Confusing public and private: the nonsensical private property argument against open borders

A popular argument against open borders runs as follows:

  • Individuals who own their own homes and businesses have the right to exclude anyone they like from their property
  • Immigration controls are a way for groups of individuals to collectively exclude people they don’t like from their property
  • Ergo, reducing or abolishing immigration controls infringe these individuals’ property rights

I think this cartoon that ran in the Indianapolis Star analogising immigrants to trespassers is a pretty good summary of how people who make this argument view laws that protect freedom of movement:

Indianapolis Star anti-amnesty cartoonA simpler version of this argument is: if you want open borders so bad, why don’t you leave your front door open and let in anyone who wants to sleep in your bed?

The legal/philosophical pedigree of this argument is somewhat thin, although neo-reactionary/libertarian scholar Hans-Hermann Hoppe is often cited in its support. Nevertheless, the “why don’t you open your front door?” argument is a popular one in discussions of immigration.

I must say I like Bryan Caplan’s pithy retort to this:

The biggest problem with this kind of “respect my property rights!” reasoning is that it confuses the public and the private. Removing border controls would no more obligate citizens to let foreigners sleep in their beds than the status quo obligates me as a US resident to let any US citizen commandeer my bed. Border controls act to exclude foreign individuals from the public square, from the marketplace, from the streets.

It is this use of public power to exclude foreign people from our public spaces that open borders advocates challenge. Governments cannot simply declare our public squares off-limits to anyone without good reason. If you don’t like having foreign people in your home, that’s your personal choice. I respect that. But if I want to host a foreign person in my home, you need a better reason than “But they’re not from this country!” to order my friend deported. What happened to my property rights?

More than respecting the private spaces of those who would welcome migrants and strangers, it is particularly important that we challenge the arbitrary exclusion of these people from our public spaces. Banning foreigners from hawking their goods, applying for jobs, or simply going for a stroll may not violate any individual’s property rights per se. But the use of government power to exclude people based on a characteristic out of their control — where they were born — is inherently suspect. This is particularly so when a favourite justification of those who advocate this exclusion seems to boil down to: “I don’t like these people and I wouldn’t allow them onto my private property, so I think society should enforce my personal preferences on everyone, and force these people out of all our public spaces altogether.”

There may be good reasons to single out foreigners for special treatment, maybe even for banishment or exclusion (espionage and invasion are the obvious examples here). But the point is that you need a reason rooted in the public interest to justify excluding someone by the violent force of the state. It is fine if you want to exclude someone from your property, and call the cops to enforce your private rights. But that is not at all the same as siccing the cops on someone applying for a job because that someone is an immigrant. Dressing this process up by electing legislators who pass exclusionary laws that allow you to sic the cops on peaceful foreigners in the public square does not alter the fundamental reality here: you have misleadingly appropriated your private rights to impose your personal preferences and prejudices on the public at large.

Confusing the public and the private is hardly unique to questions of freedom of movement and residence. I was reminded of this by another comic, this time from XKCD:

XKCD free_speech

In this instance, cartoonist Randall Munroe is addressing people who object to criticisms of their speech by responding: “I have the right to freedom of speech!” Yes, you do: the government cannot infringe your freedom of speech without good reason (violent incitement, slander, and so on). But other private individuals can respond to your speech as they please.

Objecting to others’ freedom of movement because “I have the right to peacefully enjoy my private property!” is the flipside of this. Yes, you do have that right, and if others are threatening your peaceful enjoyment, you can seek government intervention to enjoin them from disturbing you. But so long as others are not disturbing you, you have no basis for complaining about them.

Most immigrants are not criminals, not soldiers in an invading army. They don’t want to disturb you: they want to study, to live in a safe home, to work, to play, to love in peace. Unless they are causing a disturbance, you do not have a reason to demand their exclusion from the public square. Imposing your personal preferences on the public is not exercising your private property rights. It is the arrogant assumption of dictatorial power over public spaces: you are claiming the public square as your own private property, to the exclusion of anyone who happens to displease you.

Some disclaim the weak “You wouldn’t let an immigrant sleep in your bed” private property arguments, but insist that as a collective, the nation privately owns its land and can exclude non-citizens at will. In this version of the argument, the nation as a collective owns its public spaces, and morally may exclude foreign nationals from these public spaces.

This more sophisticated version of the private property argument falls flat for a different reason: it holds public stewards of law and order to the same bar as private property owners. In this telling, a democratic majority, or democratically-elected government, may exclude anyone from public spaces, because they are acting as private property owners.

But private property owners aren’t accountable in the same way that a public government is. The organs of the state are not the private property of a democratic majority. Public institutions do not belong to their citizens in quite the same way that I own my personal computer or refrigerator. I can do whatever I like with my personal property. Governments cannot do whatever they like with the organs of the state, even if a majority of citizens approve.

The most fundamental function of the state is to dispense justice. The organs of the state are accountable for dispensing justice; I as a private property-owner am not. If I wastefully throw away my food before its expiry date instead of giving it to someone in need, or if I burn my books instead of giving them to the local library, I may be doing something morally wrong, perhaps even unjust. But I am not accountable to the public for the choices I make about my property. I am not accountable for disposing of my property in a fair and just manner.

