The Monster in the Closet: Why It Matters that Normative Theorists Fail to Reckon With Immigration Detention

24 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2021

Date Written: February 4, 2021


The literature on the normative ethics and politics of immigration to liberal, democratic States has developed over the last forty years to include an expanding schedule of emerging and pressing issues. Yet, its key philosophers and texts have consistently failed or neglected to reckon with a core facet of State power over outsiders: namely, its self-appointed, awesome powers of indefinite administrative imprisonment of asylum seekers and other migrants. Shorthanded here to immigration detention, this practice consists of incarcerating non-citizens whom the State believes to have transgressed immigration rules (not criminal law). This paper sketches out how this seemingly academic oversight matters not only for the integrity of the body of scholarship but for the future directions in delimiting State control of immigration, imprisonment, and borders. I argue that, on the one hand, immigrant incarceration brings forth a number of potentially irreconcilable paradoxes within normative thinking on State power, immigration, and the good life; on the other, normative theory’s blind spots on detention provide insights into how a self-identified liberal State could come to seed, grow, legalize, and legislate an expansive system of indefinite incarceration predicated on the flimsy premise of non-citizenship, seemingly with little to no moral challenge. I will draw on the case study of the Canadian detention system to illustrate the scope of why detention challenges the arguments animating the immigration admissions debate, particularly as they relate to moral and political claims to territory, ‘partiality’, and border violence.

Keywords: immigration; detention; normative theory; political theory; ethics; morality; citizenship; borders; violence; liberalism; Canada; territory

Suggested Citation

Silverman, Stephanie J., The Monster in the Closet: Why It Matters that Normative Theorists Fail to Reckon With Immigration Detention (February 4, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Stephanie J. Silverman (Contact Author)

Centre for Refugee Studies ( email )

4700 Keele St.
York Lanes
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

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