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, suggeest 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.

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.

 

The U.S. Should Admit As Many Afghan Refugees As Possible

The desire of many Afghans to obtain refuge in the U.S. after the Taliban takeover of their country evokes several themes previously discussed on this site. As with Syria, Central America, and Haiti, the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan which are impelling people to emigrate. Accepting Afghans into the U.S. would bolster America’s ability to counter terrorist groups Women would especially benefit from being able to emigrate from Afghanistan to America. Finally, a liberal policy towards admitting Afghan refugees aligns with generally positive American attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. Within the current constraints imposed on immigration policy by the primacy of maintaining American liberal democracy, the U.S. should rescue and admit as many Afghan refugees as possible.

American Culpability

Fortunately, many Americans are pressuring the Biden administration to rescue Afghans who collaborated with the U.S. during the American occupation over the last two decades. These individuals aided U.S. efforts to combat the Taliban and to improve the lives of fellow Afghans. 

However, absent from the American conversation about the Afghan refugees is acknowledgement of a broader U.S. responsibility for Afghanistan’s travails dating to before the 2001 American and NATO intervention there. In the 20th century, Afghanistan was generally peaceful until it was invaded in 1979 by the Soviet Union.   During much of this period before and after the invasion, many Afghan women had occupations outside their homes and gained more freedom. The Soviet Union’s occupation of the country lead to armed conflict, and the U.S. provided weapons to Afghans who were resisting the Soviets. While this aid helped to  push out the Soviets, it exacerbated the conflict and strengthened radical Islamist forces Moreover, after the Soviets left Afghanistan, the U.S. neglected the country, and it descended into a civil war which culminated in Taliban rule in the late 1990s, as related in a Vox article:

“While experts argue over how much of an impact America actually had in post-Soviet Afghanistan, many agree that arming dozens of mujahideen factions for a decade and then leaving those heavily armed groups to figure out peace directly contributed to the civil war and the rise of the Taliban.” 

The lives of many Afghans, especially women, improved because of the U.S. intervention since 2001. Yet the U.S. has allowed the Taliban to regain control, possibly undoing the gains of the last two decades. This decision, combined with major American culpability for Afghanistan’s suffering since 1979, obligates the U.S. to admit many Afghan refugees, including both those who directly assisted Americans in Afghanistan and others who need to flee their troubled homeland.

Countering Terrorism

There are fears that the Taliban takeover will increase the risk that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will attack the U.S. from Afghanistan. Admitting Afghan refugees, especially those who have proven their commitment to liberal values, provides the U.S. with the human capital essential to combating terrorism. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, American military and intelligence personnel were largely deficient in the language proficiencies and cultural knowledge that would have made the intervention more successful. Afghan refugees could provide indispensable support to the U.S. in gathering information on potentially threatening activity in Afghanistan and in any future American interventions.

In addition, the success of American foreign policy in general depends considerably on the willingness of allies to collaborate with the U.S. This willingness is based on trust that the U.S. will look out for the interests of the allies. According to former diplomat Earl Anthony Wayne of the Wilson Center, the debacle in Afghanistan has damaged the credibility of the U.S., and he suggests that protecting and evacuating vulnerable Afghans will mitigate this damage. On the other hand, Nathan Smith notes in an email that if Afghan allies of the U.S. are “stuck in Afghanistan to face the wrath of the Taliban, their fate will be a cautionary tale for any who consider helping the Americans in the future. Immigration restrictionists are the clear enemies of US national security.”

Protecting Afghan Women

Female Afghans have much to gain by being allowed to immigrate to the United States. While some in the Taliban have stated that women’s rights will be respected, the group does not have a good record. Bret Stephens makes this prediction

“There are roughly 18 million women and girls in Afghanistan. They will now be subject to laws from the seventh century. They will not be able to walk about with uncovered faces or be seen in public without a male relative. They will not be able to hold the kinds of jobs they’ve fought so hard to get over the last 20 years: as journalists, teachers, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs. Their daughters will not be allowed to go to school or play sports or consent to the choice of a husband.”

Public Support for the Afghan Refugees

Happily, Americans seem to be receptive to the idea of bringing some Afghan refugees into the U.S. According to a poll, strong bipartisan majorities want the U.S. government to take in Afghans who assisted the American effort in the country. At the same time, it is unclear how far this welcoming attitude extends. Would most Americans be willing to admit ordinary Afghan soldiers who fought against the Taliban? What about women who were empowered during the U.S. occupation but might be persecuted by the Taliban? 

