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Ethics in Public Service: The Case of Migrant Children

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
July 6, 2018

On our televisions, on our Twitter feeds and even in our everyday conversations, we hear the stories of migrant children who have been separated from their parents after crossing the United States’ southern border. We see images of them in detention centers and hear allegations of abuse. Some feel that this is acceptable, while others are demanding change. Some feel powerless as we wonder what, if anything, we can do to help.

We’ve seen debates play out over how the issue should be addressed and, as of June 27, a federal judge has ordered immigration officials to reunite nearly all migrant children under five years old with their parents within 14 days, and to reunite older children with their parents within 30 days. Despite this order, there is uncertainty of what the future holds for these children, their families and others who may be in a similar position in the future.

This issue raises questions of how we view the law from a moral and ethical standpoint, and what actions those in public service can take if the policies set forth do not seem just. While in this context the focus is on migrants, the question can be applied to other policies that may be in conflict with our personal moral code.

Some key questions that arise include – How does one decide what is “right?” Is it what the law says? It is what our personal moral code tells us? What do we do when the two conflict – when a law or policy that we are told to follow or enforce does not seem to be moral or ethical?

One of my favorite public administration books is David Farmer’s Public administration in perspective: Theory and practice through multiple lenses. No policy issue has only one side, and the frameworks presented in this book allow the reader to gain a clearer understanding of multifaceted issues and to consider things from different points of view. In one chapter, Farmer shows us public administration through an ethical lens, and describes ethics as a guideline for how people “ought” to act, and what people “should” do. Put simply, he claims that ethics is about doing the right thing and making recommendations and decisions that are in line with the morals and values of a society.

Another book that I love is Richard Box’s Making a difference: Progressive values in public administration. Here, Box describes policies that work to limit inequality and inequity as “progressive values,” as opposed to “regressive values” in which inequity and inequality are more prevalent. Progressive values, Box argues, are the values that will most contribute to societal growth and, as the name implies, societal progress.

In the case of migrant children and their parents, we need to consider what are the morals and values of our society, and how we can use these morals and values to address the migration issue. What is important to us, and how will we treat those in need of help, or those who may be seen as an “other,” moving forward? Will our policies be inclusive or exclusive? Will we primarily uphold progressive or regressive values?

When the stories of children being separated from their parents came to light, calls for change were immediate as the separation policy was called “cruel,” “unjust,” “immoral,” and even a “humanitarian crisis.” Referring back to Farmer, advocates used an ethical lens to address the issue as they argued that the action of separation did not reflect American values. This gives us an example of how and when we can ask if our current laws and policies (in this case, those laws that led to the separation of migrant children from their parents) are truly reflective of the country we want to live in and of what we believe our values should be. If laws do not currently reflect what we think we should be doing, then we should call for change. The change may not be immediate, but we can make it happen.

We must have laws, of that there is no question, and we must have processes in place to enforce those laws. But we also must have laws that are ethical, and that allow those in the public sector to do the work that “should” be done. As public servants it’s our responsibility to ask questions, to be reflective, and to think critically about the policies we create and uphold. We must make sure that the work we’re doing will allow us to progress as a society, not only economically and technologically, but also ethically and morally. I’d even argue that history will judge us more by our ethical progress (or lack thereof) than by our economic and/or technological progress.

We can create laws that are ethical and moral and just. We can work for change when needed. We can be welcoming. We can be kind.

That is who we should be as a country. That is what we should stand for. That is what will make us great.


Author: Brittany Keegan is the Research Coordinator at VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy while she completes her Ph.D. dissertation, which examines the effectiveness and responsiveness of nonprofit organizations in promoting the socioeconomic integration of refugees. She also serves as a volunteer, employee, consultant, and board member for nonprofits in Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Twitter handle: @Brit_Keegan

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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