Weekly OBAG roundup 28 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

General points related to migration and opinions about migration

Specific current and historical situations

Weekly OBAG roundup 27 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Posts about Nathan Smith’s draft paper on open borders

  • Post by Nathan Smith, August 18, 2014, about what he’d like people to take away from his draft paper on the global economic impact of open borders. 2 likes, 5 comments.

General points related to migration and opinions about migration

Specific current and historical situations

Weekly OBAG roundup 26 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Posts related to Nathan Smith’s draft paper on the global economic impact of open borders

General points related to migration and public opinion on migration

Specific current and historical situations


My Draft Paper: A Bit of Elucidation in Q&A Format

Post by Nathan Smith

The draft of my paper “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders” already feels a bit obsolete after some great real-time peer review and the rethinking it has been provoking me to do. Sometime soon (I hope) I’ll do a rewrite, but it’s already reshaped my thinking about what a world of open borders is likely to look like. I thought a Q&A format might be a good way to explain my methods, highlight some key predictions, and give voice to some of the skepticism readers are likely to feel, responding to it with a mix of rebuttal and concession. “Q” represents my impression of an intrigued, but sometimes confused or skeptical, reader. “A” is me in my role as author of the paper.

Q: Does your paper confirm the well-known claim that open borders would “double world GDP?”

A: Basically, yes. “Double world GDP” was always a kind of very rough midpoint of disparate projections. I present two scenarios, with Scenario 1 predicting an 80% increase in world GDP, and Scenario 2 predicting a 69% increase in world GDP. That’s less than doubling, but it’s in the ballpark.

Q: How many people would migrate?

A: Very many. Scenario 1 predicts well over 5 billion, Scenario 2, a little over 3 billion. This is one of the respects in which I think Scenario 2 is more realistic. By this account, international mobility under open borders would actually be similar to current levels of mobility among US states. That might sound odd, since, policy aside, the cultural and linguistic barriers to international migration are obviously much larger than for migration among US states. But the economic incentives for international migration are also larger. Wages and the general level of economic development differ far more among nations than across US states.

Q: Would open borders end world poverty?

A: That’s a little complicated because “poverty” is not well-defined. Have we ended poverty in the USA? Probably almost any American would say no. A development economist might be tempted to say yes, because even Americans below the “poverty line” tend to have plenty to eat, electricity, shoes, indoor plumbing, and all sorts of other things that would be luxuries in sub-Saharan Africa. Granted, people in homeless shelters may not have even that, but (a) they’re a tiny proportion of the population, and (b) since other factors like mental illness or substance abuse, or mere lifestyle choice, often account for homelessness, it’s not clear that “poverty” is the right diagnosis of the problem. Still, it would be too odd to claim that poverty has been eliminated in rich countries, and the lesson one learns in being forced to concede that is that poverty isn’t just a matter of not having enough money or material resources. It’s partly a matter of relative living standards, of social status, of character and mentality.Refugee in Uganda who repairs cellphonesSo, I would not really want to claim that open borders would end poverty. I would almost want to say it would eliminate “world poverty” but not “poverty” because when we say “world poverty” we mean something more extreme than when we say “poverty”… but that seems like verbal hair-splitting. Let’s say that open borders seems likely to eliminate, or at least to render rare to the point of negligible, the kind of extreme poverty that development economists usually have in mind when they talk about poverty, e.g., in Paul Collier’s book The Bottom BillionUnder my “Scenario 2,” the living standards of unskilled workers would converge to 44% of the current US level. If by “poverty” we mean $1/day or $2/day, that’s pretty much the end of world poverty.

Q: What’s the deal with “sigma?” Does the model really assume that unskilled workers have to be paid 1,000 times more to live in a big metropolis, compared to a small village? Is that plausible?

Sometimes economists have to use unrealistic assumptions to make a model work. Milton Friedman argued that the value of an economic theory depends on the accuracy of its predictions and, in effect, that it doesn’t matter how unrealistic one’s assumptions are. Someone pointed out (I can’t find the citation) that by that standard, “giants paint the sky blue every morning” is a valid theory, because its prediction– that the sky turns blue in the morning– is true, and the falsity of the assumption that giants are painting it is irrelevant. So, Friedman can’t be quite right… yet the idea of “market equilibrium” does seem to help economists understand the world, even if it’s never quite a true statement to say “this market is in equilibrium.”

At present, I need the unrealistic assumption of a high “sigma” in order to avoid imputing highly compressed distributions of local TFP to settlements in rich countries. Highly compressed distributions of local TFP within countries, mean small overlaps of local TFP distributions across countries, leading to extremely high total migration under open borders. By making “sigma” more realistic, I would make the model’s other predictions wildly unrealistic. Doesn’t that show that there’s something wrong with the model? Well, yes… but, what’s the alternative? Build a better model? Easier said than done. Just guess, without a model. No thanks, I prefer a flawed model (used with good judgment) to mere verbal hand-waving.

That said, I’m working on changes that will hopefully eliminate the need for an implausibly high “sigma.” Currently, the model has two extreme assumptions about how population density affects the cost of living. On the one hand, the elasticity of the raw wage with respect to settlement size (i.e., sigma) is 0.6. On the other hand, the elasticity of the human capital premium with respect to settlement size is zero. These assumptions are unrealistic in opposite directions, and may even cancel each other out in some respects, but it would be better if both the raw wage and the human capital premium were higher in cities. The elasticity of the human capital premium with respect to settlement size probably should be lower than the elasticity of the raw wage, since a lot of what cities have to offer, over and above what the countryside can, is of a luxury character (e.g., fancy restaurants) and/or more enjoyable to people with high human capital (e.g., museums). But it makes sense that lawyers and doctors should want to spend some of their extra earnings on backyards, not just on manufactured goods or foreign vacations or fine wines.

The question is: will the math still work? It’s almost impossible for laymen to understand this aspect of the alchemy of economic modeling. A non-economist, or even a well-trained economist, will suggest a plausible modification, seemingly simple and realistic, and the modeler stubbornly refuses to incorporate it. Little does the friendly critic know that his tweak breaks the solvability of the model. The difference between being able to solve for equilibrium, and not being able to, is like the difference between gliding along a bike path and hacking one’s way through the forest. Solvable means you can derive nice elasticities, and see how your variables and parameters are affecting your results. Not solvable means exorbitant computations to check any tweak of a parameter or a variable, and causation is still opaque.

But, I’ve started to work through this, and I think the math will work. So, in the next version of this paper, I may be able to dispense with the need for a high “sigma,” and the weird assumption about unskilled workers earning 1,000 times more in the big city than in the village. If not, I’m not above publishing a model that has a few giants painting the sky blue, if it enables me to perform mighty feats of plausible extrapolation.

Q: What’s the deal with these “new settler societies?” Are they just data artifacts?

A: “Scenario 1″ makes some odd predictions to which I give the appealing name “new settler societies.” Thus, East Timor ends up with 478 million people (from just over 1 million), Botswana with 212 million (from a little over 2 million), and Swaziland with 138 million (from a little over 1 million). Under “Scenario 2,” the phenomenon is much less dramatic, but it’s still there. East Timor’s population soars to 43 million, Botswana’s to 36 million, and Swaziland’s to 35 million. I classify Qatar differently, but it would also see a surge in population, to 391 million.

Doubtless, these results are partly artifactual, and specifically, they reflect anomalously high “TFP” that is really just natural resource extraction, not extensible over a greatly increased population. I need better ways to quantify natural resource extraction and subtract it from GDP. (Currently, I have patchy data about oil exports, which I deduct from GDP, but I need a more refined and comprehensive approach.) It’s possible that if I had better data on non-natural-resource-extraction GDP, the “new settler societies” would disappear. Then again, a lot of resource-rich places didn’t show anomalously high TFP.Young European immigrants in early 20th c. USMy tentative guess is that the specific “new settler societies” that show up in my predictions are largely artifactual, but that there would be such a phenomenon as new settler societies under open borders. In certain places, a happy combination of natural and political circumstances would give rise to a fashionable migrant mecca, and a cosmopolitan settler community, self-selected to prefer the kind of society chance and circumstance had thrown up, would reinforce it. A virtuous cycle would ensue, and soon, some spot hardly anyone has heard of would be an admired and thriving city, with suburbs spreading out and skyscrapers surging up. And without claiming the site is specially probable, I see no harm in imagining the place to be East Timor, with lots of coastline, a tropical climate, and mountains. Why shouldn’t a flood of Chinese and Indians settle there, and found a string of Singapores?

Q: And meanwhile, there would be quite a few “ghost nations?” Sounds spooky.

Yes, it sort of does. This is one of the predictions of Scenario 1 that goes away in Scenario 2. Still, it has a certain logic to it. Why would anyone live in a place like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Burma, unless they had to? According to Scenario 1, almost no one would. There would be a nearly universal exodus, leaving behind only a few half-mad beggars wandering among the deserted shantytowns.

According to Scenario 2, there are no ghost nations. The worst-off places would see a major exodus, but at some point they would be “rescued” by their diasporas. I think this is more likely. Large diasporas could undermine bad regimes and foster better ones. Some would return with skills and/or savings, start businesses, run for office, teach school. Migration would plug these countries in to world civilization, and they would change.

Q: But anyway, wouldn’t the governments of these countries restrict emigration, if they were on their way to becoming ghost nations?

Maybe, but the game is to predict what would happen if migration restrictions were abolished. So that’s ruled out by assumption.

Q: What’s the deal with “Scenario 1″ and “Scenario 2?”

Scenario 1 applies the model in a straightforward and literal way. The result is that the tail of TFP ends up wagging the dog of global migration. TFP, or “total factor productivity,” is a kind of residual or “pure place premium.” TFP is the differences in GDP per capita that can’t be explained by other systematically observable and quantifiable variables. Now, I actually argue that “factor endowments” can do most of the work in explaining GDP per capita, leaving a relatively small explanatory burden for TFP. I see the wealth of nations as arising mostly from (a) large international differences in average human capital and (b) substantial country risk premia affecting the risk of investment capital, with TFP varying across countries much less than average human capital. Still, under open borders, because everything else is mobile, a little bit of TFP can move a lot of people. Hence the new settler societies mentioned above.

For Scenario 2, I (a) assume that open borders promotes human capital development, with the average native of each country closing 20% of the human capital gap with the US; (b) assume that open borders facilitates international capital flows, cutting in half the risk premia faced by many countries; and (c) adjust TFP downward in receiving countries, so that it shifts in the direction of the TFP of source countries, and adjust TFP upward in sending countries, so that it shifts in the direction of the destination countries. Migrants affect TFP both where they come from, and where they go to, albeit with one-fifth the weight of non-migrants in each case, reflecting the greater influence on institutions of those who stay put. All these modifications are very plausible qualitatively, but theory and evidence don’t pin down how they should be quantitatively implemented. Still, for the moment, Scenario 2 represents my “best guess” about what a world with open borders would “really” look like, partly just because the TFP adjustment mechanism reduces the probably distorting effect of apparent high TFP outliers.

I could generate many more of these “scenarios.”  Scenario 1 is to some extent unique, representing “the” result of global market clearing in the labor market, albeit I had some discretion in how to describe the status quo. But for Scenario 2, I had plenty of room to choose the rules differently. In future drafts, I plan to have more “robustness checks” showing how results depend on how some of these discretionary elements are chosen.

Q: Would rich countries by “swamped” by immigrants under open borders?

What do you mean by “swamped?” In Scenario 2, the population of the West (the EU and the Anglosphere) rises from 872 million to over 3 billion. But assimilation would still mostly prevail, at least as far as TFP indicates. Revolutionary English stock a small proportion of the current US population? If the answer is “no, because those immigrants assimilated and didn’t fundamentally alter American society,” then that answer may apply to open borders, too. There isn’t a formal theory of institutions undergirding these results, however, and if you think 3 billion people in the West would lead to complete societal collapse, this paper doesn’t refute that, it just starts with more optimistic assumptions.

I don’t find predictions of 3 billion people living in the West either surprising or alarming. Life is good here. Why shouldn’t almost half the human race want to come? Admittedly, international polls show much lower demand for migration than my model, or, say, John Kennan’s, predict. But that’s just diaspora dynamics. Migration would snowball as early migrants wrote home that the grass really was greener on the other side.

Q: Scenario 2 predicts huge gains in labor income for people in many poor countries? How exactly would that happen?

