Reflections on Immigration after Protests in France and New York City Running Out of Money to House Immigrants

I recently read two commentaries in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal that speak to a common, global conundrum: immigration.

The conundrum, as far as I can tell, is who needs to respect whom – the immigrants vis-à-vis their hosts or the hosts vis-à-vis the newcomers from different cultures?  Or both simultaneously?

What do good, civilized, human ethics require?

One commentary discussed the financial burden placed on the taxpayers of New York City to provide free housing and other services to those illegally in the U.S. and living in their city.  The second one, by the noted thinker Bernard-Henry Levi, spoke with passion about the “mad wind” of rage and intolerant destruction which drove the recent “counter-cultural” riots in France.

Antagonisms between normative collectives – religious communities, ethnic identities, races, higher and lower systemic group situations in a society’s structure of power and advantage – seem to have been the norm for humanity for eons.  In-groups and out-groups; my group and your group; your language and my language; my preferences and your preferences in belief, food, dress, behavior.  Which is better, more refined, more “true,” more deserving of respect?

For our 2018 Global Dialogue in St. Petersburg, Russia, I drafted a concept paper on the ethics of immigrants and host nationals.  Five years ago, I proposed:

From Tribe to Citizen: The Ethics of Participation in National Community

The calling of the human person is to community.  No one is an island unto themselves.  Each is part of the main.  Our special destiny, opportunities unlike those given to any other and our individual gifts is and are in relationship with others, from our birth until we leave this life.  Trust and responsibility set us apart as worthy of consideration.  Showing respect for others brings us respect and honor in return.

Our character reveals our values and our courage to live for ourselves and for others in the right proportions and with grace and dignity.  Citizenship in community makes justice triumph over evil.

This is especially true for democracies, societies that depend on the quality of their citizens for their success and prosperity.  George Washington concluded that “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

It is an insight common to all religions that we are called to rise above mean selfishness and act for higher purposes.  We always live by our values – be they good or bad – but it is better for us and for those whose lives we influence that we live by good values.

Sovereign nation states are inhabited by citizens and residents.  Citizens have a legal right to residence and other rights, privileges and benefits under the laws of the sovereign.  Residents either have permission from the sovereign to remain in the territory or they do not.  Immigrants to a nation state either have permission to reside in the territory or they are trespassers.  Immigrants may choose to become citizens under the nationality laws of the nation state or they may choose not to or do not qualify for becoming citizens.

The laws of citizenship and residency do not discuss the ethics of living in a national community. Ethics references how we use our powers and authority with respect to others.  Ethics arise from the moral sense and conditions how we act freely.  The ethics of community within a nation state are not ordered by law, international or domestic, but are habits of the heart for both citizens and residents.

The Ethics of Citizens

Not every citizen shares commonalities of language, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, political views, social status and more attributes ascriptive or achieved, with other citizens.  Some nations are very homogenous.  Others are very pluralistic and multicultural.  But the status of citizen is common to all, regardless of other identifications and personal preferences.

The primary ethical obligation of a citizen is to contribute to civil order by going beyond the letter of the law to build the social capital of a community.  In Christian terms, this reflects love of neighbor with neighbors to include all citizens, to some degree, and to do unto other citizens as we would have them do unto us.

Public power constitutes a civic order for the safety and common good of its members.  The civic order, as a moral order, protects and promotes the integrity, dignity and self-respect of its members in their capacity as citizens and therefore, avoids all measures, oppressive and other, whose tendency is to transform the citizen into a subject.  The state shall protect, give legitimacy to or restore all those principles and institutions which sustain the moral integrity, self-respect and civic identity of the individual citizen and which also serve to inhibit processes of civic estrangement, dissolution of the civic bond and civic disaggregation.  This effort by the civic order itself protects the citizen’s capacity to contribute to the well-being of the civic order.

Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government.  Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed, except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.

