Thoughts on State-Based Immigration Reform

Yesterday the Cato Institute ran an event discussing a state-based approach reform with panelists Brandon Fuller (NYU Stern Urbanization Project), Reihan Salam (National Review Institute), Shikha Dalmia and moderated by Alex Nowrasteh (Cato Institute). The archived video can be found here. Regional based migration reform has been discussed previously on this blog including a discussion of Canada’s federal approach to immigration.

I must admit that I was disappointed in how the discussion developed. The panelists focused on concerns by Salam that a state-based migration system would essentially turn migrants into serfs tied to their employers. I would have preferred it if the discussion focused actions already taken by US states as it would show that Salam’s fears are unfounded.

Take for example the situation in California. Anti-migrant hysteria reached its peak in the early 90s when Proposition 187 passed and attempted to limit public services available to illegal aliens and increase domestic enforcement. Oddly enough public backlash due to the proposition lead to migrant communities, legal and illegal, to become more politically active and turn California into a sanctuary state for migrants. Last year the TRUST Act, which limits the local police forces from cooperating with federal immigration authorities unless the migrant is a violent offender or otherwise commits a major crime, was passed and signed into law by Governor Brown.  Driving licenses were also approved by the state legislature and will become available for illegal aliens in the golden state in early 2015. The California Dream Act grants state funding for those illegal aliens brought to the state as minors. At one point the state legislature even considered a bill that would grant work permits to illegal aliens working in certain sectors such as the restaurant service industry. At no point is anyone being tied to their employer.

It is true that some states have used their discretion to pass anti-migrant legislation but they’ve failed horribly. In Alabama anti-migrant state laws lead to an embarrassing incident where a Mercedes-Benz executive was locked up in jail for a minor traffic accident.  Arizona is struggling to change its public perception to appear pro-migrant after the fiasco of the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 lead to the exodus of migrants from the state and painted the copper state as bad for foreign investment. Even under the strictest state immigration policies no one is being forced into serfdom though, migrants always have the option to return home or migrate to a third country with more favorable policies. In order for Salam’s fears of serfdom to materialize migrants must be prohibited from leaving.

Some states, like Utah, have taken a middle ground by passing anti-migrant legislation similar to the Arizona bill but also passing a guest worker visa (HB 116) that would invite further migrants to the state and provide work permits for the illegal aliens already present.  The Utah bill asks that work permit holders attempt to learn English to the best of their ability, to acquire a driving license if they intend to drive in Utah, and to have health insurance unless they can prove they are not at risk of becoming a public charge. The worker permit is fully portable and can be used to work within the entire state – it even allows for permit holders to do some contract work for the state.

Salam did have a point when he brought up that some provinces in Canada were generous when it came to sponsoring migrants but failed to retain them. This is not however an argument against state based migration as it only shows that favorable immigration policies are an insufficient condition for economic prosperity if a region does not also adopt conditions favorable to growth. Easing migration policies might help cities like Detroit, but would need to be accompanied by real reforms to how they are run. In this sense pro-migrant state policies act partially as a signal that a region is serious about reforming itself.

What I truly wish the discussion would have covered is the situation in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNM). The Northern Mariana Islands are a collection of islands in the Pacific that have been held by the Spanish, Germans, and Japanese before ultimately falling in American hands following the conclusion of WW2. Instead of seeking independence the Northern Mariana islands entered into political union with the United States as a commonwealth, similar to Puerto Rico’s status. Natives of the Northern Mariana Islands possess US Citizenship and have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. When the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands joined the US they retained some powers, including the ability to settle its own migration policy independent of federal authorities. The Northern Mariana Islands used this to create a worker program to allow migrants from neighboring regions to come and provide much needed labor for the tourism and light industry sectors. The Northern Mariana Islands proved an attractive place for business as it had access to US markets, but labor costs were cheap.

In 2008 however federal authorities decided to revoke the Northern Mariana Islands’ regional migration policy with the passage of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, which ‘federalized’ the commonwealth’s immigration system. Federal authorities and proponents of the federal take over of the commonwealth’s immigration system argued that labor conditions for migrants were poor since the CNM was exempt from the federal minimum wage. What proponents failed to realize was that migrants to the Northern Mariana Islands, which are overwhelming low skilled, were better off under such conditions than their alternatives. It is doubtful that the low-skilled workers who arrived in the CNM would have been able to migrate at all under the US’ federal immigration system.

The federal take over of the CNM’s migration system lead to a legal nightmare where many migrant workers found themselves in a limbo where they had fallen out of status through no fault of their own. At the same time economic conditions deteriorated as the islands felt the impact of the US recession.  The harm that federalization of the CNM’s migration system can be seen in its population alone. At its height the islands had a population of 70,000 but has slumped down to 50,000 (a reduction of 28.6%) after many of its workers left due to the reverse in migration policy and an economic recession worsened by the decrease in labor.

The Northern Mariana Islands are trying to do their best to handle the situation, but unfortunately are unable to do so without federal changes to the migration system.  Some pro-migrant groups are calling for a day of action on March 27 to urge temporary protected status (a status that allows migrants, regardless of current status, to remain and work in the US) to be extended to the estimated 200,000 pacific islanders residing in the United States, including those in the Northern Mariana Islands, who find themselves in this legal limbo.

The Northern Mariana Islands provide a prime example that a regional migration system can work if not hindered by federal policies but has thus far been largely ignored. With any luck further thought is put onto the issue of state-based immigration reform.

The Constitution of a City of Refuge

One way to approach open borders is to liberalize migration rules in existing policies. Another is to found new polities with open borders, along the lines of what French philosopher Jacques Derrida called “cities of refuge,” or what economist Paul Romer has advocated under the name “charter cities” (only with open borders). This post proposes a constitution for an imaginary City of Refuge.

