Open borders: what to do about it (part 1)

This is a guest post by Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Rojas maintains his personal webpage here and is one of the bloggers at the orgtheory.net blog.

This guest post is the first in a three-post series on how one could achieve open borders. The series focuses on public opinion and immigration policy in the United States, but its insights may apply to other nations as well. The second post in the series is now available here.

Vipul has graciously asked me to contribute to the Open Borders website. As an enthusiastic advocate of free immigration, I immediately agreed. There has been some discussion on this site about why open borders are desirable and about what open borders advocates want. My goal in this series of posts is to address the related question: “How do we get there?” What can we do to make open borders a reality? I think that I have some valuable insights because I am a sociologist who studies social change. Sociologists have spent decades thinking about the factors behind social change. There has now been decades of research focusing on issues such as public opinion, policy change, and political mobilization.

A personal note

Before, I get into the question of “how do we get there,” I’d like to take a few moments to discuss “how did I get there?” In other words, why do I believe in free immigration and open borders? As with John Lee, the answer for me is a mix of biography and argument. First, my parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. They were school teachers and came to study at New York University. Eventually, they landed jobs in American schools. Thus, my experience of immigration was fairly positive. By moving to America, my mother was rescued from poverty. My father came from a middle class family and was able to study science at a leading university. I immediately knew that immigration was good. If you were stuck in a bad situation, you could always move. My father used to tell me, “Everyone in the world is a citizen of two countries – the place where you were born and America.” I was grateful to be in America.

As I grew up, I came to realize that not everyone viewed immigration in such positive terms. A lot of people were personally hostile towards immigrants. Many people wished to limit immigration to very low levels. Some people were even violent towards immigrants. This led me to ask, “What was so bad about immigration? What had my parents done that was so horrible, so threatening that they deserved the scorn of others?”

Over time, I realized that there weren’t very good answers to these questions. Immigrants were simply people who wanted better jobs, to be left alone by their government, or simply didn’t like where they were living. These are the same things that motivate people to move within their country, but we have few barriers for migration between cities and states. Is a man who moves from Tijuana to San Diego more of a problem than the man who moves from Oklahoma City to San Diego? This question appeared more absurd when I read my history books in school. Until the early 20th century, America had relatively unrestricted immigration. Millions upon millions came to America. There were contentious arguments about immigration, about how immigrants would undermine this country. Yet, America continued to be a great nation. Surely, immigration was not the threat that it was made out to be.

As an adult, I earned my doctoral degree in sociology and I was more able to assess anti-immigration arguments. There’s little evidence that the mass migration of the 1800s made Americans worse off, or that the influx of immigrants in the 1960s was such a bad thing. Much sociological research shows that the children of most immigrants assimilate very quickly into American society. They speak English, they get jobs, they go to college.

What to do about it

The purpose of this essay is not to comprehensively argue that immigration bans are wrong. There are many other essays on this website that make the case for free immigration. Instead, this essay is aimed at those who are already accept that immigration restrictions are cruel. This essay is for people who believe that building a massive wall for the purpose of preventing someone who crossing the border to work in a restaurant is crazy. This essay is for those who say, “What do we do now?”

I have good news and bad news for these readers. The good news is that I honestly believe that there is an effective and rational path to much freer immigration policy. The bad news is that social change of this sort is usually slow, incremental and difficult. Open borders will not appear simply because an economist has shown that immigrants don’t put people out of work. Rather, social change of this sort happens when there is a concerted effort to change public opinion coupled with an organized attempt to change policy through electoral politics, litigation, and protest. The formula is “public opinion + politics = success.” It’s hard to pull off, but it can be done.

In two more posts, I’ll outline some concrete strategies for change. For now, I’ll describe the way that sociologists tend to think about social change and how that can help us think about undermining anti-immigration sentiment in America. First, a policy, such as immigration restriction, is based on public opinion. Public opinion is what “the people” think about a topic. As a rule of thumb, government policies follow public opinion. Thus, any attempt to create open borders must start with a strategy for making the public more tolerant of immigration.

