Are restrictive guest worker programs in employers’ interests?

This post revisits a subject I last wrote about in December 2012. In that post, I discussed Daniel Costa’s critique of guest worker programs as they exist now, and noted how moves in the direction of more liberal guest worker programs of the sort considered on this site would be less susceptible to those problems than the status quo. Discussions of the (real or alleged) worker exploitation found in guest worker programs are often used as justification for ending the programs and moving instead to a more closed border regime.

Below are some examples of critiques of guest worker programs:

The critiques span a range of perspectives, and need to be addressed in terms of their explicit claims, philosophical assumptions, and tacit connotations. For what it’s worth, I think many of the factual claims are correct, but some of the connotations are mistaken. In this post, I concentrate on a specific claim, usually subtextual, but occasionally explicit, namely:

Guest worker programs where workers are tied to a specific employer and cannot easily move to other employers without losing their legal status in the country:

  1. allow employers to exploit workers in ways they wouldn’t if the workers were free to move around,
  2. benefit employers at the expense of both migrant workers and the native workers who do similar jobs, and
  3. exist in their current form (as opposed to a more liberal form) precisely because they allow employers to exploit workers.

(for a related discussion, and some articulation of these points, see here).

I think (1) is true but the emphasis is off, (2) is true only in certain circumstances, and (3) is probably not true.

#1: Do existing guest worker programs allow employers to exploit workers?

You might think it’s obvious that, if workers do not have the freedom to legally switch between employers without putting their legal status in the country in jeopardy, this gives employers carte blanche to reduce workers’ wages and working conditions to a point where it just beats the option of returning to their home country. But this isn’t so straightforward.

The worker does have a choice at the beginning: a choice in deciding whether to enroll in the guest worker program to begin with. At this point, the worker hasn’t signed up to what amounts to indentured labor. At this stage, the worker should be able to shop around for the employer who offers the best deal. That’s why inserting exclusivity and non-compete clauses into job offers raises their price.

So what’s the issue? Why doesn’t employer competition at the point when workers are signing up for the guest worker program drive wages up? We can think of a few stories:

  • Perhaps the issue is that it is easier for employers to collude to keep wages down for workers who are not physically present in the country, more so than for workers who are already in the country and can shop around for job interviews prior to signing up. In this case, the issue is not so much with workers’ inability to move between jobs as it is with the fact that workers can’t really search freely for jobs.
  • Perhaps the search costs for workers in other countries are sufficiently high that it creates barrier for entry for many potential employers, so the ones who are able to bear the search costs can get away with offering lower wages. I say “get away” but we could legitimately interpret this as just saying that they pay lower costs because search costs eat up part of their budget.

I think the second point is probably more of the story. It’s hard to find workers in a different country who would be suitable workers. Conversely, the search costs for workers themselves are high. These high search costs take away some of the economic surplus of the worker directly, but also keep many potential employers effectively out of the market.

Whatever the mix of these (or other) reasons, I think the issue at hand is a mix of naturally higher costs involved in hiring across large geographic barriers, and specific barriers imposed by border enforcement. If workers could enter legally and freely move around interviewing for jobs, then the fact that once they get a job they are stuck with it wouldn’t be such a big issue. It would still be an issue, and I would still support getting rid of tying workers’ legal status to employers. If employers and workers want long-term loyalty, they can arrange for it the same way they do with native workers: insert non-compete clauses or include a bonus for completion of the work. And note that the existence of non-compete clauses and credible commitment devices could help both employers and workers, not just employers (my co-blogger Nathan suggests Chapter 1 of his book The Verdict of Reason for a more detailed discussion of the role of credible commitment devices. He also notes that, to the extent that migrants are legally more heavily tied to a particular employer, this might disadvantage natives competing with them, who cannot make such a credible commitment. I’m not convinced that this is a significant factor but it is plausibly important for some guest worker programs).

Regardless of the specifics, allowing more people to enter a particular occupation is likely to, at least in the short term, drive down wages for that occupation (though there are many interesting exceptions and caveats, as noted at our suppression of wages of natives page). But this is more a general statement about supply and demand than a claim about worker exploitation.

A related point. There have been many claims, some backed by evidence, of employers offering workers one thing when recruiting them, and then reneging on their terms, or offering far less, when the workers are in the new land. Because of the restrictive terms of their guest worker program and the absence of, or difficulty of accessing, legal recourse options, workers are stuck. I think this is often true, but the existence of large-scale repeat migration suggests that, at some level, a large number of workers implicitly know that the claims that employers make when recruiting them are overstatements. Why do employers bother making false claims when recruiting, and then offer less when the workers are already in the land? This is probably a marketing/signaling/price psychology issue that I don’t have full understanding of. Michael Clemens makes the point in his paper on migrant labor to the UAE (quoted by Carl):

Three key results emerge from analysis of these data. First, the economic benefit to migrant workers is extraordinarily and systematically large: migration to the UAE for basic construction work causes their daily wage to rise by a factor of five, and causes employment to rise by at least 20 percentage points. Second, there is no sign that many of the commonly-mentioned costs of migration are systematically experienced by migrants’ households; migration to the Gulf causes the fraction of households in debt to sharply decline, and there is no evidence of labor force entry by school-age children or labor-force exit by adult family members. Third, households are generally well-informed about working and living conditions in the UAE, and there is no evidence that they enter into migration systematically overestimating the benefits. Households with migrants give estimates of migrants’ income that closely reflect true income in UAE administrative records…

[…]

The principal focus of scholarly and popular writings on labor migration to the Gulf is the harms and abuse perceived to be associated with the phenomenon, not the benefits to workers or countries. The foremost theme of scholarly research on Gulf migration, Gardner (2012) writes, is “the problematic and exploitative labor relations that seemingly characterize the experiences of many of the poorest transnational labor migrants who spend time in the Gulf states.” To take two of numerous examples of academic research on foreign workers in the UAE, Keane and McGeehan (2008) describe “appalling” conditions in “a form of slavery,” while Zachariah et al. (2003) find that “nearly one-fifth of the Indian migrants have not received the same job, wages, and non-wage benefits as stipulated in their work contracts.”

An even greater focus on perceived harms to workers emerges in more popular writings on migration to the GCC. For example, Human Rights Watch (2006) describes workers in the UAE as subject to “wage exploitation, indebtedness to unscrupulous recruiters, and working conditions that are hazardous to the point of being deadly.” Of all internet pages in English that mention migrant workers in Dubai, almost one-third contain the words “slave” or “slavery.”

…the migration of workers from South Asia to the UAE has been an important force for employment and poverty reduction for South Asians. It generates employment for hundreds of thousands who would otherwise be without work and creates billions of dollars in earnings each year for low-income South Asian workers…

Clemens also notes the same for agricultural guest labor in the United States:

If you think these difficult jobs are bad for Mexicans, think about this: 85% of the NCGA’s Mexican seasonal employees last year were repeat employees. They came the previous season, and they chose to come back the following season. It is inappropriate and unfortunate that some labor advocates call H-2 visa jobs “close to slavery.”Slaves had no such choice, and would not have happily gone back to the plantation that owned them. Furthermore, the H-2 visa holders who work for the NCGA are not tied to a single farm: their visa allows them to work throughout the 700-farm network, so that there are opportunities to move if any given farm violates labor standards. Any shortcomings of the H-2 program are not the fault of migration itself; they can be fixed by fixing the program.

#2: Do employers benefit on net by restricting workers’ ability to move between jobs?

First off, let’s look and see if we see evidence of employers trying to restrict worker mobility for native workers. We do see some non-compete clauses for workers at top technology companies and finance companies, generally companies that have secrets that they don’t want competitors to gain. And we might see companies offer special pay and bonuses to workers for completion of projects. Contractors may in particular be subject to rules where they receive pay only if their work is completed. So, there is some evidence of employers benefiting enough from restricting worker mobility that they put clauses in job offers that include such restrictions, but these restrictions tend to be limited to some high-skilled jobs that involve sensitive secrets, or contract jobs where the job really needs to be completed in full to deliver benefit.

In general, do employers benefit from not having their workers suddenly leave the job? In some obvious ways, yes: after investing in the search and recruitment costs for workers (which are more for more high-skilled workers, but exist for workers at almost all levels) the employer would be pretty unhappy if the worker just left the job. Even so, it just doesn’t follow that employers benefit from a regime where workers’ ability to leave jobs is contractually restricted. Some reasons are below:

  1. Even if employers don’t value their own workers shopping around, they value poaching employees from other employers, and the net effect of these is ambiguous. As co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave put it in an Open Borders Action Group post comment:

    A given firm might benefit from being able to restrict its own workers from working elsewhere AND being able to hire anyone they want.

    However a firm doesn’t have that choice. It can either:

    A:Restrict its employees options and NOT be able to hire whoever they want. (Current scenario.)

    B:Or be able to hire anyone they want, but their own employees can also work with whoever they want.

    Firms want C, but they can only choose B or A. B is thus their preferred choice out of the available options.

    Note what this predicts: if a guest worker program isn’t portable, employers will generally try to exploit the way it benefits them: namely, the fact that workers don’t have the option to look around. But that doesn’t mean it benefits them more than it harms them.

    Could there be situations where employers on the whole are benefited and employees harmed by the non-portability of visas? Yes, but this is certainly not the only possibility or even the default possibility.

  2. In many cases, the fact that workers’ legal status is in jeopardy if the worker is fired can be a minus for the employer: Firing aversion is already common among employers — they find it difficult to fire workers even if they are not performing at full potential. The fact that a worker’s legal status in the country is contingent on employment means that the employer finds it harder psychologically to fire the worker. This then becomes a drawback of the non-portability of the visa. See also this Open Borders Action Group post.
  3. Having employees who are hanging around solely because they can’t legally leave is often bad for productivity and morale: Workers who are stuck with an employer because they have no other legal options may be half-hearted and uncommitted. In the best case, their lack of interest in the job means they do a somewhat substandard job. In the worst case, they might actively sabotage at the job. This risk is higher in more high-skilled jobs, but exists everywhere. Now, this isn’t a dealbreaker — if it were, slavery would have been a complete economic failure — but it is a downside.

Now, there are certainly some employers whose entire business model is built on exploiting the legal restrictions on worker movement, where they are able to justify the search and recruitment costs of workers based on the fact that workers are required to work only for them rather than switch jobs. In a world with open borders or much more liberal guest worker programs, these business models would be under jeopardy. So in some sense, these employers exploit the status quo. You could argue that they’re exploiting it in a way that’s still socially beneficial on net (cf. Matt Zwolinski’s discussion of the two kinds of exploitation).

There are also some plain unscrupulous and terrible employers, who physically abuse workers, and there are reasons to believe that the existing structure of immigration law allows them to get away with sloppy treatment of workers. Though, compared to rogue border enforcement agents and those managing immigrant detention centers, I think the incidence of such terrible employers is relatively small.

My co-blogger Nathan Smith made an interesting related point over email on how the status quo, where employers need to file expensive paperwork for workers, might in fact mean that the restrictions on worker mobility are actually what makes employers still be willing to file the paperwork and pay the fees. I’m not sure of the extent to which this is true, but it has a ring of plausibility to it. Even if it were true, that is not a defense of the status quo, but it does suggest that even to the extent employers benefit from restrictions on worker mobility, these benefits become particularly important in light of the legal costs imposed by paperwork for migrants.

#3: Are the restrictive provisions of guest worker programs a direct result of employers lobbying for less freedom for workers?

I would really be interested in evidence for this proposition, because I just don’t see it. I wouldn’t say that employers are at the forefront of seeking full labor mobility for their workers, but if anything, they do seek more flexible rules that would benefit workers. For instance, I believe that making the H-1B visa semi-portable (in the sense that people who switch jobs when on a capped H-1B don’t need to try again for the lottery) was largely supported by, and in fact even lobbied for by, employers. This is in keeping with Michelangelo’s comment quoted earlier in the post, where employers gain from a flexible labor market by being able to poach workers from other employers, even if they lose a bit in terms of their own workers being able to leave at will.

Similarly, moves to increase flexibility with Optional Practical Training are generally met with approval from the business community, and the OPT is generally liked by employers and workers because of the reduced paperwork and the greater flexibility that works and employers have. As I discussed in my blog post on the OPT, Bill Gates, speaking as a representative of high-tech companies, lobbied for an extension of the OPT. Commentators with a better understanding of the situation than I possess have predicted that the business community will take badly to changes that make it harder for people to switch easily between jobs when on OPT:

Accordingly, Secretary Johnson directed USCIS and ICE to “develop regulations for notice and comment to expand the degree programs eligible for OPT and extend the time period and use of OPT for foreign STEM students and graduates.” The business community would like to see a significant expansion of STEM eligibility in the new rules. But the business community may not appreciate some OPT restrictions that the Secretary has suggested might be paired with expanded STEM eligibility. Currently there is great flexibility associated with OPT. F-1 graduates on OPT can be self-employed or work as independent contractors, and if they work as employees on a W-2, there is no prevailing wage requirement associated with their employment. The flexibility associated with OPT has proven extremely helpful to foreign entrepreneurs and inventors who use the post-graduation period to refine their inventions, products and business ideas, form companies, and find investors.

Anecdotally, employers rarely seem excited about H-1B paperwork, and saying that you need a H-1B visa to work for an employer has rarely been known to boost your chances of getting a job. It’s true that employers who are in a position to sponsor Green Cards for their H-1B workers might not be too excited about it because of the flexibility the Green Card offers their worker. But this is more that the employer isn’t interested in spending extra money to give the workers additional flexibility. It’s not so much that employers actually prefer to hire H-1B workers.

Are there exceptions? Yes, there are some employers whose business model is built around H-1B workers who offer better value for money. Some of these companies benefit from the fact that it’s hard for the worker to switch to another job while on H-1B (because that involves paying the H-1B fee over again). I haven’t seen evidence of it, but some of these companies might actually lobby against increased portability of H-1B visas.

Does the same dynamic apply to low-skilled work, such as agricultural labor? First off, let’s think of it: the agricultural guest worker program in the United States is sufficiently cumbersome that most farmers don’t bother going through it at all, instead employing illegal immigrants to meet their farm needs. There are a few groups, such as the North Carolina Growers Association, that have managed to pool together farmers’ resources and get more efficiency of scale when using those to hire workers. The NCGA (at least per their official claims) does not tie workers to particular farmers, but gives them flexibility to shop within the farm network. Obviously, since the NCGA’s raison d’etre is helping farmers navigate a complex system, they’d probably be hurt if the borders were completely opened. At the margin, though, they’ve advocated for greater liberalization and flexibility in guest worker programs.

Putting the blame where it belongs: restrictionist attitudes

The upshot of the above is that some employers benefit from some aspects of the status quo that restrict worker flexibility, but this isn’t true of employers at large, nor is there good evidence that employers at large have lobbied for it or consider it an optimal option. As for the raw issue of supply and demand, more open borders for a particular profession would probably allow for wages to fall more in that profession, so opting for a restrictive guest worker program isn’t optimal from that viewpoint. Some of the standard armchair arguments about how employers benefit from the status quo are mistaken. Even when correct about individual details, they draw incorrect broader conclusions.

I want to end with an analogy that is less than ideal but is still illuminative. You could argue that the status quo War on Drugs (which has previously been discussed in connection with open borders) benefits drug dealers at the expense of consumers, who have to pay much higher prices than they would in a free market for drugs, and that, basically, the status quo is a sop to drug dealers.

I think it is true that most of the people who peddle drugs under the status quo probably wouldn’t be the ones selling them in a world with open borders. So in a sense, they benefit from the status quo and it’s in their interest (insofar as selling drugs is a rational choice) to oppose any drug liberalization. But it would be wrong to conclude that the main reason we don’t have full drug freedom is lobbying by drug dealers! Drug dealers are not generally a politically influential segment of the population (though there are parts of Mexico and other Latin American countries where they are). They “benefit” in a sense from the status quo, but this is more an accidental gift to them, rather than a legal framework they shape. The main reason we don’t have a more free market in drugs is that the general population isn’t convinced it’s a good idea. The same way, the main reason we don’t have freedom of movement for labor is that the general public is very opposed to expansion of migration.

PS: When I return to the high-skilled hacks series, I’ll explore in more detail the historical justification and explanation of particular features of high-skilled US immigration law. I hope that I (or others) will do similar work for low-skilled work visas. When I do so, I expect to get a clearer idea of how true some of the claims I made in this blog post are. If I change my mind about some things, I’ll make relevant (and clearly noted) updates.

Related reading

These posts are somewhat related, but didn’t fit in well with the flow of my post (or the links to them are too obscure within the post), so I am including them here:

Thanks to Nathan Smith and Rebekah Smith for offering feedback prior to publication, in response to which I made some edits to the article.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

Not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions

A naive thinker about open borders might think of it as simply a continuum of possibilities: we can open the borders a bit, or a lot. This distinction is discussed on our moderate versus radical open borders page.

The idea of keyhole solutions has added more dimensions (in a very literal mathematical sense, in addition to the more metaphorical one) to the discussion. Rather than thinking simply of “how much more open should borders be?” the question shifts to “what sort of policy combinations can allow for us to get the most benefit out of migration, in the ways we care about?” The term “keyhole solutions” has come to represent the general idea of exploring a larger space of possibilities with respect to how migration can be expanded.

The purist in me isn’t too happy about this, because “keyhole solutions” as I believe the term originated had a more narrow meaning: to refer to narrow, targeted solutions that address the particular (real, perceived, or predicted) problem at the intersection of migration and whatever other domain is being considered, while trying to interfere as little as possible with the rest of the universe. But meaning is imbued by usage, and I’m okay with the meaning expanding and getting more fuzzy. In this post, however, I discuss some important distinctions between different approaches to “compromise” on open borders policy. There are a few additional subtleties that I’ll deliberately refrain from here, thereby meaning that my post is not reflective on my full thinking on the topic. I’m making that trade-off to keep the post simple.

A simple illustration of the distinction between true keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and (selective) blanket restriction

Consider the (abstract) problem that high levels of migration, along with current de facto rules for the rules for eligibility for welfare benefits, could lead to fiscal bankruptcy. Consider three potential “solutions” (note that these don’t even come close to exhausting the space of possible “solutions” — but they help to illustrate the distinction I’m trying to draw here):

  1. Improve the effectiveness with which immigrants (perhaps limited to the additional immigrants under migration liberalization) are walled off from the welfare state (this could involve changing the rules, or enforcing existing rules more effectively, or a combination).
  2. Reduce welfare benefits across the board for the whole population (see also our contraction of welfare state page).
  3. Forbid the migration of people for whom the probability of welfare benefit use, or the extent of such use (in expectation) exceeds a threshold.

In a loose sense, these are all “keyhole solutions” insofar as they attempt to address the (perceived or predicted) problem of migrant welfare benefit use.

However, they are all different in important ways:

  1. The first addresses the perceived problem at the intersection of migration status and welfare eligibility. Prima facie, this targets the problem most narrowly and is most deserving of the “keyhole solution” label. I’ll call this type of solution a true keyhole solution.
  2. The second addresses the problem but focuses on the broader issue of welfare use and welfare eligibility. Rather than focusing on migrants per se, it addresses a potential problem that is made more severe due to migration flow, but it addresses it in a way that does not per se discriminate on the basis of migration status. I’ll call this type of solution a complementary policy change.
  3. The third seeks to preserve the status quo as far as possible with respect to domestic policy, and addresses the potentially dangerous interaction with migration by forbidding the forms of migration perceived as risky. I’ll call this type of solution a blanket restriction. To emphasize that the blanket restrictions don’t apply to everybody, we might call it selective blanket restriction.

However, from another perspective, (2) and (3) are examples of keyhole solutions, insofar as they directly address problems created by migration. Whatever names you choose, I want to claim that there is an important conceptual distinction.

(1): True keyhole solutions: unequal treatment within a territory

True keyhole solutions are most likely to openly run afoul of moral scruples, particularly those related to equal treatment, from the territorialist perspective (i.e., from a perspective where the welfare of people within a geographical territory matters regardless of their country of origin, whereas the welfare of people outside the territory matters much less). In particular, true keyhole solutions strongly rub against people’s local inequality aversion. Because they specifically focus on policy at the intersection of migration status and the relevant domestic policy issue, they treat migrants differently from natives with respect to that policy issue. To be concrete, the true keyhole solution for welfare access denies migrants access to welfare benefits that natives can access. They discriminate between people in the same territory based on their migration status. Or, as Paul articulated in his critique of keyhole solutions:

Charging immigrants special taxes just because they are immigrants is discriminatory, violating the principle of equality before the law. It also ignores the common sense principle that, where possible, you should tax bads instead of goods. Immigration is not a bad.

Apart from their open violation of the principle of equal treatment within a territory, true keyhole solutions are problematic in another sense: they can be hard to enforce in practice. This is particularly true of the true keyhole solutions that involve migrant behavior after they’ve already moved (as opposed to those that are applied at the point of entry). The migrants are part of the general population now, and can mingle freely with it. Maintaining a separate set of laws for them would require identifying migrant status for them, as well as for natives who might be confused for migrants. Just requiring migrants to carry identifying documents isn’t enough — non-migrants also need to do so. The local law enforcement or welfare offices need to cooperate with the enforcement of the distinction based on migration status. These aren’t impossible problems if the true keyhole solution involved otherwise seems reasonable to those tasked with enforcing it, but this may not always be the case. For instance, denying migrants welfare benefits requires the cooperation of state and local offices where people submit documentation for welfare eligibility. What if the officers there are reluctant to put in extra work to ascertain a person’s migration status, or are happy to look the other way if migrants proffer false documentation, or simply aren’t able to judge the authenticity of documents?

Running afoul of equal treatment can also be problematic in cases such as the minimum wage, for different reasons — if immigrants have a different minimum wage than natives, this might actually hurt natives because their competition can credibly promise to legally work at a lower wage than they can. David Henderson made the point here:

First, [Bryan Caplan] says that if we didn’t get rid of the minimum wage, legal immigrants would just get black-market jobs. That’s true, but incomplete. Precisely because they would now be legal, they could comfortably go to a wage board in their state and complain after the fact and get back pay. An employer, looking forward to that outcome, would not hire them. I pointed out here that ironically, the way the minimum wage law is enforced is what gives illegal immigrants (who would no longer be illegal under Bryan’s preferred policy) an advantage in the competition for jobs. Illegal immigrants can credibly commit not to turning in a minimum wage violating employer. Legal immigrants can’t credibly commit.

(See also Caplan’s response here).

The minimum wage is a separate topic that deserves several blog posts of its own (but check out previous Open Borders Action Group posts about the minimum wage, in particular this post). Let’s get back to our current topic now.

(2): Complementary policy change: complex, and gets us into general debates about politics and policy

Complementary policy changes are protected from the charges of inegalitarianism that can be used to attack true keyhole solutions.

