Tisha RAJENDRA. Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 2017. Paper. 168 pp. Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057.


            This first book of a professor of Christian ethics at Loyola University Chicago, the seeds of which were sown in her doctoral dissertation at Boston College under the direction of David Hollenbach, attempts to answer, on the basis of insights from Christian ethics, two basic questions in the political philosophy of immigration: “What responsibilities do citizens have toward migrants and potential migrants? What is the basis of such responsibilities?” (6).

            Rajendra’s answer to this double question, which she develops in great detail in Chapters 5 and 6, can be succinctly summarized as follows: Given the fact that justice, especially in the legal texts of the Old Testament, consists in fidelity to the demands of one’s relationship with God and with the people with whom one lives, whether fellow citizens or migrants (gerim), the responsibilities of citizens to migrants can only be determined within such specific relationship.

            At first blush Rajendra’s thesis may sound straightforward and uncontroversial; after all, are not our specific responsibilities to others rooted in the particular kinds of relationship we have to them? Anyone schooled in the Confucian five-relationship ethics will have no difficulty in acknowledging this truth. However, when this basic ethical norm is applied to migration and migrants, Rajendra claims that her double question has not been given satisfactory answers. Part of the inadequacy of contemporary theories of migration and migration ethics, Rajendra argues, lies in the fact that inadequate approaches have been adopted and wrong questions have been asked, and therein lies her first major contribution to the discussion of the ethics of migration.  Most if not all migration ethical theories ask what the rights of migrants are, how they can be philosophically justified, and who are duty-bound to protect them. In contrast, Rajendra maintains, the correct question should be: What are the responsibilities of the citizens to the migrants and what is the basis of such responsibilities? To build up her case Rajendra passes in review current theories of migration and migration ethics.

            For those unfamiliar with these Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4 are a welcome boon as they offer a comprehensive and lucid exposition as well as a balanced critique of them. Rajendra discusses the human rights approach and the preferential option for the poor, the two main pillars of Christian ethics of migration, and finds them wanting (Chapter 1). The next chapter evaluates two major theories of migration, namely, agency-dominant and structure-dominant theories, and argues that both of them, each taken by itself, do not provide a full account of why and to which country people choose to migrate. One of the corollaries of Rajendra’s thesis is that ethical theories of migration must be grounded in real-life and accurate narratives of migration and migrants. Chapter 3 challenges the distortive narratives of three migratory movements, namely, guest-worker programs (Germany), colonial migrations (Britain), and foreign investment (Mexico). Chapter 4 expounds three main theories of justice: John Rawl’s contractarian approach, Onora O’Neill’s deontological ethics, and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, and notes that all of them, while illuminating one or another aspect of justice toward migrants, such as the necessity of universal moral norms and the important role of just economic, social and political institutions, fail to see migration as a relational reality in which citizens have specific responsibilities to migrants by virtue of their past and current manifold, complex, and messy entanglements in economic, social and political arenas and in which justice is fulfilled by being responsible to these relationships.

             In the last two chapters Rajendra elaborates her own understanding of such an ethics of migration, first by examining the legal texts of the Old Testament regarding the responsibilities of Jewish citizens to the gerim (Chapter 5) and secondly by expounding her migration “ethics of responsibility” in which justice is “responsibility to relationships (Chapter 6). Such an ethics of migration, Rajendra hastens to note, does not reject any of the approaches to migration and theories of justice discussed above (especially in Chapters 1 and 4) but seeks to bring together their valid insights to answer the practical questions of which responsibilities toward the migrants, who must fulfill them, and how to do so. Because allocation of responsibilities based on relationships, especially ones that have been formed and transformed in highly complex and ever-changing situations, is an extremely risky and uncertain business, Rajendra recommends realism (117-120) and close attention to narratives (120-123). There are no hard-and-fast rules to determine the kinds of responsibilities that a particular citizen (or groups of citizens) has toward a particular migrant (or groups of migrants) in a particular place and at a specific time. In spite of this conundrum, Rajendra makes a helpful attempt at mapping the responsibilities of the citizens to the migrants, in particular undocumented workers, colonial migrants and their descendants, guest workers and their descendants, and migrants due to foreign investments.
            Rajendra’s book is an original and significant contribution to the ethics of migration. Her insistence on responsibilities of citizens to defend and promote the rights of migrants within the complex histories of their relationships imparts concreteness and particularity to other theories of justice. The debit side of such prioritizing of historical contingencies is that it leaves the rights of migrants at the mercy of the vagaries of the discernment of the citizens, especially when such discernment is left to individual citizens. Furthermore, since responsibilities are normally reciprocal, it would have been helpful in the ethics of migration to consider the responsibilities of migrants to citizens. Finally, while the focus of Rajendra’s book is Christian ethics, it is incumbent upon systematic theologians to explore how the basic Christian beliefs can be reformulated from the perspective of migration. These animadversions are no criticism of Rajendra’a work itself, which achieves well its goal and bears all the hallmarks of a mature scholar.