My Q1 2022 donation to Free Migration Project

I’m planning to make a donation of 3,000 USD to Free Migration Project (FMP) in January 2022. This blog post goes in some detail on my reasoning.  [EDIT: The donation was formally made on Tuesday, January 4, 2022 via ACH, as planned.]

https://vipulnaik.com/blog/my-q1-2022-donation-to-free-migration-project/ is the post’s canonical location (but does not accept comments). I’m cross-posting to openborders.info here (given that FMP works in that area) as well as the EA Forum here (given that some of my decision-making process was guided by principles similar to effective altruist principles). Borrowing from Larks’ AI alignment reviews, I use #openborders and #eaforum for portions particularly relevant to the readerships of those sites.

Sections:

  • Background of where I am with respect to donations
  • Brief description of Free Migration Project
  • Some considerations specific to my relationship with Free Migration Project
  • Some background thinking motivating this donation
  • Reasons for amount
  • Reasons for timing
  • Potential future donations
  • Thoughts on fundraising dynamics

Background of where I am with respect to donations

In a November 11, 2021 post on another donation, I wrote extensively about where I currently am with respect to donations. The TL;DR is that right now, I’m only looking at time-sensitive donation opportunities that beat fallback donation targets (such as the EA Funds and the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund), and I’m not being super-proactive in identifying these opportunities.

I am also limiting my budget to 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. As of January 2022, the total amount I can spend would be $7,000 (for 7 months) of which I already spent $1,000 on the previous donation. My donation to FMP thus uses up $3,000 of the remaining $6,000, still leaving an unallocated $3,000 that would roll over to increase the budget for potential future donations.

Brief description of Free Migration Project

I’ll quote the entirety of FMP’s Mission and History page, rather than writing my own description which would likely be less accurate:

Free Migration Project represents immigrant clients in their legal proceedings, provides legal support and training to organizers and advocates, engages in public education and outreach, litigates in the public interest, and advocates for fair and open immigration laws.

Free Migration Project represents clients in public deportation defense campaigns and provides legal and strategic support to undocumented organizers fighting for immigrant rights. We believe that working with undocumented clients to elevate their stories and struggles has helped to educate the public and engender support for undocumented communities in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Free Migration Project envisions a world where free movement of people is the legal norm. We call for recognition of a human right to migrate and the abolition of deportation.

Founded in 2016, Free Migration Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

You can also take a look at FMP’s 2021 Annual Report for a more concrete picture of FMP’s program work.

Some considerations specific to my relationship with Free Migration Project

I served on the Free Migration Project board from May 2016 to December 2021 and have had past connections with its founder

I was one of the founding board members of Free Migration Project, attending its first board meeting in May 2016. I’m stepping down from the board at the end of December 2021, a little before my maximum of six years on the board would be completed.

I have known David (Dave) Bennion, FMP’s founder, since 2013. I also wrote the email introducing Dave to Alexander Berger, then Program Officer for U.S. Policy at Open Philanthropy; this would ultimately result in a $24,000 grant from Open Philanthropy. I don’t think the fact of me doing the introduction had much effect on FMP getting the grant (I also wasn’t the person who originally had the idea of connecting FMP to Open Philanthropy).

[#openborders] In the proposal that David Bennion submitted for FMP, he mentions discovering openborders.info in 2013 as one of the influences that led him to start FMP. I had originally started openborders.info back in March 2012.

[#openborders] Back in October, I posted an excerpt from Javier Hidalgo’s Unjust Borders that goes over some of this history rather coarsely, starting with Bryan Caplan’s blogging that influenced my decision to start openborders.info.

I donated in December 2019 to discharge my “board member” obligation

In December 2019, I made a $3,000 USD donation to Free Migration Project. I described my reasons for the donation on my donation history page:

I see it as the equivalent of sending $500/year for 6 years, which is the duration of my board tenure. There isn’t a very specific reason for the timing, other than the fact that at the end of the year, I’m thinking about donation opportunities and in particular looking at donations that I have some sense of “obligation” to make. […] I’m not planning to make a followup donation in the near future, since this donation discharges my responsibility; any further donation decisions will be based on the same sort of extensive analysis that I subjected my EA Hotel donation to.

As a board member, I have access to private information and this influences my decision somewhat

As a board member, I have had access to a lot of private information about Free Migration Project. None of this private information is inconsistent with, or even surprising given, public information. However, the private information does give me a clearer picture of the organization that outsiders don’t have, which gives me more confidence about some things.

In an ideal world, I might want to summarize the private information into nuggets that can be disclosed publicly and run them by FMP before publishing; however, the time constraints I currently have for this post don’t permit that. However, I can describe some of the kinds of information I have access to, that influence my decision to donate, that an outsider wouldn’t have access to:

  • Information on foundation funding received by FMP, including the names of foundations, and in many cases the amount and the timing of commitment and disbursement (only a subset of this information is public)
  • Access to FMP’s strategic plans and some of the legal and tax filings
  • Access to board meeting minutes (as well as my memory of having attended the board meetings) that includes summaries of FMP’s program work, fundraising challenges, and more, at various points in time over the past six years
  • Access to various evaluations done by board members and staff of the executive director
  • Information on FMP’s budget and finances

I will not have continued access to further board updates starting 2022, and any additional information I have access to will be through explicit sharing by FMP with me.

I would say the most crucial piece of private information I have is around the current financial state of the organization, which gives me a clearer sense of the value of marginal donations.

As a board member, I was asked (not required!) to contribute to FMP’s end-of-year fundraiser

For various reasons (increased staff size meaning a larger annual budget for 2022, some delays with foundation funding being disbursed), FMP is holding a larger end-of-year fundraiser than usual, targeting $20,000 (this is only a small portion of their annual operating expenses; it’s just an amount that was considered a reasonable goal for an end-of-year fundraiser). As a board member, I was asked to think of ways to contribute.

The most common, and the suggested, way for board members to contribute was to run fundraisers. For various reasons, my preferred mode of contribution was to donate directly rather than run a fundraiser; I describe my thinking on this point later in the post.

The “ask” made of board members did not significantly affect my decision to donate or of how much to donate. I feel that I have already discharged my basic financial obligations as a board member with my December 2019 donation, and if I had ultimately decided against the donation, I would not have felt bad about this. However, some of the backdrop (that led to the ask) did influence my decision.

Some background thinking motivating this donation

My reasons for thinking of FMP as worth supporting

[#openborders] My main reason for supporting Free Migration Project is that it is one of the few organizations (and the only one I clearly know) that supports freedom of movement as its core mission. As the person who started openborders.info, I think this is an important cause, and I think even the existence of FMP helps continue to generate visibility for this super-important cause. This provides a kind of lower bound on FMP’s value; even if I were completely unconvinced by the value of FMP’s program work, FMP’s total budget is so small in the grand scheme of things that it seems, from a big-picture philanthropic perspective, that it more than pays for itself.

[#openborders] In terms of activities, the main thing FMP does to directly promote open borders is organize the Open Borders Conference. I reviewed the 2021 conference and overall think the conference is pretty good. I did a little thought experiment a while ago — could something like the Open Borders Conference exist without FMP? I think it could, but it would probably be harder to organize, and it would likely fluctuate more year-to-year based on the whims of individuals involved, rather than being a steady part of the landscape.

Existence value and the Open Borders Conference are my two main reasons. I also mentioned a few other points in my Open Borders Action Group post, but I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around how to assess the direct, object-level impact of FMP’s legal representation work and its activism on beneficiaries. If you want to dig into this yourself based on public information, check out FMP’s 2021 annual report.

[#eaforum] I’m reasonably confident that the direct impact on beneficiaries is positive and cost-effective (in the crude sense that benefits to beneficiaries exceed costs of program work), but have no idea how it stacks up against other philanthropic activities that help people. In general, in my mind, justifications based solely on direct impact on beneficiaries need to clear a very high bar given the alternative of GiveWell top charities, for reasons similar to what Open Philanthropy described here. But I haven’t done too much analysis of FMP’s activities to the point where I could say anything concrete about them beyond these general priors.

For my donation, thus, I strictly considered only the two things I could get a grip on: existence value, and the Open Borders Conference.

FMP has room for more funding

FMP is a small organization and has a small budget. It currently has only three full-time employees. So it doesn’t need a lot of money.

However, as of the time of my donation, it is meaningfully short on funds. Part of this is due to some foundation funding that had been committed but not disbursed yet. Part of this is because FMP’s staff had expanded from a size of one (two years ago) to a size of three, and the fundraising operation had not scaled appropriately.

