Weekly link roundup 2

This is the second of our weekly link roundups (the first was here). As always, the pieces linked may have been published earlier, and linking does not imply endorsement.

Discrimination and the semi-open border

A couple weeks ago the American Civil Liberties Union updated its position on the Senate’s immigration bill. Overall, the ACLU seemed to favor the bill for its path to citizenship and for due process improvements in detention and deportation processes. One of their concerns was that “LGBT couples do not have the same rights as straight couples in immigration proceedings.” The ACLU blog post was written before the US Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, a ruling that for the most part renders moot discrimination against gay couples in the Senate immigration bill, at least at the federal level. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that at a time of cascading victories for gay rights, when even opponents feel the inevitability of gay equality, one instance where discrimination can gain support is that of gay couples bestriding the border.

Of course, I’m probably overstating this effect. Those pushing to discriminate against gays in immigration proceedings are the same as those pushing to discriminate against all-American gays. Yet discrimination is a common theme in immigration restrictions. Though I view it as strategically unwise–not to mention unfair and not altogether honest–to denounce immigration restrictions as inherently racist, it’s also unwise to ignore the blatantly racist history of American immigration policies. Chris Hendrix has blogged about the first major restrictionist legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but even before this, naturalization (as opposed to immigration) was restricted on explicitly racist grounds. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to “free white persons” of “good moral character”. This may not be surprising for a nation that allowed legal slavery of Africans and those of African descent for nearly a century, but this racial requirement was the law of the land until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Immigration isn’t the same as citizenship, yet this unpalatable history is clearly relevant to today’s discussions of immigrant assimilation (citizen or otherwise).

Perhaps partially as a result of this legal requirement, much of the history of assimilation has been entwined with the idea of “whiteness”. The story of the Irish in America, for example, has been one of transforming from a “racial” group into an “ethnic” group. In a reflection on St Patrick’s Day a few years ago on racismreview.com, blogger Jessie writes:

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred. Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants have experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

Emphases in original. The intimate relationship between whiteness and American assimilation is possibly best described in the language of historical court decisions. In a paper titled Immigration and the Meaning of United States Citizenship: Whiteness and Assimilation (ungated here), SMU law professor George Martinez quotes some real legal gems:

[Assimilation] as a proxy for whiteness is confirmed by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Thind. In rejecting an immigrant from India’s claim to whiteness and the right to naturalize, the Court explained that Indians were unable to assimilate:

The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.

Lower court cases further confirm a connection between assimilation and whiteness. In United States v. Cartozian, the court considered whether Armenians were white. Connecting assimilation with whiteness, the court held that “it may be confidently affirmed that the Armenians are white persons, and moreover that they readily amalgamate with the European and white races.” Similarly, in In re Ahmed Hassan, the court held that Arabs were not white persons, observing that

it is well known that they are part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominantly Christian peoples of Europe. It cannot be expected that as a class they would readily intermarry with our population and be assimilated into our civilization.

Martinez goes on to quote the Supreme Court’s logic upholding the legality of the Chinese Exclusion Act: “[If Congress] considers the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous to its peace and security … [Congress’s] determination is conclusive upon the judiciary.”

Explicit racism in immigration restrictions persisted after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 formally severed the concepts “American” and “white”. In a curious collusion of Mexican emigration restrictionists and American immigration restrictionists, “Operation Wetback” was launched in 1954 to deport illegal Mexican immigrants and limit further Mexican immigration. The dangers, of course, are that a long history of racist justifications for immigration restrictions doesn’t just disappear down the memory hole when the law is officially changed and that explicit racism in American immigration policy has merely been replaced by implicit racism. One place to start looking for such implicit discrimination would be in the federal Secure Communities program, which has been criticized for encouraging racial profiling.

But I don’t want this post to be entirely about the historical connection between immigration restrictions and racism. Another, more subtle kind of discrimination is at play in the modern immigration debate, even in more enlightened quarters: discrimination against lower classes. A recent incarnation of this is the moralized evocation and denunciation of a “moocher class” composed of the lazy poor who take handouts from the government and give nothing back to society in return. The reality is somewhat different, with many upper class individuals failing to realize when they have benefited from government programs. As with racial discrimination, discrimination by socioeconomic class makes generalizations about large groups of individuals and judges them to be somehow worth just a little less than the dominant group.

