07/09/2010 12:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Does the Morality of Americans Have to Do With Immigration in America?

If you have ever taken a course on child psychology, you may remember Lawrence Kohlberg's research on the stages of moral development. Kohlberg was a Harvard professor who presented scripted dilemmas to children in different settings to test their moral reasoning. One such dilemma was the story of a woman who was dying of a rare form of cancer. When her husband had no way to afford the high-priced drug that could cure her, he broke into a laboratory and stole it. Kohlberg was not interested in evaluating childrens' conclusions about whether the man's actions were right or wrong, but rather in analyzing the kind of moral reasoning that informed their decisions. In his research he (and others who followed him) found that, as individuals mature, they pass through different levels of moral development. At the most elementary or "pre-conventional" level that is common in young children, an action is judged to be wrong if you will get caught, or right if it serves your interests. At the middle, or "conventional" level, moral reasoning is guided by considerations of "law and order." At this level, the overriding concern is for adherence to the law. The third, and highest level of 'post-conventional' moral reasoning has two stages: first, an understanding of social mutuality and concern for the welfare of others, and secondly, adherence to individual conscience and respect for a universal principle of justice. Kohlberg noted that this third level of reasoning is not achieved by a majority of adults.

Analysis of much of the recent angry rhetoric over "illegal immigration" suggests that many Americans are stuck at the conventional level of moral development, in which the statement "they broke the law" becomes the main criterion for crafting policy responses. If you Google the phrase "what about illegal don't you understand," you will find thousands of adherents to this level of reasoning.

Considering the immigration dilemma at a higher level of moral reasoning doesn't mean that there is one simple, 'right' policy response. However, it does require examining the root causes of undocumented immigration and its consequences through the lens of more universal principles of justice. If we study those root causes, it's easy to see that our own government policies have produced the problem, rather than contempt for the law on the part of those who enter without authorization or who overstay their visas.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, greatly facilitated the free flow of goods and capital across U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, but there was no concomitant reduction of restrictions on the entry of labor. At the same time, there has been a dramatic and increasing need for young workers in the United States, as Americans age and as we attain higher levels of education that make us disdain crucial jobs in many service industries. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is jobs that require only on-the-job training that are increasing most rapidly in the United States. Instead of responding to this need by increasing the allocation of employment visas to young, blue collar workers, we have kept the numbers at paltry levels that make it virtually impossible for millions of willing workers from Mexico, Central America or other countries to enter legally.

Only one percent of all employment-based visas are issued to low skilled workers. In other words, for these individuals, there is no "line" to get into. Instead, our government policies have led to a ritualized game of "Gotcha," in which immigrants are drawn to the U.S. because of the prospect of jobs that have gone unfilled by American workers; but once they cross the border, they are increasingly victimized by public anger and by mean-spirited local ordinances and laws. The newly passed law in Arizona that makes it a crime to be present without a visa or for a legal resident to give a ride to someone known to be undocumented has just raised the stakes in this debate by furthering the game of "Gotcha" at a very low level of moral reasoning.