One other factor is that with the replacement of immigration hardliner Trump by the more moderate Biden, much of the money that would have funded migration-related activism has dried up, as donors have chosen to focus on other causes. Since my interest in free migration is more long-term and not related specifically to the margins of US federal politics, this seems like the right time for donors with my mindset to step in.

Reasons for amount

My donation budget

As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am accumulating a donation budget of 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. By January 2022, I will have $7,000 accumulated, of which I’ve spent $1,000 so far, leaving $6,000. However, I’m making the decision and commitment in December, so in my mind I was really playing with only $6,000 – $1,000 = $5,000.

The donation budget sets an upper bound; I believe that there’s a decent chance that I will identify better donation targets in the coming months, and do want to leave some of my donation budget for those better targets. That partly explains why I am not spending the entirety of the $6,000 or $5,000.

I would say that my donation budget is one of the main reasons I didn’t donate more, but a greater donation budget wouldn’t translate directly to the same increase in how much of a donation I would make. I did a little thought experiment and estimated that I could go up to $5,000 if my donation budget were around $15,000, and up to $10,000 if my donation budget was around $50,000. This brings me to the next topic, the marginal value of funding. (Basically this is trading off the known value of FMP against the value of future opportunities and the likely funds I will need in order to be able to fund those opportunities).

Marginal value of funding for FMP

The amount I have chosen falls well within the range where marginal funding directly helps FMP with its goal of continued existence, which is necessary for its existence value and its ability to sponsor the Open Borders Conference (the two reasons I want to donate to it).

Since I limited my investigation to the range of values that I was actually likely to donate, I don’t have a very clear sense of the marginal value of substantially larger amounts of funding, nor is this the right post to go over that. But I can say the following:

  • I do suspect diminishing returns in donations to FMP to quite an extent (for my goals of existence value and ability to sponsor the Open Borders Conference), and I do think $3,000 is enough to see at least some meaningful change in the slope of the marginal value curve. So the first $3,000 I donated are much more valuable than the next $3,000.

  • The investigation I did would make me confident of donating up to $10,000 if my donation budget were not constrained, even taking into account other funds FMP expects to raise. After $10,000, I wouldn’t be sure this is a clearly time-sensitive opportunity that beats out fallback donation targets (which are actually pretty good value-for-money, so this is a high bar). To be clear, $10,000 is way less than the amount FMP needs for its budget. And also, my investigation scope was limited to looking at the kind of funds I actually expect to give.

One takeaway for other donors: if you’re fully aligned with me and less constrained than I am on donation budget, I think donating up to $7,000 total would be great. I don’t expect to influence more than 2-3 people, so donating up to $1,000 should be safe; even if 3 people ended up donating $1,000 based on this post it would still be well under the $7,000. If you’re thinking of donating more than $1,000, I recommend getting in touch with FMP and doing your own marginal value calculation based on the most up-to-date information at the time of your donation.

Reasons for timing

FMP’s financial situation

One of the main reasons for the timing is FMP’s financial situation. I already described some general aspects of this in an earlier section “FMP has room for more funding”. I can’t go into further details, but basically I do believe this is one of those relatively rare times in the organization’s history where the value of donations is high.

My donation budget accumulation

As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am accumulating a donation budget of 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. By January 2022, I will have $7,000 accumulated, of which I’ve spent $1,000 so far, leaving $6,000. This gives me room to make donations.

My exit from the board

Even before being apprised of the financial situation, I had been considering making some sort of donation to mark my exit from the Free Migration Project board at the end of 2021, as a sort of “parting gift”. However, this consideration is minor in the scheme of things.

Maturing of background investigation

I have been thinking off and on about related topics and collecting information over the past few months. Around December, I felt I had enough information to make a case (to myself) for a donation.

[#openborders] My Open Borders Conference 2021 review can be thought of as one public-facing piece of such background investigation; so can my post on understanding Open Philanthropy’s migration policy work. My work on the timeline of immigration detention in the United States and the Berks County Residential Center was also for the loosely related goal of understanding the space. I also had a number of private conversations, mostly in November 2021, and most of them not directly related to FMP, to build understanding of the space.

Tax considerations favored deferring the donation to January

Content warning: technical section, highly specific to US income taxes, people in high-tax states, and people within some income brackets. This section can be skipped without loss of context.

My only donation in 2021 was not tax-deductible in the United States. Thanks to the SALT deduction cap of $10,000, and the fact that my California state taxes are over $10,000, the total deductions I can take if I itemize deductions are $10,000 + charitable donations. The standard deduction for 2021 is $12,550 and the standard deduction for 2022 is $12,950.

Donations to FMP are tax-deductible.

So we can run the two scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: I donate $3,000 to FMP in 2021. I get to itemize deductions, since my itemized deductions of $10,000 + $3,000 = $13,000 exceed the standard deduction of $12,550. I save $13,000 – $12,550 = $450 in taxable income (so something between $100 and $200 in taxes).

    However, for 2022, I start from scratch, and my first $2,950 of donations are not tax-free since that’s what’s needed to make my itemized deductions reach the standard deduction threshold.

  • Scenario 2: I donate $3,000 to FMP in 2022.

    In this case, for 2021, I just take the standard deduction of $12,550. I don’t get benefits of extra deductions.

    For 2022, since $10,000 + $3,000 = $13,000 exceeds the standard deduction of $12,950, I itemize my deductions. I save $50 in taxable income, which is between $10 and $20 in taxes — not a big deal. But now, all further donations in 2022 are tax-free.

So if I’m planning to donate $X in tax-deductible donations in 2022 (over and above this FMP donation), my total saving, across both years, over the standard deduction works out to:

Scenarios Case X < 2,950 Case X >= 2,950
Scenario 1 450 450 + (X – 2,950) = X – 2,500
Scenario 2 50 + X 50 + X

After some further math, we find that if X >= 400, then Scenario 2 is preferable to Scenario 1. So if I expect to donate at least $400 in 2022 (over and above this $3,000 FMP donation), I expect to save on taxes by deferring to 2022. The amount I save on taxable income is X – 400 for X up to 2,950, and for larger X it’s just 2,550 USD.

The intuitive explanation for this:

  • Let’s say that the standard deduction didn’t change across years. Then it would always make sense to engage in donation bunching (aka donation bundling), so that as much of your donations as possible are working to reduce your taxable income. Since I didn’t make other donations in 2021 but might in 2022, this argues for deferring to 2022.

  • However, the standard deduction increases each year, so that is an argument for donating earlier so as to benefit from having more of a reduction in taxable income from exceeding the standard deduction.

  • Combining both of these considerations, we see that the amount we plan to donate in 2022 needs to exceed the standard deduction increase from 2021 to 2022 (namely $400) in order for us to benefit from deferring to 2022.

Although I’m not totally sure, I actually do expect that I’m likely to donate at least $400 in 2022 excluding the FMP $3,000 donation, so it makes sense to defer. With that said, if I ended up donating less than $400, I would not be devastated. I’m unlikely to deliberately change my donation behavior to get past the $400 point just to prove my past self right.

I did confirm that deferring from December to January did not meaningfully affect FMP’s finances

In general, tax considerations are only a minor factor in my donation decisions. In fact, neither my Q1 2019 EA Hotel donation decision nor my most recent donation were tax-deductible for me, but I made them. FMP is tax-deductible, and if considerations on the FMP side led me to believe that there was a significant benefit from donating sooner, I would have done so.

However, based on the information I had, I concluded that donating in January — as long as I committed and communicated the donation in December — would be good enough.

Potential future donations

A lot depends on other donation opportunities I might find

It’s possible that over the coming months, I will find other donation opportunities that I consider a more meaningful use of my donation budget. I’m not committing anything to FMP beyond this donation; moreover, since I am exiting the board I won’t have any obligations of any sort.

I would want to understand FMP’s role in spreading the idea of free movement and open borders better

If I were to donate to FMP in the future, or to recommend to others to donate more to it, one thing I’d like to nail down is a better picture of how exactly FMP is spreading the idea of free migration and open borders, and how successful it has been. I might have further conversations with Dave on this point in the coming weeks and months, and might write more about this (even if I don’t make a further donation, as long as I think there’s enough value in what FMP is doing to be worth bringing to the attention of others).

