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Illegal Immigration and the Soiling of Hands

March 1, 2011
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Recently in my Spanish class we watched a short National Geographic video on illegalimmigration and the conditions for those seeking to enter the US and Canada from LatinAmerica. It was pretty interesting and as I watched there seemed to be a lot of blame shifting foratrocities from the Mexican authorities to the US. A great point of analysis comes to mind. Onecould ask if, in fact, the hands of US policy makers are dirty.

In the segment that we were shown, the main issue was a shift in US border control policy. TheUS threatened to cease aid payments to Mexico unless their borders were tightened against Central American migrants. This, according to the movie, prompted a severe crackdown on the part of Mexican police and created an environment of oppression for potential illegal US immigrants.

Central AmericaThe US hoped to stop Central American migrants in Mexico

The movie cited and gave examples of abuse of migrants, corruption (taking bribes to let a migrant go), and generally oppressive treatment of detained migrants. They specifically said that the US border patrol was much more humane to those who are detained, treating them with dignity and respect. This is apparently not a part of the Mexican border protection methodology.

This division in conduct makes it difficult for anyone to say whether or not the US policy makers have dirty hands for their actions. Are US policy makers to be held accountable for the actions of Mexican police, especially when US border patrol is entirely respectable? A work I recently read, “Political Action” by Michael Walzer, looks at the issue of dirty hands through a “neoclassical”approach, as well as “softer”, more religiously influenced explanations. His main claim is that politics will, by nature, require getting one’s hands dirty. The same applies toenforcing the policies that are enacted.

Utilitarianism is truly amoral, declaring that any means is acceptable if the ends justify it. The neo-classical approach is similar to this, but instead focuses on glory and failure. The idea is that through success we can justify otherwise unethical choices. Unfortunately the video did not give too many details on actual numbers. This makes it difficult to tell how successful the policy is. There was one vague, but important, point: in the time period they looked at (mid to late-2000’s) they claimed that there was a reduced number of Central American illegal US immigrants.

(the film also noted that illegal immigration was on an upward trend at the time, but they claim it was due to increased Mexican illegal immigration)

It does appear that the policy has had an effect (note the flat-line near’05 and decline since ’07)

The film went on to ask the question many probably have on their mind, “at what cost?” This, however, is not the concern of the neo-classical approach. Simply the fact that the policy was successful, and the glory that this success entails, would justify the actions that were being taken. Walzer would approve of this cold conclusion if this were the only approach he looked at.

Beyond the calculating, unforgiving utilitarian approach, Walzer looked at religiously paralleled approaches. I prefer to look at his favorite of the three, the Catholic approach. This looks atpolicy and actions as being a series of sins that have certain punishments.

The issue is one of balancing your sins and the benefit that the society receives. The atrocities going on in Mexico are most definitely too great to be justified by a slightly lower rate of illegalimmigration. Someone definitely has dirty hands, be they Mexican border enforcement or US policy makers. This is not a terrible thing, though. Walzer points out that all leaders have tomake hard decisions, and no good leader can escape dirtying their hands. Who actually bears the brunt of the blame is an issue of debate, even in the film itself.

Perhaps we do not need to distribute the blame at all. There is probably a fitting penance for bothlaw makers and enforcers that only serves to benefit our world. Perhaps there could be reformand it would include mandating service work on the part of law makers and police for the migrants. What definitely needs to happen is a reduction of corruption and reassurance that Mexican law enforcement treats detainees with respect and dignity. This would diminish the sins committed and prevent further soiling of hands.


This is my first post and I would love to get some constructive criticism and suggestions. How was my tone of voice (too formal for a blog, not formal enough)? Did I present the concpets well? Should I have more of the works in my post? Should I focus more on my own ideas and experiences? Also, how do you suggest I integrate media into my posts?

