« Previous | Main | Next »

The Public Philosopher: Prof Michael Sandel on immigration in Texas

Post categories:

Paula McDonnell 08:37, Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Editors note: You can hear The Public Philosopher on Radio 4 at 9am on 23 and 30 Oct and 6 Nov 2012. Here, Mukul Devichand who worked on the programme with Professor Sandel talks about the issues raised in the first programme. PMcD

Michael Sandel, Harvard political philosopher presents The Public Philosopher on Radio 4.

If you think Texans attitude towards illegal immigrants is simple - lock 'em up and shut the borders - the first programme in a new series of Radio 4's The Public Philosopher may surprise you.

With the US presidential vote around the corner, we took Harvard political philosopher Prof Michael Sandel to the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas to ask a public audience: how far should an open society go in accepting outsiders?

In other words, what's the moral case for and against immigration, and to what extent should illegal immigrants be punished?

These are tough issues in Britain but in Texas, which borders Mexico, the issue has a unique resonance.

Over a million "undocumented" people, who have crossed the US border illegally, live in the state and across the United States there are an estimated 11.5 million such people - many from Latin America.

That led us to the first moral issue addressed in the programme: now that they are in the USA, what should be done about this huge population living in the shadow of the law?

In particular, what is the right moral attitude towards the children of illegal immigrants, who were brought to America when they were very young?

Some argued that it was their parents, not them, who broke the law - so does that give them a moral right to become US citizens?

One passionate speaker told Prof Sandel it was a double standard for other law abiding Americans to have to tolerate illegal acts - even if the children were not to blame. Then, she revealed that she herself was a (legal) immigrant.

But another young woman - herself the child of an "undocumented" worker - said that her own hard work and contribution to American society gave her a moral right to citizenship.

The future for the children of illegal immigrants is a hot political issue in the US election. The scale of the issue - and the fact that Hispanic Americans are an increasingly important source of votes - meant Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered their own solutions in their second televised debate last week.

But our approach in this programme was different because it addressed morality, as well as politics. In turn, Prof Sandel encouraged the audience to pull back and ask some difficult, prior, questions:

  • Is it morally legitimate to have any border controls at all?
  • If yes, should they be based on economics - on the skills a country needs - or an idea of shared citizenship, culture and values?
  • If immigration policy is dictated by economics alone, what does that tell us about the political community we create?

Immigration, argues Professor Sandel, is so passionately debated precisely because it lays bare our idea of citizenship political community.

Therefore, to form a view, Americans - and anyone else debating immigration - have to ask what values they, as a nation, really stand for?

Mukul Devichand is a Senior Broadcast Journalist in News and Current Affairs, Radio


  • Comment number 1.

    Has anyone asked the native american indians what standards they would have liked to apply to immigration? assuming anyone even thought of asking them? Did they think the land belonged to them? Did they think they needed qualified workers to join them? etc. etc.. the truth is what are plagued by double standards in every area of life and the sooner we regognize it the sooner we will start to make progress.. otherwise we are definitely doomed!

  • Comment number 2.

    A very interesting lecture offering up some new insights from a State in the USA with a border that is crossed by thousands of illegal immegrants every year. ( BTW nobody mentioned the issues about original ownership of Texas and background.)

    I love the way Michael Sadel manages to navigate through the topic via unrehearsed invited comments from the audience. The whole programme demonstrated so clearly how difficult it is to create an acceptable policy on immigration.

  • Comment number 3.

    It did Sandel no service to bamboozle the young lady giving the Harvard resource point with emotional blackmail - a bit of poetry on a national symbol is not a considered bill of rights.

  • Comment number 4.

    What is noticeable is things not mentioned, the "immigrants" who come to USA are primarily from countries that USA has invaded or used proxies to destabilise the countries, Which is the whole of South America, south east Asia, and now the Middle East

  • Comment number 5.

    I was surprised he didn't challenge the last speaker to explain how her analogy about the Harvard admissions system works for people who are born in the united states to parents that are citizens. Children of alumni (in theory) don't automatically get into Harvard just because their parents went there. So surely she would support citizenship tests for everyone. I would have been interested to hear her response.

