Holy Everything: In immigration, restorative justice is more effective than retribution

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The United States began enacting more restrictive immigration policies beginning in 1917. Up until then, the borders were primarily open and most people who wanted to live here could live here. Relocating to the United States is no longer a process with minimal restrictions. It’s now extremely difficult to become a permanent resident of the United States.

For those who take the risk to relocate to this country without proper permissions and documentation, there are now serious consequences. In early May, the current administration began enforcing what they refer to as a "zero-tolerance policy" toward individuals who attempt to illegally cross a US border. Individuals who do so are immediately apprehended and taken into federal custody while awaiting sentencing. As of the writing of this column, parents are being separated from children in the process.

Rather than make quick judgments on how national immigration policies are currently being enforced (whether it is fair/unfair/good/bad/necessary/unnecessary), the framework of restorative justice provides important guidance to first consider.

Restorative justice is a different approach than retributive justice, and its principles can be applied in schools, workplaces and throughout the criminal justice system. "Zero-tolerance" is a retributive approach. It is focused on punishment as the most effective way to deter unwanted behavior. But justice can work in a lot of different ways, and retribution is not the only option. It is often not the most effective option either.

In the retributive model of justice, the offender is accountable to authorities/the state/the country. In the restorative justice model, the offender is accountable to victims and wider community.


Retributive justice asks: 1) What law was broken? 2) Who broke that law? And 3) How do we appropriately punish them? Restorative justice asks: 1) What harm was done and to whom? 2) What needs have arisen based on that harm? And 3) Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?

These two models of justice ask fundamentally different kinds of questions and make use of different approaches to punishment and rehabilitation.

Pondering the restorative justice-oriented questions raises up integral considerations as we explore the issue of illegal immigration (and the related situation of parents being separated from their children). To whom is harm being done? What new needs are being created by the punishments being extended? As Americans who have long benefited from a global economy that disadvantages many countries of the global south, do we have any obligations to advocate for a different way of responding to the people who are attempting to relocate to the United States?

In his 2013 book "Religious Ethics and Migration," Professor Ilsup Ahn of North Park University writes, "The application of restorative justice to the case of illegal immigration is possible when we begin to see that many undocumented migrants are mostly helpless victims of structural and systemic injustices of the global economy to which the hosting citizens are also directly or indirectly related beneficiaries."

In that passage, Ahn is embracing a restorative justice approach. He’s inviting those forming opinions on the topic of illegal immigration to step back and put the issue into a wider context. Who are the real victims? Who are the real offenders? Who is the wider community? What may it mean for us to be beneficiaries of a hypercapitalistic, global economy that disadvantages entire nations?

The framework of restorative justice provides us with valuable questions and priorities to consider as we discern the best approach to illegal immigration. Rather than hasty judgments and self-righteous moralisms (which are happening on all sides of this debate), let’s use the tools we have to find and implement a better way.

Related Topics: POLICY
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