Review: Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration, by Tisha Rajendra


[1] Kyle Korver, a shooting guard and small forward for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, drew some attention in April 2019 with an essay simply entitled “Privileged,” addressing racial inequalities in the NBA and American society generally. The essay discusses statistics regarding poverty, incarceration, and unemployment, but its motivation and energy arise from Korver’s friendships and collegial relationships with African American teammates. As Korver tells it, his unintentional ignorance about disparate treatment of African Americans in the United States began to fracture when his teammate Thabo Sefolosha’s leg was broken during an arrest by New York City police. (Sefolosha was cleared of all charges and settled with the city after claiming excessive use of force.) A few years later, after a team meeting in which Russell Westbrook and others reported racist harassment from fans, Korver began to better understand the legacy of racism that follows non-white people – even highly-paid and extremely talented basketball players – wherever they go in America.

[2] Considering his own role in a society where racism is pervasive, if sometimes implicit, Korver writes:

Two concepts that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately are guilt and responsibility. When it comes to racism in America, I think that guilt and responsibility tend to be seen as more or less the same thing. But I’m beginning to understand how there’s a real difference. As white people, are we guilty of the sins of our forefathers? No, I don’t think so. But are we responsible for them? Yes, I believe we are. And I guess I’ve come to realize that when we talk about solutions to systemic racism — police reform, workplace diversity, affirmative action, better access to healthcare, even reparations? It’s not about guilt. It’s not about pointing fingers, or passing blame. It’s about responsibility. (Korver 2019)

Korver makes two points here: first, it was his teammates’ narratives that led him to recognize the racism they and others experience daily; and second, it is possible to take responsibility for working toward justice and equality, including challenging unjust social structures, without being paralyzed by guilt for all the history that has gone before.

[3] These two ideas prove crucial for examining global migration in Tisha Rajendra’s Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration, though Rajendra’s text of course goes further than Korver’s, reflecting the critical eye of a scholar and ethicist. Rajendra’s work is aimed primarily, though not exclusively, at Christian ethicists and communities. She wishes to address questions of political philosophy through the lens of Christian ethics, showing both how Christian ethical thought enhances global dialogue on migration and how Christians can read their own tradition to understand their responsibilities toward migrants.

[4] The fundamental question Rajendra sets out to address is: who has responsibility to do justice for people who migrate across state borders? In her view, this is the question that gets left out in most scholarly and public discussion about immigration. Multiple scholars have laid out and carefully delineated what sorts of rights migrants have, particularly through the lens of universal human rights. There has also been much meaningful discussion of the universal obligations that all people have toward migrants, with particular insight from Christian liberation thought, focusing on the preferential option for the poor. Liberation thought recognizes the history and structures of oppression that lead to migration, among other social issues, and liberation theologians clearly state that more-privileged individuals and communities have obligations to those who are marginalized, including both reform of unjust social structures and individual acts of mercy and justice.

[5] But what is not yet clear, Rajendra argues, is how to pinpoint which particular responsibilities citizens of states have to migrants who move into those states. If human rights are universal, and if every individual as well as every state has some sort of obligation to those who are marginalized and made vulnerable through migration, how can individuals, communities, and leaders address specific vulnerabilities of specific groups? In a complex world where policies must be aimed at specific goals and will likely help some groups more than others, and where individuals cannot equally help everyone they perceive to be in need, how can Christians and others sort out precisely whose rights they are responsible for? How can they protect those rights and enhance a common life together?

[6] Rajendra’s contribution here is to provide a framework which, she argues, helps people and communities think clearly through and sort out their obligations. She calls this conceptual framework justice as responsibility to relationships. This understanding of justice draws on an ethics of responsibility: it is realistic about the political, historical, and social systems people find themselves in, and it requires that people respond in morally good ways to the needs of others within those systems, at both an individual and a systemic level. What Rajendra adds here is an ethical commitment to see clearly the relationships that make up the context surrounding any given person or society; to construct appropriate narratives to describe those relationships; and to accept the specific responsibilities that arise from those relationships. Different as her text is from Korver’s article, Rajendra’s point has similarities: people are not individually guilty of unjust social structures that developed long before they were born, but those who are privileged (by virtue of citizenship in a stable country, for instance) ought both to tell a true story about the relationships they have with other people and groups and to act, based on those relationships, toward protection of rights for those in need.