It may seem silly to write a constitution for an imaginary city, yet there is a long tradition of doing so, going back to Plato’s Republic. This post, however, does not outline an ideal state starting from first principles. I don’t believe in an ideal state. The state is, at best, a sad necessity for fallen man, and a good constitution can never substitute for a virtuous citizenry. Most constitutions fail. In a sense, all constitutions fail, for even the US Constitution, perhaps the most successful in the world, has been largely eviscerated by the judiciary, giving rise to a regime quite inconsistent with what the US Constitution really authorized. Yet constitutions matter, too.

The below constitution, then, is a kind of draft of what the Constitution of a City of Refuge might look like. It is meant as a spur to the imagination and the critical faculties. It should be read with the following fictional yet plausible background in mind. Imagine that the continuing development of worldwide moral consciousness gives rise to a belief that the right to emigrate is a fundamental human right, which the international community has an obligation to guarantee. But countries still don’t want to do by opening their own borders. Instead, they resolve to create an archipelago of Cities of Refuge around the world. The international community will negotiate with particular countries to carve out small pieces of land from their territories and develop them as Cities of Refuge, perhaps in return for various benefits, including military guarantees of territory, fiscal aid and debt forgiveness, rights to migrate for their own citizens, representation on important international bodies, perhaps merely because they hope the City of Refuge will be a hub of development with positive spillovers, as Hong Kong was for China. Initially, Cities of Refuge would be founded in relatively undeveloped, unpopulated land. The international community would build infrastructure, and they would be populated by migrants. The below constitution would serve as a kind of template, which would be adapted to local conditions and then adopted as the Constitution of a new City of Refuge.


City of Refuge, Constitution

Section I. Framework and Basic Law

Governmental Stakeholders

Governance in the City of Refuge will be based on power-sharing between:

(1) a Coalition of External Agencies;

(2) a Republic, from the Latin res publica, meaning “public affairs,” whose role is to make the city self-governing;

(3) a Host Country government.

The Coalition of External Agencies would include stakeholders like the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, representatives of donor countries, and might include private corporations, universities, churches, and other religious or secular non-governmental organizations. Its composition is expected to vary over time and to be a subject of continuing negotiations between donor governments and the representative bodies of the Republic. The Coalition of External Agencies, whatever its membership, is to be regarded as the representative of the international community, entrusted with developing the city of Refuge, in order to realize the global right to emigrate by ensuring that everyone has somewhere that they can emigrate to.

The Republic, a semi-democratic polity entrusted with giving the City of Refuge a self-governing character, is described in Section III. It will not be considered a “sovereign” polity, but it will have primary responsibility for setting public policy and providing public goods. All taxes collected on the territory of the City of Refuge will go to the Republic.

The Host Country will be held to enjoy formal sovereignty over the territory of the City of Refuge, but to have relinquished most of its rights temporarily to the Coalition of External Agencies and to the Republic. After the pre-agreed Term, the territory of the City of Refuge will revert to the full sovereignty of the Host Country, as Hong Kong reverted to China. The Host Country will also have the right and duty to monitor the treatment of its own nationals on the territory of the City of Refuge, so as to ensure that their natural rights are respected. It shall not, however, use this right and duty as a pretext for seeking special privileges for its own nationals, but rather, shall seek to ensure that its own nationals enjoy all the natural rights that the Republic and the Coalition of External Agencies respect in all persons present in the City of Refuge. Any concession made to the rights of Host Country nationals shall be deemed to be enjoyed equally by non-nationals of the Host Country.


The US dollar will be legal tender for all debts in the City of Refuge. Other currencies may be used for transactions by mutual consent of the transactors.


English, and the principal language of the Host Country, will be the chief languages of public business, education, and culture.

Basic administration of justice

One of the premises of the City of Refuge is that natural law exists, and that its content has been elucidated by international human rights law, the English common law tradition, and to some extent other traditions, but is also evident to mere enlightened common sense. Natural law will be regarded as more fundamental than, and not overridable by, positive laws promulgated by any Governmental Stakeholders.

Both on the basis of natural law, and as the fundamental premise of its Constitution, the City of Refuge will be bound to respect the right of all persons to freedom of movement. The person and “property in possession” of every human being is to be held sacrosanct, where “property in possession” includes objects physically on someone’s person or kept in a person’s abode and used frequently. It does not include ownership of land or financial assets.

Constitutionally specified details of implementation of the principle of freedom of movement are as follows. The Republic may declare up to 20% of the physical territory of the City of Refuge “gated,” and exclude Sojourners and/or Residents from it. In addition, up to 60% may be privately owned, but physically accessible via public land/easements, and requiring only the permission of the private owner to enter it. And at least 20% must be strictly public, in the sense of no physical exclusion.

The Coalition of External Agencies will initially be tasked with enforcing natural law, i.e., preventing physical violence against persons and theft of property in possession. Later, the Republic may choose to supplement this service with their own administration of justice. This Constitution hereby instructs Sojourners, Residents, and Citizens to disobey the positive laws established by the City of Refuge whenever they violate natural law, and on the other hand, to adhere to natural law even when it is not reinforced by positive law. Individuals’ first allegiance must be to the right, and not to the law. Inasmuch as the Coalition of External Authorities and the Republic fail to secure persons against physical violence or theft, self-defense measures by individuals or groups shall be considered authorized by this Constitution.

The status of Citizen within the Republic is limited to persons who show an understanding of the basic principles of the Republic, and have sworn an oath to uphold them. In particular, Citizens shall not advocate restriction of immigration, on pain of forfeiture of Citizen status.