Governments are clearly different. If the sole function of government was to do whatever the majority wants it to do, then government could rightly exclude targeted minorities from the public square. It could confiscate the property of hated minorities, ban them from pursuing opportunities, and even jail or deport them. In fact, this is what governments used to (and some still) do: the victims of injustice have ranged from ethnic minorities to sexual minorities, to almost any human characteristic or grouping you can name.

Foreign individuals are just such another unjustly targeted minority. Just as homosexuals were once banned in many countries from certain occupations and hunted down by the police, our governments today persecute people for the audacity to live their lives outside the country they were born in. Author Orson Scott Card put it well when he criticised proposals in the US that would punish immigrants who don’t speak English:

Efforts to “protect English” are the exact equivalent of those signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” or the rules limiting the number of Jews who could be admitted to prestigious universities or the laws telling black people where they could and could not sit in buses and trains. English doesn’t need protection. People need protection from those who would hurt them because they weren’t born to English-speaking parents.

You might object that this is not an injustice: that the difference between other minorities versus immigrants is only that it’s unjust to persecute or exclude any citizen. In this view, non-citizens are fair game: it is just for government to exclude foreigners from our public spaces, as long as that’s what citizens determine through a democratic process.

Now, I agree it is fair for governments to discriminate against foreigners in a number of circumstances. But state-sponsored exclusion from the public square and from the marketplace is not one of these. As economist Steve Landsburg puts it:

Yes, the U.S. government is elected by Americans to serve Americans. There was a time when a lot of southern sheriffs could have said they’d been elected by white citizens to serve white citizens. It does not follow that it’s okay to run roughshod over the rights of everyone else.

…It is no more inappropriate for the U.S. Army to defend Americans instead of Peruvians than it is for Burger King to provide food for Burger King customers instead of McDonald’s customers. But the labor market isn’t like that at all… After all, if it’s okay to enrich ourselves by denying foreigners the right to earn a living, why not enrich ourselves by invading peaceful countries and seizing their assets? Most of us don’t think that’s a good idea, and not just because it might backfire. We don’t think it’s a good idea because we believe human beings have human rights, whatever their color and wherever they live. Stealing assets is wrong, and so is stealing the right to earn a living, no matter where the victim was born.

How did we conclude that it is wrong and unjust for the state to violently exclude racial, religious, or sexual minorities from public spaces? We view such exclusion as fundamentally wrong because access to the streets, the square, the marketplace is essential for an ordinary life. To force people into the shadows without good reason is wrong.

Are foreigners not people too? “Yes, they are,” says the immigration restrictionist. “But if they want to live an ordinary life, they can do that in their country. They have no right to live such a life here.” That is the nub of the moral disagreement: I think people have the right to live an ordinary life in any country they please, as long as they submit to the same laws that apply to its citizens.

I do not question the state’s ability to exclude foreigners, or the capability of a democratic majority to demand their government banish the alien. These are self-evident. But I question the justice and morality of any law that excludes people simply by the alien condition of their birth.

Justice is blind. The state’s obligation to dispense justice does not disappear when one party to the dispute is foreign. Foreigners have the same right to the fruits of their labour as anyone else, the same right to pay rent for a safe home as anyone else — the same right as any citizen to walk the street in peace. Attacking someone in the street because of their birthplace is just as wrong when the government does it in the name of a democratic majority as it would be wrong when done by a lynch mob in the name of xenophobic prejudice.

The image featured at the top of this post is from Detroit, Michigan in the mid-20th century, when denizens protested African-Americans settling in their community. The original photo can be found at the Library of Congress.

Why Many Jews Might Support Open Borders

Which groups of people are most receptive to the open borders message? The list of individuals who have signed on to the recently posted Open Borders Manifesto suggests that academics may be especially amenable to supporting open borders. Another group that would be likely to support largely unrestricted immigration comprises those who are seeking to migrate to a new country but are unable to do so because of immigration restrictions, as would their family members already residing in the intended destination countries. Nathan Smith has argued that devout Christians are potentially a good source of support for open borders. At the same time, many secularists, who have been polled as having “the most favorable views of immigrants” compared with Catholics and Protestants, may be open to open borders as well.  Here I argue that Jews, especially American Jews, also could be a potentially strong source of support for open borders.

Nathan provides one reason why many Jews might support open borders: the Old Testament. He states that “from my reading of the Old Testament, it’s quite clear that the Bible supports open borders, full stop.”  For example, Nathan points out verses such as “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)” In 2008, the president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society echoed Nathan by writing that Jews “are taught to internalize the lesson that… we must ‘welcome the stranger,’ ‘not oppress the stranger,’ ‘protect the stranger,’ ‘have one law for the stranger and the citizen among you,’ because ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt…’ it is neither moral nor practical to carve out a system that admits Jews but restricts others, slamming the door to America behind us.”(Jewish Review (Portland, Oregon) April 15, 2008) Nathan concludes that “Old Testament law is favorable to immigrants to the point that it could well be embraced by the open borders movement as a template of the kind of immigration policy we would want to see.” While many Jews don’t consult the Bible for guidance for their positions on public policy, its message on immigration may subtly point Jews towards open borders, as the aid society president suggests.