Thoughts on fundraising dynamics

FMP’s overall fundraising strategy

[#eaforum #openborders]

I can’t comment too much on the details of FMP’s overall fundraising strategy, but I will say that the bulk of FMP’s funding at present does not seem to come from avid open borders believers or the effective altruist community or its penumbra. The funding pattern seems to be reasonably similar to what you would expect of a migrant rights organization; even more specifically, of a migrant rights organization based in the Philadelphia region.

Given FMP’s staff expansion in the last few years, the organization needs to, and is working to, expand its fundraising to keep pace with its size. I expect the bulk of this expansion to be with the same sort of donor base that has sustained FMP so far. Most of these donors have fairly different terminal values than I do; also, instrumentally, the fundraising techniques that will work with these donors will be different from the things that would appeal to me.

The role of donors more broadly similar to me (interested in open borders, some connections to effective altruism in the sense of interest in doing the most good) will likely depend on the extent to which FMP is able to make the case for how its activities help promote open borders more broadly. I expect to get a better understanding of this in 2022.

The alternative approach of running fundraisers

Many others on the board are running or considering running end-of-year fundraisers for FMP using Facebook fundraisers; I heard that other board members were using Stack for fundraisers. Here are two of the fundraisers: Jamila HammamiJasmine Rivera. Two of the board members are also running a trivia night fundraiser.

Doing a fundraiser did not personally sit well with me (though I wish the best of luck to those running them). I’m articulating below some of my reasons, that are partly personal and partly general epistemic considerations:

  • [#eaforum] I generally favor making fewer, larger donations that have a lot of thought in them, over several smaller donations: This is based on a more nuanced version of the one charity argument (amazingly enough, the linked post I wrote over 12 years ago, back when I was a much less sophisticated thinker, still seems to be one of the best expositions I know on the subject). The world of donations, in particular in the effective altruist sphere, has evolved a lot since that crude argument, but I think the general crux — the idea that we should keep directing donations to the top charity at the relevant margin until the margins change enough — still applies.

    While we can imagine some charities, such as the local soup kitchen, where the marginal calculus changes after a few hundred dollars, most moderate-sized charities won’t have the margin change at those small amounts. As a rule of thumb, I set a minimum of $1,000 per donation and generally think in multiples of thousand when thinking about how the marginal value of donations may change. If my donation budget were under $1,000 (which it isn’t right now, but was at some points in the past), I would allocate it all to at most one charity.

    I know of three kinds of exceptions to the rule favoring larger donations:

    • Donations as gifts: As I noted in my earlier post, I would cap such donations at three times the private benefit to me. Donating to FMP doesn’t really fit in this category.

    • Donations as compensation for effort answering questions: In the past, I’ve had cases where I talked to a nonprofit about donation, but became less excited about donation after thinking and talking more. However, I want to reimburse the nonprofit for the effort of talking to me. A donation of a few hundred dollars seems appropriate for this sort of case.

    • [#eaforum] Donations coordinated with multiple other donors, e.g., as part of something like a S-process: As Andrew Critch explains in a video, S-process funding with multiple funders takes turns allocating small portions of each funder’s budget in decreasing order of marginal value. For organizations that all funders are similarly excited about, this process spreads out the funding for the organization across funders. The key is that an individual funder isn’t going completely before or after other funders. So the marginal value of each additional unit of funding from an individual funder changes not just due to that funder but due to the funds from other funders.

      If there are several highly similar funders participating in a S-process, all of whom have very similar marginal value functions, this process could lead to smaller per-funder allocations from individual funders to the organization.

      This donation is not part of an explicit S-process, nor can I identify even any implicit S-process-like mechanism here. Also, I as a donor have very different marginal value functions from most of FMP’s donor base.

  • One possible argument for fundraisers is that they raise awareness of the organization (FMP), and some of those participating in the fundraiser may form a direct relationship with FMP and donate more in future years. I think this is plausible but unlikely if I ran a fundraiser (given my friend group), though the consideration might be more plausible for some of the others running fundraisers.

    However, I am trying to raise awareness in other ways; for instance, with my Open Borders Action Group post and with this blog post you’re reading right now. If anything, I think making a donation sends a more credible and convincing signal, though that was a very minor consideration for me when deciding to donate.

  • In some cases, the pressure to contribute to fundraisers works on a reciprocal basis: I donate to your fundraisers, you donate to mine. Since I generally don’t donate to others’ fundraisers, this reciprocal basis doesn’t really apply to me.

Conclusion

All in all, I am pretty satisfied with my decision to make a $3,000 donation to FMP after writing about it in more depth. I encourage highly aligned donors to make $1,000 donations even without further investigation, and to connect with FMP for the latest fundraising information if they are interested in donating more.

My next step would be understanding more clearly the role that FMP plays in spreading the message of open borders. Such an understanding might influence me to donate more in the future. I might also write more publicly about my understanding in 2022 or later as I acquire more understanding (even if I end up not donating further). However, it’s possible I become more interested in other donation opportunities in the future and decide not to investigate this further.

Do Right on Immigration to Save the American Republic

I was a vocal advocate of open borders for many years. Then, after the spring of 2017 or so, I fell rather silent. Not completely: I wrote the essay “Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It” for the Cato Institute in May 2020, summarizing my long-held views. But I think my relative silence led some to think my convictions must have changed. The amusingly-titled Michael Barone essay, “Open borders would produce dystopia, says open borders advocate,” expresses it well. I may not have officially recanted, but didn’t my writings suggest a certain halting reconsideration of long-held views?

Not at all. Or rather, I do reconsider my views, frequently… but usually I conclude that yes, I was right. The reason I fell rather silent was (a) I wasn’t sure if open borders advocacy was making freer immigration policies any more likely (“Overton window” vs. “backlash”), and (b) I had a family to support, and open borders advocacy not only absorbed time and attention without (usually) paying anything, but risked alienating people whose help and good will I would need in order to get remunerative work. 

To dispel suspicions that I’ve changed my mind, though, I thought it might be of interest to state the case for open borders as I see it now. As far as I know, it’s the same as it was five years ago, but I’m restating it now out of my head, without particularly reviewing old writings, out of curiosity about how consistent I’ve been. 

And there is one further reason, quite new, to add to my case, if not necessarily for open borders. I’ll get to that at the end.

First, there’s the utilitarian case for open borders. Migration restrictions are very inefficient because they force people to stay in countries where they’re far less productive than they might be. That makes them less happy and thriving. It also makes them less able to be of use and contribute to the flourishing of others. Open borders would empower billions of people to move to opportunity and become much more productive. Migrants’ remittances to and feedback on their countries of origin would spread the beneficent effects to non-migrants. If one believes that policy should serve “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” in Jeremy Bentham’s time-worn (and of course somewhat ill-defined) phrase, then open borders should top the priority list. Economic estimates, though highly speculative, are the best available guesses as to what a world of open borders would look like, and roughly speaking, the median guess– a conservative guess in many ways; far more optimism could be cogently advocated– is that open borders would double world GDP.

Second, there’s what might be called the “deontological” or rights-based case for open borders, which grows out of the question of when violence may justly be used. I assume that some violence is just, for example in self-defense, or up to a point for the redress of wrongs. Indeed, I’d even insist that simple retribution, though hopefully without the passions associated with the term “revenge,” is sometimes an adequate justification for the use of force. Now, when an immigrant is prevented by force, i.e., by violence, from entering the territory of a country, that needs justification, since violence is presumptively wrong. But the peaceful immigrant has violated no one’s rights. So it’s simply not licit to use force against him. 

Now, there could be tension between these lines of argument. Often deontological and utilitarian reasoning lead to opposed conclusions, and it’s hard to settle the resulting debates. And I even think there are some edge cases under the general topic of immigration where utilitarian and deontological reasoning do collide in incompatible conclusions. For example, if X is the cousin of a ruthless terrorist, and pleads for entry into the US to keep him safe, there is reason to think he needs asylum, but also reason to fear that he is dissembling and working for the terrorist cause. Human rights (deontology) might suggest letting him in, while national security (utilitarianism) suggests keeping him out. Epidemiology also gives rise to edge cases where a likely disease bearer needs to cross an international border, yet jeopardizes the health of the domestic population.

But this is rare. The vast majority of potential migrants are not plausible terrorist threats, and don’t plausibly carry contagious diseases not already endemic in the destination country. Where restrictions of movement are needed to control the spread of contagious disease, temporary quarantine is almost always a practical and far less coercive alternative to permanent exclusion. For the vast majority of cases, I believe that the rights-based case for open borders and the utilitarian case for open borders agree and complement one another.

