If Open Borders Are Instituted Gradually, What Should Be The Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?

In a recent post, Vipul wrote about the importance of better understanding the number of people who might migrate under policy changes in the direction of open borders.  One reason why he considers this important is to evaluate the legitimacy of concerns about “swamping:” “One of the main concerns of people ranging from hardcore restrictionists to moderate pro-immigrationers and even some who identify as being pro-open borders is that true open borders would lead to very large numbers of people moving over short time periods in a manner that would strain housing, electricity, water supplies, and other infrastructure in the countries receiving the immigrants.”

Whether receiving countries would be swamped if open borders were implemented, and what the swamping would actually be like, is pivotal to determining the morality of open borders.  That’s because, absent the possibility of a swamping that turns a receiving country into an economic and political basketcase similar to Haiti or Somalia, from a moral standpoint there are no obstacles to instituting open borders immediately.

In fact, two of the strongest moral arguments in favor of open borders include caveats in which extremely harmful swamping might override the arguments.  In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open BordersJoseph Carens uses John Rawls’ question about “what principles people would choose to govern society if they had to choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ knowing nothing about their own personal situations,” such as their class, race, sex, or natural talents, to address immigration policy. (p. 255)  Since people would be prevented “from knowing their place of birth or whether they were members of one particular society rather than another,” (p. 257) he concludes that they would choose an open borders regime: “In considering possible restrictions on freedom, one adopts the perspective of the one who would be most disadvantaged by the restrictions, in this case the perspective of the alien who wants to immigrate.  In the original position, then, one would insist that the right to migrate be included in the system of basic liberties for the same reasons that one would insist that the right to religious freedom be included: it might prove essential to one’s plan of life… So, the basic agreement among those in the original position would be to permit no restrictions on migration (whether emigration or immigration).” (p. 258)  (The original position means when people operate behind the “veil of ignorance” about their personal situation when choosing society’s laws.)

However, in “Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” Mr. Carens states that with open borders “… the number of those coming might overwhelm the capacity of the society to cope, leading to chaos and a breakdown of public order… A threat to public order could be used to justify restrictions on immigration… because the breakdown of public order makes everyone worse off in terms of both liberty and welfare.”  At the same time he writes that “the state is obliged to admit as many of those seeking entry as it can without jeopardizing national security, public order and the maintenance of liberal institutions.” (p. 30)

In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” Michael Huemer argues that unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” people have a right “not to be subject to seriously harmful coercion.” (p. 432)  Therefore, unless special circumstances can be identified, physically barring immigrants from entering a country and expelling those already inside a country are violations of immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced. (p. 434)  Mr. Huemer addresses a variety of justifications for this coercion against immigrants, including claims that immigration hurts native workers, that immigrants fiscally burden natives, that the government should prioritize the interests of disadvantaged natives, and that immigration threatens natives’ distinctive cultures.  Mr. Huemer effectively shows that these justifications do not override immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

Nevertheless, the possibility of swamping gives Mr. Huemer pause.  He writes, “No one knows what the full effects of a policy of open borders would be, since it has been a very long time since U.S. borders have been open.”  Referring to Brian Barry, who predicts a billion immigrants coming to the U.S. with open borders and disastrous consequences, Mr. Huemer states that “Perhaps Barry is correct that the result would be disastrous for American society.  If so, this is the sort of extremely negative consequence that, it might be argued, outweighs the rights of potential immigrants to freedom of movement.” (pp. 453-454)

So would receiving countries be swamped with open borders, and would that swamping essentially destroy the economic and political systems that made those countries desireable destinations in the first place, thus overriding the moral imperative for open borders?  That is what Vipul is apparently exploring, but it seems that a clear answer will be elusive.

In apparent response to concerns about swamping, some, including Mr. Huemer (p. 454), have advocated for a gradual transition towards open borders.  This would involve increasing immigration levels over a period of time.  If receiving countries are not being severely swamped after each increase, then immigration levels would again be increased.  Politically, and perhaps morally, this approach may be warranted, although the suffering associated with restrictionism would persist.

At least the initial increase in immigrant numbers under a gradual transition could be substantial, without severe swamping of receiving countries, based on Israel’s experience with high levels of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.  Philippe Legrain has highlighted this experience in his book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.  This flow of people to Israel was, in Mr. Legrain’s words, “one of the most dramatic experiments in the history of immigration.” (p. 133)  Mr. Legrain notes that between 1990 and 1997 over seven hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel, a country with a population of about 4.6 million in 1989, and almost half of the immigrants entered in a two year period. (p. 134)  Mr. Legrain puts these numbers in perspective for America:  “Imagine, then, what would happen if over 15 million foreigners were suddenly to arrive in the U.S. over the next two years, rising to 29 million over eight years.  Twenty-nine million people who don’t speak English, don’t have jobs to go to and don’t even have any experience of working in a capitalist economy… Mass unemployment?  Riots in the streets?  Perhaps even the collapse of society?” (p.134)