Therefore, citizenship is an office of service to the public weal.  The honor which comes from being a citizen lies in fidelity to duty and responsibility.  Entitlements may accrue to individuals for personal enjoyment, but duties are the price paid for membership in the national community. To hold a share of power in the civic order is to assume a status, to have the dignity of positional responsibility above and beyond personal preferences and desires, angers and delights.  As must any agent or other fiduciary, the citizen has an obligation to consider the good of others as a check on each and every personal interest or prejudice.

Accordingly, the first duty of every citizen is to use discourse ethics in the resolution of community difficulties and the promotion of community wellbeing. A citizen must not act from petulance or any other tyrannous instinct.

A citizen should make the following commitments:

I will learn.  I will read and study to know the past and plan the future.  I will find good values and seek to know the fundamental and the important as best I can.  Though I seek conviction, I will be open minded to new learning and experience.

I will reflect and deliberate on what I have learned.  I will not jump to conclusions, be hasty with others and give in to prejudice or emotions.  In this way, I will find where to best use my skills and abilities.

I will tell the truth about what I know.  Integrity and sincerity will be important to me in all my relationships.

I will not hide my ideas and feelings.  I will not be afraid of debate and discussion.  I can influence others with my opinions, just as others have a right to share their ideas and feelings with me.  What we all do together, many times, is more important than what I can do alone. Listening is a valuable skill that I will learn.

I will use my powers wisely.  I will try to leave the world a better place for my having been alive.

I will try hard to make the most of my life.  I am nobody’s fool and nobody’s victim.

I will not be afraid.  I will learn self-control and come to be self-reliant.

I will care about others.  There is already enough hurt in the world.  I will not add more, if I can help it.

I will find happiness not in money, but in doing what is right.  Money is only a convenience.  Doing what is right makes me a real person.

I will be thankful for all the good that I experience and brave in times of difficulty and frustration.  Happiness doesn’t come every day.  Bad things happen more than we want, but there is good to receive and to appreciate as a reminder that our lives are not lost or hopeless. Despair, however, undermines our ability to do good and to be happy.

Thus, a citizen is self-empowered to be a friend.  The office of a friend is most necessary for the well-being of community.  It is the bond that sustains relationships through strife and adversity. The capacity to be a friend provides for the internal moral vindication of each person and thereby sustains, in psychological comfort, each person, as they confront the ups and downs of fortune.  Aristotle considered that friendliness is the most robust form of justice, balancing judgment and grace.  The best friendships bring forth love and trust, which promote the highest quality of community, where simultaneously and reciprocally, individuals are honored for who they are and community efforts thrive.

For the self, forms of friendship which do not impose serious obligations of reciprocity and so are a lower form of office are based on the utility to one of the other as a friend and the pleasure one takes in being with another.  Friendships based on utility and pleasure are more easily dissolved.  Their partnerships are potentially very vulnerable to dissolution, as are friends on Facebook.

Aristotle advised that goodness comes from good people (Nicomachean Ethics, Books 8, 9).  He proposed that friendship is a kind of partnership, one with another, for better or worse.

Friendship is sustained by character.  When a friend’s character changes or the depths of that person’s character are revealed, the office of friendship may terminate.  Aristotle proposed that we each “ought to strain every nerve” to avoid wickedness and try to be a person of good character, “for in that way, one can both be on good terms with oneself and become the friends of somebody else.”

In addition, citizenship requires contributions to the common good, such as:

1. Using wealth to enhance other forms of capital: finance, physical, human, reputational and social.

First, wealth should be used to sustain and improve the institutions that permit the creation of wealth.  Accumulated over time, wealth can influence the future.  Wise use of wealth avoids immediate consumption and invests in the creation of better outcomes for future

2. Balancing the desires of owners for self-satisfaction against society’s need for robust accumulation of new capital in all forms.

Philanthropy is incumbent upon those who possess wealth.  The social function of wealth is to finance a greater good.  Those who are to inherit wealth should be expected to assume the fiduciary responsibilities of stewardship that accompany the possession of wealth.