Third, the kind of open borders that I’ve usually advocated, involving the substitution of migration taxes for migration restrictions, would be desirable even from a more narrowly nationalist perspective that considers only the welfare of citizens of a country like the United States. Citizens would enjoy large benefits from open borders, as employers, landlords, merchants, colleagues, and investors, profiting through trade with the new immigrant masses. The economic impacts would vary widely depending on citizens endowment of “factors of production” such as land, labor power, skills, investable funds, and subtler things like connections, ability to influence policymaking, and preferences. But probably the vast majority of citizens would benefit naturally, on balance, from open borders through simple market exchange, and the government could use migration taxes and redistribution to make open borders economically advantageous for virtually all native citizens of immigrant-receiving countries.

Fourth, importantly for me, as a Christian, though not for all the likely readers of this post, is the commands of God to men through the Bible and the Christian churches. When I began advocating open borders, I thought the cause was very harmonious with the spirit of the New Testament, but that the Bible probably had a good deal that opponents could use against it, probably in the Old Testament, and that to advocate open borders so boldly might put me in an awkward position with respect to my Christian faith. Later, I did some scriptural research and discovered that I was wrong. Put bluntly, God supports open borders. There’s nothing in the Bible to give an open borders advocate pause, and everything to encourage him. It’s not just that the New Testament favors welcoming the stranger, loving enemies, and turning the other cheek. Even the Old Testament makes it very clear that ancient Israel under the divinely-inspired, though not yet “fulfilled,” law of Moses, was completely open to all willing immigrants. 

There’s another kind of urgency in the religious case for open borders. Christians are persecuted in many parts of the world, and their ability to practice their faith freely often depends on their being able to migrate to countries where they can escape persecution. Are we being faithful Christians if, by condoning the refusal of our countries’ governments to allow foreign Christians to enter, we put them at the mercy of their persecutors? Of course not. Christians must support asylum for persecuted Christians from abroad. But since it’s easy for foreigners to pretend to be persecuted Christians if laws incent them to do so– being a Christian has no external markers, after all, and government bureaucrats can hardly be relied upon to discern the sincerity of people’s professions of faith– the only practical way to meet this duty is to let in everyone.

All this, I think I’ve probably said before. At any rate, I’ve thought it before. But here’s the part of the case for open borders that is new.

On January 6, 2021, a mob stormed the US Capitol, on the instigation of then-President Donald Trump, who was fomenting a preposterous lie that he had actually won the 2020 presidential election, and that it had been “stolen.” This was a shocking breach of a tradition of peaceful, democratic transfers of power that has continued, essentially, since the very beginning of the republic. It’s not clear that there’s a plausible scenario where this mob action would have altered the election outcome, and therefore, how dire the threat to American democracy really was. Next time, we might not be so lucky. 

Through the first thirty-eight years of my life, I took for granted that American democracy was impregnable. We could argue about whether democracy was being eroded through judicial usurpations, but a direct attack on the constitutional, democratic transfer of power, though common abroad, seemed inconceivable in America. How could this have happened? 

The immediate explanation seems to lie in the personal character of Donald Trump, who always struck me as an incredibly vain and unprincipled egoist for whom nothing is sacred, least of all the American constitution. 

But that only pushes the question back further. How could 63 million Americans (in 2016) have voted for a man like that in the presidential election? How could so many millions of Republicans have voted for a man like that in the primaries, when there were so many other Republican candidates every bit as committed to core principles like support for free markets and opposition to abortion as Trump could claim to be? Trump’s depraved buffoonery wasn’t a secret, after all. That the preservation of liberty depends on virtue is a truth as old as the republic and older. Why didn’t Americans know better?

Above all, I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. And yet, as a patriot, as someone who always planned for the American republic to outlive me, and to be there for my children and grandchildren, I can’t stop engaging in agonized guesswork to try to figure it out.

Here’s the best guess I can make.

Americans voted for an obviously immoral man because they wanted him to do something obviously immoral. There was ongoing pressure to “close the border” and “enforce the law.” That involved the expulsion of the Dreamers, people born abroad but raised in America, who knew no other home. This is so obviously indefensible, from a moral perspective, that people of a certain mind didn’t trust any politician to carry it out if they showed signs of having a conscience. Many wicked things had been done before in the name of immigration control: the expulsion of Haitians at the border to a dystopian homeland, or the exclusion of the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis in 1939. But in the past, it kind of worked to lump these evils into patriotic kitsch that might have a subtle racist dark side, or into national security boilerplate, and politicians could present a face of civic virtue while still doing these bad things. That no longer works. Conscience and realism had made enough headway that mainstream politicians were being inexorably pushed in the direction of legalizing the Dreamers. Even if politicians made anti-immigration promises on the campaign trail, in a somewhat unscrupulous effort to win power for some good purpose, upon winning office, they would be likely to reflect that it’s better– morally better– to break a promise than to deport millions of innocent people from America who have no other home. So the desperate expedient of restrictionists was to elect someone whose entire life bore witness to a total lack of conscience. And then, lacking the moral scruples to treat the Dreamers with justice, he also lacked the moral scruples to relinquish power peacefully when he lost the election.

I could be getting this all wrong. As I said, I’m baffled by the events of 2016. If there are people who somehow had better, more honorable motives than these for supporting Trump, I apologize for being unable to imagine their state of mind.

But if I’m right in my diagnosis, then our unreasonably draconian immigration laws, unenforceable by just means, are a moral cancer that is poisoning the American body politic, robbing it of the civic virtue that is needed for democracy to endure. So that’s one more reason for me urgently to support open borders, or at least to urgently desire to make the country more welcoming to immigrants. I want to open people’s eyes to the moral truth that it’s an untenable injustice to insist absolutely that no one shall reside within US borders without the express permission of the US government. Addiction to this injustice is depleting America’s indispensable supply of civic virtue and endangering the survival of the American polity. 

We need to do right on immigration to save the republic.

Understanding Open Philanthropy’s work on migration policy

NOTE: I sent a draft of this post to Open Philanthropy for comment. They wrote:

We may share an update on our plans for future work on this cause at some point, but don’t have anything we’re ready to discuss publicly just yet.

My co-blogger Sebastian wrote posts in 2015 and 2016 reviewing Open Philanthropy’s thinking and grantmaking work in the migration space. It’s now five years since the last post so I thought it’d be worth revisiting the body of work.

This post is structured a bit differently than Sebastian’s posts, which went into detail on the individual grants. Since we now have a larger set of grants (22 grants directly identified as being related to migration policy) it’s not that valuable to discuss them individually, or even the ones made since Sebastian’s last post. Instead, the post focuses on Open Philanthropy’s overall strategy changes, how these changes are rooted in their broader worldview and strategy, and the implications of these changes.

The post is structured as follows:

  • Evidence that Open Philanthropy is reducing its involvement in and commitments to migration policy
  • Factors influencing the reduced involvement
  • Discussion of the implications, both in terms of what we can learn from Open Philanthropy and what it means for the crowdedness or lack thereof of the space

General links for reference:

Evidence that Open Philanthropy is reducing its involvement in and commitments to migration policy

Implicit evidence from the pattern of grantmaking

A few lines of evidence are suggestive:

  • The grants database includes only one grant in 2021 (of $600,000 to the Federation of American Scientists, which is a different flavor than past grants) and otherwise no other grants since November 2020.

  • Open Philanthropy has been using exit grants as well as reducing levels of commitment even for grantees that they are continuing to support:

    • The March 2020 grant to the Center for Global Development for the migration program (led by Michael Clemens) appears to reduce ongoing support for the program from the $600,000/year for the previous grant to a funding level of $200,000/year (after one year at the old funding level) that “may be more sustainable for the long run.”

    • They exit-granted Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP) in November 2020 (see note below on the LaMP exit grant being a little different and possibly not evidence of general exit from the space) and Niskanen Center in January 2020.

    • They had previously exit-granted Protect the People back in 2016, though that exit grant was tied more to providing initial philanthropic funding to a project whose goal was to be sustainable. More details on Open Philanthropy’s learnings from the program are here.