Open borders would enrich the world’s poorest in several different ways. First, many would move to more productive places. Second, open borders would increase both the incentive and the opportunity for people from poor countries to acquire human capital. Since unskilled workers are far more likely than skilled ones to be stuck in unproductive places under the status quo, open borders would increase the effective global supply of raw labor, relative to the effective supply of human capital. Human capital would become relatively scarcer and see its marginal product rise, giving people an incentive to study. At the same time, higher wages would give poor people more money to invest in their children’s education. And the experience of migration itself– permanent or temporary– would broaden the horizons of many and make them smarter and more modern. And people would get access to better schools in the West. Third, the poorest countries would benefit from having large diasporas abroad, becoming acquainted with better ways of doing things practiced in the rich world. Fourth, remittances from abroad would finance capital formation. Fifth, in some countries it would be important that emigration would raise the per capita value of extractible natural resources. People in the world’s most benighted countries would mostly improve their lot in life by moving abroad. In less desperate cases, such as India and China, around half the population would emigrate, but life would improve a lot for those who stayed behind, as well as for emigrants.

Q: Would Americans really see their incomes fall by 10% under open borders? Why?

Well, real estate would appreciate in value dramatically, so homeowners would see their net worth rise, and maybe their dollar incomes, too, if they went into business as landlords. There would also be a lot more capital in the world, so to the extent that Americans own a substantial share of that, that might also offset a drop in labor incomes. Finally, the US government would enjoy a much larger tax base, so depending on what it did with that, it might contribute something to natives’ disposable income through transfers and/or tax cuts. Also, I’ve left out of account the effect of open borders on technological change, but there are all sorts of reasons to expect open borders to accelerate that, which would bend all the model’s predictions in an appealing direction.

But yes, under Scenario 2, the average labor income of US natives would fall by 10%. And this applies across the human capital spectrum. Unskilled workers would see their living standards (not money wages though) fall to 44% of the current level. But, surprisingly, the human capital premium would fall, too, because the US would be such a magnet for human capital that average human capital would rise in the US. If the only effect of open borders were to increase population while keeping average human capital the same, money incomes would stay the same, though living standards would fall somewhat due to congestion disutilities. What causes a loss of labor income for Americans is that TFP falls under Scenario 2.

Q: How does the spatial model here relate to your OB post about “The Great Land Value Windfall from Open Borders?”

It is somewhat more pessimistic. In that post, I drew two land supply curves, one for existing urban land, one for new urban land. I treated the supply of existing urban land as perfectly inelastic, and the supply of new urban land as perfectly elastic. I treated these as separate markets, on the ground that what one is really paying for in urban land is precisely proximity to other people and centrality of location, so as urban centers grow, new urban land developed at the edges will have the same value as urban land at the edges previously had, but previously developed land closer to the city center will appreciate as the city population grows. In that model, there are no congestion disutilities, and no inherent scarcity of land as such.

In “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” a scarcity of good city sites is a fundamental and important feature of the world. Consequently, mass immigration to the USA would reduce the living standards afforded by a given money income, due to congestion disutilities. In “The Great Land Value Windfall from Open Borders,” mass immigration would not reduce the living standard afforded by a given money income, because newly developed urban land at the margins of cities would be just as good as the formerly marginal land was. The difference between these models is not really accounted for by any change in my views of how the world works. It is simply that different assumptions proved analytically convenient for different purposes.

Q: This model pertains to universal open borders, right? What if open borders were implemented by just one country, say, the USA?

Yes, this model is for universal open borders. I don’t know what would happen if just the USA did it. I’d need to make fundamental changes to the model to answer that question.

Q: What about DRITI?

The paper contains no estimates of how much revenue could be raised by migration taxes, or how a world of open borders would change if governments sought to hold natives harmless through tax-and-transfer schemes.

Q: Do you think this paper should persuade policymakers to adopt open borders policies?

Yes and no. Yes, I think that if my predictions are right, or in the ballpark of right, they would be a very strong reason for benevolent policymakers to open the world’s borders to migration. But no, I of course don’t think it would be sensible for any policymaker to adopt such a radical policy on the basis of such tentative and speculative predictions as my paper contains.

Q: Why is there no literature review, no bibliography, and few citations in the paper?

A: Because it’s just a draft. I like to have a good idea where I stand before I really plow into what others have said. Sometimes you don’t even know what’s relevant until you’ve done a lot of your own exploration. And compiling bibliographies is tedious work. But I have read a good deal, and am reading more, and future drafts will reflect that.

I was an Unaccompanied Child

Post by Michelangelo Landgrave (occasional blogger for the site, joined February 2014). See:

Lately I have been avoiding the news as I fear catching a piece about the current unaccompanied children crisis. I like to think that over the years I have grown a thick skin when it comes to immigration news, but this recent event hits home hard. I was an unaccompanied child myself you see.

I was born in Michoacan, not far geographically from the starting point for today’s unaccompanied children. Unlike contemporary unaccompanied children my journey took me a day while theirs takes much longer. I am a proper illegal alien – I asked no one for permission to enter. Today’s unaccompanied children aren’t illegal aliens – they’re asking for humanitarian migrant statuses. In the end of the day though these differences are superficial. We were both children at the border.

I was two years old when I crossed over. I remember broad strokes of the incident, but most of the details come second hand. My parents did not accompany me, but I did have my eleven-month-old sister with me.


Our journey began in my town of birth, Morelia. We flew to Tijauna, accompanied as far as we could be by my grandfather. At this point we had already flown across half a dozen sovereign state borders. As Mexican citizens though we had the recognized right to freely travel within the federation. Unfortunately the right to freely travel is not yet universally recognized.

In Tijuana we met up with a smuggler who would get us through the US-Mexican border. My sister and I made the crossing by stowing away in a car. We had US passports prepared just in case but we never used them. The car we were in was waived in without inspection, we were lucky for that. When we were safely in California we were picked up by an Aunt and spent the next few weeks playing with our cousins. We were only unaccompanied for a few hours between being dropped off in Tijuana and being picked up on the other side. Nonetheless we could have been caught by border patrol, kidnapped by the smuggler who passed us through, or taken during any of the countless times when we were surrounded only by strangers.

When people hear about young children crossing the border on their own there is an understandable level of skepticism. It is difficult to imagine allowing children unattended for more than a few minutes in the United States. Abroad the cultural norms are different though. Shortly after I had learned to crawl I regularly made cross town between my parent’s and grandparent’s homes, accompanied only by my pet dog. At any rate a journey across the US-Mexican border was little different in principle to my two year old self and I took a disinterested approach to it. I do wonder how my sister kept quiet throughout the journey though – did she think it was a game of hide and seek?

Where were my parents during all of this? My mother was crossing the border on foot. My sister and I were young so it was relatively easy for us to pass through the safer path, but my mother had no such option. She had to jump over the border fence, crawl inside the sewers, and swim across the ocean. My mother had to do this several times before finally succeeding.

What of my father? He was crossing illegally into Mexico. The details of his journey are so unbelievable that I have given up trying to put them into written word.

During the current crisis some commentators have made a point to discuss how awful the parents of unaccompanied children are to allow their children to undergo such hardships alone. What these commentators fail to take into account is opportunity costs. My sister and I could have crossed over with our mother, but at the cost of having of going through the harder route with her. Likewise we could have stayed in Mexico but at the cost of my newborn sister.

I was born into poverty. My parents tell me that they often had only enough money to feed me and they would go to sleep starving if I didn’t leave any leftovers. When my mother realized she was carrying a second child she desperately wanted to get rid of it. She could barely feed one child! She changed her mind when my sister was born, but she was not delusional to think things could continue as they were. If she was to keep both her children we needed to migrate to the US. We tried entering legally, but there was no viable legal route to do so.

After making our separate ways into the country our family was reunited on March 3rd 1994, my sister’s first birthday. We settled down in Los Angeles and our lives have been largely uneventful since then. We tried self-deporting in the early 2000s, but Mexico did not recognize either myself or my sister as Mexicans since our names were not Hispanic.

After two decades in California I am still an illegal alien, albeit I am a DACA recipient. For two decades I could have been deported at any moment. If I am truthful with myself though I have never been in danger of deportation, why would I be? Los Angeles is a sanctuary city for migrants. California in turn has made great strides to protect its migrant population with the passage of the TRUST Act and related legislation. The Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has allowed me to travel across the US the past few years in relative safety. I have never lived in the shadows, although I have lived with restraints . In California proper I am little different from anyone else in legal rights, but this is only true in California.

My primary school teachers all knew I was an illegal alien. My friends and neighbors know I am an illegal alien. I even told my friends in the college conservative club that I was an illegal alien; they had been planning to go to a shooting range as a club activity and I had to explain to them why I couldn’t attend. It goes without saying that I have told all my employers about my migrant status and included a note about the matter when I applied to graduate school. Why should I lie about who I am? I have done nothing wrong.

I do not advocate open borders in the hope that it will lead to my being ‘allowed’ to stay. I have already migrated and lived in California for decades. I could have been deported countless times or ostracized, but instead I’ve been welcomed at each turn. No, I don’t advocate open borders for myself. I don’t even advocate open borders on behalf of other illegal aliens like me. If I advocate open borders for anyone it is that abstract concept known as ‘humanity’ which we are all part of me. I advocate open borders because it is both morally just and economically efficient.

Weekly OBAG roundup 25 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Posts related to Nathan Smith’s draft paper on the global economic impact of open borders

For prior literature on the topic, see the double world GDP page on this website. For an earlier blog post by Smith that lays out an early version of his model (that he expands on in the draft paper), see The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders: My Take, published February 8, 2014.

Here are Smith’s OBAG posts this week about his draft paper:

  • Post by Nathan Smith, August 6, 2014, uploading the file to the Facebook group. The file can be alternatively accessed via Google Drive here. The post received 7 likes and 66 comments.
  • Smith has also uploaded to the Facebook group his raw data and the files with the STATA code he used for his analysis. You can access all his files under the Files section of OBAG.
  • Post by Nathan Smith, August 7, 2014, about the high correlation he found between his measure of human capital (inferred using a production function) and HDI. 1 like, 30 comments.
  • Post by Nathan Smith, August 7, 2014, asking for suggestions for places to present his paper and possible venues for publication of his paper (after he completes it). 2 likes, 9 comments.
  • Post by Nathan Smith, August 7, 2014, noting that according to his draft paper, open borders leads to a major reinforcement of the dominance of the West. 4 likes, 4 comments.
  • Post by Nathan Smith noting that in Scenario 2 in his paper, unskilled workers worldwide would see their wages converge to 44% of the current US level. 7 comments.

General points related to migration and public opinion on migration

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to papers, videos, debates)

Specific current and historical situations

A Response to One of the Most Subtle Restrictionists I’ve Read So Far

Post by Nathan Smith

I sometimes get the sense that the open borders topic is a bit tapped out, because open borders advocates are so vastly superior to the most vocal immigration restrictionists in the quality of their arguments that it’s hard to have a conversation. Restrictionists can win public debates easily because they have a vast weight of status quo bias on their side. And it’s true that most casual friends of open borders just don’t appreciate how radical the policy is, so a half-decent restrictionist can move the debate in his direction just by explaining that. But when it comes to the big pro-open borders arguments, about how this is the best way to alleviate world poverty, expand economic opportunity and advance freedom for mankind, restrictionists not only don’t have answers to these, they don’t even really understand them. You rarely hear anything from the other side that should really make you stop to think, or question your position. You never find yourself thinking, “Hmm, why is that wrong?” Instead, you find yourself thinking, “What rhetoric will help me make the overwhelming reasons why that’s wrong clear and compelling to the average man-on-the-street who hasn’t thought about the issue, is massively misinformed about the facts, and whose prejudices go the wrong way?” That gets tedious after a while. One just doesn’t learn much that way.

So I thought it might be worthwhile to acknowledge and respond to the article “Immigration, Yes– and No,” by Gene Callahan, at The American Conservative, which is unusually high-quality on the restrictionist side, and shows some awareness of open borders arguments. As usual when I read restrictionist writings (which I usually don’t), I wanted to interrupt the guy with objections at almost every paragraph, but I still came away respecting him and feeling like he was actually worth talking to. He starts by arguing that the Roman Empire was overwhelmed, not so much by “invading” as by “immigrating” barbarians, and that “if Rome had adopted open borders… the Western Empire would’ve been overwhelmed earlier,” because it wouldn’t have had time to assimilate the incoming barbarians. Well, I’ve written about this before. Rome probably made a mistake in letting the Visigoths immigrate as a political entity, but not only did peaceful individual immigrants never cause any trouble for Rome, the last great defender of Rome, Stilicho, seems to have been a German, as were many of his troops. As I put it before, “it looks like Rome fell because nativist know-nothings murdered a talented immigrant general who, with his immigrant troops, was doing the jobs Romans wouldn’t do, namely, defend Rome.”

The author positions himself as immigration “trimmer,” i.e., a moderate who does want some immigration, and he writes that

As a student of Aristotle—hardly a man without principles—I generally suspect that extreme views are expressions of vice and that the path of virtue will involve holding to a course between their hazards.

