Journalist Stephan Faris: Modern border regimes are apartheid

Border controls that prevent innocent foreigners from travelling peacefully are in every meaningful way identical to laws enshrining racial segregation and apartheid. Both aim to exclude people from peaceful participation in civilised society, not because of anything they have done wrong, but purely because of a circumstance of birth that they had no choice over.

Open borders advocates have long compared the modern border regime to apartheid and other forms of racial segregation. But American journalist Stephan Faris has done us one better: in his brief book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration last year, he outlined exactly why and how we shouldn’t let artificially-drawn borders delude us into thinking our immigration laws don’t somehow constitute an arbitrary form of discrimination comparable to apartheid. Stephan was recently gracious enough to spare some time for an email interview with us, which we’ll be publishing next week.

In the mean time, I’d strongly urge you to head over to Amazon and buy the book; it’s currently listed for under 3 US dollars, and is only thirty pages. I finished the book in one sitting, and felt I got far more than my money’s worth. The intro blurb from the publisher:

As a child, Stephan Faris nearly failed to qualify for any country’s passport. Now, in a story that moves from South Africa to Italy to the United States, he looks at the arbitrariness of nationality. Framed by Faris’s meeting with a young orphan as a reporter in Liberia and their reencounter years later in Minnesota, Homelands makes the case for a complete rethinking of immigration policy. In a world where we’ve globalized capital, culture, and communications, are restrictions on the movement of people still morally tenable?

I’d say the book delivers on these claims. But rather than take my word for it, why not preview an excerpt and judge for yourself? Deca, the publisher of Homelands, has allowed us to publish an edited excerpt of the book — one that doesn’t give you the full colour of Stephan’s stories or arguments, but should whet your appetite for the full-length item:

After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.

Joseph Carens, the philosopher, is right to describe nationality as a birthright reminiscent of medieval feudalism. But as I discovered during my time in Africa, you needn’t go back as far as the Middle Ages to find an unsettling analog to our closed borders. If I’ve come to the conclusion that our immigration policies are one of the great moral challenges of our time, it’s in part because they very much resemble one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.

Apartheid was clearly becoming untenable, but they couldn’t contemplate giving up white privilege. So they settled on a different solution, one that would abolish overt discrimination but still allow them to retain their grip on social, economic, and political power: a partition of South Africa modeled explicitly on existing national borders, with the nation divided into rich and poor countries.

South Africa had already set aside land for the native population. Thirteen percent of the country was designated as native reserves, known as “homelands,” where black Africans had to live unless they could prove they were working for a white employer. Movement in and out of these homelands was restricted. The Pass Laws required nonwhite citizens to carry “passbooks” with their name, address, and photograph or risk imprisonment and expulsion back to the reserves. It didn’t seem like a big leap to go from “homelands” and “passbooks” to “countries” and “passports.”

The idea didn’t seem as crazy then as it might today. In the period after World War II, new countries were erupting out of disintegrating colonial empires all over the globe. The border between India, Pakistan, and what would later become Bangladesh wasn’t drawn until 1947, when a British administrator was given five weeks to decide where the division would run. All across Africa, new nations were hoisting new flags: Ghana in 1957, Guinea the year after. By 1960, the continent had seen the creation of sixteen new independent states, from Somalia to Senegal, from Mali to Madagascar.

At the same time, all around South Africa, new nations were coming into being. The Republic of Botswana, just to the north, elected its first government in 1966. Swaziland, in the east, declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Most remarkable of all was the transformation of the British Protectorate of Basutoland, a tiny landlocked colony completely surrounded by South Africa. In 1966, it pulled down the Union Jack and joined the roster of nations as the Kingdom of Lesotho.

If such a miniscule patch of land could stand alone as an independent country, why not the 13 percent of South African territory set aside as native reserves? “The dream was: how do you get rid of the immorality of apartheid?” said [former South African Minister Roelof Frederik] Botha. “How do you get rid of the reprehensible suppression and racial discrimination? If a sufficient number of black people in their homelands—exactly like Swaziland, like Basutoland, like Botswana—if they could also become independent, then maybe the whites might not feel that much threatened anymore by the overwhelming majority of black people. And apartheid, in its nefarious sense, in its reprehensible sense, could be dismantled.”