  • Comment number 6.

    There should be no restrictions on people's ability to live where they choose with the possible exception of criminals. If it is OK for businesses to close factories and move to anywhere in the world they choose how can it be morally correct to stop those who need to work moving to where they can sell their labour power? The discussion was useful and clearly moved people on from the positions they came with but failed to make this important point.

  • Comment number 7.

    Prof Sandell looks to 'meaning of citizenship': feeling on street; tenor of law; philosophical foundations

    Wild West 'partners' with gun; Back East 'welcome almost any', then 'well qualified'; religious sanctuary, political asylum, pragmatic supply, global competition in moral repute & power

    Given democratic equality, let jobs market decide?

  • Comment number 8.

    The discussion almost entirely ignored the reasons why people want to, or are obliged to leave their homeland. I would suggest that a major factor in this are the policies enacted by US governments for many decades: trade legislation creating impoverishment; support for corrupt dictators; military intervention; political interference; arms sales which contribute to the destabilisation of states and drug policies which lay the blame on producer states rather than the inherent demand for the drugs within the US itself. Of course a similar set of factors could be applied to the UK. We can hardly blame people for coming here when we have been a major cause in them having to leave in the first place. If we did not contribute to creating so much suffering, people would be far less inclined to put themselves through the often harsh, demeaning and sometimes deadly process of emigration.

  • Comment number 9.

    This was a very interesting programme well delivered. The total number of illegal immigrants is very small with respect to the total population of the USA. Why not tighten up the the boarder control and treat all those who have entered as potential applicants? Why not look for a reason for these people to stay, rather than look for a reason to deport them? Surely everyone has a right to a right to work for a reasonable life style.

  • Comment number 10.

    I listened to this broadcast this morning, and thought what a breath of freash air to have a discussion on a sensitive topic without the highly charged emotion that seems to be prevalent on programs like "Question Time".

    Lets have a similar programe on the beeb about the topics that affect all our lives in the UK!

  • Comment number 11.

    I found this morning's programme very thought provoking. Listening carefully to all the participants, I have concluded that there is elements of truth and sense from all quarters. But I am wondering if this issue has been discussed from a reactive position. Perhaps we should be asking 'Why are all these people wishing to come into America (and other countries such as United Kingdom)' It is because their own country does not provide a stable and healthy life for their families. If their countries provided all that was neccessary for their lives, of course they would not be uprooting from all they know and love. Emigrating is obviously an act of desperation for many.

    If we continue on this reactive path there will never be an answer to the emigration problem. Instead we must look 'long-term' (and this will cost AT FIRST). We must ensure that all countries provide their citizens with the the level of education, health provision and employment that enables them to live contentedly and thrive. Conversly, by offering emigration in to our countires only to those who benefit our countries, eg., doctors, scientist etc., this will only further deplete a weak nation. If we take the long term approach, illegal emigration levels will fall.

  • Comment number 12.

    I could not agree more with views presented by Prof.Sandel of modern immigration in US. It was an interesting insight into American mass perception on this thorny issue although setting up discussion at Dallas in Texas added up an extra heat to debate. As an European citizen living in UK legally (because of an EU Directive i.e. open borders policy being in place) it is one of the blessing of this kind of approach. Although US policy and its citizenship on birth is quite unique in international law nonetheless the concept of migration remains the same. Prof. Sandel rightly pointed to inscription of Statue of Liberty and verse from Lazarus poem; from the discussion in Dallas I get an impression that most of those students opting for border control and denied rights to children of immigrant are either hypocrites or a protectionists in their own terms. For them it is ok to procreate and use resources but anybody else (i.e. alien) is not welcome (unless posses higher than them in terms of qualification). This is a path to isolationism and racism. I would suggest that America ought to go back to its roots.

  • Comment number 13.

