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The bait-and-switch from fiscally realistic to humane, or, the weakness of the mainstream moderate case against deportations

This post is going to critique some arguments against deportation that start out from concerns of fiscal responsibility. I’m going to argue that, even while correct, these arguments often don’t prove as much as their proponents think they do, both in theory and in terms of their practical effects.

Note what I am not arguing here. I am not claiming that anybody who opposes deportations must therefore support open borders. The relationship between opposing deportations and supporting open borders will be the topic of another post (I do believe they are linked, but taking a no-deportation position without endorsing open borders is not inconsistent per se). Second, I am not arguing against immigrant rights groups and civil rights groups who advocate stronger due process protections for migrants facing detention and deportation, without categorically opposing deportation. That perspective is internally consistent and has value, so even though I have disagreements with it I don’t think it’s fundamentally confused.

I’m critiquing some flawed arguments whose core is characterized by concerns about fiscal realism and practicality surrounding deportations. I believe these flawed arguments, that might have evolved in an attempt to build a broader coalition around reducing deportations, offer a fragile case against deportations. I also think that many of the people who make these arguments aren’t offering their true reasons for not wanting there to be deportations, and some of the surprise and shock they express when policies turn out differently than they hoped could have been avoided with more clarity.

Now, it is possible that I am factually right about the inconsistency, but deploying these flawed arguments has actually been the most realistic path for immigration moderates to achieve some gains against deportations. I don’t understand politics very well and I won’t rule out that possibility. If so, the pushback from people like me can probably help them bolster the case that they are not extremists of the sort that people at Open Borders: The Case are. So even if I’m wrong I don’t expect what I say to hurt moderates’ chances.

This post of mine will focus on arguments deployed in the United States. Interestingly, many of these arguments are specific to the United States, because the mass deportation versus amnesty debate is one that has been much more prominent in the United States. In an Open Borders Action Group post, I asked people about whether similar rhetoric was found in other countries, and got interesting responses, some of which I reference in the post.

Some examples

A while back, co-blogger Nathan responded to a post by Victor Reppert, highlighting the contradictions in Reppert’s apparent moderate stance on migration. Here’s Reppert’s overall stance:

I seriously doubt that 1070 is going to result in very many deportations. The cost in ill will between the Hispanic community and the rest of us, to my mind, far outweighs the improvement in will provide in law enforcement, which I suspect will be minimal.
So, without actually having done a full cost-benefit analysis on all of this, I would say start with security at the border, make the process of immigration more rational but don’t just throw it wide open, and then provide some path to citizenship that involves a serious penalty and isn’t just simple amnesty.

Below are some excerpts from a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed:

No matter how you parse it, all those people are here in violation of federal law, and are thus subject to deportation. Yet the size of that population is precisely what makes deportation on a grand scale impractical.

[…]

The bottom line: It’s easy to say, “deport them all,” but to do so would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention disruptive for employers and, of course, wrenchingly hard on those who would be swept up.

[…]

The solution: a congressional fix to make the system more humane — by granting relief to many who have lived and worked in the country for years — and also more tailored to the nation’s needs, including making accommodations for agricultural workers and others whose labors are desired here. It’s a new year, and a new Congress, so who knows, maybe a legislative miracle can happen. Regardless, the answer is not “deport them all.”

Or, consider CNN’s coverage of then-President Barack Obama’s November 2014 deferred action announcement:

A key element of Obama’s plan is to instruct immigration authorities to target those undocumented immigrants who are dangerous rather than law-abiding undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and residents and others.

[…]

He said they will go after “felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a Mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

“We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day,” he said.

[…]

The President argued that ordering a mass amnesty would be unfair but mass deportation would “be both impossible and contrary to our character.”

The Immigration Policy Center says:

Many political pundits, GOP presidential aspirants, and Members of Congress want to have it both ways when it comes to federal spending on immigration. On the one hand, there is much talk about the need for fiscal austerity, and a Congressional “super-committee” is currently working on slashing federal spending in order to reduce the deficit. On the other hand, even though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) just announced a record high number of deportations, some still want to increase federal spending on immigration enforcement; putting more Border Patrol boots on the ground, completing the border fence, and deploying an array of high-tech gadgetry. However, they miss one very important fact: piling on more immigration enforcement without immigration reform is a practical and fiscal dead-end.