“So the idea took root,” he said. “Let us make these nations independent. They can have their own parliaments, their own governments, their own courts, their own judges. Each one must have a capital and a parliament and a president and a prime minister and a cabinet. They will be sovereign, and they will be independent. And then you would have a sort of equality, a constellation of southern African states.”

Blacks could have their independence. But when they came to where the work was, they would have to do so as immigrants. “The problem was reality,” said Botha. “It did not resolve the issue of racial discrimination. So the dream was turned into a nightmare. It was a dream that was not based on reality.”

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

What’s most striking about the story of South African apartheid is how similar it is to our efforts to restrict immigration today. Numerically, the parallels could hardly be more perfect. In 1994, there were six times as many nonwhite South Africans as white South Africans, according to data compiled by Michael Clemens. Whites earned roughly eight times as much as their black or mixed-race peers. Today, there are roughly six times as many people living in low- and middle-income countries as there are in high-income countries. Residents of rich countries typically earn about seven times the average income of the rest of the world. If numbers are anything to go by, ending economic and geographic—not to mention political—segregation in South Africa was a bigger challenge than dropping barriers to immigration would be today.

There are endless practical objections to allowing people to move where they can best profit from their willingness to work. But there were practical objections to ending apartheid as well, and practical objections to ending slavery in the United States. Few would argue that the practical objections outweighed the moral imperatives.

Again, the full 30 pages are worth buying. I think Stephan very concisely sums up the fundamental moral case for open borders, and in a very compelling way. Check back next week for our interview with Stephan!

The image featured at the top of this post is of a man crawling naked through the South African border fence near Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, making his way to South Africa. Originally published in the Cape Times, it was taken by Henk Kruger in 2008, and won the runner-up prize for World Press Photo of the year.

How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)

On May 29, 2013, co-blogger Chris Hendrix started off a very promising post series to explore the origins of immigration restrictions, the rationales used when introducing them, and how they were gradually modified into their present form. His first post in the series took an in-depth look at the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first large-scale restriction of immigration to the United States after nearly a century with nearly unrestricted migration. Chris went into considerable detail into the rationales proffered for the law, and found them flawed in light of both the evidence available at the time and the evidence that would accumulate over the coming decades.

With Chris’s permission, I’m taking this very important series over from him. This post will look at the Chinese Exclusion Act, but from a different angle: how was it implemented? As the United States’ first foray into a systematic control of a border, what legal ambiguities did it give rise to, and how were those resolved? What aspects of the modern immigration control regime, in the US and elsewhere around the world, can be traced to the way these ambiguities were resolved?

Let’s first get an idea of the sort of world that existed at the time.

A different world

Migration back in the day was qualitatively similar to South-South migration today: relatively unregulated and unprotected. But this is part of a broader feature of society back then: goverment was less centralized and far less powerful and all-knowing than it is today:

  • Passports did exist, but most people didn’t bother to get them.
  • Social Security, and Social Security Numbers, didn’t exist.
  • There was no federal income tax.
  • Since there was no tax withholding, employers had no federal reporting requirements, and they didn’t have reporting requirements in most states either. In other words, the state didn’t have a reason to record most work activity.
  • There was no Green Card, or Green Card-equivalent. Non-citizen permanent residents had no document that directly established that status for them.
  • There was no nation-wide interior enforcement for immigration law.
  • Entry by land from Mexico and Canada was largely unrestricted.

So what did exist?

  • Ports of inspection for people and goods coming by sea, from the Atlantic or the Pacific. These ports were not intended primarily for immigration enforcement, but were mainly used for customs enforcement. At the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, there were, as far as I am aware, no designated ports on the West Coast exclusively for immigration enforcement. Angel Island, the main such port, would become active only in 1910. The corresponding port in the East Coast, Ellis Island, would open only in 1892, though there were other immigrant processing stations before that on the East Coast, such as Castle Garden.
  • City officials in various cities could act as de facto immigration enforcement. They could ask residents of the area for documentation proving that they were citizens (this would typically involve a birth certificate that would need to match with the city’s records, or a demonstration that the parents were US citizens, or a proof of naturalization). Enforcement would therefore be zealous only in places where the natives and the officials representing them cared enough about the matter. In practice, therefore, immigration enforcement followed the principle of subsidiarity — even though the legislation was determined at the federal level, interior enforcement was largely a local matter.

