The Moral Imperative of Open Borders Trumps (Pun Intended) Immigrant Crime Rates

Many in the U.S. are currently focused on the amount of crime committed by immigrants in the country. This is due to remarks made by presidential contender Donald Trump in June and a murder allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in July.  Mr. Trump suggested that many Mexican immigrants are criminals. In this post I argue that even if it were true that immigrants would increase crime rates in America, open borders would still be justified.

In response to Mr. Trump’s remarks and the San Francisco murder, both The Washington Post  and The New York Times have noted that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has surveyed the research on immigration and crime rates and drawn a similar conclusion. The Immigration Policy Center also released a report which states that “the available evidence indicates that immigrants are not only less likely to end up behind bars than the native-born, but that immigrants are also less likely to commit criminal acts to begin with.” (p. 9) In a 2012 post, Vipul  communicated the same message that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.

Focusing on Mexican and Hispanic immigration, Mr. Nowrasteh notes that although one study showed that Mexican immigrants were committing more property crimes than native-born Americans, another demonstrated that Mexican immigrants “had no effect on violent or property crime rates in major U.S. metropolitan areas.” He also cites a study on Hispanic immigrants in Chicago that found that they were much less prone to committing violent criminal acts than native whites or blacks in the city.

The Immigration Policy Center offers an explanation for why immigrants commit less crime: “This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Unauthorized immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.” (p. 20)

What about the crime rate of the offspring of immigrants? They do appear to become more prone to crime than their immigrant relatives, which an editor at the Pew Research Center calls the “dark side of assimilation.” An article on notes that “every year that an immigrant lives in the U.S. is associated with a 1.9 and 0.9 percent increase in nonviolent and violent crime respectively.” In addition, “the behaviors of the children of immigrants over time begin to resemble that of native-borns.”  However, the offspring do not appear to commit more crimes than Americans generally.  (Census data from 2000 indicate that U.S.-born young males of Mexican, Cuban, and three Southeast Asian ethnicities are incarcerated at higher rates than the overall U.S.-born average. Vipul notes, however, that “locking out entire ethnic groups due to the anticipated future crime rates of their descendants based on past data, which aren’t that much higher than native rates anyway, causes substantially more harm than letting them in and dealing with a crime rate that might fall less slowly or rise slightly in the future.”)

But could this picture of relatively low immigrant criminality change under open borders, which would mean a larger flow of immigrants and probably higher proportions from certain countries? Vipul explored this question in his 2012 post and concluded that with open borders “the odds of crime rates going up versus down are about even, and they almost certainly will not explode.” In reaching this conclusion, Vipul noted that the future orientation associated with migrants is generally incompatible with criminality, that the worldwide crime rate is similar to that of the U.S., that much of the immigration to the U.S under restrictive immigration laws already comes from countries with relatively high crime rates (other countries in the Americas), and that India and China, which likely would be the sources of large numbers of immigrants under open borders, have lower crime rates than the U.S.

Some Americans who care only about the well-being of citizens  might call for an end to immigration altogether, let alone open borders, because one citizen death caused by immigrants, in their view, might be too many. If it were possible to stop immigration, that policy would eventually lead to no more murders or other crimes committed by immigrants because there would be no immigrants. (But of course the inevitable reproduction of the citizen population would lead to the creation of more people who would commit crimes, so they would have watch out for these new citizen criminals. They might also have to worry about the migration of citizens within the country who might commit crimes in their new areas of residence.)

More thoughtful American citizenists might look favorably on the impact of immigration on crime under the status quo of immigration restrictions that allow some immigration. Looking at the data, they might think, “The immigration system works pretty well right now in terms of crime. Those immigrants who make it into the U.S. are generally more law abiding than us citizens. They are revitalizing blighted urban areas, which reduces crime, and places with concentrated immigration are especially safe.  (p. 6) If they are really knowledgeable, they might say, as does Mr. Nowrasteh, that perhaps by “contributing to greater economic prosperity through pushing natives up the skills spectrum through complementary task specialization,” immigrants keep some Americans away from crime. They might agree that “It is easy to focus on the horrible tragedies when somebody is murdered by an immigrant but it’s very hard to imagine all of the people who weren’t murdered because of the lower crime rates created by increased immigration.” However, despite Vipul’s arguments that crime rates would most likely not explode under open borders, they wouldn’t want to take that risk. Besides, they would probably have other concerns about immigration’s impact on citizens.

