Possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders

Please don’t confuse this with the blog post open borders advocates and private charity, which is about a criticism of hypocrisy leveled against open borders advocates.

A while back (November 23, 2012), open borders advocate Bryan Caplan did an immigration charity bleg. His question for his blog readers:

Suppose you wanted to spend your charitable dollars to increase the total number of people who migrate from the Third World to the First World. What approach would give you the biggest bang for your buck? Are any specific countries, organizations, or loopholes especially promising?

Unconventional answers are welcome as long as they’re genuinely effective. Please show your work.

I have been considering this question for a while. On October 27, 2012, I had a Skype conversation with Holden Karnofsky of charity evaluator GiveWell where we discussed related ideas. GiveWell decided not to publish the conversation, as it was too preliminary and tentative, so I won’t go into the details of what was discussed; GiveWell does publish better-quality conversations on its conversations page. More recently (December 7, 2012), Shaun Raviv, blogging for effective giving advocate-cum-charity evaluator Giving What We Can, expressed interest in migration as a way of helping the poor, with the first in a planned series of blog posts published about three weeks ago.

In this blog post, I will discuss various ways to increase migration and/or move towards open borders, drawing heavily on the comment responses to Caplan’s bleg.

Possible different goals people could have in mind

I want to begin with the same caution that I expressed in my own comment on Caplan’s bleg:

I think you need to be a bit more specific on what the goal is. Is the goal to simply increase the quantity of migration from people living in Third World countries, or do you wish to focus on poor people in these countries? Would a reasonably well-to-do graduate student in computer science who wants a job in the IT sector qualify for your concern? Are you okay with guest worker programs that have a return date stamped on them, or do you insist on immigration with no such return restrictions?

How you rank and rate the various ideas presented below, and which ones you consider worthy of further investigation, depends a lot on whether your goal is to increase migration numbers, whether you care about world GDP, whether you place more weight on the same numerical GDP gain concentrated on poorer people, and many other deep questions of ethics. This is one reason I’m not going to try the daunting task of ranking the many options presented.

For the rest of this blog post, I’ll use the term “immigration” to refer to both immigration and temporary movement for students and guest workers, even though that is not technically correct.

Also, just to be clear, I do not necessarily endorse all the ideas here. An evaluation of the pros and cons (moral as well as strategic) of each idea here would make this post far too long. I will discuss the more interesting ideas among these in more detail in subsequent posts, and will be happy to share my views on specific ideas in the comments if you have questions.

Options for increasing immigration without changing or breaking immigration laws

The simplest, most immediate, and least risky (in terms of avoiding trouble with the law) proposition is to attempt to increase legal (authorized) immigration within the existing framework of laws. There are many different visa categories, some of which have strict quantity limits with the limits almost always met. Other visa categories have unfilled quotas on a regular basis, and/or have no quotas. Increasing immigration in the categories that have unfilled quotas or no quantity caps is probably the more fruitful option. Some countries do not have quantity restrictions (or are very far from exhausting the quantity restrictions) but have specific points systems that require specific skills (e.g., Canada). Working to help prospective immigrants acquire these skills might be another path. Anyway, here’s the list of suggestions on Caplan’s bleg that fall in this category:

  • Marriage: Most countries offer essentially unrestricted immigration for the spouses of current citizens, wherever in the world these spouses reside. Encouraging more marriages between Americans (or people in the desired target country of migration) and foreigners might therefore be one method. Two proposals in this regard were made on Caplan’s bleg. daubery:

    For the US specifically, look for people willing to marry foreigners. This is the only immigration route that doesn’t have a hard cap. This could even be profit-making if they agreed under the table to kick back some of their increased earnings. You may need to base your matchmaking service off-shore so as not to have the list of clients fall into the hands of the US immigration force, however.

    Here’s Joe Cushing’s response to daubery:


    There is no way on earth, I’d give a woman, whom I don’t know, the power of the state to use against me by marrying me. Although I suppose an immigrant woman would have a bit less power but divorces don’t go well for men, usually. The state sides with the woman. Even if I got to know these women for a few months, you could never trust the state not to screw you over in the end somehow. The state has really inserted itself into our relationships in an unhealthy way and this is true, even for domestic to domestic relationships. It effects divorce rates, divorce outcomes, and the power structure effects otherwise healthy relationships. Whenever women complain about men fearing commitment; I like to tell them that men don’t fear commitment, men fear the state. A marriage to a man is a completely different risk than it is to a woman. This is why woman can’t understand how we feel.

