Incentives to be accurate about what forms of enforcement work

Does “self-deportation” (also known as attrition through enforcement) work, if the goal is to cut down on (unauthorized) immigration? For those who want to cut such immigration down, this is a key question to answer. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA, CIS and VDARE have generally taken the stance that attrition through enforcement is a workable strategy (see here, here, and here). The Immigration Policy Center, on the other hand, has argued otherwise.

I laid out hints of my own position on the matter here and here. Briefly put, yes, attrition through enforcement does work, but it also imposes costs and collateral damage on citizens/residents. After some reflection, though, it occurred to me that even without knowing much about the details, one would be led to suspect this.

I begin with the assumption that restrictionists actually want to achieve what they say they want to achieve — that there should be less future immigration (legal and illegal) and that most current illegal immigrants should leave the country. It is, of course, possible that people like Mark Krikorian don’t really want their stated agenda to be implemented, because it would make their jobs as restrictionist advocates superfluous. I find this unlikely, because it seems to me that restrictionists are generally extremely talented people who can find employment in a number of areas that involve the skillful and convincing presentation of a weak case — as lawyers, political aides, or lobbyists — and that their sticking to the relatively less lucrative area of immigration restrictionism is at least partly explained by genuine conviction.

If restrictionists sincerely want what they say they want, this means that their incentives are very much aligned towards determining how to achieve it. Thus, when they evaluate policies like attrition through enforcement and border security, they’re probably the best judges of the effectiveness of these policies.

On the other hand, open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups don’t want immigration enforcement (for the most part) to succeed — or at any rate, not without corresponding liberalizations of immigration policy. Their incentives, therefore, are not well-aligned towards an unbiased evaluation of the success or failure of these policies. To an extent, they face conflicting incentives. If they see a particular enforcement measure that is cheaper and more “effective” at achieving restrictionist ends, do they acknowledge this — and end up providing free service to the restrictionist cause — or disingenuously deny it, coming up with reasons against? I suspect that this is a very real dilemma, and many immigrant rights groups resolve it by fooling themselves into thinking that the effective methods of enforcement are ineffective. It’s similar to how drug use legalization people might feel at being asked to evaluate the effectiveness of drug raids at imprisoning drug users.

For these reasons, you’d see why one might have a strong prior that restrictionists would be more likely to have figured out the best methods of achieving their goals than open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups.

Nonetheless, there is another side to the picture: cost and collateral damage. Here, the incentives for restrictionists are bad. Without knowing the details, one would be led to suspect that restrictionists would systematically underestimate the cost and collateral damage of their proposed methods to citizens and natives. The reason is that hardcore restrictionists have a much higher preference for getting rid of illegal immigrants than the general public, so in order to sell their message to a relatively less (but still highly) restrictionist public, they’d need to underplay the collateral costs of their policies. On the other hand, immigrant rights and open borders advocacy groups would be quick to point out the collateral damage to citizens, and run sympathetic stories of citizens, authorized immigrants, and tourists on valid visas getting detained and harmed by over-enthusiastic enforcement.

My own take on this matter is that the best response for a hardcore open borders advocate to discussions of what forms of enforcement work is to first acknowledge that his/her own complete disagreement with the end goal makes him/her an extremely bad person to consult regarding the means to be used towards that end. One can think of this almost in the sense of a “conscientious objector” who refuses to participate in a system that his/her conscience goes against, or a person who refuses to testify against himself/herself in court. If it is necessary to offer an opinion, there are two alternatives. The first is to be genuinely honest about what forms of enforcement work, but argue that something “working” does not mean that you endorse it. The other alternative is to deliberately dissemble about what forms of enforcement work. While the former is more intellectually honest, I suspect that one can make a case for the latter from a consequentialist point of view, at least in the rare cases that one’s opinion could actually influence or shape immigration enforcement. At any rate, however, the trade-off between intellectual integrity and a conscience that forbids lending support to a policy one perceives as evil should be undertaken consciously rather than out of a reflexive desire to disagree with restrictionists.

UPDATE (March 31, 2014): When I wrote this post, I was broadly of the view that interior enforcement is more effective than border enforcement. However, this blog post by Alex Nowrasteh cites a literature sumary by the Council of Foreign Relations that suggests the opposite. Assuming this summary is correct, restrictionists’ focus on interior enforcement seems puzzling, and the broad claim of this post might well be misguided or false.

The “No One Is Illegal” YouTube video

A YouTube video by the No one is illegal group has been doing the rounds (if you have trouble playing the embedded video, access it on YouTube here). I’d like to thank John Roccia (here’s his blog) for sending me the link.

