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Think of the (Nearby) Children

Summary:
Social Justice, Current Events People of good conscience are outraged by the forced separation of immigrant parents and children at the U.S border. Comparisons to Japanese internment and even the policies of the Nazis abound. I agree: it’s terrible. But the widespread outrage is also a symptom of what Lant Pritchett calls “moral perfectionism based on proximity.” According to this idea: …[P]roximity or physical presence in the same political jurisdiction is all that matters for moral obligations. As long as a specific Haitian is suffering while physically in Haiti, the moral obligation of the United States is nothing, or next to nothing. If that same Haitian manages to arrive on the soil of the

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Social Justice, Current Events

People of good conscience are outraged by the forced separation of immigrant parents and children at the U.S border. Comparisons to Japanese internment and even the policies of the Nazis abound.

I agree: it’s terrible. But the widespread outrage is also a symptom of what Lant Pritchett calls “moral perfectionism based on proximity.” According to this idea:

…[P]roximity or physical presence in the same political jurisdiction is all that matters for moral obligations. As long as a specific Haitian is suffering while physically in Haiti, the moral obligation of the United States is nothing, or next to nothing. If that same Haitian manages to arrive on the soil of the United States, the moral obligation to that specific person increases almost infinitely.

Proximity fetishism means that we ignore the suffering of distant others. More strikingly, it also means that we ignore the secondary effects of our government’s policies as long as those effects are felt abroad, out of sight and out of mind.

Why is this point relevant? People object to a policy of family separation because it’s bad for migrant parents and especially the children and this is happening on U.S. soil. But guess what else is bad for migrant parents and children? Enforcing strict immigration restrictions. Yet we can safely ignore these harms because they’re not happening nearby.

Here’s an example. Although it’s hard to find reliable estimates, hundreds and perhaps thousands of children and adolescents have likely died while trying to cross through Central America and Mexico on their way to the United States. Many of them are fleeing violence and gang recruitment in Honduras and other countries and others want to reunite with their parents in the United States. The plight of these children was captured in the book Enrique’s Journey by the journalist Sonia Nazario. From Nazario’s book:

[These children] are cold, hungry, and helpless. They are hunted like animals by corrupt police, bandits, and gang members deported from the United States. A University of Houston study found that most are robbed, beaten, or raped, usually several times. Some are killed.

They set out with little or no money. Thousands, shelter workers say, make their way through Mexico clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains. Since the 1990s, Mexico and the United States have tried to thwart them. To evade Mexican police and immigration authorities, the children jump onto and off of the moving train cars. Sometimes they fall, and the wheels tear them apart.

You might argue that there’s a moral difference between the suffering of children in Central America and children separated from their parents by the United States government. After all, the U.S. government is causally responsible for the suffering of migrant children placed in detention and foster care. But a moment’s reflection reveals that the same holds true for migrant children abroad—it’s just that the causal chain is longer and less obvious. If the U.S. government let children from Honduras immigrate legally, they wouldn’t be swimming across the Rio Grande or riding on the tops of freight trains.

I’m glad that people are outraged by the immigration policies of the U.S. government. But I invite these people to consistently apply their outrage to policies that harm children who are out of sight and out of mind.

Think of the (Nearby) Children

A Central American youth rides a freight train through Mexico toward the United States. Each year, thousands of children cling to the tops and sides of trains as they journey north in search of a parent. Some say they need to find out whether their mothers still love them. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

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