The Use of Race As An Argumentative Tactic

Advocates of immigration reform occasionally feel tempted to use accusation of racism as an argumentative tactic. Most recently Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Attorney General Eric Holder, and other high ranking Democrats have suggested that the reason their Republican counterparts oppose immigration reform is due to the race of most migrants.

There is certainly a subset of open border opponents that could be classified as racists and oppose open grounds either due to a belief that migrants taint their superior race or that racial homogeneity is itself desirable and  migrants pose a danger to this. Even if this is the case calling out our opponents as racists is counterproductive.

Accusing opponents of racism is a poor argumentative strategy because it antagonizes them. More importantly this strategy antagonizes those who were previously sympathetic but who identify with open border opponents. In the current immigration debate in the United States it causes pro-reform Republicans to defend their peers out of political tribalism. Open border advocates in the US are reminded that several leading Republicans support immigration reform including: the Bush family, Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham, Governor Rick Perry, and many others. Using race as an argumentative tactic could very well cost us these allies.

In an earlier post Vipul Naik discusses similar points to these and elaborates on why accusations of racism make for poor argumentation. I agree with Naik that accusing open border opponents of racism directly is poor strategy, but leading your opponent to reveal themselves as racists might be good strategy if done properly.

In argumentation one is considered to have conceded a point to their opponent if they do not attempt to refute claims made. As such, while I do not favor directly calling our opponents racist, I do not believe we should implicitly concede to them that migrants and natives are significantly different from one another culturally.  A better tactic would be to emphasize that migrants aren’t significantly different from the native population and that it is the burden of our opponents to prove otherwise.

For example I personally advocate that the largest current migrant group to the United States, Hispanics, are ‘westerners’ and that the perceived differences between Hispanics and natives are smaller than they first appear. I use the term ‘westerner’ here to refer to a set of cultural pillars that are associated with Western Europe and those nations that have been influenced by the region through colonialism or other forms of prolonged cultural exchange. This includes the Americas, Australia, and certain regions of Africa and Asia such as South Africa and Japan respectively.

The United States views itself primarily as a ‘western’ nation, but what is considered ‘western’ and who is considered ‘western’ varies throughout time. There was a time when the Irish, Germans, and other Europeans weren’t seen as westerners and only Christian Anglo-Saxons from the United Kingdom and their American descendants fit the bill.  Jews weren’t considered westerners even if their ancestry was firmly entrenched in the US or the United Kingdom, but today they too are considered westerners.

The definition of ‘westerner’ has since changed and will continue to change but today the major prerequisites are:

As I often remind friends who are skeptical about open borders, Hispanics are primarily Christian and speak a European language (Spanish, Portuguese, or English) as a native tongue. Hispanics all come from countries where republicanism is the norm. Mexico and Brazil both experimented with monarchies in their early histories, but have long since been staunch republics. The only extant monarchies in the Americas are Canada and the Anglo Caribbean.  A Queen of Jamaica exists, but no Hispanic country recognizes a monarch over them.

United States popular culture prevails throughout Latin America. Fidel Castro once remarked that Mexican children knew Disney characters better than their own history. The comment offended Mexican officials but it was made with merit. No one in my extended family, most of whom were born and raised in Mexico, know that Mexico was ruled by Emperor Maximilian during the early 19th century. They can easily list Disney characters and keep up with the latest American fads though. In my family’s defense the 2010 Civics Report Card released by the US Department of  Education showed that US residents weren’t that well versed in civics. Arguably this shared disdain for civics with their northern cousins is another example of how Hispanics are a western people.

Hispanics are westerners  as far as religion, politics, linguistics, and popular culture are concern. I further argue that the third largest current migrant groups in the United States, Indians, are also westerners.

The Indian subcontinent was invaded and colonized extensively by European powers beginning in the 16th century. British Raj reached its peak during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Indian subcontinent was ruled by European powers for nearly half a millennium and only recently did it gain independence in the form of various polities, the largest being the Union of India. By no means should this post be taken to mean that European colonization of the Indian continent was morally right. However it cannot be denied that it changed the subcontinent and left it western character.

