Only following orders — Why the immigration debate is so dangerous

In 1946 the Nuremberg trials fixed a paradigm into law that the defence of ‘I was only following orders’ was inexcusable with respect to crimes against humanity and war crimes. As a standing paradigm within Common Law jurisdictions the notion of knowingly sending a person back to their potential death or violent incarceration and torture is considered abhorrent. Indeed, within the UK and Europe the rule of law explicitly forbids these actions, and in the US the Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Alongside this is a willingness of governments to ever increasingly use immigration as the rhetoric device through which to blame all of society’s ills, seeking ‘quick’ fixes by rounding up and blocking immigrants from entering the country. I argue that not only is this rhetoric dangerous and fails to address the structural causes behind societal issues, in the coming decade with ever increasing climate related migration and demographic decline in developed nations, we need to have a radical rethink about how we address immigration and immigrants.

Officers of the law who enforce laws have an obligation through their oath and contract; however, what if those laws are morally ambiguous or lead to a wider perversion of the rule of law? Would it be the duty of those officers to subvert those laws, skirting them to provide relief, or does that route lead to an inherent collapse in the very nature of the law? Whether you agree with a country’s immigration policy or not, if you are sworn to uphold the law, and the law is harsh on immigrants, there is a legally binding obligation to follow not just the letter but possibly the spirit of the law as well. So far, I think most of us would agree. But, as laid down in Nuremberg and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is an obligation to all law enforcement officers to have an enquiring mind as to the orders they receive. If a law is inherently immoral, then surely the duty of any ethical law enforcement agent is to either refuse to carry out that law, resign, or actively subvert the law to ensure that an ethical outcome is achieved.

However, this then leads to the question as to why would a person choose to work within the system that enforces such rules in the first place. Money, career choice, maybe they agree with the laws and policies, or potentially there are no other jobs that pay as well and have benefits that can provide healthcare for their family. The reasons are multitude. Yet, whatever the reason to actively engage in that role, they cannot simply leave their moral obligation to the wider society at the door each morning. Ethically, human rights must apply to immigrants, and if an unethical or immoral order is given with respect to those under their care, surely an officer has a wider societal obligation to disobey, subvert, or outright refuse that order? They are not in the military, and as such potentially the worst that could happen is that they are relieved of duty, fired, or reassigned to a different position (there is always the potentially for arrest if they did an illegal action to ethically resolve a situation). A system of injustice can only exist if enough people are willing to be enforce it and to tacitly accept its existence, and without willing employees such a system would surely fall.

Logically this makes sense, but we do not live in a logical society. We may wish that the Kantian imperative of respect and dignity for each other were true, but each of us exist within the wider web of our societies were irrational choices and decisions impact not just our lives, but the lives of everyone within the State. Immigration falls neatly into this irrationality, for why would you not want to live in a society where everyone has to pull their weight and pay their way? Surely immigrants are coming here, taking our jobs, scrounging five bedroom houses for their seven kids, and getting it all on the lamb. Thus the rhetoric, thus the lies. Immigration is as old as the nation state, every society shaped by the ebb and flow of the immigrants within it. We all have immigrant ancestors no matter the country we live in. Our science, arts, health care systems, logistics, plumbing, indeed every sector of our economies is boosted by immigrants coming into our nations and building better lives for themselves. They pay taxes, they enrich our culture, and most importantly they bring new perspectives. Yet, we still demonise them and accuse them of living off our dime.

When the crunch comes, politicians will inevitably blame immigrants for the ills of society because they are an easy target. They often lack the vote, form insular communities during the first generation of settlement because the majority shun them, and are scape goats if even one of their member commits a crime. For all the benefits they are still our whipping posts, dead horses to beat with abandon when the going gets hard. Every shred if empathy we may feel is stripped away because they are outsiders not worthy of our respect. Every tongue wagged against them blames them for our own ills, the misdeeds of governments past, and we just want simple solutions to those vastly complicated problems. Thus, we join law enforcement, become prosecutors and judges, working in the bureaucratic machine that processes immigrants and treats them as unter menschen. We buy the newspapers that hawk restrictions, vote for politicians that promise panaceas through ever more punitive restrictions, and adjust our ethical standards to reject the outsiders who bring us so many net positives.

What about the criminals, I hear you cry. What about those who abuse our good faith. They are a separate matter, and a just legal system will deal with them ethically and fairly. They are not the law abiding immigrants I am talking about, and to bring them up obfuscates the fact that they make up a very small percentage of the total immigration number. Their deeds deserve and demand justice within the rule of law, and should be dealt with accordingly. However, the tricky ground comes when governments seek to ever criminalise deeds and actions, such as the right to protest, sleeping rough, or other general ‘anti-social’ behaviours that are the result of desperation rather than malice. It is very easy to pathologies and institutionalise people when they fall through the cracks, and surely an ethical and just society will lift those immigrants back up to help them become productive or help them return to their country of origin if it is safe to do so.

By demonising immigrants and immigration we leave the door wide open for abuse and immoral behaviour on the scale of the Nazi and other tyrannical regimes. It always starts gradually, with an incremental erosion of rights that first effects the worst criminals, then the petty ones, then the innocent who happen to be illegal immigrants, then the legal immigrants, and then citizens. It never stops with just one group, it cascades down through the whole of society unless we actively resist. Rights have to be fought for, and fought to keep. Just because a person is an immigrant does not mean they are any less worthy of protection. Their rights are just as fundamental as ours, and while we may wish for a better job or more resources, immigrants are not the root cause of the issue. The cookie jar is full, with the rich hoarding all bar one cookie, which they give to you. Then they turn around and say the immigrant is trying to steal your cookie, while they clutch tight to the other 99. This is how they get us to demonise and hate, to finger point in the wrong direction and blame the outsider for all our woes. This is how they get us to say we were just following orders. And this way leads down dark roads that end up stripping rights from us all.

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