The Ethics of Migration Policies

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  • 0:02 Migration Policy
  • 1:00 Open Door
  • 1:44 Closed Doors
  • 2:58 Quotas
  • 3:55 Other Factors
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Ever wonder why more people don't move to places like the United States, Europe, or Canada? In short, there are migration policies to prevent such large movements. This lesson will examine the ethics of those policies.

Migration Policy

How many times have you thought about moving someplace else? If you're in the United States, it's relatively easy to pick up and move across the country. If you're Canadian, the same could be said about moving from Halifax to Vancouver. But what about if you want to move from Canada to the United States? Or if you live in the United States and want to move to France? In those cases, you would run into regulations regarding immigration.

Millions of people try to move around to different countries for a variety of reasons. Some leave home for fortune, some for love, and some simply to enjoy better weather. As you can imagine, some countries are more popular than others. Hundreds of millions of people would love to live in the United States or Europe, while relatively few are lining up for the Central African Republic. As a result, many countries that people would love to move to have policies about migration. The ethics of these policies can be particularly challenging, as we will see.

Open Door

At the base of the Statue of Liberty is a poem with the words 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' This phrase describes the immigration policy of the United States towards many European countries during the late 19th century. Immigration from places like Ireland, Italy, and Poland was encouraged as a way of building the population. However, the U.S.'s Open Door Policy, by which people could freely enter the country, had ethical setbacks. Many immigrants lived in relative squalor, complicated by the fact that there were often deeply held biases against the new arrivals.

Closed Doors

Still, the United States was not always in support of the Open Door Policy. On the West Coast, it was much harder for Asian immigrants to gain access to the country. In fact, for many people, the opposite was true. The United States had a Closed-Door Policy for Asian immigrants, meaning that almost no individuals were permitted to immigrate. Obviously, the policy was racist. However, many undocumented people of Asian descent arrived in the United States regardless.

It wasn't only people of Asian descent who were discriminated against. During various points of American history, Southern Europeans, Jewish people, Latinos, and Africans faced heavy discrimination. A prime example of this was the Immigration Act of 1924, which placed outright bans on the immigration of Arabs and Asians, while limiting other nationalities to percentages based on the numbers currently present in the United States. However, despite these bans, people kept coming to the United States in hope of a better life. Yet without official documentation permitting them to stay, they received relatively little in the way of services geared to protecting vulnerable populations.


The ethical question of allowing unregulated immigration from Europe and heavily limited immigration from Asia was a point of concern as the United States attempted to move away from racist practices of the past. Today, much immigration to the United States is quota-based, meaning that there are limits based on country of origin. This is in contrast to the past, when earlier quota systems were based on the race of the individual in question.

Also, there is a relatively limited number of such visas available, almost entirely decided upon the basis of a random lottery held within each country of origin. Added weight is given for countries that have recently low numbers of people immigrating to the United States. Many of these changes came as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which established the country of origin-based system of immigration to the United States.

Other Factors

Still, after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, other changes went into effect. As well as random spots, effort would be made to reunite families, as well as attract immigrants with special skills with the 1990 Immigration Act. Additionally, the total number of immigrants was limited. As a result, immigration in the United States has changed from an ethical black spot of racial discrimination to one that at some level attempts to be an ethical plan.

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