Weekly OBAG roundup 21 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 and suggestions for artistic and literary depictions

Opinions of others about migration: general points

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to videos, debates, etc.)

Specific current and historical situations

Site and community meta

I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion

To many, even those sympathetic towards it, I imagine liberalising immigration policy is just another pet bleeding heart cause — similar to saving the environment, helping battered women, aiding the homeless, etc. It can seem arrogant of open borders advocates to compare our cause to historical antecedents such as the abolition of slavery or apartheid. And I get these sentiments — in fact, I quite agree with them on a very fundamental level.

In the daily news, it’s rare to not come across a photograph or story of some activists fighting for an immigration-related cause. Sometimes it’s for the cause of allowing immigrants in the US to get in-state university tuition benefits; other times, it’s protesting the detention of asylum-seekers (whether in the US, UK, Australia, or elsewhere); most commonly, it’s a protest, somewhere in the US, demanding the cessation of deportations. Recently, the cause celebre has been, of course, the problem of children migrating to the US. Now, to be fully honest with you, I often look at these pictures and read these stories, and feel that I just don’t care.

Now, of course I do care very much about the issues at stake here: I spend a lot of time writing about open borders, for pete’s sake! So why do I read about immigration in the news and just go “meh”?

To add to the puzzle, this is actually a very personal and emotional issue for me. It’s impossible, actually, for me to understand migration without reference to emotion and personal experience. As a child, I lived for years knowing that my mother could be deported if she and my father were to separate, or even if she were to be widowed, thanks to my country’s immigration laws. As a student in the US, I wondered whether I’d ever be able to get a job here, with visa laws effectively banning me from taking a job outside investment banking or management consulting. And now as a US resident, I’ve seen my friends — and even my girlfriend — be forced to leave this country, thanks to its patently ridiculous laws.

So why then my disconnect from all these stories? My epiphany came when I read a story in the Washington Post about an American woman bidding her Bangladeshi husband farewell before his impending deportation. I’ve felt the same fears and worries they do and lived through similar frustration and farewells thanks to arbitrary immigration controls. I could put myself in their shoes.

Now this actually made me despair further: how can advocates of liberal migration laws win people’s hearts and minds with sob stories like these? Hardly any citizens will ever face the violent force of their own governments’ exclusionary immigration policies. How can citizens begin to care about the effects of their immigration laws, let alone be moved to support changing them? How, when even someone like me — one who deeply cares about immigration and demands open borders — can only be affected by a story that’s personally connected to my own?

Then, I read this comment on the Washington Post article:

Sorry, but she is making a choice here and it is not for her husband. If she is placing all these things before him, then it cannot be helped. If I were in her shoes there would be no way that I would not be on that plane with my spouse. I might miss Kansas, but I would make the necessary arrangements and I would be at his side.

Our actions reveal where are loyalties lie, and this lady appears to be more concerned with living in Kansas and the job she loves and all the rest, than in being with the man whom she married.

My reaction to this was anger. I fumed. To restate the cold logic here: “If the government forces your husband to live in a strange country where there are no jobs for you or him, and you choose to keep your job and the home you’ve both shared for decades, you clearly just love money and comfort more than your husband.” Pretty easy to say this when you’ve never had the government kick your partner out of the country — as has actually happened to me and to many of my friends.

After I calmed down, I asked myself why a commenter might react to the story in this manner. As a general rule, people are not randomly vindictive. So why the harsh reaction aimed at this woman and her husband? The obvious answer is that the commenter did not think to question the justice system’s decision to exclude someone; if the system has decided, the decision must be correct. Justice must be served.

But why is it that we don’t think to question the justice of this system? Why does this story not move us to ponder whether the law here was just? Why do the journalists and activists putting these stories out there not explicitly question the justice of an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth?

I’ve come to think that the reason I don’t care when I see pictures of hunger strikers protesting deportations, or picketers demanding immigrant access to certain benefits, and so on, is because these stories have always been framed in terms of compassion — not justice.

This is not to say I consider myself heartless or lacking compassion, although I am not in any place to judge myself. Rather, it is that when I read about stories which don’t directly affect me, it is simply difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. And when these stories try to engage me by asking me to feel compassion for those affected, I only feel a sense of weariness.

There are a million causes in the world, and almost all of them seem to be asking for my compassion when I open the daily papers. Today it’s genocide in Darfur; tomorrow it’s children being kidnapped in Nigeria; next week, it might be people rendered homeless in the wake of a natural disaster (tsunami? hurricane? earthquake?); next month, perhaps another school shooting. I don’t have the time or energy to be emotionally invested in every single one of these issues.

