This weekend, the New York Times Magazine's Ethicist column pondered this dilemma:
I have recently employed a foreign national from Ukraine as a live-in home health aide to care for my wife, who is in a wheelchair, paralyzed and incontinent. The home health aide’s visa does not allow her to work in this country, and my neighbor found this out. My neighbor feels that she has an ethical responsibility to report me and the aide to immigration services if I do not terminate her employment. The aide is paid at the standard rate and has good living conditions, so there are no other issues. Also, I have tried for one year to get live-in aides from agencies that are acceptable to my wife but have not been successful for various reasons. Obviously, reporting the aide would be a great blow to my family. What do you think is my neighbor’s ethical responsibility in this situation?
Kwame Anthony Appiah, NYT Mag's Ethicist columnist, replied that while the neighbor is not morally obligated to report this innocent Ukrainian woman, it would be morally permissible for her to do so.
Now, Appiah is one of the most acclaimed philosophers alive, teaching at NYU, which has the most highly regarded philosophy department in the English-speaking world. My strong prior is to think he's much smarter than me and defer to whatever he says. But I'm pretty confident in concluding that he's very, very wrong here.
The letter writer's neighbor is morally obligated to keep the Ukrainian woman's secret, because a) the Ukrainian woman is harming no one and helping some by living in the United States, b) reporting her to immigration officials would cause great, irrevocable harm to befall her for no good reason, and, most fundamentally, c) US immigration law is extremely unjust and not worthy of being obeyed.
This Ukrainian woman has done nothing wrong
Given that the letter writer's neighbor has, apparently, nothing against this particular immigrant, the arguments for turning her in to immigration authorities start to look like the arguments against immigration in general. And the arguments against immigration in general are really, really bad. And they're worse when you're applying them to an individual.
Maybe the neighbor thinks this Ukrainian woman is hurting Americans by depressing wages in the home health-care sector. This objection doesn't really make much sense. For one thing, it's unclear why this woman, specifically, should have to answer for this alleged problem. Her marginal effect on the prevailing wage in the home health aide labor market is essentially zero. No other home health workers are made meaningfully better or worse off by her presence in the US.
But also, the evidence that immigration depresses native workers' wages is really quite bad. George Borjas, the most famous anti-immigration economist, once argued that Americans see wages fall 3.8 percent following a 10 percent rise in immigration — but subsequent analysis showed his results fell apart. And besides Borjas, most of the rest of the literature suggests that the effect on native workers' wages is positive, in real terms. As economist Michael Clemens once told me, the effect of immigration on real wages for native workers is "definitely positive, without any doubt whatsoever." A recent evidence review by researcher David Roodman confirms this: While low-skilled immigration can make the existing low-skilled immigrant population worse off (though almost certainly not worse off than in their country of origin), Americans born here have very little to worry about, and a lot to gain.
The economic argument for turning in this woman doesn't hold water, but maybe other objections do. Maybe the neighbor is worried she's prone to criminality? Well, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans — even if they're unauthorized. If the neighbor saw the woman murder someone in cold blood, she should probably call the police, but it really doesn't seem like that's the case. Maybe she thinks her insidious Ukrainian-ness is harmfully dividing American culture? I somehow doubt the Ukrainian immigrant community is large enough for that.
So who, exactly, is this woman harming? The answer, so far as I can tell, is literally nobody. But she is helping people. She's helping her family by moving to a country where her skills can garner her more money than they could back in Ukraine — money they can either enjoy in the US (if they joined her), or through remittances back home. She's helping her employer by providing affordable care to a severely disabled woman. And, of course, she herself is better off by being in America.
Turning this woman in would cause needless harm to her and her family
What would turning in this woman — who's helping many close to her, and hurting nobody — accomplish? Well, she'd immediately lose her legal status in the United States under her visa. If the government decided to deport her, she'd get a court date years from now, and be forced to spend the intervening period either in a detention facility or outside, without the ability to work legally. The government might offer her "voluntary departure" — 60 days or less (often less) to pack up her life and leave the US, on her own dime, for good. Even if she stayed, her odds of legally staying in the US in the future would drop dramatically. She'd be in constant jeopardy of being apprehended again. She would have to continue working off-the-books, but at even more risk of getting caught — and near-certain risk of detention and deportation in the event she were caught. If she wanted any chance of staying, she'd have to hire a lawyer, at considerable cost.
Turning her in would cost her her job, and quite possibly ruin her life — at least her life in the US. And for what? What harm is being remedied here through this drastic, life-altering measure? It's hard to identify one. This isn't a case where a harsh but necessary punishment is being inflicted to punish past wrongdoing and deter future wrongdoing. There's not wrongdoing being punished or deterred at all. There's only an innocent woman who did nothing at all wrong being hurt.
This is not a law worth obeying
There's one possible rationale for turning in the woman that I haven't considered yet: that she broke the law, and lawbreakers, as a rule, should be punished. That's Appiah's argument, that the neighbor has an "obligation to the country's laws": "You can point to outrageous laws that command no such respect: Cue Rosa Parks and the segregation statutes. But the conditions on your health aide’s visa surely don’t rise to this level."
This is a preposterously high standard. Would Appiah call the DEA on a neighbor he smelled smoking marijuana? Drop a dime on a colleague whom he overheard discussing a wager on an NFL game? A rational person might feel inspired to rat out an unauthorized home health aide due to a misperception that the person's visa violation was causing serious harms to other people, but nobody actually lives by the creed of maximum enforcement of every law that happens to be on the books.
There are, no doubt, good people who support immigration restrictions for what they take to be good reasons. But in most cases, they are simply mistaken: The economics is just wrong, the assimilation concerns are overblown, the crime objection is based on a transparent falsehood.
America's immigration laws are wrong. They destroy lives, and they lack any sensible rationale. Obeying them blindly and damaging other people in the process is reckless and immoral.