The exit grant to LaMP is a little different from the other exit grants: I have it on good authority that Open Philanthropy did not intend, even at the time of incubation, to support LaMP in the long term — just to get it off the ground. The “exit grant” should therefore not be thought of as a reduction in a previous planned commitment, and therefore shouldn’t be thought of as a sign that Open Philanthropy is trying to exit the migration policy space. It is, however, tentative evidence suggesting that the level of future grantmaking may be less than the level of grantmaking in 2019 and 2020 (when LaMP was receiving grants).

A counterpoint to the narrative of exit is a look at the raw numbers which actually shows 2020 as the biggest year in terms of money donated for migration policy (at $3.7 million donated). That number alone is misleading because grants often have multi-year timeframes, and depending on when the first grant was made and what the periodicity is, the grants can sometimes bunch up in a year. Indeed, this was the case for 2020:

  • The March 2020 grant to the Center for Global Development happened at the end of the three-year timeframe of the previous March 2017 grant. The amount of the March 2020 grant was less than that of the previous March 2017 grant, as discussed above.

  • The January 2020 exit grant to Niskanen Center was at the end of the two-year timeframe of the previous January 2018 grant. The amount was also half — reflecting a shorter period of support, but the same rate per year.

  • The August 2020 exit grant to Labor Mobility Partnerships was a little before the end of the 1.5-year timeframe of the previous 1.5-year March 2019 incubation grant. The amount was also corresponding lower but at roughly the same rate per year.

Based on giving in 2020, the two main programs that Open Philanthropy seems interested in continuing to support on an ongoing basis are the Center for Global Development migration program (at $200,000/year) and the International Refugee Assistance Project general support (at $500,000/year).

One positive sign of increased giving was a grant to Mercy Corps for seasonal migration in Nigeria. Open Philanthropy has previously funded studies of migration around the world, and this seems in line with that past funding — but the magnitude of the Mercy Corps funding is significant at $1,000,000. It is unclear, however, if this was a one-off, and moreover, this is a bit outside what we normally think of as migration policy (as the barriers being addressed when promoting seasonal migration are more financial and educational than policy restrictions).

Explicit statements from Open Philanthropy

I could not find a lot of public discussion by Open Philanthropy of strategy changes tied to funding specifically in the migration policy space. However, grantmaking in migration policy is mentioned in their annual progress reports. These reports make clear that Open Philanthropy is interested in continuing to maintain support at relatively low levels in this cause area for now. What they don’t make clear is whether there are any changes to the relative importance over the years.

The 2017 progress / 2018 plans post says:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of effort and resources in other focus areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy, or “other” global catastrophic risks).

Although migration policy is not listed here, it is implicit, as becomes clear from the evaluation in the 2018 progress / 2019 plans post post:

We also wrote:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of effort and resources in other focus areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy, or “other” global catastrophic risks).

Other grants included the Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute (macroeconomic stabilization policy), the International Refugee Assistance Project (immigration reform), and California YIMBY (land use reform).

The 2018 progress / 2019 plans post sets a similar goal for 2019:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

The 2019 progress / 2020 plans post confirms this:

We also wrote:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Other grants included the Center for Global Development (Global Health and Development), California YIMBY (Land Use Reform), the International Refugee Assistance (Immigration Policy), Employ America (Macroeconomic Stabilization Policy), and the Center for Election Science (other).

The 2019 progress / 2020 plans post sets a similar goal for 2020:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

The 2020 progress / 2021 plans confirms this:

We also wrote:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Our giving in causes beyond those listed above remained at comparatively low levels. Grants in these areas included the Center for Global Development (Immigration Policy), Employ America (Macroeconomic Stabilization Policy), Mercy Corps (Immigration Policy), the International Refugee Assistance Project (Immigration Policy), and YIMBY Law (Land Use Reform).

And it says the same for 2021:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of grantmaking in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

How the evolution of grantmaking in migration policy compares with other cause areas

Certain cause areas have been prioritized by Open Philanthropy; this prioritization can be seen in the annual progress reports and is also reflected when we look at the pattern of grantmaking. Example areas include AI safetyanimal welfare, and biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. Some indicators of continued focus in these areas include:

  • At least a few grants in 2021.
  • Large amount of annual grantmaking (at least several million a year).
  • Diversity of grantees (large numbers of distinct grantees).
  • Identification as a high-priority area in blog posts and public materials.

Migration policy clearly isn’t in league with these. But perhaps it’s better to compare migration policy with other areas that are more structurally similar: land use reform and macroeconomic stabilization policy. Here is what the comparison indicates:

  • All three areas get a similar treatment in Open Philanthropy’s annual progress / plans report.

  • Migration policy has slightly higher overall spend across the years, though with the dubious distinction of a lot of exit grants, which is more evidence of Open Philanthropy scaling back in the area.

  • Land use reform, like migration policy, has had a relatively quiet last couple of years; although the amount donated hasn’t fallen much, the diversity of organizations receiving grants in recent years has reduced. However, it doesn’t seem to have had explicitly announced exit grants, and one of the factors causing infrequent granting is the long timeframes for grants (meaning less frequent renewal). So there isn’t that much change to the number of organizations being supported if you consider whether they are stilll within the timeframe of a previous grant. The graphic here helps visualize this.

  • Macroeconomic stabilization policy, relatively speaking, is teeming with activity in terms of diversity of grantees.

My overall assessment is that migration policy is pretty comparable with land use reform, though with slight pattern differences. Macroeconomic stabilization policy is a little ahead right now.

Factors influencing the reduced involvement

When Open Philanthropy published its Labor Mobility cause report back in May 2013, it considered the area to have high potential. Similar cause reports were published for other areas. Over time, some of these areas “took off” with Open Phil deciding to spend much more on them, and others, such as migration policy and land use reform, continued at maintenance levels. What happened in the intervening years that affected this? Let’s understand a bit about how Open Phil evaluates causes, and then look both at how their general thinking has evolved and their specific learnings in the migration policy space.

Importance, neglectedness, and tractability and BOTECs

Open Phil follows a framework similar to the framework of importance, neglectedness, and tractability: they want to pick important causes that have been neglected by other funders and are tractable.

The initial cause report established migration policy as important but was ambivalent about the questions of neglectedness and tractability. Over the years, Open Phil has acquired more evidence on neglectedness and tractability — particularly tractability of the kinds of areas where money can move things forward.

One of the practices followed commonly in Open Philanthropy’s internal grant writeups is that of BOTECs (back-of-the-envelope-calculations) that roughly estimate the cost-effectiveness of a grant. BOTECs incorporate the ideas of importance, neglectedness, and tractability all into a single formula.

In addition, beyond individual grants, Open Philanthropy uses similar cost-effectiveness calculations to inform how much to focus on particular cause areas.

Evolution of the “bar” for grants

In thinking about different buckets of money allocation, Open Philanthropy separates long-termist grantmaking from near-termist grantmaking (recently renamed global health and wellbeing), and further separates human-centric grantmaking from animal-centric grantmaking. The “near-termist, human-centric” group of grants includes several areas such as global health and development, scientific research, immigration policy, land use reform, and macroeconomic stabilization policy.

One key evolution in Open Philanthropy’s thinking, particularly as it applies to near-termist, human-centric grantmaking, is in the “bar” that grants must satisfy in terms of the cost-effectiveness multiplier expected. This evolution is described in detail in the 2019 blog post GiveWell’s Top Charities Are (Increasingly) Hard to Beat. As the blog post describes, Open Philanthropy’s original bar for cost-effectiveness was that it should beat out the 100x multiplier expected for unconditional cash transfers. However, by the time of the 2019 blog post, Open Philanthropy is considering a bar of 500-1,500x, comparable with GiveWell top charities.

The raising of the bar is a reflection of greater confidence in the cost-effectiveness estimates underlying GiveWell’s top charity selection, as well as more confidence that there is enough room for more funding for these charities to use up. In a review of past BOTECs, this led to the conclusion that out of 33 grants whose internal writeups including ex ante BOTECs, all passed the original 100x bar but only 8 of the 33 passed the 1000x bar.

A predicted consequence of this raising of the bar would be a reduction in grantmaking in near-termist, human-centric areas including criminal justice reform, migration policy, land use reform, and macroeconomic stabilization policy. However, the blog post disavows any immediate major changes to grantmaking patterns:

We are still in the process of thinking through the implications of these claims, and we are not planning any rapid changes to our grantmaking at this time. We currently plan to continue making grants in our current focus areas at approximately the same level as we have for the last few years while we try to come to more confident conclusions about the balance of considerations above. As Holden outlined in a recent blog post, a major priority for the next couple years is building out our impact evaluation function. We expect that will help us develop a more confident read on our impact in our most mature portfolio areas, and accordingly will place us in a better position to approach big programmatic decisions. We will hopefully improve the overall quality of our BOTECs in other ways as well.

