Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters: Making Human Rights Real

I largely agree with what Vipul Naik writes about Jose Antonio Vargas and the Define American project. Philosophically, Vargas isn’t really a fellow-traveler of Bryan Caplan, Vipul Naik, and myself. He seems to still buy into arguments from the other side– as Vipul puts it, “people don’t have a right to immigrate, but once they’ve done so, they acquire various rights and privileges, and become part of the moral sphere of natives.” His position seems ultimately unstable, though possibly that’s true of everyone in the immigration debate except the open borders crowd on one end and some extreme restrictionists on the other. In his defense, though– even if this doesn’t come through in everything he writes or says– the terms of his own project seem to recognize the weakness of his position. For example, from the “About” section of the Define American site:

Our campaign is about asking: How do we define an American? Why do people come to this country? Who are the American citizens who help them? When it comes to undocumented immigrants, what would you do? As a teacher? A friend? A mother?

Define American, with your help, will answer those questions.

So Vargas isn’t saying that he has the answers; rather, he’s asking for help from… well, from whoever the audience of Define American is supposed to be… to find them. Maybe we’ll win him over to the open borders cause at some point.

More importantly, there’s something I think Naik doesn’t quite recognize, namely, that Vargas’s project is well suited to evoke in people the moral intuitions that underlie the concept of natural rights, also known as human rights. Rights seem a bit metaphysically mysterious and plenty of honest people have doubted their existence. But it’s part of human nature that we can recognize when human rights are being violated, when we are close enough to the victims to feel human empathy for them. We see the wrong, we feel injury and indignation, we feel that something deeper and more sacred is at stake than a mere cost-benefit analysis could account for, and our attempts to express, to justify, to articulate that indignation perennially bring us back to the idea of human rights. Vargas’s site emphasizes stories. That’s just what’s needed, because stories bring us close enough to the victims to feel the wrong of what’s being done to them. That the victims whose stories he tells are far from the worst-off victims of migration restrictions is a secondary issue.

A story by a Canadian is a good example: Continue reading “Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters: Making Human Rights Real” »

Selling Work Visas: Auctions or a Tariff?

The post was originally published at the Cato@Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author.

Yesterday Professor Giovanni Peri presented an immigration reform plan that would auction work visas to employers. As I wrote yesterday, Peri’s plan would diminish the misallocation of current visas but not do much to increase the quantity of work visas. Since the real problem with America’s immigration system is a lack of work visas and green cards, Peri’s plan seeks to solve a rather miniscule problem by comparison.

Proponents of selling visas either support auctioning a limited number of visas to the highest bidders or establishing a tariff that sets prices but allows the quantity to adjust. An immigration tariff is far superior to an auction of numerically limited work visas. You can read my proposal in more detail here or listen to me explain it here. ADDED BY OPEN BORDERS: For a background on immigration tariffs, see here.

Here are three reasons why an immigration tariff is better than an auction: Continue reading “Selling Work Visas: Auctions or a Tariff?” »

Selling work visas

The post was originally published at the Cato@Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author.

Professor Giovanni Peri today made an interesting proposal to auction work visas to the highest bidding employer. His reform is similar to an auction proposal made by Gary Becker, but more specific. His idea is innovative and deals with transitioning from the current maze of quotas, visa categories, and other barriers to a more open system that better allocates visas to the highest bidders.

The one problem with Peri’s proposal is that it does not meaningfully increase the number of work visas. The limited number of work visas, not the distribution, is the main problem with America’s immigration system. Instead, he calls for reallocating visas from families to the employment based category. He then wants American employers to bid for the limited quantity of work visas issued quarterly. A government commission would adjust the quantity and immigrants would be free to move between employers who purchase visas.

Economists like Becker and Peri are rightly concerned with how societies allocate scarce resources to different uses, but the scarcity of work visas is an artificial one created by the government, not one that results from a scarcity of the factors of production or other inputs. This is why there should be no numerical limits on the quantity of work visas issued even if they are priced. Charging for work visas is a substantial improvement over the current system, as I say here, here, here, and here. Most of the welfare gains come from allowing the quantity of visas to adjust to the price, not the other way around. An efficient visa selling process will operate more like a tariff than an auction. ADDED BY OPEN BORDERS: For a background on immigration tariffs, see here.