    With all of this to consider, You should focus on American women who would be willing to marry foreign men. The foreign men would be willing to take the risk. Then again, domestic men would be willing to take the risk to find more attractive women than they could find here. That’s why we have these mail order bride services already.


    What about funding an agency which promotes speed-dating between third-world and first-world citizens?

    As for the ethics of this, I think there is little that is more ethical than to help people circumvent evil laws.

  • Adoption: Although the adoption of foreign infants does suffer from some bureaucratic constraints, this does seem to be a category that does not suffer from numerical restrictions of the kind that other visas do. Adoption is also a solution that even restrictionists (such as Mark Krikorian of CIS) would tend not to oppose, because their chief concern — that immigrants arrive already steeped in a different culture — does not apply to people who are adopted into the country they’re immigrating to at birth or when very young, and who are raised by people who are already steeped in the culture. Nonetheless, there are various obstacles arising from international realpolitik. Here’s a post by Dan Carroll (adoptive father of a kid from Ethiopia), critical of various restrictions on adoption (HT: Bryan Caplan, as usual).
  • Education and specific skills training (including language training) to help more immigrants meet the qualifications to immigrate: Lots of suggestions of this sort on Caplan’s bleg. Neal:

    Might not maximize bang/$, but here we go:

    Educational charities (incl universities themselves) who fund people from poor countries to study in rich countries – especially PhDs. They can bypass immigration to an extent as it’s a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn’t directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly.

    For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?

    oneeyedman (excerpt of comment, not the full comment):

    There are probably different answers for different budgets. I suspect that teaching French to African English speaking college students so they can use the Canadian point based immigration system would do it. You could fund French clubs inexpensively and partner with local schools and or professors.

    Motoko responds to oneeyedman:

    “They can bypass immigration to an extent as it’s a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn’t directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly.”

    I’m in an engineering PhD program. The majority of students are foreign. The problem with hiring foreigners for high-caliber work is that they’re culturally and socially illiterate. Maybe 10% of them can overcome this hurdle and get hired in the US.

    But those that can’t… well… they just go back to their home country. They don’t earn half of what they’d earn in the U.S., but they are no longer so poor that they need our help.

    “For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?”

    Good point. We shouldn’t just try to get more people in the States. Generally, we should try to get the needy into better countries that are easy to immigrate to.

    A more cynical approach (that is not suggested by anybody on Caplan’s bleg) is to help foster the creation and expansion of visa mills, which are analogous to diploma mills. While diploma mills offer fake higher education degrees for their credential value to all comers, visa mills offer fake higher education degrees to foreigners to help them get fraudulent student visas. These foreigners can take up small jobs while in the US while allegedly studying, save money, and then either get a permanent job or go home with some saved money. The probable reason is that such visa mills, aside from the ethical issues, are likely to get caught and put in trouble all people who went through the visa mill. Here’s a piece from the CIS critical of visa mills and diploma mills.

  • Better matching of employees with employers: There are some types of employer-sponsored visas for which the quotas are not completely filled, and for these, organizations that better help match employers and employees could be useful. This is particularly the case for relatively “unskilled” jobs, where employers and employees are less likely to already be connected through educational and Internet-based networks. An example is CITA (Independent Agricultural Workers Center) which matches farm owners in the US with people in other countries interested in temporary farm work in the US. The temporary worker can then get a H2 visa authorization to work at the farm. They hope to eventually be self-sustaining, but are currently structured as a non-profit and initially funded by donations. Michael Clemens blogged about CITA here. For related content, see our page on migrant labor in the US agricultural sector. There are probably similar opportunities for other countries and other worker types that help reduce the frictional costs of matching employers with employees across huge geographical distances.
  • Other creative workarounds: A few of these are listed at the migration arbitrage business opportunities page.

