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Is it Legitimate to Enforce Borders?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer stands at the Arizona section of the American border with Mexico.

AU’s School of Public Affairs welcomed Michael James on campus recently for a lecture about immigration as part of its Political Theory Institute’s Spring Colloquium Lecture Series.

James, a professor of political science at Bucknell University and author of Deliberative Democracy and the Plural Polity, spoke about how democratic societies can justify the enforcement of their borders.

He discussed the argument of Arash Abizadeh, a noted political theorist, that an open borders policy is a moral obligation. James said that blanket arguments for open borders under all circumstances don’t work for philosophical and for practical reasons. Instead, policymakers should ask what the conditions are in the country the immigrant is leaving. Refugees, James said, have the strongest moral argument for admission, while citizens from highly developed countries have a weaker case.

James called President Trump’s blanket Executive Order banning immigrants from certain countries “deeply problematic” and cited several recent mass shootings in the U.S. at the hands of terrorists who were not Muslim. He said policymakers have not shown real interest in addressing legitimate concerns of immigration, allowing for the rise of rhetoric that oversimplifies the situation.

Anna Bonomo, SPA/Pol Sci ’16, attended the event and participated in a conversation with James and her political theory class beforehand about his research.

“He had a unique perspective—definitely a lot more nuanced than the discourse you hear surrounding borders,” she said.

James touched on the range of attitudes toward immigration from a utopian approach on one side, to what seems to be racism to others.

“James is trying to do justice to the morally compelling arguments made on both sides of the immigration issue,” said SPA Associate Professor Thomas W. Merrill. “It’s just wrong, for example, to say that everyone who opposes increased immigration is racist, and if you don’t do justice to the legitimate concerns on that side of the debate, you are really making it more difficult to reach a reasoned agreement on the issue.”

SPA Political Theory Institute Director and Associate Professor, Alan Levine, said that the event was a way for students to see a thoughtful, pragmatic approach to policy issues.

“There is a strand of political theory today that is utopian and irrelevant,” said Levine. “We at AU try not to do that. All the theorists we invite have something to say about some issue.”