On the other hand, complementary policy changes affect domestic policy not just for migrants, but also for existing natives. They thus have a direct and obvious effect on natives. Discussing the wisdom of complementary policy changes therefore involves discussing the general wisdom of particular political stances. Ultimately, once we advocate open borders along with complementary policy changes, we’ve moved from solely debating or advocating migration policy (if we were ever doing that) to advocating an overhaul of sorts of the overall political and social system. I don’t mean to exaggerate: in the short run, open borders is perfectly compatible with the nation-state as we roughly know it, but to the extent that complementary policies are necessary or desirable to fully realize the gains from open borders, it does involve a lot of reimagining of the specifics of the nature and role of government. This is a topic worthy of a lot more blog posts, so I’ll leave it here for now.

(3): (Selective) blanket restriction: inflexible and generally inefficient but arguably necessary in some cases

Blanket restrictions are the restrictionist solution. Some types of migrants would (in expectation) cause or exacerbate a particular problem? Don’t allow them to come!

Blanket restrictions basically revert us to the original one-dimensional view of migration, where the question is just of how many and who the people allowed to migrate are. It is beset with the same problems as any external attempt to micromanage and control a voluntary market interaction. Some people could move and become better off, and make the world better off, but now aren’t allowed to do it because they happen to belong to a category that is forbidden from migrating. Much better to let them move and use a true keyhole solution to prevent any harms they may cause.

Nonetheless, there are arguably some contexts where blanket restrictions might be the only or best approach. Open borders advocates generally restrict these contexts to terrorists, seasoned criminals and people carrying communicable diseases (see this post of mine for more exploration of the crime question).

Immigration tariffs and bonds, and schemes such as DRITI are almost true keyhole solutions, but for a subset of the affected migrant population, they effectively function as blanket restrictions. Nathan has previously clarified that DRITI differs from blanket restrictions in the respect that deportation is off the table even for people who violate the terms of DRITI — they are treated as tax evaders rather than deportable offenders. Nonetheless, some people are likely to still be priced out of the system.

Fuzziness of the distinction

How clear is the distinction in practice? That is a hard question. Even open borders advocates are sometimes inconsistent and confused about the relevant distinction. For instance, many moderately pro-open borders people would balk at (3) as a “keyhole solution” to welfare use, but are okay with considering or even endorsing the corresponding “keyhole solution” to crime (for more on blanket restrictions for crime, see this earlier post of mine).

The distinction between (1) and (2) can get tricky for these two related reasons:

  • On the one hand, policies that are ostensibly targeted only at migrants can in fact have wide-reaching effects on natives who are among their friends, family, employers, employees, co-workers, or customers. Nathan Smith made this point really well in the context of blanket restrictions when discussing the right to invite and the communitarian case against migration restrictions. But the same point applies to keyhole solutions such as taxes and tariffs. As any person who has studied the economics of tax incidence can tell you, the person who has the direct responsibility of paying a tax isn’t necessarily the only person who effectively pays for it.
  • On the other hand, it is possible to devise policies that are ostensibly neutral and appplicable to all people in the geographical territory, but are effectively targeted largely at migrants and their children. For instance, educational policies relating to education in languages other than the country’s native language(s) are largely targeted at migrants and their children, although they apply equally to all. Similarly, racial policies may be ostensibly neutral to migration status, but may disproportionately affect migrants because of differences in the racial composition of natives and migrants.

Immigration tariffs and bonds, discussed at the end of (3), show that the distinction between (1) and (3) can also be fuzzy.

Related reading

How do you convince people to sustainably support migration liberalization?

I think open borders is a radical proposal, given how far the world is from it. I also think that open borders (or even partial steps in that direction) will significantly transform the global economy, culture, and society, and the details can’t clearly be predicted. Economists have estimated that open borders will increase global production by 50-150%. Even though I think this might be overstated, I think that even with that overstatement, open borders is still worth pushing for, which is why I’m sticking with it.

If open borders is such a big deal and the consequences are so unclear and uncertain, why should people who are already well off support it? If you lead a comfortable life in the First World and are generally risk-averse, open borders may well not pass a cost-benefit analysis for you. You might gain somewhat economically and in terms of cuisine options, but on the other hand you might see a slight wage dip and have to deal with changes to your neighborhood that you may not like. Even if you gain a bit on net in expectation (and I think there are good reasons to believe that most First-Worlders will benefit from open borders, both as natives of countries receiving migrants and because their own migration options have increased), it may not be enough to get you excited.

Co-blogger Nathan says something similar when discussing differences between the open borders movement and the gay marriage movement:

An important difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that it is widely and plausibly held (though I think it’s a half-truth at best) that same-sex marriage is a victimless reform which will have hardly any effect on the lives of non-LGBT individuals, or for that matter of LGBT individuals who don’t choose to marry. If so, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just cheap talk but cheap action. Open borders, by contrast, will involve, if not perhaps great sacrifice, then certainly great upheaval. Many will benefit– perhaps wisely-designed policies could even ensure that everyone benefits– but lives and societies will be transformed. That doesn’t alter the fact that saying one is for open borders is a cheap and easy way to display one’s virtue and benevolence.

Economic illiteracy and xenophobia probably explain a large part of why the world is far from open borders, but even if you get rid of these, open borders simply isn’t an exciting proposition for many reasonably well-off First Worlders from a purely self-interested and risk-averse perspective. What I mean by this is that, if open borders were to become the status quo, they’d probably get used to it and be quite okay with it over a long timeframe. But it’s not something whose benefits are huge, tangible, and clear.

For me in particular, open borders is interesting because of its global impact (undoubtedly, I would likely personally benefit from it, but not enough to justify all the time and effort I’m spending on it). But most people aren’t that interested in global impact. They (rightly or wrongly) care about their personal lives and their neighborhood (hence all the focus on territorialism, local inequality aversion, and the border as blindfold). They may bear no ill-will to foreigners but aren’t particularly concerned about them.

Given that freeing up migration often involves changing policy in receiving countries, how do we overcome people’s apathy/risk-aversion, even assuming we could overcome the arguably bigger problems of economic illiteracy and xenophobia? What’s a sustainable way of doing this?

Strategy #1: Glossing over harms and exaggerating benefits

The first and simplest strategy is to push back on claims of harms and exaggerate the personal benefits that people will receive from freer migration. For instance, one could (somewhat misleadingly) say that because open borders is expected to double world GDP, it’s expected to double “your” income. This isn’t true if the person being addressed is already a reasonably well-off First-Worlder (though people in certain professions may see their incomes more than double, this is domain-specific). Your income might go up or down modestly, and your capital assets are likely to appreciate, but it’ll fall far short of doubling.

Glossing over harms and exaggerating benefits can be a good strategy to begin a slippery slope to open borders, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable strategy. There’s a small chance that people initially attracted to migration liberalization in the hope of personal gain later start supporting it for other reasons (such as Oskar Schindler, who was initially motivated to save the Jews for reasons of personal profit, but later became passionate about it as an end in itself). But it’s also possible that being deceived about huge personal gains can make people even more skeptical of migration liberalization, and cause the gains to get frozen earlier than they would if a more honest communication strategy were used.

To be clear, I don’t think that, at the present margin, the general public in First-World countries (or elsewhere) has been successfully misled to believe migration will be a better deal than it actually is. In fact, all the evidence suggests that people are more negative about the consequences of current migration, and marginal increases in migration, than the evidence suggests. So, currently, people are erring in the other direction, and correcting that can be a valuable first step in garnering support for more liberal migration policies. I just don’t think there is an advantage in moving the distortion in the other direction, except in the case of one-time and quick policy changes. I also have moral/epistemic qualms about deception, which might be distorting my views about its efficacy.

Strategy #2: Buying support

Open borders isn’t a Pareto improvement over the status quo, but some cleverly devised keyhole solutions, such as immigration tariffs or co-blogger Nathan Smith’s more elaborate DRITI scheme, can come close. Now, as I explained in this post, it can be hard to be Pareto-improving in practice — somebody, somewhere, is going to get hurt — but one can design policies that are Pareto-improving in expectation:

So, some natives are expected to lose out. A number of people believe that political changes must be, to the extent possible, Pareto improvements: nobody’s worse off than before. This is not to be taken literally: it’s impossible to be sure that nobody would lose out from a change as large as significant liberalization of migration. So I’ll use Pareto improvement in the sense of Pareto improvement in expectation at the clearly identifiable subgroup level: no large subgroup of the population that can be identified clearly in advance should, in expectation, be worse off than before. On this view, then, one native being killed by somebody who migrated due to liberalization of migration does not violate migration being a Pareto improvement. But if high school dropouts can, in expectation, expect to see their wages go down by 5% due to migration liberalization, that is a no-no and we need to get back to the drawing board.

Some people, including co-blogger Nathan, view Pareto improvement as a proxy for moral desirability. On the other hand, co-blogger Paul has pushed back against this line of thinking. He has declared that support for keyhole solutions is more rightly viewed as a way of buying support from people who are extracting rents from the status quo and — a sometimes necessary compromise but still a compromise:

Open borders diluted by surtaxes and fines levied to further swaddle citizens of rich countries in protectionism are better than closed borders, but they do not constitute optimal policy. Advocates of open borders should acknowledge that keyhole policies are essentially bribes offered to political gatekeepers. Keyhole policies are tunable along a continuum, so without acknowledging that keyhole policies are compromises of principle, it’s possible to slip from reasonable keyhole solutions to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

[…]

Real open borders, where an individual, regardless of where she happened to be born, can choose where in the world she wants to live, is the only moral border regime. Keyhole policies are at best ethical compromises. Compromises, even ethical compromises, are often necessary in political matters, but we should mince no words in naming them what they are.

In addition to the moral qualms, designing keyhole solutions that actually work and get political traction is a hard problem, as I’ve alluded to in my post on the permissibility, desirability, feasibility, and stability of keyhole solutions, and later in my post on the puzzle of why there hasn’t been more aggressive experimentation by governments in an open borders direction. Or as co-blogger John puts it:

I think the main reason why we don’t have open borders — other than general xenophobic prejudice, which is really probably the hugest reason — is that the transaction cost of striking mutually beneficial deals is still really high. This is all the more true when you include in the cost of the deal having to ensure the deal is Pareto-neutral or -improving for every citizen of the more powerful country in the deal.

Put in more concrete terms, there is definitely some arrangement possible whereby some number of Ethiopians greater than the current number permitted are allowed to move to the US for work or play. Perhaps these Ethiopians would have to pay some exit or entry tax to each government — or perhaps their lucrative labour would be subject to a surtax which would be shared by Ethiopia and the US. However way you slice it, there is some way for the human race to come ahead in this deal. And I’m not going to even rule out the possibility that some migration treaty of this kind might be superior to a simple open border policy — if moving to the US leads Ethiopians who drive drunk to cause more property damage than they would have crashing their cars in Ethiopia, it might be better to tax Ethiopians as a group to socially insure against this.

The obvious problem is that striking deals like this is very difficult. It gets even more difficult when you factor existing welfare systems into the equation, and when you consider that it is impossible to fairly actuarially predict a given individual or even a given population’s future income or social costs. Throw in the fact that to be actually Pareto-neutral, you’d have to compensate every old bigot who doesn’t like to see Ethiopian people, and it’s basically impossible to strike such deals, if it wasn’t impossible already.

Strategy #3: Moral inspiration

The idea behind moral inspiration is simple: people are convinced that there is a moral case for something, and so, as long as the personal costs to them aren’t too high, they are willing to support it. Moral inspiration can’t make most people undertake huge sacrifices (though some people certainly will) but it can overcome apathy. If people are reasonably convinced of the moral necessity or wisdom of something, the question shifts away from “does this have a clear, tangible benefit for me worth the risks?” to “are the risks from this so high as to overcome the presumption in favor of doing the right thing?” This is why the moral case for open borders is featured prominently in our site menus (and will be even more prominent once we finish the site revamp).

Bryan Caplan has pushed for moral inspiration as the truly worthy way to promote open borders:

For many other important libertarian issues, appeals to self-interest are factually correct but, to use Brian’s word, “unworthy.” Immigration is such an issue. Yes, doubling GDP by opening world borders will enrich most people in the First World. But these economic benefits for First Worlders are not the main reason why I advocate open borders. The main reason I advocate open borders is that immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice against people from Third World countries. Once someone retreats to, “Yes, immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice, but doing the right thing would be very costly,” I’m happy to delve into the social science with them. Until then, they’re just missing the point.

Morality comes in different flavors, and co-blogger Nathan’s focus on what we owe humanity, and how to grapple with the reality of global poverty, might resonate more with some:

Which brings me to open borders. It’s hard to know for sure, but I think most experts would probably agree that open borders could do more to ameliorate world poverty than anything else we can do. I would say with a good deal of confidence that they could do far more, that everything else we can do is pretty much trivial by comparison. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe my story about getting stuck in the mud is a parable after all. For when I tried to help, offering a ride and then tossing the apple, it didn’t work. The offer was not understood, or the gift caused a fight. But the villagers in Msinja– I should have mentioned the name before now– enjoyed the dignity of being repaid for a service well rendered. I went back to Msinja the next week, with a car loaded with maize (though not the kind they wanted as it turned out, but oh well) and also vegetables, and– this was the best part– a soccer ball! The boys had been playing soccer (football) in the field using a wad of paper bags. I will never forget how their eager eyes followed me after they thought they heard me mention (in English, to the one woman in the village who knew some) a soccer ball; nor how they jumped and cheered when they saw it. They gave us tea, and I was introduced to the whole village, three generations of a few intermarried extended families, people for whom a job as, say, a supermarket checkout clerk in Lilongwe would have been the end of the rainbow, people of the kind from whom I was usually separated by the alienation of beggar and benefactor, but with whom, for once, I now chatted and laughed as equals. We are, at the end of the day, one humanity, and there is great joy in that. This post may have made some people more afraid of open borders. One might approve of the Malawians as I have described them but not want them as neighbors. That will not do. We have a responsibility to our fellow men, and aid will never discharge it: it’s too ineffective, and it doesn’t give people the dignity that work gives. We need to be less squeamish, and less cowardly. We need to open up to far more people the doors of opportunity.

I think moral inspiration is the smartest strategy. Co-blogger Nathan has written about the importance of moral inspiration by comparing the push for open borders with the abolition of slavery, with a particular focus on the role of Christianity (and in particular the Catholic Church) in the fight against slavery:

Again, one might suppose that the Church wasn’t all that serious, that it was dealing in mere “pious exhortation.” But what else does the Church have? To be sure, the Catholic Church in the High Middle Ages had more coercive power than it has, or desires, today. But it never had large armies under its sovereign authority. For brief moments, such as the papacy of Innocent III, it managed to become the leading political actor in Europe through astute diplomacy and the use of multiple channels of influence (e.g., Pope Innocent III authorized the new Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders). But it was never a match for the kings in military terms; it had, rather, moral and what we might call sacramental influence– it could excommunicate: is that “coercion?”– and sometimes a lot of financial power. It was never in a position to enact “a law to which exact obedience was required from the faithful.” Slavery could never have been abolished by papal fiat. It had to change hearts and minds. That’s a slow process. Today, open borders advocates face the same issue: the Catholic Church’s official position is as supportive of open borders, almost, as one could wish; yet the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion worldwide membership translates into very little practical support for freedom of migration. But why should this surprise us, when 54% of Catholics support gay marriage? With slavery, immigration restrictions, and gay marriage alike, the Catholic Church makes its views plain, but most of its nominal members, most of the time, don’t listen. Yet it has nonetheless, sometimes, moved the world in its direction in the long run. Late medieval Europe was almost free of slavery.

When I talk of moral inspiration, this includes the full spectrum of levels of engagement. At one extreme, you could have people who haven’t really thought deeply of the moral case but support it at the simplest level: “it’s wrong to stop people from moving around unless that has really bad consequences” (a presumptive libertarianism) combined with “open borders may affect me somewhat, but I don’t think it’s going to cause me a lot of harm.” At the other extreme, you have people who have studied migration heavily and have estimates of how open borders would transform the world, and based on all this, they think that the harms aren’t great enough to overwhelm the moral case for migration.

My ideal mix

I think strategy #1 isn’t good, except insofar as it broadly cancels out existing anti-foreign bias or misinformation in that direction. As for strategies #2 and #3, I think they are both important. But temporally, I think #3 should come first. The ideal sequence for me is:

  • Morally inspire a large and influential chunk of the relevant publics, to the point that it’s, say, more than 1/3 of elite publics and more than 1/5 of the general politically engaged population (for the appropriate comparison numbers, see Who favors open borders? by Nathan Smith).
  • The critical mass of morally inspired people plays two roles: first, even though they are still a minority, they form a reliable and dependable group who will stick with migration liberalization even in the face of somewhat rough times. That persistence is needed because opening borders won’t be smooth sailing. Second, devising appropriate keyhole solutions to buy out the rest of the population is not a trivial task. It needs a large number of people who come at the issue from different angles. So the critical mass will be really helpful there.
  • Once the critical mass is in place, double down on exploring and implementing keyhole solutions and slippery slopes to open borders, buying additional support using these. Use feedback from initial experiments to double down further. If initial experiments backfire somewhat, the bought-out contingent might no longer be loyal, but attrition from the morally inspired contingent will hopefully not be that high (unless the results are truly disastrous, but in that case, maybe we do need to rethink the case for open borders).

I’ll close with an excerpt from a blog post by Bryan Caplan. I believe that if a sufficiently large population is morally inspired, we’ll overcome the situation where people aren’t trying hard to realize the gains relative to the status quo. That’s why I put moral inspiration first temporally.

Now consider: Economists already know how to extract many trillions of dollars of additional value from the global economy. How? Open borders. Under the status quo, most of the world’s workers are stuck in unproductive backwaters. Under free migration, labor would relocate to more productive regions, massively increasing total production. Standard cost-benefit analysis predicts that global GDP would roughly double. In a deep sense, we are sitting on an ocean of talent – most of which tragically goes to waste year after year.

When people accept this analysis, though, they rarely display elation, frustration, ingenuity, or tenacity. The standard reaction, instead, is naysaying. “First World workers will lose.” “Only the rich will gain.” “They’ll all go on welfare.” “Our culture will be destroyed.” “The immigrants will increase crime.” The underlying attitude is not frustration at the difficulty of realizing mankind’s full potential, but sheer apathy. People look for reasons not to open borders – no matter how enormous its potential social benefits.

My point: Apathy in the face of unrealized multi-trillion dollar gains is absurd. People wouldn’t be apathetic if a trillion dollars worth of Leonium were under the Empire State Building. Instead, people would be constructive – earnestly searching for ways to surmount every impediment to success – natural or social, real or imagined.

Thanks to Nathan Smith and Rebekah Smith for helpful comments.

Related reading

Here are some posts in addition to the ones linked inline, that I didn’t find a good place to fit into my post without making it too long, but that are nonetheless interesting and related:

International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day

Last year, we decided to observe March 16 as the annual Open Borders Day. The date was chosen because Open Borders: The Case, the website, officially launched on March 16, 2012. Broadly, the goal of the day is to ponder a world with open borders, the moral case for it, and how such a world might differ from the status quo.

Before settling on March 16, we had an internal debate among our regular and some of our guest bloggers about the choice of date. Various dates, including the Fourth of July, had been proposed, but we ultimately decided to go with our own day, so that it would be free of the baggage (positive or negative) of other days, and could be used to highlight open borders as an issue in its own right. At the time, I (and as far as I can make out, the others participating in the discussion) weren’t aware of perhaps the closest contender: International Migrants Day. The day was designated and is recognized by the United Nations to be on December 18 each year, starting in the year 2000. The Migrant Rights Network has a nice-looking website devoted to the day.

In this blog post, I explain three ways that International Migrants Day and Open Borders Day differ.

#1: Focus: the status quo versus open borders

The goal of International Migrants Day is to shed a spotlight on the global migrants in our midst today (about 3% of the world population, or a little over 200 million people) and consider their effects on society as well as society’s treatment of them. According to Wikipedia:

This day is observed in many countries, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations through the dissemination of information on human rights and fundamental political freedoms of migrants, and through sharing of experiences and the design of actions to ensure the protection of migrants.

[…]

The International Migrants Day is seen firstly as an opportunity to recognize the contributions made by millions of migrants to the economies of their host and home countries, and secondly to promote respect for their basic human rights.

In other words, the day is focused on those who are already migrants under the status quo.

Open Borders Day, on the other hand, is an occasion for us to step back from the status quo and imagine a radically different world. It’s a time for us to think not so much of the migrants in our midst, but rather, of the way our border regime shapes the world we live in, the moral argument for open borders, and how to get to a world with substantially freer migration.

To quite an extent, the two goals are complementary. International Migrants Day can be leveraged to highlight the “closed borders” nature of the status quo, and lay out the case for freer migration at large. As co-blogger Nathan cogently pointed out, those who have already migrated give a human face to migration, and make it easier for us to articulate and relate to the human effects of migration. But advocating for freedom of movement globally is not, and in my opinion should not be, the primary focus of International Migrants Day. To turn the day into (primarily) a discussion of open borders would be an appropriation of the occasion.

Similarly, Open Borders Day is a good occasion to remember the migrants in our midst, how their act of migration affects the world, and how they are treated. But Open Borders Day is more an occasion to focus on the “unseen” side of migration restrictions — the potential migrants who do not materialize as actual migrants — as opposed to the “seen” side, i.e., the existing migrants.

#2: The attention to migrants as a separate class of people

By its very name, International Migrants Day puts the spotlight on migrants as a separate class of people, even where arguing that these people should be given equal rights or similar treatment as natives. Historically, the day has been used to shed the spotlight on the deaths of people when attempting border crossings, and (claims about) bad treatment that migrants receive in their host countries. See, for instance, Amnesty International’s coverage of the day.

Open Borders Day, on the other hand, is an occasion to ponder a world where migration becomes less remarkable — where individuals’ acts of migration, while doubtless significant to them as individuals, are not treated as statements of moral or political significance. A world with open borders is one where international migration is just as free as intranational migration — constrained obviously by the usual factors that constrain people’s decisions to move, but with no authority to whom one’s act of movement need be justified. Properly understood, support for open borders doesn’t even involve having any particularly favorable view of migrants — though a positive view of migrants and potential migrants would doubtless make it easier to embrace open borders.

Of course, empirically understanding the effects of open borders requires thinking about the myriad selection effects that operate on migrants, both under the status quo and under open borders. But this is true of any empirical analysis, including the empirical analysis of migration between cities in the US.

#3: The focus on migrants, territorialism, and the overlooking of quantity issues

While there is no one single meaning to the concept of true open borders, a true open borders solution would likely involve no de jure or de facto legal restrictions on movement across political jurisdictions. Open borders advocates are, however, quite interested in partial approaches, that we have discussed under the headers of keyhole solutions and slippery slopes, where migration is significantly liberalized but either the act of migration itself or the package of rights and benefits enjoyed by migrants is constrained in important ways. Open borders advocates have mixed opinions on the desirability of keyhole solutions — co-blogger Nathan Smith endorses his DRITI scheme despite conceding its dark side, whereas co-blogger Paul Crider argues against keyhole regimes.