[7] In the realm of global migration, this means that the citizens of a given country ought to seek out the truth of their country’s relationships with other countries and peoples. For instance, the United States’ trade with and investments in Mexico have often made the plight of the poorest Mexican citizens worse and have led to a great deal of migration, first to factories from rural areas and then across borders when factories are shut down by U.S. companies. Thus, the citizens of the United States have a particular responsibility to migrants from Mexico because of our country’s role in increasing migrant flows from that country.

[8] For Christians who look to Biblical texts for moral guidance, Rajendra shows that these texts themselves respond to a context of relationships. The Hebrew Bible lays out laws that mandate welcome to the stranger (the ger, or sojourner in the land). These laws arise out of the Israelites’ relationship to the God who brought them out of Egypt, a God who is understood to love the sojourner, the oppressed, and the wanderer. Because the Israelites themselves were once oppressed sojourners in Egypt, they are responsible both to God and to the sojourners in their midst not to exploit the vulnerability of those who arrive from the outside. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is shown as both stranger and host. Christians who follow Jesus’s example act with love toward the stranger, based on their relationship both to Jesus as teacher and to the stranger who is Jesus. Rajendra recognizes the complexities of working from Biblical texts, yet she argues that Christian ethicists and communities do, and should, read the Bible as a whole text. And on the particular issue of migration, the Bible’s emphasis on both fidelity to relationships and care for the sojourner – care which is due precisely because of the relationships one’s community has with sojourners – remains steadfast.

[9] Justice as responsibility to relationships, then, helps Christians and others properly examine the global issue of migration. It helps them recognize, and act on, their responsibilities to migrants, because it responds to the major conceptual problems that can stymie efforts to address migration. It acknowledges the universal human rights of migrants, while also providing a framework through which people who have the privilege of stable citizenship can understand the particular relationships they have to migrants, and therefore whose rights they can and should protect. It incorporates liberation theology’s option for the poor by emphasizing the importance of a true narrative about global relationships: a narrative that does not allow the most powerful voices to dominate our knowledge of history, but attends appropriately to the stories and voices of migrants and others who are vulnerable. When citizens understand the depth of relationship they have to migrants, they can properly stand in solidarity, often by incorporating migrants into the political body as citizens and certainly by upholding the basic rights of people with whom they are in relationship.

[10] Migrants and Citizens is a text that takes several seemingly incommensurable values, expressed in political philosophy and Christian ethical thought about migration, and brings them together in a conception of justice. Rajendra attends to current scholarly thought about the web of relationships and structures we all find ourselves in, while upholding the concepts of universal rights and liberation of the oppressed. Her discussion of the importance of narrative is particularly compelling: the voices of the poor are crucial to attend to, precisely because all people need to hear true narratives about the relationships we are already in, and thus about the responsibilities we already have. Hearkening back to the beginning of this review, it was Kyle Korver’s ability to hear his teammates’ narratives of racism that gave him new eyes both to see their experiences and to comprehend the guilt/responsibility dichotomy that helped him respond to those experiences.

[11] A couple of notes. Rajendra is helpfully clear about the scope of her text, and her work, though substantial in content, is not overly long. She therefore restricts her discussion to economic migration, using the examples of guest workers in Germany, migrants from former colonies to the United Kingdom, and trade agreements and investment between the United States and Mexico. She remarks – and I agree – that justice as responsibility to relationships can include relationships between citizens and refugees or asylum seekers, but exactly how that works out is left for another time. Similarly, although she clearly knows that there are relationships outside of the state and its political order, Rajendra does not delve very deeply into ways that justice might be done outside a state-centric international order. Migrants do need citizenship in a state to ensure some of their most basic rights, and it may indeed be the case that citizens owe it to them. It would be fascinating, though, to see further scholarly work on how the concept of justice as responsibility to relationships can analyze connections that form among grassroots organizations, NGOs, religious communities, and more, across national boundaries.

Laura Alexander

Dr. Laura Alexander is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  She specializes in Religion and Human Rights and is the first recipient of the Goldstein Family Community Chair in Human Rights.