3. Using wealth to support the creation of social capital.

Social capital – the reality of the social compact incubating successful wealth creation and permitting the actualization of human dignity – is created, over time, by governments and civil society.  From the rule of law to physical infrastructures, from the quality of a society’s moral integrity and transparency of its decision-making to the depth and vitality of its culture, social capital demands investment of time, money, imagination and leadership.  Wealth should pay its fair share in taxes to support public programs enhancing social capital and should invest in the private creation of social capital through philanthropy.

4. Investing one’s wealth in institutions enhancing human capital.

Education and culture can be funded from public budgets on a consumption basis, but wealth should shoulder the principal responsibility in a society of providing permanent endowments for institutions of education and culture.

5. Using private wealth to supplement public expenditures for the social safety net.

Private charity and philanthropy should respond to the health and human services needs of the less fortunate.

Thus, citizenship looks towards assumption of the office of being a good host to those who come to live in the national community.

With respect to non-citizens, the ethic of citizenship are those of a host, reciprocating the good will and respect of a guest who accepts the responsibility of honoring the customs and beliefs of the host family.  The office of a host is to provide hospitality, respect and welcome.

The Ethics of Residents

Residents (including immigrants) are subjects of the sovereignty.  Unlike citizens, they have no role in sovereign decision-making.  But as residents, they share in the fortunes of the national community.  Thus, as recipients of benefits and privileges provided by the government, society and culture, residents assume ethical obligations in return.  These obligations are to assume the office of a friend as much as possible and to be gracious and charitable in the office of a guest.

Resident as a Guest

The status of guest comes with its own special duties of showing goodwill and thanks of honoring the host with appreciation and never imposing on those who have welcomed us into their homes.

Here are some quite ordinary ethical recommendations for guests:

1. Arrive with a gift.

Your hosts have gone out of their way to prepare for your arrival — cleaning the house, making the beds, hiding their naughtiness — so the least you can do is arrive with a gift to show your gratitude.

2. Buy your own groceries or be responsible for your own needs.

When I’m staying with friends or family, I buy my own groceries for two reasons: 1) I’m a picky eater, so it’s unlikely that they’ll have much that I like and 2) it’s rude to eat your guests out of house and home.  Bring your own toiletries.  Make your bed and clean up after yourself.  Keep your bathroom clean: wipe up any ring in the tub, shaving cream residue in the basin, hair on any object or surface or dirt on soap.

3. Conserve linens and towels or be reasonable in what you demand from your hosts.

At home, I use only one towel a week.  When I’m done drying off after a shower, I hang it on the back of the bathroom door so it can dry properly.  When I’m traveling, I do the same.  A good host will provide you with a towel or two, which is plenty, so don’t abuse it.

4. Ask about house rules.

When guests come to my home, I have three rules: 1) don’t get locked up, 2) don’t get locked out and 3) don’t burn the place down.  Otherwise, my guests are free to come and go as they please and make themselves at home.  However, not every host is as lax as I am.  Some don’t want you making a frozen pizza at 3:00 am on a Sunday night, when you’ve just come home from the bar. To avoid offending your hosts, ask about general policies and rules.  Should the door be locked when you leave?  Is it OK to put silverware in the dishwasher?  Would you like me to let the dog out if you’re not home?  Most people have certain ways they like and do things, so it’s best to ask before you step on any toes.

5. Give the host personal space.

While your hosts are happy to see you (hopefully), they don’t want to spend every minute of every day with you.  Respect that.

6. Lend a hand where necessary.

Is your host slaving away in the kitchen preparing a delicious feast?  Ask if he or she needs a hand.  Does the dog need a walk?  Volunteer to take the pooch for a stroll.  Does somebody need to go on a beer run?  Offer your excellent (and sober) driving skills to accomplish the task. Whatever the case, let your guests know that you’re happy to help out where you can.