I, too, consider myself a moderate supporter of open borders, inasmuch as I advocate taxing rather than restricting migration, and using the proceeds of migration taxes to protect the living standards of natives. So we’re both “moderates” if you gerrymander the spectrum in the right way, and of course, this is all rather silly. The problem with being compulsively “moderate” is that you make yourself a slave to whatever the distribution of opinion happens to be at any given time. A moderate in the 1840s might have said that slaves should be treated humanely, but that abolitionism was an “extreme view” and an “expression of vice.” A moderate in mid-1930s Germany might have said that the Jewish world-conspiracy isn’t as bad as extreme anti-Semites suggest, and to contain it, it’s sufficient to restrict Jews’ participation in national life and encourage them to emigrate. The extreme position today may be moderate in twenty years, and vice versa, as public opinion shifts. If you care about truth, you have to be less of a slave to fashion than the compulsive moderate, by definition, has to be. (Thomas Paine had an interesting take: “moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.” Ayn Rand’s attack on compulsive moderates is also wise.)

The author writes that most immigrants seek “a better standard of living” and that “such a universal human aspiration surely should not be condemned.” Moreover, “there is little hard evidence that the troubles of lower- and middle-class America in recent years have been caused to any great extent by immigration.” Then he says:

But these economic facts are true in a world with controlled immigration. Would they still hold in a world of open borders?

A good question, and one that open borders advocates sometimes fail to ask. I have always thought that while immigration hasn’t reduced rich-world wages much if at all so far, open borders would reduce the wages of unskilled workers, probably a lot. He predicts that under open borders, “the equilibrium position we would expect is that immigration would continue until the wage differential between American workers and developing world workers disappeared,” which I think is true to a first approximation, though the big question is how much of the equilibration would come from poor-country wages going up, and how much from rich-country (unskilled) wages going down. He adds that “Franklin Roosevelt, hardly a hero to libertarian advocates of open borders, was elected in a large part because of the votes of immigrants or their sons and daughters,” but (a) it is well understood by open borders advocates that immigration can’t (and needn’t) automatically include the right to vote, and (b) a more obvious point to make about FDR is that he was elected shortly after the US closed its borders to most immigration. As long as the club was open to new members, membership was relatively thin in its duties and privileges. The early-20th century progressive movement closed the club and increased the duties and privileges. That’s what we want to reverse.

Callahan points out that immigration has a cultural impact, and that assimilation goes both ways: natives influence immigrants, and vice versa. He writes:

European emigration to the New World is an instructive case in point: if Native Americans had been able to limit the flow of European immigrants, they might have been able to preserve their land and cultures. But, lacking the idea of territorial sovereignty, they could only deal with these immigrants through unconditional welcome or violence. When violence failed, their culture was overwhelmed, and it has largely disappeared. If we value our own culture, we might not want this to happen to it.

But here, several points need to be made. First, if assimilation is a two-way street, the traffic is very lop-sided. Natives influence immigrants far more than the other way around, resulting in a phenomenon called the “founder effect,” where the people who found a society overwhelmingly determine the nature of that society. Case in point: Americans collectively have almost as much German as British blood in their veins, as a result of mass immigration in the 19th century. But US institutions aren’t some kind of weighted average of German and British institutions. They’re just British, plus native evolutions and adaptations. The same goes for culture to a slightly lesser extent.

Second, some cultures are just more advanced and potent than others. If Europeans had never settled the Americas, Native American ways of life would still have been transformed beyond recognition by the cultural products and technologies Europe had to offer. Native Americans would have seen that Europeans had truer beliefs (e.g. in the natural sciences and economics), better ways of doing things, and more beautiful art and literature than they did. Since the mid-20th century, the physical emigration of Westerners to the rest of the world has largely ceased or gone into reverse, but the tsunami of Western cultural, ideological, technological, and economic influence has hardly abated at all. Open borders would not put American culture in jeopardy. If we’re assimilating the rest of the world even when we largely block them from coming, this would only accelerate if they could come here and get assimilated at close range. Probably there would be some influence in the other direction, too, most of it innocuous or beneficial. After all, culture is largely chosen, and for the most part, one doesn’t have to listen to the music or eat the food the immigrants bring with them unless one likes it.

Third, culture is dynamic, and doesn’t remain in stasis from generation to generation just because you hold the gene pool constant. The Sexual Revolution has, since the 1960s, radically altered Americans’ social behavior and family structures. This had nothing to do with immigration, it was a purely native development. Europeans largely abandoned Christianity in the course of the 20th century. That had nothing to do with immigration, either.

Indeed– fourth– immigrants may help to stabilize a culture by choosing it and assimilating to it. American culture seems to have been rather more stable in the 19th century than in the 20th century. At any rate, commitments to traditional family values and small government and Christianity seemed more like constants of American national life, then, whereas in 20th century America, the center could no longer hold, as repeated cultural revolutions swept aside traditional values and ways of life. It may be plausibly suggested that this was partly a result of the closing of America’s borders in the 1920s. Immigrants came here for relatively consistent reasons– to work hard, to practice their religions freely, to enjoy political freedom– and they helped to dilute the flux of generational fashions.

Callahan writes that “if we really value cultural diversity, there is no substitute for these diverse cultures flourishing in their native soil,” but, first of all, I don’t really value “cultural diversity” as such. It depends on the content of culture: whether the beliefs are true, whether the cuisine is tasty and nutritious, whether the customs are just and conducive to happiness, whether the art is beautiful and edifying. If not, let assimilation erase it. If so– second– there’s a good chance that it can hold its own in the cultural marketplace. Irish culture is a case in point, for mass emigration in the 19th century made Ireland a kind of global cultural powerhouse in a way it couldn’t have been if closed borders had prevailed then. Irish folk music really is beautiful and fun to listen to, so I’m glad that 19th-century open borders made it part of the heritage of mankind as a whole, and not just the Irish.

Next, ethics. Ethics tends to be a forte of open borders advocates and a weak point of restrictionists, who just don’t think clearly about it. There’s an interesting question about causation here: do restrictionists avoid clear thinking about ethics because it would lead to unwelcome conclusions, or do people become restrictionists because they can’t think clearly about ethics? Anyway, since one always has to grade restrictionists’ ethical reasoning on a curve, I was very impressed by this statement of Callahan’s:

The last of the issues on immigration is moral: given the modern consensus that no person counts for more than another one in ethical reasoning, can restrictions on immigration—which seem to privilege the existing inhabitants of a polity at the expense of those currently outside it—possibly be justified?

Yes! Good question! Of course, Callahan goes on to say that yes, they can, but that he can even get as far as stating the issue thus is a great leap forward for the restrictionist side. May it be a harbinger of more clear thinking and ethical seriousness on the restrictionist side in the years to come! And I think that we open borders advocates can take a little credit for this advance in the ethical education of the restrictionists. Gene Callahan has read Caplan and quotes him. I don’t know whether he’s read Open Borders: The Case or not, but if he’s familiar with Caplan’s writing, he probably has at least some inkling that Caplan’s not a lone voice in the wilderness, but a spokesman for a cause with a set of enthusiastic adherents.

In his answer to his own question, Callahan seems to be groping towards my argument for universal altruism plus division of labor. He argues that “we, as agents situated in a particular place and time, can… justifiably give more weight to how our acts will affect those nearer and dearer to us than those more distant,” and cites Hayek for the insight that “each actor is best situated to evaluate his own ‘particular circumstances of time and place.’” Yes. We shouldn’t ultimately accept any ethical calculus that places unequal values on human beings, or that segregates humanity into alienated groups with no obligation to care for each other. But the most effective ways for us to take care of each other will involve much division of labor, and within that framework, special obligations to kin and co-members of other natural groupings of people, including cities, churches, nations, etc., are a legitimate factor to consider.

It’s true, as Callahan says, that…

I am much more likely to be successful in my effort to help my next-door neighbor than I am likely to be in trying to help a homeless person in Latvia, because I can personally evaluate my neighbor’s circumstances, while I have little idea what are the real problems plaguing the Latvian indigent.

… but if the Latvian is trying to immigrate to the US, he’s not asking for help, merely that we do not use force to compel him to stay in a country he wants to leave. Our limited knowledge about the “real problems plaguing the Latvian indigent” is a good reason to be wary of taxpayer-funded foreign aid schemes to help him (though I’m not that much of a foreign aid skeptic myself), but can it seriously be suggested that ignorance of his circumstances justifies the use of force to keep him at home? Possibly we would be justified in forcing him to stay at home if we were extremely well-acquainted with his circumstances and knew for a fact that, unbeknownst to him, emigrating to the US would lead him to disaster. Ignorance of his circumstances is surely a reason to rely on his judgment in the matter and let him do as he likes, without getting in his way.

By articulating sound ethical views, then, Callahan has put himself on a train that leads straight to open borders. How does he get off it? Here I didn’t quite succeed in understanding him. He quotes Bryan Caplan saying that “Third World exile is not a morally permissible response” to immigration, and finds it “bizarre” that people who stay put are referred to as “exiled.” Of course, restrictions usually involve deportation, for which the term “exile” is quite apt. And actually, I think “exile” might be a pretty good description of the state of someone who wants badly to live in America and is forced to live elsewhere, even if they were born there, especially if the person has been somewhat culturally assimilated by English, democratic principles, and the whole American cultural package, and is an ethnic or religious minority in the country where they were born. Be that as it may, the Caplan-baiting seems disconnected from Callahan’s main argument. We can concede the semantic quibble, but that doesn’t get us any closer to having a good reason to force foreigners to stay abroad.

Callahan then tries an analogy:

If, after a ship capsizes, we find ourselves on a lifeboat, surrounded by victims flailing in the water, we should save as many of them as we can. But how many is that? Only so many as will not capsize our own boat, a result that would help no one.

Er, okay… but what is the analog of capsizing one’s own boat? Yes, if open borders would lead to a complete societal collapse in the US or other rich countries, such that even the immigrants themselves would be worse off than under the status quo, that would be a strong reason not to open borders. My position is not that we must open the borders even at the cost of a complete societal collapse. My position is that while open borders are indeed a radical policy, and would massively change the US and other rich countries, complete societal collapse is an unlikely outcome even if open borders were implemented in the most reckless and ill-conceived way, and the likelihood of such a dire outcome is negligible if open borders are implemented wisely. There might be some serious negatives, such as a sharp fall in the wages of tens of millions of US-born workers, or a rise in crime. There would be some drastic apparent negatives, such as far more visible poverty in the US, as immigrants would find better lives in the US than they would have had at home, but still shockingly deprived compared to what the US-born are accustomed to seeing. There would also be some drastic positives: world GDP might double, world poverty would be greatly reduced, a lot of people would be able to practice their religions freely who now face persecution, democracies and liberal countries would be empowered in international affairs vis-a-vis autocracies and tyrannies, technological progress would accelerate. The balance of these effects would be positive and very large. If I am right about all this, would Callahan change his mind? Are we in agreement about the ethics, and simply arguing the facts here?

Callahan’s position really does seem to be rather moderate, and I was quite surprised to see the following paragraph, considering that the publication we’re talking about is The American Conservative:

The immigration trimmer is thus likely to reject the most extreme proposals of the anti-immigration camp: giant border fences and frequent requests by law enforcement officials to “show me your papers” are threats to the freedom of every American. Here we see a practical complement to our moral case for allowing as much immigration as we can bear: not only is it right to help the less well-off when we can do so with little harm to ourselves, but it turns out to be very costly, in terms of both physical resources and lost civil liberties, to reduce immigration. Therefore, we should not try to do so until the number of immigrants becomes a serious problem.

I think this places Callahan somewhat to the left of the status quo, which is very encouraging. It confirms my casual impression from years of debating immigration, namely, that in arguing against you, restrictionists tend to position themselves a lot further in the right (i.e., pro-immigration) direction than it seems likely they would have gone without your provocation. If we could establish consensus about “the moral case for allowing as much immigration as we can bear,” that would be major progress. It’s not a very well-defined criterion, and restrictionists would doubtless seek to define the “we can bear” clause in very limiting ways. Open borders advocates would explain why it’s unreasonable to call a large population of resident non-voters, or a significant drop in the wages of unskilled natives, “unbearable.”

Reparations are not a sound basis for making immigration policy

Post by John Lee (regular blogger for the site, joined October 2012). See:

The recent influx of child migrants into the US has put immigration and refugee issues in the limelight. Because many of these children are fleeing violence in countries like Honduras and El Salvador — countries where US foreign policy has empowered violent gangs and created political instability — the debate has also seen the resurgence of what I call the “reparations argument” for liberal migration laws.