Some of the keyhole solutions to open borders, including guest worker programs such as those implemented in Singapore and the UAE, allow for dramatic increases in migration levels while being quite restrictive of migrant rights. This is not a coincidence: as Martin Ruhs observed in his book The Price of Rights and in conversation with GiveWell, migrant-receiving countries often make trade-offs between the “rights” that migrants have and the amount of migration they’ll allow. Co-blogger Michael Carey made a similar point here.

Thus, it’s often the case that an emphasis on migrant rights can endanger particular types of expansion of migration, and indeed, historically, immigrant rights activists are not quite friends of open borders. Being pro-migrant also fits in with ideas of territorialism and local inequality aversion, that focus specifically on the situation within particular geographic and jurisdictional boundaries. This can lead to apparent compositional effects paradoxes where people favor forbidding poor people from moving to countries where they can get richer because that lowers the average income in both sending and receiving country, even if no individual is worse off. This is why International Migrants Day can receive official (albeit in many ways hypocritical) support from governments in a way that Open Borders Day just can’t. For instance, the US Department of State celebates International Migrants Day:

On International Migrants Day we recognize the millions of people around the world who cross borders in search of a better life and we celebrate their contributions. But this year it is also a day to mourn the thousands whose journeys began in desperation and hope but ended in death.

This year, nearly 5,000 migrants lost their lives, crossing parched deserts, remote mountains, and treacherous seas – twice as many as last year. Deaths at sea surged as record numbers attempted to make it from North Africa to Europe. More than 3,000 migrants drowned when overcrowded, unseaworthy boats capsized or sank in the Mediterranean Sea. The danger is not going away. Poverty, hunger, and brutal wars like the one raging in Syria will continue to drive the exodus. Globally, more people are now forcibly displaced than at any other time since World War II. There are no simple solutions. Opportunities for safe, legal, and orderly migration are limited. The sordid business of human smuggling and trafficking is flourishing – and becoming more institutionalized and profitable. Responding to irregular migration may be politically and logistically difficult, and even migrants traveling legally may face harassment, discrimination, and abuse. But our priority is and must be saving lives.

The United States works bilaterally and multilaterally with the international community to make migration safer and the control of borders more humane. When unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children risked their lives traveling from Central America to the United States this year, we began new initiatives with Central American governments to address the root causes of this challenge, publicize the hazards, strengthen protection programs, and create safe, legal alternatives for children seeking to join their parents in the United States. Hardship and hopelessness prompt far too many people to forsake their homes and venture into harm’s way. As long as this is the case, migrants need our compassion. Their lives may depend on it.

(for more discussion of the quoted text, see this Open Borders Action Group post).

Now, admittedly, you may be an open borders advocate and still think that, on balance, an emphasis on migrant rights is more important than an emphasis on allowing more migration. But the interesting thing about much of the rhetoric surrounding migrant rights, which gets highlighted during International Migrants Day, is that the potential trade-off with quantity of migration permitted is not even acknowledged or considered. This is fine — advocates and activists for one particular issue are not required to consider the ramifications of endorsing their position on the advocacy prospects for a bunch of other issues. Many of them may be sympathetic to open borders but may simply see the treatment of existing migrants as a more pressing issue that deserves to be addressed first, before an effective movement to liberalize migration can be allowed to take root.

This difference in focus, and occasional conflict in goals, is the reason that keeping International Migrants Day and Open Borders Day separate is probably a good idea.

PS: This post expands on an Open Borders Action Group post.

Climate refugees

We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation

The climate change movement is not one that obviously parallels the open borders movement; it’s not a civil rights or social justice issue (except insofar as it might disproportionately harm the world’s poorest — but the same could be said for almost any noteworthy public policy issue) and it has far more clout and attention than migration. But there are three things that I think we have in common:

  1. Political leaders love to make grand statements about how they must and will act on these pressing issues
  2. Political leaders take no meaningful action to address the issue whatsoever (other than very marginal policy changes)
  3. This, in spite of reasonably strong agreement amongst experts in the field who have devoted their lives to the study of the issue that strong action is needed — and that strong action will have large impacts

Continue reading “We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation” »

Terror in Paris and Open Borders

My recent exchange with Bryan Caplan about tolerance (see here, here and here) suddenly seems terribly topical in light of events in France last month, where 12 people were killed in a murderous attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, by gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

The attacks may strengthen anti-immigration parties in Europe, and they have provoked attacks against Muslims. They seem to lend support to the tolerance=>migration restrictions argument that I mentioned at the end of the last post in my back-and-forth with Caplan:

2. Tolerance => Migration restrictions. Tolerant moral and social values are a distinctive Western achievement which will be diluted if we let in foreigners from less tolerant cultures. So we should keep  most foreigners out.

Now, you don’t have to think tolerance, as a concept, does much useful work in ethical or political argument, to think this kind of intolerance is a big problem. In one sense, tolerance is beside the point: what France needs to do isn’t so much to promote tolerance as to prevent murder. Still, if intolerant attitudes were the motive for murder, promoting tolerance might promote public safety. But public safety would be equally promoted if intolerance were kept peaceful. And peaceful intolerance– scorn and ostracism– for the kinds of attitudes and views that lead to violent intolerance, might be an effective way of making such attitudes scarce.

My take on tolerance, Islam, and open borders may sound paradoxical. I view Islam as inherently, and perhaps incorrigibly, intolerant and violent. But I nonetheless believe that the West and the world generally should be much more open to Muslim immigrants. Why? Because even Muslims shouldn’t have to live under Muslim rule.

On Charlie Hebdo

The attackers were avenging the paper’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and most recently, a cartoon depicting two men kissing, one in Muslim dress and the other labeled “Charlie Hebdo,” with the slogan “Love is stronger than hate.” From a Muslim perspective, I suppose, the cartoon is pornographic as well as blasphemous. I agree with the attackers in considering it offensive, though obviously not in how they responded. It’s symptomatic of the contemporary West’s degradation of the old Christian virtue of love into mere sensuality, as well as of its obsession with homosexuality. And there is a bitter irony in a cartoon that pretends to proclaim love while deliberately insulting those for whom it is pretending to advocate love.

I found the pope’s remarks in the Philippines refreshing. “Killing in the name of God is wrong,” he said, but also that it is wrong to belittle someone’s religion, adding that if a friend “says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him.” I’m wary of the suggestion that violence can be an appropriate response to speech, but as a moral matter, we should have strong inhibitions against mocking what others hold sacred. If we do so– as God sometimes does in the Bible (or even more memorably, Elijah)– it should be with the loftiest of motives: to challenge evil powers, dispel myths, and save souls. But while I don’t think one should gratuitously offend Muslims by depicting Mohammed, serious criticism of Islam is another matter. We need more of it.

On Islam

It can be conceded, I suppose, that the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators don’t represent Islam: they went a bit further than most Muslims would. But the idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” is only wishful thinking; Sam Harris is closer to the truth. The advent of Islam ushered in a thousand years of tyranny in the lands the Arabs conquered, and as Rowley and I showed in a 2009 paper, there is a striking democracy deficit in the Muslim world to this day, especially in the historic heartland of Islam, the territories conquered by Islam before 800 AD. We found that there were no democracies at all in Islam’s historic heartland. Moreover, the correlation between GDP and democracy is reversed in Islam. In the non-Islamic world, higher GDP per capita is associated with a greater likelihood of democracy; in Islam, with a lesser likelihood. Islam’s freedom deficit is worse than its democracy deficit. The lack of religious freedom, in particular, is strikingly captured by the fact that apostasy is legally punishable in most Muslim countries, sometimes by death, which seems to have been the normal penalty for apostasy before the arrival of European colonialism.

Tolerance vs. freedom of conscience

I am not all that worried about Islam’s democracy deficit per se, since I regard democracy as a considerably overrated form of government. But democracy is, so to speak, overrated for a good reason, namely, that it is correlated with something much more important: freedom of conscience. But the freedom that Charlie Hebdo exercised, and that the terrorists violently cut short, is not a part of what I consider freedom of conscience.

There are a number of expressions which some hear as nearly synonymous with “tolerance,” but which, under closer scrutiny, vary in meaning, though they also overlap. “Freedom of speech” is a venerable phrase, but we don’t mean it literally. By what principle is it OK to prohibit perjury, false advertisement, inciting a crowd to violence, libel, and certain IP violations, if “freedom of speech” is sacrosanct? And on the other hand, how are Charlie Hedbo‘s cartoons protected by freedom of speech? “Freedom of thought” is very important but doesn’t demand enough: in a narrowly logical sense, a prisoner in chains is still free to think as he likes. “Free inquiry” is a noble ideal, in defense of which Socrates was martyred; but we want the freedom not only to inquire after truth, but to preach it when we find it. “Freedom of the press” makes the extension of free speech to printed material explicit; “freedom of expression” sounds vaguer but seems to cover all media.

“Freedom of religion” is narrower than freedom of speech, but includes elements of “free association” as well, e.g., the right to assemble with fellow believers to worship God. Problematically, “freedom of religion” crosses the line between speech and action, and it violates freedom of religion to be forced to bake a cake for a gay commitment ceremony even if you’re allowed to protest all the while that you don’t believe in it. It might also be a violation of freedom of religion to have to work on Sunday, or provide contraceptive coverage for one’s employees, or refrain from giving alcohol to children. Free speech sometimes crosses the speech/action divide, too, e.g., if people demand the right to conduct public protests– disrupting traffic, etc.– in the name of free speech.

My way through this confusion is to stress freedom of conscience as the key principle that explains all the others and defines their scope. Freedom of conscience is my right to obey conscience, to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong. “Free speech,” “free press,” and “free expression” mean freedom to state the truth as I see it, in whatever medium is most expedient, to speak as conscience compels me to speak. But my conscience doesn’t necessarily deny to the government a say in what media are expedient. If, for example, all print media were prohibited for environmental reasons, “freedom of the press” in the literal sense seems clearly extinguished, but I would not regard that as a violation of freedom of conscience. “Freedom of religion” is of special importance because conscience obliges me to worship God, and more generally, for Christians, what religion commands and what conscience commands are essentially identical. “Freedom of association” requires not only that I be able to assemble with fellow believers to worship God, but also that I be able to collaborate with a team of bloggers to advocate open borders, because both of those activities arise from the demands of conscience; but it is not a violation of freedom of conscience, even if it is a curtailment of freedom of association, if I’m forbidden to found a company with a whites-only hiring policy.

I would regard an environmentalist prohibition of all print media as very foolish, and I’m skeptical about whether the government either has the right or is well-advised to prohibit workplace discrimination. But since such policies, even if unwise, do not violate freedom of conscience, I am relatively relaxed about them. But when freedom of conscience is violated, when the government commands someone to do what is wrong, or forbids someone to do what is right, a deep alienation occurs, and the social contract is shattered.

Patrick Henry’s ultimatum, “Give me liberty or give me death!” might have been a bit overwrought as a response to the mild misrule of King George III. But it is absolutely correct as a response to threats to freedom of conscience. A person who would surrender his freedom of conscience even in the face of certain death is, in the end, a person not worth knowing, a person whose actions and utterances have no real meaning, a person without value, except inasmuch as he might repent someday and become brave, become fully human, become real. Why trust a person’s utterances, when they are only a function of his circumstances? Society bribes us in all sorts of subtle ways to lie, if we’re willing to be bribed. Socrates and Jesus preferred death to denying the truth, to doing what is wrong. So should we all.

I have a tentative and vague preference for democracy over the alternatives. I have a firm, definite, and strong preference for market capitalism over the alternatives. But neither democracy nor market capitalism matters much relative to freedom of conscience. Any amount of unaccountable autocracy or needless and inefficient regulation is preferable to being forced by the state to do what one knows is wrong, or prohibited from doing what one knows is right.

In defense of Voltaire

Now, in Bryan Caplan’s recent dissent from the militant tolerance of Voltaire, I detect a reluctance to be drafted into fighting for freedom of the press as exercised by Charlie Hebdo, which I share:

If standing up for your own right to utter truth X is a grave mistake, why is standing up for someone else’s right to do the same any better?  Indeed, common sense morality says you have only modest obligations to help perfect strangers in dire need.  Why then should you assume a blanket obligation to die in defense of strangers’ rights to speak when they could easily remain silent?

But my reasons are a bit different. The conduct of Charlie Hebdo was gratuitously offensive. It certainly didn’t deserve death, but they didn’t deserve to be elevated to hero status by mass marches either, and it might, just possibly, be sensible for civilized societies to say that Charlie Hebdo kind of had it coming, and that protecting such useless, reckless, and vicious behavior isn’t the best use of scarce police resources. But when Caplan writes that…

Sure, you can devise hypotheticals where courting death by asserting the right to say X is an admirable choice.  Maybe standing up for the right to say X will, via your death, save many innocent lives, or replace an awful tyranny with something much better.  Maybe you only have ten minutes left to live, and want to go out with a noble bang.  Except in such unusual circumstances, however, throwing your life away to speak a few forbidden words seems not only imprudent, but wrong.  Any true friend would beg you to come to your senses and shut your piehole.

… he treats as odd “hypotheticals” what is really the normal situation of the courageous person speaking truth to power. Socrates and Jesus, the apostles, the Christian martyrs, and Martin Luther King all spoke truth to power and died for it. Just for that reason, their historical impact is wildly disproportionate to their numbers, and infinitely beneficent. For everyone who spoke truth to power and died for it, there are probably a hundred who spoke truth to power knowing that they might die for it, and where would the human race be without them? How much of the moral progress of mankind, in the end, is traceable to such people? Half? Nine-tenths? As the song says, “He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young.” Bryan Caplan calls himself (or at least invites others to call him) a “coward” at the end of the post, and says that “staying alive> asserting your own right to say truths.” A nation of such cowards is a nation of slaves.

The point Caplan is missing is that we all face a collective action problem, which is captured in (let’s call it) the Parable of the Playground. Suppose there are 50 Nerds in the playground, and 1 Bully. The Nerds are nice, tolerant, productive, independent-minded people who make the world a better place. The Bully is an intolerant, parasitic thug. Collectively, the Nerds are stronger than the Bully, but the Bully is stronger than any 1 Nerd alone. The Bully threatens to beat up any Nerd who speaks against him. If the Nerds think “staying alive > asserting your own right to say truths,” then no one will ever be able to tell the truth. But if the Nerds believe, with Voltaire, that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” then as soon as the Bully enforces his rule against one Nerd, he’ll be challenged and defeated by them all. Such is the foundation of courage on which free societies are built.

So we should certainly be ready to fight for our own freedom of conscience and that of others; but what is the scope of this freedom? I have said that freedom of conscience is the freedom to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong, but our knowledge of what is right and wrong must be fallible, since there is so much disagreement about it. So should freedom of conscience mean the freedom to do what is really right, or the freedom to do what we think is right? Here a balance must be struck: some accommodation of eccentric ideas of right and wrong is needed, but we can’t respect the freedom of conscience of the armed jihadist. It’s all manageable enough as long as there is a certain degree of right-minded consensus about what conscience demands, such as prevailed in 19th-century America, where almost everyone was a Christian of some sort. In today’s America, afflicted as it is with people who think it’s morally acceptable to force photographers to serve at gay commitment ceremonies, I have grave doubts about the sustainability of freedom of conscience.

On courage

And that is one reason why I’m relaxed about Muslim immigration: I’m less afraid of Muslim intolerance than of the home-grown sort. I’d much rather have occasional random terrorist attacks against the publishers of gratuitously offensive cartoons, than Swedish-style arrests of pastors for preaching against homosexuality. Doubtless, the Charlie Hebdo attackers wouldn’t like an outspoken Christian apologist and critic of Islam like myself. But I’m much less afraid of them than I am of the PC police and the rising LGBT state.

More importantly, though, I want freedom of conscience for Muslims, and I think they’re unlikely to get it in their home countries any time soon. If you believe, as I do, that Islam is a false religion, then you ought to be very concerned about the fact that hundreds of millions of people live in countries where they are forced to believe it, or pretend to believe it, on pain of losing civic rights or even their lives. While I’m an unapologetic supporter of the 2003 liberation of Iraq, I think it’s clear that the West can’t impose freedom, least of all religious freedom, on the Muslim world by force (even if we can and should overthrow the worst totalitarian regimes). For the foreseeable future, the path to full freedom of conscience for Muslims is emigration. The West should give them that chance, even if it involves some risk to ourselves.

And that is why I don’t believe Caplan’s confession that he’s a “coward.” He surely knows there are risks, risks to the freedom of speech which few take more advantage of than he does, in letting in tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants, but he still wants to do it. He’s got a comfortable and secure life, but he’s willing to jeopardize that for the sake of a reform that he knows would be a great leap forward for the liberty and flourishing of mankind as a whole. I call that courage. Meanwhile, the nativist cowards are in a panic to build the walls higher.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

UPDATE: In addition to the comments here, you might also be interested in some discussion of this blog post in the comments on an Open Borders Action Group post about the blog post.

Related reading

Musina-border-crossing-006[1]

Interview with Stephan Faris: Homelands, and abolishing global apartheid

Last week, we published an excerpt from journalist Stephan Faris’s thought-provoking book, Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration. A cheap, USD3 buy on Amazon, it is worth reading — if only for the compelling way he argues that modern border regimes constitute apartheid. A taste from the excerpt we carried:

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

Now, we bring you an exclusive interview with Stephan himself.


In Homelands, you reach a radical conclusion — that modern border controls are essentially unjust and illegitimate. You outline a thought-provoking case, but I’m especially interested in the experiences and insights that motivated you to reach this conclusion in the first place. What is the intellectual journey, so to speak, that led to this conclusion?

The idea came to me slowly, when I was a reporter writing mostly for Time Magazine out Africa. Across the continent, I kept having the same conversation, brief and to-the-point with people I hardly knew at all. A motorcycle taxi driver in Lagos would drop me off and then ask “How do I get to your country?” A young man at an Internet cafe in Kenya would do the same. And again, from a hotel clerk in Zimbabwe. “How do I get to your country?”

I can’t remember what I’d say to them. But the real answer was embarrassing. Put bluntly, it was: “You probably can’t. You’re young and African. The chances that you’ll be let in are vanishingly small.” That’s what got me thinking about the problem in those terms.

My experience has been that people anchor heavily to the status quo on immigration, making it difficult to even begin explaining to people that most immigration laws are unjust and unfair. Before you can begin, you have to overcome the sense that if we abolish border controls, then everything will collapse. Did you encounter this yourself in the process of outlining your ideas, and are you satisfied with the way you handle this sort of response in the book? Looking back, would you change anything about your argument?

The book is driven by an analogy between the status quo on immigration and the policies of South Africa’s apartheid regime. That in itself puts forward a couple of arguments that I find compelling. First of all is the moral case. If the immigration policies resembles apartheid, we have to grapple with that if we want to maintain the status quo. Secondly, apartheid eventually came to an end, and the result has hardly been as disastrous as many predicted.

How in general has the response been to your book, now that it’s been out for several months? Was it better or worse than you expected, and are you planning any follow-ups? What most surprised you about the response?

As a writer it’s always difficult to get a feel for how readers respond to your work. My feeling, however, is that the emotional argument has resonated with a lot of people, but the conclusion remains hard to accept. As you point out, the idea is fairly far beyond the bounds of what most people are willing to consider.

You are not the first person to describe immigration restrictions as a form of apartheid, but I think your most original contribution to the conversation has been a clear articulation of how apartheid was modeled on immigration restrictions and why the analogy between the two is so apt. How did you come across this connection in the intentions of apartheid’s architects? Are there other historical or modern parallels that you considered drawing?

I don’t remember exactly how I came across it or came up with it. I wrote a brief piece on the subject in 2005 or 2006. However, I’m not the first person who came up with it. I later came across a fantastic chapter in a book by the Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson, in which he made a similar comparison. In Homelands I make a reference to Lesotho, as a tiny country with which potential Bantustans could be compared. That’s an analogy I learned about from Ferguson.

In some sense, the analogy between apartheid and immigration restrictions is obvious: both are mechanisms by which a particular social group seeks to preserve its purity via coercively excluding other people. However I imagine this analogy doesn’t work for many, because they consider racial discrimination illegitimate, while discrimination on the basis of nationality is legitimate. How would you address this?

The question we have to ask ourselves is what is it about nationality that makes it legitimately grounds for discrimination. Nationality, like race, is not something people choose or are responsible for.

To allay concerns about the effects of liberal border laws, you discuss how the economic nightmare predicted by naysayers on the eve of apartheid’s abolition never came to fruition. But economic arguments don’t necessarily carry the day in a conversation about nationality and political institutions. How would you respond to concerns about the political and social effects of open immigration?

Those concerns are real, but as with apartheid, you have to weigh them against the injustices and distortions resulting from the status quo. I think we’ll find that the discomforts resulting from open immigration will pale when compared with the suffering that is alleviated by allowing people to move where to places where they can better themselves.

I imagine most people of liberal politics are somewhat sympathetic to liberal immigration laws. Why do you think there is such resistance, even among those with such sympathies, to the idea of truly open borders, or at least open immigration regimes, with visas available to most? What barriers do you see to convincing a typical liberal person that most immigration restrictions are unjustifiable?

I’m not sure that views on immigration laws fall neatly along the traditional lines between left and right. Concerns about the impact of open immigration on workers’ rights is certainly widespread among many on the left. Again, however, I’d argue one needs to extend our circle of concern beyond our co-nationals, and then it becomes pretty clear that lightening restrictions on immigration is broadly beneficial.


I think it is particularly fitting that this interview with Stephan follows on our inaugural blog post from migration scholar Katy Long, where she observed that we cannot blindly cite national borders as reason enough to wall out those not fortunate enough to be born in our home countries:

Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.

For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.

Harvard and former World Bank economist Lant Pritchett, another notable who labels our border regimes tantamount to apartheid, has a poignant way of illustrating Stephan’s and Katys point in his seminal book, Let Their People Come:

The analogy between apartheid and restrictions on labor mobility is almost exact. People are not allowed to live and work where they please. Rather, some are only allowed to live in places where earning opportunities are scarce. Workers often have to travel long distances and often live far from their families to obtain work. The restrictions about who can work where are based on conditions of birth, not on any notion of individual effort or merit. The current international system of restrictions on labor mobility enforces gaps in living standards across people that are large or larger than any in apartheid South Africa. It is even true that labor restrictions in nearly every case explicitly work to disadvantage people of “color” against those of European descent.

The obvious response is that with apartheid people of the same nation-state were treated differently while the apartheid of international barriers to mobility is is treating people of different nation-states differently. People subject to the same laws should be treated the same based on conditions of birth. The fact that people are, by whimsy of birth, allocated to different nation-states and hence treated differently has no moral traction. In nearly all modern theories of justice and ethical systems, most conditions of birth—one’s sex, race, and ethnicity—are excluded as morally legitimate reasons for differences in wellbeing, and yet discrimination on the basis of nationality is allowed.

…Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

The Bantustans that Stephan draws our attention to still exist, even if few of us had anything to do with their creation, as Pritchett’s book points out with a compelling thought experiment:

There are 10 million people in the Sahelian country of Niger; if there were globally free labor mobility and only 1 million lived in Niger now, how many people would move there? Though some people might say that this creates a case for more aid or freer trade, it is hard to believe that if people moved out of Kansas because farming was no longer an attractive opportunity, then the best that can be done for the people of Niger or Chad is that they get slightly more assistance and slightly better prices for the items they grow.

Most of us remain blind, willfully or otherwise, to the suffering and waste of human potential that our countries’ immigration laws engender. All credit to scholars like Stephan, Katy, and Lant Pritchett, who can never be thanked enough for their tireless work aimed at exposing the regime of global apartheid for what it is.

HomelandsBuy Stephan Faris’s Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration on Amazon

The Huddled MassesBuy Katy Long’s The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality on Amazon

Let%20Their%20People%20Come[1]Download free or buy the paperback of Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock On Global Labor Mobility from the Center for Global Development

The image featured at the top of this post is of a mother with her child crawling under the South African fence bordering Zimbabwe, taken by Themba Hadebe for the Associated Press in 2010 and published in The Guardian.

Borders and Inequality

This is a guest post. Please see the author bio, editorial note, and related reading at the bottom for more context.

Inequality is big news. From Piketty’s bestseller to Oxfam’s reminder to Davos’ economic elites that by 2016, the richest 1% will own more than all the rest of us combined, we are newly concerned with the threat growing inequality poses to global stability. And in seeking to meet what US president Barack Obama has called ‘the defining challenge of our time’, many politicians have claimed that mass immigration is contributing to inequality and poverty at home: that the movement of people leads to lower wages, higher unemployment and greater dependency upon social security and the welfare state among displaced citizens.

Understood in these national terms, if inequality is the problem, the solution would seem to involve less migration and stronger borders. Yet for champions of global justice, the opposite is true. In 2009, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) determined that migrants who moved from a low-income to a high-income country saw, on average, a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling of education enrollment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality numbers. Framed like this, migration is no longer contributing to the problem of inequality. In fact, on a global scale, it’s the solution.

So who’s right? Is inequality really a zero-sum game, in which global justice comes at the expense of national equity? Do we have to choose between addressing inequality between citizenships, and inequality between citizens? And if this is the case, what are the implications for the Open Borders movement?

Of course in strict utilitarian terms, if more migration maximizes total benefit at a global level, national effects are secondary. But when it comes to politics, global justice arguments can’t simply trump national ones because – at an almost instinctive level – the vast majority of people would claim that nations – communities – are important, and effects of migration at a local level can’t simply be discounted.

It’s therefore important to recognize that the evidence for many claims made about the injurious effects of immigration upon locals is dubious. In the case of the UK, for instance – where anti-immigration rhetoric has proved popular in recent elections – economic data suggests that the effects of immigration on the labour market are minimal, and that immigrants make an unambiguous net fiscal contribution to the UK treasury, paying in much more in taxes than they take out in benefits. Yet even if the idea that immigration is bad for equality at home doesn’t hold up to close empirical scrutiny, we still need to ask why it continues to hold such sway when it comes to public opinion and political action.

So why do nations matter? Part of it undoubtedly is about culture and belonging. We are none of us ‘unencumbered individuals’, and national cultures play a role in shaping our identities. Yet in practice, national identity is often a chameleon: ask a San Franciscan and an Alabaman what it means to be an American, and the chances are you’d get very different answers. This means ‘national culture’, in and of itself, isn’t a justification for why we need nation-states – let alone why we should restrict migration.

Instead, arguably the most persuasive progressive case for national borders rests upon something more tangible: the promise of equality of opportunity that is a fundamental component of citizenship. In a modern state, that promise is usually articulated through the funding of a whole set of national institutions designed to close this gap – social security, healthcare, education. This is the nation-state not – in David Goodhart’s words – as a ‘mystical attachment’, but the institutional arrangement that can consistently deliver the democratic, welfare and psychological outcomes that ‘most people, when given a choice, seem to want’. Many in favour of tightly restricting migration argue that it’s these institutions that really make national citizenship meaningful. They also insist that such institutions can only function if borders be drawn somewhere, in order to turn a universal but vague commitment to equality of opportunity in principle into a limited but tangible effort to create more equality in practice.

Of course, in practice, equality of opportunity is still a fiction at a national level too. Outcome and opportunity cannot be so easily separated. In 2007, the richest 1% of Americans already owned 35% of the country’s wealth. In the UK, the wealthiest 1% is 215 times wealthier than the poorest 10% of Britons. But for advocates of tighter border controls, this is just further evidence that we should make good on national promises first, before turning to think about the greater challenges we face in tackling global inequality.

And at first glance, this seems reasonable: pragmatism legitimized by the bonds of community. After all, nearly all of us ultimately care more about our family members’ wellbeing than that of our acquaintances, especially when it comes to action rather than sentiment. Arguably, favouring locals over migrants is just an extension of this – a recognition that being part of a national community cements closer ties, so a fellow-citizen’s wellbeing matters more to us than that of a stranger. Follow this argument to its logical conclusion, and we have a justification for a bordered world, carefully tied to the measuring of fiscal contribution and social cohesion.

Yet we should also see the limits of this argument. Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.

For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.

Inequality, then, is largely determined at birth and tied to geography. This means there’s still a powerful moral case for using migration as a means to remedy the arbitrary inequalities of birthplace that we usually conveniently ignore. Norway, for instance, offers much more to all its citizens than Afghanistan can. The West’s citizens cannot possibly claim that the relative riches that derive from our citizenship are fair: they are above all a fortunate accident of birth. When it comes to justifying borders as a means of preserving some equality within – protection for the poorest citizens ­– this needs to be balanced against the risk that such borders aren’t about protection as much as they are about maintaining privilege.

So what does this mean when it comes to thinking about borders and inequality? First, it suggests that ‘protection, not privilege’ is a good maxim around which to build a ‘fair’ migration policy. Our fellow citizens should be protected from harm, the basic promises of the social contract met. However, providing this is done, international migrants should not be locked out. For at that point our interest in maintaining what are essentially inherited privileges – that 50% lifetime birthplace bonus – begins to look pretty selfish. At some point, borders are no longer self-preservation: they’re greed.

Principle, of course, is one thing: practice is another. This line of reasoning has at least two important political implications. First, if borders are to be defended as a protection against inequality, the justification rests first on demonstrating tangible progress in promoting equality between citizens, and then on showing such measures are being helped by restricting immigration. The evidence strongly suggests that states are currently unable to show either of these conditions holding true. In fact, immigration plays a crucial role in underpinning the current institutions and fiscal commitments that are intended to bridge the equality gaps between citizens too.

Second, if more migration is to be justified on the grounds that it helps to reduce global inequality, efforts to relax border controls and open up freedom of movement cannot focus only on the movement of elites: the highly-skilled and the highly-paid. This is directly counter to current policy trends. Increasing numbers of states are selling citizenship to the highest bidder: but in an age of elite hypermobility, fences are also being built to ensure the poor are kept in place.

There is thus a powerful case to be made that when it comes to inequality, the real fight isn’t between migrants and citizens: it’s between the elites and the ordinary. And if equality of opportunity is the end, then greater freedom of movement is one means by which such a goal can be achieved. This means that most immediately, there’s a need to counter the efforts being made to reduce immigration by many states, and to articulate the reasons why efforts at immigration reform in others should not focus only on securing visas for the wealthy, the highly educated, and corporate employees. And in the long-term, perhaps considering an alternative mantra – not “Open Borders”, but “Equal Borders” – might help to underline that if what we’re ultimately interested in is equality, greater freedom of movement is an important means of getting there – for migrants and citizens alike.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.” The author of this post brings a perspective quite different from, though still overlapping significantly with, the perspectives espoused and discussed on the site.

Author Bio

Katy Long is the author of The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality (Amazon/Thistle: 2014). Katy’s research and writings explore the causes and consequences of migration for migrants, citizens and communities. Katy is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University  and also teaches for the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

Since completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 2009, she has held faculty positions at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh. Her first book, The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights and Repatriation, was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. Katy is also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Katy has also worked extensively with policy-makers including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, she is engaged in furthering public understanding and engagement on migration issues, speaking and writing for a number of media outlets including the BBC World Service, ITV Tonight, The Conversation and openDemocracy. Follow Katy on Twitter at @mobilitymuse.

Related Open Borders: The Case links

The author of the post brought a different perspective to the issue than that typically espoused in Open Borders: The Case content and blog posts. To minimize disruption to the flow, we didn’t include links to related content from the site in the main post. However, the site does explore some questions related to the content. A brief list of related site content is below. There might be response blog posts by Open Borders: The Case bloggers responding to the author’s points. These links were curated by Open Borders: The Case editors and are not the author’s responsibility.

A Skeptic’s Movement: Open Borders and Mistrust of Authority

Open Borders is a skeptic’s movement. Advocates claim that one of the world’s most important, and fairly popular, public policies is immoral, inhumane, and inefficient. For some, even the concept of Open Borders is shocking. Aren’t governments supposed to control borders? Won’t Open Borders lead to chaos and disorder?

Open Borders is not the only movement to rely on mistrust of the state. For example, privacy advocates are concerned about the abuse of surveillance by law enforcement agencies. Not only should we be concerned that state officials might use surveillance for personal goals (tracking an ex-girlfriend, for example) but we should also be concerned with more systematic abuse. When state officials gain more access to our bank accounts, phone records, and emails, state repression is more likely.

Similarly, the recent anti-police movement in the United States expresses skepticism of government. These activists argue that police can’t be trusted to use force without supervision and that they should face consequences for their actions. While these activists wouldn’t identify themselves as anti-police, they do criticize the current US policy, which is that police officers are rarely sanctioned for use of force because the law makes it extremely difficult for prosecutors to show that police officers were not concerned about their safety.

An important question to consider about the skeptical movements is how Open Borders relates to mistrust in government as expressed by these other movements. To answer this question, it helps to distinguish between short term mistrust created by specific incidents and deeper distrust emerging from a more sustained criticism of policy.

Mistrust Emerging from Short Term Incidents

Sometimes, people become skeptical of government policy because of a specific incident or cluster of incidents. The reactions to the recent deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and other young Black men in the United State are examples of mistrust driven by incidents. At the time of this writing, there does not appear to be a whole sale criticism of police or the laws that make it easy for police to commit these acts. Yet, a movement has sprung up that seeks punishment for specific police officers or reform in certain places.

Incident-driven skepticism of government can still be useful for movements. They bring attention to an issue, people provide resources, and so forth. An industrious activist can make the connection to broader issues, but this is often hard. Perhaps the most important outcome of these incidents is to challenge local conditions. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri might lead to change in that city, even if it does not result in national reform of the police.

For Open Borders, I suggest the following. There are incidents that can erode the public’s views on migration restrictions and they can be useful, but do not expect them to transform the movement. Instead, use them as short term opportunities to build a movement. Use them to bring people together who might not otherwise interact. They can also be used to gather the resources needed for more systematic action. When incidents occur, Open Borders advocates may provide the intellectual heft that can be used to bolster and support a sustained reform effort in specific places.

Cultivating Deeper Skepticism about Migration Control

In general, it is not clear to me that the distrust around issues like mass surveillance or police violence can be immediately tranferred to migration because policy evaluation seems to depend a lot how people bundle issues. Currently, people bundle issues according to political party, which political scientists call “polarization.” I do not think it is wise to turn open borders into a Democratic or Republican issue just to curry favor from people in one party who might be skeptical of police violence (Democrats) or mass surveillance (libertarian leaning Republicans). Thus, unless we turn open borders into, say, a Democratic issue, it would be hard to bring all the “skeptics” together.

What do I suggest instead? I might avoid thinking about mistrust altogether and focus on showing how open borders is not consistent with popular values. This is a strategy of creating wide scale cognitive dissonance. There are many ways to do this. Incidents that create negative impressions of closed borders can be used to bring people together. But so can educational efforts, court cases, and other forms of action. This is more valuable because it is an alliance that exists independently of parties and of specific incidents, which have short term impacts.

One popular value is human rights. Nearly all democratic governments will base their laws on some form of basic human rights. In the US, the constitution focuses on the rights of speech and due process. In other nations, people may have citizenship rights. Regardless, Open Borders activists may erode support for migration controls by simply pointing out that human beings have a right to peacefully move across national borders as they would internal borders. Open Borders is a natural extension of the belief that people should be left to do as they please as long as they do not harm others.

Conclusion

We often see events that bring existing policy into question. The NSA revelations did this for our nation’s security agencies. Recent police shooting have triggered a similar process for local police departments. But these have not yielded wide scale reform and the attention given to these issues can be ephemeral. Instead, open borders is a movement that shouldn’t be attached to one specific issue, but instead to arguments that can hold together a wide group of people outside of the party system.

Related reading

See also all our blog posts tagged open borders advocacy.

Europa

Is there a right to migrate to outer space?

During the height of the cold war a common fear among the west and Soviet blocs about the other side placing nuclear weapons in outer space. This was why Sputnik mattered so much – Americans weren’t angry that Soviets had proven their intellectual superiority. Americans were scared that the Soviets might use their artificial satellites to attack them.

The immediate reaction to Sputnik was sparking the space race, an unofficial competition between the Soviet and western blocs to show their mastery over navigation in outer space. Publicly the space race culminated with the American moon landing in 1969. The initial fear about nuclear weapons in space however was dealt a few years prior in 1967 with the passage of the Outer Space Treaty between the world powers.

The Outer Space Treaty today forms the base of international law regarding space and the celestial bodies. It not only barred the installation of weapons or military bases in space, but also set up the parameters regarding property rights in space. Of interest to us, it effectively recognized the right to migrate to outer space.

Article 1 of the treaty reads that:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

A plain reading of the treaty’s text appeals to the notion that anyone may migrate to outer space, so long as they do so peacefully. There are a few other catches, such as the need for non-governmental entities to follow the laws of their respective earth-bound government.

Article 6 reads:

The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

Outer space does not have open borders as such. In order to initially arrive in outer space one must follow the rules of a state and continue to follow the rules of said state to remain in space.  This is similar to existing maritime law, where a ship’s flag designates under which rules it sails. Despite these limitations outer space does enjoy a lite version of open borders.

Hopeful space migrants must follow the rules of a state, but it does not matter which state’s rules are followed. Spaceships marked with a Mexican or Madagascar flag have as much right to explore space as ships marked with an EU or USA flag. I suspect that future space explorers will make frequent use of flags of convenience in order to gain access into space.

Am I suggesting that the open borders movement shift its focus to getting people to migrate to outer space? Not at all. Outer space has countless artificial satellites but no permanent colonies at present. For the foreseeable future this will remain the case. Even when a serious effort is made to colonize outer space I would not recommend migration there to the greater number of mankind as the journey itself would be expensive and have little reward.

Some significant catalyst must occur before it becomes efficient for large numbers of humans to settle space. Migration to the new world occurred when large economic opportunities awaited at the other side and/or when domestic forces pushed a population toward migration. The same general forces will be at play in deciding when space is colonized. Perhaps early colonization will be lead by Patri Friedman’s great-grandson in an attempt to promote space-steading. Who can say?

All the same there is some comfort in knowing that when these catalysts occur mankind will have the right to migrate to outer space. They will still have to find a means to do so, but at minimum they will not be pulled over at a border check point outside Mars and present their visas.

In the present the right to migrate to outer space presents us with a rhetorical weapon. If as I argue there is a right to migrate to outer space, why is there not a right to migrate to the new world? Outer space is described as the common heritage of mankind, but does this definition not also apply to the new world? Christopher Columbus first set sail in 1492, a little over five hundred years ago. This is a small amount of time in historical terms. When first discovered the new lands had a negligible existing population and today most of its inhabitants are descended from European, African, and Asian migrants. There is no meaningful ‘American’ race.

A Spaniard had no lesser right than an Englishman to settle the new world back then. Under what justification then do modern American countries erect barriers to entry?  Did the new world cease to be a common heritage of mankind? If so, when and under what conditions? Under those conditions would it be proper for future Lunians, the descendants of human colonizers on the Moon, to set a quota on the number of migrants from Earth?


Further Reading

Will technology make borders obsolete? by Chris Hendrix

Argentina and Open Borders by John Lee

Full text of the Outer Space Treaty via the US Department of State.

Full text of the Moon Treaty via Wikisource.

The Moon Treaty was a proposed follow-up agreement to the above mentioned Outer Space Treaty. The Moon Treaty would have handed governmental control over the Moon, outer space, and celestial bodies to the United Nations. The Moon Treaty is widely considered defunct as it failed to acquire the agreement of those nations actually capable of space exploration.

January 2015 in review

January 2015 has been an interesting month for Open Borders: The Case, albeit a relatively laid back one.

Traffic patterns: overall summary

In November and December, we saw our highest traffic of all time. The trend began with a revival of interest in migration policy in the United States due to US President Obama’s November 2014 deferred action announcement, but continued due to interesting and timely content, and clever promotion strategies.

January, in contrast, was a relatively quiet month. A number of our posts did well, but we had no smashing hits, either on social media or on search. On days that we didn’t publish anything new, our traffic was largely search-driven. Since traffic was driven by enduring interest rather than current events, January’s traffic levels are likely a lower bound for traffic levels in the months to come.

Social media successes

No posts of ours matched the extraordinary performance of December’s social media successes. Nonetheless, we did quite well when compared year-on-year. Our top posts published this month:

We had a much lower Facebook spend than the past two months. Of the posts published this month, we only spent a small amount of money promoting Lee’s interview of Stephan Faris, Merrill’s post, and Lee’s post on drowning people.

We also had some success posting and promoting some of our older content relevant to current events. Two of our older posts that we reposted to Facebook and Twitter in light of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office:

Search interest

Our list of most visited pages that people arrive at via Google Search is fairly constant over time. Most of these are site content pages rather than blog posts. Of the blog posts, the top ones are:

Economist appreciation

John Lee’s post Krugman and Cowen on immigration; or, rallying the economic profession around open borders, published December 12, 2014, received fresh attention when economist and blogger David Henderson blogged about it. Henderson wrote:

But the spirit of his analysis is correct. Welfare in the United States is unlikely to be a huge magnet for immigrants and what is likely to be a much stronger magnet is the chance for a much higher-paying job.

I recommend reading the whole long article. I recommend it for not only the content but also the respectful tone. Were I teaching a class in rhetoric, I would use this as a reading. Indeed, two economist friends were the ones who recommended the piece and both of them highlighted the tone.

Open Borders meetup

The third Bay Area meetup was held on Sunday, January 11. You can read the proceedings of the meetup here. The list of all past meetups, along with links to proceedings where available, is here.

Site traffic: details

Pageviews for Open Border: The Case:

Month and year Pageview count (WordPress) Pageview count (Google Analytics)
January 2015 28,149 25,702*
December 2014 35,318 34,374
January 2014 17,521 17,709
December 2013 12,270 11,931

*Google Analytics was dysfunctional for a few days and a few hours on other days, causing that number to be an underestimate.

WordPress traffic by day for the past few weeks:

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Google Analytics traffic by day for January 2015 (note that Analytics wasn’t working for January 16 and parts of the previous and next day):

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WordPress traffic by month, since September 2012 (earlier months don’t fit in the picture):

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Google Analytics traffic (sessions and pageviews) by month, since March 2012:

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As we can see, there was robust year-on-year growth, but a month-on-month decline, and the year-on-year growth was weaker than that for December. This is because of the unusually high traffic in December 2014 because of the topicality of migration.

We also turned on age/gender tracking on Google Analytics. Here are the results by age/gender combinations:

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And here’s our distribution of traffic by geographical location:

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Facebook and Twitter metrics

  • Facebook likes for our Facebook page stayed fairly steady over the month, increasing from about 4120 to about 4180. We did not spend any money on page promotion, and the slow growth this month suggests diminishing returns with respect to audience outreach.
  • The Open Borders Action Group expanded quite a bit, from 713 members to 867 members. Most of the new additions were passive members, though, and about half of them appear to have been added by Eric Schmidt. Controlling for that, the number of new members was similar to the number in December 2014.
  • Our Twitter account @OpenBordersInfo saw its follower count increased from 1014 at the beginning of the month to 1048.

Here’s a graph of our Facebook reach and likes, comments, and shares:

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Journalist Stephan Faris: Modern border regimes are apartheid

Border controls that prevent innocent foreigners from travelling peacefully are in every meaningful way identical to laws enshrining racial segregation and apartheid. Both aim to exclude people from peaceful participation in civilised society, not because of anything they have done wrong, but purely because of a circumstance of birth that they had no choice over.

Open borders advocates have long compared the modern border regime to apartheid and other forms of racial segregation. But American journalist Stephan Faris has done us one better: in his brief book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration last year, he outlined exactly why and how we shouldn’t let artificially-drawn borders delude us into thinking our immigration laws don’t somehow constitute an arbitrary form of discrimination comparable to apartheid. Stephan was recently gracious enough to spare some time for an email interview with us, which we’ll be publishing next week.

In the mean time, I’d strongly urge you to head over to Amazon and buy the book; it’s currently listed for under 3 US dollars, and is only thirty pages. I finished the book in one sitting, and felt I got far more than my money’s worth. The intro blurb from the publisher:

As a child, Stephan Faris nearly failed to qualify for any country’s passport. Now, in a story that moves from South Africa to Italy to the United States, he looks at the arbitrariness of nationality. Framed by Faris’s meeting with a young orphan as a reporter in Liberia and their reencounter years later in Minnesota, Homelands makes the case for a complete rethinking of immigration policy. In a world where we’ve globalized capital, culture, and communications, are restrictions on the movement of people still morally tenable?

I’d say the book delivers on these claims. But rather than take my word for it, why not preview an excerpt and judge for yourself? Deca, the publisher of Homelands, has allowed us to publish an edited excerpt of the book — one that doesn’t give you the full colour of Stephan’s stories or arguments, but should whet your appetite for the full-length item:

After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.

Joseph Carens, the philosopher, is right to describe nationality as a birthright reminiscent of medieval feudalism. But as I discovered during my time in Africa, you needn’t go back as far as the Middle Ages to find an unsettling analog to our closed borders. If I’ve come to the conclusion that our immigration policies are one of the great moral challenges of our time, it’s in part because they very much resemble one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.

Apartheid was clearly becoming untenable, but they couldn’t contemplate giving up white privilege. So they settled on a different solution, one that would abolish overt discrimination but still allow them to retain their grip on social, economic, and political power: a partition of South Africa modeled explicitly on existing national borders, with the nation divided into rich and poor countries.