Citing an Israeli economic expert on this impact, Mr. Legrain states that at first native Israelis’ wages fell by about 5 percent for men, and there was a sharp rise in interest rates.  However, “Israel’s economy seems to have absorbed a vast number of new workers without a rise in unemployment.”  Unemployment among native Israelis dropped during this period, and by 1997 the ex-Soviet employment rate was similar to that of native Israelis.  (p. 135)  In addition, by 1997, “natives’ wages had recovered to where they would have been without the mass immigration, and interest rates had fallen to their pre-immigration levels.”  Mr. Legrain concludes that “flexible advanced economies can absorb large numbers of immigrants without any cost to native workers if the inflows are reasonably predictable, and with only a short-term cost to them if they are unexpected.” (p. 135)

Some might counter that the ex-Soviet immigrants had higher levels of education than those who might immigrate to western countries from developing countries under an open borders policy.  However, Sarit Cohen and Chang-Tai Hsieh found that “… the Russian immigrants suffered from substantial occupational downgrading in Israel and thus did not increase the relative supply of skilled workers in Israel.” (p. 27) Many female immigrants, and presumably many male immigrants, ended up doing menial service jobs. This fits with Mr. Legrain’s explanation of how differences between native and immigrant workers limit competition between the two groups:  “… critics of immigration would be the first to argue that  immigrants and native workers are not identical.  The newcomers will almost certainly speak the local language less well, have fewer contacts and less knowledge of local practices… At most, then, they are imperfect substitutes for local workers, which implies that they only indirectly compete with them in the labour market—thus limiting any short-term harm they might cause natives.” (p. 137) Thus, despite their high education levels, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union should not be viewed differently from those who would enter developed countries under open borders.

The Israeli experience suggests an initial immigrant admissions level for the U.S., as part of a gradual move towards open borders, could be established that is much higher than current American admissions levels.  I don’t know how Mr. Legrain calculated the U.S. equivalent of 29 million people over eight years based on the Israeli experience, but my calculation is significantly higher.  First, there were over 820 thousand immigrants over the eight years, including immigration from other source countries in addition to that from the former Soviet Union.  Using the 1989 Israeli population of about 4.6 million and using a rounded down figure of eight hundred thousand immigrants between 1990 and 1997, there was about a 2.1% annual addition to the 1989 population over eight years.  A 2.1% addition to the current U.S. population of about 316 million yields more than 6.5 million new immigrants a year (52 million over eight years).  Therefore, a conservative recommendation would be to establish an initial immigration level to the U.S. of 6.5 million a year.  (By comparison, there have been about one million immigrants who have gained permanent legal status in the U.S. each of the last three years.  The undocumented population has been falling in recent years.)  The level would be raised regularly thereafter, assuming no devastating effects on the U.S. from previous levels.  Other receiving countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and those in Europe and East Asia could also set their initial immigration levels at 2.1 percent of their current populations.

Again, this gradual approach to open borders means that much of the suffering associated with immigration restrictions would continue for years to come.  I share Bryan Caplan’s concern that fears of swamping, which are unsubstantiated, stand in the way of open borders: “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because we know that free migration has very bad consequences” arguably overcomes the presumption in favor of open borders. “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because there’s a small chance that free migration has very bad consequences” does not.”   While I am very uncomfortable with the gradualist approach to open borders, at least we have evidence showing a relatively high level at which receiving countries should begin their gradual implementation of open borders.

 

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

12 thoughts on “If Open Borders Are Instituted Gradually, What Should Be The Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?”

  1. Another example would be 12 million (or by some estimates 14 million) Germans who fled or were expulsed from the former Eastern part of Germany and various Eastern European countries from 1945 to 1950.

    8 million ended up in the Western occupation zones, which had a population of 51 million in 1950. That’s an influx of about 3.5% per year. 4 million went to the Soviet occupation zone with 18.4 million in 1950, which is a rate of about 5% per year. In the North (both West and East Germany), refugees made up 40% of the population, which is a rate of circa 10% per year.

    That didn’t cause a societal breakdown either. Actually, what came next were twenty years of economic miracle with another 3.5 million streaming from East to West Germany. And from the early 1950’s on, German companies were desperately looking for even more labor and attracted another 4 million from Southern Europe.

  2. “Thus, despite their high education levels, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union should not be viewed differently from those who would enter developed countries under open borders.”

    The Eastern European Jews supposedly have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group on earth, so Israel may eventually benefit somehow from that kind of immigration, even if the first-generation immigrants are underemployed.

    On the other hand, the IQ of likely open-borders migrants is a matter of concern to some people, both from a eugenics standpoint and for the other reasons that are explored on this website.

  3. This is a highly thoughtful piece – I
    especially liked the reference to John Rawls, who I have not read in a long time. One question: in a democracy isn’t it problematic to have lots of non-citizens, or are you proposing that citizenship go with residency?

  4. After years of residency the new immigrants could become citizens, as is currently the case. Currently most immigrants can apply for citizenship after five years of residency. I’m not sure what the ideal residency requirement should be, but perhaps more years should be required. Politically, this might make significantly increased immigration levels more palatable to those who are uncomfortable with the new levels.

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