This class discrimination arises in the distinction between “skilled” and “low-skilled” immigrants. Many people skeptical of allowing more low-skilled migrants across the border can even be quite enthusiastic supporters of more immigration of skilled workers. Reihan Salam of the National Review has summed it up this way:

The goal of means-tested benefits and publicly-funded human capital investment is to better the lives of all members of the American polity, but particularly the most vulnerable, by giving them a foundation for participation in our shared economic and civic life. We might disagree about how much we ought to spend and how these programs are structured, with people like me favoring a limited scope for social programs, choice and competition, and an emphasis on work supports, etc., but support for the idea of a safety net and a place for the public sector in education is pretty firmly entrenched. When we expand the American polity, it makes intuitive sense that we would want to do so by welcoming individuals who are already well-prepared to fully participate in economic and civic life, as we’ve learned through long experience that people who are ill-prepared will face tremendous difficulties, as will their children. For a variety of reasons, individuals with 8th grade education and limited English proficiency are less likely to flourish in the U.S. than individuals with a college education and a high degree of English proficiency. If it is also true that less-skilled and less-affluent U.S. residents with limited English proficiency benefit more from an influx of skilled immigrants (potential customers or complements) than from an influx of less-skilled immigrants with limited English proficiency (potential competitors), the case for a more selective, skills-based immigration policy becomes even stronger.

While this technocratic approach sounds sensible enough from some national central planner’s perspective, it sounds paternalistic from a view closer to the ground, as if those who are deciding when and how to “expand the American polity” are protecting low-skilled migrants from the “tremendous difficulties” of living in a developed country. People have been migrating to strange new places with novel difficulties to navigate ever since we spread beyond Africa. As autonomous agents directing the course of their own lives, presumably migrants have assessed the risks and difficulties of migrating to a new country and have judged their chances of flourishing to be greater with moving than with staying. This is true even for migrants “low-skilled” but nonetheless savvy enough to pursue higher wages when and where they can be found. If “low-skilled” workers will fail to flourish in a high-income host country, then they will almost certainly fail to flourish to a greater degree in their poorer countries of origin. And of course flourishing may be relative, with modest living in a rich country amounting to serious comfort to those who have only experienced modest living in a poor country.

The paternalistic, for-their-own-good argument seems to be a thin veil concealing the desire to make the “American polity” look a certain way.  The low-skilled migration restrictionists do not seem to be concerned with removing poverty so much as with removing poverty from view. I suspect the distinction between low- and high-skilled immigrants is really a euphemism for discriminating against poor and lower class immigrants. High-skilled immigrants, regardless of absolute wealth levels, are usually richer than low-skilled immigrants and they are certainly more educated. High-skilled immigrants have grown up in families that would be considered culturally elite or at least middle class in their countries of origin (this is how they attained the human capital to qualify as “skilled”). As such, high-skilled workers will more easily fit into “nice” parts of the rich world, like suburbs and medical schools. And they will do the host country the benefit of adding diversity to these institutions, making them appear more inclusive while still keeping out the riff-raff. They will not need to live in dense slums many-to-a-room in living conditions middle class natives find distasteful.

Low-skilled immigrants, by contrast, are more likely to come from lower social classes in their countries of origin and this will translate immediately, if not permanently, into a similar socioeconomic status in a rich host country. With that status come all of the disadvantages the native poor face, with the additional disadvantage living under constant threat of unceremonious deportation.

I don’t doubt the desire of folks like Reihan Salam to improve the lots of low-skilled natives, and even better, their desire for an institutional framework in which low-skilled natives improve their lots themselves. The problem is that their motivation to do so is to create a more superficially attractive nation, rather than to construct an actual engine of human flourishing.

Illegal immigrants and runaway slaves

From my friend Seth Vitrano-Wilson, a Christian missionary:

Throughout the history of the United States, there have been people who didn’t have the freedom to go where they wanted to go. They couldn’t work for themselves in the US and earn their own money legally. If the government found them entering an area illegally, they would deport them back to where they came from. A lot of people believed none of them should be allowed to live freely and legally in the US at all, but even those who accepted they could be in the US free and legally made a distinction between those who earned their free presence in the US by following the rules, and those that broke the law by moving locations via a secret network of human traffickers.

Two hundred years ago, these people were called slaves.

Today, we call these people immigrants.

Nearly everyone today would agree that slavery is wrong, that sending a runaway slave back to their master is wrong, and that helping a runaway slave is right. We wouldn’t care if someone gained their freedom to move and work by “legal” or “illegal” means, because the whole premise that you could justly restrict people’s movement and employment via slavery is an affront to justice. We find it reprehensible that people would keep others as slaves simply for their own economic gain, or because of some supposed inherent superiority by birth, or because we fear how “they” will change the character of “our” country.