However, from an open-borders perspective, even if crime rates were to increase significantly under an open borders policy, the moral importance of having open borders outweighs such a development. (The manifesto of the group No One Is Illegal similarly suggests that principle should trump the concrete consequences of immigration, whether positive or negative. Since the consequences can change, “statistics are useful to refute distortions and lies, but cannot be the bedrock of our opposition to controls.” ) In a previous post, I noted two strong moral arguments (from Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer) for open borders, both of which would countenance large increases in crime levels under open borders, should they occur. For both arguments, the right to open borders could be overridden only if the flow of people under open borders led to a “breakdown of public order” or a “disastrous” result in the receiving country. A significant increase in the crime rate, unlikely as it would be, would not constitute such a cataclysm.

In sum, the evidence strongly suggests that currently immigrant crime rates are lower than those of native-born Americans. The crime rates of immigrants’ offspring resembles those of Americans but doesn’t appear to be higher. Vipul has convincingly argued that under open borders the crime rate in the U.S. likely wouldn’t change dramatically. Even if it did, an open borders policy would still be morally warranted.

The photograph of Donald Trump featured on this post was taken by Gage Skidmore and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

The claim that open borders inevitably leads to homogeneity is incredibly weak

A common argument against open borders hinges on the assumption that it will increase diversity in our societies, and that the harmful effects of diversity will outweigh the other positive effects of open borders. You can see our blog posts tagged “diversity” for various responses to that. However, there’s an interesting argument that runs in precisely the opposite direction: it claims that open borders will reduce diversity in the long run, and that this homogeneity will be harmful.

For one articulation of this from a somewhat libertarian standpoint, Patri Friedman (the grandson of economist Milton Friedman) recently blogged:

So if you even care about life existing – let alone the infinite diversity possible therein – then (contra Caplan), boundaries (such as national borders) are an absolute necessity. No differences, no energy flow, no (thermodynamic) work, no life. As in the stars, so on the earth: romance flows from polarity; trade from comparative advantage; thermodynamic work from heat differences; evolution from variation; economic competition from competing alternatives. All progress is driven by differences; so to erase differences is (counter-eponymously) to end progress.

The assumption here is that the existence of borders (and presumably, also the tight policing of who may traverse them) is critical to maintaining beneficial diversity. Now, I don’t want to wade right now into the debate over what kinds of diversity are beneficial, and what kinds of diversity aren’t.

I will say that as a general rule, I am skeptical of governments trying to engineer society. Arguments both for and against a policy on the basis that it changes the composition of society don’t persuade me much. If you can’t point to any identifiable harms or gains from the policy beyond “it will change the number of people of a particular ethnicity/religion/other identity in our  society,” then it makes me wonder why you’re proposing or criticising the policy in the first place.

Given the very shady history of governments singling out certain identities to target in their policies, I am generally not a fan of diversity-type arguments for or against a particular policy. I may personally like Indian food a lot, but I am going to be suspicious of any policy to subsidise Indian migration for the sake of “culinary diversity”. Like co-blogger Vipul, I am unimpressed by “it will enhance diversity, and that’s by definition a good thing” kinds of arguments for open borders.

The inverse is similarly problematic: reducing diversity as a policy end in of itself is inherently suspicious. If some people don’t like certain types of restaurants, is that justification for prohibiting those restaurants, or restricting the movement of the cultural groups who would supply or demand that type of food?

However, the kind of argument Patri Friedman is making here strikes me as equally unimpressive, albeit for different reasons. I’m happy to grant the claim that some level of diversity is beneficial for both human society as a whole and particular societies or countries. The kind of argument Friedman seems to be making is that open borders would eventually turn humanity into some kind of amorphous, homogeneous grey blob of uniformity, which is a different way of reducing diversity — and is thus a bad thing.

But this would imply that if we had open borders tomorrow, then on a very visible timescale, we would witness the homogenisation of humanity. That claim strikes me as quite easy to disprove. In literally the second comment on Friedman’s post one Glen Raphael points out:

I don’t think you can use this insight to argue against opening national borders – the argument proves too much. Suppose we grant for the sake of argument the notion that having some sort of border maintains “energy differentials” that are useful to humanity – why would *existing national boundaries* be the best place to put those borders and why would we expect anything like the existing set of restrictions/policies to be the best ones for maintaining those differentials?