Racism, citizenism, territorialism, and high versus low skill

All the elements found in the modern border control regime could be glimpsed in the Chinese Exclusion Act as it played out. First off, the act was overtly discriminatory in a racial and ethnic sense. It could be argued that many immigration laws today are racist, albeit in many cases they are not overtly so. But the racial/ethnic component to the Chinese Exclusion Act was both more morally acceptable and palatable and more practically enforceable.

If you are trying to enforce immigration law, that requires a lot of potential violations of civil liberties, not only for the immigrants, but also for people who might be suspected of being immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act explicitly restricted itself only to targeting (a subset of) the ethnic Chinese. This subpopulation was sufficiently distinctive in appearance, customs, and linguistic habits. Thus, the collateral damage inflicted by the law on those not in violation of immigration law was limited to other ethnic Chinese.

In today’s world, it is possible (though still far from easy) to carry out some semblance of border and interior enforcement targeted at potential immigrants that has minimal collateral damage for citizens, without being so explicitly racially targeted. For this, we can thank (or blame) the record-keeping surveillance state that can track people much better. At the same time, it is somewhat harder to use explicit racial/ethnic targeting, because of greater levels of ethnic mixing. People of different national origins no longer look so obviously different, thanks to some degree of global convergence in culture, and also (to a less extent) greater interbreeding leading to many many more intermediate forms of physical appearance.

The racism of the law was therefore necessary for it to get off the ground, and for immigration enforcement to get an early testing bed while leaving the majority of the population unaffected. Just as the income tax started out as a tax on the super-rich and gradually grew to cover a majority of income-earners in the United States (and most other countries) immigration enforcement sharpened its ax on a relatively vulnerable, distinctive, and reviled population before spreading its wings to society at large. As they say, First they came for the Chinese. As history.com puts it:

American experience with Chinese exclusion spurred later movements for immigration restriction against other “undesirable” groups such as Middle Easterners, Hindu and East Indians, and the Japanese. The Chinese themselves remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943.

The second interesting emergent feature of the law, as it came into practice, was its citizenism, in more senses than one. First, as Chris described at greater length in his post, the law was justified in terms of citizenist premises, though there was the occasional nod to how it would be good for China as well to keep all its population within. Second, those Chinese who were already citizens continued to enjoy citizenship — at least in principle. They still were at greater risk of getting into trouble (because they were in the ethnic group suspected of harboring illegal immigrants) and they often couldn’t bring family members in, but they still enjoyed the constitutional rights of citizens. They could leave the country and return as they pleased (provided the officer at the port of entry was convinced they were actually citizens, and there were sometimes messups).

Third, the implementation of the law provided the early contours of territorialism: Chinese who had immigrated but not naturalized prior to the passage of the Act were not allowed to naturalize, but they were not required to leave the country. As long as they were physically present in the country, they enjoyed the rights of non-citizens (subject to the caveat of being harassed due to the suspicion). However, if they left the country and tried to return, they could be denied entry. This was formalized in the Scott Act of 1888 discussed later in the post. This was an early precedent for the current regime that distinguishes between entry visas and authorized stays.

Fourth, the high versus low skill distinction emerged in the law. The law banned the migration of skilled and unskilled laborers, but allowed for the migration of people in white-collar professions, if they could get documentation from the Chinese government to that effect, and could convince the officer at the port of entry. In practice, many people in white-collar professions also found it hard to enter due to lack of adequate documentation. This again resembles the current system, where high-skilled immigrants need to, and often fail to, jump through the many hoops needed to demonstrate their high skills.

Continue reading “How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)” »

Carry your Green Card at all times: the why and how

The Green Card, originally called the Alien Registration Receipt Card, is a card possessed by non-citizen Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) in the United States. You can read about the history and color of the card here and here. The card, first introduced in 1940 as part of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (aka the Smith Act), carries with it an interesting regulation — those having the card are required to carry it with them at all times. Here’s how the USCIS puts it:

A green card is issued to all permanent residents as proof that they are authorized to live and work in the United States. If you are a permanent resident age 18 or older, you are required to have a valid green card in your possession at all times.