In essence, this argument runs:

  • The US (or whatever potential host country is being discussed) created a bad situation in the migrant-/refugee-sending countries
  • Therefore, the US is actually responsible for creating the flow of migrants from these countries
  • Therefore, the US must do one or more of the following:
    • Welcome these migrants
    • Send more foreign aid to these countries
    • Change its foreign policy

This cartoon from the Facebook page Muh Borders is a good summary of the reparations argument:
If you didn't want to deal with refugees, you shouldn't have f***ed with their countriesNow, I think this argument does make logical sense and is a pretty decent framework for thinking about foreign policy. If one nation wrongs another, it seems intuitive that reparations should be on the table.

But I don’t think the reparations argument makes sense as a justification for the status quo plus limited liberal treatment of migrants from certain nationalities. It could perhaps be logical to say “We ought to recognise the right to migrate for all people. But if we can’t agree on that, we should at least agree that those people we have harmed have an especially strong claim on the right to migrate.”

But note that this reparations argument is pretty much orthogonal to the case for open borders — it doesn’t have much bearing on the question of whether we ought to recognise a right to migrate, which is probably why not many open borders advocates rely on it. Reparations are just a “second best” argument. Indeed, the only open borders advocate I’m aware of who regularly uses this argument as direct support is Aviva Chomsky, and as both co-blogger Vipul and myself have noted before, her arguments are actually not that sound.

The problem becomes acute once we depart from making the case for general open borders, and just attempt to marshal this reparations argument for selective openness as the very best solution. e.g., “There isn’t any such thing as a right to migrate, but we should at least let people from countries we’ve harmed come here.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how much suffering excluding and deporting innocent people might cause — you’re perfectly in the right to do this unless you’ve originally created suffering in their home countries.

This may sound appealing and consistent at first, but actually making this argument work in practical terms is maddeningly hard. Nobody I have seen making this case actually clearly articulates the exact details of how they’ve concluded open borders with a given country (such as Guatemala) are a moral imperative, while still rejecting open borders for other countries.

After all, although most of the child migrants arriving in the US today are from countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, these three countries are far from the only ones in Latin America who have been wronged by the US. The US sponsored a coup in Chile; the US has a history of repeatedly invading Haiti; the US once invaded Mexico and occupied its capital city; in the lifetime of many of us, one of the biggest political scandals in the US was its funneling of arms into Nicaragua to destabilise the government. And if we’re going to talk about the harmful effects of the drug war, surely gang wars in Mexico and Colombia ought to be in the picture too. What’s the reason the US shouldn’t have open borders with — or at least adopt a more liberal stance towards migration from — these countries?

But wait, there’s more: we’ve only been talking about the countries of the Western hemisphere. Elsewhere on the globe, it wasn’t long ago that the US waged a war in Vietnam, and dropped bombs and chemical weapons over Cambodia and Laos. It colonised the Philippines for decades, imposing an initial harsh military occupation to subjugate Filipino nationalists bent on independence for their country. The US has directly sponsored the weapons used to murder hundreds of innocent Palestinians and subsidised the Egyptian and Israeli governments which prevent Palestinians from fleeing violence in Gaza or seeking work and opportunity outside a narrow strip of land. And, of course, it would be hard to argue the US isn’t responsible for much of the violence happening in Iraq and Afghanistan today. If we count the second order impacts of those recent American invasions, we could certainly argue these invasions have dreadfully harmed the people of Syria and Pakistan as well by empowering Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in those countries.

I don’t necessarily endorse the argument that because the US has pursued policies which have harmed the people of the countries I just named, the US is obligated to pay reparations to these countries, or offer reparations in the form of liberal treatment for their nationals who might want to migrate to the US.  My point in laying out these hypothetical arguments is that not a single person who wants liberal treatment specifically for El Salvadoran or Guatemalan asylum seekers on the basis of reparations owed has explained why their argument wouldn’t justify similar treatment for nationals of other countries who have been severely harmed by American policy.

That said, let’s assume we can resolve this tension somehow — either we find some intellectually consistent way to welcome El Salvadorans while deporting Mexicans (note that this is actually close to the status quo for unaccompanied child migrants in the US), or we choose to welcome the nationals of any country the US has harmed (within some reasonable and widely-agreed upon definition of harm).

The other leg of this argument tends to be some form of the following: accepting these migrants will be a temporary form of relief for these countries, while we figure out a way to help them and make proper reparation for messing them up in the first place. In other words, if the US dumps billions of dollars into El Salvador and shuts down the drug war, then deporting El Salvadorans and treating them as “illegals” will become morally acceptable.

I think people who advance this argument often believe that if the US stops its harmful policies and makes large enough aid payments to these countries, then these countries will bloom and prosper,

  • making it justifiable to deport people back to these countries; and/or,
  • reducing or eliminating any flows of migrants from these countries, since people wouldn’t want to leave.

Embedded in all this is the huge assumption that it would be possible for the US to magically destroy the problems of political instability, corrupt institutions, gang warfare, and rotten infrastructure that might plague these countries, if only the US were to do something different. I find this assumption incredibly questionable, to put it lightly.

But let’s say that the US were able to accomplish the incredibly-unlikely, and actually wipe out the worst poverty and violence that plague many of the countries whose people are desperate to seek a better life in the US. Would this reduce or even eliminate migrant flows? The evidence suggests that in general, such economic development would lead to more migration.

The reason is simple: people who are very poor can’t afford an expensive journey, even if the economic returns from taking a job in a much more developed economy would more than justify it. They simply don’t have the money to finance it. As countries become richer, their people become better able to afford the journey, and so more of them will leave in search of better work and fairer wages.

So in all likelihood, pursuing reparations for the US’s past harms to these countries will not markedly stem the pressure to migrate to the US or other developed countries in search of a better life. Advocates making the reparations argument don’t even present empirical evidence that throwing billions of dollars at these countries will fix their problems (whether or not the US created those problems in the first place) — they assume that magically the US can do something different, and all the problems will go away. Worse still, they ignore empirical evidence that assuming their proposed reforms actually succeed in helping these countries develop, the likely outcome will be even stronger pressure to migrate for better jobs and wages.

Rohingya refugee family beg the Bangladeshi coast guard to not deport them

What then? Would it be just and right to tell an El Salvadoran child fleeing rape or murder “You have to go home because we paid your government a few billion dollars — that you’ll be killed or raped because we’re deporting you is now not our problem”? Would it actually be honest to say that the US isn’t responsible for the death or rape of this child if the US government then sends this child “home” to be raped and killed? Heck, if the child just dies of starvation or illness because his home country doesn’t have a functioning economy or healthcare system — i.e., the child is just an “economic migrant” — would it somehow be any better that the US sent him back to die?

My answers to these questions is, of course, no. But the reason why I answer in the negative has nothing to do with whether the US owes any reparations to the people of the countries it has harmed — as important an issue as that may be. It is fundamentally unjust to exclude an innocent human being — especially one fleeing violence or murder — purely because of where they are from. Where these people are from simply does not matter — every government owes justice to every human being under its jurisdiction. Excluding innocent human beings purely because of their national origin is at its heart an act of barbarism and injustice.

Weekly OBAG roundup 24 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Artistic and literary depictions

General points related to migration and public opinion on migration

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to papers, videos, debates)

Specific current and historical situations

Site content and meta

Weekly OBAG roundup 23 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Artistic and literary depictions

General points related to migration and public opinion about migration

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to videos, debates)

  • Post by Akiva Malamet, July 26, 2014, linking to Should We Welcome Open Borders?, a Foundation for Economic Education debate video between Jason Brennan and David Inserra, July 20, 2014.
  • Post by Vipul Naik, July 27, 2014, linking to a YouTube video from 1980 where Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush discuss illegal immigration, and argue in favor of freer migration between the United States and Mexico. 10 likes, 3 comments. Also reblogged by Fabio Rojas here.
  • Post by John Lee, July 26, 2014, linking to and quoting from People Flows in Globalization by Richard Freeman, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20 (2), pages 145-170. 5 likes, 10 comments.
  • Post by John Lee linking to Nick Rowe on fiscal policy (and reply to Caplan) by Scott Sumner, EconLog, July 24, 2014, where he discusses some of his concerns related to migration. 2 likes, 2 comments.
  • Post by John Lee, July 25, 2014, linking to a discussion of pieces in the 1970s in Reason Magazine that defended apartheid as the lesser evil relative to communism. 1 like, 5 comments.
  • Post by Samuel Wilson, July 25, 2014, linking to his blog post Sumner’s Switzerland, July 25, 2014. 2 likes.
  • Post by Brian W. Ryman about the views of the United States Founders on migration. 1 like, 3 comments.
  • Post by John Lee linking to a critique of citizenism: Xenophobia and Politics by Steven E. Landsburg, Forbes, March 28, 2005. 4 likes, 1 comment

Specific current and historical situations

Site content, outreach, and meta

Weekly OBAG roundup 22 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Blegs and suggestions for artistic and literary depictions

  • Parodies of anti-immigrationists by Michael Tontchev, July 15, 2014. 4 likes, 11 comments.
  • Post by Jacob Syma asking about portrayals of immigration in media, July 17, 2014. 2 comments.

General points related to migration

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to videos, debates, etc.)

Specific current and historical situations

Site content and meta

Review of Proposed Solutions for the Unaccompanied Children Crisis

Post by Michelangelo Landgrave (occasional blogger for the site, joined February 2014). See:

Proposed Solutions to the Unaccompanied Children Crisis

Yesterday Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced new legislation to stop federal funding from going towards the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA ) program as a solution to the recent surge of unaccompanied children seeking to enter the United States.

DACA is seen by several conservative groups as being the chief explanation for why there has been a recent surge in unaccompanied children attempting to enter the United States. However the surge in unaccompanied children is better explained by an increase in violence in Central America and a desire for family reunification.

Even if DACA explained the recent surge, Senator Cruz should be aware that no federal funds go towards the management of the DACA program. The DACA program is funded by user fees; currently set at $465. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers DACA, is unique in being funded almost entirely by user fees. If only that were the case with the rest of the federal government!

In short this means the Cruz’s proposed legislation would not affect the operation of the DACA program. It would nonetheless harm several migrants holding humanitarian statuses. The second portion of Senator Cruz’s legislative proposal is worded in such a way that it could deny work authorization to both DACA recipients and holders of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Senator Cruz may prefer that less humanitarian migrants reside in the United States but surely he should agree that so long as they are here it is preferable that they work to maintain themselves instead of being forced to rely on government welfare. Why then does he wish to force humanitarian migrants to rely on government welfare? So long as these humanitarian migrants are with us they should be allowed to work to pay for their own expenses and minimize taxpayer burden.

The Texan senator is not alone in granting proposals to solve the recent surge of unaccompanied children. The Obama administration has requested an additional $3.7 billion in funding to increase border enforcement, hire additional legal staff, provide for the care of these children, and other expenses. The chief problem with this proposal is that it focuses almost entirely on the short term and, as a libertarian, I’m extremely doubtful of its cost efficiency. $295 million of the emergency fund would go towards addressing long term issues driving humanitarian migration from Central America but no accountability mechanism exists and actual details of the long term plan are missing. What guarantee is there that these billions won’t end up being misused?

The Obama administration has also mused with proposals to use expedited processing for these unaccompanied children. Currently Mexican nationals receive expedited processing and are sent back almost immediately after being presented to US border patrol authorities, but non-Mexican nationals are processed differently under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). While expedited processing may work with Mexican nationals, whose home nation borders the United States, it is less appropriate when dealing with Central Americans and other non-Mexican nationals. Significant portions of the unaccompanied children are eligible for relief under existing humanitarian migrant programs and many of them would find themselves denied access to these programs under expedited processing. The current process may take longer but that is a worthwhile price to minimize the amount of humanitarian migrants being denied entry.

The Obama administration is not alone in calling for expedited processing of the unaccompanied children. Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) and Congressman Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) are introducing a new bill today which will do just that in addition to raising the bar for unaccompanied children to be granted access to a humanitarian migrant status. This is all too reminiscent of how Australia has been handling its own humanitarian migrant crisis; instead of accepting more refugees or creating programs to quicken their integration into civic life the country has pursued a policy of making it increasingly difficult for these migrants to enter lawfully. Will the US also follow in Australia’s footsteps and try to relocate these migrants into ‘a safe third party country’ like Haiti?

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Congressman Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) have introduced a similar proposal, the HUMANE Act . Representatives Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Goodlatte (R-Virginia) have both already made a similar proposal, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act ; Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has a review of that particular proposal up for those interested. The text of these proposals differs only cosmetically and all suffer from the same conceit that the answer is to simply deny lawful pathways for migration.

