Introducing Students to Legality vs Morality Through the Lens of Immigration


Conversations about immigration have been prominent in the news again recently, and for good reason. On the campaign trail, and during his first days in office, President Biden promised a shift in immigration policy from his predecessor. Now, the Biden administration is facing criticism from both the left and right for the handling of a recent surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border. Progressives are unhappy with the sub-par conditions at detention centers and slow processing times, while conservatives are making age-old arguments about immigrants as a danger to the economic and social prosperity of white Americans. The debate over how to discuss immigration is not dissipating anytime soon, so it is important that students are able to develop a lens through which to examine this difficult conversation. 

Legal vs Moral

One possible lens is the distinction between legality and morality. An action or legislation can be both legal and moral, but what is legal is not always moral. Slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and the removal of Native Americans from ancestral lands were all legal, but no one would argue that they were moral. Likewise, actions that people would describe as morally right are not always legal. Many would argue that removing a child from an abusive home would be the morally correct thing to do, even if it would legally be considered kidnapping in most states. This conflict between morality and legality can be found throughout the conversation around immigration. Advocates often make an argument that it is morally necessary to allow those fleeing persecution and violence, children, and other vulnerable groups to seek asylum in the United States and that immigration laws should reflect that. Others want stricter laws designed to keep more people from entering the country. 

Teaching Legality vs Morality in the Immigration Debate: 

  1. Start with a Turn & Talk: Turn to the students around you and discuss the following questions: What are some actions that are illegal, but you would not consider immoral? What are some laws, current or historical, that you would consider immoral? Are there any actions that you consider moral that are illegal? 
  2. Watch this video on the concept of Legal vs Moral. 
  3. After you watch: introduce some common arguments made about immigration policy. Some resources are available here: 
    1. Teaching About the Immigration Debate 
  4. Discussion Questions: 
    1. How are the concepts of legality and morality related to the immigration debate? 
    2. What do you think a moral immigration policy would like? 
    3. How do you think legal categories like “asylum seeker,” “refugee,” “undocumented,” and “unaccompanied minor” affects people’s view of the morality of immigration? 
  5. Activity Ideas:
    1. Have students write letters to their senators or congress people suggesting ways that the immigration system of the US could be made more moral. Or, write to a state or local elected official suggesting ways that the state or city could be more welcoming to its immigrant population. Here is a helpful template for a letter to an elected official. 
    2. Choose one of the following acts or laws that has defined the history of immigration policy in the US: 1790 Naturalization Act, The Alien and Sedition Acts, The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act Of 1924 (Also Known As 1924 National Origins Quota Act Or Johnson-reed Act). More options available here. Students should conduct independent research and prepare a short presentation for the class on the specifics of the law, what groups supported/advocated for its passage, if it was ever repealed or how it affected other immigration laws that came after it. Then, place it in the context of the legal v moral discussion. Knowing that the history of immigration policy in the US is based on several laws that most would judge to be immoral, how can we correct past wrongdoings and create an immigration system based on morality? 
  6. If you want to dive deeper into the concepts of legality and morality, here is a more detailed lesson plan and worksheet


Immigration can be a difficult topic to discuss, particularly as it relates to policy and politics in the United States. However, because those policies and politics affect the lives of millions of people, it’s a topic that speaks to more than just laws, but the moral character behind them. The distinction between legality and morality connects to a variety of issues past and present and it is critical for students to understand that all that is “legal” is not “moral”.