As far as I can make out, there is no obligation to carry documentation of citizenship status with one at all times, nor are non-citizens who are not permanent residents obliged to carry their identifying document (such as the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card) with them at all times. What accounts for the apparently unique status of the Green Card?

This post explores the origins of the regulation, how it was somewhat practical back in the day, and whether it can still be enforced.

Puzzling aspects of enforcement

Today, enforcement of the Green Card regulation would be difficult because there is no easy way of identifying the category of people who should carry Green Cards (i.e., Lawful Permanent Residents, or LPRs) from:

  • US citizens, who have no legal obligation to carry identifying documentation proving their citizen status, and most of them do not carry around such documentation (a large number of them carry driving licenses or state ID cards but, in many states, these cards do not include information about citizenship or immigration status).
  • Those on authorized non-immigrant statuses, such as short-term business/tourism visas (B1/B2), student visas (F), and temporary worker visas (H). Those whose visas allow for employment do need to have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) but, as noted above, are not required to carry it with them at all times.

So an obvious problem with enforcing the Green Card regulation is that somebody, asked to produce a Green Card, could simply claim to not be a LPR but instead be a US citizen or authorized under a non-immigrant status. Since those statuses don’t carry any requirement, how can anybody intent on enforcing the Green Card regulation push forward? You could argue that:

  • The Green Card regulation is still helpful in cases where people are trying to access benefits (such as welfare benefits) only eligible to citizens and LPRs. But there aren’t any welfare benefits accessible to LPRs and not to citizens. And in any case, government offices have their own requirement for documentation you are supposed to bring, and being required to carry your Green Card at all times is unnecessary for that purpose.
  • It still doesn’t make sense for a person to lie to an official enforcing the Green Card regulation about whether he or she is a LPR, because the officer can investigate the person and know if he or she is lying. But to the extent this is true, it also renders somewhat superfluous the requirement to always carry the Green Card — if officers can investigate you anyway, why do you need to carry the card?

Current enforcement

Though about half of Green Card holders I personally know are aware of this regulation, many people have been skeptical of whether it can actually be enforced. Here’s what online law resource NOLO has to say:

If you are 18 or older, you do have to carry your green card with you. Section 264(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) requires all lawful permanent residents (LPRs) to have “at all times” official evidence of LPR status.

Failing to have your green card with you is a misdemeanor and if you are found guilty you can be fined up to $100 and put in jail for up to 30 days. (I.N.A. Section 264(e).) A copy is not good enough, because the law does not use the word “copy” or refer to “other evidence” of LPR status.

The official evidence of LPR status that most people eventually receive is an “alien registration receipt card,” also known as Form I-551 or, more commonly, a “green card.” Sometimes, people do not have their green card, but are already LPRs. For example, when somebody first arrives in the U.S. with an immigrant visa, they first receive an “I-551 stamp” in their passport. Weeks later, they receive the actual green card in the mail. In the time before receiving the green card in the mail, the LPR would have to carry his or her passport “at all times” or risk breaking the law.

If you decide to carry a copy of your green card instead of the original because you want to keep the original safe, you will be violating the law. Will you actually be stopped by immigration, prosecuted and fined or jailed for not having your original green card with you? It’s unlikely. Like any other government agency, immigration authorities have limited resources and cannot spend precious government time and money on prosecuting people for not carrying their green card “at all times.”

But there have been cases where LPRs are detained or arrested during workplace enforcement actions for not having their green card on them. So to be on the safe side, and obey the law, you should actually carry your green card with you everywhere you go. And it probably goes without saying that if you will be traveling internationally, you should take your original green card with you to board a plane or boat back to the U.S. and to reenter the U.S. as an LPR.

You might also be interested in discussion of the issue at ImmiHelp, Immigration Road, and Immigration Forums. Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

> When there are 20 million illegals easily walking in the streets of USA we the law abiding ones should not have issues.

When the law says you have to carry it with you and you don’t carry it with you, then how can you be a law abiding one?

I believe you cannot apply the photo-copy-is-okay argument to a green card, like you do for approval notices or certificates. Green card is obviously different with the magnetic stripe and stuff.

