Immigration and Political Freedom

This is a guest post by Ilya Somin, a Professor of Law at George Mason University and a blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy (posts by Somin only). He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. A list of some of his writings relevant to open borders can be found at the Open Borders page about Somin. Somin has also written on the relation between foot voting and political freedom (see here) and he draws upon that work in this blog post. His previous guest post for the site was about immigration and the US constitution.

There is widespread agreement that political freedom is a fundamental human right – that everyone is entitled to substantial freedom of choice in deciding what type of government policies they will live under. This is one of the main justifications for democracy. Voting enables the people to exercise political choice. But the principle of political freedom also has implications for international migration. The same logic that justifies giving people a right to vote at the ballot box also implies that they should have a right to vote with their feet. This is particularly true of people living under authoritarian governments, where foot voting is often the only feasible way of exercising any political choice at all. But even for those fortunate enough to live under a democracy, the right to migrate elsewhere is an important aspect of political freedom. In both cases, obviously, the right to emigrate is of little value unless there is also a right to immigrate to some other nation.

I. Political Freedom and Migration Rights for People Living Under Authoritarian Regimes.

Although the democracy has spread rapidly in recent decades, the majority of the world’s population still live in undemocratic states. According to Freedom House, almost 2.4 billion of the world’s 7 billion people live in nations that are “not free” at all in political terms, while another 1.6 billion live in “partly free” countries that have some semblance of democracy, but also place severe restrictions on political rights such as freedom of speech or the right to form opposition parties. These figures are surely imperfect. But there is no doubt that hundreds of millions of people languish in authoritarian and partially authoritarian societies where there is little or no meaningful democratic political process.

For most such people, emigration is their only practical way to exercise political freedom in the sense of the ability to choose the government policies they live under. One can object that they should instead work to democratize their home societies. In many cases, however, such efforts are both highly unlikely to succeed and dangerous for those who attempt them. Many authoritarian regimes repress dissenters ruthlessly, imprisoning or even killing them. We rightly admire the Vaclav Havels and Nelson Mandelas who bravely seek to transform oppressive regimes. But it is understandable that most subjects of such governments are unwilling to run such enormous risks. Moreover, in many oppressive societies, no amount of effort and courage is likely to succeed in establishing a functional democracy in the foreseeable future. Such societies lack the economic or cultural preconditions for the establishment of liberal democracy.

Residents of many authoritarian nations can exercise political freedom only through international migration or not at all. If developed democracies refuse admission to migrants from such countries, they effectively deprive them of their political freedom. They therefore become complicit in violating a fundamental human right. One can object that Westerners are not responsible for the lack of democracy in many Third World nations. But as philosopher Michael Huemer explains, immigration restrictions don’t merely leave in place poor conditions created by others. They involve the active use of force to prevent people from bettering their condition through voluntary transactions. If I forcibly prevent a starving man from purchasing food, I bear moral responsibility for his resulting death, even if it is not my fault that he was starving in the first place. Similarly, those who use force to prevent the exercise of political freedom through migration are partially responsible for would-be immigrants’ political oppression, even if they had nothing to do with establishing undemocratic governments in the migrants’ homelands.

Deprivation of political freedom is far from the only wrong inflicted by immigration restrictions that prevent people from fleeing oppressive regimes. Such people are also often forced to endure a variety of other human rights violations, as well as severe poverty. But the loss of political freedom is an important additional strike against immigration restrictions, one that is usually ignored even by most advocates for migration rights.

II. Migration and Political Freedom for Citizens of Democracies.

Residents of democratic nations generally have much greater political freedom than those who live under authoritarian rulers. But even in the best-functioning democracies, the freedom provided by the franchise is distinctly limited. Any individual voter has only an infinitesmal chance of making a decisive difference in an election – about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential race, for example. We would not say that person enjoys adequate religious freedom if he has only a 1 in 60 million chance to determine his religion. We would not say that he has freedom of speech if he has only a 1 in 60 million chance to determine what he can say or write. Similarly, a 1 in 60 million chance at political freedom is far from sufficient. In many democracies, voters’ already miniscule chance of making a difference is further undermined by institutional corruption, “capture” of the political process by narrow interest groups, and other forces that make it harder for the electorate to influence government policy.