In addition, Jewish history may have imprinted upon Jews a tendency to support open borders. For the last two thousand years, many Jews have migrated from place to place, either because of expulsions, a need to flee oppression, or the desire for improved economic circumstances.  For example, Spain forced hundreds of thousand of Jews out of the country in 1492.  Even in 2015, given the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, Jeffrey Goldberg asks, “Is it time for the Jews to leave?”  He also notes that “for millennia, Jews have been asking this question: Where, exactly, is it safe?”

The expulsions, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, “left their impress on the entire nation and its history, both materially and spiritually. They maintained and constantly intensified the feeling of foreignness of the Jews in the Diaspora.”  This was illustrated recently in an online comment responding to a study that found that many Jewish students have experienced anti-Semitism on American college campuses: “I repeatedly told my adult sons as they were growing up that we Jews are guests here in America, that even as we love this country, our birth here is an incident of fate. Too bad that so many Jewish families forget that we’ve lived in many lands with different degrees of acceptance. Our German brothers and sisters thought they were German until they were taken away in box cars, our French brothers and sisters thought they were French until the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, etc. etc. We Jews really need to awake from our delusions and tell our kids the ugly truth. Keep your passports current and your bags packed.”  This perception by some Jews of a tenuous status in their countries of residence and the implied understanding of the importance of having available places to which they can emigrate may lead to empathy for non-Jews who wish to migrate; if one senses that migration may be necessary at some time in their own life, one comprehends on a visceral level the need of others to migrate.

Based on their history, many Jews might support open borders today as they supported the civil rights movement in the U.S. The companion website to the film “From Swastika to Jim Crow” suggests that the historical oppression of Jews has made them sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans.  It notes that “in the early 1900s, Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the Black movement out of the South and the Jews’ escape from Egypt, pointing out that both Blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and calling anti-Black riots in the South ‘pogroms’.” It also describes how Jews helped form the NAACP and the Urban League, how Jewish organizations played an important part in the campaign against prejudice, and how Jews monetarily supported civil rights organizations. In addition, it states that “about 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws.”

The history of Jewish immigration to the U.S. in particular may lead American Jews towards supporting open borders. Thomas Sowell writes in Ethnic America that “The great majority of Jews in America are descended from the millions who emigrated from Russia, Poland, and other eastern European countries in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century. In that period, one-third of all the Jews in eastern Europe migrated to America.” (p. 69) Why did they come? Maldwyn Jones, in American Immigration, explains that “the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 set off a wave of anti-Jewish riots and led to strict enforcement of the requirement that all Jews must reside within the Pale of Settlement, an area bordering on Germany, Austria, and Rumania. A year later came the notorious May Laws, which placed restrictions on Jewish worship, virtually debarred Jews from agriculture, industry, and the professions, excluded them from public office, and denied them educational opportunities. Persecution now became systematic, persistent, and ruthless; worst of all there were the frightful pogroms of 1881-82, 1891, and 1905-06 in which countless Jews were massacred. Largely in consequence, Russian arrivals in the United States rose from 5,000 in 1880 to 81,000 in 1892 and then bounded upward to a peak of 258,000 in 1907.” (pp. 201-202)

America turned out to be an excellent choice for these eastern European immigrants and their descendants. Mr. Sowell notes that “the overwhelming majority of these Jewish immigrants came to stay. The rate of return migration was lower among Jews than among any other large group of immigrants.” (p. 79) This apparently testifies to the appeal of being in America versus their homelands. While many of these Eastern European Jews came to America impoverished and experienced poverty and slum living in America (p. 83 and p. 85) “the upward movement of American Jews—across broad economic, intellectual, social, and political arenas—was unprecedented and unparalleled.” (p. 88) In addition, “American anti-Semitism has never reached the levels seen in Europe.” (p. 93) Furthermore, had the mass turn of the century Jewish immigration not occurred, those immigrants and their descendants would have perished in the Holocaust of the 1940s.

Many American Jews must understand that this immigration was able to occur largely because European immigration to the U.S. was generally unrestricted until the early 1920s. Notwithstanding his opposition to open borders, the economist Paul Krugman has noted that he is “instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration” and that “he is grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.”  Jeffrey Goldberg has written that “… I am an American Jew–which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.”