Politically India is the world’s largest democracy, a title that it has openly embraced. The last vestiges of India’s attachment to monarchy were severed in 1950 when a republic was proclaimed.

India today has twenty two official languages and several more with varying degrees of recognition. The working language of the Indian Union however is English with 350 million speakers, most of whom speak it as a second language. Hindi, the official language of the Union, has a larger amount of speakers at 422 million. Despite this English enjoys a preferential status as it is a neutral language that doesn’t favor any linguistic group and facilitates trade abroad.

Knowledge and use of English among Indian migrants in the US is greater still. According to the US Census’ 2012 American Community Survey approximately 80% of Indians in the US speak English ‘very well’. This is superior to the Mexican community’s 68% or Argentine’s 74%. These results shouldn’t be surprising as migrants self-select and those most likely to migrate and settle in the United States long term are those most likely to already have a deposition to become western.

The only measure by which Indians fail to qualify as westerners is in terms of religion. Arguably this is the least important qualifier as Judeo-Christianity is being challenged by secularism for dominance in the west. Linguistically English still enjoys a favorable position in India proper and among Indian migrants in the US. It is extremely doubtful that India will be trading its democracy for a new Mughal Empire anytime soon. As a matter of fact India is currently engaging in an five-week national election consisting of 814 million voters.

None of this should be misunderstood to mean that there are not differences among the world’s cultures. My point here is that we should emphasize similarities instead of differences when discussing immigration policy. As an argumentative tactic we should force our opponents to elaborate on what they mean by cultural differences and fight them for every inch. If they claim that Hispanics are different because they speak Spanish instead of English let us ask if they have similar views in regards to Germans. Germans are the United States’ largest ancestry group in no small part due to massive migration and various German languages still persist to this day, including Pennsylvania Dutch among the Amish people. If our opponents claim their concern is that Hispanics are primarily Catholics, ask them if they have similar views towards the Irish or ask them to elaborate on which sect of Christianity they believe the United States should adopt. Mormon?

It is well possible that our opponents will retort that they would have opposed both German and Irish migration. This is okay. If our opponents do this they will isolate those of German and Irish descent who might otherwise have been inclined to listen to them.  Ultimately the goal of public debate is not to convince an opponent but to persuade the minds of those yet undecided or who are on the fence.

Asking an opponent to elaborate on how migrants and natives are different culturally is a good tactic when an immigration debate moves away from economics and towards culture as it causes opponents to attempt to get specific without offending natives who fail to meet the prerequisites for being considered western. In comparison calling our opponents racist ends the conversation or isolates those who might otherwise be sympathetic to open borders.

When using this tactic one should attempt to make it clear that they don’t necessarily support basing migration policy on whether a group is western or not. Co-blogger Chris Hendrix has addressed this issue previously. The purpose of this tactic is to get your opponent to expend energy on detailing on what grounds migrants are different from natives culturally and to hopefully have him isolate himself.

Finally, when using this argumentative tactic one should not forget to make the economic case for open borders. Immigration debates tend to start off discussing the economics of immigration. If the open borders advocate makes a strong economic case then the debate will move onto more abstract reasons for opposing open borders, including the above concerns of cultural differences between migrants and natives. If the debate takes this turn then using the above tactic can be useful. However if the open border advocate fails to make a compelling economic case then he should not move onto other areas. This tactic should be used to supplement, not substitute, the economic case for open borders.

The virtues of borders

Much of the philosophical discussion of open borders focuses on the rights of the parties involved. Is there a presumptive right to freedom of movement? Does the state have a presumptive right to restrict, via freedom of association or some other avenue? Rights, in either direction, probably attract the most attention because each side would like to head the other off at the pass and avoid the murkiness of empirical facts and conflicting values. If some right is established, it will foreclose a lot of argumentation.

But perhaps it’s useful to remember there’s still a discussion to be had whichever way the rights question is decided. And just because one might believe a nation has a right to restrict entrance, it hardly follows that exercising that right is the best option, either ethically or economically. Christopher Heath Wellman, author of one of the most well-regarded essays defending the right of a nation to restrict immigration, himself actually favored more liberal immigration rules.