If we can say photo-copy is sufficient, then we can logically extend the argument to drivers license and start carrying a xerox copy of our drivers license with us instead of the original.

We have to accept what the law says and have to learn to live with it even though it may not be to our liking.

In an Open Borders Action Group post discussing the issue, it was pointed out that immigration regulations in the United States can only be enforced by federal immigration enforcement authorities, and these are active generally only at airports and close to the border, so in practice this does not affect most people. There is much truth to this, but some important caveats:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee! If you, or people at your workplace, are non-citizen LPRs of the United States, then a federal immigration raid of your workplace could lead to you or your co-workers getting arrested for a month. Is this likely to happen? Probably not — arresting people for not carrying Green Cards is a “low priority” for the ICE because they have so many bigger fish to fry (such as deporting illegal immigrants). Still, better be careful! The law is the law.

Historical enforcement

The Green Card began after World War II. Althogh the Smith Act was passed in 1940, cards began to be issued only after the War. 1950 saw an important step in the formal codification of the idea that non-citizens had a burden of proof of responsibility in maintaining documentation to demonstrate legal status. As Citizen Path puts it:

The Internal Security Act of 1950 increased the value of Form 151, Alien Registration Receipt Card. Effective April 17, 1951, aliens holding AR-3 cards could replace them with a new Form I-151. However, only those with legal status could replace their AR-3. What’s more, aliens who could not prove their legal admission into the United States were subject to prosecution for violating U.S. immigration laws.

As a result, the Form I-151 card represented security to its holder. It indicated the right to live and work in the United States permanently and instantly communicated that right to law enforcement officials. Because of the card’s cumbersome official name – Alien Registration Receipt Card – immigrants, attorneys, and INS workers came to refer to it by its color, calling it the “green card.”

So having a Green Card was a way of getting around an otherwise capricious and uncertain law enforcement process. Mandating that people carry it could be considered a form of libertarian paternalism — nudging people in the direction of doing something they should want to do anyway.

Historically, the Green Card regulation was important because of two salient differences with the present.

First, in response to the present difficulty of distinguishing between citizens and non-citizen LPRs: a foreign-born person in the United States could not be a citizen unless that person was “white” (as defined by the Naturalization Act of 1790) or of African ancestry (this change was made in the Naturalization Act of 1870, as part of the process of post-Civil War rectification of racial injustice). Note that birthright citizenship existed even for people of other races and ethnicities, but the foreign-born of these races were not formally eligible for (or at least had no official process for) acquiring citizenship. This would change with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. But it does mean that back in the day, if somebody looked neither white nor black, you could have high confidence the person wasn’t a US citizen. (It was still conceivable the person was born in the US and therefore a US citizen, but given that this was about a decade after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, that effectively closed the US border to Asians and East Europeans, there would be very few children of immigrants among the population anyway).

So, back in the day, ethnicity as a statistical discriminator allowed almost all US citizens to avoid getting harassed by immigration enforcement (and the few who did get harassed were anyway from an ethnic group that didn’t enjoy a lot of broad support and sympathy). Thus, the regulation was enforcible.

What about my second point about the difficulty of current enforcement, i.e., the fact that people on temporary statuses aren’t required to carry documentation at all times? It’s important to remember that the landscape of temporary statuses and related regulations has changed a lot since that time. The H visas, including the H-1B and the H-2, didn’t exist back then — they were created by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. There did exist a Bracero Program for temporary agricultural labor, and deportation also started becoming a systematic operation with Operation Wetback. The primarily Mexican people in these situations may not have been required to carry green cards, but they had bigger problems and fewer legal protections overall.

Why hasn’t the regulation been repealed?

If the requirement to carry a Green Card is no longer practical to enforce, why is it still on the books? This is best understood in terms of the principle that laws are hard to repeal, particularly if they give power and authority to vested interests in government. Even if immigration enforcement officials do not generally use this regulation, the existence of this regulation gives them more power — power that they can use as and when they see fit. In general, any source of power will be liked by those wielding it, and they will not easily give up.

This ratchet effect is observed everywhere, but is particularly likely in situations where the people enforcing the law do not have direct accountability to the people affected. Non-citizens can’t vote, so getting rid of clauses that could be used against them doesn’t have a strong political constituency.