South Africa had already set aside land for the native population. Thirteen percent of the country was designated as native reserves, known as “homelands,” where black Africans had to live unless they could prove they were working for a white employer. Movement in and out of these homelands was restricted. The Pass Laws required nonwhite citizens to carry “passbooks” with their name, address, and photograph or risk imprisonment and expulsion back to the reserves. It didn’t seem like a big leap to go from “homelands” and “passbooks” to “countries” and “passports.”

The idea didn’t seem as crazy then as it might today. In the period after World War II, new countries were erupting out of disintegrating colonial empires all over the globe. The border between India, Pakistan, and what would later become Bangladesh wasn’t drawn until 1947, when a British administrator was given five weeks to decide where the division would run. All across Africa, new nations were hoisting new flags: Ghana in 1957, Guinea the year after. By 1960, the continent had seen the creation of sixteen new independent states, from Somalia to Senegal, from Mali to Madagascar.

At the same time, all around South Africa, new nations were coming into being. The Republic of Botswana, just to the north, elected its first government in 1966. Swaziland, in the east, declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Most remarkable of all was the transformation of the British Protectorate of Basutoland, a tiny landlocked colony completely surrounded by South Africa. In 1966, it pulled down the Union Jack and joined the roster of nations as the Kingdom of Lesotho.

If such a miniscule patch of land could stand alone as an independent country, why not the 13 percent of South African territory set aside as native reserves? “The dream was: how do you get rid of the immorality of apartheid?” said [former South African Minister Roelof Frederik] Botha. “How do you get rid of the reprehensible suppression and racial discrimination? If a sufficient number of black people in their homelands—exactly like Swaziland, like Basutoland, like Botswana—if they could also become independent, then maybe the whites might not feel that much threatened anymore by the overwhelming majority of black people. And apartheid, in its nefarious sense, in its reprehensible sense, could be dismantled.”

“So the idea took root,” he said. “Let us make these nations independent. They can have their own parliaments, their own governments, their own courts, their own judges. Each one must have a capital and a parliament and a president and a prime minister and a cabinet. They will be sovereign, and they will be independent. And then you would have a sort of equality, a constellation of southern African states.”

Blacks could have their independence. But when they came to where the work was, they would have to do so as immigrants. “The problem was reality,” said Botha. “It did not resolve the issue of racial discrimination. So the dream was turned into a nightmare. It was a dream that was not based on reality.”

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

What’s most striking about the story of South African apartheid is how similar it is to our efforts to restrict immigration today. Numerically, the parallels could hardly be more perfect. In 1994, there were six times as many nonwhite South Africans as white South Africans, according to data compiled by Michael Clemens. Whites earned roughly eight times as much as their black or mixed-race peers. Today, there are roughly six times as many people living in low- and middle-income countries as there are in high-income countries. Residents of rich countries typically earn about seven times the average income of the rest of the world. If numbers are anything to go by, ending economic and geographic—not to mention political—segregation in South Africa was a bigger challenge than dropping barriers to immigration would be today.

There are endless practical objections to allowing people to move where they can best profit from their willingness to work. But there were practical objections to ending apartheid as well, and practical objections to ending slavery in the United States. Few would argue that the practical objections outweighed the moral imperatives.

Again, the full 30 pages are worth buying. I think Stephan very concisely sums up the fundamental moral case for open borders, and in a very compelling way. Check back next week for our interview with Stephan!

The image featured at the top of this post is of a man crawling naked through the South African border fence near Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, making his way to South Africa. Originally published in the Cape Times, it was taken by Henk Kruger in 2008, and won the runner-up prize for World Press Photo of the year.

How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)

On May 29, 2013, co-blogger Chris Hendrix started off a very promising post series to explore the origins of immigration restrictions, the rationales used when introducing them, and how they were gradually modified into their present form. His first post in the series took an in-depth look at the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first large-scale restriction of immigration to the United States after nearly a century with nearly unrestricted migration. Chris went into considerable detail into the rationales proffered for the law, and found them flawed in light of both the evidence available at the time and the evidence that would accumulate over the coming decades.

With Chris’s permission, I’m taking this very important series over from him. This post will look at the Chinese Exclusion Act, but from a different angle: how was it implemented? As the United States’ first foray into a systematic control of a border, what legal ambiguities did it give rise to, and how were those resolved? What aspects of the modern immigration control regime, in the US and elsewhere around the world, can be traced to the way these ambiguities were resolved?

Let’s first get an idea of the sort of world that existed at the time.

A different world

Migration back in the day was qualitatively similar to South-South migration today: relatively unregulated and unprotected. But this is part of a broader feature of society back then: goverment was less centralized and far less powerful and all-knowing than it is today:

  • Passports did exist, but most people didn’t bother to get them.
  • Social Security, and Social Security Numbers, didn’t exist.
  • There was no federal income tax.
  • Since there was no tax withholding, employers had no federal reporting requirements, and they didn’t have reporting requirements in most states either. In other words, the state didn’t have a reason to record most work activity.
  • There was no Green Card, or Green Card-equivalent. Non-citizen permanent residents had no document that directly established that status for them.
  • There was no nation-wide interior enforcement for immigration law.
  • Entry by land from Mexico and Canada was largely unrestricted.

So what did exist?

  • Ports of inspection for people and goods coming by sea, from the Atlantic or the Pacific. These ports were not intended primarily for immigration enforcement, but were mainly used for customs enforcement. At the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, there were, as far as I am aware, no designated ports on the West Coast exclusively for immigration enforcement. Angel Island, the main such port, would become active only in 1910. The corresponding port in the East Coast, Ellis Island, would open only in 1892, though there were other immigrant processing stations before that on the East Coast, such as Castle Garden.
  • City officials in various cities could act as de facto immigration enforcement. They could ask residents of the area for documentation proving that they were citizens (this would typically involve a birth certificate that would need to match with the city’s records, or a demonstration that the parents were US citizens, or a proof of naturalization). Enforcement would therefore be zealous only in places where the natives and the officials representing them cared enough about the matter. In practice, therefore, immigration enforcement followed the principle of subsidiarity — even though the legislation was determined at the federal level, interior enforcement was largely a local matter.

Racism, citizenism, territorialism, and high versus low skill

All the elements found in the modern border control regime could be glimpsed in the Chinese Exclusion Act as it played out. First off, the act was overtly discriminatory in a racial and ethnic sense. It could be argued that many immigration laws today are racist, albeit in many cases they are not overtly so. But the racial/ethnic component to the Chinese Exclusion Act was both more morally acceptable and palatable and more practically enforceable.

If you are trying to enforce immigration law, that requires a lot of potential violations of civil liberties, not only for the immigrants, but also for people who might be suspected of being immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act explicitly restricted itself only to targeting (a subset of) the ethnic Chinese. This subpopulation was sufficiently distinctive in appearance, customs, and linguistic habits. Thus, the collateral damage inflicted by the law on those not in violation of immigration law was limited to other ethnic Chinese.

In today’s world, it is possible (though still far from easy) to carry out some semblance of border and interior enforcement targeted at potential immigrants that has minimal collateral damage for citizens, without being so explicitly racially targeted. For this, we can thank (or blame) the record-keeping surveillance state that can track people much better. At the same time, it is somewhat harder to use explicit racial/ethnic targeting, because of greater levels of ethnic mixing. People of different national origins no longer look so obviously different, thanks to some degree of global convergence in culture, and also (to a less extent) greater interbreeding leading to many many more intermediate forms of physical appearance.

The racism of the law was therefore necessary for it to get off the ground, and for immigration enforcement to get an early testing bed while leaving the majority of the population unaffected. Just as the income tax started out as a tax on the super-rich and gradually grew to cover a majority of income-earners in the United States (and most other countries) immigration enforcement sharpened its ax on a relatively vulnerable, distinctive, and reviled population before spreading its wings to society at large. As they say, First they came for the Chinese. As history.com puts it:

American experience with Chinese exclusion spurred later movements for immigration restriction against other “undesirable” groups such as Middle Easterners, Hindu and East Indians, and the Japanese. The Chinese themselves remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943.

The second interesting emergent feature of the law, as it came into practice, was its citizenism, in more senses than one. First, as Chris described at greater length in his post, the law was justified in terms of citizenist premises, though there was the occasional nod to how it would be good for China as well to keep all its population within. Second, those Chinese who were already citizens continued to enjoy citizenship — at least in principle. They still were at greater risk of getting into trouble (because they were in the ethnic group suspected of harboring illegal immigrants) and they often couldn’t bring family members in, but they still enjoyed the constitutional rights of citizens. They could leave the country and return as they pleased (provided the officer at the port of entry was convinced they were actually citizens, and there were sometimes messups).

Third, the implementation of the law provided the early contours of territorialism: Chinese who had immigrated but not naturalized prior to the passage of the Act were not allowed to naturalize, but they were not required to leave the country. As long as they were physically present in the country, they enjoyed the rights of non-citizens (subject to the caveat of being harassed due to the suspicion). However, if they left the country and tried to return, they could be denied entry. This was formalized in the Scott Act of 1888 discussed later in the post. This was an early precedent for the current regime that distinguishes between entry visas and authorized stays.

Fourth, the high versus low skill distinction emerged in the law. The law banned the migration of skilled and unskilled laborers, but allowed for the migration of people in white-collar professions, if they could get documentation from the Chinese government to that effect, and could convince the officer at the port of entry. In practice, many people in white-collar professions also found it hard to enter due to lack of adequate documentation. This again resembles the current system, where high-skilled immigrants need to, and often fail to, jump through the many hoops needed to demonstrate their high skills.

Continue reading “How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)” »

GreenCard

Carry your Green Card at all times: the why and how

The Green Card, originally called the Alien Registration Receipt Card, is a card possessed by non-citizen Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) in the United States. You can read about the history and color of the card here and here. The card, first introduced in 1940 as part of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (aka the Smith Act), carries with it an interesting regulation — those having the card are required to carry it with them at all times. Here’s how the USCIS puts it:

A green card is issued to all permanent residents as proof that they are authorized to live and work in the United States. If you are a permanent resident age 18 or older, you are required to have a valid green card in your possession at all times.

As far as I can make out, there is no obligation to carry documentation of citizenship status with one at all times, nor are non-citizens who are not permanent residents obliged to carry their identifying document (such as the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card) with them at all times. What accounts for the apparently unique status of the Green Card?

This post explores the origins of the regulation, how it was somewhat practical back in the day, and whether it can still be enforced.

Puzzling aspects of enforcement

Today, enforcement of the Green Card regulation would be difficult because there is no easy way of identifying the category of people who should carry Green Cards (i.e., Lawful Permanent Residents, or LPRs) from:

  • US citizens, who have no legal obligation to carry identifying documentation proving their citizen status, and most of them do not carry around such documentation (a large number of them carry driving licenses or state ID cards but, in many states, these cards do not include information about citizenship or immigration status).
  • Those on authorized non-immigrant statuses, such as short-term business/tourism visas (B1/B2), student visas (F), and temporary worker visas (H). Those whose visas allow for employment do need to have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) but, as noted above, are not required to carry it with them at all times.

So an obvious problem with enforcing the Green Card regulation is that somebody, asked to produce a Green Card, could simply claim to not be a LPR but instead be a US citizen or authorized under a non-immigrant status. Since those statuses don’t carry any requirement, how can anybody intent on enforcing the Green Card regulation push forward? You could argue that:

  • The Green Card regulation is still helpful in cases where people are trying to access benefits (such as welfare benefits) only eligible to citizens and LPRs. But there aren’t any welfare benefits accessible to LPRs and not to citizens. And in any case, government offices have their own requirement for documentation you are supposed to bring, and being required to carry your Green Card at all times is unnecessary for that purpose.
  • It still doesn’t make sense for a person to lie to an official enforcing the Green Card regulation about whether he or she is a LPR, because the officer can investigate the person and know if he or she is lying. But to the extent this is true, it also renders somewhat superfluous the requirement to always carry the Green Card — if officers can investigate you anyway, why do you need to carry the card?

Current enforcement

Though about half of Green Card holders I personally know are aware of this regulation, many people have been skeptical of whether it can actually be enforced. Here’s what online law resource NOLO has to say:

If you are 18 or older, you do have to carry your green card with you. Section 264(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) requires all lawful permanent residents (LPRs) to have “at all times” official evidence of LPR status.

Failing to have your green card with you is a misdemeanor and if you are found guilty you can be fined up to $100 and put in jail for up to 30 days. (I.N.A. Section 264(e).) A copy is not good enough, because the law does not use the word “copy” or refer to “other evidence” of LPR status.

The official evidence of LPR status that most people eventually receive is an “alien registration receipt card,” also known as Form I-551 or, more commonly, a “green card.” Sometimes, people do not have their green card, but are already LPRs. For example, when somebody first arrives in the U.S. with an immigrant visa, they first receive an “I-551 stamp” in their passport. Weeks later, they receive the actual green card in the mail. In the time before receiving the green card in the mail, the LPR would have to carry his or her passport “at all times” or risk breaking the law.

If you decide to carry a copy of your green card instead of the original because you want to keep the original safe, you will be violating the law. Will you actually be stopped by immigration, prosecuted and fined or jailed for not having your original green card with you? It’s unlikely. Like any other government agency, immigration authorities have limited resources and cannot spend precious government time and money on prosecuting people for not carrying their green card “at all times.”

But there have been cases where LPRs are detained or arrested during workplace enforcement actions for not having their green card on them. So to be on the safe side, and obey the law, you should actually carry your green card with you everywhere you go. And it probably goes without saying that if you will be traveling internationally, you should take your original green card with you to board a plane or boat back to the U.S. and to reenter the U.S. as an LPR.

You might also be interested in discussion of the issue at ImmiHelp, Immigration Road, and Immigration Forums. Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

> When there are 20 million illegals easily walking in the streets of USA we the law abiding ones should not have issues.

When the law says you have to carry it with you and you don’t carry it with you, then how can you be a law abiding one?

I believe you cannot apply the photo-copy-is-okay argument to a green card, like you do for approval notices or certificates. Green card is obviously different with the magnetic stripe and stuff.

If we can say photo-copy is sufficient, then we can logically extend the argument to drivers license and start carrying a xerox copy of our drivers license with us instead of the original.

We have to accept what the law says and have to learn to live with it even though it may not be to our liking.

In an Open Borders Action Group post discussing the issue, it was pointed out that immigration regulations in the United States can only be enforced by federal immigration enforcement authorities, and these are active generally only at airports and close to the border, so in practice this does not affect most people. There is much truth to this, but some important caveats:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee! If you, or people at your workplace, are non-citizen LPRs of the United States, then a federal immigration raid of your workplace could lead to you or your co-workers getting arrested for a month. Is this likely to happen? Probably not — arresting people for not carrying Green Cards is a “low priority” for the ICE because they have so many bigger fish to fry (such as deporting illegal immigrants). Still, better be careful! The law is the law.

Historical enforcement

The Green Card began after World War II. Althogh the Smith Act was passed in 1940, cards began to be issued only after the War. 1950 saw an important step in the formal codification of the idea that non-citizens had a burden of proof of responsibility in maintaining documentation to demonstrate legal status. As Citizen Path puts it:

The Internal Security Act of 1950 increased the value of Form 151, Alien Registration Receipt Card. Effective April 17, 1951, aliens holding AR-3 cards could replace them with a new Form I-151. However, only those with legal status could replace their AR-3. What’s more, aliens who could not prove their legal admission into the United States were subject to prosecution for violating U.S. immigration laws.

As a result, the Form I-151 card represented security to its holder. It indicated the right to live and work in the United States permanently and instantly communicated that right to law enforcement officials. Because of the card’s cumbersome official name – Alien Registration Receipt Card – immigrants, attorneys, and INS workers came to refer to it by its color, calling it the “green card.”

So having a Green Card was a way of getting around an otherwise capricious and uncertain law enforcement process. Mandating that people carry it could be considered a form of libertarian paternalism — nudging people in the direction of doing something they should want to do anyway.

Historically, the Green Card regulation was important because of two salient differences with the present.

First, in response to the present difficulty of distinguishing between citizens and non-citizen LPRs: a foreign-born person in the United States could not be a citizen unless that person was “white” (as defined by the Naturalization Act of 1790) or of African ancestry (this change was made in the Naturalization Act of 1870, as part of the process of post-Civil War rectification of racial injustice). Note that birthright citizenship existed even for people of other races and ethnicities, but the foreign-born of these races were not formally eligible for (or at least had no official process for) acquiring citizenship. This would change with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. But it does mean that back in the day, if somebody looked neither white nor black, you could have high confidence the person wasn’t a US citizen. (It was still conceivable the person was born in the US and therefore a US citizen, but given that this was about a decade after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, that effectively closed the US border to Asians and East Europeans, there would be very few children of immigrants among the population anyway).

So, back in the day, ethnicity as a statistical discriminator allowed almost all US citizens to avoid getting harassed by immigration enforcement (and the few who did get harassed were anyway from an ethnic group that didn’t enjoy a lot of broad support and sympathy). Thus, the regulation was enforcible.

What about my second point about the difficulty of current enforcement, i.e., the fact that people on temporary statuses aren’t required to carry documentation at all times? It’s important to remember that the landscape of temporary statuses and related regulations has changed a lot since that time. The H visas, including the H-1B and the H-2, didn’t exist back then — they were created by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. There did exist a Bracero Program for temporary agricultural labor, and deportation also started becoming a systematic operation with Operation Wetback. The primarily Mexican people in these situations may not have been required to carry green cards, but they had bigger problems and fewer legal protections overall.

Why hasn’t the regulation been repealed?

If the requirement to carry a Green Card is no longer practical to enforce, why is it still on the books? This is best understood in terms of the principle that laws are hard to repeal, particularly if they give power and authority to vested interests in government. Even if immigration enforcement officials do not generally use this regulation, the existence of this regulation gives them more power — power that they can use as and when they see fit. In general, any source of power will be liked by those wielding it, and they will not easily give up.

This ratchet effect is observed everywhere, but is particularly likely in situations where the people enforcing the law do not have direct accountability to the people affected. Non-citizens can’t vote, so getting rid of clauses that could be used against them doesn’t have a strong political constituency.

Featured image credit: Jason Scott, licensed under CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr

US immigrant processing: funded by user fees since 1882

The first piece of US federal legislation detailing procedures for immigration enforcement was the Immigration Act of 1882 (passed at about the same time as, though distinct from, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).

The first component of the act, as described by Wikipedia, was its self-financed nature:

The first was to create a “head tax” that would be imposed upon certain immigrants entering the country. The Act states that “There shall be levied, collected and paid a duty of fifty cents for each and every passenger not a citizen of the United States who shall come by steam or sail vessel from a foreign port to any port within the United States.” This money would be paid into the United States Treasury and “shall constitute a fund called the immigration fund.” These funds would be used to “defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act.” Scholar Roger Daniels commented that the head tax eventually “would rise, in stages, to eight dollars by 1917. In most years the government collected more in head taxes than it spent on administration.”

The fact that the costs of immigration administration are largely borne by user fees, unlike most other government agencies, continues to be true today. For instance, Wikipedia says:

Unlike most other federal agencies, USCIS is funded almost entirely by user fees. Under President George W. Bush’s FY2008 budget request, direct congressional appropriations made about 1% of the USCIS budget and about 99% of the budget was funded through fees. The total USCIS FY2008 budget was projected to be $2.6 billion.

This is true not only of the USCIS as a whole but also of incremental programs. For instance, co-blogger Michelangelo notes that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), announced by Barack Obama in June 2012, is funded by user fees:

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!

Similarly, when, after September 11, 2001, people on student and exchange visitor visas were required to go through a criminal background check in order to be able to get a visa (the so-called “SEVIS record”) that cost was also “user-financed” — recipients had to pay $100 in order to have a background check run on them.

Angelo Paparelli notes that Obama’s November 2014 deferred action proposals would also be financed by user fees:

Understandably, public and media attention since then has focused on the four to five million people who soon may come out from hiding in plain sight. Parents of citizens and permanent residents, and an expanded class of DREAMers, will be given deferred action and work and travel permits. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now preparing to accept and decide a flood of new applications, all of which will be funded by user fees.

It should be noted that the “funded by user fees” applies specifically to the USCIS, the branch of immigration enforcement that deals specifically with processing immigrant applications, and not to the other branches of immigration enforcement, namely U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). ICE and CBP, focused as they are on interior and border enforcement of immigration and customs laws, don’t really have “customers” — and they cost the taxpayers a decent chunk of money (though still chump change relative to the overall US federal budget). Here are the approximate budgets:

  • USCIS: About $3.2 billion, about 99% funded by user fees.
  • ICE: About $5.3 billion, negligible user fees funding.
  • CBP: About $12.9 billion, negligible user fees funding.

These numbers suggest that liberalizing migration, raising user fees somewhat (cf. immigration tariffs), and cutting down on some enforcement functions would probably lead to significant budgetary savings in the short run. However, all these numbers are small relative to the lifetime economic or fiscal effects of immigrants (even though the signs of the fiscal effects are much disputed, their magnitudes are likely to be at least one order of magnitude greater). This is one reason why “save the costs of border enforcement” is not an argument made prominently on this site or by open borders advocates in general. But in the narrowest sense, the fiscal cost of immigration enforcement arises not from immigrants (who seem to be bearing their share of the burden) but on those who seek to keep them out.

Some might object that illegal immigrants don’t pay any user fees. This is technically true, but they pay amounts that are far greater in fees to human smugglers. And when given the opportunity to regularize their status by paying user fees, as happened with DACA, many avail of the opportunity. Those who don’t are deterred not so much by the cost as by the uncertainty of whether registering themselves with the federal government might endanger them.

PS: See this Open Borders Action Group post where the relative costs of the immigration enforcement agencies and their extent of user funding are discussed.

MarsNASA

Isaac Asimov & Immigration

Isaac Asimov & Immigration: Fiction as Social Commentary


The celebrated writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was born in the Soviet Union to his great surprise. He moved to quickly correct the situation by stowing away in a piece luggage at the age of three. He settled down in New York City and by the age of eight he had acquired US citizenship. He wrote prolifically during his lifetime and his books can be found across the Dewey decimal system.

He is perhaps best known for penning the ‘Robot’, ‘Empire’, and ‘Foundation’ books which together paint a history of the future chronicling the early exploration of space, the future relationship between man and robot, and the rise and fall of galactic empires. For this Asimov is often thought as a science fiction writer, but I think this is misunderstanding the point of his fiction. Asimov’s books used science fiction as his setting, but could have worked just as well if they were set in colonial America.

It is better to think of Asimov as a social commentator, and as a social commentator he wrote quite extensively on immigration. One of his most explicit stories on immigration is the novelette, “Mother Earth” (published originally in magazine form and re-published in The Early Asimov).