And to the degree that I might choose to invest my emotions, there’s no particularly compelling reason to choose immigration as my humanitarian cause du jour over, say, victims of domestic violence or poaching endangered animals. You can tell me all the reasons why I ought to care more about immigration, but if you have to give me a 21-point list of reasons why I ought to care — if your sob story cannot speak for itself — then you’re not likely to win me over.

It may strike one as galling to so baldly rank and prioritise humanitarian or compassionate causes, but this is exactly what all of us as citizens and individuals do all the time. Virtually every one of these activism stories pulls at the humanitarian, compassionate angle, but none of us has the time to devote to more than a handful of such issues.

Now, the compassionate angle I think actually works especially well for many causes. But I think for migration it seems singularly unlikely to work; if anything, it can easily become counter-productive. Unlike with a cause like animal rights or famine relief — almost everyone’s played with a pet or felt the pangs of hunger before — few of us have experienced the feeling of being persecuted by the state under the aegis of arbitrary immigration laws. You can’t count on your audience to share the emotional experiences you might have as a migrant, activist, or journalist who has personally seen the horror of arbitrary immigration laws.

When you play up the compassionate angle in the story of a victim of deportation, what are you asking for? Unlike with many humanitarian causes, you are not asking for charitable donations. Rather, you are asking people to demand a change or an exception to settled law.

Now, we can certainly demand that laws be changed on compassionate or humanitarian grounds. But how convincing is this? If people believe the justice system has found someone guilty of a crime, are they going to believe the criminal ought to get clemency simply because we ought to have compassion for the criminal? In an ideal world, this could perhaps be true. But in the real world, people believe that if you’re a criminal, you ought to pay the price set by the justice system.

As a result, the constant framing of immigration as a question of compassion perplexes me. This is like asking for a slave to be set free, not because laws permitting slavery are barbaric and need to be repealed, but because poor Uncle Tom really needs to be free, and oh isn’t it such a shame that in this case the law is irrationally separating him from his family?

I mean, yes, the law is inhumane and barbaric and evil — but that’s the whole point! Asking for compassionate special pleading on purely humanitarian grounds, without ever questioning the barbaric law that is in place, simply throws your entire case away. Somehow, this is the modus operandi in how immigration activists campaign for liberal reforms!

Put more bluntly, the case for more liberal migration laws, and yes, open borders, cannot rest on compassionate grounds. Yes, one can make such a compassionate case. But there are a million things needing our compassion. What makes immigrants so special?

The point is not that immigrants are special. No, the point is that immigrants are just like you and me. The point is that our law owes them justice, same as the law owes any and all of us. We cannot use the force of law to exclude people from society in an unjust manner. We cannot allow our government to perpetrate injustice and oppression in our name.

That’s what makes immigration and open borders so compelling to me. I don’t see immigrants as some group in need of special pleading or special compassion from me or the government. I see migrants as ordinary people who, same as anyone else, need to be treated justly. The reason I care so much about this issue is not because I feel immigrants need my special attention — although I think there is a case for more compassion towards those who are strangers in our land. I simply believe that immigrants, like all of us, are entitled to just treatment under the law.

Rohingya being deported from Bangladesh

Immigration reform and open borders are not about making life better for a special, deserving class of people. They are about abolishing systems of injustice which unjustly oppress ordinary people. The woman who loses her deported husband does not need our compassion; she does not need a special exemption from our irrational laws. What she needs, what millions of others like her need, is justice.

Weekly OBAG roundup 20 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).

General observations about migration, its morality, and its effects

Opinions of others about migration: general points

Opinions of others about migration: specific individuals (includes links to videos, debates, etc.)

Site meta

The inaugural issue of Peregrine, and the citizenistic case for migration liberalization

The Hoover Institution recently started a new online journal called Peregrine on immigration to the United States (website, Wikipedia). The journal is part of the Hoover Institution’s Conte Initiative on Immigration Reform. Judging by its inaugural issue, the journal seems to lean in a pro-freer-migration direction, but with a citizenistic focus. In particular, there’s an emphasis both on keyhole solutions and on a preference for high skill, ideas that are perhaps more common among technocrats, policy wonk types, and part-of-the-way-free-market intellectuals (compared to hardcore libertarians, civil rights-oriented people, and people with a more progressive/egalitarian bent).

I’m going to look at some of the pieces in their inaugural issue to better illuminate the distinctions between the open borders position and moderate immigration reform ideas.