For normal goods and services, a rising price incentivizes consumers to limit their consumption and producers to increase production. A government commission tasked with adjusting visa quantities would face political rather than market incentives and not increase visas in response to rising prices. Unless the incentives are carefully aligned, the result would probably be a more arbitrary and numerically limited immigration system.

Another problem with Peri’s proposal is that it only allows employers to bid for work visas. Continue reading “Selling work visas” »

The Old Testament on Immigration

It goes without saying that a passport regime such as we have today is unbiblical, in the sense that nothing like it is endorsed by either the Old or the New Testaments. Comprehensive control of entry and exit was not something states typically aspired to or even, I think, conceived of, before the 20th century. Such things weren’t around to endorse, or for that matter, to denounce. I would like to know the precise history of passport regimes and border controls better than I do, but I think I know it well enough to say that at least as far as controlling all points of entry is concerned, the migration policies of America in the 19th century (when no attempt at comprehensive control was made) were roughly typical, whereas 20th-century passport control (unfortunately universal today, at least as an aspiration of sovereign governments) is anomalous. In that lame sense, it would hardly be necessary to read the Bible to deduce that it supports open borders.

Critics would be right to find this argument unpersuasive. While past societies did not have comprehensive passport controls, they also lacked the fluid, prosperous economies, social tolerance, legal respect for rights, and general nonviolence that prevails in the democracies of the contemporary West. So while immigrants might enter a Greek polis or the Persian or Egyptian or Roman Empires without being prevented by the state, once there, they would be less safe from private violence, and might have trouble making a living, or integrating socially with the host society. There were no, or at most few, borders in the modern sense of invisible lines slicing up the world’s land which it was illegal for humans qua humans to cross without permission. But one’s rights and physical safety usually depended on being embedded in a physical kin-group or city-state, on having people who, so to speak, “got your back.” Migration wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t safe either.

It is in this context which the Biblical texts on this topic in Deuteronomy must be read. We could deduce that foreigners could come and reside in Israel physically, as a side-effect of the lack of a passport regime before modern times, but this is also amply confirmed by the Biblical texts, which routinely refer to “resident foreigners” and explain how they should be treated. But the Law of Moses also insists that resident foreigners be treated justly and fairly. Minutemen, e-Verify, and deportations are practices clearly forbidden by the Law of Moses. A textual study may start with verses like these:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. (Leviticus 19:33)

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless   of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:17) Continue reading “The Old Testament on Immigration” »

Double world GDP versus scope insensitivity

One of the things that puzzles me about immigration restrictionists is how minor the harms they think they need to establish from immigration to overcome the moral presumption in favor of immigration. Even for those who don’t have sympathy for the libertarian and egalitarian arguments for open borders, there remains an extremely strong utilitarian case for open borders, which includes the doubling of world GDP and the end of poverty.

One explanation for restrictionists’ reluctance to concede the strong utilitarian case is that there are various philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments such as citizenism, territorialism, local inequality aversion, and nation as family, which fundamentally reject universalist morality and favor the interests of specific individuals.

In a blog post comment on EconLog, Evan offers a somewhat different explanation:

I don’t know what Bryan will argue, but I think you could make a good case by using “shut up and multiply” type arguments. I.E., immigration restrictions are such a horrible violation of ethics and liberty that they’re worth putting up with other violations in order to stop them.

I personally know that if I had a choice between the USA as it currently is, or a USA with no welfare state, but closed borders between states or counties, I’d pick the status quo. In fact, if I was forced to choose between doubling the size of the welfare state, or closed borders between states and counties, I’d probably pick the former. That indicates to me that closed borders are a monstrous injustice, and the only reason people don’t realize it is scope insensitivity, or by being lucky enough to not have personally been harmed by them.

Here’s a quick summary of scope insensitivity from this page:

Once upon a time, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88 [1]. This is scope insensitivity or scope neglect: the number of birds saved – the scope of the altruistic action – had little effect on willingness to pay.

Is Evan on to something? I don’t know. I suspect that scope insensitivity is a real phenomenon in immigration debates, but restrictionists are often quick to point out numbers when it comes to talking about natives hurt by immigration. So, my best guess is that restrictionists employ selective scope insensitivity. Another possibility is that they are using the logic in Roy Beck’s gumball video to dismiss the gains from open borders.