The political tide

It might be a good thing if Open Borders: The Case, in addition to provide an “attic,” so to speak, of economic, ethical, and philosophical arguments for open borders, could provide running pundit-style political commentary from an open-borders perspective. But political punditry is a full-time job in its own right, and it seems to require a kind of reading between the lines which one can’t do well unless one reads a lot of political news. There seems to be a lot of political momentum behind immigration reform right now, what with Obama’s speech in Nevada urging immigration reform earlier today, and a bipartisan group of eight senators— the Republicans were McCain, Rubio, Flake, and Graham– presenting a plan yesterday. I’ve got to respect Marco Rubio for taking the case to the conservative talk shows.

One change, it seems to me– but I could be wrong, I find it difficult to follow all the political proposals that come and go– is that everyone now seems to be talking about a pathway to citizenship for all the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live here, or nearly all. Up to now, attention has seemed to focus on the Dreamers. It made some sense to focus on them because they were the clearest case: the usual “enforce the law” arguments lose all moral credibility when applied to them, so Dreamers were a sort of wedge case, which left opponents of reform without any moral leg to stand on. But amnesty for Dreamers plus deportation for 10 million or so non-Dreamer undocumented immigrants would be atrocious, and it’s good that the conversation seemed to have moved on from the Dream Act to something more genuinely comprehensive.

A writer at The Guardian argues that Republicans are mistaken if they think they’ll earn political capital by supporting immigration reform, because Latinos are Democrats, and agree with the Democrats on other issues besides immigration, too. I’m not convinced. The Hispanic vote has swung a good deal as Republicans have gone more nativist. Republicans may not have a convincing strategy at the moment to win over Hispanics, but support immigration reform will open up new possibilities for coalition building. And I also think a lot of non-Latino voters will look more favorably on the GOP for this. Republicans will look less “mean,” and also more plausibly freedom-loving and anti-Big Government.

Immigration reform packages always come as mixed blessings, because with the concessions come demands for more enforcement, for employer verification of migration status, for greater effort to secure the border, for a general ramping up of the police state. E-Verify, if it worked, would needlessly make life difficult for a lot of people, not only undocumented immigrants but their employers, too. It would separate a lot of people from jobs where they were useful, people who badly needed the wages. More effort to secure the borders is expensive, for one thing, but it also has the bad effect of separating people from job opportunities or even family members. One can hope that the “enforcement” measures will be eviscerated, legally or via the operations of black markets (though that’s a problematic remedy), but I’m reluctant to wish on us the plague of more enforcement, even for the great benefit of amnesty. While I do want to see something pass and expect that it will be an improvement if it does, a lot of the arguments used by Rubio and others on my side (e.g., “back of the line”) are bogus. Ironically, the quote I agree with most is from opponent Lamar Smith:

“By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”

Yes, I think that’s true. And for me, that’s one of the strongest reasons to support it. Mexican migrant supply may have peaked, and demand is still down because of the bad economy, but if amnesty passes, and if the economy rebounds strongly at some point (probably not under Obama), then at some point I expect people from other countries– India, China, Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia, South America– will find ways physically to enter the country, even at great risk and expense, in anticipation of the next amnesty. If the process continues, that could move us a long way in the direction of open borders.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

7 thoughts on “The political tide”

  1. Something I hope to get around to writing more about some day is that most closed-borders style policy reforms just don’t seem feasible to me. For instance, the point about amnesty — but is it any more tenable to have millions of underground people living in your society? Many European countries continue to face a host of social and legal issues dealing with illegal immigration, but have never really taken amnesty off the table because doing so is irreconcilable with reality.

    In of itself, opposition to amnesty because it may encourage future flows of undocumented immigrants acknowledges the basic fact that although governments can restrict immigration, they can never really cut it off. It’s standard US conservative rhetoric to complain that the borders aren’t secure, but that begs the question of whether they ever were. Short of terribly punitive measures, such as building a Berlinesque wall across the entire border with Mexico (which would involve both immense one-time capital costs and ongoing operational costs), there is no way to “secure the borders” to the content of people who want assurances that it’ll be extremely difficult to cross into the US from Mexico.

    1. I think that where I differ from you is that I think that a lot of people would willingly sign on to the hardcore restrictionist measures that we think of as “terribly punitive” — at least if it’s packaged in language that keeps the actual violence non-obvious. It’s true, though, that this will extract huge costs for citizens as well wherein they have to put up with a lot of intrusive stuff, but I wouldn’t underestimate people’s willingness to put up with coercive laws if a suitable restrictionist demagogue finds the right word package. Luckily, I don’t think this is likely; the probability of such a masterful demagogue rising in the US in the next decade or so is < 5% in my view.

      1. I’m open to the possibility that people would sign on to terrible things that don’t affect them personally. But as you point out, for such a sign-on to happen, you’d first need a pretty big political upheaval that seems very unlikely. Of course, such upheavals are by definition black swans…

        My purpose in pointing out the extreme nature of restrictions that can realistically “secure the borders” is to move the Overton window, since even relatively immigration-sympathetic activists like Ruben Navarette buy into the “secure the borders” rhetoric. In reality, “secure the borders” implies a massive police state to enforce domestic laws w.r.t. work permits, and a massively militarised border. The former itself will affect citizens and citizen-owned businesses per the example of E-Verify, and the latter will be incredibly, incredibly expensive to a degree that I’ve never seen any restrictionist bother to grapple with in a serious cost-benefit analysis.