The survey

The inaugural issue includes a survey of 38 members of the Hoover Working Group on what type of change to United States immigration policy they would prefer. The following are the results (more on the linked page):

  • 89% favored a switch to a more merit-based immigration system ceteris paribus (i.e., for any given number of admitted immigrants, they favored a more merit-based allocation than the current system).
  • 86% favored additional merit immigrants.
  • 72% favored unlimited green cards for scientists.
  • 65% favored an “equilibrium bond”.
  • 63% favored limiting the number of family-based green cards issued, holding the total number of immigrants admitted constant.
  • 58% favored an equilibrium market.
  • 57% favored a long-term green card, allowing for unlimited green cards but a longer path to citizenship.
  • 38% favored restrictions on green cards that vary cyclically with economic conditions in the US.
  • 36% favored open borders subject to “a background check and some kind of assimilation test such as English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history.”

It’s worth noting that this is probably not a scientific sample, and the selection bias makes it unrepresentative even of the technocratic or policy wonk world. It’s still interesting that over a third of the respondents favored (essentially) open borders, and many other favored fairly expansive keyhole solutions, particularly for high-skilled workers. For the US population as a whole, the comparable number according to the World Values Survey was 7%. In fact, according to the WVS, the highest proportion for “let anybody come” across all First World countries was 18%, found in Sweden. The disparity between the views of the experts surveyed by Hoover and the general public is consistent with the general economist consensus in favor of freer migration and the fact that smart and more informed opinion tends to be more supportive of migration liberalization.

The survey was also discussed in an Open Borders Action Group post.

John Cochrane’s article

University of Chicago financial economist John H. Cochrane (blog, Wikipedia) penned a piece for the inaugural issue answering the question What is the Optimal Number of Immigrants to the US? He republished the piece on his own blog, and it was picked up across the blogosphere (for instance, here, here, and here).

Prima facie, Cochrane’s argument and conclusion seem quite closely aligned with the typical arguments of open borders advocates. Cochrane notes that the United States is nowhere close to being saturated. He points out that asking for the optimal number of immigrants is the wrong question.

But Cochrane’s framing quickly shifts to the citizenist case for open borders. Cochrane (emphasis mine):

What is the optimal number of imported tomatoes? Soviet central planners tried to figure things out this way. Americans shouldn’t. We should decide on the optimal terms on which tomatoes can be imported, and then let the market decide the number. Similarly, we should debate what the optimal terms for immigration are – How will we let people immigrate? What kind of people? – so that the vast majority of such immigrants are a net benefit to the US. Then, let as many come as want to. On the right terms, the number will self-regulate.

In the rest of Cochrane’s essay, where he considers different sorts of keyhole solutions, he toggles between pointing out what he (and many open borders advocates on this site) view as a problem with the use of state power for citizenistic goals and continuing to make the citizenistic case for open borders with keyhole solutions. For instance, he begins by critiquing the moral view that underpins nationally based welfare states, but is quick to stop and switch to offering keyhole solutions:

Why fear immigrants? You might fear they will overuse social services. Morally, just why your taxes should support an unfortunate who happened to be born in Maine and not one who happened to be born in Guadalajara is an interesting question, but leave that aside for now. It’s easy enough to structure a deal that protects the finances of the welfare state. Immigrants would pay a bond at the border, say $5,000. If they run out of money, are convicted of a crime, don’t have health insurance, or whatever, the bond pays for their ticket home. Alternatively, the government could establish an asset and income test: immigrants must show $10,000 in assets and either a job within 6 months or visible business or asset income.

When it comes to concerns about suppressing the wages of natives, he starts off with reviewing the empirical social science, then switches to the moral argument, and finally offers potential keyhole solutions:

You might fear that immigrants compete for jobs, and drive down American wages. Again, this is not demonstrably a serious problem. If labor does not move in, capital – factories and farms — moves out and wages go down anyway. Immigrants come to work in wide-open industries with lots of jobs, not those where there are few jobs and many workers. Thus, restrictions on immigration do little, in the long run of an open economy such as the US, to “protect” wages. To the extent wage-boosting immigration restrictions can work, the higher wages translate into higher prices to American consumers. The country as a whole – especially low-income consumers who tend to shop at Wal-Mart and benefit the most from low-priced goods – is not better off.

And finally, if it did work, restricting labor benefits some American workers by hurting Mexican workers. Is it really America’s place in the world to take opportunities from poor Mexicans to subsidize our workers’ standard of living? We are a strange country that rigorously prohibits employment discrimination “because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent….” and then requires such discrimination because of, well, birthplace.

But if that’s a worry, fine. The government could license protected occupations such that only US citizens can hold the protected occupational licenses. Too intrusive? Well, that’s what we’re trying to do by keeping people out, and good policy is not produced by putting nice appearances on nasty policies.

