What Even the Best Comprehensive Immigration Restrictions Overlook

What are the arguments in favor of comprehensive immigration restrictions, what relevant ethical claims are political discourses obscuring, and how has German hip-hop formed as a result?

Political debates in recent years have depicted immigration in increasingly distorted ways. Dominant fears of immigrants characterize are in conflict with verifiable statistics. Furthermore, the heated rhetoric surrounding the topic has obscured some fundamental ethical questions surrounding the topic that, when explicitly considered, permit anti-immigrant concerns to be assuaged with much less severe policies.


The political debates about immigration in recent years have obscured some of the more obvious facts about immigration – especially with respect to crime. As Professor Marie Gottschalk, who studies and teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania, observes, American law enforcement and immigration enforcement agencies have converged in a costly way on empirically false premises since the Reagan administration and through the Obama administration. She notes, for instance, that while the average number of deportations grew from about 20,000-25,000 under Reagan to 400,000 under Obama, rises in crime due to legal and illegal immigration have been virtually non-existent: Professor Gottschalk cites data demonstrating that immigrant populations suppress crime rates in Gateway Cities and have no effect on crime rates in other cities. This is in direct contradistinction to politicized depictions of immigration as synonymous with waves of violent crimes.

In addition to Professor Gottschalk’s work, many scholars and journalists have worked to shed light on the plights of immigrants. For example, an episode of NPR’s program Embedded called “The Immigrant” examines the legal realities of cases of deportation as experienced by a family and a lawyer who works to try to keep the immigrant-father together with the rest of his family. Numerous such works illuminate deeper humanitarian concerns implicit to current practices of restricting immigration.

These overarching ethical concerns regarding the humanitarian issues surrounding immigration policies have been neglected. To remind us of the scope of these concerns, Professor Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, opens an accessible and meticulous essay on immigration policy with the following moral thought experiment:

Moved by the plight of desperate earthquake victims, you volunteer to work as a relief worker in Haiti. After two weeks, you’re ready to go home. Unfortunately, when you arrive at the airport, customs officials tell you that you’re forbidden to enter the United States. You go to the American consulate to demand an explanation. But the official response is simply, “The United States does not have to explain itself to you.”

You don’t have to be a libertarian to admit that this seems like a monstrous injustice. The entire ideological menagerie—liberals, conservatives, moderates, socialists, and libertarians—would defend your right to move from Haiti to the United States. What’s so bad about restricting your migration? Most obviously, because life in Haiti is terrible. If the American government denies you permission to return, you’ll live in dire poverty, die sooner, live under a brutal, corrupt regime, and be cut off from most of the people you want to associate with. Hunger, danger, oppression, isolation: condemning you to even one seems wrong. Which raises a serious question: if you had been born in Haiti, would denying you permission to enter the United States be any less wrong?

The power of this thought experiment can be summed up as follows. There are parts of the world from which to deny an American citizen re-entry would be tantamount to condemning her to a gruesome fate. If not clearly unjust, then arguing against re-entry citizen necessitates extraordinary explanation. To say that such a gesture is not unjust if applied to someone not native to America seems arbitrary. What we are left with, then, is a prima facie depiction of the humanitarian side of immigration: many people emigrate to flee dire straits. Intuitively, this is even truer when the immigrants risk extraordinary punitive measures by an ever-expanding security measures to immigrate enter America illegally.

Once immigration restrictions are situated within their humanitarian context, the policies that follow from anxieties regarding the effects of widespread immigration look very different. In his essay, Professor Caplan articulates many common arguments in favor of immigration restrictions and offers plausible alternative policies that would assuage the concerns raised while preserving the humanitarian benefits of less restricted borders. The first claim he considers is that restricting immigration protects American workers. Caplan argues that this claim turns out to be false: Americans benefit rather than suffer from the results of immigration. Nevertheless, Caplan offers the following alternative to restricting immigration to those still convinced that high rates of immigration hurt American workers:

There is a cheaper and more humane alternative: Charge immigrants surtaxes and/or admission fees, then use the extra revenue to compensate low-skilled Americans. For example, you could issue green cards to Haitians who agree to perpetually pay a 50 percent surtax on top of their ordinary U.S. tax liability. Haitians used to earning a dollar a day would jump at the opportunity, and the extra revenue could fund, say, tax cuts for low-income natives. Critics can tailor the details to fit the magnitude of the harm they believe immigrants inflict on native workers. Whatever the magnitude of this harm might be, extracting compensation is cheaper and more humane than forcing foreigners to languish in the Third World.

Professor Caplan argues that the matters of American workers can be addressed without resorting to outright restrictions to immigration. If one endorses immigration restrictions on the basis that they hurt American workers but agrees on the troubling humanitarian implications of not allowing people to immigrate, it is unclear how she could advocate for a policy more restrictive that what Caplan suggests.

One more of the many claims that Professor Caplan addresses is the notion that immigration restrictions are necessary to protecting American taxpayers – namely, the robustness of the American welfare state. This seems reasonable enough: if destitute migrants are able to settle in America, there could be a disproportionate number of people relying on welfare programs. And this could cause welfare programs to require surges in taxes for American citizens or less access to the benefits of those programs (or both!). After providing a nuanced argument for why this objection is also not a justified one, Caplan again is willing to concede the point and offers alternative solutions to restricting immigration that preserves humanitarian concerns:

Before you embrace immigration restrictions, you should still look for cheaper, more humane solutions. They’re not hard to find. The simplest is to freely admit immigrants, but make them permanently ineligible for benefits. “Net fiscal burden” is not a physical constant. It is a function of policy. If immigrants paid normal taxes and received zero benefits, their “net fiscal effect” would almost automatically be positive. If permanent ineligibility seems unfair, surely it is less unfair than refusing to admit immigrants in the first place. And there are many intermediate approaches. You could impose a waiting period: No benefits for 10 years. You could reduce or limit benefits: Half benefits for life, or double Medicare co-payments. You could set thresholds: Immigrants become eligible for benefits after their cumulative taxes exceed $100,000. Whether you love or loathe these proposals, they are certainly cheaper and more humane responses to the fiscal effects of immigration than the status quo.

Once again, Caplan demonstrates that once situated within the humanitarian context of immigration-issues, arguments in favor of restrictions have clear, ethically superior alternatives.

These humanitarian-based approaches to immigration could have ramifications for countries outside of America. In The New York Times, Amanda Taub reported that unfounded anti-immigrant sentiments formed an undercurrent through the passing of Brexit. How would Caplan’s framework characterize the ideas of proponents of Brexit or of Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician seeking to become prime minister who endorsed immigration restrictions as part of his platform? How would it contend with the views of German conservatives who have opposed Turkish immigration?

In the meantime, discrimination toward Turks in Germany has contributed to cultivating the heart of the German hip-hop scene, which is dominated by Turkish-German rappers—many of whom took inspiration from African-American artists. In the face of all these political controversies and crises, such songs provide opportunities for joy and inspiration.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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