Making small changes or tweaks to the laws governing legal immigration

Another possible direction is to increase the quotas for legal immigration in various categories, or reduce the qualifications and requirements for those categories, or make other changes that facilitate increased levels of legal migration. I’m talking of small “tweaks” here that operate within the margins of public indifference, for which there is neither much public enthusiasm nor much public resistance. The startup visa might be an example. Effecting such a change, however, does not seem to be an easy task, at least in the US context, because any change in the immigration regime, however slight, is typically held up by demands for “comprehensive immigration reform” where the definition of “comprehensive” varies from person to person, and where the different sides of the debate often have diametrically opposite conceptions of reform.

Another possible area where policy might be more responsive to special interest lobbying while moving along the margin of public indifference is asylum advocacy. Continue reading “Possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders” »

The Future of Immigration Economics

This is a guest post by Eli Dourado, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at George Mason University. He studies Internet governance and cybersecurity through the lens of political economy, and his Ph.D. thesis is on metapolitics. Eli Dourado maintains a blog-cum-website at elidourado.com.

Economists like Lant Pritchett and Michael Clemens have estimated that the net economic benefits of immigration are enormous. A literature review by Clemens suggests that open borders would double global GDP. But how have the costs and benefits of immigration changed over time? And how are they likely to change in the future?

Production and Economic Institutions

In the distant past — say, from 1 million years ago to 1000 years ago — the world was much poorer than it is today. In particular, there was a lot less capital per worker. Consequently, production tended to be labor intensive and labor tended to be less specialized. Roughly speaking, one worker was as good as another. There weren’t large gains to efficiently matching workers with firms.

In addition, economic institutions were much more homogenous than they are today. Foraging (until 10,000 years ago) and farming (since) institutions are not all alike, but there was arguably less cross-sectional variation in economic institutions than there is today (here’s a review of foragers versus farmers). If you drop a forager into a foreign foraging community, he might be terribly confused about the cultural practices of the new group, but he would understand the general system of production quite well.

If this argument is correct, then the benefits of immigration in the past must have been lower than they are today. Moving a worker to a new country adds to the output of the new country and subtracts from the output of the old country. If the worker is equally productive in both places, on net, there is not much change in the total value produced due to the worker’s migration. Furthermore, the worker himself might be relatively indifferent between the two countries’ economic institutions. Indeed, it seems likely that the main incentive to migrate in the distant past might have been temporary factors like drought and pestilence, not factors like a desire to live under different economic institutions.

In contrast, as we get wealthier, we seem to be heading toward a much more capital-intensive future. This means that opportunities for specialization of labor are likely to multiply, increasing the importance of matching workers with the right capital. Workers no longer are perfectly substitutable, and they will continue to become less so. Finding exactly the right person to hire entails a global employee search, which means immigration is more economically important. And workers that invest in specialized skills will need to migrate to where those skills are needed. For example, the shale gas boom is in North Dakota today, but soon it could be in China.

Increasing wealth also means potentially more scope for variation in economic institutions. In a world where everyone is a forager or a farmer, it’s much more difficult to engage in economic regulation. For example, how do you establish occupational licensing if there is basically only one occupation? But with more labor specialization and greater inequality of productivity, it becomes possible to extract rents, redistribute wealth, tinker with incentives, control production, and so on.

Improvements in technology may extend the capabilities of authoritarian regimes. Modern transportation, communications, and organizational technology have increased the degree of control of the state. As Cowen puts it:

Assume that we had no cars, no trucks, no planes, no telephones, no TV or radio, and no rail network. Of course we would all be much poorer. But how large could government be? Government might take on more characteristics of a petty tyrant, but we would not expect to find the modern administrative state, commanding forty to fifty percent of gross domestic product in the developed nations, and reaching into the lives of every individual daily.

Likewise, new surveillance and information technologies could increase state control further, and that control could be abused in many circumstances. I have argued elsewhere that technological innovation will at the margin tend to combat this greater control — but in the mean time, the possibility of severe dystopia should not be casually dismissed.

The wider array of possible economic institutions in the future means that not only will production be more sensitive to matching considerations, but that matching people with the institutions they would like to live under will become more important. Without freer immigration, people could be stuck under economic institutions that they don’t like. These mismatches could be relatively benign — consider the wealthy American who prefers European-style capitalism. But they could also be severe. Immigration could play an increasingly important role in ensuring that political regimes match the preferences of their subjects.