In addition, the effectiveness of the ballot as an exercise of political freedom is vitiated by the reality that voters have little incentive to acquire enough knowledge to make an informed decision. Because the chance of casting a decisive ballot are so low, most voters devote little time and effort to acquiring politically knowledge; they are “rationally ignorant.”

By contrast, migration rights enable individuals to have a genuinely decisive say in choosing the policies they wish to live under. An individual or family can migrate from one nation to another regardless of whether millions of others agree with the decision or not; or at least they can if governments do not use force to prevent it. And, unlike ballot box voters, migrants who “vote with their feet” have strong incentives to acquire adequate information about their decision, and use it wisely. While liberal democracies do not differ from each other as starkly as from authoritarian states, there is still substantial policy divergence between them on issues as varied as health care, economic regulation, land use policy, education, taxation, and law enforcement policy. That creates opportunities for meaningful international foot voting. Where governments permit it, many people already vote with their feet for such reasons.

None of this suggests that the ballot is utterly worthless. Democratic elections are often an important check on abuses of government power. But they are not enough to give individuals meaningful political freedom. That goal can only be achieved by giving people the power to “vote with their feet” as well as at the ballot box. Even for citizens of democratic states, political freedom is greatly enhanced by having the right to migrate to other nations.

Even in the absence of restrictive immigration policies, not everyone can effectively use international migration to enhance their political freedom. For many, the costs of moving are likely to be too great. Others are unable to make the adjustment to living in a society with different language or culture. Nonetheless, freer international migration could greatly increase political freedom for millions of people, even if it is not a complete solution for the problem of political oppression.

III. What About the Political Freedom of Citizens of Receiving Nations?

Immigration restrictionists might object to the above argument on the grounds that it ignores the political freedom of citizens of receiving countries. If they have to accept immigrants they may not want, that might vitiate their own freedom to choose their government’s policies. The new migrants could, for example, vote for policies that are inimical to the interests of natives. There may indeed be cases where the harms inflicted by immigration on natives are grave enough to justify restrictions on immigration. The political freedom of potential migrants is not an absolute right that always trumps all other considerations. But in the vast majority of situations, any such harms can be dealt with by “keyhole solutions” less draconian than excluding migrants, and forcibly consigning many of them to lives of poverty and political oppression.

For example, the obvious remedy for concerns that immigrant voters will undermine the political freedom of natives is to have a long waiting period before immigrants are allowed to gain the franchise or – in extreme cases – even deny them the vote entirely. Living in a nation without voting rights may be unjust to immigrants. But, in many cases, it will still be far better than being forcibly consigned to poverty and political oppression in their home countries. At the very least, their political freedom is enhanced by having the right to make the choice between the two for themselves. There are also a variety of other possible solutions for potential “political externalities” of immigration.

Restrictionists could still argue that denial of the ability to exclude migrants undermines the political freedom of natives even if immigration does not lead to objectionable changes in other government policies. But the right to political freedom surely cannot encompass the power to complete destroy the political freedom of others, as happens when residents of authoritarian states are denied the only means by which they can exercise any political choice at all. That is like saying that the right to religious freedom includes a right to force others to practice your own preferred faith if you believe God commands you to forcibly convert infidels. Moreover, any reduction in natives’ political freedom caused by an inability to exclude migrants irrespective of their influence on other policies is minor compared to that suffered by potential migrants who are trapped in authoritarian states by restrictionist policies.

Even in cases where immigration does cause some harm that cannot be alleviated by keyhole solutions, any such harm must be weighed against the many wrongs caused by immigration restrictions themselves. Political freedom should be an important factor in any such analysis. It certainly is not the only issue that must be weighed in debates over immigration policy. But it is a major and oft-ignored consideration tipping the scales towards broader migration rights.

Ellis Island and keyhole solutions

Nostalgic treatments of open borders in the United States often reference Ellis Island, an immigration checkpoint through which millions of people from Europe, Africa, and Asia entered the United States from 1892 to 1954 (immigrants from Latin America generally entered via land and did not need to go through a checkpoint). With the exception of a few laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the US had virtually open borders until the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, followed by the more comprehensively restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. In this blog post, I explore a few aspects of the immigration processing at Ellis Island, and compare them with how things are today. This post can be thought of as loosely related to, but not quite part of, the series started by my co-blogger Chris Hendrix.