The premise of the story is that Earth’s former space colonies, the Spacer worlds, have implemented immigrant quotas on Earth. Earth’s population has swelled to the billions and, as Asimov explains in-story, has become technologically stagnant since the brightest of mankind have left to space or are in the process of doing so. In other words Earth is experiencing a severe case of brain drain.

The Spacers, the descendants of the early space colonizers, view their Earth-bound cousins as a lesser sub-race. Even before explicit immigration quotas were put in place the Spacers had begun to genetically modify themselves to get rid of any undesired genetic traits. Their desire to restrict Earth migration is as such partly based on racism.

It is also partly based on economics. The Spacers themselves are more technologically advanced and so do not need ‘high skilled’ migrants from Earth. The use of robots has all but eliminated the need for ‘low skilled’ migrants. The only migrants that are sought after are those skilled in agricultural science. In a plot relevant point, food in the Spacer worlds lack ‘taste’ and there is a premium value in imported Earth food.

The novelette chronicles the conclusion outcome of this scenario. After negotiations to loosen the immigration quotas fail Earth and the Spacer worlds wage a war against each other. Earth is quickly defeated and has the worst possible punishment inflicted on it possible: closed barriers. The Spacers erect a barrier around the solar system and forbid any further migration from Earth.

The conditions of peace were unusual, perhaps unique, and under the force of an unprecedented humiliation, all the hordes of Earth seemed suddenly struck with a silence that came from a shamed anger too strong for words. The terms mentioned were perhaps best commented upon by a voice on the Auroran video two days after they were made public. It can be quoted in part:

“…There is nothing in or on Earth that we of the Outer Worlds can need or want. All that was ever worthwhile on Earth left it centuries ago in the persons of our ancestors.”

“They call us the children of Mother Earth, but that is not so, for we are the descendants of a Mother Earth that no longer exists, a Mother that we brought with us. The Earth of today bears us at best a cousinly relation. No more.”

“Do we want their resources? Why, they have none for themselves. Can we use their industry or science? They are almost dead for lack of ours. Can we use their man power? Ten of them are not worth a single robot. Do we even want the dubious glory of ruling them? There is no such glory. As our helpless and incompetent inferiors, they would be only a drag upon us. They would divert from our own use food, labor, and administrative ability.”

“So they have nothing to give us but the space they occupy in our thought. They have nothing to free us from but themselves. They cannot benefit us in any way other than in their absence.”

“It is for that reason that the peace terms have been defined as they have been. We wish them no harm, so let them have their own solar system. Let them live there in peace. Let them mold their own destiny in their own way, and we will not disturb them there by even the least hint of our presence. But we in turn want peace. We in turn would guide our own future in our own way. So we do not want their presence. And with that end in view, an Outer World fleet will patrol the boundaries of their system, Outer World bases will be established on their outermost asteroids, so that we may make sure they do not intrude on our territory.

“There will be no trade, no diplomatic relationships, no travel, no communications. They are fenced off, locked out, hermetically sealed away. Out here we have a new universe, a second creation of Man, a higher Man…”

-Mother Earth by Isaac Asimov

In the epilogue and further installments of series we learn the outcome of this closed border policy is disastrous for both sides. The Spacer worlds begin to deteriorate without Earth migrants. Earth migrants, it turned out, were those most adventurous when it came to space exploration. Without the entrepreneurial drive of migrants space exploration ceases along with technological advances. Meanwhile the racial policies the Spacers have been following come back to haunt them when they realize that they’ve been retarding their ability to adapt to space.

In the aftermath of the war Earth finds itself taken over politically by those who believe the only answer to ‘overpopulation’ is population control. Balance is only restored when open borders between Earth and the Space worlds is reestablished in the future and a new wave of space exploration migration begins. Open borders, it turns out, is necessary for humanity to flourish across the stars.

Readers may wonder why I have chosen to share this story. Am I, as Murray Rothbard called some of his detractors, a space cadet trying to trivialize the open borders movement by infusing it with unneeded futurism? No, as I noted above, Asimov’s stories are better viewed as social commentaries.  As I’ve written before, there is a place in the movement for philosophy-based arguments in favor of open borders and by all means we should continue down that path. We must however also package our arguments to reach different audiences.

One such method of packaging our arguments is through the use of fiction.

The beauty of fiction is that, when properly written, it can be enjoyed for its own sake while still providing a message. Paul Krugman, whom my co-blogger John Lee has previously written about, is a big fan of Asimov’s fiction despite being a moderate on immigration.

Krugman, who credits Asimov for his choice to enter economics and who wrote a foreword for new copies of the Foundation series, agrees with me that Asimov isn’t a science fiction writer. In Krugman’s words:

Maybe the first thing to say about ‘Foundation’ is that it’s not exactly science fiction—not really. Yes, it’s set in the future, there’s interstellar travel, people shoot each other with blasters instead of pistols and so on. But these are superficial details, playing a fairly minor part in the story.The‘Foundation’ novels are about society…

Asimov himself, in his non-fiction writings, wrote on the dangers of ‘over population’ despite the solid pro-open borders message of his books. That is how powerful good fiction can be. Asimov might have been wrong on economics when he consciously wrote on the topic, but in his fiction writing he got it right. As most fiction writers will point out, it is not uncommon for a story to ‘write itself’ or for a character to become alive on its own after you lay the groundwork.

I propose as such, as a possible avenue of open border advocacy, the pursuit of fiction dealing with open border themes. There are several pieces of fiction that deal with immigration, and I recommended several films this past Christmas that did just that, but few with an explicit open border bent exist. The trouble of course, and here too most fiction writers will collaborate with me, it is difficult to set out to cover a specific topic in fiction. It is easy to begin writing about X and find yourself covering Y as the story evolves. Nonetheless it is a pursuit worth pursuing.

I close by emphasizing that this article should not be taken to mean that we should cease writing in a given direction. The open borders movement has seen its birth in a certain sub-population and I argue simply in favor of adopting our advocacy efforts to attempt to capture readers from other sub-populations.


Read More In This Series

This is an ongoing series on ideas on how the open borders movement should proceed next.

What should be next for the Open Borders movement? by Michelangelo Landgrave

Philosophers, Wonks, and Entrepreneurs by Vipul Naik

What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery by Nathan Smith

Why the Open Borders Movement Should (Mostly) Avoid Emulating the Gay Marriage Movement by Nathan Smith

Immigration Comics by Michelangelo Landgrave


Related

Orson Scott Card on Immigration by Evan

My Summer in the Orchard: How I Came to Support Open Borders

This post is part of a series by Justin Merrill describing his personal experience with immigration and his embrace of open borders. It is part of our ongoing series of posts that are based on personal anecdotes.

I have been offered the opportunity to write some guest blog posts of my experiences with immigration. My area of expertise is money, banking and finance, not immigration policy. I stay fairly current of the research on immigration, but I am a consumer, not a producer of it. Despite my specialization, I believe that a peaceful foreign policy and open borders are more urgent than any free banking reforms, which says a lot. I’ve decided to share my transformative personal experiences in chronological order to provide their proper context.

I was born in Ellensburg, Washington, a smallish town in the center of the state. It was an agricultural community that often relied on immigrant help. Tree Top Fruit Company is a cooperative based in the neighboring town of Selah and farms, ranches and orchards filled the countryside. Ellensburg also is home to a university whose sister university is in Japan. My mother worked at the university and I ended up learning a lot from her Japanese exchange student interns. Maybe it was fate that I’d end up marrying a Japanese and living in Japan (a future story). But this was my childhood experience with immigrants, mostly Japanese and Mexican. I lived in a community that had both a lot of nativists and immigrants. It was a microcosm of the immigration debate because both sides of the argument were so visible. Clearly the agricultural economy relied on immigrants, but some of those same immigrants caused social ills, such as crime and drains on public resources. Yakima, WA, the city nearest the orchards of Selah, had at or near the highest violent crime rates per capita in the US in the early 90’s, earning the moniker “Crackima” for its rampant drugs and gangs. Conventional wisdom was that the gangs consisted almost entirely of immigrants, who came here to work in orchards, or their children, who then turned to a life of crime, especially if they were here illegally and had no legitimate means of employment. Yakima’s crime was notoriously bad and its ills were perceived to be related to immigration. In school, we played sports against another small town called Mattawa, whose population is 97% Hispanic. Seeing the town’s poverty, crime and education system drowning in ESL students who were failing to adjust planted a seed of doubt in my young mind as to the merits of open immigration. These observations plus some additional experiences with crime formed my nativist beliefs; that is, until I worked in an orchard.

During my adolescent years I’d often spend my summers living with my cousin, Colin, in Idaho. Usually we’d help on our Grandma’s ranch and spend the rest of the time playing, but when we were 14 we decided it was time to get a job that paid. The best paying job we could have gotten was a stock clerk working at a grocery store, but we were too far from town and too young to drive. The only job we were qualified for that was within our bicycling range was working in an orchard at the top of the lane. Colin and I were in for a shock. Aside from the family that owned the business, we were the only native English speaking people out of hundreds of employees. We made the minimum wage, $5.10 at the time. The hours were early. We’d start by 5:00 am sometimes so we could get as much work in before it got too hot in the field. We were put under the supervision of the boss’s son and were treated differently than the other employees. Most employees did the same job over and over. If you picked fruit in the field, that’s what you always did. Women were more likely to stand on the conveyor line sorting fruit by quality. It was air conditioned, but an arduous job. It required standing on your feet and constantly combing through the fruit with both hands working on the conveyor belt, sorting the good fruit to go to fresh produce and the badly bruised fruit to get turned into jam. Colin and I started doing this, but after a week or so they moved us into the orchard. Usually we would help load the picked fruit onto a truck, but often we were given special tasks. The tasks they gave us usually required detailed instructions, such as how to prune this kind of tree specifically, and I noticed how much our native language skills were an advantage, despite our relative lack of experience compared to our Spanish speaking coworkers.

Over time, Colin and I became more friendly towards (less scared of) the Hispanic workers and started to learn Spanish from them. We learned what life was like for them back in Mexico, and one hot afternoon, they let us off early for safety and the workers invited us to a barbeque in their residence, which was almost like a camp. By then it started to click. These were some of the hardest working, nicest, most caring people I’d ever met. This smashed every stereotype I’d had from the bad towns in Washington. I realized that punishing these people because of some gang members was wrong. I also realized that maybe the restrictive immigration policies caused crime as an unintended consequence by preventing undocumented immigrants from attaining work. I realized that what was a summer job to earn some money to buy CDs and movies for two teenagers was the livelihood of these people. We took a $5/hour job because we were limited to a five mile radius. They took the same job but had to leave their home country and travel over a thousand miles away from home for the summer. And even while at the same job, our experience wasn’t the same. Our language advantage gave us a leg up, despite being only fourteen. This is the summer when I became an open borders advocate.

High-skilled hacks: the case of Optional Practical Training

This post is part of my “high-skilled hacks” series, focused on immigration to the United States. The series explores various workarounds and caveats to immigration law that high-skilled workers and their employers have discovered in order to further their own interests, at the expense of the original intent of immigration law. Through the series, I try to argue that, although these hacks are an improvement over an alternative where only the basic immigration system existed, freer migration for all would be simpler, fairer, more efficient, and more just. The introductory post of the series is here.

Roughly, the situation is like this: creating new visa categories requires legislative action. However, modifying the terms of existing visa categories is a matter of executive discretion. This means that various sorts of extensions can be built into existing visa categories even as people wait for “comprehensive immigration reform” to provide a long-term fix. In this post, I talk of one such stop-gap measure from which I personally benefited (and that was basically my only option): Optional Practical Training.

The system based on original intent

The visa system’s original intent is to try to be as restrictive as possible in granting visas, and to make it hard for people to smoothly transition from one status to another. So, the idea is that those who are on student visas have non-immigrant intent. Once their stay is over, they should go back home. If they want to come back for a job, they should re-apply back from their home countries, without any special advantage over all the other people who didn’t go to the US to study.

What influential high-tech people want to mimic

The students themselves, the universities that they go to, and the companies that wish to hire them, would like another ideal: despite the fact that they are on non-immigrant visas, the students should basically be able to apply for and get jobs, and start working just like US natives. This goal is very clearly at odds with the stated purpose of the student visa, which is intended to encourage study, not a transition to long-term settlement.

With that said, the idea that the US should allow high-skilled students to easily transition to Green Cards has a lot of sympathy within the legislative and executive branches of the US government. Thus, for instance, there have been talks, on and off, of a “staple act” that would allow permanent residency to any U.S. university student who graduates with a Ph.D. in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. But for various gridlock-related reasons cited by Alex, that I discussed in the introductory post, and the fact that this is fundamentally at odds with the purpose of the student visa, this proposal hasn’t really made progress. Incidentally, as Chiappari and Paparelli note, the SKIL bill, an earlier proposal quite similar to the staple act, aimed to do this for student visas. Chiappari and Paparelli:

The Securing Knowledge, Innovation, and Leadership Act or SKIL Act, which was never enacted, included a proposed extension of F-1 OPT to 24 months and would have relaxed for STEM students the statutory restriction prohibiting F-1 foreign students from in tending, at the time they enter the United States or apply for a visa, to stay in the United States indefinitely.)

One direction that high-tech people have made progress in is introducing new skill-based migration schemes, many of which are somewhat niche (this was accomplished with the EB visas, part of the Immigration Act of 1990, and will be the subject of another post). Another direction is to use existing visa statuses, such as the student status (F) and exchange visitor status (J) and tag on more and more at the end of those. These extensions are typically justified based on arguments of “national competitiveness” such as those made in the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (2000). This post discusses one such extension of the F status: (post-completion) Optional Practical Training. There are a number of related programs, including Curricular Practical Training (CPT), pre-completion Optional Practical Training, and Academic Training (this one is for the J status), but for simplicity, this post will focus only on post-completion OPT.

The annual cycle of the H-1B

In principle, you can apply for the capped H-1B (the H-1B category used by all organizations except non-profit research institutes) any time of the year. In practice, however, the quota for a given fiscal year (starting October) is closed within a few days. And applications can be submitted at most six months in advance of the start date. So if you want a shot at the H-1B, you have to apply on April 1 (or rather, the first weekday of April) to start the H-1B October 1.

This poses a problem for people who want to start a job immediately after finishing their studies. Let’s say you intend to graduate on June 15. If you want the H-1B, you need to have found your employer before April 1, and have him or her agree to put in your paperwork by April 1. And then when your studies are over, you have about two months to wrap up and leave. That means you need to leave the US by August 15. And then, since you are now no longer physically present in the United States, and your status has changed from student to worker, you need to apply for a new US visa. Hopefully, you’ve received the H-1B petition approval by then (even though the H-1B itself starts on October 1) so that you can get the new visa. Then, you can start the job on October 1. And graduating in June is the lucky case. If you’re graduating in December, you basically need to spend the next couple months finding a job (potentially violating the terms of your student visa) that you can only hope to start in October, then leave the US by February 15, while your employer files the H-1B petition on your behalf by around April 1. Then, you wait in your home country till around July or August, by which time you have received the petition approval. You then apply for the visa and then enter the US.

So basically, the annual cycle means that students in the US have less of an advantage over the masses of people outside of the US in terms of getting jobs. They still have a huge advantage — they can interview in person for jobs and shop between multiple jobs. But basically, they need to find employers who are willing to agree to file petitions on their behalf seven or more months before they can actually join the job. And unless they graduate in August, they basically need to go back home and get a new visa, with all the uncertainty that engenders.

Enter Optional Practical Training

Optional Practical Training timeline

Source University of Alaska Anchorage

In practice, post-completion Optional Practical Training is a hack around this problem for those on “F” student status. One can apply for 12 months of Optional Practical Training that can start any time within 60 days after the completion of one’s academic program. The terms of the OPT are quite flexible: you don’t need to have a job offer when you apply, and the status is not tied to a particular job. You do need to work during the OPT: a maximum of 90 days of unemployment is allowed. But the work can include contract work (a minimum of 20 hours per week) giving you some flexibility to shop around for jobs.

The most typical use case of OPT is that it serves as a stop-gap for the months between completion of the academic degree and the beginning of the H-1B program. For instance, if you are graduating in June, then you can start your job in July on OPT while your H-1B petition isn’t yet active. This still requires that you secure your job by February so that your employer can file the H-1B petition on your behalf by April, but at least you can start the job right after graduation, and you don’t need to travel back home and re-apply for the visa.

Another use case of the OPT is for somebody who is genuinely unsure about what to do after graduation. The person wants to experiment with different kinds of work. The OPT offers a little breathing room to do that without losing physical presence in the United States.

Related to the program of study

Another bureaucratic requirement of the OPT is that all jobs you do under the OPT must be related to the program of study. That’s because the OPT is tied to your program of study, and is allegedly for the purpose of giving you additional “practical training” in the domains you studied in your degree program (even though in practice it’s just transitional to a H-1B or other longer-term employment status for most people).

However, after some informal investigation, I discovered that relation to program of study was interpreted more loosely than one might naively think. It’s okay for somebody like me, who has studied group theory, to take up my current job that involves machine learning, data science, and programming, as long as I can clearly explain how the skills I learned in graduate school are relevant to my job. Moreover, unlike the H-1B, the job choice doesn’t need to be pre-approved by the USCIS. Rather, what they can do is retroactively ask you to justify how the job (or jobs) you did to meet your OPT requirements were related to your program of study. Having letters from your supervisors at each job, that clearly explained the relation, would generally be sufficient. In most cases, the USCIS didn’t bother. But I heard anecdotally of a chemistry Ph.D. who went into a finance job and was asked by the USCIS to justify it. He was successful in convincing them of the relationship. Basically, unless you are going into a completely unrelated domain (such as a math Ph.D. becoming a barista or an economics Ph.D. becoming a performing artist) you should be fine. (The fact that the relationship to program of study is interpreted loosely is tacit knowledge that you won’t find explicitly mentioned online in any authoritative source. Most university websites that provide detailed information on OPT will not put this information in writing. Oh well. Non-transparent rules and regimes create huge information asymmetries between those in the know and the general masses.)

The cap gap and the STEM extension

H1B cap gap

Optional Practical Training H1B cap gap explained diagramatically. Source: University of Chicago

The OPT has gradually grown to accommodate more and more cases. In the example above, what if you get your job offer only in May? With the original 12-month OPT, you can start your OPT in July (after finishing your academic program in June) but since you can only apply for the H-1B next cycle, you’re still in trouble: your OPT will end by next July. Your employer can file a petition for you next year, but that job can start only on October 1, so basically you are forced to take two or three months off from work, plus you need to travel home to get the new visa. An ingenuous workaround called the “cap gap” has been incorporated into the OPT: if, at the time of the completion of your OPT, you already have a H-1B petition pending with the same employer as you are working with on OPT, you can continue working on OPT with that employer until either your application is denied or your H-1B period begins.

Finally, consider a case like mine. I finished my degree program in December 2013. I didn’t have a job immediately out of graduate school, and was planning on working on a mentoring service with a friend at the time. I did contract work for some employers, including MIRI, using my Optional Practical Training. I finally transitioned to my full-time job in August 2014. It was too late for me to apply for the 2014 cycle. And my OPT would end in January 2015, too early for me to have my H-1B petition for 2015. So what could I do?

Enter yet another ingenuous workaround to the OPT: the STEM extension. This allows a 17-month extension to the OPT for people who have degrees in STEM subjects. The STEM extension comes with heavier restrictions than the usual OPT (in particular, employers need to be enrolled in e-verify). But still, that extra 17 months gives me a chance to apply for a H-1B in 2015. In fact, the STEM extension can be combined with the cap gap, so even if I am rejected in 2015, I can still apply in 2016.

Interestingly, the STEM extension can be attributed to the efforts of one man: Bill Gates. Here’s what he said in testimony to Congress:

First, we need to encourage the best students from abroad to enroll in our colleges and universities and, if they wish, to remain in the United States when their studies are completed. One interim step that could be taken would be to extend so-called Optional Practical Training (OPT), the period of employment that foreign students are permitted in connection with their degree program. Students are currently allowed a maximum of 12 months in OPT before they must change their immigration status to continue working in the United States. Extending OPT from 12 to 29 months would help to alleviate the crisis employers are facing due to the current H-1B visa shortage. This only requires action by the Executive Branch, and Congress and this Committee should strongly urge the Department of Homeland Security to take such action immediately.

Congressional Testimony from Bill Gates, March 12, 2008, that seems to have directly led to the OPT STEM extension

Both the cap gap and the STEM extension, and the contribution of Gates to the passage of the latter, were noted in an article by Ted Chiappari and Angelo A. Paparelli. They write (pp. 2-3, footnotes removed to improve readability):

One of the expansions allows those foreign students lucky enough to win a number in the H-1B lottery to
have their OPT automatically extended until October 1, 2008, when their H-1B status will begin. This makes permanent an accommodation that was first introduced in 1999, but that has lain fallow since 2004. In 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the sub-agency of DHS that took over responsibility for administering the F-1 student registration program known as the Student Exchange Visit Information System or SEVIS, refused to implement this provision any more because of its concerns about its ability to track foreign students if they were granted a blanket authorization to stay here beyond their period of OPT. These security concerns are addressed in the new rule, which now requires employers to notify the school’s Designated Student Officer (DSO) of the departure or termination of the student within 48 hours.

The second expansion is an increase in OPT by 17 months to a total of 29 months for students with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (so-called STEM degrees). This appears to have been inspired directly by the March 12, 2008, testimony of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates before the Committee on Science and Technology of the House of Representatives. In his testimony, Mr. Gates suggested: “Extending OPT from 12 to 29 months would help alleviate the crisis employers are facing due to the current H-1B visa shortage.” He also correctly observed that “This only requires action by the Executive Branch,” and he pleaded that “Congress and this Committee should strongly urge the Department of Homeland Security to take such action immediately.” (The regulatory change may also have been inspired, indirectly or in part, by some ideas floated in legislative proposals introduced in 2006 and again in 2007 to meet U.S. employers’ need for skilled workers with STEM degrees. The Securing Knowledge, Innovation, and Leadership Act or SKIL Act, which was never enacted, included a proposed extension of F-1 OPT to 24 months and would have relaxed for STEM students the statutory restriction prohibiting F-1 foreign students from intending, at the time they enter the United States or apply for a visa, to stay in the United States indefinitely.)

DHS did in fact take action quickly, but it added a requirement that was not part of Mr. Gates’s testimony: mandatory participation by F-1 students’ employers in E-Verify in order to qualify for the additional 17-month extension. Moreover, DHS limited the 17-month extension to those in practical training in connection with one of the identified STEM degrees. The STEM degrees include a variety of disciplines in computer science, engineering, engineering technologies, biological and medical sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and statistics and science technologies, as well as in actuarial science, military technologies and health professions and related clinical sciences. DHS has designated STEM programs using the list of Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The DHS action, which appears to have been announced formally by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on April 2, 2008 (you can see the full memo here) was ignored by most, but did get noted and critiqued by some people concerned about the wages and employment opportunities of high-skilled workers (see for instance here and here).