If, after building out this impact evaluation function and applying it to our work to date, we decided to substantially reduce or wind down our giving in any of our current focus areas, we’d do so gradually and responsibly, with ample warning and at least a year or more of additional funding (as much as we feel is necessary for a responsible transition) to our key partner organizations. We have no current plans to do this, and we know funders communicating openly about this kind of uncertainty is unusual and can be unnerving, but our hope is that sharing our latest thinking will be useful for others.

More recent developments, however, suggest that Open Philanthropy is following through on its plans to scale back in areas of grantmaking where this bar is not met. The most salient example is the spinout of the criminal justice reform grantmaking to its own organization, Just Impact. While the scale of giving in migration policy is probably too small to justify a spinout to a separate organization, the general thinking around scaling back grantmaking may also apply to migration policy and other areas.

[Added after the original post]: Open Philanthropy reaffirms in a new post that it has been using the “roughly 1,000x” bar for funding new programs since the 2019 post:

As of 2019, we switched to tentatively thinking of “roughly 1,000x” as our bar for new programs, because that was roughly our estimate of the unfunded margin of the GiveWell top charities, and we thought we would be able to find enough other opportunities at that cost-effectiveness to hit our overall spending targets.

Specific learning by Open Philanthropy about migration

Combining information gleaned from various grant write-ups, the following are some learnings Open Philanthropy appears to have acquired about the migration space:

  • They have become a bit more bullish on refugee migration. Here’s a blurb found on a few recent refugee migration grants such as the 2019 IRAP grant:

    In the past, our immigration policy work has not focused much on refugee resettlement, which we had assumed would be more crowded than other aspects of immigration policy with funders aimed at supporting increased opportunities for people to move to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons. While we continue to believe that is directionally correct, our increased interest in supporting advocacy around refugee resettlement is partially based on learning more about the fairly limited foundation funding for advocacy around refugee resettlement.

    The largest ongoing commitment seems to be support for IRAP at a rate of $500,000/year.

  • They have struggled to find success in the space of influencing policy around labor mobility or migration more generally. They’ve exited the space in various ways, including exiting Niskanen Center, exiting Labor Mobility Partnerships after helping start it, and reducing ongoing commitment to the Center for Global Development’s migration program to $200,000/year.

  • Their efforts to fund programs that directly support worker visas (such as grants to the U.S. Association for International Migration and Protect the People for Haiti H-2A visas) didn’t give the desired magnitude of results. Though not mentioned in their write-ups, their efforts to create sustainable flows from Haiti got a big blow when Haiti was removed from the Eligible Countries List in January 2018. This was after they published their October 2017 retrospective.

Discussion of the implications, both in terms of what we can learn from Open Philanthropy and what it means for the crowdedness or lack thereof of the space

Open Philanthropy’s reasons for not focusing on migration policy are related to tractability

As best as I can make out, Open Philanthropy has not significantly changed its thinking on the importance of the issue or its neglectedness (with the exception of refugee migration where it has updated toward that area being more neglected). Rather, the biggest updates have been around tractability (where there was initially a lot of uncertainty). To break that down further, this is talking about the tractability of what Open Philanthropy and its grantees can accomplish, and not the tractability of what they could accomplish if they had the ability to directly write migration policies.

One important multiplier that significantly diminished tractability is the uncertainty of pushing desired changes through political systems. This applies particularly to political advocacy, think tank work, etc.

Another factor affecting tractability is that individual programs to navigate complex systems, such as the H-2A use by Haiti, can suffer from program design challenges and limitations. New patterns of migration tend to start slowly and grow over time, which also makes the evaluation of programs to push for these more complicated.

Neither of these reasons has much effect on our estimate of the value of changing migration policies themselves. It’s more about Open Philanthropy’s relative lack of power in affecting those changes.

This is an update of sorts against migration philanthropy for donors with a similar quantitative focus

Open Philanthropy is well-funded and has devoted a fair amount of time and energy to exploring possibilities in migration philanthropy. If they have not found strong opportunities for migration philanthropy, that suggests that such options are probably either not available or hard to find. So while this shouldn’t change our view on the moral justness or practical consequences of immigration restrictions, it should make us more pessimistic about the ability of philanthropy to meaningfully move this. For donors who are moderately cause-agnostic, it does look like, relative to other causes, migration policy may not be the right thing to focus on.

There is space for other donors passionate about migration policy to make donations

Even if we update against migration policy from a purely near-termist cost-effectiveness angle, there’s still plenty of room to donate in the space for donors who are interested both in helping people now and in shaping the long-term discourse.

Open Philanthropy has transformed spaces like animal welfare and AI safety by pumping huge amounts of money into these spaces. In animal welfare, they were a major source of funding for cage-free campaigns. With AI safety, they’re a major source of funding for several AI safety organizations (along with Jann Tallinn via the Survival and Flourishing Fund).

In contrast, because of the various reasons discussed in the post, they have not flooded the migration policy space with money. For donors who are not looking at immediate cost-effectiveness, and are passionate about this cause, the many opportunities — including ones that Open Phil has funded and ones it passed up on — would be worth looking into.

A comparison of different migration policy philanthropy options would be a separate post; I did one years ago collating comments on an EconLog post. I do have more updated thoughts on the matter, but it would take some time to write them up.

Conclusion

Although funding migration policy did not “take off” as a cause for Open Philanthropy, they don’t appear to have updated away from the importance or neglectedness of the issue. Rather, they have struggled to find philanthropic opportunities that are cost-effective. Donors with a similar mindset as Open Philanthropy should use this information to also update away from migration policy philanthropy; those who are passionate about migration policy per se should consider this evidence that the space is still uncrowded. We probably shouldn’t update much on the subject of free migration itself.

Open Borders Conference 2021 review

I recently attended the 2021 fully remote Open Borders Conference as I had announced when I bought the ticket. Last year I had attended 2020’s fully remote Open Borders Conference as well. In both years, the conference was quite engaging and informative. This post has an in-depth review of the 2021 conference, along with some notes on how it differs from 2020’s. I didn’t attend the in-person conferences of 2018 or 2019, primarily because attending them would have necessitated time and money costs of travel that were difficult for me to shoulder at the time.

This post goes into a lot of detail on several aspects of the conference. Although I don’t have a direct connection with the conference, I have network connections with the conference organizers and some of the participants; the key connections are described here. I’ll let the reader judge how this might color my views.

I cover several topics in this post:

  • Relevance and diversity of topics within the range of relevant topics: Both 2020 and 2021 scored reasonably well; 2020 had more content overall, but I skipped some of it that seemed less relevant. 2021 had less overall content but a larger proportion of it seemed relevant.
  • Ideological mix of participants and presentation of different ideologies: While the dominant perspective was significantly-left-of-center, there was some balance coming from libertarians as well as more mainstream viewpoints.
  • Quality of discussion and debate: I tended to find presenters and panelists who were more ideologically aligned with me to be pretty good. For others, I felt it was a mixed bag. However, one area that I would have liked to see more of was spirited debate on points of difference between participants (I felt that the 2020 Conference had more of this). However, I also see the case for greater harmony and less conflict in order to create a more positive experience.
  • Accessibility of the conference: very good for both 2020 and 2021! Forms of accessibility that were helpful to me: remote, held at a convenient time, low cost, videos available after the fact on YouTube (with closed captions). Forms of accessibility that were not helpful to me but might be for other participants: Spanish and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.
  • Value of attending the conference versus just watching the videos later: I attended the conference mostly because the timing was already convenient for me, and because I thought I might want to ask questions. I ended up not asking questions. Practically speaking, I think you don’t lose a lot by watching later, and if the timing of the conference doesn’t work for you then I suggest watching later.
  • General thoughts on the value of the conference and how it “fits in” with the advocacy and debate around open borders: These are more general musings on the conference not directly relevant to the decision of whether to attend or not.

I do not include review of individual videos of the 2020 or 2021 conference here (available in both English and Spanish, and for 2021, with ASL as well). I’m happy to do a post reviewing the individual videos if that turns out to be something people are interested in, but it’ll be a future post if so!