Featured image credit: Jason Scott, licensed under CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr

UPDATE: Rob Zidar writes in with a personal anecdote:

I’ve been here legally (from Canada – my wife is American) for 25 years. My last GC renewal took 1.5 years, 5 trips to Newark and I was actually illegal for a few weeks between extensions. The reason for the snafu was primarily that when I originally went in for the renewal, my card was cracked from having been in my wallet for 10 years. Because it was cracked, the would not put a sticker on it to serve as the normal extension. I had to apply for a separate in-person meeting to request an extension, which took weeks. Months later, my replacement card was lost in the mail (I’m guessing it was stolen) and the window for my fingerprints being valid had expired. I had to restart the whole application process.

I understand that it is a law that people carry their GC at all times, but I think the law is unpractical and probably toothless. I’ll keep mine with my passport in a safe place from now on.

US immigrant processing: funded by user fees since 1882

The first piece of US federal legislation detailing procedures for immigration enforcement was the Immigration Act of 1882 (passed at about the same time as, though distinct from, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).

The first component of the act, as described by Wikipedia, was its self-financed nature:

The first was to create a “head tax” that would be imposed upon certain immigrants entering the country. The Act states that “There shall be levied, collected and paid a duty of fifty cents for each and every passenger not a citizen of the United States who shall come by steam or sail vessel from a foreign port to any port within the United States.” This money would be paid into the United States Treasury and “shall constitute a fund called the immigration fund.” These funds would be used to “defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act.” Scholar Roger Daniels commented that the head tax eventually “would rise, in stages, to eight dollars by 1917. In most years the government collected more in head taxes than it spent on administration.”

The fact that the costs of immigration administration are largely borne by user fees, unlike most other government agencies, continues to be true today. For instance, Wikipedia says:

Unlike most other federal agencies, USCIS is funded almost entirely by user fees. Under President George W. Bush’s FY2008 budget request, direct congressional appropriations made about 1% of the USCIS budget and about 99% of the budget was funded through fees. The total USCIS FY2008 budget was projected to be $2.6 billion.

This is true not only of the USCIS as a whole but also of incremental programs. For instance, co-blogger Michelangelo notes that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), announced by Barack Obama in June 2012, is funded by user fees:

Even if DACA explained the recent surge, Senator Cruz should be aware that no federal funds go towards the management of the DACA program. The DACA program is funded by user fees; currently set at $465. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers DACA, is unique in being funded almost entirely by user fees. If only that were the case with the rest of the federal government!

Similarly, when, after September 11, 2001, people on student and exchange visitor visas were required to go through a criminal background check in order to be able to get a visa (the so-called “SEVIS record”) that cost was also “user-financed” — recipients had to pay $100 in order to have a background check run on them.

Angelo Paparelli notes that Obama’s November 2014 deferred action proposals would also be financed by user fees:

Understandably, public and media attention since then has focused on the four to five million people who soon may come out from hiding in plain sight. Parents of citizens and permanent residents, and an expanded class of DREAMers, will be given deferred action and work and travel permits. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now preparing to accept and decide a flood of new applications, all of which will be funded by user fees.

It should be noted that the “funded by user fees” applies specifically to the USCIS, the branch of immigration enforcement that deals specifically with processing immigrant applications, and not to the other branches of immigration enforcement, namely U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). ICE and CBP, focused as they are on interior and border enforcement of immigration and customs laws, don’t really have “customers” — and they cost the taxpayers a decent chunk of money (though still chump change relative to the overall US federal budget). [The SEVIS fee alluded to above is an exception, since the Student and Exchange Visitor Program is managed by ICE rather than USCIS. It is somewhat of an exception to the general rule that status processing is managed by USCIS.] Here are the approximate budgets:

  • USCIS: About $3.2 billion, about 99% funded by user fees.
  • ICE: About $5.3 billion, negligible user fees funding.
  • CBP: About $12.9 billion, negligible user fees funding.