Over the past decade, the federal government has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to keep unauthorized immigrants out of the United States, or trying to get them out of the country if they are already here. The end result? Roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants now call the United States home, the majority have been here for more than 10 years, and many have U.S.-born children. In short, the “enforcement only” approach to unauthorized immigration has proven to be costly and ineffective.

But many political candidates and Members of Congress have yet to get the news that the enforcement-only approach has been tried and failed. They seek to forge ahead with expensive new immigration-enforcement measures, such as a mandatory employment-verification system (E-Verify) for all businesses and workers in the country—and a dramatic expansion of the nation’s system for long-term detention of unauthorized immigrants. At a time when the federal government is looking for fiscal restraint, anti-immigrant hawks are proposing that we spend billions of dollars more in an endless quest to remove 11 million unauthorized men, women, and children from the United States.

Yet there is a fiscally sound alternative to the enforcement-only approach: immigration reform which includes the creation of a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States, as well as flexible mechanisms for regulating future immigration. Research indicates that unauthorized workers who attain legal status will earn higher wages, spend more in U.S. businesses, and pay more in taxes. Moreover, if unauthorized immigrants living in the United States could acquire legal status, the federal government would no longer waste billions of dollars every year trying to capture and deport them. Enforcement dollars that are now used to track down unauthorized dishwashers and gardeners could be used to find criminals and terrorists. In other words, bringing immigration policy in line with reality is good for the public treasury, good for public safety, and good for national security

Perhaps the best summary of the mainstream moderate view that I wish to critique is provided in a Center for American Progress report, whose summary reads:

That legislative battle for immigration reform now looms again on the horizon. There are three options for restoring order to our immigration system:

  • Live with the dysfunctional status quo, pouring billions of dollars into immigration enforcement programs at the worksite, in communities, and on the border without reducing the numbers of undocumented immigrants in the country
  • Double down on this failed enforcement strategy in an attempt to apprehend and remove all current undocumented immigrants
  • Combine a strict enforcement strategy with a program that would require undocumented workers to register, pass background checks, pay their full share of taxes, and earn the privilege of citizenship while creating legal channels for future migration flows

The first alternative would leave in place policies that have allowed 5 percent of our nation’s workforce—approximately 8.3 million workers in March 2008—to remain undocumented in our country. This is clearly an unsustainable position in a democratic society—permitting a class of workers to operate in a shadow economy subject to exploitation and undermining all workers’ rights and opportunities.

The second option, mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, is essentially the enforcement-only status quo on steroids. As this paper demonstrates, this option would be prohibitively expensive and trigger profound collateral consequences.4 Our analysis is comprised of a detailed review of all federal spending to prevent unauthorized immigration and deport undocumented immigrants in FY 2008, the last fiscal year (ending in October 2008) for which there is complete data (see box on page 5). It shows that the total cost of mass deportation and continuing border interdiction and interior enforcement efforts would be $285 billion (in 2008 dollars) over five years.

Specifically, this report calculates a price tag of $200 billion to enforce a federal dragnet that would snare the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States over five years. That amount, however, does not include the annual recurring border and interior enforcement spending that will necessarily have to occur. It would cost taxpayers at least another $17 billion annually (in 2008 dollars) to maintain the status quo at the border and in the interior, or a total of nearly $85 billion over five years. That means the total five-year immigration enforcement cost under a mass deportation strategy would be approximately $285 billion.

When viewed through this most narrow but most telling fiscal lens, it should be clear that a deportation-only strategy is highly irresponsible. In these challenging economic times, spending a king’s ransom to tackle a symptom of our immigration crisis without addressing root causes would be a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. Spending $285 billion would require $922 in new taxes for every man, woman, and child in this country. If this kind of money were raised, it could provide every public and private school student from prekindergarten to the 12th grade an extra $5,100 for their education. Or more frivolously, that $285 billion would pay for about 26,146 trips in the private space travel rocket, Falcon 1e.