Relevance and diversity of topics within the range of relevant topics

There’s definitely an element of personal judgment here regarding what is and isn’t relevant to the open borders topic. So what I consider less-relevant to open borders, another person may consider more relevant. Therefore I encourage people to form their own judgments by looking at the conference programs (2020, 2021) rather than just relying on my word.

Overall, I felt that the bulk of the conference in both 2020 and 2021 was quite relevant, while still covering a wide range of angles. Rather than just discussing the case for open borders in the abstract, many of the keynotes and panels related it to other contemporary issues such as political and economic crises, climate change, COVID-19, surveillance technology, and violence at the border. I feel that the proportion of relevance was higher in 2021, with the only event that I felt didn’t have enough relevance for me (and that I skipped most of) being Karma Chavez’s keynote speech; the parts that I didn’t skip seemed to talk about the public health response to HIV/AIDS.

Within the broad range of relevant topics, I feel like 2020 did a better job of representing and discussing a more diverse range of geographical contexts of borders; 2021 was more focused on the U.S., which might just be a reflection of the 2021 program being shorter and having less space.

Ideological mix of participants and presentation of different ideologies

Ideologically, the conferences in both years were dominated by a significantly-left-of-center perspective that sees borders as being deeply linked to the twin evils of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. A co-blogger highlighted that this differs from the center-left as seen in mainstream politics in the United States, that sees capitalism as the only broad alternative and argues about the details of government intervention. The aspect of the significantly-left-of-center views I want to highlight is not just that many conference participants held them, but that in many cases they treated these as background facts that didn’t need justifying. This spoke not just to their views but to their assumptions about shared context with the audience.

Key related ideas that betrayed the left-of-center sensibility included “race to the bottom” framings, talk about how capital is mobile and labor isn’t, and a central role to the culpability of countries such as the United States in creating the problems that led to people migrating (on that last point, see this excellent post by my co-blogger John Lee, that I largely endorse, that says that such “reparations”-based arguments shouldn’t be the main driver or justification in arguing for a policy of free movement).

However, there were alternative perspectives presented at the conferences in both years. Notably, in both years, there was one keynote of a decidedly libertarian persuasion (Shikha Dalmia in 2020, Ilya Somin in 2021). Libertarian representation was also found on at least one panel in each year: Alex Nowrasteh in 2020, Jason Brennan and Michelangelo Landgrave in 2021.

While the libertarian keynotes and panelists did not reject the role of racial ideas in closing the borders, they also highlighted that even Canadians — racially and culturally similar to Americans — had to deal with a lot of challenges to immigrate to the United States. This point was raised by Jason Brennan and later brought up again by Michelangelo Landgrave.

It’s probably the case that many of the libertarians on the panel hold fairly radical views even outside the border question (for instance, some may even be anarcho-capitalists). However, I felt that their presentation of ideas in the conference was very much targeted at folks starting from mainstream views, and in most cases the place it took them to was pretty close to the mainstream albeit with freedom of movement.

In addition, there was also some representation from others such as immigration lawyers and policy wonks (probably many of them left-of-center similar to what’s seen in mainstream US politics) who provided a more practical perspective on how things worked.

Quality of discussion and debate

Overall, I felt (for 2021) that the individual keynotes and panelists were strong. The libertarian keynotes (Shikha Dalmia in 2020, Ilya Somin in 2021) seemed particularly good, though for the most part quite familiar to me. I liked several of the panelists.

Some of the non-libertarian keynotes were difficult for me to follow; a few in particular used a lot of academic jargon where (a) I didn’t connect with the jargon either cognitively or emotionally, and (b) I probably didn’t agree with the broader point anyway. I skipped one of the keynotes in 2020 (Harsha Walia — though I did end up watching parts of it on YouTube later) where I suffered from this issue, and skipped a large part of the 2021 keynote by Karma Chavez. For the 2020 keynote by Samah Sisay, while I did face this challenge somewhat, I still found it worthwhile to listen to, probably mainly because it didn’t feel too heavily like academic jargon.

I faced less of this sort of challenge in the panels, even when the panelists had very different views than I did. Part of this could be because of the relatively shorter sizes of each delivery by a panelist, and the more Q&A-centric nature of the panel, which forced the panelists to stay synced up with each other and the audience in terms of the topics of conversation and jargon used.

For the most part, however, I didn’t get a sense that there was as much meaningful interchange of ideas, or any debate or discussion that involved challenging or hashing things out. This was also my general impression for 2020, but overall I did feel that that year had had a bit more spirited debate; for instance the How National Emergencies Shape Immigration Policy debate.

But spirited debate can cut both ways: it can be illuminating for participants and the audience, but it can also be fatiguing. People may want to create a sense of harmony and generate good memories, and so I’m not sure whether to think of the lack of spirited debate as a plus. I did feel that there was some moderate pushback from panelists to implicit assumptions in questions, so it wasn’t complete avoidance of debate.

Accessibility of the conference

I use the term “accessibility” in a broader sense than the narrow technical use of the term that is often focused on populations with disabilities or access issues. Rather, I’m also thinking about making it easier to access for ordinary people.

Several things about the conference stood out as improving accessibility in ways that helped me:

  • Fully remote: Despite being interested in the material, I had not attended the 2018 and 2019 conference, partly because they were held far from where I lived, and the time and money cost of travel and possibly overnight remote stay did not seem worthwhile to me. The fully remote nature of the 2020 and 2021 conference made them economical for me to attend: there was no financial or time overhead of travel, so the only time cost was the time cost of actually attending the conference events. Moreover, as an attendee who did not have any presenting duties, I was able to multiplex the majority of this “attending” time with personal chores including eating and doing weekend cooking. The marginal time cost was therefore very little (probably less to actually attend the conference than to write this post!).
  • Convenient timing: The 2021 conference was on Saturday, November 6, 2021, with hours were from 10 AM to 6 PM Eastern Time, which translated to 7 AM to 3 PM Pacific Time (my timezone). A Saturday date was convenient for me because I’m off from work and don’t have any specific time commitments; the hours too were reasonable (7 AM would be a bit early if I were presenting, but as somebody just tuning in it’s not a problem). The conference was on a Saturday (November 21) last year as well, but the time range last year was longer: 8:45 AM to 8:30 PM Eastern Time, translating to 5:45 AM to 5:30 PM Pacific Time, which made it a bit more challenging to attend in full but I could still attend a large portion of it. Thanks to the generally convenient date and timing, I was able to multiplex large parts of attending the conference with food preparation and eating, helping to reduce the additional time spent on the conference. NOTE: The selection of timing works well not just for my time zone, but for a wide range of time zones in Europe and the Americas; however, it doesn’t work great for people in Asia. Still, at least it’s outside the work week for pretty much all locales. Last year’s conference was in that sense a little better for people in Asia (and also in Europe) as the early events were convenient for Europe and somewhat accessible time-wise for Asia.
  • Low cost: I paid the $15 standard registration cost, that seems reasonable for this conference (particularly since there is no additional cost overhead of travel, eating out, etc. that would be incurred even for an in-person conference in my geographical area). More low-cost options were also available (though I didn’t need them) and the videos are also made available on YouTube later — further reducing financial barriers.
  • Videos available after the fact on YouTube: The fact that the videos would be made available later on YouTube made me feel less stressed about catching the entirety of the conference in real time — I knew I could catch up later on any part that I had missed. The YouTube versions of many of the videos have closed captions available, which further improves their utility. However, the quality of closed captions can be quite variable, and for many videos closed captions aren’t even available in the language the video is in.

I want to highlight one other way that the conference promoted accessibility, that was not personally important to me but I think could be valuable to other attendees:

  • Live interpretation available in Spanish and in American Sign Language (ASL): The live interpretation could help people who wanted to follow live but were more comfortable in Spanish, or had hearing disabilities. Looking at the early chats, at least a few users did want the ASL interpretation — so it is meeting a real human need. I can’t directly speak to the quality of the Spanish and ASL interpretation, but surface indications suggest that they were fairly good. It would have also been good to have live closed-captioning (this could have played a similar role as ASL interpretation but would also have been useful to me as a backup method of understanding what was being said, since I don’t know ASL). But it looks like Zoom doesn’t offer live closed-captioning out of the box (Google Meet, a Zoom competitor does, but the automated closed captioning isn’t great).

Value of attending the conference versus just watching the videos later

Unlike in-person conferences, the remote conference structure offers attendees very little by way of benefits in terms of casual interaction. Presumably this is something that could be addressed or fixed if a lot of attendees are keen on online socialization opportunity, but at least this incarnation of the conference didn’t have much of that.