A military force will be developed under the tutelage of the United States military and other donor countries, with which it is anticipated that it will be allied. Its function is not only the defense of the City of Refuge, but to serve as a rapid-response force for UN peacekeeping and other military tasks of general benefit to mankind and international peace, in the hope that its heroic exploits should redound to the glory of the City of Refuge. The military shall be primarily composed of Citizens of the City of Refuge, but shall have the right to recruit internationally as well in order to maximize professionalism and combat effectiveness.

Section II. Legal Status of Persons

Persons in the City of Refuge will be classified under three legal statuses, Sojourner, Resident, and Citizen, as described below.

Sojourner. Any person present in the City of Refuge who is not a Resident or a Citizen is a Sojourner.

Resident. In principle, any person whose life is centered in the City of Refuge, in the sense that the matrix of their human flourishing is located in it, should be considered a Resident. The Republic should maintain registries of Residents and establish processes for people to acquire Resident status, e.g., one year of physical presence in the City of Refuge, a declaration that the City of Refuge is their abode, evidence of familial and/or friendly connections, livelihood, etc. But it may sometimes be ascertainable that a person possessed Resident status who had not gone through the registry process, if a person was objectively resident in the City of Refuge at a given time. It is not to be regarded as at the discretion of the Republic or the Coalition of External Agencies to grant or withhold Resident status.

Citizen. Citizenship depends on informed, explicit consent to a social contract, which includes both duties and privileges, and consists in participation in the self-governing system of the Republic. The title of Citizen may be conferred in honorary fashion on children of Citizens up to a certain age, but the full rights of Citizens depend on a moderate proficiency in English and the Host Country language, knowledge relevant to civic participation as ascertained by examination, and obedience to natural and positive law. Furthermore, men, but not women, are required to serve in the armed forces of the City of Refuge in order to become full Citizens.

It is hoped that Citizen status will come to be regarded as normative for long-term Residents of the City of Refuge, and as a peculiar honor, but, on the other hand, that Citizen status will not be so economically advantageous that it will be sought primarily for mere economic gain. The Republic has the right to define how people will be admitted to Citizenship, but the criteria for Citizenship should not include race or kinship, religion, or place of birth.


Of Sojourners. Sojourners have a right to integrity of their physical person; to rent housing; to work for wages, though they may be subject to special taxes; to buy goods that are deemed to contribute to their objective flourishing; to the retention of property they carry on their person or keep in rented housing and use frequently; to freedom of speech and religion; and to such minimal freedom of contract as the authorities may deem to arise directly from natural law.

Of Residents. Residents have a right to own land and financial assets, including bank accounts with deposit insurance, backed by the Republic and/or the Coalition of External Agencies. They will enjoy a greater right to freedom of contract than Sojourners do, in that they may use forms of business organization established by statutory law. The general welfare of all Residents is to be regarded as a major governance objective for the authorities of the City of Refuge. In particular, the Republic and the Coalition of External Agencies should seek to secure low unemployment, universal primary education, and significant economic opportunity for Residents. Furthermore, the City of Refuge should provide passports to Residents and seek to secure for its passport-holders, through diplomacy, generous immigration access to other nations. The Coalition of External Agencies, in particular, is tasked with seeking to secure international mobility for City of Refuge passport holders.

Of Citizens. Citizens will have guaranteed access to the gated areas of the City of Refuge, and will have the rights of voting and full civic participation in the Republic. Other rights, such as tax exemptions, tax dividends, free education, etc., may be granted to Citizens by the Republic.

Section III. The Republic’s Legislative Bodies

In addition to natural law, a considerable body of positive law is deemed necessary, for the provision of public goods, the regulation of externalities, and the securing of the general welfare. Moreover, to discern the requirements of natural law, and to implement them administratively, is a demanding task. For this purpose a legislature is instituted.

The legislature of the Republic will consist of two bodies: the Assembly and the Senate.

THE ASSEMBLY. The Assembly will consist of 1% of the Citizens at any time, or 1,000 persons, whichever is less, chosen randomly and not by election. As with jury duty in the United States, participation in the Assembly is mandatory for Citizens, should the random selection fall on them. Certain excuses may be allowed for, but an unreasonable refusal to serve in the Assembly is grounds for revocation of Citizen status. Assembly members will be paid the median wage, and may appeal for up to five times this amount if they can show they would have earned more. Assembly duty will last for a minimum of one year. Assembly members who wish to do so may stay on for another year can stay on as non-voting but paid members, who will help to instruct the next Assembly in their duties and influence its deliberations.

The Assembly’s job is to consider petitions originated by Citizens or Residents and approve them, by a supermajority of two-thirds, or reject them. It may also amend them in a fashion consistent with the original intent of the petition, so as to facilitate their implementation. To be considered by the Assembly, petitions need the signatures of at least 1% of the Resident population, or 1% of the Citizen population, and should not violate the natural law or the Constitution. Assembly members may not initiate petitions for consideration during their own terms, but may register petitions for consideration by the next Assembly. The normative procedure for considering petitions is majority vote by all Assembly members. If there are too many petitions for Assembly members to read, the normative procedure for prioritizing them will be by number of signatures, but the Assembly can adopt another procedure if it so chooses.

THE SENATE. The Senate will consist of at least one hundred persons. If one hundred persons meeting the criterion of Senator as described here, enough persons to fill the number will be provided by the Host Country and the Coalition of External Agencies. Thus, for example, if only twenty active Senators derived from the Citizenry of the City of Refuge exist, forty will be appointed by the Coalition of External Agencies, and forty by the Host Country.

The Senatorial Qualifying Exam will be held annually, open to anyone who is interested, Citizen, Resident, or Sojourner. It will be a test of generally but civically-relevant knowledge, resembling the Foreign Service Exam used by the US government to recruit diplomats, but adapted to the particular needs of the City of Refuge. The Coalition of External Agencies, the Republic, and the Host Country will have joint responsibility for its preparation. Its contents are not to be regarded as arbitrary, but rather as objectively representing the best thought and knowledge attained by mankind on civic matters. A high score on this exam will be one of the criteria for attaining the senatorial office.