The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has clearly diminished the number of people attempting to enter the country illegally–the absence of jobs eliminates the predominant incentive to migrate. And yet, even with diminished pressure at the border, the dramatic increases in spending on immigration enforcement have not significantly altered the net number of undocumented immigrants in the country. In fact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, reports that the undocumented immigrant population as of January 2009 stood at 10.8 million, or 300,000 more than it was in 20052 In other words, the massive outlays in enforcement resources are barely making a dent in the current population.

That leaves the third course, comprehensive immigration reform, as the only rational alternative. The solution to our broken immigration system must combine tough border and workplace enforcement with practical reforms that promote economic growth, protect all workers, and reunite immediate family members. Among other things, that means we must establish a realistic program to require undocumented immigrants to register with the government while creating legal immigration channels that are flexible, serve the national interest, and curtail future illegal immigration.

A few threads emerge in these arguments, that I wish to critique.

  1. The all-or-nothing argument, that because it’s hard to deport everybody, deportation is not a sensible solution at the margin.
  2. The priority argument, that immigration enforcement should be applied only to high-priority cases because enforcement resources are limited.
  3. The numbers game, where amnesty and deportation are viewed as two solutions to the same problem: bringing the number of people in unauthorized status down to zero.

#1, the all-or-nothing argument. Objection: the impossibility of deporting everybody is not an argument against deportation at the margin

One of the strands of argumentation that appears frequently, often in the form of a fait accompli, is:

The number of people eligible for deportation is very large (estimates range between 10 and 20 million). At a cost of a few thousand dollars per deportation, the total cost of using deportation to completely solve the problem of illegal immigration is prohibitive. Therefore, we need to think of better, more creative, more humane solutions.

My problem with this “all-or-nothing” line of thinking is that it places too much importance on what might be called an ideal state: a state where there are no illegal immigrants. And rather than acknowledging partial steps to that end state, it treats the end state as a binary: either you’re completely free of illegal immigrants, or you have them, and if you can’t solve the problem completely, then it’s hopeless to even try.

I believe that when (some) immigration moderates reason in this way, they believe they are accurately describing not just their own views but also the views and desires of more outspoken restrictionists and other critical of illegal immigration. However, my impression is that most fervent critics of illegal immigration don’t think of it this way. While these critics definitely want to see an end state where illegal immigration is a negligible phenomenon, they value partial progress in that direction. That’s why they favor deportations and enforcement measures at the current margin while knowing that those measures won’t free the world of illegal immigration.

The “all-or-nothing” type calculus also doesn’t make sense in many other contexts: when we think of charity, we don’t (or at any rate shouldn’t) think that an individual act of charity will make only a marginal fractional dent in the problems it’s trying to solve, and therefore it’s not worth doing. Rather, the relevant metric is to look at the absolute good that can be accomplished for a given quantity of resources. This idea is neatly demonstrated in the story of The Girl and the Starfish (quote from Everything2.com):

Once there was a great, great storm. Waves high as mountains, winds strong as giants.

But that’s not important

What is important is the next day, when Old Man Acha comes walking down the beach, looking for bodies and treasure, the last remnants of ships gone to sleep in the storm. He has to pick his way carefully, ’cause the beach is littered in starfish, castaways from the deep. The storm plucked them from their watery beds and deposited the poor souls on the sandy shore. Acha steps around them – many still alive. He keeps ambling up the beach, minding his own business, when he spies a youngling. She’s throwing starfish into the ocean, many as she can, but still not makin’ a dent in the piles. The Old Man, he wonders at this and says:

“Why bother to throw back any? How can it matter when there are so many? You throw back one, you still left with a ton? You never save them all.”

That little girl she doesn’t even pause to glance his way. She just keeps on flinging those ‘fish back in the sea. She stops only long enough to say:

“It matters to this one”

as she flings it into the ocean.