Second, institutions are a big factor in public policy. Even if a policy is unpopular, someone has to take the time and effort to write a new law, fight for it, and defend it in court. Often, there are people who benefit from bad policies. There are many law enforcement officers, for example, who take pride in border control and whose livelihood depends on the fences that separate people. People with vested interests will often vigorously fight for the status quo. That is why you need political work to end bad policy. You need to lobby public officials, you need to file lawsuits, and you need to protest. Somebody has to work “the system” to make change happen. If you don’t do that, vested interests will win the day. In other words, after you change public opinion, you then have to “do politics.”

Transforming public opinion and building the infrastructure for politics is long, hard work. It is often selfless and unrewarded. However, it is often the only path that may be successful. The next two posts will explain how open borders advocates can build a movement for change. My ideas are drawn from my own reading of research on political change and social movements. The next post will discuss public opinion and how open borders advocates can create the intellectual climate needed for open borders. My last post will discuss the nitty gritty of politics.

Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job

This piece was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author. The original version features footnotes that have not been included here. Also, links to relevant Open Borders material have been added to the post.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) [Open Borders note: CIS describes itself as pro-immigrant. The fine print is discussed here] and author of the book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Illegal and Legal, criticized a remark I made to Washington Times reporter Stephen Dinan about a new CIS memo.

The memo, which can be found here, claims that immigrants are taking most of the jobs created since President Obama took office. I told the Washington Times that the memo “makes a mountain out of a molehill” because it ignores key economic explanations that have nothing to do with demonizing immigrants. Steven Camarota, one of the authors of the memo, even agreed that one factor I mentioned could explain his findings.

In response, Mr. Krikorian wrote that I should, “Tell that to the 23 million Americans who are unemployed, forced to settle for part-time work, or gave up looking for work altogether.”

My response is that the CIS memo is so flawed it should not be taken seriously.

Location, Location, Location

The memo looks at native and immigrant concentrations in different sectors of the U.S. economy. It points out that immigrants have made gains in some sectors where there is are high native-born unemployment rates. But the memo fails to take into account one very important factor when studying labor markets: labor mobility. This issue is so important that Harvard economist George Borjas, the most respected economists who is skeptical of the gains from immigration, called it “the core of modern labor economics” and criticized his fellow scholars for overlooking its importance. The authors did not heed Professor Borjas’ criticism. Continue reading “Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job” »

The Native Americans and Open Borders

Greetings and salutations Open Borders bloggers!  I’d like to thank Vipul for inviting me to participate on this blog, and with luck I can bring some interesting points to this discussion. I want to begin by talking about Native Americans. This is something of an elaboration on a point I brought up on econlog, the original comment you can find here (there is a lot in that comment but the part I’m elaborating on is conveniently labeled).

We can find on the Internet a number of images of Native Americans that satirize the position of closed borders advocates. Clever closed borders advocates embrace the analogy and note that the alien invasion by European immigrants was not all that beneficial to Native Americans. Thus, the downfall of Native Americans becomes an example of the potential problems of open borders. This is at first glance a convincing point. European immigration did lead to the downfall of pre-existing Native American societies. But in reality it is not the concept of immigration this historical example condemns. Two key factors were distinct about this immigration which were responsible for what might even be called genocide (there can be some dispute about this, but that’s not the argument I’m interested in having today). These are disease and invasion.

Disease is the first, and largest, problem arising from contact with Europe. Estimates have some variation, but books like 1491 by Charles Mann suggest that diseases could have killed in excess of 95% of the Native American population. This is devastation that often occurred simply on first contact, not when immigration began. Furthermore, the chances of such an apocalypse today are remote at best. Beyond the advances in modern medicine and quarantine techniques, the globalization of the modern world means that any disease that could now arise and kill that many people would not likely selectively hit certain groups sparing others. European diseases had the effect they did because Native Americans had been isolated for centuries. Now disease is already shared constantly across continents. There are no “privileged” groups with greater immunity.