Many American Jews must also grasp the negative consequences of the 1920s immigration restrictions on European Jewry. As I noted in a previous post,  the restrictions, together with other bureaucratic maneuvering, kept many Jews from fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. A dramatic example of this was the refusal of the U.S. to accept hundreds of Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939, even as the ship reached the Florida coast. Many of these refugees later died in the Holocaust. Furthermore, after World War II many European Jews languished in concentration camps taken over by the Americans, according to  Eric Lichtblau in The Nazis Next Door.  He writes that “… with Britain blocking Jews from going to Palestine and the United States closing its own doors for the most part, Truman agonized over the situation in the DP camps.  ‘Everyone else who’s been dragged from his country has somewhere to go back to,’ Truman said, ‘but the Jews have no place to go.'” (p. 5) Former U.S. Representative Barney Frank understands the significance of immigration restrictions, suggesting that had immigration policies been more restrictive when his grandparents left Russia for the U.S., they wouldn’t have been allowed in and the family would have perished in the Holocaust. (Washington News Observer, 10/7/09)

When America had borders that were largely open to immigrants, it was a great refuge for Jews fleeing undesirable situations in other countries. Conversely, when this period of mostly open borders ended, restrictionist immigration policies had disastrous consequences for would-be Jewish immigrants. Many American Jews may recognize the value of open borders to their ancestors and may generalize this appreciation of open borders, applying it universally, just as their historical experience of oppression contributed to their support for the civil rights movement for African Americans.

One concern Jews around the world might have about open borders is that it would allow potentially greatly increased Muslim immigration to places where many Jews reside, such as the U.S., France, and the U.K.  In Mr. Goldberg’s article on rising anti-Semitism in Europe, he writes that “… the chief propagators of contemporary European anti-Semitism may be found in the Continent’s large and disenfranchised Muslim immigrant communities–communities that are themselves harassed and assaulted by hooligans associated with Europe’s surging right…” He adds that “the failure of Europe to integrate Muslim immigrants has contributed to their exploitation by anti-Semetic propagandists and by recruiters for such radical projects as the Islamic State…” (The unemployment rate among Muslims in France is higher than the rest of the population, and in some French suburbs with large minority populations, the unemployment rate, particularly among the young, is very high.  (See here and here and here.))  He notes that “in 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish.  Sale Juif–‘dirty Jew’–rang in the streets, as did ‘Death to the Jews,’ and ‘Jews to the gas.'”

However, it should be remembered that Muslims, like any group, should not be stereotyped.  In a previous post, I quoted Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them: “We should not fall into the trap of thinking that Muslims are a uniform and separate community whose identity is wholly defined by their religion, still less an inevitably hostile or violent one.” (page 304)  In addition, it appears that a contributor to Muslim anti-Semitic acts in Europe may be Muslims’ disenfranchisement and lack of integration in their host countries, as Mr. Goldberg suggests.  Mr. Legrain emphasizes that creating harmonious, ethnically diverse societies depends greatly on how citizens receive immigrants: “It’s not rocket science. Societies need to make every effort to ensure that everyone feels included and has an opportunity to participate fully in economic and social life. But they also need to accept the diversity of all their members—not just those of foreign descent—while insisting that all adhere to the fundamental principles on which they are based. The watchwords are tolerance and respect for the law. Learning the local language and how institutions work, and promoting cultural understanding are also important, without seeking to impose a uniform culture or behavioural norms.” (p. 288)  He highlights Toronto, Canada as successfully integrating its ethnically diverse population but cites France and Holland for failing to integrate its immigrants. (p. 265, pp. 272-273)

Mr. Legrain appears confident in America’s ability to integrate immigrants into society:  “Immigrants have to pledge their allegiance to the United States and sign up to the values in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, but they don’t have to adopt any particular cultural habits, Anglo-Protestant or otherwise. Over time, each influx of immigrants changes and enriches American culture, while they adapt freely to American ways, although they may retain some of their cultural heritage.” (p. 266) Clive Crook  argues in The Atlantic that America’s economic system is more effective at integrating immigrants compared to Europe.  He writes that  “America’s harsher insistence on work is not just economically advantageous (which is self-evident) but socially beneficial as well (which some may find surprising). Jobs alone are not enough to ensure successful assimilation of immigrants, but jobs are a necessary condition. By insisting that immigrants work, the host country attacks the incumbents’ intellectual and emotional resistance to immigration. The work requirement increases the dispersed economic benefits; it reduces or eliminates the net fiscal burden; and it lowers cultural barriers.”  He notes that higher unemployment among immigrants in Europe leads to native opposition, but it must also lead to frustration among immigrants, which in turn may lead to anti-Semitic acts.  I am not excusing these acts in any way, but the analysis by Mr. Legrain and Mr. Crook suggests ways to avoid the ethnic tumult that is occurring in Europe, even with high levels of immigration.  It will be difficult to reverse the situation in Europe, but the U.S. and city of Toronto appear to be structured to have mostly harmoniously societies with open borders. (See here and here for examples of Muslims who view the U.S. as an especially tolerant place to live.)

Dean Obeidallah, who is Muslim-American, wrote last year that at a Muslim-American event, Keith Ellison, who is a Muslim congressman, was heartily cheered when he said “‘There’s absolutely no place for anti-Semitism in discussing Israeli policy.'”  Mr. Obeidallah further noted that “that reaction is not atypical in my experience” at other Muslim-American events, although he acknowledges that there is some anti-Semitism in “my own community.”  Unfortunately, a study on Muslim anti-Semitism in North America did find higher levels among Muslims than Christians.  Overall, however, it is apparent that in the U.S., as a Vox article noted, “… Muslim and Jewish communities are on much better terms” than in Europe.  There is nothing in the U.S. like the volume of anti-Semitic acts committed by Muslims in Europe.