To maximize these sort of differentials might we not be be better off with strong border controls around each house? Around each city? Each county? Each state? If not – if you think you have good arguments to the effect that allowing free trade and free movement of people between Santa Clara and San Jose has benefits that outweigh the cost (*including* the cost in terms of reducing “energy differentials”), don’t similar arguments apply to allowing free trade and movement of people between, say, the US and Mexico? If not, why not?

There are open borders today between Alabama and New York. Has this fact eliminated all the differences and inequalities between those states? or even substantially reduced them?

You could, I suppose, retort that these effects would occur on longer timescales — although the US had international open borders for over a century after its founding, and has had domestic open borders for well over two centuries. But all I had to do to be suspicious of this was simply open the newspaper from a few days back.

Recently, The Telegraph reported on a new survey of the genetic heritage of Britons, conducted by Oxford University. The findings:

Archaeologists and geneticists were amazed to find that genetically similar individuals inhabit the same areas they did following the Anglo-Saxon invasion, following the fall of the Roman Empire.

In fact, a map showing tribes of Britain in 600AD is almost identical to a new chart showing genetic variability throughout the UK, suggesting that local communities have stayed put for the past 1415 years.

Many people in Britain claim to feel a strong sense of regional identity and scientists say they the new study proves that the link to birthplace is DNA deep.

The most striking genetic split can be seen between people living in Cornwall and Devon, where the division lies exactly along the county border. It means that people living on either side of the River Tamar, which separates the two counties, have different DNA.

Almost 15 centuries later, borders still discernibly delineate regional and even genetic identities — even though the UK has had internal open borders for almost the same amount of time. Indeed, not only were the borders open; for much of this time, the borders did not even exist!

To take the most obvious example of this in the UK, Wales has been administered as part of England since the 16th century. As far as politics was concerned, the borders of Wales ceased to exist. Only in the late 20th century has Wales begun to assume any separate administrative identity from England itself within the constitutional law of the UK. Surely nobody can argue that a Welsh identity disappeared for four centuries and has only been revived recently with the creation of a Welsh legislative assembly! The Jews didn’t have a state for almost two millenia, and dispersed across international borders at will — and yet their unique identity has survived all the same.

If diverse identities can persist with open borders, or even no borders, for centuries, it seems difficult to argue that fear of homogeneity is a reason to oppose open borders. Open borders clearly has nothing to do with the ultimate homogenisation of society, at least not on any measurable timescale relevant to making law.

If anything, migration often leads to greater diversity. In many cases, when multiple cultures meet, rather than one dominating and utterly subsuming the other, the two combine to form new varieties of culture. To take one personal example, I am Chinese Malaysian — Chinese (and partly Filipino) by ethnicity, Malaysian by nationality. I grew up in a community that observes various Chinese traditions. Yet, many of these traditions are alien to most other Chinese people in the world, because they fall in one or more of the following buckets:

  • A total innovation by Chinese living in Malaysia, unrelated to Malay or Chinese culture
  • An adaptation of local Malay culture
  • An adaptation of Chinese tradition that either was not picked up or actually abandoned by Chinese in China

It is hard for me to believe that my ancestors’ migration to Malaysia had the effect of homogenising Malaysia, China, or the world as a whole, when the differences stare us in the face. The food my community eats, the way we celebrate our traditional festivals, and the little things we do because they’re “traditional” are traditions unknown to Chinese in China, and yet traditions peculiar in Malaysia to just our community. I’m not sure whether the right label for this is homogeneity or diversity, but whatever it is, it makes me doubt any sweeping claims that people make about how migration inevitably homogenises or diversifies human culture.

I am not saying that migration must be good because it leads to cultural diversity, or that we can even empirically say cultural diversity constitutes a clear benefit of migration. However, I think people are too quick to assume migration will have a straightforward diversifying or homogenising effect: it’s a lot more complicated than that. These kinds of arguments against open borders make such sweeping claims, often in the face of how diversity works in real life, that it is hard to take them seriously.

The image featured above this post is of a fish salad called yee sang. It is a culinary tradition widely-practiced among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, yet almost completely unheard of among people in China today. Photo originally uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons and distributed under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.