The best response in the short run is to advocate for the Obama administration to re-designate Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for TPS. As I have noted previously, most of Central America has received relief under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program previously. A significant portion of Central American migrants in the US are present under the TPS program and if the Obama administration re-designated these countries then the children could enter lawfully and reunite with their families here.

TPS Designated Countries

Some might be skeptical about using TPS to resolve the present crisis; might it not encourage further waves of migrants from these countries? El Salvador and Honduras have both been TPS designated countries and are significant sources of accompanied children. Then again Nicaragua received TPS designation at the same time as Honduras and provides a negligible amount of unaccompanied children. Guatemala meanwhile has not been designated TPS eligible. Previous designation of the TPS status may have had some effect on the number of migrants trying to enter from those countries, but it begs the question of why there are so few Nicaraguans among them .

The above proposal is ultimately only a keyhole solution for the immediate future. In the long run TPS and other humanitarian statuses should be reformed to allow lawful family reunification. Contrary to what some conservative commentators believe, a significant portion of non-citizens from Central America are not illegal aliens but instead hold TPS and other humanitarian statuses. A new pathway should also be created to allow minor children to be sponsored by their extended relatives or to make adoption easier. Families will try to reunify regardless of what barriers are placed between them and it is therefore best to promote policies that provide a legal way to do so.

An earlier draft of this post was posted at California College Libertarians.

Open Borders and the Child Immigrants from Central America

Post by Joel Newman (occasional blogger for the site, joined January 2013). See:

As the arrival on the U.S. border of thousands of minors from Central America has consumed the attention of U.S. politicians and the media, open borders is rarely suggested as a policy option.  One exception is the Libertarian Party, which has issued a strong statement in favor of open borders  for these children, as well as most other would-be immigrants.  Another, noted in a previous post,  is from Ross Douthat of the New York Times: “One answer, consistent and sincere, is that the child migration really shows we need an open border — one that does away with the problems of asylum hearings and deportations, eliminates the need for dangerous journeys across deserts and mountains, and just lets the kids’ relatives save up for a plane ticket.”

As Mr. Douthat suggests, open borders would release the government from spending enormous amounts of money detaining Central American child migrants and adjudicating their cases. (President Obama is requesting billions more for these purposes.) Open borders also would help the child migrants and their families immensely.   Families could be more easily reunited and wouldn’t have to pay thousands of dollars to have their children smuggled into the U.S., and the children wouldn’t be exposed to dangers on their long journey to the border, nor would they have to endure often miserable stays in U.S. detention.  The children also could escape horrendous conditions in their home countries, without the fear that they would be deported back.

Related to the inability to consider the open borders option for these child migrants are references to the situation as a “crisis” (here and here) or a “problem.”  Apprehending, detaining, and adjudicating the children is a self-imposed policy choice Americans have made, and it is this interference with the migration flow that is creating the strain on government resources.  Without this interference, the “crisis” or “problem” wouldn’t exist for the government.  The child migrants would travel safely to the U.S., disperse throughout the country, link up with (or arrive with) family, and start new lives. Some schools may see an increase in their student populations, which would involve some strain and expense for school districts, but eventually the children, like their U.S.-born peers, would become working members of society.  (See here for information on the economic impact of immigration on the receiving country.)

Beyond these self-evident advantages of open borders in addressing the child migration flow, here are three additional thoughts about the flow and the commentary surrounding it.  The first is that given the dire conditions and limited resources for children in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the source countries for most of the recent child migration, the U.S. should facilitate their migration, in addition to opening the borders.  Loans could be provided to families or individual children to use for air transportation to the U.S., and once families are working they could begin to repay the loans.  This support could be provided exclusively by private organizations and individuals, but in a previous post on facilitating migration, I noted that the government may be in a better position to help than private entities.  As previously mentioned, this would allow poor families to avoid ground transportation through an often dangerous Mexico.  It also would enable them to quickly escape the violence and poverty endemic in their homelands.  Graphic descriptions of the dystopian conditions in the three aforementioned countries have appeared in recent articles and reports, including the following from the New York Times about conditions in Honduras:

Narco groups and gangs are vying for control over this turf, neighborhood by neighborhood, to gain more foot soldiers for drug sales and distribution, expand their customer base, and make money through extortion in a country left with an especially weak, corrupt government following a 2009 coup… Carlos Baquedano Sánchez, a slender 14-year-old with hair sticking straight up, explained how hard it was to stay away from the cartels.  He lives in a shack made of corrugated tin in a neighborhood in Nueva Suyapa called El Infiernito — Little Hell — and usually doesn’t have anything to eat one out of every three days. He started working in a dump when he was 7, picking out iron or copper to recycle, for $1 or $2 a day.  But bigger boys often beat him to steal his haul, and he quit a year ago when an older man nearly killed him for a coveted car-engine piston.  Now he sells scrap wood.  But all of this was nothing, he says, compared to the relentless pressure to join narco gangs and the constant danger they have brought to his life.  When he was 9, he barely escaped from two narcos who were trying to rape him, while terrified neighbors looked on.  When he was 10, he was pressured to try marijuana and crack. “You’ll feel better. Like you are in the clouds,” a teenager working with a gang told him.  But he resisted.  He has known eight people who were murdered and seen three killed right in front of him. He saw a man shot three years ago and still remembers the plums the man was holding rolling down the street, coated in blood.  Recently he witnessed two teenage hit men shooting a pair of brothers for refusing to hand over the keys and title to their motorcycle. Carlos hit the dirt and prayed. The killers calmly walked down the street. Carlos shrugs. “Now seeing someone dead is nothing.”  He longs to be an engineer or mechanic, but he quit school after sixth grade, too poor and too afraid to attend.  “A lot of kids know what can happen in school. So they leave.”

The New York Times piece adds that “asking for help from the police or the government is not an option in what some consider a failed state. The drugs that pass through Honduras each year are worth more than the country’s entire gross domestic product. Narcos have bought off police officers, politicians and judges. In recent years, four out of five homicides were never investigated.”  (See also here for information on conditions in El Salvador and here for conditions in a number of countries.)

The second idea is that the emphasis that some are putting on ensuring that the child migrants receive due process to determine if they are refugees, while possibly helping some immigrants stay in the U.S., is harmful to the open borders cause.  It helps to legitimize the exclusion of those who are not determined to be refugees. Sonia Nazario, the author of the aforementioned New York Times piece  describing conditions for children in Honduras, urges the creation of refugee centers in the U.S. where the children’s cases can be adjudicated.  She emphasizes the need for officers and judges to be “trained in child-sensitive interviewing techniques” and that children be represented by a lawyer.  However, she doesn’t hesitate to condone deportation for economic child migrants: “Of course, many migrant children come for economic reasons, and not because they fear for their lives.  In those cases, they should quickly be deported if they have at least one parent in their country of origin.”  Similarly, Jana Mason, a United Nations employee, states that “… these children, if they need it, should have access to a process to determine if they’re entitled to refugee protection.  If they’re not, if they don’t meet that definition, we fully understand, then they’re subject to normal U.S. deportation or removal procedures.”  Their implied message is that if the children get a fair examination of their refugee claims, they have been treated fairly, even if they end up being deported.

So what Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason are saying is that if the only problem Carlos, the previously mentioned 14 year old, has in Honduras is that he only gets to eat two out of every three days and lives in a tin shack, he shouldn’t be allowed to emigrate to the U.S. And some children do want to migrate for economic reasons.  In a recent survey of Salvadoran children who wish to migrate to the U.S., some cite this reason for wanting to migrate.  Referring to children living in the most impoverished areas of the country, the survey’s author writes that “this desire for a better life is hardly surprising, given that many of these children began working in the fields at age 12 or younger and live in large families, often surviving on less than USD $150 a month.”  Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason also imply children shouldn’t be allowed to migrate if their sole reason is to reunite with family already in the U.S., but again many want to migrate for this reason.  According to the survey of Salvadorans, about half have one or both parents in the U.S., and about one third identify family reunification as a reason for them to migrate.

John has noted that this effort to exclude non-refugee migrants can result in the exclusion of refugees.  Notwithstanding Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason’s emphasis on a pristine asylum process, the process of identifying who qualifies can be flawed, especially if you consider the history of asylum adjudication.  As I’ve written previously, asylum is very narrowly defined under the law, and it is easy for asylum applicants to not qualify.  Furthermore, when politics intrude, asylum decisions can be tainted.  During the Cold War, asylum seekers from Communist countries were favored over those from non-Communist countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala, according to Bill Frelick and Court Robinson (International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 2, 1990)  And the recent arrival of immigrant children has become highly politicized, with “pressure on the president from all sides,” according to The New York Times.  The Times reports that “… administration lawyers have been working to find consistent legal justifications for speeding up the deportations of Central American children at the border…”  In addition, the outcome of an asylum case can depend greatly on who is adjudicating the case.  Finally, as Ms. Nazario suggests, if the U.S. doesn’t make it easier to apply for refugee status in Central America, refugees will still have to make a dangerous journey to the U.S. to even be able to apply for asylum.

The larger point is that it is immoral, with some rare exceptions, to stop people from migrating, regardless of their reason for doing so. There is, as John suggested recently, no justice in “an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth…”  Similarly, the group No One is Illegal, which supports open borders, suggests that it is morally impossible to bar some immigrants while allowing others to enter: “… the achievement of fair immigration restrictions — that is the transformation of immigration controls into their opposite — would require a miracle.”  Refugee advocates like Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason, by emphasizing a distinction between those who deserve to be allowed to immigrate and those who do not, do harm to the effort to achieve the ability of all people to migrate freely.

The third idea is that the U.S. may bear some responsibility for the violent conditions in Central America.  In the case of Guatemala, the U.S. helped overthrow a democratic government in the 1950s, leading to a succession of repressive regimes and a civil war with massive killings of civilians by the government.  While it is difficult to prove causation, this legacy may account for some of the country’s current violence and poverty.  In addition, the U.S. deportation of Central American immigrants in the 1990s apparently has contributed to violent conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  Matthew Quirk, writing in The Atlantic six years ago, explained this link:  A small number of Salvadoran immigrants formed the MS-13 gang in Los Angeles in the late 1980s,

but MS-13 didn’t really take off until several years later, in El Salvador, after the U.S. adopted a get-tough policy on crime and immigration and began deporting first thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Central Americans each year, including many gang members.  Introduced into war-ravaged El Salvador, the gang spread quickly among demobilized soldiers and a younger generation accustomed to violence.  Many deportees who had been only loosely affiliated with MS-13 in the U.S. became hard-core members after being stranded in a country they did not know, with only other gang members to rely on… MS-13 and other gangs born in the United States now have 70,000 to 100,000 members in Central America, concentrated mostly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The murder rate in each of these countries is now higher than that of Colombia, long the murder capital of Latin America.

Finally, the Libertarian Party has pointed out that “… U.S. government policies have caused the conditions that some of these Central American children are fleeing. The War on Drugs has created a huge black market in Latin America, causing increases in gang activity and violent crime.”  (For more information on connections between the drug war and immigration, see here.)  While U.S. contributions to problems in certain countries may not support a case for open borders, it does add another layer of U.S. responsibility for doing what is just for migrants from these countries.

In conclusion, establishing an open borders policy, combined with U.S. facilitation of migration, is the only moral and pragmatic response to the influx of Central American children.  Efforts to aid only a portion of the children in their quest to stay in the U.S. are morally insufficient and help to justify immigration restrictions.

What we can learn from Glenn Beck’s humane gesture and the response

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

Glenn Beck (website, Wikipedia) is a political pundit in the United States who’s been described as a conservative with libertarian leanings. Beck has a large fan following. His shows can be quite mesmerizing, even if you don’t agree with him. He’s able to convey a mix of curiosity and honesty even when his statements are all wrong, and one often gets the sense that he’s sharing his own inner struggles with his viewers.

Beck has a streak of independence from mainstream wisdom that can be both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, this independence attracts him to conspiracy theories that most people dismiss, and that are often false, and exaggerated even when true. On the other hand, he can sometimes stick his neck out to courageously make an important and true point despite the fact that this would be detrimental to his ratings and subscriptions.

The story

In late June 2014, there were a couple of stories in The Blaze (a website owned by Glenn Beck) about Beck asking his audience to show compassion to the children who had been crossing the U.S. border illegally. His foundation, Mercury One, was accepting donations to help feed and house the children, and was targeting to raise $300,000. One article noted:

Beck has stated that the Obama administration is “directly responsible” for the recent flood of illegal immigrants from Central America. And though he believes every person who crossed into the United States illegally must be sent home, Beck and the charity he founded, Mercury One, have chosen to do all they can to help ensure the refugees have basic necessities like food and water.

An earlier article noted:

Beck said the American people have to make a choice. They could “run down to the border” and secure it themselves, but “that doesn’t fix the humanitarian crisis, and we have to err on the side of humanity.”