The video, which appears to have been shot in London, is set up as follows: the protagonist sets up an arbitrary barrier on a bridge and says that all those on one side of the bridge need to show their documents and prove their worthiness in order to cross over to the other side of the bridge, drawing on the idea that immigration restrictions are arbitrary and that there is a prima facie moral right to migrate. The people in the video whose bridge-crossing rights were denied seem to have been actual people, not stage actors, and there are some interesting verbal exchanges in the video.

Both sophisticated and unsophisticated restrictionists would be quick to scoff at the video’s arguably naive critique of borders. Certainly the video is not the final word on the matter, and there are any number of counterarguments that can be made to its implicit critique of borders. These counterarguments can be met with counterarguments, which can again be met with counterarguments … the game can go on indefinitely. In many ways, the video is a simplistic rendering of an argument that fails to acknowledge many complex issues.

Nonetheless, I think it is a valuable contribution as a beginning move in an argument for open borders. I believe that the right to migrate is presumptive, not absolute. But it is a presumptive right, which means that restricting this right arbitrarily requires a strong justification, a justification that should be at least somewhat stronger than a purely utilitarian/consequentialist argument. There are plenty of theoretical rights frameworks, such as Nathan Smith’s theory of the streets (details on the right to migrate page), that help make the case. This video, by blocking access on the literal street, makes Nathan’s point about the theory of the streets.

Moreover, while the counterarguments offered by restrictionists, mainly about the harms to immigrant-receiving countries, do offer some possible edge cases and exceptions to the right to migrate, they do not destroy the validity of the underlying idea of the right to migrate, which is put across well by the video. So, although the video is a simplification, it is still a simplification that is correct in essentials.

PS: Some commenters on YouTube and elsewhere have suggested that the protagonist of the video is an international socialist and/or holds other views that make him difficult to take seriously. I don’t know of the protagonist’s work in other areas (there’s only one other video on this specific YouTube channel, which seems to be on a similar theme) but my purpose here is to offer my thoughts on a specific video, not evaluate the protagonist’s overall political stance

Immigrants against immigration: the case of Peter Brimelow

Peter Brimelow (here’s Wikipedia on him) is one of the most passionate anti-immigration advocates in the United States. He is the founder of VDARE (that has been described by many as a leading anti-immigration web journal) and helped set up other sites, such as Alternative Right, that take a negative view of many kinds of immigration (though Alternative Right is not as immigration-focused as VDARE). Brimelow was born and brought up in the UK. He migrated from the UK to Canada, and then, after that, to the United States through an employment-based visa. His wife Maggy was able to migrate to the US on a family visa, and their son, Alexander, acquired US citizenship on account of being born in the United States. Brimelow later acquired US citizenship by following the procedures for naturalization.

Brimelow’s fans and critics alike might be interested in knowing how he reconciles his own background as a two-time migrant with his anti-immigration views.

Although I am not aware of any place where Brimelow addresses this is great detail, he does make some passing remarks on his own situation in his book Alien Nation (you can see all our blog posts on the book here — those who know Brimelow mainly from his somewhat strongly worded donation appeals on VDARE might be pleasantly surprised at the relative moderation (in tone, not substance) of the book). A few choice quotes (the full text of the book is here):

On birthright citizenship:

The British used to have birthright citizenship, but in 1983 they restricted it — requiring for example that one parent be a legal resident — because of problems caused by immigration.

I am delighted that Alexander is an American. [Alexander is Peter Brimelow’s son, born after Peter Brimelow and his (then) wife Maggy migrated to the US but probably before the parents became citizens] However, I do feel slightly, well, guilty that his fellow Americans had so little choice in the matter.

But at least Maggy and I had applied for and been granted legal permission to live in the United States.

On family reunification (emphasis added, not in original):

Maggy and I benefited personally from the generous American policy on family reunification. She is a Canadian, and I was a resident alien in the United States when I married her. Then, because of our marriage, she herself was admitted as a resident alien.

But this was a legal right — hardly a moral right. It was a privilege granted by American policy. And the truth is that our lives would not have been destroyed if Maggy had not been permitted to immigrate. I would probably be writing a book on Canadian immigration policy right now.

On taking American jobs and lowering their wages through wage competition:

For example, I am arguably displacing an American-born worker as a senior editor at Forbes magazine. I naturally like to think that my employers would miss my unique contribution. However, I am fairly sure that they would survive.

A few more interesting passages can be found by searching for the phrase “as an immigrant” in the full text.

UPDATE: Here’s a self-reflective piece by Peter Brimelow.