Continued repercussions for visa renewal and travel

The hackish way in which OPT has been conceived — an extension of a non-immigrant student status that’s in practice treated as an interim to a dual-intent temporary worker visa — leads to some interesting contradictions. In particular, if somebody wants to travel outside the US for OPT, the person faces complications at two stages:

  • If the person’s student visa is still valid, he or she does not need to renew it. If, however, the student visa has expired, the person needs to re-apply for a student visa. However, a student visa can only be granted if non-immigrant intent is explicitly demonstrated. OPT applicants generally fail to meet this requirement, and might have trouble getting visas.
  • Re-entry at the port of entry is also complicated. For those within their usual student status (who have not yet begun OPT) a valid visa and travel signature on their I-20 suffice — few are subject to additional questioning. However, people on OPT have additional burdens of proof: they need a valid visa, a recent travel signature (within the last six months rather than within the last year), they need their Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card, and they also need proof of continued employment. Those who have applied for OPT and not yet received their EAD card are strongly advised to not travel. The travel signature requirement arises from the fact that the OPT is still part of student status, even though the student may be working in a different part of the country and has little relationship with the university otherwise.

The Georgia Tech Office of International Education offers a particularly candid description:

Students who decide to travel while the OPT application is pending are highly discouraged from leaving the U.S until the application has been received by USCIS and the I-797 receipt notice has been issued. Students should bring the receipt notice with them as proof that an application has been submitted. Although the receipt notice is a good substitution, admission into the U.S. is up to the discretion of the CBP officer, and there have been reports of students without their EAD work permit having problems at the port of entry.

[…]

OPT is a benefit of the F-1 status. Therefore, students traveling while on OPT and have an expired F-1 visa are required to apply for a new F-1 visa. Although the U.S. consulates/embassies are permitted to grant visa renewals to students participating in OPT, these students may be subject to additional scrutiny. The F-1 visa is a non-immigrant intent visa. Therefore, applicants are required to provide proof of “binding ties” to their home country. This may be more challenging for some students on OPT.

Procedures and requirements for visas can vary between countries and are often subject to change. As such, reviewing the visa requirements on the website for the appropriate U.S. Embassy/Consulate is the best way to prepare you for the visa application process. Visit www.travel.state.gov to determine the procedures for applying for a visa at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate in the country in which you’ll be traveling.

Proposed changes to OPT

While US President Barack Obama’s November 2014 immigration executive action announcement was primarily about deferred action for unlawfully present migrants, the memo from Secretary Johnson also contained some guidelines for changes to the Optional Practical Training program. The main changes being mooted are:

  • Increase the base length of the OPT.
  • Increase the length of the STEM extension.
  • Expand the set of degree programs eligible for the STEM extension.
  • Allow people to be eligible for the STEM extension based on their undergraduate degree program, even if that was outside the US. For instance, somebody who gets an engineering degree from India and then gets a MBA in the US would be eligible for the STEM extension under the proposed scheme.

Here’s a summary from the National Law Review:

Most foreign students on F-1 student visas are eligible for a year of post-graduate optional practical training (OPT) as long as the work experience that they gain is in a field that relates to their degree program. But 12 months of authorized OPT frequently is not enough time to bridge the time between the foreign student’s authorization to work on OPT and the granting of a temporary work visa status. The H-1B quota opens every year on April 1st, and the H-1B visas do not become effective until the following October 1st, at the beginning of the government’s new fiscal year. The quota has been exhausted immediately in the last several years, leaving no H-1B visas available until the next government fiscal year – resulting in a 17-month period with no H-1B visa availability.

This problem is less severe for F-1 foreign students who major in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) fields. These students are eligible to apply to extend their OPT work authorization for an additional 17 months, as long as they are employed by US employers participating in the government’s E-Verify program. (E-Verify is a program that any employer can participate in, if it is willing to check its employees’ documents through a government database to ensure the employees are legally authorized to work in the United States. Some employers don’t have a choice: if they have certain federal government contracts, or operate in certain states, they must sign up for E-Verify.) Qualified foreign students who graduate with US STEM degrees are able to continue to work legally through multiple government fiscal years, increasing their chances of “winning” an H-1B visa before their OPT period expires.

The list of STEM “majors” that qualify a foreign student for a STEM OPT extension is limited, however, and the focus until now has been on the US degree program that the foreign student has just completed. It would be much more useful if the government would expand the program to allow for STEM-based OPT extensions for F-1 students who either graduate with a US STEM degree OR complete a STEM degree prior to studying in the United States. For example, many of our MBA students come to the United States with a STEM undergraduate degree. Furthermore, the list of STEM “degrees” should be expanded to be much more robust.

Accordingly, Secretary Johnson directed USCIS and ICE to “develop regulations for notice and comment to expand the degree programs eligible for OPT and extend the time period and use of OPT for foreign STEM students and graduates.” The business community would like to see a significant expansion of STEM eligibility in the new rules. But the business community may not appreciate some OPT restrictions that the Secretary has suggested might be paired with expanded STEM eligibility. Currently there is great flexibility associated with OPT. F-1 graduates on OPT can be self-employed or work as independent contractors, and if they work as employees on a W-2, there is no prevailing wage requirement associated with their employment. The flexibility associated with OPT has proven extremely helpful to foreign entrepreneurs and inventors who use the post-graduation period to refine their inventions, products and business ideas, form companies, and find investors.

A later article from the National Law Review made some further suggestions:

But the STEM fields are narrowly defined. If the STEM fields are expanded, the STEM extension would benefit a larger number of foreign students and employers. In his memo, Secretary Johnson calls for USCIS and ICE to develop regulations to “expand the degree programs eligible for OPT” and to “extend the time period and use of OPT” for foreign Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) graduates.

We hope that the expansion of degree programs will include degree concentrations in business administration, finance, economics, etc. so that a larger percentage of foreign students can take advantage of the STEM OPT extension option. In light of the H-1B visa crisis, employers across the US are clamoring for options to hire and retain foreign talent, and expanding eligibility for a post-graduation OPT extension responds to this need. Expanding the degree programs list would also bring value to the US by keeping talented graduates in the US Secretary Johnson also ordered USCIS and ICE to take steps to ensure that OPT employment “is consistent with labor market protections to safeguard the interests of US workers in related fields.” We hope that the end result of this directive does not decrease the flexibility that the OPT program currently offers foreign students. Students and graduates on OPT can be self-employed and work as independent contractors, a flexibility that is not afforded by other widely-available temporary work visa statuses. F-1 students and graduates are not subject to prevailing wage requirements during their employment on OPT which is particularly helpful to new entrepreneurs who sometimes volunteer their time to their own start-ups.

The current flexibility of the OPT program means students can take internships and employment that offer value and further their education. During this limited period, they now have a range of choices and options, including working on their own start-ups. Undue restrictions on the F-1 OPT program would be counterproductive to the goal of improving and enhancing the program to provide the US with talented, energetic and motivated foreign students and graduates.

Lawsuit

I also recently came across a report of a lawsuit challenging the Optional Practical Training program. The lawsuit predictably attacks the half-truths and hackish workarounds used to justify the program. Although approval for the lawsuit came after the memo suggesting possible changes to OPT, the lawsuit had been filed a while earlier and challenged the OPT as it had existed in the past. The article says:

The WashTech lawsuit, which is being heard in federal court in the District of Columbia, challenges the OPT program. If the judge ultimately sides with the plaintiffs, the case could be bad news for the OPT program generally, as well as Obama’s plans to further expand it.

Students still in school or recent graduates can use their student F-1 visas to take jobs through the OPT program. Employers don’t have to pay them a prevailing wage, or Medicare and Social Security taxes. These tax breaks make OPT workers “inherently cheaper” to employ than U.S. workers, the lawsuit argues.

The last para is somewhat inaccurate. It’s true that students on F status, whether currently enrolled or on OPT, are exempted from paying Social Security and Medicare taxes during their first five calendar years (see the Substantial Presence Test for more). On the other hand, those who have been in the US for more than five calendar years do generally need to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes while on OPT. It is also true that the prevailing wage requirement does not apply to OPT, but a large fraction of OPT employment is meant as a stop-gap prior to a H-1B petition, and the latter is subject to prevailing wage rules.

The article continues:

The 17-month extension may have acted as a catalyst in generating interest in the OPT program. There were 123,000 approved OPT students last year, compared to 28,500 in 2008 when the added time was approved.

John Miano, an attorney involved in the case and founder of the Programmers Guild, said the DHS “knew when they promulgated the OPT expansion that it was illegal.”

The justification for the 17-month expansion of OPT for STEM workers “was a ‘critical shortage’ of STEM workers,” said Miano, adding that the DHS had “no objective evidence to support the claim of a worker shortage.”

Miano said the only justification of a worker shortage is from one government study that made no such conclusion, the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report from 2007.

Now, the government will have to explain “where in the cited reported does it say there is a critical shortage of STEM regulations?” said Miano. And with that, “the regulations fall apart.”

There had also been an earlier lawsuit from the Immigration Reform Law Institute, back on May 29, 2008, challenging the STEM extension shortly after its announcement. However, the lawsuit was thrown out by a New Jersey district court judge (you can see the full proceedings here).

Conclusion

I’m personally quite grateful for this series of hacks. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to stay in the United States. Or I might have been able to stay but would have been much more constrained in my choices. Without the STEM extension, I could not in good faith have accepted my current job. Just a few weeks ago, I was a little worried, because my case status for the STEM extension wasn’t showing up on the USCIS website. If my case had been lost, this would have been terrible for me and my employer. However, after a long phone conversation with USCIS representatives, I learned that the reason my case status wasn’t displaying online was that Obama’s deferred action announcement had required some system upgrades so they weren’t up-to-date. I finally got information that my case was proceeding normally, and my application was approved last week.

But, while these hacks have served me quite well, I also believe that the system as a whole doesn’t make sense. I wish that the same effective freedom that I enjoy were available to people around the world, high-skilled and low-skilled. People will always be constrained by their personal limitations and the limitations of the world around them. But I believe that many of the limitations imposed by migration law are an unnecessary additional set that should be dispensed with.

PS: For simplicity, I have omitted discussion of many aspects of the OPT, including something called pre-completion OPT. For a more comprehensive overview, see the Wikipedia page [FULL DISCLOSURE: I significantly expanded and restructured the page in a series of edits in September 2013, while researching it in preparation for applying for it. I made another series of relatively minor edits shortly after the publication of this blog post, adding some material I discovered in the course of research for the blog post.]

PS2: This didn’t fit well in the main post, but might be of interest anyway: employers have historically been reluctant to hire people on OPT if the annual cycle for those people means they can’t have a H-1B petition in by then. A National Law Review article notes that it has been ruled legal (i.e., not afoul of anti-discrimination law) for employers to choose to forgo hiring workers on OPT for this reason:

In a Technical Assistance Letter (TAL), the Office of Special Counsel has stated that an employer can disqualify an applicant because of future OPT expiration without running afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The INA’s anti-discrimination provisions apply only to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents who are not yet eligible to apply for naturalization or who have applied within six months of eligibility, asylees, and refugees. “Accordingly, F-1 visa holders are not protected from citizenship status discrimination,” the Office of Special Counsel states. Therefore, an employer who inquires as to whether the candidate requires sponsorship now or in the future is not participating in discriminatory practices.

This makes conditional sense: the private “discrimination” here isn’t discrimination as much as a government-forced constraint on hiring. My co-blogger Nathan has argued that private discrimination should be permitted even as governments get out of the way, but in this case (and many other cases) the private discrimination is a rational response necessitated by government policy.

Paddington - Migration

A rose by any other name: open borders, freedom of movement, and the right to migrate

In our welcome blog post, we state:

This website is dedicated to making the case for open borders. The term “open borders” is used to describe a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.

Many of our leading influencers and those associated with the open borders movement in some fashion spurn the label “open borders”, however. A good example is economist Michael Clemens. Clemens’s chief contributions to open borders are his work summarising the economic literature suggesting free migration would double world GDP and his analysis of the place premium showing the vast wage discrimination effects of the borders status quo. Clemens’s “double world GDP” is literally our website’s motto, yet in an interview with economist Russ Roberts, he states:

People often ask me if I am in favor of open borders. And I take an agnostic approach to that question. That’s kind of a strange term but by it I mean that I think the question is ill-posed. I don’t understand what people are asking when they ask it.

Do they mean anyone from everyone in the world should be able to freely move to every other spot on the world? Well, I don’t have that right right now. I don’t know of anybody who has ever had that right, actually. I can’t walk into your house. I can’t walk into a military base. I can’t go sit on the street–police would remove me after a while. My movements are tightly regulated. Property markets are regulating where I can pitch a tent and live.

If open borders means absolutely free movements then we certainly don’t have that in this country. If open borders means anybody can come get immediate access to any public service no matter whether or not they’ve paid into the system, that’s not something that I enjoy either. I don’t get to take Social Security money out unless I put money in. That’s also true for immigrants, by the way–you can’t get any money out of Social Security until you have paid into it for at least 40 quarters, that is a minimum of a decade of work or more. If open borders means absolutely free movement of people without any sort of tracking of who they are or any sort of concern for free riding in public services or any concern for trespassing on private property, then, no.

Open borders doesn’t exist in any space that I’ve ever seen. I don’t really want it to exist. Before we talk about open borders, I need to know what that means. Usually people mean something like a great relaxation to the policy barriers that people face right now.

Clemens quite clearly wants a “great relaxation” of barriers to human movement, which is how he ultimately winds up defining what people mean by “open borders”, yet he spends almost hundreds of words denouncing the label.

Take too philosopher Kieran Oberman, who supports the concept of a human right to migrate:

Commitment to these already recognized human rights thus requires commitment to the further human right to immigrate, for without this further right the underlying interests are not sufficiently protected.

Does this mean immigration restrictions are always unjust? On the view of human rights adopted here, human rights are not absolute. Restrictions might be justified in extreme circumstances in which immigration threatens severe social costs that cannot otherwise be prevented. Outside these circumstances, however, immigration restrictions are unjust. The idea of a human right to immigrate is not then a demand for open borders.

Rather it is a demand that basic liberties (to move, associate, speak, worship, work and marry) be awarded the same level of protection when people seek to exercise them across borders as when people seek to exercise them within borders. Immigration restrictions deserve no special exemption from the purview of human freedom rights.

Oberman too rejects the label of “open borders”, but he clearly believes that there is a human right to cross international borders that can only be restricted in the most extreme of circumstances. In other words, he accepts the presumptive right to migrate which we at Open Borders: The Case consider the clarion call of open borders, but rejects open borders!

On the flipside, consider philosopher Phillip Cole, who endorses a set of views virtually identical to Oberman’s in his defence of open borders:

…the right to cross borders is embodied in international law, but only in one direction. Everyone has the right to leave any state including their own. This is a right that can only be over-ridden by states in extreme circumstances, some kind of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation. What we have is an asymmetry between immigration and emigration, where states have to meet highly stringent tests to justify any degree of control over emigration, but aren’t required to justify their control over immigration at all.

In effect all I’m proposing is that immigration should be brought under the same international legal framework as emigration. Immigration controls would become the exception rather than the rule, and would need to meet stringent tests in terms of evidence of national catastrophe that threatens the life of the nation, and so would be subject to international standards of fairness and legality. This is far from a picture of borderless, lawless anarchy.

Cole describes his argument as making the case for open borders from the basic principles of human rights — just as Oberman does! The two endorse the same logic, and yet one embraces the label of open borders, and the other rejects it.

Rather than affirm or reject any one of these views (partial as I am to Cole’s views, I would also endorse almost everything I have seen from Clemens and Oberman when it comes to immigration), I would say this points to the nascent nature of the open borders movement. Although suspicion and hostility to the stranger in our land has almost always been a feature of human nature, it is not until recently that anyone has felt compelled to defend the right to migrate; strong outbursts of nationalism in the late 19th century compelled civil rights activists such as Frederick Douglass to speak out for open borders. But even in that climate, German legislators took it for granted that borders were to be crossed at will in peace (their only debate was over whether governments could arbitrarily deport migrants), and Argentina had no problem entrenching the rights of immigrants into its constitution.

The development of borders that are closed by default — the closed borders regime, I like to call it — is a historically recent feature. Because closed borders are so young, the movement to overturn them is even younger. It should not be terribly surprising then that different opponents of the borders status quo have different ways of describing their views, even if all have the same end in mind.

Beyond that, there are pragmatic reasons why we might want to avoid the label of open borders. A good one, exemplified in Clemens’s wariness of “open borders”, is the usage of this term by closed borders regime advocates as an instance of what blogger Scott Alexander calls the Worst Argument in the World:

I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: “If we can apply an emotionally charged word to something, we must judge it exactly the same as a typical instance of that emotionally charged word.”

Immigration restrictionists frequently tar moderate immigration liberalisations with the label of “open borders” — never mind that giving a few million people a reprieve from deportation is nowhere close to literally tearing down border checkpoints or striking thousands of immigration laws off the statute books. The reason they do this, as Clemens alludes to, is that many people, intentionally or otherwise, conflate free peaceful movement across borders with something far more extreme or obviously undesirable such as:

  • the abolition of the nation-state
  • the abolition of national defence
  • free rein for criminals or infectious diseases to travel without inspection
  • abolition of any individual right to exclude others from one’s private property as one sees fit

“Open borders” is meant to be pejorative; it is meant to be a dogwhistle, striking an emotional chord with people who consider it an emotional article of faith that sovereignty can never co-exist with open borders (never mind that nation-states existed for centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia without closing their borders). If restrictionists get away with taunting moderates for supporting slightly-less restrictive policies because they amount to “open borders”, imagine the opprobrium and the closed minds we may encounter if we publicly proclaim our support for open borders! So I perfectly understand Clemens’s eagerness to demur here, and state he supports freer human mobility across international borders in lieu of saying he supports open borders.

But what happens if we try Oberman’s preferred formulation? What if we just say we are for a right to migrate? Does this clear up the confusion, since one cannot accuse us directly of wanting to undermine the peace and security of modern societies? Does this preemptively address the unfounded concern that we are out to abolish the right of private property owners to exclude foreigners from their own living rooms and dining tables? It would seem not; on more than one occasion (here and here), I’ve encountered people who allege the right to migrate infringes individuals’ right to keep strangers out of their own homes.

To be honest, it does not bother me much either way whether we call it open borders, the right to migrate, human mobility, freedom of movement, or just the right to be left alone in peace. Whatever you call it, like all those I have cited, I believe in a world where any person who wants to go somewhere for pleasure, family, work, or study, and is willing to pay the fare it will take to get him or her there, will be able to do so in peace. And I believe a major precondition for getting there is to abolish most of the immigration laws in place today.

As I wrote during the Ebola crisis of 2014, immigration laws aimed at quarantining and treating infectious diseases do not bother me. I am no more distressed about immigration laws that prevent terrorists from entering than I am about trade controls that prevent international trade in weapons of mass destruction. But beyond these, I believe most immigration laws are spurious, unnecessary, and aimed purely at excluding people who have done nothing wrong except being born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.

How do we operationalise open borders? How do we enact the right to migrate into law, and guarantee freedom of movement to all people? The nation-state is not going away any time soon, and so the answer lies in getting our nation-states to change their laws. I am on-board with the liberal premise that the ultimate purpose of government is to protect individuals’ liberty to go about their own lives in peace — and so as sympathetic as I might be to the utopic vision of having no borders at all, I believe we should at least hold our own governments accountable for protecting the liberties of all who seek protection and peace within our borders.

Clemens notes that he tries to refocus the discussion not on the semantics of “open borders”, but rather on what operationally we seek to achieve. I think we in the movement, wonks like Clemens aside, often shy away from articulating a specific policy we would like to see. Part of this is because the legal and policy analysis necessary to enact open borders has rarely been done, and would vary significantly from country to country. Our goal is simply to place freedom of movement on the political agenda in the first place — to force citizens to reckon with the malicious wrongdoings of our own governments in persecuting people who have done nothing wrong.

But a further part of this is also because, just as our goal has many labels, it also has many possible routes — we’ve discussed these paths to open borders plenty in the past and intend to keep doing so. And I do think one appeal of the “freedom of movement” or “right to migrate” labels is that they are somewhat more agnostic about which of the options we have are the best or the appropriate route(s) to take.

Open borders tends to imply, just as it says on the box, borders that are open. This would suggest borders with no checkpoints (perhaps just a sign such as “You are now entering Germany”), or borders with checkpoints where very few are stopped — i.e., guards are posted, but they do not stop anyone unless the person appears suspicious, similar to how guards are often posted in airports or train stations, but they do not stop anyone unless that person fits a suspicious profile.

German-Austria border

You are now entering Germany; the Germany-Austria border. Original photographer unknown; image downloaded from The Lobby.

Meanwhile, freedom of movement and the right to migrate carry fewer explicit connotations about how our societies would in practice respect and protect these liberties. Of course, we could always abolish or minimise border controls, as literal open borders would suggest. But we could also simply offer visas to anyone who applies for them (subject to standard exclusions for people bearing diseases, weapons, or criminal intent of course). We could maintain checkpoints and inspect every traveller while still waving 98% of them through, as was actually done on the famous US checkpoint of Ellis Island in the era of open borders. Or we could even technically maintain more controls on immigration, while blatantly waiving most of these controls, as Argentina does.

But this potential semantic-implementation distinction does not bother me much either. After all, these days virtually every domestic traveller getting on an aeroplane at a regular port of travel is subject to a screening and document inspection of some kind. Beyond the most absolute of pedants, and a handful of laudable liberty-of-travel advocates, I think most of us would agree that this does not mean we lack internal open borders. The internal borders of our countries are porous to virtually all of us except those on government watchlists; our borders are internally open.

At the end of it all, I am less concerned about what kinds of checkpoints we have, or what screenings we may subject travellers to (as worthy a set of issues these might be) than I am about ensuring as many people travelling in peace are able to do so free from government agents standing in their way, preventing them from moving in peace with all the coercive force of the state. To my mind, it is a waste of taxpayer money, a danger to peace and safety, and worst of all abusive and discriminatory for law enforcement officials to be treating people seeking to visit friends and family or work for a fair wage as though they are dangerous criminals. It does nobody any good for our governments to consider peaceful, orderly movement a threat to the fundamental order of society.

It is this dangerous and unjust treatment of migration as a crime that I want to end. And I do not much care what we call our goal, or how we reach it. What I want is a world where my government, and every government, dispenses justice to every person seeking it from them. Where every government respects the right of individuals to go about their own lives and arrange their own affairs in peace, no matter their nationality or circumstance of birth.

A world with open borders; a world with freedom of movement; a world with the right to migrate. It matters not what we call it, but to all of us, it should matter very much that we achieve it. For as two German legislators rising in favour of abolishing deportation once said:

Liebknecht: A right that does not exist for all is no right.