I would support the admission to the U.S. of all Afghans who desire to immigrate, plus the effort required to evacuate them, were it not for the precarity of American liberal democracy. Instead, the Biden administration should admit as many refugees from Afghanistan as is politically possible, which hopefully includes both those who worked directly with Americans over the last two decades and those who face persecution for other reasons.

 

Immigration and American Democracy in 2021

Republicans in government have targeted the provision of water and food both to undocumented immigrants in areas along the southern border and to voters waiting in line to vote in Georgia. These actions are emblematic of the GOP’s anti-democratic and nativist features. With an anti-immigrant Republican party poised to not only reclaim national power but to destroy democracy itself, the future is foreboding for supporters of both liberal democracy and normal levels of immigration to the U.S., let alone for open borders advocates. Given this perilous political environment, what approach to immigration policy should open borders advocates hope that the Democratic Party pursues before the next sets of national elections? Sadly, one that is conservative.

The likely scenario of future Republican control would be despite the party’s failure to win a majority of the electorate in all but one presidential election since 1988. Republicans are favored to regain dominance in Congress in 2023 through reapportionment, gerrymandering, and the efficient distribution of its voters across the country. (See also here.) Similar structural advantages will benefit the GOP in the 2024 presidential election.  

Moreover, many Republicans are willing to embrace nefarious tactics to ensure the 2024 Republican presidential candidate’s victory, including voter suppression, installing pliant Republican officials in state election systems who might block the state-level certification of election results favorable to the Democratic presidential candidate, empowering Republican state legislatures to choose their states’ slates of presidential electors, and congressional refusal to certify a Democratic election victory. Should Republicans regain the presidency, it is likely that they would use these anti-democratic means to permanently maintain power. All of these tactics would be buttressed by the acceptance by Republican voters of the lie that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats. As Thomas Friedman notes, “there is simply nothing more dangerous for a two-party democracy than to have one party declare that no election where it loses is legitimate, and, therefore, if it loses it will just lie about the results and change the rules.”  

Should a populist authoritarian Republican Party gain and cement its hold on the federal government, immigration policy would worsen as it did under Trump. The Trump presidency’s border enforcement was crueler than that of past administrations. In addition, the administration worked to reduce legal immigration. While president, Trump proposed changes which, according to The Washington Post, could have “cut off entry for more than 20 million legal immigrants over the next four decades.” His administration also used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to temporarily ban almost all immigration during most of 2020. Speaking about the ban shortly after it was ordered, Stephen Miller, Trump’s staffer in charge of immigration policy, “pledged that it was only a first step in the administration’s longer-term goal of shrinking legal immigration,” according to information acquired by The New York Times.  

Anti-immigration sentiment continues to pervade the political right. In 2018 it was reported that “large numbers of people… are extremely receptive to a politics that positions whites as victims and a growing minority population as an existential threat. This kind of white identity politics has become more and more common in the mainstream conservative movement since Trump’s ascendancy.” Today Trump remains very popular among Republicans, and the columnist Charles Blow observes that “…tremendous energy is being exerted not only by white supremacists in the general population, but also Republican office holders, to attack immigrants, curtail immigration…” Referring to right wing Fox News, the organization Media Matters for America notes that in 2021 “Fox fearmongering on immigration issues has been consistently xenophobic, biased, and inaccurate…”  

Given these threats both to American democracy and to, from an open borders perspective, an already limited level of immigration into the country, open borders advocates must hope that Democrats make the best possible political decisions in order to defeat Republicans at the federal, state, and local levels. The Democrats are not role models for implementing a just immigration policy, but they are far superior to the alternative. Furthermore, they do not threaten liberal democracy.

Unfortunately, these political decisions involve implementing immigration policies that are morally repellent to open borders advocates. To begin with, the Biden administration needs to mitigate the political damage that is being incurred by the situation at the border. It is obvious to open borders advocates that the “crisis” at the border is caused not by the desire of large numbers of Mexican and Central American immigrants to enter the U.S. and escape often dystopian conditions in their home countries. It is caused by long-standing and immoral immigration restrictions that severely limit the number of immigrants who may enter the country. The restrictions predictably have produced mass detentions, removals, encampments on the Mexican side of the border, hazardous journeys to reach the border, and the suffering and death of people who attempt to cross without permission. The just solution, in an alternative political context, would be to admit every immigrant who desires entry into the U.S., with very few exceptions.