Citizens who excel on the Senatorial Qualifying Exam, and who have previously served in the Assembly, may be nominated for candidacy to the Senate, either by citizen petitions, by the Assembly, or by the Coalition of External Agencies. Citizens will not solicit nomination to the Senate unless the Senate has fewer than one hundred active members, but may be still be nominated to the Senate by the genuinely independent initiative of others. There shall be no limit on the number of active Senators who may serve at any given time.

Having been nominated, candidates for senatorial office will then be presented to the Citizenry in annual elections, along with a statement of their philosophy of government, prepared by the candidates. Senatorial elections are the only occasion when Citizens will vote. The vote will be conducted on majoritarian lines, with this modification: votes will be weighted so that men, collectively, and women, collectively, have equal weight. Senatorial elections will not be adversarial. Rather, voters may approve or reject each senatorial candidate separately.

Persons elected as Senators of the City of Refuge shall retain that rank permanently as an honorary title. However, the voting privileges and salary of Senator shall be conditional on continuous residence in the Republic and regular attendance at Senate meetings, as well as other conditions of conduct that may be stipulated by the Assembly as fitting for the dignity of a senator. A total senatorial salary will be split equally among all active senators.

Rules about senatorial conduct cannot be retroactive. They are to be regarded as under the arbitrary discretion of the Assembly, and not as arising from natural law. For example, the Assembly might rule that senators must not work in the financial sector, deal in lewd art, divorce their spouses, or possess more than $1 million in net worth. However, rules of conduct for senators must not violate freedom of religion, e.g., it should be regarded as unconstitutional to require a senator to trample on the Cross. Moreover, senators whose lifestyles are inconsistent with newly promulgated rules can ask for a three-year reprieve as that adapt to new expectations. Also, if rules of conduct require senators to spend money, e.g., to maintain a lifestyle of peculiar dignity and decorum, they may document their expenses and require compensation from the Republic.

In addition to approving petitions, senators can award up to 10% of the Republic’s tax revenue, at their own discretion, as public monuments and beautification of the City, as well as awards for inventions, achievements in poetry and the arts, military heroism, and other great services to the City.

Section IV. Public Finance

Basic government functions in the City of Refuge will be guaranteed by the Coalition of External Agencies, as a last resort, but deemed primarily the responsibility of the Republic. The Republic will not be authorized to borrow, but must pay for spending out of current revenues or by selling accumulated assets.

Spending. The Republic will dedicate funds to agencies or classes of persons, while funds permit. If funds are available, in the form of tax revenues or saleable assets, funding commitments will be met in full. If funds are insufficient, they will be met proportionally. Prioritizations may be set in place, such that some dedicated funding will be paid in full before other categories of dedicated funding begin to be paid.

Taxes. Residents and Sojourners shall be subject only to indirect taxes, which may include wage taxes, rent taxes, car taxes, tariffs on international trade, financial transactions taxes, taxes on bank accounts, user fees for government services, land taxes, excise taxes and luxury taxes, corporate taxes, and sales taxes. Income and wealth taxes on Residents and Sojourners will be deemed impermissible, as an excessive invasion of their privacy.

By contrast, Citizens will be required to report their incomes and net worth annually to the Republic and pay income and wealth taxes. In return, they may be exempted from indirect taxes and made eligible for social insurance, subsidized education, and other benefits.

Budget process. Budget proposals may originate through petition or be proposed by the Assembly or the Coalition of External Agencies, but their passage is ultimately the responsibility of the Senate, to be exercised in a fashion consistent with the framework of law established through the petitionary process. The Senate shall not have an obligation to pass budgets annually. Rather, as long as revenues are sufficient to cover expenses, taxes will be collected and dedicated funds paid out by whatever rules are in place. The Senate may, however, change the taxing and spending rules at any time, if such changes command the assent of two-thirds of active Senators. If revenues fall short of expenses, the Senate shall be obligated to revise the taxing and spending rules so that dedicated funding obligations can be met. In this case, a simple majority suffices to make changes to the budget.

Laws and mandates passed through the Assembly and the petition process which involve changes in budgetary rules will be incorporated into the taxing and spending rules which comprise the budget. However, the Senate can defund such laws and mandates if it deems such changes desirable from a budgetary perspective. In that case, after a reasonable lapse of time, they shall be considered null and void.

Excess revenue. If revenue exceeds spending, the surplus will be used to purchase US Treasury bonds, or whatever asset the Senate shall deem suitable, up to a threshold, initially set to $5 million. Excess revenue above this amount will be divided equally and paid out to Citizens. The threshold may be raised or lowered with the consent of the Senate and the Assembly.

Section V. Education and Public Discourse

Freedom of conscience, speech, and religion will be recognized as fundamental principles of the City of Refuge.

The primary role of government in education will consist in scheduling regular public examinations, equally available in English and in the Host Country language. Such exams will be part of the basis for determining eligibility for Citizen status, and for senatorial candidacy, but they should also be developed and administered in such a fashion that they are regarded by private sector employers as valuable indicators of human capital.

Compulsory education in publicly-provided schools will be regarded as a violation of the right to be educated in a manner consistent with one’s beliefs. If the City of Refuge chooses to educate children at the public expense, it must do so through a voucher system, so that the ideological content of education may be determined in the marketplace of ideas and not by government fiat. However, the City may disqualify schools from the receipt of voucher funding on grounds of underachievement on public examinations of objective knowledge.

The Constitution of the City of Refuge will make no commitment to neutrality among opinions, religions, worldviews, etc. On the contrary, it will leave Governmental Stakeholders free to give law and policy an educative function, and to seek to shape public opinion, e.g., through publicly financed and administered news media. The City has a positive right to express its own views and opinions, but not a negative right to suppress the views or opinions of others. There shall be no censorship of opinions and views.