To take an opposite example, when we think of enforcing crimes, a high crime rate is no reason to give up on the idea of law enforcement. Rather, the relevant question is how much crime reduction can be accomplished with a given amount of law enforcement resources.

Now, one could argue that the larger the population of illegal immigrants, the harder it is to hunt them down and deport any at the margin. But this seems unlikely — if anything, the size of the population means that there should be particularly low-hanging fruit for deportation.

To be clear, I don’t endorse deportations. But this position has nothing to do with the size of the illegal immigrant population. The size of the population is definitely relevant to determining the size of the issue at stake. If, for instance, like most of the bloggers on this site, you believe that deportations are (presumptively) morally wrong, the size of the population affected by this moral wrong is relevant to determining how important it is to spend resources opposing this moral wrong. But that step comes only after you have decided on the moral legitimacy of deportation.

If, on the other hand, you grant the legitimacy of the end goal of successfully enforced immigration restrictions, and also of deportation as a means to achieve that goal, then size should not be a barrier. Rather, the question becomes: given that only a small fraction of the affected population can be deported, how can the deportations be selected to achieve the maximum bang for the buck? And here we turn to the next flawed argument.

It’s interesting to compare this size-based argument made in the United States with the rhetoric opposing deportation in other countries. Australia and Japan, for instance, have very small “illegal immigrant” populations, and most of these are people who overstay visas after entering with authorization. When the size of the illegal immigrant populations is small enough, however, we don’t generally see immigration moderates jumping in and saying “there are so few illegal immigrants, it’s actually feasible to round them all up and deport them, let’s do that!” I suspect that instead the reaction would be “there are so few of them, let’s just legalize them and move on!” Assuming I’m right about this (and I may not be) I think the all-or-nothing size-based resistance to deportation is a bit of a red herring (for more, see the Open Borders Action Group post comments).

#2, the priority argument. Objection: limited resources for deportation necessitate prioritization, but this does not mean that only the “worst” people should be deported

The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims that it has resources to deport 400,000 people a year, or a little over 30,000 a month. Given limited deportation resources, it makes sense to give higher priority to the deportation of people who pose more of a public safety threat. I’ve previously argued that it is not wise to use deportation as a key crime-fighting strategy. But, many people, perhaps even those who support open borders, might agree that if you had to choose between a criminal and a non-criminal to deport, it’s better to deport the criminal. Hence, the Obama administration has repeatedly issued internal memos (starting with the 2011 Morton memos) urging the CBP and ICE to prioritize the deportation of people with criminal records and those who have committed aggravated felonies.

There are a couple of mistakes that people make when thinking about such prioritization. The first is that such prioritization recognizes or affirms the rights of non-criminals to stay in the United States. It does not. It simply says, “in an ideal world, we [the government] would deport you, but we’re currently too busy deporting others.” Obama himself has contributed to (and perhaps also been confused by) the ambiguity. In an article for Vox, Dara Lind explains:

The irony here is that the new policy is in line with what ICE agents have long claimed they’re under orders to do — and management’s long denied. Chris Crane, head of the National ICE Council, testified under oath in 2011 that his agents were being given secret, unwritten instructions not to arrest unauthorized immigrants except in very limited circumstances. When pressed by Democrats in Congress, Crane said he couldn’t offer any documentation to support his claims, and that no other agents would be willing to corroborate them out of fear — so his claims of a super-secret unwritten policy started seeming a lot like the West Wing’s “secret plan to fight inflation,” and were generally ignored by Democrats and the press. (So while the new guidance is being described as “catch and release 2.0,” it’s not clear whether the agents believe catch and release 1.0 ever went away.)

But for all that agents complain, ICE field offices have demonstrated — especially during Obama’s first term — that they didn’t have much of a problem deporting immigrants who were supposed to be “low priorities” anyway. This was actually the entire reason the initial deferred-action program was developed in 2012 to begin with. There were already memos asking ICE agents not to deport unauthorized immigrant students who’d been in the US for years. And on the basis of those memos, President Obama and senior officials said confidently that they weren’t “rounding up students.” But those memos weren’t actually sufficient to keep students from getting deported. So the administration had to develop a way for immigrants to apply themselves, proactively, for protection from deportation — rather than relying on ICE and CBP agents to follow guidance.