4 Comments
  1. garrett stephens permalink
    March 4, 2011 8:11 PM

    Reading the blog, I thought your tone was appropriate and helped convey the ideas you were trying to express. There were a few points, though, that I would say could be stronger with revisions. One main point is the explanation of concepts. For example, when you explain the relation between neo-classical ideology and utilitarianism. The paragraph is slightly unclear: “The neo-classical approach is similar to this, but instead focuses on glory and failure.” The problem I saw with this is there was not much further analysis than this comparison, and that can lead to confusion of ideas. As a reader it made me question how the focus on “glory and failure” separated the two ideologies, and what this means. This would be easy to remedy, with a slightly further explanation. Also, the concept of “dirty hands” also needed a further explanation. You mention the idea of “dirty hands” but do not explain in the depth it would take to explain the relation of the concept and the situation in Mexico. I mainly say this because my interpretation of dirty hands is that a politician may act in a way that is unethical in order to support a greater good. Therefore I would think that the actions of the U.S. seem to go against dirty hands, because they pressure another country into an unethical situation for a smaller, not greater good (creating lower immigration rates). This is my personal view of the dirty hands concept, though, and I am merely saying that if you explained your own interpretation a little further, your argument would be greatly strengthened. Overall though interesting topic, the media was placed well within the blog and you did a good job of including various concepts and relating them to the topic.

    • Chris J permalink
      March 9, 2011 1:08 PM

      Thanks for the input! I had done some chopping to keep it at a manageable length while trying to keep the actual situation in Mexico clear. I read through again and I could see where my argument had gotten a bit weak as a result (mostly toward the end).

      On the note of further flushing out the concepts: I was going for a refresher for people who hadn’t read Welzer in awhile, my main focus was presenting the concepts that I felt were evidence of “dirty hands”, not what “dirty hands” are.

      Again, thanks for the ideas and thoughtful critique!

  2. Christina Beckman permalink
    March 6, 2011 5:08 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this post. For the past week, I spent my time in Atlanta, GA with refugees and immigrants from all over the world. Working with them everyday and hearing their stories, I can honestly say you have a good grip on the situation: political hands are never going to be entirely clean; it has never happened before, and not to say that it never will, but it’s plausible to expect a situation will never come without a few bumps in the road. Policy makers, of course, are held responsible to make the laws, and the people they delegate to are responsible for upholding said laws, but somewhere in this hierarchy there’s always going to be some miscommunication. People are people. We each have our own thoughts and opinions, and even while doing a job you’re paid to do one way, it’s hard to do it without bias. And I think, like you said, Hobbes would agree.

    “Perhaps we should not distribute the blame at all.” This is a perfect way to end your blog. Because you’re right: it’s going to be next to impossible.

  3. Anna Gwiazdowski permalink
    March 9, 2011 4:13 PM

    I like that you bring up this issue of “dirty hands” in regards to responses on illegal immigration. Born in raised in a state where this is a major issue (California), I’d like to comment on one of your questions in particular. You asked, “Are US policy makers to be held accountable for the actions of Mexican police, especially when US border patrol is entirely respectable?” When you refer to the US border patrol, are you referring to the government funded agency, or those who take it upon themselves to patrol the borders? No agency in this or any country is “entirely respectable.” Although the government agency is much more respectable than some of the border patrols formed by volunteer groups. In terms of accountability, the US policy makers made a statement, but no more. Therefore they can’t be held responsible for the actions of the Mexican police because they are not controlling their movements. A counter argument may be made that sure, the Mexican police are only acting this way because the U.S. is threatening to cease aid payments. However, the United States policy makers did not explicitly tell them how to deal with the problem, therefore they can’t be held responsible.

    I think regardless of which way you look at the situation in Mexico, someone will always be pointing the finger at someone else. Unfortunately as you mentioned and as Walzer mentioned, by nature politics leads to dirty hands. I do believe there are ways to avoid this, but because of finger pointing in politics, and the state in which people would rather blame others than accepting the blame themselves, someone will always be condemned for having dirty hands.

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