Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of ImmagrationTisha M. Rajendra. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017. X + 169 PP. ISBN 978-0-8028-6682-4. US$25.00

Book Review: Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration


As I was reading this book, the issue of the asylum seekers detained on Manus Island was in the news. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand’s new Prime Minister) reaffirmed New Zealand’s readiness to take 150 of these people, and was about to raise the matter with the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. This was an interesting, and somewhat appropriate, coincidence: for a central question of this book is whose responsibility is it to ensure the rights of migrants are upheld, and their needs met?

To put the matter more precisely, Rajendra is concerned with “questions of political philosophy using specific insights from Christian ethics: What responsibilities do citizens have toward migrants and potential migrants? What is the basis of such responsibilities?” (6). She focuses on three types of migration: migrants who come from former colonies, guest-worker schemes, and “foreign-investment-driven migrations”, and draws case studies from the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom to explore these (7).

The strength of this book is the way in which Rajendra uses specific stories of particular migrants (and their families) to illustrate and explain some of the theoretical approaches to the issue, and to frame the complexities and nuances in finding appropriate responses to the question of migrant rights. In her first chapter she outlines what she sees as the deficiencies in a human-rights approach, or a “preferential option for the poor” approach in dealing with this issue. Human rights are too closely tied to citizen rights, so that those who become stateless or undocumented persons (non-citizens) fall outside the usual spheres of responsibility. A world-wide public authority, such as the United Nations, is too unwieldy and principle of territorial sovereignty works against its potential in securing the rights of non-citizens.

The preferential option for the poor does not provide adequate grounds for determining who holds responsibility for addressing the issue, and in any case, much migration is not driven by poverty. A new approach is needed, one that understands the specific kinds of relationships that both drive migration and provide the basis for determining that kinds of responsibilities that derive from those relationships. This is the burden of Rajendra’s argument, and it is most clearly laid out in chapters three, five and six.

Her book is quite theory-laden and the usefulness of this theory to her overall argument depends a bit on the use to which the theory is put, and its pertinence to the direction of her solution. It may also depend somewhat on the reader’s prior familiarity with some of this theory. Some of the theory is presented in order to be set aside in favour of her own preferred approach, so that the reader may feel that much effort was expended for little return.

In chapter two, for example, a number of theories of migration are presented and the deficiencies in them as explanations for the phenomenon of migration are explored. So, for example, amongst “agency-dominant theories”, those that focus on the migrant as a “rational, choosing agent” whose migration is driven by economic factors (35), neo-classical theory cannot explain the empirical date of why migrants go to one country and not another. It has also fallen out of favour because migrants are not necessarily rational actors as the theory requires.

Another set of theories see migration as “the result of economic, political and historical structures that create the necessary conditions for migration” (41-2). Thus one theory (“segmented-labor-market theory”) sees migration as a result of the developed, industrialised world’s market demand for cheap labour, while others (historical-structural theory) see the developed world “mining” the developing world for cheap labour as for other resources. World systems theories focus on the disruption of multinational corporations to the local economies of developing nations. These theories tend to overlook the role of the individual actor in migration: both the choices of the migrant and those of their employers.

Rajendra prefers migration systems theory as it nuances and moderates the other theories by showing how migration is a result of the interrelation of human agency (individual choices) and structural aspects. It also opens the way to seeing the relationships between migrants and citizens that are established through the interaction of individual motivators and structural motivators of migration. Rajendra helpfully presents all of this theory by supplying the story of one set of related migrants (a young man, his mother and his girl-friend).

Rajendra also considers, in Chapter Four, the philosophical theories of justice that “respond to the challenges of transnational justice” (76). She considers three approaches: a contractarian approach, the approach of deontological ethics, and a capabilities approach. The contractarian approach draws on John Rawls’ s theory of justice as fairness, and as arising out of kind of “contract’ within institutions to “protect the civil and political liberties of citizens and manage natural inequalities” (78). She also draws on his “law of the peoples”, but, overall, Rawls’s approach falls short as it is too abstract, and does not deal adequately with the responsibilities that arise between peoples, and especially at the individual level.

The deontological approach holds that moral concern extends to everyone with whom an agent is connected, and to this degree in crosses borders to take in non-citizens, but where there is no connection, no responsibilities occur. Meanwhile, the capabilities approach focuses upon each person’s capacity to develop their capabilities as much as they should choose. These should be enabled, and nation states have a responsibility to do this, but the particular theorist (Nussbaum) Rajendra refers to, does not clearly outline how this might apply in the case of migrants.

Rajendra’s own approach emerges as she argues for the construction of better narratives of the drivers and motivations for migration (Chapter Three) to replace the unreal, or false narratives that distort and introduce injustices into citizens’ attitudes and actions toward migrants (giving rise to “structural sin”). So, for example, guest-worker programmes in Germany inevitably lead to permanent residency by migrants, and second-generation residents. But, although the nation benefited from these programmes, German law was slow to recognise the rights of migrants, and provide them with the rights of citizens. Again, British colonials gained the right to be considered British subjects and so migrated to Britain. But here they not only faced racial discrimination but sometimes laws and policies that demoted them to the rank of second-class citizens. I recall seeing an Indian woman pictured in Time magazine holding up a placard in a British city, reading “We’re here because you were there”. In other words, the drivers of migration are often the (subsequently unacknowledged) actions of the host country.

In the case of the investment of US companies in Mexico, the establishment of factories in Mexico (in “export processing zones”) led, first of all, to the migration of people from rural areas to the cities. When these zones relocated for economic reasons to Asia, Mexicans left stranded without work began to migrate to the US. Thus relationships are set up between citizens in host countries (through guest-worker programmes, colonization, or foreign investment) which create responsibilities. These responsibilities may be evaded or unacknowledged (perhaps even unrecognised) by citizens through the construction of false narratives about why the migrants have arrived in their country.

So Rajendra constructs her theory of “justice as responsibility to relationships” first by showing how the Old Testament approach to the non-citizens (the gérim) amongst the ancient Israelites was based upon recalling their own story of being migrants in Egypt; and the relationships established between God, Israel, the land, and migrants (Chapter Five). This leads to a discussion of “justice as responsibility to relationships” which involves making sure that the stories citizens tell about relationships with migrants are based on a true representation of the history of the formation of that relationship, for example in acknowledging complicity in benefiting from the contribution of undocumented workers, or the harms done by colonialism, or the recognising and accepting way in which a host culture has been changed by interaction with the migrants’ cultures (the British love affair with “Indian” curry).

Rajendra’s use of theory, somewhat tersely presented, requires some careful reading. Sometimes the yield does not seem to justify the effort. Her use of examples and reference to concrete examples are helpful and strengthen her argument, given that at heart it is a call to recognise the responsibilities that arise out of relationships, and to have a clear and true, and hence just, understanding of how those responsibilities have arisen. To this extent, her argument provides much food for thought, though concrete responses will need to be developed out of that reflection.

Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.

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