While freedom of conscience, speech, and religion are recognized as fundamental rights, Citizenship is not a right, but a privilege, and may be made conditional on expressed opinions. The right of the Republic to regulate the speech of its members, arising from the principle of freedom of association, will be used in only two respects:

1. Citizens shall not advocate the violation of the human rights of others, in particular the freedom of migration which is the City’s raison d’etre.

2. Citizens shall not assert a right of the City of Refuge to secede permanently from the Host Country.

Any Citizen who is found to have expressed these forbidden opinions may be stripped of Citizenship. The Coalition of External Agencies shall be primarily responsible for the disqualification of Citizens who advocate restrictions of migration or violation of human rights. The Host Country shall be primarily responsible for the disqualification of Citizens who advocate secession.

Section VI. Dissolution

At the end of the pre-agreed period, the City of Refuge will revert to the sovereignty of the Host Country, which may choose to what extent it will maintain the institutions that have evolved in the meantime, or assimilate them to its own internal institutions. However, the Host Country agrees to permit all Citizens and Residents of the City of Refuge to become citizens of the Host Country at this time, on equal terms with existing citizens.

If, at the time when reversion to full Host Country sovereignty is scheduled, the Coalition of External Agencies deems that the Host Country has refused to guarantee the continued right of residence of inhabitants of the City of Refuge, it may postpone the reversion of the City of Refuge to Host Country, until such time as the Host Country has provided such guarantees.


It is fascinating to think about what kind of society would emerge in the framework of a Constitution like this. I don’t know of course, but I have a few guesses.

Imagine Singapore juxtaposed on a UNHCR-administered refugee camp. I think Cities of Refuge would tend to be a little like that. Smart policy, foreign aid, and entrepreneurial migrants would generate a lot of economic growth, but masses of desperate people would be difficult to absorb comfortably. You might see skyscrapers next to shantytowns.

There would be an eccentric element in the population, misfits and outputs from all over the world, dangerous or innocuous. It would be a mecca for market-dominant minorities, as well as for NGOs and international humanitarian types– another interesting juxtaposition.

A romantic element in the population would be international couples who had trouble getting visas to one another’s countries.

Universities would love it, because they could attract students from all over the world, without needing to worry about processing visas. In general, there’d be a lot of learning and self-improvement. MOOCs would do brisk business.

Culturally, the mixture of people of so many backgrounds would be discombobulating, as well as stimulating. However, a cultural center of gravity might be created through a fusion of (a) an international Americanized bourgeoisie with (b) a large influx of Host Country nationals. Others could assimilate to this culture, but there would be large pockets of unassimilated immigrants from particular regions. All in all, the cultural landscape would be rather clannish and segregated. Nonetheless, I don’t think it would be too difficult to secure civil peace and make the interaction of races and cultures fruitful rather than hostile.

The Cities of Refuge would attract religious communities persecuted in their homelands, and would become centers of Christian missions as well.

There would be enormous economic inequality in the City, but not so much among Citizens. Some very rich tax refugees would settle in the Cities of Refuge, but might prefer not to become Citizens because they would then be subject to income and wealth taxes, as well as Assembly and (for men) military service obligations.

Much depends on whether Citizens would really come to feel pride in their City, and in the attainment of various offices and honors within it. But I think they would. Human beings thirst for recognition, and I think many a downtrodden refugee would be greatly moved and inspired by a chance to be called Citizen of a famous City, and to have a real role in its self-governing constitution– much more of a role, indeed, than the typical citizen of a Western democracy enjoys.

head contests of Republican against Democrat, or Labor against Conservative. The frequent need for supermajorities would make mere partisan victories rather hollow. Note that the rules for joining the Senate tend to impede political ambition, since one can’t be elected Senator without serving in the Assembly, and that depends on random chance. The Constitution is designed to encourage government by a consensus among ordinary Citizens, as opposed to competition among elites. In my view, the combination of ethnic fractionalization with democracy tends to be disastrous precisely because democracy is divisive, and while fomenting divisions can be usefully stimulating when there is sufficient pre-existing homogeneity, it is dangerous when the population is already fragmented. So my Constitution is designed to foment not division, but consensus.

The Citizens themselves may amount to a kind of elite. They are likely to be a minority of the resident population, more rooted and better educated. That they receive direct transfers out of excess tax revenues will give them a strong incentive to run the City of Refuge in a way that fosters wealth creation and keeps government small. Participation in the military and the Assembly will strengthen their attachment to the Republic, and their knowledge of its procedures.

All these guesses may be far off the mark, but one thing I can say with confidence. A passport-free Charter City would be a fascinating place.

Factors constraining migration in the short run following significant migration liberalization

A while back, I posted in Open Borders Action Group the following question:

What do you think would be the critical factor constraining migration rates in the short run if migration policy were significantly liberalized?

and offered a list of possibilities to begin with. Commenters rated the possibilities and added a few more. I have tried to combine the wisdom offered by different commentators and will list the possibilities in decreasing order of importance as per the combined wisdom. The numbering is not the same as in the original OBAG post, but I parenthetically include the original numbers for comparison.

Note that this post isn’t based on a direct analysis of empirical data. That would take too much time and space. I’m planning to have more posts with detailed discussions of particular cases, such as the Mariel boatlift and German reunification. Note that neither of these fits the template too well, because these involve emigration push factors more than liberalization pull factors. If you have other suggestions or historical instances of sudden influxes of migrants based on migration liberalization or for other reasons, do share them in the comments.