Open Borders Is the Best Way to Help Haiti

Advocates have suggested open borders (here and here) as a way to help Haiti, which has a long history of poverty, environmental disasters, political turmoil, and human rights abuses. Yet after a devastating earthquake in 2010 led to billions of dollars of outside help for Haiti in the form of humanitarian and development aid, as well as debt relief, has Haiti improved significantly? Has massive aid been the solution to Haiti’s problems? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no, and open borders as a solution for much of Haiti’s misery continues to be as important as ever.

Even after the infusion of aid, Haiti has a per capita GDP of $1,800, placing it 209th out of 230 countries, with the 230th being the poorest. The Associated Press  recently described Haiti as a “…deeply poor nation, with an official unemployment rate of about 40 percent and the World Bank says more than 6 million out of roughly 10.4 million inhabitants live under the national poverty line of $2.44 per day.” Statistics from three years ago show that about 23 percent of young children in Haiti were chronically undernourished and 4 percent were acutely malnourished.

Haiti also has been been cited as one of five countries where slavery is most prevalent. Human Rights Watch states that thousands of children from poor families are sent to live with wealthier families in order to provide them with schooling in exchange for domestic work, but often the children do not receive an education and are abused.  Human Rights Watch also notes “long-standing human rights problems” in Haiti, as well as “concerns about the resurgence of political violence.”

Aid from other countries clearly hasn’t and might never transform Haiti. Per capita GDP has increased from $1200 in the years 2009-2012 to $1800 in 2014, but it is difficult to know to what extent this increase is due to foreign aid, remittances (see below), or other factors. The bottom line is that Haiti continues to be very poor, along with suffering from other problems.  Foreign Policy in Focus concludes that “four years and billions of dollars later, conditions do not appear to have improved for Haitians affected by the earthquake; in fact, it can be argued that things are worse.” Similarly,  GlobalPost, referring to American aid for Haiti, states that “the extent to which that money is creating sustainable progress remains unclear even four years after it began.”

While some good has been accomplished in Haiti because of outside help (see here and here and here), problems with its delivery have been identified. U.S. government aid for Haiti has largely gone to American companies and non-profits, and The Guardian notes that “Critics have argued for years that donors’ practice of spending aid money through organisations located in their own countries has hampered efforts to build self-sufficiency abroad, and works to the detriment of local businesses and industries.”  And the impact of nearly $500 million raised by the American Red Cross for Haiti since the earthquake has been underwhelming, according to a recent investigation by National Public Radio and ProPublica. The groups found “… a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success…” associated with the funds. The American Red Cross built a total of six permanent homes in Haiti, even though housing is the area in which “the Red Cross made its biggest promises.” An article on the NBC News site states that “to Jonathan Katz, author of ‘The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,’ the aid story is one of good intentions and bad policy, short-term fixes without a ground-breaking long game, Band-Aids over self-sufficiency.” (See here and here and here for additional criticism of aid efforts.)

On the other hand, emigration is much more promising than foreign aid, both for the Haitians who leave Haiti and for those who stay behind. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development argues that international migration is “the cheapest and most powerful economic tool” for helping Haitians.  He states that “the large majority of Haitians who have ever escaped poverty have done so by leaving Haiti.”  Citing research by others that was published in 2008, he notes that Haitian immigrants to the U.S. gain a 680% wage increase due to the migration.  He adds that “for those who don’t move, remittances… unlike foreign aid, generally go directly into the pockets of Haitian families. They are spent almost entirely on locally-produced goods and services…”  The CIA World Factbook notes that for Haiti “remittances are the primary source of foreign exchange, equaling one-fifth of GDP and representing more than five times the earnings from exports in 2012.”  Mr. Clemens concludes that “migration has been a principal cause of convergence, to date, between the incomes of Haitians and Americans.”  (He does suggest that the gains to migrants might be diminished under open borders.)

There are more than half a million Haitian immigrants in the U.S.  And many more Haitians want to come. A Gallup poll indicates that, if given the opportunity, about a quarter of Haiti’s adults would move permanently to the U.S.

