I have previously pointed out that Tucker Carlson, one of the most prominent public defenders of Donald Trump’s immigration policies, has egregiously distorted evidence in order to make people irrationally afraid of unauthorized immigrants. I have also responded to his criticisms of multiculturalism. But in a recent debate with Cenk Uygur at Politicon, Carlson took a position that he thought so self-evident as to almost be beyond discussion. Asked for his basic thoughts on immigration and the caravan of migrants, he said the following:

This caravan, and the ones that came before, and the 22 million living here illegally, it’s all sort of a species of the same question. I mean, there are many questions and one of them is “How do you help other people?” And a lot of smart people who run NGOs are thinking about that in Washington. And some are doing a good job, others are not. But the main question the U.S. government has to answer is “How do we enforce our laws, voted on democratically by our Congress, and how do we protect our people?”—the people to whom we have, really the only duty that we have. Right? I mean the purpose of the government is to protect you, to help you. And again, I’m a Christian, and I think I’m a person of… decent faith. So I’m always for helping people, but the government’s job is to represent the voters and enforce the laws that they sent their representatives to Washington to pass. And that’s kind of all their job is, actually. So our law says that you need permission to come into this country, and that is the law of every country that is a country. And without that, you’re sort of not a country. You can ask the obvious question, which is “There are an awful lot of poor people around the world. Does everyone have a right to come here and go on Medicaid?” I don’t know. If you think so… let’s talk it through. And tell me why. Where does that obligation come from exactly? Is it written in the Constitution? Is it in the Bible? What exactly are you saying? [… These debates often begin with the other side saying] “If you were a better person you would agree with me.” And that’s a theological debate. But that’s not a policy debate. There isn’t much of a policy debate here. Our laws are as they are and if you want to change them, send representatives to Washington to do it. And maybe we’re about to see that happen. But there’s a massive cost to any government saying “Because of temporary political pressure we’re going to ignore our own laws.” Then why can’t I ignore the law? … I’m not really sure what the debate is here, other than the virtue debate, which is not interesting.

In response, Uygur made a very important point, which is that while FOX and Donald Trump have made it “sound like the caravan is going to come and bust through a gate of some sort,” they’re actually seeking to migrate legally under the protections of asylum law. As Uygur says, “If they wanted to sneak into the country they wouldn’t do it in a giant caravan,” and they’re actually on their way to the U.S. border precisely so they can request legal permission to enter the country. Trump’s position on the caravan is actually the opposite of “following the law,” because Trump believes the caravan should just be turned back and categorically barred. But the U.S. has asylum laws that allow victims of persecution to enter the country lawfully. We have these in part because the nations of the world looked back on the turning away of Jews before and during the Holocaust and realized it was necessary to allow people admission to your country if they might be killed in their own! So in terms of where that obligation “comes from,” it comes from an international treaty called the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the United States agreed to, and in domestic law, it’s codified in the Immigration and Nationality Act. If people are being politically persecuted in their home countries, and they show up here, we have to take them, because when you force people to return to countries where their lives are in danger, they are often murdered. Murder is commonly understood to be a bad thing.

Now, you may object that many of the migrants in the caravan are clearly coming for economic reasons. But first, as Uygur told Carlson, the whole point of doing an interview with the asylum-seekers and not just turning them away is to figure out who has a claim that merits asylum protection under the law. There is an incredibly complicated process for doing this. But granting asylum to people who fear for their lives is a pretty clear legal and moral obligation.

What about people who are just poor and want to come here because they want to give their children good lives? They don’t qualify for asylum protection, and so here we face Carlson’s central point: A government serves its people, not other people, we have laws, those laws must be enforced, there is no obligation for the U.S. government to help people who do not live in the U.S.

The “well, we just have to enforce the law” point is very common. First, I want to note the way an important distinction gets blurred in these discussions: what the law is versus what the law ought to be. Many of the people who say “Well we just want the law enforced, don’t you agree that laws must be enforced?” yet also believe that the law is good and should remain as is. Carlson is of this type: He says that there’s no real debate because the law is the law, but later in the discussion he begins talking about the reason immigration restrictions are good, because you need cultural cohesion and you can’t let in people who don’t fit in or understand your country’s norms. (These arguments are usually very poor, because immigrants to the United States almost always “assimilate” within a generation and the migrants’ children will grow up completely “Americanized.” [I realize there are problematic assumptions in these terms.] The migrants in the caravan probably love the United States more than the vast majority of existing citizens. When the newspapers have talked to them, one said “I miss Buffalo Wild Wings” and another started saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t go to Buffalo Wild Wings and I think the Pledge is stupid. I am certain that nearly every member of that caravan will adopt more of American culture than I and many of my friends have, and we do just fine here.)