“If we’re going to be Americans, a choice has to be made. And we always make the right choice,” Beck said. “As people, we always do. We would rather extend ourselves and see the life of a child protected than err on the side of being silent, still, and [seeing] harm come to a child. … Acting in a compassionate way is what makes us human. It’s what makes us Americans.”

Beck said the tens of thousands illegal immigrants flooding our border “have to be sent home,” but that we can’t stand by while so much suffering is happening “on our side of the border.”

“I’m not talking about, we’re going to send them into our cities,” Beck said. “I’m saying, can we please get them port-o-potties? Can we get them portable showers? Can we feed them? You want to show the world what it means to be an American? Then let’s do that. Let’s put the well-being of others on the highest pedestal.”

On July 8, 2014, The Blaze published an article by Erica Ritz about Glenn Beck’s announcement that he would be “bringing tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears and soccer balls to McAllen, Texas on July 19 as a way to help care for some of the roughly 60,000 underage refugees who have crossed into America illegally in 2014.” Here’s the video segment:

Issue Hawk noted (based off of the same video):

Beck plans to go to the border on July 19, bringing with him, according to Mediaite.com, “tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears, and soccer balls.” He will be joined by religious leaders and two Congressmen who could stand a lesson or two in compassion, Reps. Mike Lee of Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas. He then said this decision has cost him money (vis-à-vis subscriptions/donations) and garnered “violent” hate mail from his audience.

Beck’s attitude on immigration is much different than is currently espoused on conservative media. “The best way to secure our borders and to make America a safe place,” he says, “is to make it accessible to all those fleeing poverty, oppression, and violence. Anybody in search of a better life.” He mocked those (like Sarah Palin) who claim that this is solely the President’s fault (or part of a secret agenda).

Beck’s announcement met with a lot of critical pushback in the comments on the Blaze story, mostly expressing strong disapproval of Beck for lending any sort of helping hand to the “illegals”. It was also covered in a few other sources:

  • The Huffington Post also published the story, and responses there were mixed: some viewed Beck’s approach as cynical and insincere, some expressed reactions similar to those common on the Blaze, and some expressed admiration of Beck.

  • Gawker covered the story with the title Glenn Beck Angers Conservatives by Being Humane to Immigrants, pointing out how Glenn Beck’s humane gesture got heavy pushback from conservatives, including legislators.

  • Jonathan Topaz covered the story in an article titled What Glenn Beck fears could destroy him for Politico, July 9, 2014.

  • Over at Big Journalism, John Nolte offered a more sophisticated criticism of Glenn Beck, arguing that showing compassion to the illegal immigrants only incentivized more of them to cross, and to risk their lives in the dangerous journey. While his own criticism was prima facie reasonable, Nolte seemed oblivious to the statements of other critics of Beck, as evidenced in this paragraph (emphasis mine):

    Beck’s desire to help kids caught in a geopolitical crossfire through no fault of their own is laudable. We all want to help. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that it’s wrong to use American taxpayer dollars to feed, house, and offer medical care to these children. No one opposes that.

    Beck thinks more needs to be done.


  • In a post on Hot Air titled Glenn Beck, the border crisis, and the Republican Party’s empathy gap, Noah Rothman argued that conservatives had the problem of being and/or giving the impression of lacking empathy for suffering people, and Glenn Beck’s gesture was a good counterexample, but the pushback against him illustrated the problem again. He also pointed out many instances of lack of left-wing empathy, but said that conservatives needed to take more proactive steps to turn the narrative around.

  • In a post titled Glenn Beck Trucking Supplies to Border for Illegal Immigrants, Surprising People Who Base Their Opinions on Stereotypes at Reason‘s Hit and Run blog, Ed Krayewski wrote:

    Beck appears to be the only prominent figure, left or right, interested enough in the crisis at the border to do something himself and not just use it as a political opportunity to push for his preferred policy solutions. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid attention to Beck over the years.

  • In an article titled What Glenn Beck Got Right About The Border Crisis in The Daily Caller, July 11, 2014, Matt K. Lewis praised Beck’s humanitarian decision, and also noted:

    Personally, there are a lot of things I like about what Beck is doing. Conservatism shouldn’t be just about politics, and, of course, it isn’t. Conservatives (even the evil Koch brothers!) tend to be charitable — at least, in terms of giving money.

    Nolte argues that Christian charity should be done in secret, and to a certain extent, I agree. But isn’t there something to be said for leaders who are willing to set a positive public example? Isn’t there something gained from Glenn Beck challenging his audience to put aside politics and anger — and instead react to a humanitarian crisis simply as humans and people of faith?


    Additionally, isn’t it possible that Beck and Gohmert and Lee will — having seen the plight of these refugees — come away changed or have a different perspective? One wonders how bad things must be in Guatemala or Honduras for a mom and dad to pay a coyote to smuggle their child into a foreign land. Perhaps this will result in some introspection.

The analysis

  1. Whether Beck’s approach will actually help the children he intends to help, and whether his method of doing so is cost-effective, are questions I have no idea on. I am generally skeptical of gifts in kind, and I also have no reason to believe that Glenn Beck has a good track record of effective use of charitable donations. Finally, even if it were effective, an altruistic donor should still compare it against other, perhaps even more cost-effective ways of doing good. I have no specific evidence against Glenn Beck, but my general Bayesian prior suggests it’s highly unlikely to be a good place to donate money.

  2. The main value of what Beck is doing is symbolic: it raises the status of the issue, and makes the point that private individuals can (and arguably should) extend a helping hand. It elevates the humanity of migrants over their “illegal” status. Seeing a major figure (hitherto) respected by a large number of restrictionists make this point publicly has huge value, even if his specific actions are not that helpful.

  3. Of course, one can read this cynically and say that Beck is just looking for publicity, perhaps sacrificing short-term financial interest for long-term gains with a new demographic or target audience. Another possibility is that Beck was influenced by a big donor who made donations to Mercury One conditional to Beck using the money to take these actions (Beck does indeed mention an anonymous donor who gave $100,000, but there’s no evidence that the donor provided explicit input to Beck’s decision). I don’t have enough inside information to know the extent to which either of these is true. However, it is largely irrelevant to the analysis here: I’m interested more in the symbolism of the action itself rather than Beck’s possible ulterior motives.

  4. On the other hand, as my co-blogger John Lee pointed out eloquently a few days ago, the issue is primarily one of justice, not compassion. The presumption of freedom of movement across borders should be built on basic rights rather than on special pleading based on extenuating circumstances. The Libertarian Party agrees, saying:

    Ultimately, the fact that many of these children are fleeing dangerous situations isn’t the issue. Even if they were coming to the United States for fun, we should still allow them to enter. All foreigners should be allowed entry into the United States unless the government can produce positive evidence that they pose a threat to security, health, or property.

    Beck, on the other hand, seems to be motivated largely by compassion. He urges us to “err on the side of humanity” and says that when America is no longer good, it stops being great. So clearly, Beck is quite far from an open borders advocate. But compassion can be an important first step in recognizing the humanity of other people. This isn’t to say that restrictionists don’t recognize the humanity of potential migrants in theory, but many of them seem to forget it in practice or deprioritize it relative to other considerations. By highlighting the issue, Beck is trying to force people to more explicitly confront the dilemma. Some, like John Nolte, rise to the challenge by arguing that the treatment of migrant children is unfortunate but is the lesser of two evils. The more common response in the comments is to continue to refuse to confront the dilemma, and to shout Beck down.

  5. All that said, Nolte’s general class of criticism is correct in a broad sense, although it may very well not apply here. Namely, being more welcoming to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization. On the other hand, raping people who crossed borders without authorization reduces the incentive to cross borders without authorization. Offering amnesty to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization, whereas shooting them on sight reduces the incentive. It may well be the case that the primary reason for the recent surge of child migrants was worsening conditions in Central America. At least that’s what Dara Lind suggests on Vox.com. The other hypothesis is that a 2008 law passed to protect sex slaves has meant that children are less likely to be deported, and therefore incentivizes more child migration (more here). Whatever the reason, there should be a Bayesian prior that changes to the level of welcome at the margin affect migration decisions.

  6. The above leads us to two closely related contradictions in the compassionate moderate approaches to migration championed by progressives and Glenn Beck. First off, it isn’t very logically consistent to show compassion to migrants once they have crossed the border, while having little concern for those outside (cf. territorialism). The inconsistency is even weirder if you simultaneously think of illegal immigration as morally wrong. Think about it: you’re saying that if somebody who does not matter does an action you consider immoral, he or she starts mattering a lot more! Related to the moral contradiction is the practical implication: territorialist compassion incentivizes more illegal immigration, thereby heightening the contradiction with continued emphasis on border security and the rule of law. These points were made by co-blogger Nathan Smith here and Joel Newman here.

  7. What I find personally heartening about Glenn Beck’s thinking is that even though he is clearly far from open borders, he is employing some of the core elements of reasoning used in establishing the open borders presumption, and his thinking appears to be evolving fast. As the quotes above show, on June 25, he was putting emphasis on the fact that after feeding people, it was important to send them home. But by July 8, he had dropped explicit reference to sending people home, and even suggested that, in an ideal world at least, the United States should be open to people fleeing poverty and oppression. This does not mean he favors open borders in the current world, but he seems to have acknowledged a presumption of freedom of migration, even if very vaguely and in passing. What’s perhaps even more encouraging is that this rhetorical shift occurred despite significant pushback from his fan following. Whatever Beck’s inner views, the fact that he saw an opportunity to evolve in a direction opposite to what his audience was incentivizing him to do suggests that his public statements on the issue might continue to try to push his audience to think of the humanity of migrants.

    All in all, I don’t expect Beck to become a champion of open borders any time in the near future. The best-case scenario I consider plausible is that he acknowledges a presumption of free movement, but rather than actively campaigning for it, blames politicians in a vague way for politicizing the issue for personal electoral interest. If pressed, he might retort with some of the reflexive libertarian retorts against open borders. Of course, I’d be happy if I were wrong about this and Beck went all the way to open borders, if he could do so while still retaining at least something of a public presence.

    At the same time, I consider it quite unlikely that Beck’s views, or his choice of emphasis, will move in a more restrictionist direction. It’s very hard to stake out a humanitarian position and then return to “illegal”-bashing rhetoric. Even if he wanted to, I think Beck (or anybody else, for that matter) would find it hard.

  8. Beck’s admittedly limited, confused, and compassion-heavy moves will probably do more for the open borders cause than other, more minor, political pundits (such as John Stossel or Andrew Napolitano) who embrace open borders far more completely. That’s because Beck connects with a larger audience at an emotional level. And going by Wikipedia views and Google Trends, Glenn Beck appears to be the most read-about and most searched-about pundit among top American television and radio pundits. Rush Limbaugh (website, Wikipedia) is the only other figure who performs comparably. So Beck is in a position to influence a lot more people than most pundits.

    There may be a lot of visible pushback against him right now, but Beck has set a precedent and next time around, there will be more open support for him from within the conservative flank (cf. Asch conformity experiments). Even if Glenn Beck fades out as a pundit himself (due to this issue or any other), it’s likely that future firebrands will pick up where he left.

Weekly OBAG roundup 21 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Blegs and suggestions for artistic and literary depictions

Opinions of others about migration: general points

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to videos, debates, etc.)

Specific current and historical situations

Site and community meta

I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion

Post by John Lee (regular blogger for the site, joined October 2012). See:

To many, even those sympathetic towards it, I imagine liberalising immigration policy is just another pet bleeding heart cause — similar to saving the environment, helping battered women, aiding the homeless, etc. It can seem arrogant of open borders advocates to compare our cause to historical antecedents such as the abolition of slavery or apartheid. And I get these sentiments — in fact, I quite agree with them on a very fundamental level.

In the daily news, it’s rare to not come across a photograph or story of some activists fighting for an immigration-related cause. Sometimes it’s for the cause of allowing immigrants in the US to get in-state university tuition benefits; other times, it’s protesting the detention of asylum-seekers (whether in the US, UK, Australia, or elsewhere); most commonly, it’s a protest, somewhere in the US, demanding the cessation of deportations. Recently, the cause celebre has been, of course, the problem of children migrating to the US. Now, to be fully honest with you, I often look at these pictures and read these stories, and feel that I just don’t care.

Now, of course I do care very much about the issues at stake here: I spend a lot of time writing about open borders, for pete’s sake! So why do I read about immigration in the news and just go “meh”?