[I] doubt that any one-size-fits-all immigration policy exists, and I, qua philosopher, have no special qualification to comment on the empirical information that would be relevant to fashioning the best policy for any given state. However, if anything, I am personally inclined toward more open borders. My parents were born and raised in different countries, so I would not even be here to write this article if people were not free to cross political borders. What is more, my family and I have profited enormously from having lived and worked in several different countries, so it should come as no surprise that I believe that, just as few individuals flourish in personal isolation, open borders are typically (and within limits) best for political communities and their constituents. Still, just as one might defend the right to divorce without believing that many couples should in fact separate, I defend a legitimate state’s right to control its borders without suggesting that strict limits on immigration would necessarily maximize the interests of either the state’s constituents or humanity as a whole.

With this post I’d like to suggest we ponder what a virtuous approach to migration policy would be, setting aside the important question of rights. This approach risks immediately running aground. Does it even make sense to talk about “virtuous policy”? Can virtue only be discussed in terms of individual behavior? Maybe. But I suspect questions of virtue come up in policy considerations whether it’s appropriate or not. Consider Adam Gurri’s recent thoughts on courage and security.

Everyone, as either a driver or a pedestrian, or both, has had a moment where things could have gone a little differently and ended in severe injury or death. It does not take a great deal of experience with the roads of most metropolitan areas to have such moments. Yet we do not hide in our homes, we do not give up on driving. After feeling the risks acutely, we go on with our lives as before.

We certainly do not demand that the state step in and enact a set of intrusive, byzantine measures to make us feel safer. We simply find the courage in ourselves and continue with our lives.

Whether it’s airport security or mass surveillance, we have sacrificed a great deal of not only liberty, but dignity, for uncertain and unquantifiable gain. The citizens of this country need to find the courage to take that liberty and that dignity back. This does not seem too much to ask of a people who find such courage every single day, when they step into a car.

Ben Franklin famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The motivation for this pronouncement of desert is that such a people want for courage. Can we make similar observations about borders?

The empirical cases for and against open borders often implicitly rely on prudential reasoning, as does much economic argumentation. Prudence is here conceived as no-nonsense self-interest. So advocates of open borders point to the massive economic gains to be had by liberalizing migration while restrictionists point to those who might lose out, whether they are unskilled natives in the host country or those rural poor left behind in the sending country.

Solidarity (an instance of faith or loyalty) matters here. The restrictionist may be unimpressed with the prudential calculations of the mobilitarian who downplays the importance of communal solidarity. The unskilled poor natives of the host country may not be as poor as those in the Global South, but they are our poor, and it’s our obligation to look after them. The restrictionist concerned about the poorest of the poor, left behind in remote villages, likewise condemns the relatively well-off emigrants who fail to uphold their obligations of solidarity to their poorer fellow nationals. (I’m leaving to the side for now any discussion of the empirical reality of these concerns.)

The mobilitarian might respond that solidarity is well and good but it is grossly disproportionate to the scale of justice at issue. It is unjust that the citizens of rich countries are privileged by right of birth to enjoy successful institutions that they played no part in creating. Injustice is visited upon the poor of the world when they are forcefully imprisoned in their countries for no other reason than that they were born there.

As to the question of whether emigrants fail in some solidaritous duty to their poorer fellow nationals, one might respond that the individual should have some choice in choosing her identities, where her duties of solidarity lie, and further that this is a matter better left to the emigrant and her co-nationals, rather than outsiders. Certainly chaining an individual to her country of birth for any reason seems to diminish her autonomy, and thus disrespects her dignity.

Speaking of successful institutions, the restrictionist has another appeal to prudence: the institutions of the rich world must be protected, and exposing these institutions to foreigners with very different cultures is simply too risky. This is the familiar Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs critique, which I have considered previously. Like Gurri’s approach to terrorism, the mobilitarian can counter this fear of institutional degradation with an appeal to courage. Are the institutions of the rich world really so fragile that they will fall apart if we open them to the world’s huddled masses, yearning, as they do, to breathe free? One can’t know for certain, but ours is a world of uncertainty, and it’s against precisely this reality of uncertain danger that we gird ourselves with courage.