So why do we think differently about immigration restrictions today? Why is it wrong to restrict people’s freedom to live and work where and how they want if we call it “slavery,” but somehow right if we do the same thing and call it “immigration policy”? Two hundred years ago, runaway slaves were treated as criminals and deported back to their masters—a terrible stain on our nation’s history. Today, we do the same thing to illegal immigrants—breaking up families, ruining lives, impoverishing the impoverished.

If we look to the example of the abolitionists, the underground railroad, and the brave runaway slaves who risked their lives for freedom, we see just how hypocritical and unjust so much of our rhetoric about immigration is today. “Illegal” immigrants are brave defenders of the principles of freedom and justice. “Legal” immigrants are those blessed with masters kind enough to give them a sanctioned path to freedom. Would we ever dare tell a slave hoping for freedom to “get to the back of the line”? What line?? How many slaves could realistically expect to gain their freedom by legal means? And how many poor immigrants-to-be can realistically expect a legal visa under the current draconian restrictions?

Rather than debating about whether we should spend $20 billion versus $100 billion on the border patrol, or whether we need to catch 90% of the runaway slaves (I mean, “illegal immigrants”) crossing the border, we should be opening up the floodgates of freedom. Let people live and work where they will.

Editor’s note: See this much longer post on the lessons for open borders from the abolition of slavery.

Opening the Canada-US Border

This is a guest post by Peter Hurley. Peter is an American who studied in Canada. He’s interested in the law and his relationship with a Canadian brings him in direct contact with issues surrounding immigration. The post is a follow-up to Vipul Naik’s bleg about US-Canada open borders from about two months ago.

This week, both the US and Canada celebrate their national identities.  In the US, we celebrate our independence from Britain.  In Canada, we celebrate our confederation into a distinct nation, under the same crown as Britain, but with a wholly Canadian government and constitution.

These celebrations reveal as much about the similarities between the US and Canada as our differences.  We share common traditions about law and human rights from our common origins, and have maintained peaceful relations for two centuries.  We even co-ordinate our holidays so we can have the same long weekends.  Often enough, it can seem like an American from Seattle is more similar to a Vancouverite than a Canadian from Halifax.

Or, at least it seems that way until you try to move between the countries.  Then you find out that the border is more than an inconvenience on your road trip to Niagara Falls, it’s a serious impediment to people’s lives.

Both Canada and the US would be made better off by opening the world’s longest and most peaceful border.

This idea isn’t particularly new, and there are some common objections to it that deserve answers.  Many of these objections are common to any open border scheme, and those are dealt with ably elsewhere on this site, so I confine myself to objections that wouldn’t be common to any open borders scheme.  To be clear, I am proposing free transit over the border between the two, but with limitations on the ability of non-citizens of the US and Canada to use the open border to work or live permanently in the other country.

Economic Argument

One of the main practical arguments against an open border is that it will be economically harmful, particularly to Canada.  The concern is that Americans will flock to Canada to utilize government provided health care and that Canadians will dodge taxes by crossing the border to shop.  The latter is an argument that probably scares tax officials more than the Canadians who shop in the US and then wear everything they bought home. 

As to healthcare: with Obamacare coming into force, most Americans would see only a small health care savings by moving to Canada.  Obamacare means Americans earning low incomes get free or extremely cheap health insurance, and only relatively high-income people will pay substantial sums for healthcare.  And those high-income people are much less likely to be a net drain anyway.  Plus, Canadian healthcare currently requires a substantial period of residency before one becomes eligible for free coverage, so it requires substantial time commitment to living in Canada to qualify for healthcare.

Apart from healthcare, the welfare states in the US and Canada are remarkably similar, so there is little incentive to move from one to the other for benefits.  Disability, welfare, unemployment, food security, and retirement benefits are similar, and Old Age Security/Canada Pension Plan and US Social Security Administration already credit contributions from one towards the other.

The benefits of integrating labour markets between the two countries is very substantial as well.  Border areas often have labour markets which tilt heavily depending on whether the US or Canadian dollar is stronger.  An open labour market will allow workers from depressed areas in either country to seek work in nearby areas with relatively booming markets.  So a laid off construction worker in Buffalo can go build condo towers in Toronto, and oil field workers can move quickly between Alberta and North Dakota, without waiting months between jobs for immigration paperwork to be done.

Also, the monetary costs of border enforcement are substantial.  Both governments could reduce spending on border guards, as well as eliminating the giant deforested 20 foot swathe between the two countries.  More than that, the time that people spend waiting at the border is valuable.  About 62 million people crossed into the US via Canadian land ports of entry in 2012.  Assuming about as many entries into Canada, and assuming (generously I think) a 20 minute wait on average, that comes to 41 million wasted hours, plus a ton of pollution from the cars idling.  And that doesn’t even count trucks.