However, under the status quo of border controls, the ability of Haitians to emigrate to the United States is limited. The U.S. has worked hard to keep many from coming. Since 1981 the U.S. Coast Guard has been interdicting, or intercepting, Haitian migrants traveling by boat to the U.S. Under a 1981 agreement with Haiti, the U.S. returns migrants to Haiti but ostensibly does not repatriate refugees. A study by the former Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) found that from 1981 to 1990 almost 400 Haitian vessels were interdicted, 21,000 Haitians were returned home, and only six Haitians were allowed into the U.S. for a full asylum hearing, despite a “high incidence of serious human rights violations in Haiti during that period.” (from Stephen Legomsky, The USA and the Caribbean Interdiction Program, 2006) Since 1990, tens of thousands more Haitians have been intercepted and sent home. (See here and here.) It was reported  that as a group of Haitians was forced back to Port-au-Prince in 1995, one of the returnees, handcuffed and carried down the gangplank, moaned, with “tears streaming down his cheeks,” “’I don’t want to come back to a country like this and die in the streets.’” And the interdictions continue, as indicated by statistics for fiscal year 2014.

Even after the earthquake struck Haiti, the New York Times reported that a U.S. Air Force plane flew over Haiti broadcasting a message from the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., who said in the message, meant to dissuade Haitians from fleeing to the U.S. on boats, “’If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.’” The Times also reported that the Coast Guard patrolled Haitian waters, ready to intercept anyone trying to escape. Moreover, the U.S. denied many seriously injured people permission to enter the U.S. for treatment. Only 23 were allowed to enter the U.S. for treatment, as well as some orphaned children.

Many have sought a better life in the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispanola, but many have experienced hardship there. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians, both those from Haiti and their offspring born in the Dominican Republic, live there. Minority Rights Group International states that Haitians there experience discrimination based on their skin color and culture. In addition, “they earn 60 per cent less than average Dominicans. They often do not have access to proper nutrition or adequate health care due to poor pay, their illegal status and fear of deportation.” Most sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic are Haitian. Conditions for the workers are poor, and workers are sometimes coerced into working. Recently, the Dominican Republic has threatened to deport many Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. A court ruling in 2013 took away Dominican citizenship from children of Haitian migrants. Similarly, the Bahamas requires noncitizens, including those born in the Bahamas, to have passports, “a rule that human rights groups say unfairly targets people of Haitian descent,” according to the New York Times, and there have been immigration raids in “predominately Haitian shantytowns.” (See also here.) Under open borders, Haitian migrants could avoid these inhospitable destinations, and these countries could not use immigration restrictions as a tool to discriminate against Haitians.

Beyond the tremendous good that could be realized for Haitians through open borders, an open borders policy would help redress the harm U.S. foreign policy has caused the country over two centuries. Haiti, a French colony largely populated by African slaves, won its independence from France in a bloody struggle in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Once independence was achieved, however, the U.S. and European powers were hostile to the new republic. Randall Robinson notes that after independence “the United States, France and western Europe would quickly join together in a program of measures designed to defeat the new black republic’s prospects for success. For the next two hundred years, Haiti would be faced with active hostility from the world’s most powerful community of nations. The new country endured a variety of attacks, some imposed concurrently, others consecutively, including military invasions, economic embargoes, gunboat blockades, reparations demands, trade barriers, diplomatic quarantines, subsidized armed subversions, media volleys of public traducement, and a string of twentieth-century U.S.-armed black dictators, beginning with Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, who rose to power in 1957…” (p. 18, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2007) Mr. Robinson concludes that “the Haitian economy has never recovered from the financial havoc France (and America) wreaked upon it, during and after slavery.” (p. 22) Michael Falco, in a letter to the New York Times, similarly writes that “Haiti spent its early existence handcuffed by crippling reparations to France — a penalty for rejecting the shackles of slavery. At the peak of this debt, Haiti was paying 80 percent of its national budget to foreign creditors. After the debt was ‘paid off,’ a string of brutal dictators — many propped up by the United States — ransacked the country’s coffers. Haiti never had a chance…”

In summary, while foreign aid has achieved some good for the Haitian people, open borders has the potential to enormously help. Haitian immigrants in economically advanced countries could earn much more than they could in Haiti, remittances could benefit those who remain in Haiti, U.S. interdictions of migrants could stop, Haitian migrants could bypass countries that mistreat them, and the world could begin to make up for its historic abuse of Haiti. Of the groups that could benefit most from a world with open borders, the Haitian people are among those at the top of the list.