Moral Myopia at the Arizona Border

By Stanley Renshon on June 10, 2010

The Washington Post recently ran a story about Shura Wallin, an immigration activist who, with her group of 140 volunteers who call themselves Los Samaritanos, assist illegal immigrants making the potentially hazardous trip across the Sonoran Desert. Their moral calculus is simple: "they say they are doing moral deeds in the face of a simple reality: Migrants keep coming." They seem oblivious to the moral hazard they have helped to create and the arc of their compassion is constricted by their narrow moral vision.

Shura Wallin has a long history of activism for "social justice." She worked for Planned Parenthood and the Population Council in New York, an organization that provides family planning and contraceptive access to the poor around the world, and she coordinated food programs for the homeless in Berkeley, Calif., before retiring in Green Valley, Ariz., a few years ago. There she helped found the Green Valley Samaritans among whose purposes include restoring "hospitality and compassion along our borders" and encouraging "elected leaders to humanize border policy." Giving aid and water is clearly part of larger immigration policy ambitions.

The group is named after the biblical parable of a Samaritan who helped a robbery victim while others ignored his plight. Yet, the name and the metaphor are misplaced. In the parable that appears in Gospel of Luke, a traveler is beaten, robbed, and left half dead along the road. A priest and a Levite passed him by and finally a Samaritan helped. The lesson here is to be compassionate to those in need, and it is an important one.

However, illegal immigration differs in several key respects from the parable. The traveler was legitimately going from one place (Jerusalem) to another (Jericho), not attempting illegal entry and thus taking a circuitous and dangerous route. Travel has its risks, but presumably the road he traveled did not have the well- deserved notorious reputation of the numerous illegal travel routes to the United States. Nor was the traveler depending on those who robbed him to get him where he was going. And finally, those who dwelled where he was going would not suffer economically, politically, or culturally because he was one of a very large group of people who should not have been traveling where they were going.

Helping the individual traveler that has been a victim of robbery or mishaps presents no moral hazard or complications. Helping hundreds of people to undertake a dangerous and illegal trip that undercuts deterrence put in place to prevent people from making that trip presents quite a different set of considerations.

The most immediate manifestation of their aid, and those of their like minded-advocates on both sides of the border, is that it contributes to the willingness of those seeking undocumented entry into the United States to undertake that hazardous journey. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, who have caught 168,000 illegal immigrants in that area since October 1, complain that the maps and supplies given to border crossers by this group and others create a "false sense of security," but that is only the start of moral hazard introduced by such efforts.

A number of these immigration violators die in the process, and many, if not most, rely on criminal groups that profit from these efforts. The routes that provide illegal entry for people also provide a path for drugs, and that escalates the dangers for those whose homes and properties lie along these paths. It makes holding illegal immigrants for further payments, or abandoning them after they have paid their fees, profitable options. Samaritans also don't pick and choose whom they help, even if it's evident that the blisters on a migrant's back came from lugging burlap sacks full of marijuana. Worse, "Smuggling of potential terrorists across the border is evolving into a billion dollar industry for Mexican drug cartels while posing a significant threat to the United States, according to federal law enforcement officials." And then there are the large moral and ethical implications of aiding the tide of illegal immigration on the one's fellow citizens, their political culture and their country.

But these concerns are very far from Ms. Wallin's moral calculus, which is simple and limited, as is her preferred remedy: "I can't live here knowing that people are almost literally dying in my back yard and not do something to help." She has apparently not considered using the determination that comes with moral certainty to help by warning people about the dangers and discouraging them from taking the risk.

Careful consideration of the moral presumptions that underlie many forms of advocacy for illegal immigrants is long overdue.

Topics: Arizona