One can sense between the lines an exhortation to courage in the great Frederick Douglass’s criticism of anti-Chinese sentiment among his compatriots (my emphasis):

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons.

The question of whether borders should be closed or open would likely not inspire such controversy if it weren’t for the desperate conditions of much of the world. Those favoring open borders often do so out of compassion and, indeed, love for humanity. Such a bleeding heart appeal might risk a kind of macho scoffing retort from those adhering to a politics of toughness. But surely love and compassion play some role in our policy making, lest social welfare programs could never get off the ground. It’s helpful to remember, as always, that opening borders does not impose charitable obligations on anyone, but instead removes barriers standing in the way of migrants bettering their own lots.

Virtues must be balanced against one another. So courage without prudence and temperance is just machismo or foolhardiness. Compassion without prudence is a recipe for exploitation. And justice without temperance and love might give us a Tarantino revenge fantasy. From a virtue perspective, closed borders is all solidarity and jealous prudence, unbalanced by any sense of universal justice or compassion for the stranger; it lacks courage, and maybe even faith in supposedly hallowed institutions. The open borders position is better balanced atop multiple virtues, exhibiting justice and compassion in spades, plus a little faith and courage for good measure, and–if the economists are to be believed–ample prudence in the form of trillion dollar bills waiting to be picked up off the sidewalk. Regardless of whether it is obligated to do so or not, a nation that opens its borders does the virtuous thing, the right thing. And the citizens of such a nation would have reason to take pride in that.

End note: While I found no excuse to reference it in the post, I have only begun to think seriously about virtue ethics since I started reading the Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, by Deirdre McCloskey. I have drawn from it here.

Weekly OBAG roundup 08 2014

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A critique of the “assimilation” concept

The idea that immigrants fail to assimilate is a major critique of immigration offered by restrictionists, and one that is widely popular. Unfortunately, the concept of assimilation has suffered from a form of mission creep as people cram more and more into the idea.

There are four broad kinds of things that people mean by assimilation. I will argue that only the first two categories genuinely deserves the “assimilation” label — and the second category only applies to citizenship, not to guest worker/student status or even to long term residency. The use of the term “assimilation” for the other two categories obfuscates more than it illuminates.

#1: Assimilation to the culture-specific, value-agnostic norms of the host country

There are some conventions that differ from country to country, but people living in the same geographic area benefit by following the same convention. Language is an obvious example. What side of the road to drive on is another. In this context, assimilation by immigrants to the host country’s conventions and norms makes life easier for everybody. Thus, I take linguistic assimilation seriously. An immigrant from the US to France should learn French in order to better communicate and interact with natives, even though a tourist might be able to get away with English and a few broken French phrases.

For similar reasons, an immigrant from the UK to the US had better assimilate quickly to the idea that automobiles drive on the right side of the road. All the more important if he/she plans to drive a vehicle, but probably useful if he/she plans to use the roads as a pedestrian, biker, or transit user.

The point here is that no claim is being made about the superiority or inferiority of the languages or conventions regarding the side of the road to drive on. Claims are being made about the coordination costs of deviation from the norms of the community, making a strong case for assimilation. So far, so good.

Note that for this category of assimilation, a significant fraction of the gains from assimilating go to the migrant himself or herself, although there are social spillovers. People with poor language skills are locked out of many jobs. Potential employers also lose out, but the bulk of the loss is experienced by the migrant. People who drive on the wrong side of the road endanger themselves as well as others (in particular, they endanger themselves more than they endanger any single other person). The positive externality of conforming to culture-specific, value-agnostic norms does suggest that there is a case for government or philanthropic help to people to assimilate into the norms.

However, there is no fundamental conflict of interest between the migrant’s goals and those of the rest of society. Further, there will be some people for whom learning the language just isn’t worth the benefit, even when externalities to society are considered. So, beyond making sure people understand the very basics, restricting migration based on these is not appropriate. However, the host society is not obligated to go out of the way to make accommodations for migrants’ linguistic differences:

  • private employers should be free to restrict access to jobs to migrants (as well as natives!) based on language skills, and to the extent that laws against private discrimination get in the way, they should be reconsidered.
  • Government institutions providing public services do not have an obligation to serve migrants in their own languages, although it may still be beneficial or appropriate for them to do so under certain circumstances (depending on how the costs and benefits compare).