7. Keep common areas clean.

Mind your Ps and Qs when staying with friends and family.  Whatever you would do in your own home, don’t do it at your hosts’ home.  Put the toilet seat down.  Wash your dishes by hand or put them in the dishwasher.  Make the bed.  Turn out the lights when you leave a room.  There’s nothing worse than following guests around the house, picking up after them.  Your hosts probably won’t say anything to you regarding your messiness or lack of consideration, but you can be sure that you won’t be invited back because of it.

8. Treat the hosts to a nice meal.

If you’re a whiz in the kitchen, prepare your signature dish (and wash the dishes afterward).  If you’re not so hot at culinary art, ask your hosts what their favorite restaurant is and treat them to a nice meal.  This is a time when you can all be at the same place at the same time to catch up. Conflicting schedules considered, this might be the only chance you have.

Here are things a good houseguest should never do:

1. Expect their host’s undivided attention 24/7.

2. Expect their host to be their daily tour guide.

3. Assume that room comes with board.

4. Expect their host to accommodate their picky eating.

Whatever diet you adhere to is your business.  But if you aren’t prepared to eat what’s served, ask where the nearest supermarket is and go pick up the things that you want to eat. A guest who proselytizes about “their” diet is rarely attractive.

5. Open drawers to find things or start helping themselves to food in the pantry without asking first.

Some hosts have a “make yourself at home” attitude.  But think twice before you start poking around in the medicine cabinet, looking for the aspirin.  Respect your host’s privacy.  And do not use your host’s phone, computer or any other equipment without asking, says the Emily Post Institute.

6. Hog the shower when your host needs to leave for work.

Be proactive and ask about the best time to use the bathroom for showering.  It’s a small thing, but it ranks high on the stress-o-meter.

7. Ignore basic common sense.

We all do things differently and as a guest, the rules you should be following are those of your host.  If you are given a key, don’t forget to use it.  Lock the door when you leave.  Don’t make a lot of noise when you get home and if your host is asleep, maybe heating up smelly leftovers at 2:00 am isn’t such a great idea.  Ask before you assume where the fragile wine glasses go in the dishwasher and yes, you probably should use your towels more than once.

Oh, and practice the rule made popular by Benjamin Franklin: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”  Don’t push your expiration date.

Resident as Friend

The ethics of friendship, noted above for citizens, are not limited to those who already have citizenship.  Residents are participants in the national community.  They too, therefore, should carry out the office of friend towards citizens and others alike.

Resident as Prospective Citizen

Some residents intend to become citizens and thus assume the duties of citizenship.  They may prepare for enjoyment of this status with its privileges and obligations by incorporating into their behaviors the traits of good citizens, as noted above.

Immigrant as Prospective Citizens, Friends and Guests

Immigrants – refugee, asylum seeker, worker, student, retiree, etc. – become residents of a nation state with the intention of making a life as part of that community.  As such, they have the status of prospective citizen, learning how to assume the privileges and obligations of citizenship and the status of friend, obligated to perform the office of friend in their new homeland.

In gratitude for receiving permission to become a resident and then, perhaps, a citizen, immigrants should be particularly alert to being a gracious guest.


These ethical standards for the offices of citizen, friend and guest can be placed in the context of great wisdom traditions.  They invoke the principles of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity of Catholic social teachings.  Under Protestant social teachings, they stand on the moral goodness of finding a vocation for self to sustain God’s created realm of common grace.  They embody the paramitas of Buddhist teachings: generosity, proper conduct, renunciation, insightful wisdom, effort, forbearance, truthfulness, resolution, goodwill, equanimity.  They reflect Qur’anic guidance to make of yourselves a community that seeks righteousness and enjoins justice and to follow the counsels of only those who enjoin charity, kindness and peace among men.  These ethical standards fully comply with the wisdom of Confucius that “reciprocity” is an ideal which will serve us all life long and the commitment of Mencius to only guide us towards humanness and mutual engagement.  The relationships of citizen, friend and guest embody the Japanese ethic of kyoseior symbiosis.

Participants at the Global Dialogue then drafted a statement on comity between immigrants and host nationals.  This statement is still quite applicable to the contradictions facing many in the U.S., France and other countries.  You may find the statement here.