    2. “terribly punitive measures…wall across the entire border”

      What’s punitive about walls and fences, beyond preventing people from crossing without government permission? If it’s effectiveness that’s punitive, that’s just the point at issue between open borders and selective immigration advocates. It would be like an anarchist protesting payroll deduction of taxes as punitive on the grounds that they make tax-collecting more efficient, since he thinks taxation is immoral. Are the barriers surrounding gated communities punitive?

      One of the benefits cited for physical barriers is that they slow crossing attempts and make it easier to intercept would-be crossers with less use of force, and less (expensive) manpower.

      The biggest (real) drawback usually cited is symbolic: building a wall or fence signals that the builder really cares about not letting in illegal migrants across it, which might insult the people from the other side. But that’s not “punitive,” maybe “impolite” or “offensive.”

      1. International opinion has not been very favourable for the Israeli wall, which is immensely more defensible than a proposed US-Mexican wall (since, for one, nobody’s terribly concerned about Mexican suicide bombers attacking the US). Walls and fences coupled with incredibly restrictive immigration policy regimes are punitive because they tend to be destructive of people’s social and economic lives.

        Another thing to note about walls and fences is that:

        1. They’re expensive to build, especially on the scale that would be necessary to seriously prevent a large (say, >90%) proportion of border crossings from Mexico to the US
        2. They’re expensive to operate, because you need to patrol the wall/fence once built
        3. So expensive, in fact, one might call their cost “punitive” for tax-payers
        4. To effectively deter crossings, border patrollers will need to take physically coercive acts, which are themselves punitive

        Anyway, let’s not get hang up on semantics. The point is, a serious wall that “works” will be expensive for taxpayers and make border crossings even more life threatening. Iran’s policy is to shoot people crossing the border illegally, and that hasn’t stopped Pakistanis or Afghans from trying to get in — border enforcement that “works” strikes me as no mean feat.

        1. “Walls and fences coupled with incredibly restrictive immigration policy regimes are punitive because they tend to be destructive of people’s social and economic lives.”

          OK, so you define enforcement measures to be punitive insofar as they are effective, depriving people of the benefits of illegal immigration, separately from any other properties they may have.

          “3. So expensive, in fact, one might call their cost “punitive” for tax-payers”

          Cost estimates in wikipedia for a fence are in the very low billions, on par with annual spending on border patrol activities. If they reduce crossings, they could save patrol resources.

          Taking border enforcement costs in perspective they are pocket change relative to the life-cycle economic, fiscal, and political effects of illegal migrants, both the positive and the negative ones. If some significant selectivity in migration is worthwhile, then it will also be worth paying for enforcement.

      2. Hi BK,

        This is not exactly a defense of John’s claim, but I think it’s worthwhile to note that most restrictionists I’m aware of simply don’t see border security as the most cost-effective strategy to tackle the (to them) problem of illegal immigration, current and past. Here, for instance, is the list of top seven points offered by Mark Krikorian for his attrition through enforcement strategy to deal with past, present, and future illegal immigration (this is from his book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal):

        1. End illegal alien’s access to jobs.
        2. Secure identification.
        3. Ensure that the IRS cooperates with immigration enforcement.
        4. Increase cooperation between federal immigration authorities and state and local law enforcement.
        5. Reduce visa overstays.
        6. Double deportations of ordinary, noncriminal aliens.
        7. Pass state and local laws to discourage illegal settlement.

        Note that border security doesn’t figure in the list. Krikorian himself notes this, and says that the US is already on the right track with border control (obviously, he wants the US to do a lot more on that front, as with other fronts, but in relative terms, he doesn’t see that as being as cost-effective as interior enforcement strategies, for deterring current and future migration).

        Since Krikorian is a hardcore restrictionist, one would expect him to have an incentive to overstate the effectiveness for each form of enforcement. But if he really wants what he says he wants, one would expect that he’d have the relative rankings of the different enforcement strategies correct. For this reason, I defer to his judgment here on the idea that border security is a far less worthwhile endeavor from the restrictionist perspective (which I don’t share) than large-scale interior enforcement.

        Regarding your claim about a border fence, John already pointed out some issues, but a more fundamental problem is that a lot of people can (a) sneak in inside trucks and containers that carry goods, or (b) overstay after entering in an authorized fashion, using a visa or permit. Even as of now, a lot of people from Mexico enter in fashion (a) or (b). Cracking down on (a) would require much more thorough inspection of all items crossing the border every day on the roads, which would have an adverse impact on trade. There are probably creative solutions to the problem, which I won’t offer here, but the point is that, without creative solutions, such measures would be quite punitive for the many businesses and individuals on both sides of the border who rely on transporting stuff across the border. In other words, it would hurt lots of people and lots of business models that have nothing to do with illegal immigration, simply because everything needs to be inspected. As for (b), it doesn’t have much to do with border security as the term is conventionally understood, and definitely nothing to do with building a fence. This is probably why most restrictionists are focused a lot more on interior enforcement, since it is agnostic to all the ways a person may sneak into the country and concentrates instead on making that person’s life difficult while in the country.

        A border wall may still be justified for restrictionists, especially if interior enforcement measures turn out to be politically infeasible. But the less effective it is, the more extremely restrictionist you’d need to be in order to sign on to it as cost-effective.

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