However, that point may be readily accepted, but that does not fully explain the tragedy of Native Americans. If Europeans had restricted relations to simply trading then this may have allowed Native Americans time to adjust and recover from the (mostly) accidental genocide they faced. But the problem was not the immigration of Europeans to North America but the invasions they undertook. The difference between the two is simple. Immigration occurs when a group of people peacefully move to a new area. Invasion constitutes the use of force to conquer a region. The early Spanish colonies almost entirely were made up of invasions, as were many English and French colonies. However, there are compelling examples of simple immigration which did not cause the problems of invasion. Colonies such as early Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and the French Acadians moved into areas peacefully and interacting with Native Americans in mutually beneficial ways. These colonies were typically among the freest in terms of individual rights, and particularly in the Acadian case, created prosperous societies intermingled with one another. That superior European military technology alongside the weakness from disease losses made Native Americans easy to conquer is not the fault of immigration.

So does the Native American example teach us anything about the advisability of open borders? In the broad sense, not much. Most interactions between Native Americans and Europeans were of invasion, which inherently does not respect the border crossing policies of the invaded nation. This is clearly not applicable to the modern Western world whose military advantage over the countries sending migrants cannot be seriously doubted. But there were some instances of simple immigration which offer a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been. There were immigrants from often extremely repressive societies mixing with natives in societies with (generally in North America, if not Central or South) more respect for individual liberties, creating prosperous, peaceful, and free communities.

The upshot of this? Given that invasion is a separate issue from political externalities, the political externalities problem has failed to kill the goose that laid the golden egg not only in 19th century America, but as far back as European immigration to Native American areas. Is this a definitive argument for open borders? No, but it seems to me that when individual liberty is on trial, liberty should be considered innocent until proven guilty. And in contrast to those who use the example of Native Americans to warn against increased immigration, most of the evidence is invalid and that which is valid tends to the opposite conclusion.

Introducing Chris Hendrix

Three weeks ago, we introduced John Lee, whom Vipul had discovered in the EconLog comments and invited to join the Open Borders blog. John has since published a number of posts on Open Borders and actively participated in many comment threads. We’re happy to announce a new Open Borders blogger: Chris Hendrix. Vipul discovered Chris in the EconLog comments (here , here (quoted in its entirety in Vipul’s blog post on the libertarian priority list), and here, for starters) and was so impressed that he invited Chris to join the Open Borders blog. Chris has graciously agreed, and his first blog post will be published soon.

Chris is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia. He plans to use his blog posts to combine historical analysis with economic, moral, and political arguments to better understand and explore the consequences of open borders. We already have some posts on the history of borders, but Chris will hopefully bring a new level of rigor and detail to this neglected aspect of the case for open borders.

Welcome to the blog, Chris!

The American polity can endure and flourish with open borders

Very interesting discussion in a recent comments section. Let me start with a quote from an e-mail by Garett Jones to Vipul Naik:

I would emphasize a different conclusion: That the low-IQ immigrants will tend to worsen the institutions of the higher-IQ countries they move to. Low IQ immigrants will, to some degree, tend to make the country they move to more like the country they came from.

Partly this will be due to MRV and Caplan/Miller reasons: low IQ groups vote for bad policies.  Partly it’s because they will tend to elect individuals from their constituencies, which will, on average, tend to lower the average IQ of the legislature.  And partly it’s because the bureaucracy will tend to hire individuals from low-skill groups, which will lower government quality.

For these and other reasons, new low IQ citizens impose a tax on the nation’s institutions, and this institutional cost should be counted in a candid cost-benefit analysis.

*Shorter version: Good institutions are rare treasures, and institutions are endogenous with respect to (among other things) citizen IQ.  *