To add to the puzzle, this is actually a very personal and emotional issue for me. It’s impossible, actually, for me to understand migration without reference to emotion and personal experience. As a child, I lived for years knowing that my mother could be deported if she and my father were to separate, or even if she were to be widowed, thanks to my country’s immigration laws. As a student in the US, I wondered whether I’d ever be able to get a job here, with visa laws effectively banning me from taking a job outside investment banking or management consulting. And now as a US resident, I’ve seen my friends — and even my girlfriend — be forced to leave this country, thanks to its patently ridiculous laws.

So why then my disconnect from all these stories? My epiphany came when I read a story in the Washington Post about an American woman bidding her Bangladeshi husband farewell before his impending deportation. I’ve felt the same fears and worries they do and lived through similar frustration and farewells thanks to arbitrary immigration controls. I could put myself in their shoes.

Now this actually made me despair further: how can advocates of liberal migration laws win people’s hearts and minds with sob stories like these? Hardly any citizens will ever face the violent force of their own governments’ exclusionary immigration policies. How can citizens begin to care about the effects of their immigration laws, let alone be moved to support changing them? How, when even someone like me — one who deeply cares about immigration and demands open borders – can only be affected by a story that’s personally connected to my own?

Then, I read this comment on the Washington Post article:

Sorry, but she is making a choice here and it is not for her husband. If she is placing all these things before him, then it cannot be helped. If I were in her shoes there would be no way that I would not be on that plane with my spouse. I might miss Kansas, but I would make the necessary arrangements and I would be at his side.

Our actions reveal where are loyalties lie, and this lady appears to be more concerned with living in Kansas and the job she loves and all the rest, than in being with the man whom she married.

My reaction to this was anger. I fumed. To restate the cold logic here: “If the government forces your husband to live in a strange country where there are no jobs for you or him, and you choose to keep your job and the home you’ve both shared for decades, you clearly just love money and comfort more than your husband.” Pretty easy to say this when you’ve never had the government kick your partner out of the country — as has actually happened to me and to many of my friends.

After I calmed down, I asked myself why a commenter might react to the story in this manner. As a general rule, people are not randomly vindictive. So why the harsh reaction aimed at this woman and her husband? The obvious answer is that the commenter did not think to question the justice system’s decision to exclude someone; if the system has decided, the decision must be correct. Justice must be served.

But why is it that we don’t think to question the justice of this system? Why does this story not move us to ponder whether the law here was just? Why do the journalists and activists putting these stories out there not explicitly question the justice of an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth?

I’ve come to think that the reason I don’t care when I see pictures of hunger strikers protesting deportations, or picketers demanding immigrant access to certain benefits, and so on, is because these stories have always been framed in terms of compassion – not justice.

This is not to say I consider myself heartless or lacking compassion, although I am not in any place to judge myself. Rather, it is that when I read about stories which don’t directly affect me, it is simply difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. And when these stories try to engage me by asking me to feel compassion for those affected, I only feel a sense of weariness.

There are a million causes in the world, and almost all of them seem to be asking for my compassion when I open the daily papers. Today it’s genocide in Darfur; tomorrow it’s children being kidnapped in Nigeria; next week, it might be people rendered homeless in the wake of a natural disaster (tsunami? hurricane? earthquake?); next month, perhaps another school shooting. I don’t have the time or energy to be emotionally invested in every single one of these issues.

And to the degree that I might choose to invest my emotions, there’s no particularly compelling reason to choose immigration as my humanitarian cause du jour over, say, victims of domestic violence or poaching endangered animals. You can tell me all the reasons why I ought to care more about immigration, but if you have to give me a 21-point list of reasons why I ought to care — if your sob story cannot speak for itself — then you’re not likely to win me over.

It may strike one as galling to so baldly rank and prioritise humanitarian or compassionate causes, but this is exactly what all of us as citizens and individuals do all the time. Virtually every one of these activism stories pulls at the humanitarian, compassionate angle, but none of us has the time to devote to more than a handful of such issues.

Now, the compassionate angle I think actually works especially well for many causes. But I think for migration it seems singularly unlikely to work; if anything, it can easily become counter-productive. Unlike with a cause like animal rights or famine relief — almost everyone’s played with a pet or felt the pangs of hunger before — few of us have experienced the feeling of being persecuted by the state under the aegis of arbitrary immigration laws. You can’t count on your audience to share the emotional experiences you might have as a migrant, activist, or journalist who has personally seen the horror of arbitrary immigration laws.

When you play up the compassionate angle in the story of a victim of deportation, what are you asking for? Unlike with many humanitarian causes, you are not asking for charitable donations. Rather, you are asking people to demand a change or an exception to settled law.

Now, we can certainly demand that laws be changed on compassionate or humanitarian grounds. But how convincing is this? If people believe the justice system has found someone guilty of a crime, are they going to believe the criminal ought to get clemency simply because we ought to have compassion for the criminal? In an ideal world, this could perhaps be true. But in the real world, people believe that if you’re a criminal, you ought to pay the price set by the justice system.

As a result, the constant framing of immigration as a question of compassion perplexes me. This is like asking for a slave to be set free, not because laws permitting slavery are barbaric and need to be repealed, but because poor Uncle Tom really needs to be free, and oh isn’t it such a shame that in this case the law is irrationally separating him from his family?

I mean, yes, the law is inhumane and barbaric and evil — but that’s the whole point! Asking for compassionate special pleading on purely humanitarian grounds, without ever questioning the barbaric law that is in place, simply throws your entire case away. Somehow, this is the modus operandi in how immigration activists campaign for liberal reforms!

Put more bluntly, the case for more liberal migration laws, and yes, open borders, cannot rest on compassionate grounds. Yes, one can make such a compassionate case. But there are a million things needing our compassion. What makes immigrants so special?

The point is not that immigrants are special. No, the point is that immigrants are just like you and me. The point is that our law owes them justice, same as the law owes any and all of us. We cannot use the force of law to exclude people from society in an unjust manner. We cannot allow our government to perpetrate injustice and oppression in our name.

That’s what makes immigration and open borders so compelling to me. I don’t see immigrants as some group in need of special pleading or special compassion from me or the government. I see migrants as ordinary people who, same as anyone else, need to be treated justly. The reason I care so much about this issue is not because I feel immigrants need my special attention — although I think there is a case for more compassion towards those who are strangers in our land. I simply believe that immigrants, like all of us, are entitled to just treatment under the law.

Rohingya being deported from Bangladesh

Immigration reform and open borders are not about making life better for a special, deserving class of people. They are about abolishing systems of injustice which unjustly oppress ordinary people. The woman who loses her deported husband does not need our compassion; she does not need a special exemption from our irrational laws. What she needs, what millions of others like her need, is justice.

Weekly OBAG roundup 20 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

General observations about migration, its morality, and its effects

Opinions of others about migration: general points

Opinions of others about migration: specific individuals (includes links to videos, debates, etc.)

Site meta

The inaugural issue of Peregrine, and the citizenistic case for migration liberalization

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

The Hoover Institution recently started a new online journal called Peregrine on immigration to the United States (website, Wikipedia). The journal is part of the Hoover Institution’s Conte Initiative on Immigration Reform. Judging by its inaugural issue, the journal seems to lean in a pro-freer-migration direction, but with a citizenistic focus. In particular, there’s an emphasis both on keyhole solutions and on a preference for high skill, ideas that are perhaps more common among technocrats, policy wonk types, and part-of-the-way-free-market intellectuals (compared to hardcore libertarians, civil rights-oriented people, and people with a more progressive/egalitarian bent).

I’m going to look at some of the pieces in their inaugural issue to better illuminate the distinctions between the open borders position and moderate immigration reform ideas.

The survey

The inaugural issue includes a survey of 38 members of the Hoover Working Group on what type of change to United States immigration policy they would prefer. The following are the results (more on the linked page):

  • 89% favored a switch to a more merit-based immigration system ceteris paribus (i.e., for any given number of admitted immigrants, they favored a more merit-based allocation than the current system).
  • 86% favored additional merit immigrants.
  • 72% favored unlimited green cards for scientists.
  • 65% favored an “equilibrium bond”.
  • 63% favored limiting the number of family-based green cards issued, holding the total number of immigrants admitted constant.
  • 58% favored an equilibrium market.
  • 57% favored a long-term green card, allowing for unlimited green cards but a longer path to citizenship.
  • 38% favored restrictions on green cards that vary cyclically with economic conditions in the US.
  • 36% favored open borders subject to “a background check and some kind of assimilation test such as English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history.”

It’s worth noting that this is probably not a scientific sample, and the selection bias makes it unrepresentative even of the technocratic or policy wonk world. It’s still interesting that over a third of the respondents favored (essentially) open borders, and many other favored fairly expansive keyhole solutions, particularly for high-skilled workers. For the US population as a whole, the comparable number according to the World Values Survey was 7%. In fact, according to the WVS, the highest proportion for “let anybody come” across all First World countries was 18%, found in Sweden. The disparity between the views of the experts surveyed by Hoover and the general public is consistent with the general economist consensus in favor of freer migration and the fact that smart and more informed opinion tends to be more supportive of migration liberalization.

The survey was also discussed in an Open Borders Action Group post.

John Cochrane’s article

University of Chicago financial economist John H. Cochrane (blog, Wikipedia) penned a piece for the inaugural issue answering the question What is the Optimal Number of Immigrants to the US? He republished the piece on his own blog, and it was picked up across the blogosphere (for instance, here, here, and here).

Prima facie, Cochrane’s argument and conclusion seem quite closely aligned with the typical arguments of open borders advocates. Cochrane notes that the United States is nowhere close to being saturated. He points out that asking for the optimal number of immigrants is the wrong question.

But Cochrane’s framing quickly shifts to the citizenist case for open borders. Cochrane (emphasis mine):

What is the optimal number of imported tomatoes? Soviet central planners tried to figure things out this way. Americans shouldn’t. We should decide on the optimal terms on which tomatoes can be imported, and then let the market decide the number. Similarly, we should debate what the optimal terms for immigration are – How will we let people immigrate? What kind of people? – so that the vast majority of such immigrants are a net benefit to the US. Then, let as many come as want to. On the right terms, the number will self-regulate.

In the rest of Cochrane’s essay, where he considers different sorts of keyhole solutions, he toggles between pointing out what he (and many open borders advocates on this site) view as a problem with the use of state power for citizenistic goals and continuing to make the citizenistic case for open borders with keyhole solutions. For instance, he begins by critiquing the moral view that underpins nationally based welfare states, but is quick to stop and switch to offering keyhole solutions:

Why fear immigrants? You might fear they will overuse social services. Morally, just why your taxes should support an unfortunate who happened to be born in Maine and not one who happened to be born in Guadalajara is an interesting question, but leave that aside for now. It’s easy enough to structure a deal that protects the finances of the welfare state. Immigrants would pay a bond at the border, say $5,000. If they run out of money, are convicted of a crime, don’t have health insurance, or whatever, the bond pays for their ticket home. Alternatively, the government could establish an asset and income test: immigrants must show $10,000 in assets and either a job within 6 months or visible business or asset income.

When it comes to concerns about suppressing the wages of natives, he starts off with reviewing the empirical social science, then switches to the moral argument, and finally offers potential keyhole solutions:

You might fear that immigrants compete for jobs, and drive down American wages. Again, this is not demonstrably a serious problem. If labor does not move in, capital – factories and farms — moves out and wages go down anyway. Immigrants come to work in wide-open industries with lots of jobs, not those where there are few jobs and many workers. Thus, restrictions on immigration do little, in the long run of an open economy such as the US, to “protect” wages. To the extent wage-boosting immigration restrictions can work, the higher wages translate into higher prices to American consumers. The country as a whole – especially low-income consumers who tend to shop at Wal-Mart and benefit the most from low-priced goods – is not better off.

And finally, if it did work, restricting labor benefits some American workers by hurting Mexican workers. Is it really America’s place in the world to take opportunities from poor Mexicans to subsidize our workers’ standard of living? We are a strange country that rigorously prohibits employment discrimination “because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent….” and then requires such discrimination because of, well, birthplace.

But if that’s a worry, fine. The government could license protected occupations such that only US citizens can hold the protected occupational licenses. Too intrusive? Well, that’s what we’re trying to do by keeping people out, and good policy is not produced by putting nice appearances on nasty policies.

Overall, Cochrane comes off as somebody who has all the trappings of an open borders advocate, but whose frame of approaching the issue is still dominated by mainstream terms of discourse. In particular, he seems to grant a lot to citizenism as a framework to argue within, and rarely makes moral, rights-based arguments for the right to migrate. This would probably make him more appealing to the technocrats and policy wonks reading him, and would probably also earn him praise from some of the critics of this site such as occasional commenter Christopher Chang.