A little more context: there are many different views regarding how many would move under migration liberalization. One view is that receiving countries will be swamped. Another extreme is that migration policy has little effect on migration rates (this is a crude simplication of some economic determinist views). Both views present problems for advocates of open borders: the former suggests that it would overwhelm the world, while the latter suggests that there wouldn’t be sufficient migration to realize the huge potential economic gains from migrating.

Bryan Caplan recently pointed out that Paul Collier’s diaspora dynamics model helps resolve the contradiction in a manner that doesn’t look too bad for open borders: migration rates are slow initially, and pick up gradually. This post considers more closely what factors affect the initial migration flow after significant liberalization.

#1: Jobs (was #4 in the original list)

Economic opportunity is a primary reason for people migrating. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will go to the place with the highest-paying jobs, but they’re highly unlikely to move if they (or their family members) don’t expect to find a job that’s at least somewhat better than what they currently have. One reason why migration has such huge promised benefits is that people can move to jobs where they produce more and earn more, thanks to a place premium.

However, it takes time for new jobs to be created. For instance, factory jobs require the factory to be constructed first. Even for job types with low capital costs (such as janitorial services), natives or existing migrants need to set up the services first before others can confidently expect to find employment.

In addition to the fixed costs and time lag of creating jobs (in anticipation of the larger number of migrants who would fill those jobs), there are also regulatory barriers that prevent people from taking up certain kinds of jobs immediately upon moving. If these barriers were relaxed, people might be able to move more quickly. Else, they may need to first arrange for appropriate training or licensing programs to pass the licensing restrictions needed to practice the trade.

#2: Presence of friends and connections in the target country (diaspora dynamics) (was #8 in the original list)

People rarely want to move if they don’t know anybody where they are going. Paul Collier’s analysis of diaspora dynamics notes that migration between two regions starts as a trickle, and, if initial migrants report positive experiences, then it starts building up. In addition to the informational value, people also have better legal, social, and cultural support structures once a diaspora from their homeland has already settled in the new country.

#3: Bureaucracy (was #7 in the original list)

Even after a government announces significantly more liberal migration, the implementation of the policy on the ground would probably take time. New embassies or consulates would be needed to process the larger numbers of visa applications. Other government departments that screen migrants for criminal or terrorist risk would need to be expanded. The legislative changes would take time to be translated into new administrative procedures. This would add delays ranging from several months to several years, depending on how big the changes are.

#4: Housing (was #1 in the original list)

New migrants need a place to stay. Construction of housing has a significant lag time, ranging from at least a few months to a few years, depending on the location. This relates to the bureaucracy point: much of the delay in housing construction can be attributed to delays with getting permits, though the time cost of physically constructing new houses is also nontrivial.

Housing may not be a big issue if migrants can squeeze into existing housing more. I expect that many potential migrants would be willing to live (at least in the short run, while new housing is still being constructed) in crowded housing conditions in order to benefit from the greater earning power in the new country. However, existing laws against overcrowding might again get in the way. Since these regulations tend to be local, however, it’s possible to imagine that, under more liberal migration policies, some cities that are particularly keen to attract migrants will loosen their regulations to encourage such migration, even if others continue to maintain regulation that forbids overcrowding.

#5: Arranging money for the moves, and closing shop in the home country (was #5 in the original list)

The significance of this factor depends to quite an extent on the population segment for which migration is liberalized. Poor potential migrants would probably need some time to arrange for their moves, because they are cash-constrained. They may need to borrow money from existing lenders. Or, new lending arrangements specifically tied to the liberalized migration policy might emerge. This could take several months. High-skilled migrants may not be cash-constrained, but they may have a harder time closing shop in their home country. Those pursuing educational degrees may wait till their degree is completed. Those in a job may need to give a few months’ notice to their employers. People may need to figure out whether and how to dispose of their current real estate and other assets.

#6: Roads and transit infrastructure (was #6 in the original list)

Transportation infrastructure is a major determinant of where people choose to live now, and it will be a determinant of migration flows. The density of roads as well as other transportation infrastructure (such as railway lines) puts limits on the densities sustainable in a region.

This may not be a big factor if migrants can easily move to relatively underpopulated rural areas. But mass migration is likely to be spurred by large numbers of factory or service jobs in dense urban regions, and these do depend on development of transportation infrastructure. Moreover, existing diasporas from their homeland (such as Chinatowns or Little Italies) are most likely to be found in dense urban regions.

#7: Housing utilities infrastructure: electricity, water, and cooking gas (was #2 in the original list)

If native use levels of housing utilities remained unchanged, and migrants were expected to use them at the same rate as natives, then the infrastructure would need considerable expansion before people could migrate. However, I expect that, at least initially, migrants would use considerably less of the infrastructure than natives do. Further, short-run price increases in infrastructure can discourage use at the margin — there’s considerable scope to cut back on the use of electricity and water that people don’t bother implementing because the cost is too little. Resources such as water and electricity are also used heavily by agriculture and industry, and they can cut back on the use of these with rising prices. Moreover, the costs of electricity are determined by the costs of fuels (petroleum, natural gas, coal). Enough of these are traded in a global market that people moving from one region to another will not increase the relevant demand too much in the short run (though demand would increase over the longer run as these people become more prosperous and assimilate into First World levels of fuel use). Finally, some of the housing utility costs scale with the number of households rather than the number of individuals, so if migrants live in more crowded housing, and/or the higher housing prices encourage natives as well to switch to more crowded housing, the overall increase in the use of utilities is even lower.

#8: Physical transportation of migrants to their new lands (was #3 in the original list)

This is arguably the least important, because the fraction of travel currently devoted to long-term migration is fairly small (1-10%) of international travel. Much international travel involves business trips, people visiting friends and relatives, and vacation trips. If a lot more people seek to permanently migrate, that would raise international travel costs somewhat, and dissuade some people from going on vacation trips or visiting friends and relatives. Some people may teleconference instead of making an international business trip. We don’t need an expansion in the number of flights in the short term, though that will probably happen over the longer term. The time taken for people to get visas and to arrange money for their moves is probably more than the lag time involved with flight booking.