Overall, Cochrane comes off as somebody who has all the trappings of an open borders advocate, but whose frame of approaching the issue is still dominated by mainstream terms of discourse. In particular, he seems to grant a lot to citizenism as a framework to argue within, and rarely makes moral, rights-based arguments for the right to migrate. This would probably make him more appealing to the technocrats and policy wonks reading him, and would probably also earn him praise from some of the critics of this site such as occasional commenter Christopher Chang.

Sidenote: Cochrane sounds remarkably similar to Bryan Caplan back in 2007. Caplan seems to since have evolved in his presentation style to focus more on rights-based arguments and a more universal, big-picture perspective (as evidenced here and here). It’s possible that Cochrane will evolve in a similar direction if he spends more time reflecting on migration over the coming years. Indeed, as my co-blogger John Lee noted, Cochrane’s addendum when he republished the piece on his own blog suggested that he was already shifting in the direction of making the moral case more forcefully. I also posted about the parallels between Cochrane’s piece and Caplan’s early writing to the Open Borders Action Group, but it hadn’t gotten any comments there at the time of publishing this piece.

Richard Epstein’s article

Though not as radical as Cochrane, University of Chicago and New York University law scholar Richard Epstein (Wikipedia) also pushed back at the idea that numerical limits on immigration were the right way to go. Reflecting his classical liberal and legal background, Epstein suggested instead trying to come up with a clear criterion defining what sort of potential immigrant might be let in. His own view was that the criterion should be tailored so that the marginal immigrant did not pose a significant burden on the country. On the whole, he was optimistic about the possibility of coming up with criteria that eliminate the need for long queues without hurting the interests of the United States:

Immigration rules should not envision in advance some quota on the number of persons who will be allowed in on permanent visas. They should avoid patterning principles. Rather, the rules should set out the test by which individuals should be allowed into the country.

Here is one example. Suppose that it is thought that individuals should be allowed into the United States if they can prove that they can support themselves in the country for a period of say three years. The appropriate rules in question then could ask that individuals seeking immigration gain a certificate of prospective employment from a domestic party. It may well be that the initial permit will be subject to modification if the immigrant loses the job, changes the job, changes marital status or whatever. But for these purposes, the key step is the first one. Once the basic test is established, then let the number of immigrants take care of itself: an equilibrium in which those who can meet the test get in, those who do not, do not get it.

One caveat to this proposal is that this three-year period need not be set into stone. A second caveat to this proposal is that it might not work at all. Neither caveat gets us back to a system of quotas and targets. It could be that the leading indicator for immigration practice should be something other than a promise of employment. But whatever the test, this country is large, and so long as the proposed standards are not perverse, we should let the numbers take care of themselves.

The rest

The remaining articles in the inaugural issue were less radical, and perhaps a better reflection of the conservative/classical-liberal/technocratic/policy-wonk approach (as opposed to both the egalitarian/progressive and hardcore libertarian approaches). Here’s a brief summary:

  • Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute recommends increasing work-based migration and limiting family migration to only the nuclear family.
  • Lanhee Chan recommends a more rational approach that reduced the long queue for green cards, but did not provide clear specifics of just how far to push in the direction of liberalization.
  • Beth Ann Bovick recommends a shift to work-based and skills-based migration so that migration could help with the recovery and growth of the United States economy.


Overall, the survey findings as well as individual essays provide additional confirmation of the economist consensus in favor of freer migration (see also here), while also confirming that even economically informed and aware people are not open borders advocates. They see the arguments for freer migration, but don’t think of open borders as feasible. And they concede citizenistic goals, so the main reason they are more pro-migration is largely that their economic literacy causes them to be more optimistic about the benefits of migration to citizens.

More Thoughts on Climate Change and Open Borders

In 2012 Nathan suggested that the negative impacts of climate change likely “… will fall disproportionately on poor countries…” but that the ability of residents of those countries to migrate to more prosperous countries would allow them to escape “… possible humanitarian catastrophes.”  He concluded that “if we are altering the climate, we need to adapt to that, and migration, moving from the areas most damaged by environmental change to the areas most favored by it, is one of the most powerful instruments of adaption available.”  Open borders would provide a means for people to escape Third World countries like Bangladesh and island nations in the Pacific which are likely to be negatively affected by global warming.  In this post I will examine additional aspects of the relationship between climate change and open borders.