So the debate can slide back and forth between a discussion about the “rule of law” and a discussion about what immigration policies we should have. “Should the law be enforced?” “Yes.” “Ok, so you believe in mass deportation.” No, because if that is the law, then I would think the law is abominable!

The rule of law question actually isn’t easy, even though it seems like the simplest one to answer. What should the “enforcement of the law” look like? If we adopt the position that no unauthorized immigrants belong in this country, that would mean deportation by the millions. It would mean a police state. It would mean countless families destroyed, countless people sent to countries they have no connection to. This is why the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that unauthorized immigrants should be able to stay if they meet some qualifications. “Enforce the law” really isn’t simple, actually, because when the absolute enforcement of law to the letter would create a vast human tragedy, you have to think carefully about how to balance your desire to see rules followed with your pragmatic understanding of the world as it actually is.

Another way that seemingly “self-evident” things can turn out not to be self-evident at all: The idea that the United States government has zero moral obligation to people in other countries. It sounds very tempting when you say “Well, a country’s government is there to serve its people, just as the other countries’ governments serve their people.” But we clearly have some moral duties to those in other countries. I have previously written about how, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military often behaved as if any number of Vietnamese deaths were justified to even slightly reduce the risk of one American death. Why? Because we only cared about our people. So even if a lot of civilians died, it didn’t matter, because the only obligation of the U.S. government is to take care of Americans. Treating the people of other countries as morally negligible can lead you to commit horrible atrocities if doing so would serve your own national interest.

The United States government is the means by which the people of the United States carry out their policy preferences. And those preferences should include helping the people of other countries, even if it comes at considerable cost to ourselves! Does it mean that our government owes other people the same obligations that their government has? No, we don’t need to carry their mail or maintain their public parks. But, and it’s strange this needs saying, U.S. policies need to be based on morality, and morality entails a duty to prevent preventable suffering. This is why the Bush Administration introduced PEPFAR, to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, which may well have saved millions of lives. It was quite easy, entailed negligible sacrifices on the part of the United States, and now a large number of people are alive who would otherwise be dead. If you take the view that the U.S. has no obligations to people who do not live in the U.S., even though we could help them a lot if we so chose, you will let many people die who could easily have lived. (Needless to say, despite PEPFAR Bush is still a war criminal.)

If we think about countries as if they were people, it becomes clear why the Carlson philosophy is so indefensible. If I am a person (which I am), and I find myself in possession of vast riches (many of which are purely a matter of luck, or exist because my ancestors stole quite a bit of land), I am morally obligated to relieve the suffering of others. If I say that I have no duties to help anyone other than myself, I am sociopathic, and would be willing to stand by and watch children die whom I know I could have saved.

Countries are not people, but government policy needs to actually follow elementary humane principles. Unfortunately, the implications of those principles are quite radical: As those who happen to have been born into a prosperous land, we have to share with those who have little. “But,” you say, “does that mean full open borders? Does that mean all of the world’s poor should be able to come here?” This same objection is often made when the question is personal morality: If you think wealth is immoral, don’t you have to live like a pauper? It’s not easy to resolve the questions of what we owe to one another. But the fact that drawing a line is difficult doesn’t mean we get to evade responsibility. There are those who believe nothing other than open borders is acceptable. There are those who believe that we should just slightly bump up the number of people we are willing to take in. The debate is important. Either way, I think any moral conclusion we come to is going to come up with “More” as the answer to “How many immigrants should the United States be willing to take in?”

Personally, I mostly just find the whole idea of borders strange. Erecting barriers around pieces of the world, even though the piece that “belongs” to you is only in your possession for arbitrary or illegitimate reasons (again, this is stolen land, as many countries’ land is), strikes me as a difficult practice to defend. Does that mean that the United States should dismantle its borders tomorrow, and be the only country to, in Carlson’s words, not even really be a country? No, it doesn’t, but I do think that the optimal world is clearly one with “free movement.”

So “Well, governments should serve their people and enforce the law” is a very simple way of brushing off an extremely complex moral problem. To what extent should you enforce the law when hardly anybody actually wants it strictly enforced? How do you come up with a practical and humane approach? If the existing laws can’t be justified, don’t we need to make sure that they are changed? What happens when one government serving its people allows another group of people to suffer in preventable ways? There will be disagreement about the answers to the questions, but the Trump/Carlson approach doesn’t actually deal with them. It’s both ignorant and callous, and anyone who holds it should think deeply about whether they really want their country to behave according to an idea that we would find reprehensible in any individual.

If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.