Flights may be too expensive for some potential migrants. It’s also possible that ship-based transportation will be able to take care of some of these migrants. Currently, ships are not used for people traveling long distances, but this is largely because most such people value their time a lot higher than the extra cost of traveling by air. If air travel gets too expensive, or if the people traveling care more about cost than time, then cheap, ship-based travel will emerge. It’ll probably be intermediate in quality (and cost) between the ships used to transport people in the 19th century to Ellis Island and the luxury cruise liners of today.

Weekly OBAG roundup 05 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Blegs with thought-provoking general questions

Discussions of specific historical or current situations

Material to use for advocacy

Event invitations

Helping North Korean refugees: an evaluation

Roughly speaking, we can estimate the value of rescuing people from a totalitarian regime or otherwise dysfunctional system by considering the difference between the quality of life they’d experience once rescued and the quality of life they’d experience if not rescued. Given how unchanging life is in North Korea, the quality of life they’d experience if not rescued is about the same as the quality of life they were leading prior to being rescued.

North Korea seems a particularly promising place because we have good reason both to believe that people lead low-quality lives there currently, and that they are likely to lead high-quality lives if they are successfully rescued (though there are some important caveats to the latter).

Life in North Korea at present

Estimates put GDP (PPP) per capita in North Korea at around $1800 per year. This is not the lowest in the world, but it’s at the low end; the poorer countries are mainly Haiti, Afghanistan, and some small countries, most of them in Africa. Further, because of the closed and highly restrictive nature of the North Korean economy, prospects for economic growth in North Korea look bleak unless there is some kind of political change.

Potential for North Korean who escape

In general, there are serious questions about the extent to which refugees will be able to adapt to their new enviroments. Although life for them will most likely be better than where they came from, the size of the gap depends on a number of factors. Below, I list some factors to consider:

  • According to official estimates, North Korea has a 99% national literacy rate. This is better than the global literacy rate (estimated at 84%) and dramatically better than literacy rates in other countries with incomes in a similar ballpark. For comparison, Nigeria and India, both large countries that are wealthier per capita than North Korea, have literacy rates 61.3% and 73.8% according to this table.
  • However, the official statistics are hard to interpret, because literacy could be defined in many different ways and statistics are hard to corroborate in a country where there is little scope for outsiders to independently verify claims.
  • Further, it seems that most North Koreans don’t learn any language other than Korean, which makes it difficult for them to immediately settle anywhere other than South Korea.
  • The educational system in North Korea indoctrinates people into worshipping their leaders and often teaches blatant falsehoods to boost national glory and prevent people from being attracted to knowledge that might undermine the regime. Thus, people have to “unlearn” a lot when they move out of North Korea. This might be an argument in favor of rescuing people when they are younger.
  • The anecdotal story of Joseph Kim (video) suggests that many North Koreans are unable to put their best in school because they are constantly looking for food and battling hunger — a concern similar to that in many other countries. Joseph Kim describes himself as having been a F student back in elementary school in North Korea, and he says he didn’t even go to middle school. Upon moving to the United States, Joseph Kim was able to turn around his academic performance. It’s unclear how unusual he is relative to other potential North Korean refugees.
  • Genetically, North Koreans are quite similar, probably indistinguishable, from South Koreans. Thus, to the extent that we consider South Korea’s rapid recent economic growth and technological progress as being linked to genetic potential, this is an argument in favor of North Koreans having huge potential when they leave. Whether this counterbalances the concerns surrounding indoctrination and wasted childhoods is unclear. Note also that at the individual level, higher IQ doesn’t lead to substantially higher earnings or life satisfaction, so this connection is not that strong.
  • There is some weak evidence of high ability for North Koreans, but it is hard to interpret. North Korea, despite having a population of only 25 million, consistently does well at the International Mathematical Olympiad (here are their historical scores). There were some accusations of cheating in 1991 and 2010, but these were not well-substantiated and in any case the consistently good performance over many years is not explained. However, it seems that, since North Korean education stops after grade 10, the IMO team gets intensive separate training (i.e., they study primarily for Olympiads, rather than juggle that with schoolwork). This arguably gives them an advantage over people in other countries for whom excelling in Olympiads is just one of many things they are juggling. There is little evidence of other significant accomplishment, but the indoctrination and the closed nature of the society probably explains that completely. Also note that Communist countries have historically performed well at mathematics. Part of the reason may be that the regime is happy to encourage mathematical excellence, considering mathematics a relatively harmless outlet for intellectual curiosity that would not threaten the regime’s indoctrination attempts.
  • The North Korean regime ruthlessly prevents people from escaping, both by suppressing information and by using physical force. Thus, the set of people who manage to successfully escape are likely to be highly selected. This could be an argument that strengthens the case for rescuing people (since the people rescued are likely to have unique talents that make them likely to both gain and contribute more once they have escaped), but it could also be an argument for diminishing returns from scaling up rescue operations (as rescue becomes accessible to people who are not that well-selected). Note that diminishing returns could still be pretty huge returns in absolute terms — it’s just that extrapolating from the gains to current refugees might lead one to overstate returns.

Escaping and returning

Do those who escape from North Korea regret it? Surprisingly, many do desire to return, and some sneak back in.

It is very, very difficult to escape directly across the border from North Korea to South Korea. The typical route for defectors is to escape to China and from there to other places (Mongolia, South Korea, Thailand). One escape route is to China, then Mongolia (via the Gobi desert), where they are arrested by the Mongolian government and deported to South Korea.

