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Ethics, refugees, and the President’s Executive Order

by Nancy Kass, ScD
There are different political philosophies about the responsibilities of states regarding whether to accept refugees. While there is a political philosophy that might be called Nationalist in perspective that says, essentially, “Not my Problem,” the predominant philosophy globally is different. That philosophy says that the refugee crisis is a global problem, people are in need, and we have the capacity to help. The reasoning behind this latter view recognizes that the benefit to others in accepting refugees is a matter of life and death, and the sacrifice to countries who accept them is, in the long run, minimal. In such cases, ethics says, we should act. And while states will vary in the degree to which they will take in those in need, there is global consensus that if countries with the capacity to help do not, an unfair burden is imposed on the countries who do. As the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman said, “Humanity is in crisis. There is no exit from that crisis other than the solidarity of humans.

Ethics is both a method—analyzing the ethical acceptability of a policy or program based on morally relevant criteria — and ethics is a set of moral values shared by a community. In this essay, I will analyze the Executive Order in terms of two criteria central to moral acceptability: the Order’s effectiveness and the Order’s fairness.
Effectiveness means measuring, with rigor, the extent to which a program meets its intended goal. This Executive Order is entitled: “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” with the stated goal of “Keeping out radical Islamic terrorists” and “Ensuring that we are not admitting into our country the very threats that our soldiers are fighting overseas.”

A study by the Cato Institute analyzed data demonstrating that nationals of the seven countries singled out in the Order have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015. Indeed, the likelihood of being killed by any refugee from any country is 1 in 3.64 billion a year. And one might argue that– to the extent risks exist among some people from these countries, such risks are reduced, if not eliminated, through an approach in place for years, an approach we might, in retrospect, have called “extreme vetting”. Susannah Cunningham, a legal advisor who has conducted interviews with refugees seeking asylum in the United States, published some of the questions she has asked refugees: “What kind of knife was the man that killed your father holding?”; “Can you remember how many stars were on the jacket of the military officer that raped you?”; “How many hours were you on the boat that night –before the smuggler shot your brother and threw him overboard?”; and “How did you survive if you couldn’t swim?”

The existing vetting process generally takes 2-5 years and between 5-10 interviews, not only with international legal advisers but also with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Homeland Security, after which fewer than 1% of refugees are allowed entry in the United States. And ironically, the Executive Order puts this vetting program completely on hold.

The criterion of fairness has many definitions in ethics. Equality of opportunity might note that some people, like me, had 4 immigrant grandparents who escaped both persecution and a lack of opportunity to come to the U.S., but then I drew a card to be born at a time and place where I ended up with access to education, love, and security. Others, however, drew cards to be born at a time and place where they continue to be persecuted by their own leaders. Equality of opportunity would suggest some responsibilities to those who, almost by fluke, drew cards where their lives are so tenuous, and face such regular threats.
Procedural fairness would require that we uphold commitments based on criteria previously set. Denying entry to people already granted visas to the U.S., that is, changing the rules near the end of the game with no additional information, is not a fair game.

Fairness as reciprocity would argue that, to be fair, we must help those, like many Iraqi translators, who were put at significant risk in the name of helping the U.S. government and who, as a consequence, face even greater dangers at home.
And yet most centrally to the intent of this Order, basing decisions about who can or cannot come to our country on national origin or religion, rather than on criteria relevant to national security is arbitrary and discriminatory on its face. And then, not surprisingly, having our government publicly proclaim such blatant discrimination quickly becomes contagious, with a rise in hate crimes being reported since the Order’s release.

While ethics is a method by which we analyze moral acceptability, ethics also is a set of shared values of a community—something we might call our “Common Morality” — what a community comes to think of collectively as its values, and what it considers broadly to be right or wrong. The values emblematic of our country are often thought to include deep commitments to individual liberties and to entrepreneurship, but also empathy for others, care for the sick, and broad interests –regardless of how we get there– in lifting the tide for all. Mogens Lykketoft, former UN General Assembly President said, “The genuine loss and pain these people are suffering should be unbearable for all of us.

This sentiment should exemplify our common morality.

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