    Having established democracy 'in our own countries' (when), morally bound to consider plight of individuals less happily placed, subject to fear of unequal treatment, as to life, liberty, vote, income, what 'should be' shareable freedoms in 'pursuit of happiness'

    No dodging morality: US entry to WW, failed states, Aid, this debate

  • Comment number 14.

    I also found this a very intersting lecture about the American policy on immigrants from South America and their childrens dilemma , after being brought up through the American educational system & knowing the states as their only home.
    But there are another group of people who are in America legally, contributing legally to the country & working in North America legally, but whose children, although brought up through the American educational system , adopting the American culture & identifying themselves with America are denied citizenship, even though they are legally in the country.
    My brother went to America 20 years ago and owns the biggest car transmission business in Albequerque, New Mexico . He employees Americans in his business , he contributes to the American economy, but every so often he has to have his visa renued to enable him to continue to work in America. His son went with him to New mexico when he was 2 and has been brought up through the American educational system being a "Gold" pupil in the best high school in the state. My nephew has gained a degree from the best aviation university in the world in Florida, Embrey Riddell. However as he is not an American citizen he can not make a career for himself in America. he is unemployable because he is not an American citizen. He now has to leave the country he loves and really has only ever known & find a job somewhere else in the world. He has been in America legally, but he is not recognised by companies as being employable because he has no citizenship. Surely this is even worse than the children of illegal immigrants being denied citizenship? There are many parents working legally in the USA whose children are also denied jobs and citizenship when they reach employable age - even though they have done nothing wrong except to move with their parents, when young to America.

  • Comment number 15.

    Everyone agreeing with each other tends to make for a boring discussion but I have to agree with satish and graham askey. The West [Britain, Europe and the US ]has for centuries pillaged the resources of weaker countries and installed puppet rulers to oppress their inhabitants so Western hegemony is not threatened. The West then denies the minority of people from these countries who have the wherewithal to travel the chance of following their pillaged resources to get some of the benefit. Sheer hypocrisy.

  • Comment number 16.

    graham @8
    "US policies"

    Point taken, with application to us all: not from 'US policy' that 'conquest' of a virgin Earth has a chequered history & results

    We do 'recognise' each other's 'reasons', for moving, accepting, barring: but 'we' vary criteria with many factors in mind, and in face of numbers

    As well as 'invading & exploiting' (still), we 'liberate & aid' (against more than own worst instincts)

  • Comment number 17.

    The best thing about this debate was how articulate it was. Whatever you think about the issues of immigration, it was good to hear people talk in an articulate manner about them, and the corresponding gentle but firm insistence by the moderator that the REASONS for people's views to be made as crystal-clear.
    I recently watched Edge of Darkness (the TV series) in which it is made very clear that without continual and OPEN dialogue between proponents of widely differing world-views we can all enter a spiral of madness, based simply on one side's belief that another side is diametrically opposed to theirs.
    With that in mind, it strikes me that there is still a significant residue of the world's population who still believe and perhaps secretly hope we are engaged in "cold war". The last member of the audience who answered that the Statue of Liberty's welcome poem is an idyllic view, and not a basis for pragmatic decision-making, that the issue of immigration is far more complex than is realised (not her exact words, but the sense), struck me as a "cold war warrior" in that respect, especially when her reasons for her views altered subtly as she was questioned further - in fact I'm not quite clear she had thought closely about the reasons at all.
    Sadly, I think there are still people today who firmly believe they are "embattled" and "surrounded" by forces of "darkness". In that light, how does any philosophical debate help them to see this is an illusion, created in their own minds by decades of fear of the "other", manipulated by politicians of all hues and parties?
    At the end of Edge of Darkness, Craven says to Darius Jedburgh "why bother?" when they know their time is up and Darius urges him to make one last stand against the "establishment", since Craven has come down on the side of Gaia, and believes in his own mind that nature will always win, whatever we do to the planet.
    Using this as a metaphor alone, I think the embattled mentality, which I believe dies very hard, as it is based on unexpressed and irrational fears, fails to see this very point with respect to immigration, wherever and whenever it is found: we really aren't as important as we'd like to make ourselves out to be. We're all members of the human race, is what I'd like to say the last member of that audience. Do you consider that, when you propose we have a "pragmatic" solution to immigration control?