In summary, the historical memory of Jews, particularly American Jews, plus the pro-open borders message of the Old Testament, should make many Jews receptive to the open borders message. Open borders advocates are likely to convince many Jews to support open borders by reminding them of their history and the admonitions in their Bible.  They can also note that America in particular is structured to successfully integrate large numbers of Muslims into its society, thereby likely preventing widespread anti-Semitic acts by Muslims.

Should Dreamers be encouraged to go to graduate school? No.

I am currently working on a side project, Graduate School for Dreamers. I am chronicling the many differing policies that universities have in regards to ‘Dreamers’, illegal aliens brought to the United States as children.  A few universities, such as the University of New Mexico or the University of California, Santa Cruz have their policies towards Dreamers in their admissions instructions. Others on the other hand…

I am not working on the project out of pure altruism – I hope to apply to doctoral programs in the upcoming fall and need to acquire the information for myself anyway.  Nonetheless I suspect fellow Dreamers will find my project and presume that I am encouraging them to attend graduate school. To the contrary though I don’t think Dreamers (or most people) should be encouraged to go to graduate school. I worry that the Dreamer movement in general has made education a goal in itself and there are few willing to make the case against it.

Graduate school takes several years to complete. In my field (Economics) I have heard of people who have managed to complete their doctoral studies in four years or less, but for many other fields I know the average length is closer to seven to ten years. That is a large amount of time to spend in school without the promise of a job at the end. Payment during the course of a graduate program is low – with stipends somewhere around 10~20 thousand. has a directory with admission results and stipend information for those interested in how much they can expect to get in funding.

Graduate school is not like undergraduate studies – there isn’t a clear pathway and you need to be self motivated to stay on top of things. In this area Dreamers actually have an advantage over their peers since they had to be learn this skill during their undergraduate studies. In recent years there has been an increase in institutional support for Dreamers, but for the most part they are still on their own in navigating academia.

Anyone who is willing to do graduate studies knowing all of this, regardless of migrant status, has to be crazy.

For Dreamers the reality of the situation is even worse. Most graduate students have some hope that at the end of their servitude they might be able to get a tenure track professorship. Can any Dreamer seriously hope to acquire a teaching position anywhere in the United States? Back in 2011 the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about ‘Jorge’, one of the few Dreamers to have earned a PhD, and his struggle to make use of it. Spoiler: he is not employed in academia.

Ever since the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program things have improved for Dreamers. They can now apply for work authorization in two year increments. DACA is far from perfect though – I learned this when I applied to renew my work permit last year. I was quickly approved, but my physical work permit was lost in the mail. I had to re-apply and am still waiting to hear back. In the meantime I am unable to be a teaching assistant. I may very well complete my degree without having gained any experience actually teaching others, to say nothing about my financial situation. I’m fortunate to have family to fall back on, but what about other Dreamers?

I cannot in good conscience encourage Dreamers to enter graduate study knowing they might very well find themselves unexpectedly unable to work. Worse, what do you do when you finish? How many Dreamers are genuinely fine with leaving the United States and, given the inadmissibility bars, likely never returning?

Professional graduate degrees are little better. Does anyone remember Sergio Garcia? He is the Dreamer who fought to be admitted to the California Law Bar and eventually won. If you google him though its unclear if he actually practices. Despite being admitted into the bar he couldn’t be hired by any existing firm and had to form his own office. The webpage for his firm seems to be dead at time of writing. He seems to be making his living at the moment as an inspirational speaker.

The only success story I can think of is  Alfredo Quiñones, John Hopkins brain surgeon and even that is a stretch. Quinones is a Dreamer in spirit, but it seems he had legal status (and eventually citizenship) by the time he started medical school. Furthermore he came to the United States at the age of 18, not an adult but not really a child.

I hope that I have made it clear that I do not encourage most people (especially not Dreamers) to attend graduate school. The cost is simply too high and the chance for reward is small.

I can only encourage graduate school to those Dreamers who, like me, wish to ultimately become an academic overseas. Few American schools will be willing to hire, let alone as tenure-track, Dreamers for the foreseeable future. A few professional graduate degrees might be worth it, but as noted above I’d be extremely skeptical.

If my warning falls on deaf ears though I hope my project helps those ears find graduate programs that will at least entertain an admissions application.


Further Reading:

Grad Skool Rulz by Fabio Rojas (occasional Open Borders: The Case blogger)

Especially rule #20 (rules for students of color), #17 (all in the family), and #9 (don’t pay for grad school).

Overview of the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on migration liberalisation

[A draft of this post was reviewed by Alexander Berger, Program Officer for US Policy at GiveWell, and a number of changes were made to it based on his comments and corrections.]