Telecommunications and Culture

We are just now at the start of a telecommunications revolution, driven by a growing Internet and an explosive adoption of mobile phones. The revolution hasn’t hit all corners of the globe equally, but it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

As peoples become less isolated, I would expect more cultural convergence across territories. For example, because English is (for now) the dominant language on the Internet, more people in non-English-speaking countries are learning English. If some other language is dominant in the future, more people will learn that language. Either way, I expect long-run linguistic convergence to many fewer languages than are spoken today, and that at a minimum, most people will at least be proficient in a common tongue, even if they continue to speak traditional languages. The Internet is the anti-Babel.

Evidence of the decline in linguistic diversity is provided by the Endangered Languages Project, which warns that “about half of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing in the next 100 years.” While the reduction in linguistic diversity has some costs, the greater standardization of interpersonal communication protocols means lower assimilation costs for immigrants and the societies that accept them.

Likewise, I expect that other elements of culture will also tend to converge globally as telecommunication improves around the world — at least territorially. We might see an increasing amount of cultural variation within territories even as we see less cultural variation across territories. To some extent this is the case already. I feel at home talking to libertarian economists whatever their countries of origin, but I feel somewhat confused talking to the average American. As more people come online and are better able to connect with their global communities, this trend will accelerate.

As language and culture become more territorially homogenous, the real and perceived costs of immigration will decline. It will become less obvious whether the guy moving in next door is a new immigrant or a descendant of a Founding Father. People who oppose immigration because the assimilation costs are high might have less of an argument in the future.

It’s possible that better telepresence technology will make immigration less important, simply by making it less necessary for people to be in the same territory in order to work or play together. However, the rich world today already has pretty good telepresence technology, and business executives still seem to find some benefit to physically visiting their overseas operations. I suspect that telepresence technology will still be used where necessary in the future, but that nothing will ever make physical presence obsolete.

Innovation and Fixed Costs

One way to think about the history of innovation is as a continual grabbing of lowest-hanging fruit. One dimension of low-hangingness is the (lack of) fixed costs associated with an innovation. Inventing the wheel did not have a lot of fixed costs associated with it; on the other hand, curing cancer is likely to turn out to require a large up-front investment.

Fixed costs are more economical when they can be divided over large populations. This means that the more we innovate, the more we will rely on globalized markets for further innovation. To get to the next tier of low-hanging fruit, we simply need more people involved both with the production and consumption of new innovations. We need free trade and free movement of people.

In particular, fixed costs drive much of the phenomenon of clustering of economic activity. Vibrant research communities tend to be localized. Silicon Valley has been the primary hub for information technology for 40 years, but as other high-technology areas commercialize, new hubs will develop for these areas. For example, Boston is increasingly dominant in the biomedical field.

Fixed costs make these hubs globally important. While there can be ancillary hubs in different countries for each field, it is probably only economically efficient for there to be one primary hub. To the extent that one hub is dominant, workers who specialize in the field will need to migrate there. To the extent that ancillary hubs are possible, there needs to be significant cross-pollination of ideas. An ancillary web startup community is likely to form in Buenos Aires only if it is composed of at least some people who have spent considerable time in Silicon Valley.

Innovation at a global scale can bear more fixed costs than innovation at smaller scales. Consequently, freer immigration will tend to produce greater benefits as we use up the ideas that do not require such large fixed investments.


All of these factors support net benefits of immigration that are not only large, as Pritchett and Clemens argue, but growing. In the future, it will be even more imperative that we adopt sensible policies with respect to immigration. Since the global benefits of immigration are already large, we should adopt pro-migration policies now. But the opportunity cost of restrictionist policies seems likely to grow for the foreseeable future.

Is blanket denial of the right to migrate based on criminal history unjust?