Then versus now alert

Many things have changed between then and now. Open borders today would be a far more radical proposal than it was back in the era of Ellis Island, just in terms of the number of people who would likely move around. Falling transportation and communication costs, as well as a higher-than-ever place premium, are the obvious culprits. For these reasons, this blog post should not be interpreted as an attempt to sentimentally use a historical analogy of limited scope to sneak in an open borders conclusion, but simply an examination of the kinds of concerns that people had back then.

The legislative backdrop

(This section was added after publication of the post, based on additional understanding I gained about the timeline of immigration legislation in the United States).

Ellis Island became operational as an immigration station in 1892. It was part of the implementation of the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1891 (note: I created this Wikipedia page). This Act built on the Immigration Act of 1882 (the first major federal immigration enforcement legislation) and the Alien Contract Labor Law. In particular:

  • The Immigration Act of 1882 was the first to set formal rules regarding the regulation of entry of immigrants by sea. The Immigration Act of 1891 also extended this to people arriving by land.
  • The Immigration Act of 1882 had a few classes of excludable immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1891 expanded the list significantly, and also had a provision for medical inspection of immigrants. The medical inspection procedure at Ellis Island was the implementation of this provision.
  • The head tax on migrants mentioned later in the post was first provided for in the Immigration Act of 1882, and upheld by the Supreme Court in Head Money Cases. This tax was gradually increased in tandem with increases in the cost and complexity of immigration enforcement. I discuss the “user-funded” nature of immigration enforcement here.
  • The Immigration Act of 1891 clearly specified that the financial burden of returning prospective migrants who were deenied entry fell on the migrant’s sponsor. For migrants who had just arrived, it was the responsibility of the captain or master of the ship that brought the migrant to carry the migrant back home. Refusal to do so carried a fine, and refusal to pay the fine caused the ship to be grounded.

There was also a parallel stream of legislation developing to more effectively exclude Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in May 1882, the same month as the Immigration Act of 1882. There was other legislation pertaining to the Chinese (Scott Act of 1888, Geary Act of 1892). We currently have a blog post by Chris Hendrix on the debates leading up to Chinese Exclusion and how well the arguments hold up, and separately, by me on the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The period also saw increased rates or rejection of people from Asia (in particular, from Japan) using the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1891. However, most prospective migrants from Asia landed at ports on the West (i.e., bordering the Pacific Ocean) and are therefore not too relevant to the story of Ellis Island.

Whites/Europeans only?

Some critics of open borders would be quick to point out that migration to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century was largely migration of “whites” from Europe, whereas open borders today would entail huge amounts of migration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is true that the de facto levels and proportion of migration from these continents would be much more today than in the 20th century. But I haven’t found any evidence that, apart from the Chinese Exclusion Act (which Chris argues was a terrible idea in hindsight) there was any large-scale attempt to block immigration, de jure or de facto, from any other nationality (until the Acts of 1921 and 1924). In addition to European immigration, there was some immigration from Africa and the Caribbean, mostly arriving via the Atlantic. Immigrants from Asia (excluding China) mostly arrived at ports in the Western United States, via the Pacific Ocean. A couple of people have made related points suggesting there may have been some level of discrimination based on nationality:

  • People of Asian ethnicity and appearance were probably discriminated against. Anti-Chinese prejudice was a special case of a somewhat larger phenomenon of anti-Asian prejudice, and though only the former manifested itself in law, the latter may have had some effect on the ground. In particular, Asians were more likely to get rejected based on provisions of the Immigration Act of 1891, as being deemed likely to become public charges. Note, however, that most Asians didn’t even arrive at Ellis Island, but rather at Western ports. The Pacific analogue of Ellis Island, Angel Island, would only become operational in 1910.
  • In his post about Thomas Sowell, Alex Nowrasteh talked about the Dillingam Commission. Officers at the immigration checkpoints may well have been influenced by the findings of these commissions, and this may have influenced their decision of whom to admit and whom not to admit.

With all that said, the overall rejection rate at Ellis Island was estimated as being around 2%. This means that even the worst discriminated against nationalities are unlikely to have had a huge rejection rate (as noted, this excludes most entrants from Asia). Incidentally, this rejection rate earned Ellis Island the nickname of “Heartbreak Island” (more on that later).

How did Ellis Island process potential immigrants?

Here are two quotes from the Wikipedia page:

Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge”. About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity.[24] Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island”[25] because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs and kisses.