Charity evaluator GiveWell seeks to identify underfunded charities that can provide clear evidence of positive impact. Making their list of top charities therefore requires that one do good in sufficiently uncomplicated ways, ideally through a straightforward chain of cause and effect. Open borders activism does not fit this description. However, in early 2013, GiveWell (GW) broadened their focus to include less tractable causes through the Open Philanthropy Project, a joint project of GW and the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures (GV). Among a few dozen general causes including criminal justice reform and geoengineering research, “international labor mobility” was put on the agenda no later than in May 2013. This post will give an overview of the work the Open Philanthropy Project (OPP) has done in investigating and funding migration related efforts in the last two years.

A shallow overview of “labor mobility” was posted on GW’s homepage in May 2013. The page credits two specific sources with raising GW and GV researchers’ interest in this cause: Michael Clemens’s article “Economics and Emigration” (the origin of the “double world GDP” estimate), and the conversation that GW and GV staff held with Lant Pritchett in June 2012.

The Open Philanthropy Project’s assessment of free migration as a philanthropic cause

Since the inception of the OPP, the researchers’ stated position has been that labour mobility holds potential for very large gains, mainly in the form of large wage increases for workers who migrate from low-income-countries to high-income-countries. This is in line with Michael Clemens’s argumentation, although the OPP’s position is more guarded in its assessment of the magnitude of the gains, stating little confidence in the output of the relevant models. (Note that Open Borders bloggers have also argued for a lower estimate than Clemens’s.) A back-of-the envelope calculation provided on the GW website nonetheless states that it may be appropriate to consider the “importance” of labor mobility to be in the low trillions of $/year, based on the assumption of 10% as much migration as expected under full liberalisation in the models used by Michael Clemens. Efforts to facilitate legal migration through information sharing and coordination are estimated to hold potential corresponding to hundreds of millions of additional $/year, and the Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill is estimated to represent a plausible US policy path that would carry benefits in the low hundreds of billions of $/year for future migrants (these gains would be realised in 2033 had the bill passed in 2013).

Characteristically concerned with room for more funding, the OPP’s assessment considers the extent to which the cause is already crowded by other philanthropic organisations. Policy work concerned with the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the US and with high-skilled labour for US businesses is seen as very crowded. Crucially, however, the OPP’s globalist humanitarian perspective sets it apart from the vast majority of active philanthropists working on US immigration policy, whose focus seems strongly influenced by citizenism and territorialism: The OPP’s focus is primarily on the interest of the immigrants, not on the interests of US employers in search of labour. And their priority lies with low-skilled immigrants, who have the most to gain from labour mobility. And here, the cause is everything but crowded.

The shallow assessment of labour mobility from May 2013 raises the possibility of important downsides of migration liberalisation as requiring research, and takes no position on this side of the issue. A post published in July 2014 states (citing a conversation with Michael Clemens and announcing a forthcoming writeup of the evidence)

our current understanding is that best evidence suggests that both lower- and higher-skill immigration are net beneficial for current residents, though they have somewhat different distributional effects.

On the 3rd of September 2014, Holden Karnofsky posted a draft writeup on the likely impact of increased immigration on current US residents’ wages, which the OPP had commissioned David Roodman to write, stating

We haven’t yet fully vetted this writeup (something we are planning to do), but we believe it gives a thorough and convincing picture of the literature, and provides some reason to believe that immigration is unlikely to result in substantially lower wages (particularly over the long run) for current residents.

(See also Open Borders’ reference page on the potential suppression of wages of natives.)

As for how highly they have prioritised this cause compared with the other philanthropic causes on their list:

An update on the Open Philanthropy Project posted on the GW blog on 26 September 2013 described “deep investigations” of 7 philanthropic causes as a crucial next step, involving proactive grantmaking. Labour mobility is on top of the list.

A much later post from 29 May 2014 on “Potential U.S. policy focus areas” groups labour mobility together with “macroeconomic policy” under the heading “Ambitious longshots: outstanding importance”, and places “deep investigation” of these two causes on top of the agenda, as investigation into the more time-sensitive “criminal justice reform” was being paused at that point in time.

A new Open Philanthropy Project update on US Policy related causes was posted on 10 March 2015. It states:

Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire for criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, areas that we find conceptually very promising but in which we aren’t currently aware of (multiple promising-seeming) potential grant opportunities, and accordingly aren’t ready to make full-time hires in. These priorities are followed by several issues on which we have a relatively specific idea of what we could fund, and the next steps would be to investigate in much greater depth to decide whether the specific potential grants were worth making.

A spreadsheet linked to from last week’s OPP update explicitly gives “labor mobility” the highest importance out of all OPP causes. (See the  “Importance” column.) Unfortunately, this importance is not reflected by a corresponding number of funding opportunities.

Taking action

Since many of the causes taken on in the Open Philanthropy Project call for policy changes, GW’s and GV’s researchers have investigated expected costs and benefits of policy reform strategies. Vipul has written an Open Borders post about the conversation they’ve held on the topic with Steve Teles, and they have also held two conversations with Mark Schmitt. A series of  blog posts from October and November 2013 outline some general conclusions on policy oriented philanthropy.