For instance, the Zoom link for the conference was turned off outside of the official conference events (so the Zoom link didn’t work during the 15-minute breaks and the lunch break). So conference attendees couldn’t hang out and bump into each other the way they might during a real — or a different sort of virtual — conference.

The main benefit of attending live, other than more immediate access to the material, was the ability to ask questions in the Q&A and have some sort of chance that, if moderators picked the question, then one could hear the opinion of the speaker or panelists on the issue. I thought I might make use of this benefit, but ended up not doing so.

The remaining benefits are more soft and intangible, so I’ll list them out:

  • It’s a kinda-sorta immersive experience: There’s a sense of excitement and connection at attending the event in real time, despite the limited participation and interaction opportunities. It may also be easier for people to muster up the energy to attend the event in real time rather than add it to a backlog of videos to watch. The extent to which this matters would vary from person to person (compared to others, I tend to value this sort of thing less, so considering that it was a salient consideration for me suggests it probably would be for others too).
  • There’s some benefit to showing solidarity by purchasing a ticket: The marginal cost of an additional attendee is close to zero for the organizers, so getting the revenue from the extra ticket helps defray the conference costs. It also sends a stronger signal to the conference organizers that people are interested.

General thoughts on the value of the conference and how it “fits in” with the advocacy and debate around open borders

For the first few years after Open Borders: The Case (the site you’re reading right now) was started in 2012 (see our site story), it was one of the central places for online discussion around open borders. It was also the place where a lot of the people met who would later play a role in the Open Borders Conference.

The initial website/blog nature of the discussion, as well as the interests and leanings of the founding team, led to specific focus areas and communication styles, that appealed to some sorts of people.

Over time, the initial bloggers at Open Borders: The Case (including me) reduced our posting frequency, until the blog was getting just a few posts a year, and the site as a whole fell into a maintenance mode. It was no longer an active discussion hub.

As this was happening, one of the places that took over the role of a discussion hub to keep the open borders conversation moving forward was the Open Borders Conference. The shape and structure of the conference was different from that of a blog. Events all happen on one particular day of the year. Rather than a gentle stream of year-round activity, it’s a sharp burst of activity. The kinds of topics discussed are also different (for instance, much more left-wing!) and so is the format. As a result it’s able to reach out to and engage people in different ways.

I don’t think the conference and the website/blog are perfect substitutes, but I’m happy that as the website/blog suffered from a decline in discussion, the conference was able to keep a wide-ranging discussion going. It would be great to have a world where we have both, but I’m happy for what the conference has been able to accomplish.

All in all, I appreciate the efforts by the conference organizers, keynotes, and panelists, and hope that the Open Borders Conference can continue for more years to come!

Immigrants Strengthen American Democracy

We Americans should really get some perspective about where we live… I was reminded lately of every conversation I’ve ever had with an immigrant, almost all of which… included the notion, ‘Oh, you people have no idea. All you do is bitch about and bad mouth your own country, but if you knew about the country I came from, you’d stop (expletive) on your own…’ In Saudi Arabia, grown women can be jailed for doing the kind of things we think of as routine without the permission of a male guardian. China rounds you up if you’re the wrong religion and puts you in camps… Only five percent of Burundians have electricity. The homicide rate in Honduras is eight times what it is here. The inflation rate in Venezuela is 2,719%. The Philippines in the last five years has put to death 27,000 low level drug dealers… There is a reason Afghan mothers are handing their babies to us… Any immigrant will tell you we’ve largely succeeded here.

Bill Maher, from Real Time with Bill Maher, 8/27/21 podcast  

In a previous post this year, I reluctantly argued that open borders advocates should temporarily assent to restrictions on immigration by the Biden administration in order to help protect America’s imperiled liberal democracy. I suggested that one element of the administration policy should be to admit immigrants at levels that existed prior to Trump’s presidency. One advantage of this conservative immigration policy would be to appeal to moderates in the electorate who are comfortable with some immigration, rather than alienating them with a policy that would allow unprecedented levels of immigration. Democracy in the U.S. was solid during decades of modest yet historically high levels of immigration after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. While the authoritarian Trump did make nativism the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, his victory was by very thin margins and was assisted significantly by unrelated factors such as the actions of James Comey and the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton. 

Another advantage of a Biden administration strategy of maintaining a status quo ante Trump policy is that it would continue to infuse the U.S. with immigrants, albeit at lower levels than what open borders advocates would like, who will appreciate and help revitalize America’s democratic fabric. Many immigrants to the U.S. come from illiberal societies, and most of these individuals probably don’t take liberal democracy for granted, as suggested by a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce: “… immigrants, for whom the reality of oppression or lack of freedom is a not so distant memory, come not to undermine our values, but to embrace them.” Roya Hakakian, an immigrant from Iran and author of A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious, is clearly appreciative of American liberal democracy. Describing the impetus for her book, Hakakian states that “… I thought, what if I could somehow show… America that most native-born Americans can’t see, the small signs of democracy that may be invisible to those who have never lived elsewhere.” For example, she notes the widespread adherence to traffic laws in the U.S. as a reflection of the respect for the legitimacy of laws created by a democratic system. Similarly, the congressman Ro Khanna, the son of immigrants, was taught by his parents to appreciate the U.S. and its political institutions. “His parents took Khanna and his brother to Washington to see the monuments and insisted they both learn about the Constitution.” Abdul Memon, an immigrant from India who became an American citizen, states, “I don’t take my citizenship lightly. I think we have the best freedom anywhere – especially the freedom of speech.” One of the people who reported Trump’s abuse of power that was the basis for his first impeachment was retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child. Vindman recently remarked that “I didn’t think the president was above the law. This is a country of laws. And I did what I thought was right, which is reporting him.” It appears as though his commitment to and confidence in American democracy are at least partly due to, in his words, “… perspective on where my family has come from.” The attitudes of these four immigrants align with research indicating that “immigrant and second‐​generation confidence in our political institutions exceeds that of native‐​born Americans” and that “immigrants are boosting overall American confidence in our institutions of government.”   

Meanwhile, many native born Americans seem to be hostile towards liberal democracy or indifferent about its possible demise. Tens of millions of Americans voted to retain Trump in the 2020 election despite his attempts to intimidate the media, his refusal to commit to leaving office if defeated, his use of the power of his office in an attempt to undermine a political opponent, and his affinity for foreign dictators. Moreover, shortly before the election, a USA Today article reported that “the number of Americans who feel they would be justified in using violence to achieve their political goals has increased sharply from 8% in 2017 to 33% today.”

Tom Nichols, author of Our Own Worst Enemy, posits that one factor in the willingness of some Americans to scrap our democratic traditions is an erosion of their character. He suggests that many Americans are spoiled by years of prosperity, feel entitled to do whatever they want, and don’t take responsibility for the effect of their actions on others, as exemplified by the January 6 insurrection. He states, “… with increasing frequency, our form of government is under attack by bored working and middle-class citizens…” A lack of “seriousness” among many Americans, according to Nichols, is problematic because this virtue is “the greatest requisite for a stable democracy.” 

In contrast, immigrants are often the embodiment of seriousness and responsibility, enduring hardships by moving to a new country to ensure a better life for themselves and their children. As David Brooks wrote years ago, “… immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic.” A regular infusion of immigrants into the U.S. might help to counteract the decadence which may be undermining our democracy. 

Another way immigrants fortify American democracy is through further demographic diversification. While diversity can trigger nativist populism, as it did with the rise of Trump, in the long term it could blunt the political power of white supremacist populism and the authoritarianism with which it is associated. Although there were surprising levels of support for Trump in 2020 among Latino and Asian American voters, Biden won most areas with large concentrations of these voters, often by enormous margins. Some observers suggest that  “… the eddies of this shift are less important than the tide of Latinos — and Asian-Americans as well — who still voted mostly for Mr. Biden, and who deserve a large share of credit for Mr. Trump’s defeat.” Biden’s win may have saved American democracy, and the votes of recent immigrants and their descendants may have been necessary for him to prevail.

At times in American history, Americans have feared that immigrants would threaten our political institutions. The opposite is the case. A regular flow of immigrants will increase the number of “serious,” responsible citizens who appreciate and are committed to American democracy. It will also weaken the strength of authoritarian populism based on notions of white supremacy.

 

Creative Commons License My Q1 2022 donation to Free Migration Project is licensed by Vipul Naik under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.