First, the ability to emigrate from advanced countries may be important in the future if climate change severely impacts those countries.  In a previous post I observed that open borders would be beneficial to citizens of advanced countries by allowing them to access opportunities outside of their home countries.  This availability to move to other countries would be especially important in certain climate change scenarios. In the book American Exodus, Giles Slade states that severe droughts, heat waves, forest fires, superstorms, and other adverse weather events associated with climate change will lead to many lost lives and expensive damages in the U.S.  (A recently released report also discusses the negative impact of climate change on the American economy. )  He predicts that “… as America’s Southwest dehydrates and its northeastern shorelines erode… many more human migrants will seek out cooler climes and higher ground.  Canada, of course, is the obvious destination for Americans suffering from the increasingly ‘hot, flat and crowded’ conditions of the United States in the 21st century.” (p. 221)  While the book hints that areas of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska could serve as refuges for Americans in this scenario, open borders would provide Americans another sanctuary in Canada.  Open borders also might be essential to residents of other advanced countries who might be threatened by climate change, such as those living in southern Europe and Australia.

Second, climate change can drive migration, but migration from developing countries to developed ones also might drive climate change.  Vipul has noted that some argue that “if open borders prevailed, many people would migrate to the developed world, and their resource consumption would increase dramatically… It could exacerbate problems of resource scarcity as well as global warming.”  This argument that open borders would accelerate global warning needs to be thoroughly addressed.

One response to the argument is that it is unjust to have a de facto policy of keeping would-be migrants poor by preventing them from moving to an advanced country.  The Immigration Policy Center observes that “blaming immigrants for climate change suggests that less-developed countries should stay that way… Based on this logic, unauthorized immigration isn’t the problem, increased wealth and international development are.”  In an effort to combat global warming, should there be a global campaign to keep the residents of developing nations poor and to impoverish residents of advanced countries?  If this idea is outrageous, how is it acceptable to single out a specific group, residents from poor countries wishing to migrate to advanced ones, for such treatment?

Another possible response to the argument is that, as Nathan points out in his post, since some regions could benefit from global warming  and so long as the world has open borders, people can adapt to the accelerated warming caused by migration through further migration, like the idea of Americans emigrating to Canada.  Klaus  Desmet and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, who have researched the economic impact of global warming, write that even in extreme scenarios of climate change, “… the overall welfare effect of climate change is negligible.  Although agricultural productivity declines in some places, it increases in others.  As long as the world can trade and people can move, the impact is minimal.”  However, they note that in “very extreme” scenarios, “things could turn disastrous… welfare would decline precipitously.”

So could we have open borders without the risk that the world could warm up too much?  Apparently, yes. Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, highlights the current different environmental impacts between those in advanced and developing countries and the implications of higher levels of consumption by individuals residing in poorer countries.  He states that “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world.  That factor of 32 has big consequences.”  He also notes that “what really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.”  Not surprisingly, “people who consume little want to enjoy the high consumption lifestyle.  Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy.  And tens of millions of people in the developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating, especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia.  Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates, even though most immigrants don’t succeed immediately in multiplying their consumption by 32… if the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold.  It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people.”

However, Mr. Diamond apparently does not promote restricting migration as a solution.  Instead he sees the solution residing in the more intelligent use of resources.  He states that “we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels… whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.  Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates.  Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life.  For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion…”  He notes fisheries and forests could be managed sustainably, though most are not. He predicts that “within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now” and “per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours.  These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects.  In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends… I am cautiously optimistic.  The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.”

Similarly, an article on the website for the Center for American Progress  notes that “for years, anti-immigrant groups have waved the green flag to push a xenophobic agenda… And while there is a relationship between population growth and environmental destruction, it is a complex one.  Environmental impact is determined not just by our numbers, but by how we use our resources—our systems of production and consumption and the policies that shape them… it’s crucial to reduce consumption in the affluent countries, by, for example, investing in mass transit and ‘green’ urban planning that can reduce the environmental impact (and greenhouse gas emissions) of large, growing cities.”

Increased immigration could actually reduce consumption rates in host countries.  Vipul posits that the increased population density that open borders would create in advanced countries with relatively low density, such as the U.S. and Canada, could reduce the per capita carbon footprint in those countries.  For example, the enlargement of municipalities through immigration could make mass transit feasible where it wasn’t before.  This difference in population density may explain why the U.S. economy is more  carbon-intensive than that of Western Europe.  Increased density could mitigate the increased carbon footprint from larger migration flows.

In conclusion, open borders could be important for people in both advanced and developing countries to escape the negative consequences of climate change.  At the same time, fears of accelerated climate change due to increased migration shouldn’t undermine open borders; rather than fighting an unjust campaign to keep those in the developing world poor, advanced countries must focus on how resources are used.