John Roccia, a supporter of open borders, wrote a blog post about a month back titled Compassion Within The Lines, where he critiqued self-proclaimed supporters of immigration for their very restrictive conception of what it means to be pro-immigration — supporting immigration only for some classes of people. By and large, I agree with his critique. I’ve been critical of pro-immigration immigrant rights activists and Nathan has pointed out how moderate restrictionists often position themselves as being principled non-extremists by casting open borders as an extreme strawman position. Nathan’s also been critical of the “only high IQ immigrants” position that John Roccia is critical of. Nonetheless, some of John’s critique also extends to open borders advocates on this site, specifically me. In a blog post titled free speech absolutism versus viewpoint-based immigration restrictions, I wrote:

My thumb rule for blanket denials is: anything that constitutes sufficient reason for blanket denial of migration should also constitute sufficient reason for punitive measures under criminal or civil law in the target country of immigration. For instance, murder is sufficient grounds for imprisonment, and hence also, in my book, sufficient grounds for a blanket denial of the right to migrate. In some cases, I think the punitive measure under domestic criminal law really is morally unjustified, and hence restricting immigration on that basis is also unjustified. An example is laws against drug use in many countries — I don’t think drug use is sufficient grounds for imprisonment, and hence also not sufficient grounds for denying immigrants entry. But others, who hold different views on drug use, may come to the opposite conclusion.

So far, so good. It is when we move from criminal law to civil law that things get more interesting. Certain activities, such as libel, contract fraud, and copyright infringement, are punishable under civil, but not criminal, law in most jurisdiction — they are litigated by persons, not prosecuted by the state. Libertarians (and others) are probably unanimous about the evil of contract fraud, and may have the view that, at least in some extreme cases, this may be sufficient grounds for denying the right to migrate. Libel and copyright infringement are trickier, since many libertarians (and others) feel that copyright infringement is not immoral at all, and some hold a similar view about libel. Even for those who are opposed to libel and copyright infringement, deporting people, or denying entry, for these “crimes” may seem like overkill. Other minor “crimes” like traffic infractions may also seem like insufficient grounds for denying the right to migrate.

In other words, for most migrants, any negative externalities caused by the migrant should be dealt with through pecuniary transfers such as tariffs or taxes, or by imposing linguistic and cultural fluency requirements, but for crimes that merit imprisonment, blanket denial of the right to migrate may be the right thing.

Prior to the debate with John Roccia, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to this matter, mostly because most of the people I debate on open borders tend to be far more restrictionist than I am, so I’m not usually in a position of needing to defend specific restrictions. In fact, most people featured in the pro-open borders people list on this website have tacitly conceded the legitimacy of keeping criminals out. For instance, David Henderson describes his version of open borders as follows [emphasis mine, not in original]:

Assume that the U.S. government decided to let anyone in who wanted to come, unless the person had a criminal record or carried a dangerous communicable disease. […] Now, under my scheme, the U.S. government would couple open borders with a 20-year residency requirement for U.S. citizenship and a requirement that one be a citizen in order to get any kind of welfare, including government schooling. That way, people wouldn’t come here for welfare (I think most of them don’t anyway) and we wouldn’t worry about their voting away the very economic system that made this country attractive to them.

Alex Nowrasteh has also, repeatedly in his writings, acknowledged that restricting the immigration of violent and property criminals, and perhaps even deporting them, is morally legitimate. For instance, while praising California’s TRUST Act, Alex writes [emphasis mine, not in original]:

First, it [the TRUST Act] would limit immigration detainers to unauthorized immigrants convicted or currently charged with a serious or violent felony. If SCOMM must exist, it should exist for violent or property offenders and not otherwise peaceful unauthorized immigrants.

Similarly, he praises some aspects of US immigration policy towards Cuba with the following language [emphasis mine, not in original]:

First, the United States has a unique immigration policy for Cubans. Known as the “wet foot/dry foot policy,” if a Cuban reaches American soil he or she is allowed to gain permanent residency within a year. If a Cuban is captured at sea, he or she is returned to Cuba unless they cite fears of persecution. This means that most Cubans who want to leave, with the exception of violent or other criminal offenders, will be able to stay in the United States if they are able to make it to American soil. No other nationality in nearly a century, except the Hungarians in the 1950s, has been subject to such a generous policy.

John Lee, my co-blogger at Open Borders, has also been similarly accommodating of blanket restrictions and deportations of violent criminals, as witnessed in this blog post [emphasis mine, not in original]:

If, as Obama claims, the US kicked out 1.5 million criminals — ~0.5% of the 300 million-strong US population — why didn’t the crime rate fall precipitously? Oh, that’s right — because, unlike what some selective reports would have you believe, crime rates among immigrants are actually lower than among native-born Americans. Who is Obama kidding? I am sure he deported plenty of vile criminals who don’t deserve the opportunity to live and work in a developed economy, but there is no way he rounded up 1.5 million such criminals without deporting hundreds of thousands of US citizens.