I would like to bracket the concerns in the second paragraph about voting, because I regard this as a solved problem, as far as the theory of open borders is concerned. Just because you let people in doesn’t mean you have to let them vote. There are already millions of Green Card holders in the US who can’t vote. The keyhole solution (Vipul’s term: I hadn’t thought of it at the time) which I advocate in Principles of a Free Society is open borders with (a) migrants preimbursing the government for their voluntary deportation if they become destitute (at least those under a new open-borders visa), (b) a surtax on (those) migrants, (c) mandatory savings, withdrawable only in the migrant’s home country, or forfeitable as part of (d) a path to “earned” citizenship once a migrant has saved a certain threshold amount in this mandatory savings account. Migrants would thus be given a substantial incentive to return home rather than to stay. Those who would choose to stay would presumably do so: (a) because their homelands were an especially bleak alternative; (b) because they foresaw high earnings in America so that forfeiting the savings account was worth it (these people would probably have relatively high IQs, on average); or (c) because they especially like, admire, and enjoy America (these people would presumably place a particularly high value on American institutions). To mix these migrants into the electorate is a very different, and doubtless much more favorable, prospect, than simply allowing anyone to come and vote. Of course, this is just one of many possibilities that would separate the right to come, live, and work from the right to vote. I made a similar point in the comments of the Garett Jones post, and added that “It’s even easier to maintain high hiring standards for the bureaucracy, which obviously doesn’t have to, and doesn’t, hire a representative cross-section of the resident population.” I also posed the question:

If I were to hypothesize that the maintenance of high-quality institutions depends mainly on the characteristics of an elite, and need not be much affected by adverse changes in the composition of the broad mass of the population, would the evidence that Garett has studied contradict me?

This was the jumping-off point for a very interesting debate between BK and John Lee. BK’s comments, in particular, are highly interesting and informative, yet I find myself unconvinced and dissenting at many points. BK answers my question:

Yes, if we are just referring to the overall demographics of a country. Note that across countries, smart people earn higher incomes as the proportion of smart people rises, not the absolute total.

Chinese-Singaporeans generate income almost twice as great in mostly Chinese Singapore as the large Chinese-Malaysian minority does in Malaysia (about $70,000 per annum vs about $38,000), even though there are less than 3 million Chinese in Singapore but almost 7 million in Malaysia. But the Chinese make up 75% of Singapore vs 25% of Malaysia…

There is a Chinese elite, but this isn’t enough to fix the institutions, which have to represent the general population. All this occurred in the context of strong legal discrimination in favor of Malay majority, racialized anti-business sentiment, and big gaps in political views between Chinese and non-Chinese Malaysians.

OK, but wait. There is a Chinese business elite in Malaysia, but the political elite is Malay. It is this Malay political elite that imposes “strong legal discrimination in favor of Malay majority, racialized anti-business sentiment,” etc. It is also important that (a) the Malays have deeper historic roots whereas the Chinese are relatively recent arrivals, and (b) the Malays are linguistically and religiously homogeneous (more or less, I think: BK and John Lee both know the region better than I do). If we’re looking for lessons from Singapore/Malaysia that cross-apply to a hypothetical open-borders United States, this argument would only be relevant if we’re supposing that voting immigrants would become the majority of the population, develop solidarity among themselves, and vote for “strong legal discrimination” and “racialized anti-business sentiment” against the offspring of today’s natives. With immigration tariffs and a gradual path to citizenship, you could more or less ensure that voting immigrants would never constitute a majority. Since immigrants would come from many different countries, it’s unlikely they’d develop solidarity among themselves except on wedge issues that related to them directly. Instead, they’d want to assimilate with American natives. Given that American society has a powerful absorptive capacity– if you’ve got fluent English and a college education and want to be a normal American, people will treat you like a normal American; and if you wereborn here, it’s taken for granted that you’re a normal American, never mind your background– any scenario resembling that in Malaysia is really quite implausible.

Also, I think the fact that immigrants would know they were immigrants makes a big difference. Malays in Malaysia think of the land as theirs. They’ve been there the longest. South Africa is in a similar situation, as far as I understand: black South Africans see themselves as the rightful owners of the soil, the whites as intruders. Russia, whose history I know better, stands in striking contrast to the 19th-century United States, because while they could both be described as multi-ethnic empires, in Russia the subordinate nationalities had never consented to be part of the Russian Empire, but for the most part had been simply conquered (it’s a little more complicated but never mind), whereas in the United States, the subordinate nationalities (if I may put it that way for the sake of the parallel) had in a real sense consented to rule from Washington by crossing oceans to immigrate. They were therefore much less inclined to question the legitimacy of the government and far more inclined to develop patriotic loyalty to the United States, superimposed on a lingering loyalty to their various mother countries. Continue reading “The American polity can endure and flourish with open borders” »