As previously mentioned, the “deep investigation” of the causes was to involve proactive grantmaking. A blog post from May 2014 describes how GW’s and GV’s researchers came to adopt this approach:

from observing the behavior of potential grantees and other funders, we came to believe that a funder must be highly prepared (and likely) to make grants in an area in order to find giving opportunities in that area. Many people will only make the relevant referrals, propose relevant ideas, etc. once they are convinced of a philanthropist’s serious interest in providing funding.

The term “Earning to give” is often used in the Effective Altruism community, and I imagine the parallel terminology here is intentional:

“Giving to learn” can mean multiple things. It can mean (a) funding research in order to gain specific knowledge; it can also mean (b) funding a project in order to learn from following the project’s progress. The dynamic laid out in the above bullet points represents perhaps the most counterintuitive meaning: “giving to learn” can mean (c) offering funding in order to learn from the process of finding grantees.

[Update: Alexander Berger tells me the parallelism is not intentional.]

Three grants and one potential top charity

 The Center for Global Development (CGD) was awarded a grant for $1,184,720 over 3 years in March 2014.

This is the nonprofit think tank that employs Michael Clemens. As mentioned above, his publications were important in bringing the issue of labour mobility to GW and GV researchers’ attention.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Michael Clemens had advocated for making Haiti eligible for access to the H-2 temporary work visa program, as an outstandingly effective form of disaster relief. GW and GV researchers estimate that his efforts contributed significantly to the U.S. government’s decision to accept this proposal.

The grant will fund further research by Michael Clemens on “both marginal and more ambitious” changes to migration policy and its possible role in disaster relief. CGD will further use the grant money to launch a Working Group on Designing and Evaluating Bilateral Low-Skill Labor Mobility Agreements between high and low income countries. A Working Group on Creating a Migration-for Development Unit within the US Government will possibly also be launched.

While GW and GV are unsure of the marginal contribution the grant money will make to the CGD’s productivity in this area, they note that Michael Clemens’s work had very few sources of funding.

Follow-up is a crucial part of the  Open Philanthropy Project’s process. The writeup states that they “expect to have a conversation with Dr. Clemens every 3-6 months for the duration of the grant to learn about the status of his research and advocacy efforts, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.”

Notes on a conversation with Michael Clemens held on 21 January 2015 were published last week. Highlights:

Recently, most of Dr. Clemens’ time has been dedicated to three working groups and one study group:

  • A working group on a bilateral labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. This project has been funded by Good Ventures’ grant.

  • A working group on creating a migration and development bureau within the U.S. government. This project has been funded by Good Ventures’ grant.

  • A working group on implementing global skill partnerships. This project is currently stalled, and it is unlikely that CGD will become involved in any global skill partnerships within the next year.

  • The Beyond the Fence study group, focused on the indirect effects of the drug war in the U.S., Mexico and Central America. This group’s work has been fairly light so far.

Some details on the first of those working groups:

The exact output that the working group will produce is itself a subject of discussion. It may decide to produce a document outlining particular features that a practical agreement would require and suggesting research needed. This could build upon current bilateral, interministerial cooperation happening between the U.S. and Mexico.


A primary goal of this group is to design a better system for pairing migrant workers with employers than the current H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. Employers perceive the H-2A program as an obstacle. The U.S. Department of Labor could potentially create a pilot of a program that is instead a useful service for employers, similar to New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer Work Policy or the work of CITA Independent Agricultural Workers Center.

The second half of the conversation notes provides a lot of detail on Michael Clemens’s numerous migration related research projects. The last section of the document states:

Dr. Clemens does not have a good metric for determining the influence of his work. His papers are frequently included in course syllabi, and two of his papers in particular, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” and “The Place Premium,” seem to receive significant attention.

The U.S. Association for International Migration and the International Organization for Migration were awarded a grant for $1,490,500 over approximately 14 months in July 2014, for a jointly submitted proposal that will involve three further organisations. Among these is the Center for Global Development, which will conduct an evaluation of the program to assess its impact.

The grant will fund a pilot program to familiarise U.S. employers with Haitian lower skill workers, and ensure the legitimate uptake of available temporary H-2 working visas.

Potential upsides of the project include the continuation of the program after the pilot study, and policy changes in response to the results of the evaluation.

A December update reports that the first phase of this program has gone satisfactorily (one of the initial criteria for disbursing a second tranche of funding was waived, as it was recognised in hindsight as unrealistic), and announces the launch of its second phase.

The same document on the conversation with Michael Clemens on 21 January 2015 as cited above also includes two paragraphs giving further updates on this program:

Sarah Williamson (Protect the People) and her team have not yet finalized the employers who will participate in IOM’s program to bring Haitian workers into the U.S. via the H-2A program. IOM plans to take leaders of Haitian agricultural associations on a “study tour” of American farms, with the hope that farmers will put in orders for Haitian workers after meeting these leaders in person.

CGD is preparing to run a survey to measure the effects of the program. (…)

ImmigrationWorks was awarded a grant for $285,000 in July 2014.