Bryan Caplan, in his Haiti ICE hypothetical, also make an allowance for the legitimacy of immigration restrictions based on the prospective immigrant’s criminal history [emphasis mine, not in original]:

You: Why are you denying me permission to travel to the U.S.?

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] Agent: You just can’t go. End of story.

You: Why not? There’s got to be a reason.

ICE Agent: Sir, I don’t have to give you a reason.

You: This is going to ruin my life! Have you looked outside the embassy window? People here are literally eating dirt.

ICE Agent: It doesn’t matter. You can’t come, and I refuse to tell you why.

You: Well, it would have to be a pretty good reason to do something so awful to me…

ICE Agent: No comment.

You: Look, I’m not a criminal. I’m not a parasite. I’m not asking for charity. I’ve got a job and an apartment.

ICE Agent: Unfortunately, you don’t have legal permission to work at that job or live in that apartment.

So in some ways I’ve grown complacent about the idea of blanket immigration restrictions for people with criminal backgrounds, rather than trying to devote my energies to coming up with more humane keyhole solutions. Rightly, John Roccia challenged my argument for a blanket denial to criminals in a comment on his own post. I quote the relevant excerpt:

Second, I don’t morally agree with all the keyhole solutions. In particular, I’m not a fan of restricting immigration based on what would be criminally prosecutable here, for a number of reasons. There are simply too many factors of culture to consider. For instance, what is a “criminal?” Is it someone that has committed a crime? That seems unduly harsh, then – lots of people commit crimes, are rehabilitated, and then live productive lives. A career criminal? What defines that? How many crimes, how often, of what severity, and over how long a time? Any limit here would seem arbitrary. Also, are we basing the “criminal identity” on what their home country says, or what they would have been arrested for here? Seems like you’d have to do the latter, or you’d potentially have two different people with an identical history of actions, one who’d be allowed to immigrate and one not simply because of country of origin. But even if it’s based on what they’d be arrested for here, that leads to its own problems. We’re all aware that a huge amount of crime is created by economic conditions. Who knows if the “criminal” would have committed those crimes if he or she had the life they might have had in America? And why should we believe that someone who stole to survive in Venezuela would still steal here? Pure “criminality” isn’t something easily measured. There are too many external reasons why a crime gets committed, reasons that change if you radically change your environment.

I think that John makes some very good points. In fact, I can think of a lot of people — born and brought up in developed countries — who committed theft and other crimes as youngsters, and are now successful as adults. Actor-cum-tech-investor Ashton Kutcher broke into his high school at midnight to steal money, and was convicted of third-degree burglary. Personal development guru Steve Pavlina was arrested for grand theft in Sacramento, California in his late teens. Vivek Kundra, who served as the first Chief Information Officer of the United States, shoplifted four shirts from JC Penney in his youth.

At the same time, as John concedes, there are some people who are “career criminals” — and they differ from people who committed youthful indiscretions and have successfully rehabilitated themselves. I would argue that it is morally legitimate and socially prudent to deny them entry for the welfare of natives and others residing within the territory. Of course, many “career criminals” are already behind bars within the country they are currently residing in as well, and/or have their emigration rights restricted by their own country, so additional immigration restrictions may not be necessary. But there are probably edge cases. What about a person who committed murders, but had his sentence commuted or drastically reduced due to good behavior in prison or proof of temporary insanity or a sympathetic judge? Does the person still have the right to migrate, or is it morally permissible to restrict that right citing a risk, albeit not a certainty, that this person could commit more crimes?

These are difficult questions. Further, somebody who has committed a relatively minor crime is still more likely than a person without a criminal background to proceed to more major crimes. Are there any keyhole solutions? I’ve been thinking about this, and here are some possibilities.