These numbers suggest that liberalizing migration, raising user fees somewhat (cf. immigration tariffs), and cutting down on some enforcement functions would probably lead to significant budgetary savings in the short run. However, all these numbers are small relative to the lifetime economic or fiscal effects of immigrants (even though the signs of the fiscal effects are much disputed, their magnitudes are likely to be at least one order of magnitude greater). This is one reason why “save the costs of border enforcement” is not an argument made prominently on this site or by open borders advocates in general. But in the narrowest sense, the fiscal cost of immigration enforcement arises not from immigrants (who seem to be bearing their share of the burden) but on those who seek to keep them out.

Some might object that illegal immigrants don’t pay any user fees. This is technically true, but they pay amounts that are far greater in fees to human smugglers. And when given the opportunity to regularize their status by paying user fees, as happened with DACA, many avail of the opportunity. Those who don’t are deterred not so much by the cost as by the uncertainty of whether registering themselves with the federal government might endanger them.

PS: See this Open Borders Action Group post where the relative costs of the immigration enforcement agencies and their extent of user funding are discussed.

Isaac Asimov & Immigration

Isaac Asimov & Immigration: Fiction as Social Commentary


The celebrated writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was born in the Soviet Union to his great surprise. He moved to quickly correct the situation by stowing away in a piece luggage at the age of three. He settled down in New York City and by the age of eight he had acquired US citizenship. He wrote prolifically during his lifetime and his books can be found across the Dewey decimal system.

He is perhaps best known for penning the ‘Robot’, ‘Empire’, and ‘Foundation’ books which together paint a history of the future chronicling the early exploration of space, the future relationship between man and robot, and the rise and fall of galactic empires. For this Asimov is often thought as a science fiction writer, but I think this is misunderstanding the point of his fiction. Asimov’s books used science fiction as his setting, but could have worked just as well if they were set in colonial America.

It is better to think of Asimov as a social commentator, and as a social commentator he wrote quite extensively on immigration. One of his most explicit stories on immigration is the novelette, “Mother Earth” (published originally in magazine form and re-published in The Early Asimov).

The premise of the story is that Earth’s former space colonies, the Spacer worlds, have implemented immigrant quotas on Earth. Earth’s population has swelled to the billions and, as Asimov explains in-story, has become technologically stagnant since the brightest of mankind have left to space or are in the process of doing so. In other words Earth is experiencing a severe case of brain drain.

The Spacers, the descendants of the early space colonizers, view their Earth-bound cousins as a lesser sub-race. Even before explicit immigration quotas were put in place the Spacers had begun to genetically modify themselves to get rid of any undesired genetic traits. Their desire to restrict Earth migration is as such partly based on racism.

It is also partly based on economics. The Spacers themselves are more technologically advanced and so do not need ‘high skilled’ migrants from Earth. The use of robots has all but eliminated the need for ‘low skilled’ migrants. The only migrants that are sought after are those skilled in agricultural science. In a plot relevant point, food in the Spacer worlds lack ‘taste’ and there is a premium value in imported Earth food.

The novelette chronicles the conclusion outcome of this scenario. After negotiations to loosen the immigration quotas fail Earth and the Spacer worlds wage a war against each other. Earth is quickly defeated and has the worst possible punishment inflicted on it possible: closed barriers. The Spacers erect a barrier around the solar system and forbid any further migration from Earth.

The conditions of peace were unusual, perhaps unique, and under the force of an unprecedented humiliation, all the hordes of Earth seemed suddenly struck with a silence that came from a shamed anger too strong for words. The terms mentioned were perhaps best commented upon by a voice on the Auroran video two days after they were made public. It can be quoted in part:

“…There is nothing in or on Earth that we of the Outer Worlds can need or want. All that was ever worthwhile on Earth left it centuries ago in the persons of our ancestors.”

“They call us the children of Mother Earth, but that is not so, for we are the descendants of a Mother Earth that no longer exists, a Mother that we brought with us. The Earth of today bears us at best a cousinly relation. No more.”

“Do we want their resources? Why, they have none for themselves. Can we use their industry or science? They are almost dead for lack of ours. Can we use their man power? Ten of them are not worth a single robot. Do we even want the dubious glory of ruling them? There is no such glory. As our helpless and incompetent inferiors, they would be only a drag upon us. They would divert from our own use food, labor, and administrative ability.”

