the border illegally. Wrongly perceiving asylum as rooted in illegal border crossings might lead someone to the belief that restricting asylum will primarily target and reduce illegal border crossings. Intent, which is sometimes subconscious, may also cause an otherwise moral act to become immoral. It is a moral good to condemn gang violence, but when a condemnation is intended to depict the average immigrant as criminal, it becomes immoral.

Moral reasoning often focuses on an act and its rationale. Much ethical theory involves debates over which ethical theory (utilitarianism, deontology, etc.) rightly evaluates the morality of an act. Picking a theory is beyond the scope of this article, but generally when no theories would provide a rationale for an act, the act should be avoided. For example, I can think of no theory that would endorse separating families apprehended at the border when there is available space in facilities designed to detain families together, as has been recently reported. Some acts are immoral in themselves by their very nature, such as human trafficking of immigrants.

The final two steps in my suggested moral analysis involve looking beyond the act itself to its consequences and God’s purposes. An otherwise morally good act may become immoral due to consequences in particular circumstances. While enforcing immigration law through deportation is morally acceptable (provided the law itself is moral), if the deportation will in high probability lead to the injury or death of the individual deported, in most cases the law should be ignored. This is another reason to be critical of the recent policy of denying asylum to individuals who have not first sought asylum elsewhere – some of the minority of asylum seekers who did cross the border illegally and who would have otherwise been granted asylum may now be deported with harmful outcomes. Finally, we ought to consider whether an act conforms with God’s purposes for creation. Such divine purposes are often expressed in terms of human rights, God-ordained freedoms for all. Though often closely related, these rights differ from legal rights. We would do well to consider what rights all people have by virtue of God’s plan and purposes and whether the rights granted by our legal system to immigrants correspond to God-given rights.

Admittedly, this method has its limitations. For example, other more complex approaches more clearly assign who has duty toward immigrants. The seven-step framework does not ensure that we are evaluating information accurately, or that the information we evaluate is accurate in itself. However, I am convinced that this seven-step analysis will improve our ethical thinking in general, and work toward justice in immigration in particular. This method leads me to objections (noted above) to a number of aspects of current U. S. immigration practice and policy.


Dr. Glenn Butner is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Sterling College in Kansas. Glenn specializes in theology and in economic ethics, having experienced the need to connect both disciplines when after serving as a chaplain in a prison complex and as a board member for the Kefa Project, which uses sports ministry to reach homeless and at risk children in Rwanda.

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