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Buddhistdoor View: Navigating Immigration through Ethical Lenses


This year, Ke Huy Quan won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. But his journey to the Oscars started far from Hollywood, far from the United States. Quan was born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1971. His family fled the country in 1978 after the Communist Party of Vietnam consolidated power across a reunited country.

“My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp. And somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” Quan said when he accepted the award. “They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This is the American dream.” (Forbes)

At the same ceremony, Everything Everywhere All at Once producer Jonathan Wang dedicated the Oscar for Best Picture to his immigrant father, saying, “This is for my dad, who, like so many immigrant parents, died young.” (Forbes)

US Vice President Kamala Harris is the daughter of immigrants, with a mother from India and a father from Jamaica. In England, the current Conservative Party leaders, former home secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak both come from parents of Indian heritage who immigrated to Britain.

While these individuals and countless others represent faces of immigration benefiting the two countries, many immigrants live difficult lives, toiling in manual labor, facing systemic exploitation and cultural barriers in their new homes. And for some in politics, the term immigrant is often synonymous with words like thug or gang. They are seen as violent or dangerous and thus must be repelled or controlled.


As we have seen in these two countries in recent years, schemes to do just this—repel or control would-be immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers—are being prioritized. Britain has been working on a controversial plan to remove asylum seekers by sending them to Rwanda while their asylum claims are processed. Sunak has touted his support for legal immigration, but states that immigration is too high in Britain today and that illegal immigration must be stopped.

In the US, President Joe Biden has pivoted toward “drastic and permanent restrictions on asylum—including an extraordinary authority first invoked by former president Donald Trump to summarily expel migrants during spikes in illegal crossings—in order to convince congressional Republicans to support more military aid to Ukraine.” (CBS News) This, after campaigning on widespread reforms aimed at allowing more immigrants into the country while offering a path to legal status for those already in the country by illegal means.

According to the American Immigration Council, after his first year in office, Biden’s “administration continues some of the most destructive immigration policies that he denounced on the campaign trail, while also dealing with persistent issues that worsened under his predecessor.” (American Immigration Council)

The debates in both of these countries have brought to the forefront questions not only about democratic norms but also about the ethical considerations tied to immigration policies. Amid the political maneuvering, it’s pertinent to explore this matter through the lens of Buddhist values and ethical teachings.

Central to Buddhism are ethical tenets emphasizing compassion, empathy, and respect for all beings. The teachings encourage individuals to act with kindness and to alleviate suffering, regardless of cultural, ethnic, or social background. Therefore, when approaching matters of immigration, the fundamental Buddhist principle of maitri, or loving-kindness, can become a guiding light.

Immigration policies rooted in loving-kindness ought to prioritize humanitarian concerns, ensuring the safety and well-being of individuals seeking refuge. It requires a compassionate assessment of their needs, rights, and dignity, aligning with global humanitarian obligations. In recent years, Britain has cut many ties with its European neighbors. Immigration offers an opportunity to re-build bonds. European countries could work together to re-settle immigrants in places where they will best thrive and add to the existing communities, building a balanced and harmonious society.

Buddhism advocates for promoting restraint in actions and decisions that may lead to conflict or harm—such as flying vulnerable people to Rwanda, where they would likely be denied asylum and sent back to their home countries. The UK’s Supreme Court has noted that this violates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which Britain is a signatory. By sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, British politicians avoid taking responsibility for the people who have come to their shores seeking help. This fails to uphold the human welfare and honor the inherent dignity of those individuals.

The situation in the US is not much better. As journalist Andrew Prokop writes of current negotiations between Biden and congressional Republicans:

Cutting an immigration restriction deal would be a major shift for the “in this house, we believe no human is illegal” party. It would sink the hopes of many of the millions of people coming to the US to seek a better life for themselves and their families, often braving a treacherous journey. And it would cause immense controversy among progressives and activists on the left.


The current impasse in immigration debates necessitates bold leadership toward a collective approach grounded in empathy, wisdom, and understanding, hallmarks of Buddhist principles. Policymakers and citizens alike must work to transcend ideological barriers and approach immigration issues with a compassionate heart and a commitment to alleviating the suffering of fellow beings.

While incorporating Buddhist values into the intricate political landscape remains challenging, the essence of compassion, empathy, and understanding is crucial in navigating the immigration discourse. Integrating these ethical principles can foster a more humane and inclusive approach, resonating with the core values of not only Buddhism, but of all major religions and secular ethical systems and offering a path towards resolving the complexities surrounding immigration.

These policies affect not only those who are attempting to come to each country, but also those already on the soil. By emphasizing the humanity of those struggling, political leaders can remind citizens of their own humanity. Just as the Mauryan emperor Ashoka set out rock edicts across his kingdom extolling good behavior, current political leaders can offer clear moral actions for their people. One of those edicts reads:

Thinking: How can the welfare and happiness of the people be secured? I give attention to my relatives, to those dwelling near and those dwelling far, so I can lead them to happiness and then I act accordingly. I do the same for all groups. I have honored all religions with various honors. 

(Access to Insight)

In another edict, Ashoka proclaims:

Along roads I have had banyan trees planted so that they can give shade to animals and men, and I have had mango groves planted. At intervals of eight krosas, I have had wells dug, rest-houses built, and in various places, I have had watering-places made for the use of animals and men. But these are but minor achievements. Such things to make the people happy have been done by former kings. I have done these things for this purpose, that the people might practice the Dhamma.

(Access to Insight)

Can contemporary leaders at the helm of countries soaked in wealth offer the same sentiments today? Can citizens of these and other wealthy countries work toward better conditions for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers? Can we, together, offer shelter, clean water, and food to those in need so that we, together, may all live up to our own highest potentials?

See more

The Most Inspiring Immigration Stories Of 2023 (Forbes)
Washington’s center of gravity on immigration has shifted to the right. Can the parties make a deal? (Associated Press)
A big moment for elusive immigration reform (The Washington Post)
Why the Tories’ hardline immigration policies won’t win over UK voters (The Guardian)
Trump’s Immigration Plan Is a New Level of Extreme. It Also Gives Biden an Opportunity to Do Better. (Mother Jones)
What is the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda? (BBC News)
One Year In: The Biden Administration’s Promises on Immigration Remain Unfulfilled (American Immigration Council)
Why Biden may give in to Republican demands on immigration (Vox)
The Edicts of King Asoka (Access to Insight)

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Buddhistdoor View: Beyond Boundaries, Beyond Fear – Responding to a Rise in Hate
Buddhistdoor View: We Are All Seeking Refuge
Why Fold Paper Cranes? Japanese American Buddhists and Today’s Migrant Crisis
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