The point is simply that individuals and institutions in the host society can decide how far they will personally accommodate different languages, and then leave it to migrants to decide whether they should work hard to learn the native language or can get by without.

#2: Emotional assimilation

Emotional assimilation and attachment to one’s adopted homeland is also something a lot of people have in mind when they talk of assimilation. The emotional assimilation and patriotism complaint has been made against immigration by many of the leading lights in the restrictionist movement, including Mark Krikorian, Steve Sailer, Peter Brimelow, and many others.

I’m not much of a fan of patriotism, but I think that a case could be made that immigrants who want to settle permanently in a land should at the very least not hate that land, and should have at least moderately fond feelings for it. At any rate, such feelings help to a modest degree. Again, this is a claim that can be made both for Mexican immigrants to Chile and for Chilean immigrants to Mexico. It makes sense for most immigrants to most lands.

#3: All the “good stuff”

A lot of people use “assimilation” in the looser sense of being statistically similar to the natives of the host country along various normative dimensions such as income, education levels, crime (scored negatively), and other indicators. Obviously, these are important things to look at when assessing the effects of immigration. But I question the use of the word “assimilation” to describe such comparisons.

My chief objection is that “assimilation” incorrectly sets the native standard on these matters as the aspirational norm. It ignores the fact that many immigrants are already better than natives on these normative indicators. On many of these indicators, their children move away from the better immigrant average and assimilate downward to the native norm. In the US context, crime is an example: immigrants (both in total and across ethnicities — including illegal immigrants) have lower crime rates than natives, but their children “assimilate” to the higher native crime rates.

There are also some ethnic groups of immigrants that, even after several generations, maintain higher normative averages than natives. Eyeballing the data suggests that Japanese, Chinese, and Indian immigrants to the US may be in this category.

There are obviously many categories where immigrants start off worse than natives and assimilate “upward” — Mexican immigrants to the US are one example. In many categories such as income and education level, descendants of immigrants assimilate upward from their parents to the native norms.

I’m quite okay with measurement of these, but question the “assimilation” jargon for its focus on natives as a normative ideal to strive toward.

#4: Immigrants do or think stuff I don’t like

A lot of the complaints about immigrants’ “failure to assimilate” are centered around the religious and political beliefs of immigrants, their tastes in food and music, the fact that they know foreign languages, and a variety of other things. Frankly, I find these complaints bizarre. If the person making this complaint wants to make an argument that certain religious or political beliefs are normatively better than the others, then the person should make that case — and be prepared to call out the large numbers of natives who hold the opposing view. This would reduce the objections to the third category. But the people making these arguments often don’t want to actually make this broader case. They simply define certain sets of views as the “norm” and then say that immigrants need to strive toward attaining that mix of views.

Some other random thoughts

  • See point #7 (first in the post) in Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 2.
  • In Europe, the term “assimilation” has given way to the term “integration”. There are also some conceptual differences, at least on paper: assimilation means that migrants merge into an existing native culture (perhaps adding some contributions of their own, but the focus is on migrants joining the native culture), whereas integration focuses on peaceful coexistence of different cultures with some shared values and understanding. You can get lots of information on the alleged differences between the models by Googling assimilation versus integration.
  • The United States model of assimilation has been called the “melting pot” — see my co-blogger Nathan Smith’s blog post on the subject.
  • A number of people I respect have suggested that a classical liberal minimalist state is conducive to integration and peaceful coexistence without any necessity for heavy-handed government policy to promote either assimilation or integration. There are cases where groups stay aloof from mainstream culture while coexisting peacefully. Examples in the US include the Amish, Mormons, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (I owe this point to co-blogger Hansjoerg Walther). In her blog post reflecting on her experience as a migrant to Sweden, Ladan Weheliye noted that she favored the liberal model as described by Chandran Kukathas.

The cartoon featured in the header of this post dates from 1889, and depicts the perceived failure of Irish immigrants to the US to assimilate. The original caption reads: “The mortar of assimilation — and the one element that won’t mix.”

Weekly OBAG roundup 07 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).

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