Lasker: …it is a barbarity to make a distinction between foreigners and the indigenous in the right to hospitable residence. Not only every German, but every human being has the right to not be chased away like a dog.

The image featured at the top of this post is of graffiti in the city of Cardiff, the United Kingdom. Photo by David Mordey; original graffiti artist unknown.

Bangladesh and India: move towards open borders

As I’ve previously written, South-South migration — migration within and between poor countries — deserves attention in our understanding of global migration, and we can be inspired by scholars of migration and development who have worked hard on this. India is an important example: it is a large, fast-growing, but quite poor country (in per capita terms) surrounded by neighbors who are somewhat poorer in per capita terms and much smaller in size. I previously wrote part 1 of a two-part series on open borders within India and also looked at the existence of open borders between India and Nepal.

The topic of this post is more difficult: policy options for migration between Bangladesh and India. The lack of easily available public material on the subject, combined with my relative ignorance, make me an inappropriate candidate to delve into the relevant empirics and historical details. I’ve asked some others to do guest posts for the site on the subject, and these will hopefully materialize later this year. But, given that I consider the case for open borders to be universal, I should be able to provide an approximate contour of how I believe the case applies to India and Bangladesh. That’s what I try to do here.

Chickensneckindia

“Chickensneckindia” by Ankur; Additions to original map by uploader. Licensed under CC-BY-SA from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chickensneckindia.jpg, used in the Wikipedia page Bangladesh–India border

Population and income differences

India’s population is about 1.21 billion and per capita GDP (PPP) estimates range from $4000 to $6000. Bangladesh has a population of about 157 million and per capita GDP (PPP) estimates range from $2100 to $3300. The estimates co-vary, i.e., the sources that estimate higher GDP (PPP) per capita for India estimate proportionately higher GDP (PPP) per capita for Bangladesh. You can see a few lists at this page.

Essentially, Bangladesh has about 13% the population and 60% the per capita GDP that India does.

The population ratio seems huge but not terribly so: even if all Bangladeshis migrated to India over a period of a decade, the effect on the Indian population as a whole would not be huge. On the other hand, current patterns of Bangladeshi migration, whereby they settle primarily in border states, may not be scalable to very large migration levels. I believe it is likely that, if borders were more formally opened, migrants from Bangladesh would move out farther to other parts of India, rather than primarily landing up in the nearby states of West Bengal and Assam. Also, I don’t think Bangladesh would empty out. Rather, the situation would probably be similar to that of Nepal and India: no immediate large-scale exodus, but over a longer timeframe, the “Bangladeshi diaspora” in India would grow to a size comparable with the population that is left in Bangladesh. Note that GDP (PPP) per capita in Nepal is lower than in Bangladesh, so if anything, pure economic pressure to migrate should be lower from Bangladesh. But there are some other differences, that we turn to next.

India-Bangladesh-border-map

India-Bangladesh border map, source India’s second most dangerous border? by Martin W. Lewis, May 26, 2011 GeoCurrents

The GDP per capita differences with the bordering states are not so severe. According to a list of gross state domestic products for Indian states, West Bengal is close to the national average and does reasonably better than Bangladesh. Assam does only slightly better than Bangladesh, and the other North-Eastern states do about the same or worse. Ironically, part of the reason for the relative underdevelopment of these states is their relatively poor land connectivity with the rest of India, and that poor land connectivity is because of the geographical location of Bangladesh. As I mention later in the post, allowing freedom of movement through Bangladesh can facilitate greater economic integration of these states.

Why do Bangladeshis migrate to nearby states despite small income differences? I suspect there are many reasons, including long-term cultural connections, but there is also the advantage of being part of an economy that is on the whole larger, faster-growing, and more promising. Once they are in India, they can more easily move to other parts of India — even if most of them don’t avail of the opportunity. Another factor could be weather-related problems leading people to migrate temporarily or permanently out of where they live in Bangladesh.

Differences with Nepal

I’ll repeat some differences I listed in my post on open borders between India and Nepal:

  • Population: Bangladesh has a population of 150 million, about 5-6X the population of Nepal. So, having open borders with Bangladesh is (considered) less feasible, or at any rate, would be a bigger and more transformative change.
  • Greater cultural similarity propelling more migration: Bangladeshis share close cultural roots with West Bengal (indeed, Bangladesh and West Bengal were both part of the state of Bengal in British India). Thus, there is likely to be much greater migration of Bangladeshis since they may have more confidence they’ll be able to adjust to life in West Bengal. (In practice, due to reasons of geography and the strength of border security, many Bangladeshis migrate to Assam rather than West Bengal).
  • Religion: Bangladesh is an officially Muslim country with a Muslim majority. Although not as hostile to India as Pakistan, it still has some hostility. Nepal is a Hindu majority country with small amounts of Buddhism and Islam — religious demographics very similar to India.
  • Historical accident: Bangladesh and India actually started off somewhat well, because India supported Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in its struggle for independence against West Pakistan (~1971). But political changes in Bangladesh led to a worsening of relations.

Bangladeshi migration: raw numbers

As with most historical South-South migration, the current situation can be very open in practice for migrants. Or at least it has been until recent changes. An estimate of somewhere between 3 million and 20 million illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India is a similar magnitude to the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico to the United States (about 7 million) and even comparable to the total illegal immigrant population of the United States (about 11-13 million being the median estimate, though there is again uncertainty). The number is smaller as a proportion of the population of India, which is more than 3.5 times the US population. This might explain the lower national salience in India of Bangladeshi immigration. On the other hand, the geographical concentration of Bangladeshi immigrants in West Bengal and Assam means greater regional salience of the issue.

Cultural camouflage

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

As per 2001 census there are 3,084,826 people in India who came from Bangladesh[1] No reliable numbers on illegal immigrants are currently available. Extrapolating the census data for the state of Assam alone gives a figure of 2 million.[3][4] Figures as high as 20 million are also reported in the government and media.[5][6] Samir Guha Roy of the Indian Statistical Institute called these estimates “motivatedly exaggerated”. After examining the population growth and demographic statistics, Roy instead states that a significant numbers of internal migration is sometimes falsely thought to be immigrants. An analysis of the numbers by Roy revealed that on average around 91000 Bangladeshis nationals might have crossed over to India every year during the years 1981-1991 but how many of them were identified and pushed back is not known. It is possible that a large portion of these immigrants returned on their own to their place of origin.[7]

According to one commentator, the trip to India from Bangladesh is one of the cheapest in the world, with a trip costing around Rs.2000 (around $30 US), which includes the fee for the “Tour Operator”. As Bangladeshi are cultural similar to the Bengali people in India, they are able to pass off as Indian citizens and settle down in any part of India to establish a future.,[8] for a very small price. This false identity can be bolstered with false documentation available for as little as Rs.200 ($3 US) can even make them part of the vote bank.

The cultural camouflage that Bangladeshi migrants can engage in reflects two truths: first, the absence of an all-knowing state that has documentation and records for all existing citizens (this might be changing, though, with new identification and documentation schemes being implemented). Second, the genuine historical and cultural connection between West Bengal and Bangladesh, that were one Indian state under British Rule prior to the Partition of India in 1947 (in fact, an attempted partition back in 1905 by the British had to ultimately be reversed after significant opposition). To the extent that there are no obvious differences between Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis, it would seem that this should point in the direction of officially recognizing the freedom of movement, since it seems to obviate concerns regarding assimilation. But political commentators, who are keen to enforce the sanctity of borders and the formal concept of citizenship, often bemoan rather than celebrate the difficulty of distinguishing Bangladeshis from genuine Indian Bengalis:

Commonality of language, culture and religion between the two countries emerged as a major challenge in identifying immigrants, making deportation extremely difficult. The immigrants speak the same language as many Indians, and often have familial connections that make it easy to assimilate with the local population. Bangladesh’s consistent denial that its citizens are illegally crossing the border also complicates matters. Even when Indian authorities have identified illegal immigrants, deporting them becomes almost impossible given the reluctance of Bangladeshi authorities to cooperate.

An underdeveloped deportation machinery

As I wrote in my South-South migration post:

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: (1) wisdom/desirability, (2) technological/financial feasibility, and (3) moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

Indeed, we can see this in India’s case today. There have been occasional bursts of effort to round up and deport illegal immigrants, often by governments that are prepared to basically “deport them all” — at least in principle. But if you’re used to US deportation numbers, you might laugh at passages like this:

Yet deportation under the Foreigners Act is also problematic. In 2003, the then Home Minister L. K. Advani ordered all states to deport illegal immigrants. A few weeks later 265 people were sent to the border, but authorities in Bangladesh declined to accept them. In fact India’s Border Security Forces (BSF), and its counterpart the Bangladesh Border Guards (then called the Bangladesh Rifles), came to the point of violence over the issue.

The deportation rates do seem to be increasing over time:

At the end of 2012, for instance, 16,530 Bangladeshi citizens with valid travel documents were found to be overstaying in India—while 6,537 and 5,234 Bangladeshi nationals were deported in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

And while the move towards newer, more effective forms of identification will probably mean that previous migrants get effectively amnestied, it may well make things harder for future migrants.

Overall, the level of preparedness and competence of the interior enforcement and deportation machinery at present seems to be comparable to what the US had for Chinese immigrants around the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, natives are very unsympathetic, and many of them are openly virulent, to the immigrants. But the enforcement machinery is sporadic and erratic, and its throughput is minimal. Contrast this with “pro-immigrant” Barack Obama, who deported over 30,000 people a month, not so much because he personally hated immigrants, but because the deportation machinery was so well-established and functional that trying to slow it down it would be an expenditure of political capital — one that Obama didn’t consider necessary.

The terrorism problem

In the wake of the October 2014 Burdwan blast, close to the border with Bangladesh, carried out by an Islamic terrorist (or, in their view, revolutionary) group called the Indian Mujahideen, concerns about border security and terrorism were revived. The blasts revived concerns about Muslim madrassas (training institutes) as breeding grounds for terrorism Interestingly, Indian Muslim religious leaders (who do not necessarily represent the views of all or even most Indian Muslims, but are considered widely influential) sought to deflect this by stating that the problem wasn’t Indian Muslims, it was Muslims coming from across the border (i.e., Bangladesh). For instance, NDTV reports:

“No madrasa in India is anti-national. No Muslim in India is anti-national,” said Jamiat’s Sidiqullah Chowdhury. “The ones who come from outside are anti-nationals. Indian Muslims or madrasas are not terrorists.”

I believe that the threat of terrorism is in general greatly exaggerated because of its greater political salience and visibility, but it is still a threat that deserves to be taken somewhat seriously. Would an open border between India and Bangladesh lead to a dramatic increase in terrorist activity? I don’t know enough to offer a clear answer, though I’m hoping that posts later this year will explore the question more closely. But going by what we generally know about terrorism and its relation to migration policy, it seems that, to the extent that the threat of terrorism can be reasonably contained, it can be done through better targeted policy, and closing the border to economic migrants can in some ways complicate it. Consider, for instance, this discussion in the Daily Mail:

“The advantages they enjoy here are innumerable: immigrant-pockets which have proved to be excellent hideouts; a big metropolitan, Kolkata offers them concealment and its railway stations, namely Howrah and Sealdah, easy connectivity with the rest of the country,” the official added.

In other words, those with terrorist ambitions can conceal themselves among economic migrants, who are also undocumented and seek to evade detection. What would happen if the border were officially opened? Things could move in either direction: terrorists would be hiding within a larger population, so would be harder to detect. On the other hand, if peaceful migrants did not need to hide from the law, a documentation or identity scheme could be more effectively enforced, so that one could more reasonably presuppose that those who did not seek to get appropriate documentation had nefarious intentions. Also, the cooperation of the Bangladeshi government in combating terrorist activities could be enlisted more effectively if the Indian government weren’t getting in the way of peaceful migrants from Bangladesh. How do these competing considerations balance out? It’s hard to know a priori, and it’s possible that there will be an increase in terrorist activity, but I don’t think that it will be a significant increase.

This is similar to the point that my co-blogger John Lee made about the US-Mexico border, where he drew on statements by officials who actually work in law enforcement at border towns:

Simply put, if you want a secure US-Mexico border, one where law enforcement can focus on rooting out murderers and smugglers, you need open borders. You need a visa regime that lets those looking to feed their families and looking for a better life to enter legally, with a minimum of muss and fuss. When only those who cross the border unlawfully are those who have no good business being in the US, then you can have a secure border.

Co-blogger Joel Newman made some related points when discussing open borders, terrorism, and Islam:

So one argument notes that, unlike our current restrictionist policy which devotes considerable resources and focus on keeping out unauthorized immigrants seeking to work in the U.S., resources under an open borders policy could be focused on screening out terrorists. Another argument is that the free movement of people between countries could lead to the spreading of ideas contrary to those which inspire terrorism; immigrants who move between the U.S. or other western countries and their native countries would share values such as individual rights, tolerance, and democracy with their compatriots who remain in the native countries. A third argument is that if terrorism grows out of weak economies in native countries, the free movement of people from those countries and the resulting economic benefit to those countries (through remittances and immigrants returning to their native country to establish new businesses) could help prevent terrorism.

There is another reason open borders could help combat terrorism. Kevin Johnson, author of Opening the Floodgates, notes that “carefully crafted immigration enforcement is less likely to frighten immigrant communities—the very communities whose assistance is essential if the United States truly seeks to successfully fight terrorism.” (page 35) Without the fear of being the targets of immigration enforcement, immigrants would be more likely to cooperate with authorities in identifying individuals who are potential terrorists in the U.S. and assist with efforts against terrorist groups abroad.

Narendra Modi’s election rhetoric

On February 5, 2014, Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi gives a Hindi speech in Assam from citizenist premises. He argues that Indian citizens should be given preference in jobs, and Bangladeshi immigrants to West Bengal and Assam have been stealing jobs from natives

Narendra Modi assumed office as the Prime Minister of India in May 2014. While campaigning for the election, Modi emphasized repeatedly that, once elected, he would aim to solve the problem of Bangladeshi illegal immigration. It wasn’t clear at the time whether his words, like most political manifestos, were mere promises, or whether he intended to follow through on them. Modi did make these pronouncements only when campaigning in Bengal and Assam, rather than using a national platform, suggesting that it might be more of a device to connect with and win over voters in the affected regions than a key component of his actual agenda.

Modi’s views on immigrants had some interesting twists. For instance, in February 2014, Modi made remarks to the effect that India’s borders would and should remain open for Hindus worldwide, but not for Bangladeshi Muslims. The “open for Hindus worldwide” idea would be similar to Israel’s Law of Return.

“As soon as we come to power at the Centre, detention camps housing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will be done away with,” Mr Modi told a public rally at Ramnagar in Assam.

“We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. Our government cannot continue to harass them. We will have to accommodate them here,” he said.

Stating that this did not mean that Assam has to bear the entire burden, he said “it will be unfair on them and they will be settled across the country with facilities to begin a new life.”

Earlier, Hindus from Pakistan had arrived in Gujarat and Rajasthan, but Atal Behari Vajpayee during his prime ministership evolved schemes to accommodate them in different states, he said.

However, Modi has threatened deportation for the majority of Bangladeshi migrants, who identify as Muslim:

Narendra Modi has said that “Bangladeshis” will be deported if he comes to power, in his sharpest comments yet on illegal immigrants. They have been given the red carpet welcome by politicians just for votes, he said at a rally on Sunday.

“You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed,” Modi said in Serampore in West Bengal, which shares a porous border with Bangladesh.

Modi accuses other political parties in West Bengal and Assam of encouraging such migration and helping the migrants obtain false documents so that they can vote — a variant of the electing a new people argument, a particularly extreme form of the general political externalities argument. I don’t know enough about the extent of actual voter fraud in West Bengal and Assam (although voter fraud in the US seems to be greatly exaggerated, the situation is likely to be quite different in India). I do think, though, that to the extent the problem is real, it is created to quite an extent by the illegal status that these people have. If one political party keeps announcing its agenda to deport you (even if it rarely executes on that agenda), and another political party, openly or tacitly, allows you to stay, who will you swear allegiance to?

Interestingly, even while disagreeing with specifics, most commentators have tacitly endorsed Modi’s overall frame of needing to restrict immigration from Bangladesh. For instance, the answers to a Quora question about Modi’s speech (YouTube video earlier in the post) defend a nation’s right to arbitrary selection of immigration policy, appealing to intuitive versions of the idea we here call citizenism and collective property rights. For instance, Syed Fuad, who identifies as Bangladeshi, writes:

I’m not an Indian, so it’s not for me to decide. But in my opinion, Narendra Modi shouldn’t take it easy. He, being the Indian Prime Minister, is accountable to Indian citizens. Addressing their issues should always come before anything else, even if it means taking strong and often unpopular stands on sensitive issues.

Narendra Modi’s proposed solution

For the first few months after being elected, Modi seemed to be quiet on the subject of Bangladeshi migration. I assumed that, like most campaign trail rhetoric, this too would not actually be executed.

However, around the end of November, Narendra Modi’s proposed solution was released. Quartz has a detailed review. Here are the highlights:

Prime minister Narendra Modi has indicated that his government is open to executing a land swap with Bangladesh that will iron out long-standing border disputes and help thousands of people who live along the 4,096.7 kilometer-long common land boundary.

The deal, once ratified by the Indian parliament (PDF) will redraw India’s boundary with Bangladesh, where New Delhi will cede 17160 acres of land, in return for 7110 acres and swap enclaves. Enclaves are areas which are surrounded from all sides by foreign territories. India currently has 111 enclaves belonging to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh has 51 such areas.

Modi, in a speech in Assam on Dec. 01, also assured that the land swap—which his own party had previously vehemently opposed—would stop illegal Bangladeshi migrants from entering into India.

“The government will utilise the India-Bangla land transfer agreement to seal all routes across the international border through which illegal Bangladeshi migrants have been entering Assam and creating havoc in the state,” the prime minister said.

Quartz notes many problems with Modi’s solution in terms of the stated aim of reducing the illegal immigrant population, but does not question the goals themselves.

What would I suggest?

For good or bad, Narendra Modi, thanks to his generally hardline reputation, has more leeway to make genuine progress with migration liberalization than most other prime ministers. Given his past record of rhetoric and action, he is relatively insulated from the charge of being soft on Bangladeshis or on Muslims. This gives him a Nixon goes to China opportunity.

Modi has made some surprise moves in that direction. I don’t know about the wisdom of the land swap per se, but insofar as it contradicts his own rhetoric and at least apparently concedes land to the other country, it shows how, as somebody with a hardliner image, he is able to take actions that people with a softer image might be afraid to take as it would make them look weak.

But the land swap does not solve the fundamental need for free movement: even after all these years, the villages of Bangladesh and West Bengal are intertwined. People have extended families across the border. People seek economic opportunity across the border (my co-blogger John Lee made a related point about the borders of South-East Asia and the Nusantara a while back).

Modi can take a bold step forward by proposing a free migration zone with Bangladesh of the same sort that India has with Nepal. If Bangladeshis can come and go as they please, they have few incentives to pretend to be Indian citizens or to vote for parties using fraudulent documentation. Most people from Nepal who come to India are secure in the knowledge that they are free to go back and forth, and feel little need to become Indian citizens because it makes very little material difference to them (of course, there will be some who want Indian citizenship after living in India for a long time, or if they want to travel to third countries). Bangladeshis could get to the same point.

Modi could combine the creation of legal channels for migration with user fees that are slightly greater, but not much greater, than the cost of migrating illegally and getting false documentation. He could also come up with creative ways of encouraging greater geographical spread of Bangladeshi migrants. He’s already given the matter some thought with regards to Bangladeshi Hindu refugees. I don’t know offhand what the ideal solutions would be, or even if the problems faced by the states adjacent to Bangladesh are serious enough to warrant action, but it might still be politically expedient for Modi to show he is doing something in that regard. For instance, there could be special trains for immigrants that, at a relatively low cost, transport the immigrants to specific states, and where the immigrants formally enter the country after getting off the train at the new state. (Incidentally, concerns that immigrants who land at a particular part of the country may just stay there rather than migrating to other parts of the country were also voiced by some officers at Ellis Island).

There is also the question of whether the Bangladeshi government will agree to a free migration agreement with India. If it doesn’t, the Indian government can still do something similar unilaterally, but perhaps with fewer bells and whistles, so as to encourage the Bangladeshi government to reciprocate. Overall, I believe that the case for free migration doesn’t depend on reciprocity, but it may still be politically expedient to negotiate the deal that way, to placate voters that India is getting something from the deal. Independently, there is probably some value in making it easier for Indians to move to and from Bangladesh. There are also trade and transportation advantages: reducing border tensions with Bangladesh can allow for easier transportation of goods and people between the North-Eastern states and the rest of India. Currently, due to the way the borders are structured, the North-Eastern states are connected to the rest of India via a very narrow region of land, making economic integration harder. The free migration agreement can accompany greater ease of movement of goods and people through Bangladesh between the North-Eastern states and the rest of India.

Why does this matter?

The place premium between Bangladesh and India is probably not large (it would approximately equal the GDP per capita ratio, which is less than 2). And the absolute gains per migrant aren’t large either. Why, then, is this important?

  • The absolute population sizes in question are big enough. Allowing the 150 million Bangladeshis to move to India, seasonally or permanently, is a big deal even if the per capita gains aren’t huge. It creates a larger, more flexible, integrated labor market.
  • There may also be a peace dividend: with less border tensions, the residents of the countries have more opportunity to collaborate, and the governments can better negotiate on other issues.
  • The Indian government saves on some border and interior enforcement costs, though there may be some costs to setting up an efficient free movement system. But I suspect that those costs are less than the costs of setting up a border and enforcement process that actually works at the level that the US system does.
  • The free movement zone can create a precedent for a larger free movement zone. Other countries like Sri Lanka and Burma could be encouraged to join at a later stage. And in the longer run, perhaps Pakistan could be part of the zone as well. Open borders between India and Pakistan are unlikely to happen in the near future, because of the usual problems facing open borders between hostile nations. I think a free migration zone offers the best bet.
  • This is somewhat niche, but allowing free movement creates an insurance of sorts against adverse weather events, something that Bangladesh in particular is susceptible to because much of its land is low-lying and flood-prone. It is believed that climate change will exacerbate the problems that Bangladesh is facing. Free migration can possibly help avoid disaster striking suddenly. Similar points has been made by co-bloggers Joel and Nathan.
  • From the open borders perspective, I believe that this is a critical time in the history of India’s immigration enforcement. This is a time when Indian record-keeping is finally getting good enough that the country can start building a systematic enforcement and deportation apparatus. If we start traveling down this road, it can be quite hard (though not impossible) to reverse or change course. I believe that the years immediately before and after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act had considerable importance in terms of the development of the basic immigration enforcement apparatus, as well as the legal precendents they created. India could be going through a similar phase. Putting a brake on the process could yield larger-than-meets-the-eye dividends in terms of an undesirable road not taken.

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

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