However, allowing large inflows of immigrants across the southern border would likely strengthen the appeal of the Republican Party in both 2022 and 2024, notwithstanding some support among the American public for increased immigration levels. A more politically promising approach for the Democrats would be to significantly increase the number of refugees from Central America and Mexico who would be allowed to apply for refugee status in their home countries, managed by the U.S. government and perhaps the U.N. The disorder and suffering at the border seems to be driving public disapproval of how the Biden administration is handling the situation, so providing an alternative orderly process that would give aspiring immigrants an opportunity to enter the U.S. might alleviate the disorder at the border and might be more palatable to the American public. Subsidizing temporary refuge in Belize and Costa Rica might be an option for those not accepted as refugees.

While polling can be unreliable, surveys suggest that the public may be amenable to in-country processing of refugee applications to address the situation at the border. In one 2019 poll, nearly 75% of respondents said that “‘taking in civilian refugees’ escaping violence and war was an important immigration policy goal for the U.S.” Another poll from 2019 showed majority support for admitting Central American refugees. However, a third 2019 poll found that “most respondents (74%) said it was ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important to reduce the number of people coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.” 

This is also not the time to risk a political backlash by pushing “immigration reform” legislation, in which legal status is granted to undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in enchange for tighter enforcement at the border. Such legislation failed under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and it is not even feasible given the current composition of Congress.

However, restoring the immigration system to what existed before Trump gained power is politically prudent. Biden has already revoked the 2020 Trump administration ban on most immigration and has restored normal levels of refugee admissions. 70% of Americans support increased or current levels of immigration, and most Americans view immigration positively.

 In addition, the Biden Administration should attempt to shield the “Dreamers,” immigrants who were illegally brought as children to the U.S., from deportation. This is popular, even, according to some polls, among Republicans, and the political strategist Chuck Roca suggests that even “piecemeal” progress on immigration would win the support of more Latino voters. Repairing the damage wrought over the last four years probably won’t weaken the Democrats in upcoming elections.

Open borders advocates can find support for this temporary acceptance of immigration restrictions in the thinking of Joseph Carens and others. Carens, who provides one of best foundational cases for open borders, writes that “the state is obliged to admit as many of those seeking entry as it can without jeopardizing national security, public order and the maintenance of liberal institutions.” (“Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” p. 30) The maintenance of liberal institutions is what is at stake in the U.S. right now, unfortunately. Furthermore, backing restrictionism in the service of anti-authoritarianism is advocated by a number of anti-Trump columnists, including Andrew Sullivan, Bret Stephens, and David Frum.

Restrictionism must be accompanied by the Democrats being laser focused on non-immigration policies that maximize the party’s electoral prospects. Tim Miller writes in The Bulwark that Democrats should

“find the most tangible, popular items with working-class voters… we’re talking about actual benefits. Get them into legislation, get them voted on—and then relentlessly crush any Republicans who opposes them… Make the GOP own the insurrection and the bigoted, conspiratorial crazy in the suburbs. And make them own blocking economic help in working-class communities. Be relentless about it. That’s the whole ballgame.”  

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post also notes that Biden’s focus on economic issues could bring political benefits to Democrats.  Similarly, the analyst David Shor emphasizes “…talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates. Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues.” Shor identifies immigration issues, with some exceptions, as ones that should be deemphasized by Democrats, even with Latino voters

The United Kingdom and the U.S. had to form a temporary alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union during World War II in order to defeat the Nazis. Similarly, open borders advocates should temporarily assent to restrictions on immigration for a better long term outcome. While unscrupulous Republicans may overthrow American democracy even if Democrats pursue the most popular set of policies possible, including more conservative immigration policies, at least such an approach makes Democratic victories in 2022 and 2024 possible. Once liberal democracy can be stabilized, there can be a renewed push to make our immigration policies more just than those that existed before, during, and immediately after the Trump presidency.

 

Creative Commons License Understanding Open Philanthropy’s work on migration policy is licensed by Vipul Naik under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.