Restricting immigration for people who have committed crimes recently

One idea is to restrict the immigration of people who have been convicted of committing crimes in the recent past, where the definition of “recent” would vary based on the nature of the crime. Continue reading “Is blanket denial of the right to migrate based on criminal history unjust?” »

Guest worker programs and worker abuses

A while back, Daniel Costa of the progressive Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that advocates for the interests of poor Americans, did an interesting blog post titled On International Migrants Day, remember that guest worker programs aren’t the solution for immigration reform. This met with a lot of pushback on Twitter, and Costa followed up with a related blog post describing what he considered to be extensive abuses in guest worker programs in the United States (the H2 visa program). Among the stories that Costa linked to were Filipino teachers being conned by a recruiter, workers reporting exploitation by a seafood company in Louisiana that supplied to Walmart, and a negotiated settlement about people under J-1 visas being exploited at work. Based on these and other incidents, Costa is understandably very skeptical of proposals that go by the name of guest worker programs.

I will not commit the moral and strategic error of shrugging off the problems of current H2 visa programs in the US with “not as bad as” trivialization. I think that problems and abuses at guest worker programs, while not the worst thing in the world, are definitely worth putting in the balance when proposing the expansion of guest worker programs. However, I think that Costa’s prescriptions don’t necessarily follow from his observations.

Guest worker programs: tied to an employer?

Most open borders advocates view the keyhole solution of guest worker programs as a half-way compromise, not a desirable ideal (in the jargon of this blog post, they tend to have a (1) > (2) > (3) preference ordering: open borders preferable to expanded guest worker programs preferable to the status quo).

As the guest worker programs page on this site describes, there are many different parameters whose values can be fiddled and adjusted while still staying within the broad category of guest worker programs: the time duration of the program, flexibility in terms of jobs, extent of legal rights, eligibility for citizenship, deportation conditions, and eligibility for welfare benefits being the parameters listed on the page. Of these, the first three (time duration, flexibility in terms of jobs, and extent of legal rights) are the most relevant for considering the problem of worker abuse. The kinds of guest worker program solutions that open borders advocates typically propose are those with essentially unlimited (or periodically renewable) time duration, the ability to switch jobs at will (i.e., not tied to any particular employer), and full legal rights (however, some proponents of these programs oppose some labor regulations per se, like the minimum wage, for natives as well as foreigners). Further, as a general rule, people coming at guest worker programs from an open borders angle oppose quantity caps on the amount of guest worker labor that can be used.

I think that these key elements will lead to abuses of the kind that Costa sees in current guest worker programs becoming more rare. With the status quo in the US, guest worker programs are heavily time-limited and tied to specific jobs. There is also a pretty severe quantity restriction on these programs. This makes it extremely hard for workers to “shop” between employers, both at the time of applying for a visa, and once they are in the US. Their main element of discretion is in whether they choose to come the next year. Even in the status quo, reputational effects and the need for good worker morale check some worker abuses. But with fewer quantity caps, fewer time limits, and the ability to switch between jobs, worker abuses are likely to be lower as workers can “shop” better.

A quick analogy might help. Suppose a particular factory is the main employer in town, and it pays its workers very low wages and has demanding working conditions. Now, a competing factory wants to open up in the same town. Should the residents of that town fear the new factory, based on the rule that factories exploit their workers? Or should they welcome the new factory, in that the competition between the two factories may improve conditions for workers? While the details vary from case to case, I would suspect the latter.

Now, admittedly, the cases aren’t quite parallel, because in the analogy I gave, the population of the town was not changing. But if the creation of a new town just attracts more labor from outside the town, then the effect on wages in the original factory may be smaller (though probably still positive). Even here, though, unless you discount completely the welfare of people who move to the town, the net effect on wages is still expected to be positive.

It might be helpful to look at a blog post from Michael Clemens on migrant labor in the US agricultural sector. Here’s what Clemens says:

If you think these difficult jobs are bad for Mexicans, think about this: 85% of the NCGA’s Mexican seasonal employees last year were repeat employees. They came the previous season, and they chose to come back the following season. It is inappropriate and unfortunate that some labor advocates call H-2 visa jobs “close to slavery.”Slaves had no such choice, and would not have happily gone back to the plantation that owned them. Furthermore, the H-2 visa holders who work for the NCGA are not tied to a single farm: their visa allows them to work throughout the 700-farm network, so that there are opportunities to move if any given farm violates labor standards. Any shortcomings of the H-2 program are not the fault of migration itself; they can be fixed by fixing the program.

I don’t have independent corroboration of these statements, but it does seem to make sense that workers whose visa allows them to switch employment between a lot of farms in a huge network would be less susceptible to the problems of worker abuse. Repeat seasonal migration also creates incentives for employers to treat workers fairly and honestly.