The trickiest part appears to have been the medical inspections:

To support the activities of the United States Bureau of Immigration, the United States Public Health Service operated an extensive medical service at the immigrant station, called U.S. Marine Hospital Number 43, more widely known as the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. It was the largest marine hospital in the nation. The medical division, which was active both in the hospital and the Great Hall, was staffed by uniformed military surgeons. They are best known for the role they played during the line inspection, in which they employed unusual techniques such as the use of the buttonhook to examine aliens for signs of eye diseases (particularly, trachoma) and the use of a chalk mark code. Symbols were chalked on the clothing of potentially sick immigrants following the six-second medical examination. The doctors would look at the immigrants as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area to the Great Hall. Immigrants’ behavior would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase. Some immigrants entered the country only by surreptitiously wiping the chalk marks off, or by turning their clothes inside out.

Alex Nowrasteh sent me a link to a book chapter by Claudia Goldin where she writes (speculatively):

Because the shipping companies that brought immigrants across the ocean were responsible for the return voyage of any who did not meet U.S. immigration standards, it is likely that these companies would have administered a literacy test of their own, in the same way that they screened for health violations in European ports.

A few things that struck me:

  1. In a sense, it’s telling that a rejection rate of about 2% earned the island the nickname of “Heartbreak Island.” Today, the rejection rate for first-time applications is about 15-20%, and the rejection rate considering repeated applications is about 10-15% (see here and here). One might also argue that there is more pre-screening today than in the past: people who don’t have the appropriate authorization documents don’t even get to the stage where they apply for a visa, because the system won’t accept their application, and the application fee deters frivolous applications. (The shift to requiring a visa began at the end of World War I and was solidified in the 1920s; more information is on the Wikipedia page on consular nonreviewability (history section). On the other hand, having to pay for a voyage and actually undertake it is also pretty strong pre-screening for desire to move. Further, the quote above suggests that shipping companies did some pre-screening of their own, though the extent of that is unclear.
  2. It can also be argued that immigration law today can be just as strict as that at Ellis Island while being far less cruel. In the days of Ellis Island, a person had to endure a long and expensive journey in cramped conditions and then got to “apply for a visa” so to speak. Today, people can apply for visas to consulates in their home countries. Possibly, with more open borders, consulate capacity would need to be expanded, or outsourced (and the higher costs of this expansion could be met through increased fees on immigrants). But at any rate, in so far as the process of rejection happens before the immigrant books the plane, bus, or ship ticket, this is less cruel on the immigrant.
  3. It’s also interesting that, even in this era where a federal welfare state, and state-level welfare states, were practically non-existent, immigration authorities were concerned about the ability of potential immigrants to fend for themselves and not become “public charges” — however, we need to keep in mind that poverty was a lot worse overall, so there were serious concerns about immigrants overstretching private charitable resources when a lot of natives were in desperate need of these. It’s notable, though, that very little money was charged of the immigrants. [ETA: I had originally written that no money was charged of the immigrants, but this seems to be factually incorrect. The Immigration Act of 1882 set a head tax of 50 cents on all entering immigrants, which was increased in stages to 8 dollars by 1917. It’s not clear if this tax was charged of all immigrants.]They were simply required to demonstrate that they possessed some money; it wasn’t taken from them: “The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars.” According to this website, $25 in 1900 dollars would be somewhere between $583 and $18,300 in today’s dollars, and the simple CPI calculation would put it at $691, and the actual “head tax” would, under the same CPI calculation, come to about $200. I think the relevant figure for our purpose is a CPI-type value, so this is not a demanding requirement]. Presumably, the goal was that there should be enough money for them to move around in search of jobs and places to live. Today, most people who migrate temporarily or permanently already have their first job or place to live lined up for them. Reading some restrictionist critiques of that era, it seems one of the chief (and valid) concerns of restrictionists was that the immigrants would essentially stay stuck near the port of arrival because they didn’t have the funds or knowledge to look for jobs elsewhere in the country — so a requirement to demonstrate some funds probably went a long way here.
  4. The medical inspections procedure feels demeaning, but in another sense it is probably one of the fastest and most efficient ways of handling a large number of immigrants. The rough idea: quick physical inspection to identify people who might need a more thorough inspection, then follow up with more detailed inspection for those people marked for more inspection. This was also a time and era where there was much more serious danger of infection and much fewer resources and techniques to combat such infections. In today’s world, it’s possible to have far more reliable screening for diseases at possibly a somewhat higher cost, without being demeaning or imposing much uncertainty on migrants.