  • Comment number 18.

    One day, with global citizenship, residence by choice of 'work & travel', local voting rights 'by residence', economic 'voting rights' by equality of income-share, full democratic representation 'all for all' as equal partners in global economy

    But even then, beyond 'pure' religious / geopolitical 'terror', still there will be 'breakdowns', merit in some policing, surveillance, 'border' checks

  • Comment number 19.

    Response to jmw44- well made point. To develop it I feel the `embattled' mentality does not happen just by itself: it is actively encouraged by those who run the system and benefit most from it materially and so have most to lose from a world without borders and where we see everyone as the same species as us not some `foreigner' out to do us down/take our jobs/etc etc. The `Immigration Debate' as conducted on Question Time and the media generally takes as unarguable what this morning's programme questioned: `immigration is bad, we'll be swamped, it must be controlled' Politicians whip up fears about immigration to obscure the fact we have more in common with someone who can't speak English who is Black and who lives and works in a remote part of the world than we do with White, English speaking Old Etonians who run Britain. They know that those of us no matter where we happen to have been born who have no inherited wealth outnumber the ruling elites so hugely that if we all spat together we'd drown them, so they have to keep us divided.

  • Comment number 20.

    George Entwhistle still clinging to faint hopes:

    Perhaps that Savile case 'might not stand up'?

    That Rippon inconsistencies 'might be cleared-up'?

    Evading confrontation:

    Rippon's 'own decision' was in a context…

    At least of past experience: 'heat from above'

    What of past 'heat' on even more serious issues:

    UK democratic deficit, inequality of belonging?

  • Comment number 21.

    AfA @20 posted in error)

    Programme & Comments, much appreciated

    But, to be blunt:

    No end to lists of aspirations 'in piety'

    No end to conflict of interest without agreed equality

    No agreement on equality without understanding

    Any here thought of freedom to live 'in conscience'?

    Able to have 'rational trust', to build together?

    Would you be 'last to agree', rather to claim a throne?

  • Comment number 22.

    John Steinbeck said that the things we admire in people (actually I think he said 'men'): kindness, generosity & understanding are the concomitants of failure in our system. The traits we detest: meanness, self-interest & greed are the marks of success. While people admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

    The American Dream was founded on rapaciousness, meanness & self-interest, the exploitation of the land and its native people. The dream was the native Americans' nightmare.

  • Comment number 23.

    michael allen @22
    In unfair fight…
    Not the American Dream

    Ever more clearly - 'extremes of behaviour', achievement & criminality, correlating with factors such as home background, nutrition, education, brain-scans showing 'damage, deviation, or deficit' - we come to face OUR need NOT to be divided by the differences that we inherit, carry and might need, SERVING our adaptability in not just family-life, in teams and nations, but - as we hope - in our stewardship of the Earth, for generations and perhaps aeons to come.

    To 'pull together', to survive and 'bounce back' as President Obama envisages, we have to trust each other with 'belonging', with equal partnership, a status to be lost only from 'established' laziness or criminality.

    To agree such partnership, to be able to win each new generation for democratic self-rule, we all have to understand - albeit in our own ways - the argument for equality.

    From whatever mix of emotion and reason, of care and calculation, of knowledge and imagination, to prosper free from corrupting conflict of interest, we have to know 'our enlightened self-interest' in sharing the shareable, all of us then at liberty 'to be ourselves'.

    Using our own time and energy, our own shares of 'market command', and our own preferences, we do not need - and cannot afford - inequality of 'command over each other'.

    Perhaps always, at the extremes of psychotic illness or of psycho-sociopathy, some will need special help, and for a few - at least at times - 'detention in care'. We owe no mystical 'moral obligation' to give the voices of the Ayn Rand antisocial any more than 'instructive mention', in our education and adult discourse.

    I ask, again, any thought here on freedom to live 'in conscience'?

    Would you - all others agreed - reject equality?

  • Comment number 24.