Those who manage to escape to China but aren’t able to escape further have to live underground as illegal immigrants, in constant fear of deportation. Here’s what Wikipedia says about North Korean defectors in China:

In China there are 20,000−30,000 North Korean refugees.[citation needed] There was a continued decline in the number of North Korean refugees in China, with around 11,000 in the country at year’s end,[when?][13][14] mostly in the northeast, making them the largest population outside of North Korea; these are not typically considered to be members of the ethnic Korean community, and the Chinese census does not count them as such. Some North Korean refugees who are unable to obtain transport to South Korea marry ethnic Koreans in China and settle there; they blend into the community but are subject to deportation if discovered by the authorities. Those who have found ‘escape brokers’, try to enter the South Korean consulate in Shenyang. In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened the security and increased the number of police outside the consulate.

Today there are new ways of getting into South Korea. One is to follow the route to the Mongolian border; another is the route to southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, who welcome the North Korean defectors.[15]

According to a source from 2005, “60 to 70% of the defectors [in China] are women, 70 to 80% of whom are victims of human trafficking.”[16] Most of the clients of North Korean women are Chinese citizens of Korean descent, largely elderly bachelors.[17] Violent abuse starts in apartments near the border with China, from where the women are then moved to cities further away to work as sex slaves. Chinese authorities arrest and repatriate these North Korean victims. North Korean authorities keep repatriates in penal labour colonies (and/or execute them) and execute the Chinese-fathered babies “to protect North Korean pure blood” and force abortions on pregnant repatriates who are not executed.[16]

China refuses to grant refugee status to North Korean defectors and considers them illegal economic migrants. The Chinese authorities arrest and deport hundreds of defectors back into North Korea, sometimes in mass immigration sweeps. Chinese citizens caught aiding defectors face fines and imprisonment. In February 2012, Chinese authorities repatriated North Korean defectors being held in Shenyang and five defectors in Changchun from the same location. The case of the 24 detainees, who have been held since early February garnered international attention due to the North’s reported harsh punishment of those who attempted to defect. Beijing repatriates North Korean refugees under a deal made with Pyongyang, its ally. Human rights activists say those repatriated face harsh punishment including torture and imprisonment in labor camps.[18]

North Koreans are escaping the impoverished country every day, across the heavily guarded border to mainland China to avoid persecution and starvation. The escapees might face death, if returned to their homeland. South Korean human rights activists are continuing to stage hunger strikes and appeal to the U.N. Human Rights Council to urge China to stop the deportation of the refugees.[19][20][21]

Human rights organizations have compiled a list of hundreds of North Korean defectors repatriated by China.[22][23] For some of them the fate after repatriation to North Korea is described, ranging from torture, detention or prison camp to execution. The list also includes humanitarian workers, who were assassinated or abducted by North Korean agents for helping refugees.

Thus, simply escaping to China is not much good. It’s a first step, but one that can easily be reversed without complementary steps.

Many people from North Korea currently living in South Korea evince desires to return. Commonly cited reasons include:

  • Many of them are saddled with the debt they had to pay to the people who smuggled them out. Although the South Korean government does give them some money to get started with their new lives (about $3,000 according to a comment in a discussion of LiNK on the Open Borders Action Group) this isn’t enough to repay the debt (about $7000).
  • They miss their families acutely. The situation for North Koreans is considerably harder than for migrants from other countries because of the absence of communication channels with their relatives. Also, unlike migrants from other countries, they cannot easily send remittances to their family. (There do exist informal channels of smuggling in foreign currencies, but these are quite costly because of the clandestine nature of operations).
  • Those who escape as children often have difficulty adjusting to South Korea’s highly competitive educational system. Coming from a place with low educational standards and significant indoctrination, they find it hard to readjust to the intellectual expectations in South Korea. Affirmative action (intended to help them) often places them in universities with higher academic standards than they are prepared for.
  • The ones who escape as adults often lack the necessary skills to get good jobs in the South Korean economy, and they have difficulty affording the high living costs, particularly housing costs.

See here, here, and here for more.

The cost of rescue and resettlement

Obviously, one factor that would go into determining whether rescuing people from North Korea is cost-effective is the cost of rescue and resettlement. I’ve been told that people who pay for smugglers generally pay about $7,000 to get all the way to South Korea (it’s cheaper to get to China alone, but, as noted above, that is often not enough and could even make things worse). Liberty in North Korea claim that they can execute a rescue for $2,500. Their 2012 budget is about a million dollars, of which about $149,000 were spent directly on rescuing 40 people (average about $3,700). The figure of $2,500 may reflect cost reductions since then. If we assume that their entire budget was necessary in order to facilitate the existing rescues, the effective cost per rescue comes at $25,000. It’s unclear how to interpret the figures, because of many hidden costs and questions regarding the scalability of operations. I would expect the cost of rescue to range between $2,500 and $100,000 per person for the next few thousand people to be rescued. At the lower end of the estimate range, it seems that the cost of rescue is very small relative to the other considerations, so that even a slight net of benefits relative to costs makes rescuing people arguably competitive with GiveDirectly. At the higher end (which is probably more realistic), it does start becoming comparable with the net of other costs and benefits, though I still think rescues are potentially cost-competitive with other philanthropic options (but more on this later).

Spending resources on better resettlement might help increase the value of rescues (by reducing the rate at which people regret their decision to migrate), so that might need to be factored into the total cost of rescues but also increase the benefits from rescues.

Other factors

Some other considerations:

  • More rescues mean that the world gets a better understanding of life in North Korea.
  • Existing rescues may facilitate further rescues, and also facilitate political change in North Korea as more people in North Korea get to learn more about the world outside.
  • An increase in rescues could lead to further tightening of the border, specifically the North Korean border with China, further immiserating the population.
  • The South Korean government and society get a sense of the challenges that they might face under an eventual reunification.