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Volokh Conspiracy

The Injustice of Demanding that Migrants Go Back and "Fix their Own Countries"

Trump's recent bigoted tweet is an opportunity to highlight the flaws of this oft-heard, but weak, argument.


The Statue of Liberty. (NA)

In a widely condemned recent tweet, Donald Trump demanded that four racial-minority Democratic members of Congress "who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe…" stop "loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States… how our government is to be run" and instead  "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Most of the condemnations of the tweet understandably focus on the fact that the four representatives are all citizens of the United States, and three were not even born abroad. Trump is attempting to stigmatize them as somehow un-American merely because they are all non-white and had the temerity to attack his policies.

I have many concerns about these Democrats' positions, particularly their  advocacy of "democratic socialism." One of them has  even made bigoted statements of her own.  But attacking them—or anyone—based on ethnicity or supposed country of origin is rank bigotry at odds with the universal principles for which the United States is supposed to stand. Trump's tweet would be indefensible even if the four congresswomen really were all immigrants from "totally broken… places."

In addition to ethnic and racial prejudice, Trump's statement also channels the common trope that immigrants fleeing poverty and injustice have a duty to instead stay home and "fix their own countries." On this view, instead of coming to America, the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free"  should instead keep right on huddling in their homelands in order to improve conditions there.

Such sentiments are periodically advanced even by people who would never dream of expressing the sort of crude bigotry Trump often indulges in. I addressed the flaws in the "fix their own countries" argument in a November 2018 post, which I think remains relevant now. Here is an excerpt:

[T]he "fix your own country" argument implies that the ancestors of most Americans (and also many Canadians, Australians, and others) were wrong to emigrate. The Russians should have tried to fix the czar and (later) the communists; the Irish should have stayed home and worked to fix the British Empire. Donald Trump's grandfather should have stayed in Bavaria and worked to fix imperial Germany. And so on.

The fact that the "fix your own country" argument implies that the ancestors of most Americans were wrong to come here does not by itself disprove it. We should not automatically assume that every longstanding American practice was necessarily right….

The claim that immigrants fleeing poverty or oppression have a duty to stay home and "fix" their countries is wrong for several reasons. In most cases, these people have little or no responsibility for the injustice and poverty they are fleeing. Russian Jews… were not responsible for the Pale of Settlement and pogroms. Likewise, today's refuges from Venezuela, Syria, and other unjust and corrupt governments generally had no meaningful role in creating the awful conditions there. It is therefore wrong to claim they must risk lifelong privation in order to "fix" the unjust regimes in their home countries. That point applies with extra force in cases where efforts to "fix" the regime are likely to result in imprisonment or death at the hands of the state. We rightly honor brave dissidents who risk life and limb to oppose injustice. But such sacrifices are not morally obligatory, and no blame attaches to those who forego them—especially if they have family members to protect, as well as themselves.

In addition, most migrants have little if any chance of succeeding in "fixing" their home governments, even if they did stay to try to do so. In most such societies, the injustice and oppression is deeply embedded in the political system, and most would-be migrants lack the clout to fix it….

This point is especially strong when it comes to authoritarian states, where ordinary people have little or no influence on government policy. But constraint also applies, though with lesser force, to many dysfunctional countries that are democratic. Even in advanced democracies such as the US and Western Europe, many harmful and unjust government policies persist because of widespread voter ignorance and bias. The same is true (often to a much greater extent) in the corrupt and dysfunctional democratic governments migrants flee from….

The vast majority of potential migrants, however, are neither morally responsible for the injustices in their homelands nor in a position to do much about them. In many cases, they can actually do more to help their compatriots by leaving, earning higher wages abroad, and sending remittances to relatives who remain at home (a major source of income for some poor nations). It is therefore wrong to claim they have a duty to stay.

Perhaps Trump's remark can be construed to mean only that migrants have a duty go home and fix their own countries if they dare to criticize the policies of their new home. But that version of the argument is no better. It implies that your right to criticize the government is  contingent on your ethnicity or place of birth—or, in this case, that of your ancestors.