Quotes from the writeup to ponder:

We were not able to find any advocacy organizations dedicated to making the case that more lower-skill workers should be allowed to migrate on humanitarian grounds, and experts generally told us that they felt that there was not a major constituency for such a message. The only groups we were able to find advocating for more lower-skill migrants represent business in some capacity, and they are relatively small or do not focus primarily on lower-skill immigrants (…)

Said groups numbered 3, counting ImmigrationWorks. Further:

our understanding is that ImmigrationWorks is the only one for which lower-skill immigration is the top priority, and that it is much smaller than the others.

ImmigrationWorks’ stated mission is to organise small employers of lower-skill immigrants, and mobilise them to advocate in Washington D.C. and across the U.S.

Their stated principles involve: bringing annual legal intake of foreign workers in line with “the country’s labor needs”, ensuring better enforcement of immigration laws, finding “a way to deal realistically with” existing illegal immigrants (which can be neither amnesty nor deportation, as those are both deemed “unacceptable”), and making sure that immigration policy is handled at the federal level.

The writeup acknowledges a (low) risk that ImmigrationWorks will use the grant to move policy in a direction that GW and GV would consider actively harmful.

Beyond closing the organisations projected funding gap for 2014, the proposed uses for the grant are:

  • Advocacy for immigration reform (…) that includes an ample less-skilled worker visa program, by mobilizing business to advocate to “business-minded Democrats and pro-immigration Republicans.”

  • Public opinion research (…) to try to determine which messages work to persuade people of the need for lower-skill immigrant workers

  • Building consensus around policy (…) with the business community

Conversations with IW founder Tamar Jacoby are expected “every 2-3 months over the course of the year-long grant.” No update has yet been published (which does not mean that no conversations were held, as notes are published only for a minority of conversations).

Migration within national borders

Domestic migration may not be of obvious concern to bloggers devoted to Open Borders, insofar as the obstacles faced by the migrants do not include any political borders. But the work on seasonal migration within low income countries that GW and GV researchers have been following and funding is quite relevant to Open Borders advocacy as well.

Bryan, Chowdhury, and Mobarak have run randomised controlled trials in  Rangpur, “a region of rural Bangladesh that persistently suffers from pre-harvest famines.” The trials were conducted over three years and involved 100 villages. This research finds that providing subsidies for seasonal migration can effectively increase migration and household consumption.

Evidence Action, the organisation that manages the GW Top Charity Deworm the World Initiative, is currently funding a 4,000 household study in northern Bangladesh “to explore further the potential of scaling up a migration subsidy program”.  The OPP has made a $250,000 grant to support this work in March 2014, with the stated aim of supporting the creation of future Top Charities.

A more specific goal of this research is to empirically investigate a number of questions on unintended consequences of migration – some of which are frequently discussed here on Open Borders:

  • Does sending many unskilled laborers to a single city change wages?

  • Does migration influence housing prices at destination cities?

  • What kinds of housing opportunities are migrants finding?

  • Does migration affect food prices in villages of origin?

  • Does migration change gender dynamics (e.g., what changes occur when women are left at home to manage home finances when men migrate)?

  • Are there are any unintended consequences for households who do not send a migrant?

Provided that the results of this research are encouraging with respect to scalability, Evidence Action intend to significantly scale up their seasonal migration support program. We can hope to see a funding proposal later this year.


I am very impressed with the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on labour mobility. It is exciting to read about the specific action undertaken, and I can imagine their sheer demonstration of initiative having considerable power to shift people’s thinking on migration.

The researchers’ careful evaluation both of the importance of the cause of migration liberalisation, and of the amount of effort currently invested in the cause, seem to me to strongly confirm the views generally held on these issues by Open Borders bloggers. To recap some relevant highlights:

  • The OPP come out prioritising the cause of free migration very highly. If other causes are currently prioritised more highly, the stated reason for this is always that they are able to identify more funding opportunities in these other domains. Thus, when it comes to launching additional efforts to further a cause, increasing freedom of migration between low-income and high-income countries seems to be a plausible candidate for “most high impact cause to take on”.
  • The OPP have found no political advocacy group in the U.S. that promotes immigration of low-skilled workers on humanitarian grounds.
  • The OPP have found only three political advocacy groups in the U.S. that promote immigration of low-skilled workers at all, and they all do so with the aim of “advancing the interests of U.S. businesses”.
  • In contrast, there is plenty of philanthropic engagement in immigration-related causes that are consistent with extreme citizenism (bringing in more high-skilled labour to advance U.S. economic interests) and territorialism (defending rights of existing immigrants, but not the right to immigrate).

Related reading

Some related reading from Open Borders: The Case and others:

Open Borders Day 2015 roundup

Open Borders Day is held every year on March 16, to commemorate the launch of Open Borders: The Case, the website, back on March 16, 2012. The day was first celebrated in 2014, and you can see a roundup of last year’s posts here. Open Borders Day this year was bigger and better, with much of the focus this year being on the Open Borders Manifesto.

Posts from the site

Posts from elsewhere on the Internet

Social media

The Independent Institute did a series of posts about Open Borders Day on their Facebook page, such as this, this, this, and this.

You can also see all tweets with the #OpenBordersDay hashtag here.

You can also read some criticism of Open Borders Day at the (NSFW, PG-13) mpcdot forum.