Obama himself has clarified that not being a priority does not mean legal status, and a person who’s not a priority now can become a priority any time:

“Deferred action is not a pathway to citizenship. It is not legal status. It simply says that for three years, you are not a law enforcement priority and are not going to go after you,” said one senior official. “It is temporary and it is revocable.”

The second mistake is the belief that, just because limited deportation resources mean that particular kinds of deportations need to be prioritized, that implies that the optimal quantity of other deportations is zero. In addition to directly removing people, deportations also serve a deterrent goal: they deter future immigration of people who are at risk of being deported (in this case, illegal immigration). And they may also encourage some others to “self-deport” (i.e., they could be part of a broader strategy of attrition through enforcement that in general makes life harder for the affected set of immigrants). If the goal with deportation is not merely to remove people but also to deter migration and encourage attrition, then it makes sense to deport people who would not otherwise be deportation priorities. Why? The idea is that if a few such people are deported, then that sends a message to everybody that they could be deported, and therefore serves the deterrent effect. If, on the other hand, the administration only carries out high-priority deportations, those who know they won’t qualify as high-priority feel (relatively) safer migrating and staying on. Again, this is similar to how a law enforcement agency might handle a mix of crime types: while the focus would be largely on the most serious crimes, action would be taken for at least some of the less serious crimes. It’s probably not optimal to spend all law enforcement resources investigating murders and effectively saying that cold burglaries won’t be investigated at all.

Would focusing only on high-priority deportations be a feature or a bug? From an open borders perspective, it’s clearly a feature if large numbers of people can carry out their lives with little fear of deportation. It heightens the contradictions between the stated objective of immigration enforcement and the reality on the ground. For the same reason, however, from the perspective of somebody interested in enforcing immigration laws, focusing entirely on high-priority deportations is a suboptimal way of using limited enforcement resources.

The problem here is that people who oppose deportations have latched on to some reasons for doing so that, while true, offer only partial justification for it and not exactly in the desired direction. It’s true that deportation costs money and resources, and it’s true that prioritization makes sense. But it does not follow from these that the optimal enforcement strategy would involve zero deportations of low-priority people. If you think that even one deportation of a person in a low-priority category is a moral travesty, then that belief does not stem from arguments typically provided about deportation costs and the need for enforcement priorities.

#3, The numbers game. Objection: It doesn’t make logical sense from most perspectives, including the open borders and restrictionist perspectives

One of the most puzzling attitudes I’ve seen to the phenomenon of illegal immigration is that people view it as a numbers game: adopt a mix of strategies to somehow or the other bring down to near-zero the number of people classified as not being in lawful status in the United States. It is because of this numbers game approach that people can view both amnesty and mass deportation as two alternative solutions to the same problem — despite their diametrically opposite goals and their diametrically opposite effects on the ground.

The view that reducing the number of people currently classified as not being in authorized status can be an end goal in itself can be justified based on a twisted territorialist perspective. Why twisted? The typical territorialist perspective is concerned with protecting the rights and interests of all who are currently present in the geographical territory of the nation-state. But if we adopted a strictly territorialist perspective, we’d be opposed to deportations.

The twisted territorialist perspective I’m describing here is one that gives importance not so much to the welfare of all those currently in the geographical territory, but to achieving an end state at which point the rights and interests of everybody in the geographical territory are protected. Getting to that point might involve deportation or legalization or whatever it takes. But once everybody in the territory is in legal status, law enforcement and civil society can flourish without the problem of people having to worry about getting deported and therefore having to live in the shadows.