Sidenote: Cochrane sounds remarkably similar to Bryan Caplan back in 2007. Caplan seems to since have evolved in his presentation style to focus more on rights-based arguments and a more universal, big-picture perspective (as evidenced here and here). It’s possible that Cochrane will evolve in a similar direction if he spends more time reflecting on migration over the coming years. Indeed, as my co-blogger John Lee noted, Cochrane’s addendum when he republished the piece on his own blog suggested that he was already shifting in the direction of making the moral case more forcefully. I also posted about the parallels between Cochrane’s piece and Caplan’s early writing to the Open Borders Action Group, but it hadn’t gotten any comments there at the time of publishing this piece.

Richard Epstein’s article

Though not as radical as Cochrane, University of Chicago and New York University law scholar Richard Epstein (Wikipedia) also pushed back at the idea that numerical limits on immigration were the right way to go. Reflecting his classical liberal and legal background, Epstein suggested instead trying to come up with a clear criterion defining what sort of potential immigrant might be let in. His own view was that the criterion should be tailored so that the marginal immigrant did not pose a significant burden on the country. On the whole, he was optimistic about the possibility of coming up with criteria that eliminate the need for long queues without hurting the interests of the United States:

Immigration rules should not envision in advance some quota on the number of persons who will be allowed in on permanent visas. They should avoid patterning principles. Rather, the rules should set out the test by which individuals should be allowed into the country.

Here is one example. Suppose that it is thought that individuals should be allowed into the United States if they can prove that they can support themselves in the country for a period of say three years. The appropriate rules in question then could ask that individuals seeking immigration gain a certificate of prospective employment from a domestic party. It may well be that the initial permit will be subject to modification if the immigrant loses the job, changes the job, changes marital status or whatever. But for these purposes, the key step is the first one. Once the basic test is established, then let the number of immigrants take care of itself: an equilibrium in which those who can meet the test get in, those who do not, do not get it.

One caveat to this proposal is that this three-year period need not be set into stone. A second caveat to this proposal is that it might not work at all. Neither caveat gets us back to a system of quotas and targets. It could be that the leading indicator for immigration practice should be something other than a promise of employment. But whatever the test, this country is large, and so long as the proposed standards are not perverse, we should let the numbers take care of themselves.

The rest

The remaining articles in the inaugural issue were less radical, and perhaps a better reflection of the conservative/classical-liberal/technocratic/policy-wonk approach (as opposed to both the egalitarian/progressive and hardcore libertarian approaches). Here’s a brief summary:

  • Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute recommends increasing work-based migration and limiting family migration to only the nuclear family.
  • Lanhee Chan recommends a more rational approach that reduced the long queue for green cards, but did not provide clear specifics of just how far to push in the direction of liberalization.
  • Beth Ann Bovick recommends a shift to work-based and skills-based migration so that migration could help with the recovery and growth of the United States economy.


Overall, the survey findings as well as individual essays provide additional confirmation of the economist consensus in favor of freer migration (see also here), while also confirming that even economically informed and aware people are not open borders advocates. They see the arguments for freer migration, but don’t think of open borders as feasible. And they concede citizenistic goals, so the main reason they are more pro-migration is largely that their economic literacy causes them to be more optimistic about the benefits of migration to citizens.

More Thoughts on Climate Change and Open Borders

Post by Joel Newman (occasional blogger for the site, joined January 2013). See:

In 2012 Nathan suggested that the negative impacts of climate change likely “… will fall disproportionately on poor countries…” but that the ability of residents of those countries to migrate to more prosperous countries would allow them to escape “… possible humanitarian catastrophes.”  He concluded that “if we are altering the climate, we need to adapt to that, and migration, moving from the areas most damaged by environmental change to the areas most favored by it, is one of the most powerful instruments of adaption available.”  Open borders would provide a means for people to escape Third World countries like Bangladesh and island nations in the Pacific which are likely to be negatively affected by global warming.  In this post I will examine additional aspects of the relationship between climate change and open borders.

First, the ability to emigrate from advanced countries may be important in the future if climate change severely impacts those countries.  In a previous post I observed that open borders would be beneficial to citizens of advanced countries by allowing them to access opportunities outside of their home countries.  This availability to move to other countries would be especially important in certain climate change scenarios. In the book American Exodus, Giles Slade states that severe droughts, heat waves, forest fires, superstorms, and other adverse weather events associated with climate change will lead to many lost lives and expensive damages in the U.S.  (A recently released report also discusses the negative impact of climate change on the American economy. )  He predicts that “… as America’s Southwest dehydrates and its northeastern shorelines erode… many more human migrants will seek out cooler climes and higher ground.  Canada, of course, is the obvious destination for Americans suffering from the increasingly ‘hot, flat and crowded’ conditions of the United States in the 21st century.” (p. 221)  While the book hints that areas of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska could serve as refuges for Americans in this scenario, open borders would provide Americans another sanctuary in Canada.  Open borders also might be essential to residents of other advanced countries who might be threatened by climate change, such as those living in southern Europe and Australia.

Second, climate change can drive migration, but migration from developing countries to developed ones also might drive climate change.  Vipul has noted that some argue that “if open borders prevailed, many people would migrate to the developed world, and their resource consumption would increase dramatically… It could exacerbate problems of resource scarcity as well as global warming.”  This argument that open borders would accelerate global warning needs to be thoroughly addressed.

One response to the argument is that it is unjust to have a de facto policy of keeping would-be migrants poor by preventing them from moving to an advanced country.  The Immigration Policy Center observes that “blaming immigrants for climate change suggests that less-developed countries should stay that way… Based on this logic, unauthorized immigration isn’t the problem, increased wealth and international development are.”  In an effort to combat global warming, should there be a global campaign to keep the residents of developing nations poor and to impoverish residents of advanced countries?  If this idea is outrageous, how is it acceptable to single out a specific group, residents from poor countries wishing to migrate to advanced ones, for such treatment?

Another possible response to the argument is that, as Nathan points out in his post, since some regions could benefit from global warming  and so long as the world has open borders, people can adapt to the accelerated warming caused by migration through further migration, like the idea of Americans emigrating to Canada.  Klaus  Desmet and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, who have researched the economic impact of global warming, write that even in extreme scenarios of climate change, “… the overall welfare effect of climate change is negligible.  Although agricultural productivity declines in some places, it increases in others.  As long as the world can trade and people can move, the impact is minimal.”  However, they note that in “very extreme” scenarios, “things could turn disastrous… welfare would decline precipitously.”

So could we have open borders without the risk that the world could warm up too much?  Apparently, yes. Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, highlights the current different environmental impacts between those in advanced and developing countries and the implications of higher levels of consumption by individuals residing in poorer countries.  He states that “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world.  That factor of 32 has big consequences.”  He also notes that “what really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.”  Not surprisingly, “people who consume little want to enjoy the high consumption lifestyle.  Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy.  And tens of millions of people in the developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating, especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia.  Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates, even though most immigrants don’t succeed immediately in multiplying their consumption by 32… if the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold.  It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people.”

However, Mr. Diamond apparently does not promote restricting migration as a solution.  Instead he sees the solution residing in the more intelligent use of resources.  He states that “we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels… whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.  Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates.  Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life.  For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion…”  He notes fisheries and forests could be managed sustainably, though most are not. He predicts that “within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now” and “per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours.  These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects.  In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends… I am cautiously optimistic.  The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.”

Similarly, an article on the website for the Center for American Progress  notes that “for years, anti-immigrant groups have waved the green flag to push a xenophobic agenda… And while there is a relationship between population growth and environmental destruction, it is a complex one.  Environmental impact is determined not just by our numbers, but by how we use our resources—our systems of production and consumption and the policies that shape them… it’s crucial to reduce consumption in the affluent countries, by, for example, investing in mass transit and ‘green’ urban planning that can reduce the environmental impact (and greenhouse gas emissions) of large, growing cities.”

Increased immigration could actually reduce consumption rates in host countries.  Vipul posits that the increased population density that open borders would create in advanced countries with relatively low density, such as the U.S. and Canada, could reduce the per capita carbon footprint in those countries.  For example, the enlargement of municipalities through immigration could make mass transit feasible where it wasn’t before.  This difference in population density may explain why the U.S. economy is more  carbon-intensive than that of Western Europe.  Increased density could mitigate the increased carbon footprint from larger migration flows.

In conclusion, open borders could be important for people in both advanced and developing countries to escape the negative consequences of climate change.  At the same time, fears of accelerated climate change due to increased migration shouldn’t undermine open borders; rather than fighting an unjust campaign to keep those in the developing world poor, advanced countries must focus on how resources are used.

Open Borders tops web search for open borders

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

On June 30, 2014, I noticed that this website (openborders.info) is the top Google Search result for open borders. I verified that this is robust under anonymization, and also posted about it on Open Borders Action Group, where the commenters confirmed my observations. This blog post contains some information about the search performance of the term. Unfortunately, I don’t know how long we’ve been on top for the term. All reported ranks below are as of July 1, 2014, but clicking the links will take you to the current results at the time you click. The ranks you see could therefore differ from the reported ranks. Google and Bing search results may vary by person and location. Dogpile (website, Wikipedia) and DuckDuckGo (website, Wikipedia) use Google Search but anonymize the search query so as not to bias it with the user’s search history or other user-specific information. Results reported for Dogpile and DuckDuckGo should therefore be consistent with each other and stable across persons.

Results for open borders, plain and simple

Search term Google.com Bing.com Dogpile DuckDuckGo
open borders #1 #1 #1 #1
“open borders” #1 #1 #1 #1
open border #2 #2 #3 #3
“open border” #2 not in top results not in top results not in top results

For the open border search query, the result that beats it in non-anonymized search (for me) is the Wikipedia article on open border. In anonymized search, openborders.info ranks #3. It is beaten by the Wikipedia article and U.S. Open Borders.

Some of the commenters on my Open Borders Action Group reported similar results on other Google domains (google.ru, google.co.in) with English-language search queries. Read the comments, or try searching the domains yourself.

How much traffic has this search term driven to the website?

As of July 1, 2014, a total of 1061 visits to the site were from the open borders search term. This is the second highest search term in terms of the number of visits. The highest is pro immigration arguments (1200 visits), for which DuckDuckGo search gives our US-specific pro-immigration arguments page as #2.

Results for variations of the term

For the following variations of the term, openborders.info pages come in the top ten search results on DuckDuckgo:

Search term Rank Page shown
libertarian open borders #2 Libertarian case for open borders
open borders double world gdp #1 Double world GDP
open borders bryan caplan #1 Bryan Caplan
open borders america #4 main page
open borders us #2 main page
open borders israel #6 Blog tag Israel
open borders with mexico #7 Blog tag Mexico

Feel free to suggest other search terms and permutations in the comments, or try them yourself!

Other caveats

  • Search volume for the term “open borders” (with or without quotes) is quite low compared to search volume for other migration-related terms, in particular immigration reform. See a comparison of the search terms on Google Trends.
  • Almost all the top results for open borders, apart from Wikipedia and this website, are critical of open borders. Some of them are critical of open borders as an idea that has not yet been implemented, but many are using “open borders” as a (pejorative) term for the status quo. This suggests that most people searching for the term are searching for something different from what we are offering. It is interesting that both Google and Bing decided to rank us above these pages for the term, even though many of these pages are on sites with higher PageRank (albeit the sites aren’t necessarily that focused on open borders).

Possible implications

  • If this website is able to retain its top spot, then the future fate of the idea of open borders, with all its ramifications, is intricately tied with the fate of this website. To the extent that the idea of open borders catches on, this website will also catch on. In particular, if open borders becomes a big issue for discussion, or ever comes close to implementation, this website is likely to play an important role in the public conversation. The usual caveats apply: it could happen that the way that open borders reaches the public consciousness is through some terminology that is quite different from “open borders”, in which case this website need not play a role.
  • Increasing the brand recognition of open borders as an idea would automatically increase the brand recognition of this website. This makes publicity and advertising easier: rather than having to get people to remember a URL or click on it, we simply have to imprint the “open borders” term into their minds.

Historical ramifications

Back when I was starting the site (see my personal statement for the site for more on the history) I considered names of the “open borders” variety as well as names of the “free migration” variety. I settled on the former because it felt more right. It seems that this was a reasonable choice. Although free migration sees more search traffic than open borders, a lot of the search results there are dominated by companies offering website hosting that promise to migrate your website for free. It would have been very difficult to build a brand around the “free migration” name that was catchy and easy to Google.

PS: I’m in the process of compiling various web and social media analytics data for the Open Borders website. I’ll be uploading the data in the form of Excel spreadsheets both to the Open Borders Action Group files section and to this website. The list of pages that currently have linked Excel files is below:

The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP — Bryan Caplan

Creative Commons License Weekly OBAG roundup 28 2014 is licensed by Open Borders Admin under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.