Social Theory and Practice

Volume 43, Issue 2, April 2017

Desiree Lim
Pages 369-396

Selecting Immigrants by Skill
A Case of Wrongful Discrimination?

It has been suggested that states have no right to directly discriminate against would-be immigrants on grounds of race or sex. However, while the discourse on cases of wrongful discrimination has largely focused on discrimination on grounds of gender, race, and sexual orientation, states frequently engage in discrimination of a different kind when it comes to admissions and naturalisation policies. It is assumed that the anti-discrimination principle does not include cases of talent-based discrimination, and that these fall well within the rights of states. I wish to suggest, to the contrary, that selecting immigrants on the basis of talent is a form of wrongful discrimination. First, with reference to Deborah Hellman’s expressive theory of discrimination, I explain what is wrongful about particular forms of state discrimination between would-be migrants. Next, I tackle the issue of immigrant selection on grounds of talent, which I refer to as ‘talent-based selection’. Unlike gender or race-based selection, it is generally not regarded as wrongful discrimination, for the reason that it does not express disrespect in the same way that sexist or racist selection criteria does. I argue that this assumption is mistaken, as talent-based discrimination does involve the expression of disrespect. In the present context, it has the expressive effect of reproducing demeaning stereotypes about low-skilled foreigners. Finally, I anticipate four objections to my conclusion.

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