While this perspective has some merit, the numbers approach to illegal immigration (that treats deportation and amnesty as competing solutions to the same problem) does not make sense from the several other perspectives that are more common:

  • The pure territorialist perspective is opposed to deportation, because of its effect on the people currently in the territory.
  • The right-to-migrate (open borders) perspective is opposed to deportation. From this perspective, the fundamental problem is that the state’s definition of authorized status is at odds with the morality of freedom of migration, so that the state deems as unlawful the presence of persons who had a right to be present.
  • From the restrictionist viewpoint,the people currently classified as being in unlawful status should not be here at all (with perhaps a few exceptions). If they could be here legally, they wouldn’t need to enter illegally. So legalizing their status only makes the problem worse because it legitimizes the presence of people who should not be here.
  • From the law-and-order viewpoint, even if the people involved might have been allowed to come under a different regime, the fact that they migrated illegally makes them worthy of punishment.

What I find interesting about rhetoric that seems to treat illegal immigration as a numbers game is that, even though it can be justified based on the twisted territorialist perspective, that perspective is rarely articulated or justified. Thus, I’m not sure if people actually subscribe to that perspective or just made a careless logical error. Either way, probably a lot more people subscribe to one of the four perspectives I discussed, or something close, and in none of those perspectives can deportation and amnesty be treated as substitutes.

Treating illegal immigration as a numbers game is somewhat similar conceptually to treating balanced budgets as a numbers game. Crudely put, there are two ways of trying to reduce the budget deficit (or increase the budget surplus): increase revenues, or decrease spending. Revenues for governments generally come from taxes. So budgets can be balanced by increasing taxes or decreasing spending. These two actions can therefore be presented as alternate “solutions” to the “problem” of a budget deficit. From a perspective of minimizing budget deficits (or maximizing budget surpluses) high taxes and low spending is the best combination. Note that this perspective is at odds both with the fiscally conservative perspective (low taxes, low spending) and the progressive perspective (high taxes, high spending). That said, I believe that reducing illegal immigration to a numbers game is less well-grounded than using budget surplus maximization as a driving goal for taxation and spending decisions.

True rejection of deportations

I think that many immigration moderates who adopt the arguments I discussed above are not articulating their true rejection of deportations. I don’t quite know what their true reasons are — I suspect it’s mostly a visceral feeling that deportation is presumptively morally wrong, a view that could be influenced by ordinary human decency, with a dash of territorialism thrown in. The moral basis for opposing deportations, and how it ties in with open borders, will be the subject of a separate and long post. But just as a thought experiment, let’s review the typical lines of argumentation:

  1. The all-or-nothing view that since there are so many illegal immigrants, deportation isn’t a feasible solution: Would advocates of this view enthusiastically support deportation if the number of illegal immigrants were comparable to the number that could be deported over a year? This doesn’t even have to be a purely theoretical question: the size of the illegal immigrant population population, as well as legalization policies, vary heavily by country, so looking at the differences in rhetoric employed by moderates would be interesting. My impression is that mainstream liberal moderates rarely support deportation whether the numbers are small or big, suggesting that size isn’t the real reason — it’s just deployed as an add-on argument when it fits.
  2. The priority argument: Again, it’s not clear that moderates who argue that enforcement resources should be prioritized for criminals actually believe that once all the criminals are rounded up, it will be time to start deporting the others. Crime rates of immigrants (and natives) vary heavily by country, but I haven’t seen examples where moderates say, “Okay, now that we’ve managed to deport most of the criminals and have the deportation resources to spare, it’s time to start deporting law-abiding and honest illegal immigrants.”
  3. The numbers game: I believe many of those who use that framing don’t actually treat it as a numbers game, because they generally come down heavily on the side of one solution (deportation or amnesty) while rhetorically claiming that they are substitutes. Perhaps a better model is that a lot of people think that others treat it as a numbers game, and therefore tailor their argumentation accordingly.

A recent Open Borders Action Group post by me asked for thoughts on moderates’ emphasis on the fiscal costs, and whether other things that were later regarded as moral travesties were initially opposed for fiscal reasons. The ensuing discussion was informative, and included examples such as laws against the death penalty, killing horses, and war. A comment by John Lee is particularly illuminating, and I quote it here:

Well, I think [moderates’ invocation of fiscal costs are] also a form of intellectual gymnastics where you’re trying not to appear to be a raving open borders dreamer. If you admit that undocumented immigrants have done nothing wrong, if you say that deportations are categorically immoral, then you’re basically advocating open borders. Which makes your position verboten given where the Overton window currently is.