Note: I read through the Red Card solution website, which offers a detailed guest worker program proposal for the US, and I was disappointed to see that the proposal did not address the issue of how this proposal would accommodate the possibility of workers changing employers — would they need to return to their home country to re-apply, or could they change their authorization while still in the US? Continue reading “Guest worker programs and worker abuses” »

Open borders advocates: guilty of the “not as bad as” fallacy?

RationalWiki‘s page on not as bad as describes it as a form of the moral equivalence fallacy:

There are a few different reasons someone will want to pull a “not as bad as” comparison. Consider a generic argument about something, A, and the reasoning below:

B happened, and is worse than A.
Therefore A is justified.

This is the most blatantly fallacious form of the argument and is a hindsight version of the “not as bad as” argument that states past actions can legitimise current actions. The existence of a worse atrocity in the past, however, does not actually justify anything – it merely points out that there have been similar things in the past. People who use this as a justification may be well aware that it’s logically fallacious, and use it purely as rhetoric, or as a distraction.

Open borders advocates often critique restrictionists using arguments like the master race critique from Bryan Caplan: they critique restrictionists for being unduly obsessed with the plight of the poor in the developed world, whose poverty is not as bad as the poverty of poor people in other parts of the world, or the poverty of poor people historically. Are open borders advocates committing the “not as bad as” fallacy, by trivializing, ignoring, and justifying inaction regarding the plight of the poor in the developed world, just because others have it worse?

I don’t think so. If it were the case that open borders advocates are shrugging off the harms to poor natives from immigration citing that things were worse for others, without noting any offsetting benefits to others, then this would be an example of the fallacy. However, in addition to their moral arguments, open borders advocates explicitly note their belief that open borders generate more benefits, particularly for people who may be much poorer than the poor in the developed world — in other words, poor people that the egalitarian or worldwide Rawlsian should be more concerned about. The harm wrought to poor natives is thus inextricably linked to the benefit to poorer non-natives; the inextricable link between these is what makes this a non-fallacy.

RationalWiki agrees later in the page that there is a valid form of the argument that is not fallacious, but adds further caveats:

Action B is worse than action A.
Therefore action A is the right thing to do.

This is perhaps the most valid comparison that can be drawn if discussing two courses of action that can be taken, but like most “not as bad as” arguments potentially suffers from the fallacies of the false dichotomy and argument from adverse consequences. If the argument is about ranking things from bad to worse then it’s fine; but you cannot justify A by citing only B because the two may not have anything to do with each other. This is common if Secret Option C is actually the best, but someone wants to make a red herring to avoid anyone spotting its existence.

Again, in this case, open borders advocates have proposed for consideration various versions of “Secret Option C” that could be win-win for all parties — namely, keyhole solutions such as immigration tariffs, guest worker programs, and my co-blogger Nathan Smith‘s elaborate DRITI scheme. This does not mean that all open borders advocates sign on to these keyhole solutions as truly necessary; often their signing on is in a spirit of compromise. For instance, here’s what my co-blogger John Lee said in a comment on his own post:

Thanks Nathan. I think we agree on what’s probably the best achievable policy reform for now (immigration tariffs), but I am inclined to disagree with your moral preference for Pareto-improving policies here, as well as your characterisation of them as merely “a little unfair”. I think immigration tariffs would be a massive improvement, but remain a distant second-best policy (from a moral standpoint) to true open borders. I used to consider immigration tariffs the best policy here, but have been convinced by the economic evidence that I was placing far too much weight on natives’ welfare, and far too little on migrants’ welfare. (This change in my beliefs is something I plan to write more on, so I won’t elaborate too much on it here.)

But even here, John Lee is not dismissing the harms to natives, but rather, weighing these against the gains to non-natives as well as moral considerations in coming to his conclusion that, in fact, not having immigration tariffs would be his preferred solution, if indeed that were politically feasible.

So, as a factual matter, I don’t think that open borders advocates are committing the “not as bad as” fallacy.

However, I think that the rhetoric of open borders advocates can sometimes sound exceedingly blase towards the plight of their fellow natives. Continue reading “Open borders advocates: guilty of the “not as bad as” fallacy?” »