“So they have nothing to give us but the space they occupy in our thought. They have nothing to free us from but themselves. They cannot benefit us in any way other than in their absence.”

“It is for that reason that the peace terms have been defined as they have been. We wish them no harm, so let them have their own solar system. Let them live there in peace. Let them mold their own destiny in their own way, and we will not disturb them there by even the least hint of our presence. But we in turn want peace. We in turn would guide our own future in our own way. So we do not want their presence. And with that end in view, an Outer World fleet will patrol the boundaries of their system, Outer World bases will be established on their outermost asteroids, so that we may make sure they do not intrude on our territory.

“There will be no trade, no diplomatic relationships, no travel, no communications. They are fenced off, locked out, hermetically sealed away. Out here we have a new universe, a second creation of Man, a higher Man…”

-Mother Earth by Isaac Asimov

In the epilogue and further installments of series we learn the outcome of this closed border policy is disastrous for both sides. The Spacer worlds begin to deteriorate without Earth migrants. Earth migrants, it turned out, were those most adventurous when it came to space exploration. Without the entrepreneurial drive of migrants space exploration ceases along with technological advances. Meanwhile the racial policies the Spacers have been following come back to haunt them when they realize that they’ve been retarding their ability to adapt to space.

In the aftermath of the war Earth finds itself taken over politically by those who believe the only answer to ‘overpopulation’ is population control. Balance is only restored when open borders between Earth and the Space worlds is reestablished in the future and a new wave of space exploration migration begins. Open borders, it turns out, is necessary for humanity to flourish across the stars.

Readers may wonder why I have chosen to share this story. Am I, as Murray Rothbard called some of his detractors, a space cadet trying to trivialize the open borders movement by infusing it with unneeded futurism? No, as I noted above, Asimov’s stories are better viewed as social commentaries.  As I’ve written before, there is a place in the movement for philosophy-based arguments in favor of open borders and by all means we should continue down that path. We must however also package our arguments to reach different audiences.

One such method of packaging our arguments is through the use of fiction.

The beauty of fiction is that, when properly written, it can be enjoyed for its own sake while still providing a message. Paul Krugman, whom my co-blogger John Lee has previously written about, is a big fan of Asimov’s fiction despite being a moderate on immigration.

Krugman, who credits Asimov for his choice to enter economics and who wrote a foreword for new copies of the Foundation series, agrees with me that Asimov isn’t a science fiction writer. In Krugman’s words:

Maybe the first thing to say about ‘Foundation’ is that it’s not exactly science fiction—not really. Yes, it’s set in the future, there’s interstellar travel, people shoot each other with blasters instead of pistols and so on. But these are superficial details, playing a fairly minor part in the story.The‘Foundation’ novels are about society…

Asimov himself, in his non-fiction writings, wrote on the dangers of ‘over population’ despite the solid pro-open borders message of his books. That is how powerful good fiction can be. Asimov might have been wrong on economics when he consciously wrote on the topic, but in his fiction writing he got it right. As most fiction writers will point out, it is not uncommon for a story to ‘write itself’ or for a character to become alive on its own after you lay the groundwork.

I propose as such, as a possible avenue of open border advocacy, the pursuit of fiction dealing with open border themes. There are several pieces of fiction that deal with immigration, and I recommended several films this past Christmas that did just that, but few with an explicit open border bent exist. The trouble of course, and here too most fiction writers will collaborate with me, it is difficult to set out to cover a specific topic in fiction. It is easy to begin writing about X and find yourself covering Y as the story evolves. Nonetheless it is a pursuit worth pursuing.

I close by emphasizing that this article should not be taken to mean that we should cease writing in a given direction. The open borders movement has seen its birth in a certain sub-population and I argue simply in favor of adopting our advocacy efforts to attempt to capture readers from other sub-populations.


Read More In This Series

This is an ongoing series on ideas on how the open borders movement should proceed next.

What should be next for the Open Borders movement? by Michelangelo Landgrave

Philosophers, Wonks, and Entrepreneurs by Vipul Naik

What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery by Nathan Smith

Why the Open Borders Movement Should (Mostly) Avoid Emulating the Gay Marriage Movement by Nathan Smith

Immigration Comics by Michelangelo Landgrave


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Orson Scott Card on Immigration by Evan