So your best bet is to try to sound “reasonable” on the issue by crafting some argument contoured around the particular issue you want to address (the existing stock of undocumented immigrants, child asylum-seekers, etc.) and limiting the scope of your premises to only issues that have bearing on this narrowly-focused area of immigration policy.

That way, you don’t have to admit to yourself you’re being hypocritical — hey, it is true that it is fiscally wasteful to spend money treating families and workers as if they’re drug lords — and you don’t have to worry about defending a much broader claim — that all deportations and/or border controls are unjustifiable — which you don’t feel prepared to make.

Conclusion

I’ve looked at three different styles of argument used by immigration moderates to articulate and justify their dislike for deportations, while also staying within the framework of accepting the legitimacy of mainstream immigration enforcement. I think many of these don’t reflect their true reasons for being uncomfortable with deportations. When such arguments are made, and conflated with the true reasons, it gets in the way of clear thinking of the consequences of such policies. It can give people a false sense of security that a right to stay has been established, when nothing of the sort has happened.

Related reading

The image featured in the header of this post is of anti-deportation graffiti in Vienna, Austria. Photo by Herzi Pinki licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

2 thoughts on “The bait-and-switch from fiscally realistic to humane, or, the weakness of the mainstream moderate case against deportations”

  1. Three high-functioning polities which have moved sustainably toward more-open-than-usual borders are Dubai, Singapore, and the Norway-administered island of Svalbard.

    All three are far MORE aggressive with deportations than the US. Dubai has mandatory deportation for people convicted of sexual assault charges, regardless of severity. Singapore expels pregnant guest workers. Svalbard deports the jobless, as well as retirees without sufficient means to support themselves.

    This shouldn’t be surprising. Consider top-tier universities. Some have a reputation of being hard to get into, but relatively easy to graduate from once you’re there (e.g. Harvard). Others have less elitist admissions policies, but combine that with a sink-or-swim atmosphere (e.g. Berkeley). Both designs work.

    What doesn’t work, if you want a polity to remain high-functioning, is to combine “open borders” with “no deportation”. Continuing the university analogy, this was attempted for the City College of New York in the late 60s. The results were nothing short of catastrophic: after producing a full nine Nobel Laureates in the 1930s-50s, the most of any US public college, the flow came to a complete halt as the new open admissions policy was not combined with the move to a high-dropout-rate sink-or-swim culture that was necessary (in the absence of a huge breakthrough in educational techniques) to prevent academic standards from falling off a cliff. CCNY has started to recover since open admissions were effectively ended in 1999, but it’s only a pale shadow of what it used to be.

    Now, one can claim that negligible real harm resulted from CCNY’s “destruction” since the top high school students were simply redistributed, getting (on average) about as good of an education as they would have with an intact CCNY. This isn’t entirely implausible to me; universities are pretty good about providing financial aid to outstanding poor students these days. But the equivalent claim for the US is ridiculous in a world where its main strategic competitors are Russia and China. Much as I’d like to live in a world where it doesn’t really matter what country is “top dog” since all the major governments are similarly harmless, almost nobody thinks a collapse of American power would be without real consequence.

    Technically, one can like the projected consequences–in that case support for both open borders and no deportations for the US would be intellectually consistent. But that’s a very rare position among English speakers, especially for people accustomed to posting their political ideas freely on the Internet; the PRC is not known for its tolerance of that, and Russia’s current leadership seems to believe that it’s fair to use radioactives to kill dissidents who’ve already fled the country…

    Otherwise, given our current technological limitations, you have to choose between minimal deportation and minimal entry restrictions. Less deportation (which even arch-restrictionist Mark Krikorian is willing to accept, after the “border is secure”) ultimately requires less open borders.

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