    None of those interviewed stated that there were 46 million Americans living below the poverty line, with over 20% of American children living in poverty. Further the US unemployment rate is about 8%. America should sort its internal problems out before it considers allowing illegal immigrants US citizenship, or allowing unskilled people to enter the country.

  • Comment number 25.

    Caught the broadcast en route thro' fog and mist nd, as usual was delighted with the articuly of most speakers - particularly students. The first blog really covers my comment /question 'And where do yoy think yor forbears came? and did they ask the native Indians if they wanted 'immigrants' Those immigrants/settlers were all from comunities with religious/political persecution or sent by (reedy) governments anxious to add more territory and wealth from (unexplored) lands without so much as a by yiour leave! American citizens please emember this and that it is not YOUR country. so sad that there is so much intolerance and bigotry in the world.

  • Comment number 26.

    I was going to make the very first comment or similar. The notion that we have rights or entitlements and can exclude others from these is so short sighted. We can have rights but not many folk seem to have notions of responsibilities. If it was ok and possible for everyone to have 6 kids then problems with immigration and resource shortages would be rather worse. Ok we are where we are. Then have a responsible policy to limit population, stop at 2 kids and allow limited immigration for those who do the same. Prices are going up, natural resources are deleted and degraded and the climate is changing.

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 28.

    As mentioned by other posters, possibly the greatest value of this debate is showing the value of gentle, but firm, Socratic questioning. Done well, this helps participants unpack their beliefs and show the depth and quality of their reasoning.

    I, for one, would pay good money to see Michael Sandel moderate a couple of sessions of Prime Minister's Questions.....

  • Comment number 29.

    The 3 pillars of the European Union are: democracy; human rights; the rule of law.
    Yet millions of people are in the EU illegally. (About a million in Britain alone.)
    For decades "sans papiers" (with rare exceptions, all young men) have been heading for France's Channel ports in order to get to England.
    The French don't deport them.
    If you take away 1 pillar....

  • Comment number 30.

    I hope this comment and my previous one (no. 27) will be accepted.
    Thanks, Jeremy Passmore

  • Comment number 31.

    The BBC blogosphere has suffered limitation of comments to a pitiful 400-characters, the comment facility is subject to 'unaccountable breakdowns', and in the wake of Peter Rippon's elegant 'attempt to take responsibility' we see BBC personalities falling over each other to supply tabloid-patrician diversion of perspective.

    Must we wait for Professor Sandel to try to hold-up the mirror of moral philosophy for us, again? Or might salvation come from Lord Leveson?

    To seek 'state control' of 'press standards' in a society that is captive to money, its law-makers, judges, 'owners', reporters and audiences all trapped under Fear & Greed, in the service of Money-Advantage, is to prepare the way for deeper servitude.

    Failing to understand, explain and clearly commend universal liberty, the rule of conscience, our advocates of 'statutory regulation' and our defenders of 'press freedom' all must be counted possessed, either of a naive ignorance or of a faithless cowardice, to accept as 'right' or 'best' continuance of a regime that has sold 'human nature' as damned.

    On the subject of selfish folly, I think it was St Eric Pickles who thought that St Thomas Jefferson might have said the 'river of a free press' had to 'flow without restriction': no stronger advocacy of Equal Democracy than that even inadvertently from one enduring office at high-rank.

    Under tyranny, we all are to some extent victims, all to some extent 'Quisling of Mammon'. For all, the remedy is universal liberty, not self-righteous vigour in scapegoating, and not vain pursuit of an after-the-fact 'independent scrutiny'.

    Today's debate risks being no more than symptomatic, one more reflection of money-corruption society-wide.

    If there is no call for the rule of conscience, the Leveson Inquiry will be but one more foot-note in a tragic history, our tempting of Fate.

  • Comment number 32.

    My comment no. 27 was on the same topic as Prof. Sandel's debate: immigration.
    It is to be deplored if the BBC denies me freedom of speech concerning this important issue, stifling debate.
    I did not use bad language (though the BBC often allows offensive bad language).


More from this blog...


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.