Weekly links roundup 03 2014

Here’s our weekly installment of links from around the web (see here for all link roundups). As usual, linking does not imply endorsement.

Open Borders Day on March 16

Open Borders, the website, launched officially (with a launch announcement by Bryan Caplan on EconLog) on March 16, 2012 (check out this page to learn more about the site’s history and evolution).

Starting this year, we’ll be celebrating the launch anniversary as Open Borders Day. The first officially celebrated Open Borders Day will be on Sunday, March 16, 2014. Things we’d encourage supporters to do:

  • Tweet thoughts and links related to open borders. Use the hashtag #OpenBordersDay so that people interested in finding your tweets and contributions to the conversation can do so. You can write and publish the posts on that day, or just use the day to tweet links to stuff you or somebody else wrote. Open Borders regular bloggers and some occasional and guest bloggers will be active on Twitter throughout the day participating in the Twitter conversations.
  • Use Facebook to show your commitment to open borders. You could share the Open Borders logo, make it your profile picture or cover photo, or share links on Facebook related to open borders.
  • Organize Open Borders meetups in your area. It’s a Sunday, so a meetup should be easy to arrange. Of course, you don’t have to wait till March 16 to organize a meetup — we already organized one in the Bay Area. But an Open Borders Day might be a good Schelling point to overcome the problem of finding a date to agree upon.

If you have other suggestions for how to celebrate Open Borders Day, please provide them in the comments.

The Conservative Case for Open Borders

This post is written to be cross-posted at, a conservative news and discussion site. For that reason, it may be less congenial to the audience of Open Borders: The Case than some of my posts are, though not, I think, inconsistent. Forgive the length of the post. I thought I could make the argument more briefly when I started.

What I propose to do here– to lay out the conservative case for open borders– may seem like a contradiction in terms. Open borders is a radical proposal, which would accelerate demographic change in America. If conservatism is crudely defined as resistance to change, opening the borders can’t be a conservative policy proposal. Politically, GOP congressmen tend to oppose liberalizing immigration reform even as Democrats support it.

One argument for conservatives supporting, if not open borders, then at least immigration reform (e.g., amnesty for undocumented immigrants), is that it’s good political tactics. Immigration reform might win the votes of the growing Latino demographic for the GOP, or at least give the GOP a chance to make its case to these voters. Some groups within the conservative coalition– devout Christians, libertarians, big business– are (on average) a good deal more favorable to immigration reform than the GOP establishment, and support for immigration reform might increase their enthusiasm at election time. But of course, since immigration reform is not the same thing as open borders, and the GOP coalition is not the same thing as conservatism, all this is of little relevance to the question at hand. What I will argue is that conservatives, not the GOP, should support, not tactically but genuinely, open borders, not merely immigration reform.

First order of business: define terms. What are open borders? What is conservatism?

What is open borders? By open borders, I do not mean that everyone on earth should be able to immigrate to the US and gain citizenship and the vote (that’s a separate issue), nor that anyone on earth should be able to immigrate to the US and collect welfare payments (I definitely oppose that), nor even that anyone on earth should be able to immigrate to the US and enjoy equal opportunities with native-born Americans and be subject to the same tax regime. I mean merely that approximately anyone on earth (but perhaps excepting groups with statistical high risk of criminal behavior or political terrorism) should be able to move to the US physically, live in the US indefinitely, and work. The specific version of an open borders policy I advocate would involve migration taxes and compensation of natives, as a kind of insurance against the negative wage shocks that some US natives would probably suffer under open borders. Many, probably most, natives, would gain, however, partly because skilled Americans’ labor would be complementary with immigrant labor, and partly because of the land value windfall from open borders. The stock market would soar, too, since labor makes capital more productive at the margin. Various economists have estimated that opening the world’s borders to immigration would double world GDP, give or take. Such high estimates are possible because foreigners who move to the US and other rich countries generally a sharp rise in their productivity, and because open borders would lead to epic mass migrations. A recent Gallup poll found that 138 million people want to move to the US. Migration taxes would reduce this, but diaspora dynamics– if a large community of your compatriots is in America, the transition is easier– would tend to increase it. (Source: invertir bitcoin (BTC))

What is conservatism? That’s a harder question. Continue reading The Conservative Case for Open Borders