Political Argument

Another big worry that people have about opening the border is that it will change the character of the countries drastically as immigrants from Canada or the US flood in and overtake the culture (Canada) or make the country much more socialist (US).  I think this concern is not as big a deal as people make it.  Both countries have areas that are quite conservative (Alberta, Texas) and quite liberal (Vancouver, Boston).  There’s no reason to think that the average American who chooses Canada would be likely to push the political consensus very far, and would very likely fall somewhere into the mainstream of Canadian society.  Furthermore, open borders do not mean open citizenship.  Canada and the US can set whatever standards of residency and knowledge of local culture and government they want as requirements to attain citizenship. As to cultural assimilation, open borders do not kill cultures.  The southern US and Quebec both have open borders to their countries, and yet have different cultures from the rest of their countries: more so in the case of Quebec.

The Quebec Question

Within Canada, Quebec has maintained a distinct culture and language, and has taken extensive efforts to maintain that distinction, including a separate immigration regime on top of the federal system, as well as significant language restrictions regarding both public displays and schooling.  It is safe to say that opening the border to the US would be seen as a major threat to the separate culture of Quebec.  They shouldn’t be.  As it stands, millions of English-speaking Canadians are freely capable of moving to Quebec.  And that hasn’t stopped Quebec from maintaining its culture and institutions.  Open borders will not allow Americans to vote in Quebec or Canada, and the democratic institutions of Quebec are strong enough to handle a free and open dialogue with the world.  Even ardent sovereigntists don’t generally want to seal Quebec’s border with Canada upon independence.  And the open US border with Quebec provides the same sort of benefits for Quebec that the open borders with New Brunswick and Ontario provide.


The Canada/US border is probably one of the easiest questions of open borders in the world.  We are both rich countries with strong economies and extremely similar systems of law.  We have lots to gain from opening up what is already a slightly ajar door.  If you want to take incremental steps to opening borders, the Canada/US border is the first increment.

The photograph featured in the header of this post is of the US-Canada border. Via Reddit.

Betting the Republic

UPDATE: After reading but before citing or linking to this post, please read the follow up where the author reveals his/her identity.

Open Borders note: This is a special and unusual guest post from an individual who contacted Open Borders with a request that the restrictionist case be presented clearly to the Open Borders audience. It is a one-off post and is not part of a general trend of similar posts. The opinions expressed here are often in contradiction with the opinions of Open Borders bloggers in general.

Open Borders note: The draft submitted by the post author had no links in it. Links have been added to relevant content across the web by the Open Borders staff (with no change to the post text). These have been added by the Open Borders staff to ease additional research, and not at the behest of the author.

Author’s note: Hello, and thank you for reading. Hopefully today I’ll be challenging your perceptions and your beliefs, and I look forward to hearing your replies. Since this is a guest post, I should give you some background. I am, to use your term, a “restrictionist.” I am anti-open-borders and I have written pieces related to immigration, specifically arguing against open borders, in the past. I have been in contact with this site’s administrator for some time. We’ve had numerous debates on the topic, and I’ve asked him if he would be willing to allow me to present my argument to his readership, in the interest of a fair and open debate. He has graciously accepted.

For a number of reasons, I am not using my real name on this post. Please don’t think that means I’m unwilling to stand by my arguments! Quite the contrary – in one week, I will reveal my identity in a follow-up post. However, I would like each of you to read and consider my words with a clear mind, instead of prejudging based on my previous works, which a number of you may be familiar with. I would like to hear your arguments in response to my words, not in response to my identity. I thank the good people at Open Borders for the opportunity, and I thank each of you in advance who read this. I look forward to reading your responses!

I am a libertarian, so I believe in freedom, personal responsibility, and mutual respect. I don’t believe that your freedom to own a gun means that you have the “freedom” to shoot someone, and I believe that in the perfect world, every interaction among people would be voluntary on all sides. Because allowing unfettered immigration expressly violates these principles, I am against it.

I’m not against immigration on the margin. I believe that we are a nation of immigrants and great because of it. But the presumption of open borders and unrestricted immigration poses a unique danger to the very aspects of America that protect that greatness. Even if I had no other personal concerns, the precautionary principle itself would put me squarely in the “skeptical” camp in regards to immigration. Since I do have other concerns, however (which I have debated with other libertarians before), I will present them here.

In any society, people – especially large groups of people – exert political influence. This isn’t a factor unique to democracies, though it may be amplified by that particular form of government. Even in a totalitarian dictatorship, enough people will invariably exert influence. I’m well aware that immigrants need not necessarily be granted citizenship and thus voting rights simply because they’ve been allowed to legally remain in residence. However, consider that the alternative is hardly better: when we see millions of people living in societies outside of America completely devoid of political representation we call it “oppression!” People have, throughout history, fought long and bloody struggles for the right to be represented in their government – do we really believe that immigrants here, even if they initially promise not to, will do any less? Even if every immigrant were to come with the express condition that they understand they will receive no representation in our government, their children will be bound by no such promise. And if they are bound by it, would they not rightly complain, and struggle for the very representation their parents were willing to forgo? Whether it’s this generation of immigrants, their children, or their children’s children, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a massive influx of people from a radically different culture would radically change our nation. And what would they eventually change it into? The very societies and cultures they’re so eager to escape – and that we should be equally eager to keep out, if we believe America to be an example of a better way to organize society.

So what are our options as natives? If we allow unfettered immigration, we have only three real options when it comes to establishing the political influence of the immigrants: we can grant them full representation, we can grant them no representation, or we can grant them some form of partial representation. None of these three options seem politically viable. Granting full voting rights to people that have not been raised and educated to understand the nuances of our culture seems akin to handing a driver’s license to someone that has never even seen a car before. Even more accurately, it would be like granting citizens of foreign countries the right to vote in our elections! In fact, even pro-immigration advocates recognize this, and my understanding is that for the most part, they advocate instead for the so-called “keyhole solution” of immigration without citizenship. But that’s no better. Even the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in America exhibit political influence. Would we assume that possibly many times that number of legal ones wouldn’t, voting or no? It would only be a matter of time before a coalition formed to demand voting rights, and in an exact repeat performance of the period between 1869-1964, those immigrants will get those rights, just as black people did. The American democracy will tolerate nothing less; in fact, I’d bet that it would happen much faster this time around.

For the same reason, granting some sort of partial representation seems unlikely to remain politically viable. Any such effort would be uncomfortably reminiscent of racially-charged historical facts like the Three-Fifths Compromise, and it’s unlikely that such levees would hold against the rising tide of a concerted effort to overcome them, especially when the numbers in such an organized bloc would swell by the day from immigration itself. Other halfway measures exist as well, but each has its own version of this political dilemma. Allowing something like “free immigration zones” within America sounds reasonable – allow unfettered immigration, but only into certain areas both to prevent harms to a broad selection of natives and to limit political power to a small number of districts – but words like “ghetto” will surely be bandied about politically until the barriers are overwhelmed. The American electorate howls constantly for equality (or at least the appearance of it), and I sincerely doubt they would tolerate any appearance of deliberate inequality, even if the alternative was actually worse for everyone involved.

As a libertarian, I accept that there should be a strong presumption of allowing freedom in all forms, and I concede that this moral presumption means that we should try to allow as many immigrants as is reasonable. But “reasonable” should mean “in a manner consistent with protecting the very liberties these immigrants are seeking, and that natives already enjoy.” My solution, such as it is, is as follows: I do not believe that we should be screening potential immigrants for skill level or wealth, “stapling green cards to diplomas,” as it were. Instead, I believe we should be screening them for values consistent with maintaining a free America, and basing our immigration numbers on that statistic. An unskilled farm worker who believes in maintaining freedom and liberty is much more valuable to the nation than a skilled surgeon who would seek to emulate the failed policies of his or her homeland. If the potential immigrants were capable of governing themselves into freedom and liberty, they would not be trying to come to America to begin with. If there were a perfect way to measure political attitudes, then that could easily be an entrance criterion, but since it’s so easy to lie about such matters (especially if it becomes common knowledge that your immigration status depends on it), it is likely that some other measurable quality may be necessary. IQ stands as the most reasonable quality: it’s relatively easy to measure, and while IQ by itself need not matter, it stands as a reasonable predictor of income, which in turn is a fairly reliable predictor of education, which is positively correlated with better voting habits. Combined with the simple fact that higher intelligence makes you more likely to be more open to sound economics and libertarian ideals, it’s entirely possible that systematically lower IQ among third-world natives prevents liberty from taking root in those nations. If that’s the case, there is little that cultural assimilation will do to change that. So it stands to reason that despite the other benefits they may offer to Americans, allowing them to influence the political landscape of America is a potentially ruinous proposition.

If there were a politically viable way to divorce immigrants themselves from the political influence they could wield, then I would be far more likely to accept the open borders stance. Ultimately, I believe that immigration helped to make this country great, and that immigration will be an essential part of this nation’s even greater future. But in order to preserve this nation for the generations upon generations of immigrants to come, we need to ensure a single generation of immigrants does not overwhelm and destroy it.