Do I have a right to be here?

Every human being has an inalienable right to migrate across their planet without restriction or fear.1It is impossible to place a restriction upon this right that is not animated by racism and classism.2 An immigration law is an act of violence that enforces and reinforces the idea that it is morally acceptable to hate3 someone because of where they were born. There is no migrant crisis – there is a migration-restriction crisis. These are the presumptions I begin with and proceed from.

In 1896, my great grandmother, Nicolina “Nellie” Falvo, boarded the S.S. Algeria in Naples, Italy for the United States.4 She arrived in New York City on August 15, 1896 as a 15-year old domestic servant.5 It was easy for Great grandma Nellie to enter the United States because the law was different then, and with some racist exceptions,6 many people were permitted to cross the border and settle indefinitely without a visa or papers of any kind.7

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: Check out Vipul Naik’s posts Ellis Island and keyhole solutions and How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)

The law is different today. Today, my great grandmother would be barred by law from entering New York City and from remaining here indefinitely, with very few exceptions. Instead of standing in line at Ellis Island, she would be received by armed police, prison and forced relocation back to Italy. If great grandma Nellie tried to cross the border today, the law would measure her against an impossibly elaborate list of arbitrary factors to judge her deserving or not deserving of entering and remaining in the U.S. What makes these factors arbitrary is not their complexity or rationale, but their lack of equity. Equity is a wonderful legal concept – more than equality, it means fairness, or more precisely it presumes that all human beings are equal before the law, and that therefore they should be treated fairly as to one another. Black’s law dictionary defines equity this way: “Fairness; impartiality; evenhanded dealing . . . The body of principles constituting what is fair and right; natural law .”8

Immigration restrictions under U.S. law are not equitable because they do not first presume that all human beings are equal. Instead, all immigration restrictions are built upon the foundational idea that non-citizens may be treated differently than citizens only because they are not citizens. This difference and this difference alone justifies their mistreatment, and this is what I mean when I described immigration laws as inequitable or arbitrary – they are morally arbitrary.Immigration laws are fundamentally unfair in their application to human beings and this becomes clearer when we imagine how a rule made for non-citizens might look if it were applied to citizens. Take, for example, the immigration law that says someone may be denied legal permanent residency if that person is designated “a public charge,” that is, using certain forms of welfare for which they were nonetheless financially eligible.9 What about all of the citizens who are “public charges” – the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the Wall Street bankers10 – why not deport them? As author and open borders advocate Teresa Hayter notes:

“. . . in general people over the age of 70 receive more from public expenditure than they contribute to it, an argument corresponding to the one on immigration would have to be that such persons are undesirable and should be expelled from the country. Doubtless the same would apply to the unemployed, the severely handicapped, perhaps to religious people and artists. . .”11

The only reason this Jonathan Swift-like argument is not rejected, Hayter points out, is that it concerns non-citizens. Thus “to take this argument seriously is to contribute to the dehumanization of the migrant.”12 I agree with Hayter that to take immigration laws seriously is to accept that non-citizens are less human than citizens – a fundamentally inequitable idea.

Which brings me back to great grandma Nellie and the point of this article. If Nellie could come here without legal restriction, then it seems only fair that others coming in the same manner today should be afforded the same unencumbered access to enter and remain.If persons in Nellie’s position today are not given the same leave she was, how then can I, a beneficiary of the leave granted Nellie, equitably claim more of right than they to stay and remain and live and seek work here? Why do I deserve to stay and remain at all, and why don’t others? As Hayter has said of immigration controls, they give a state “the right to choose between the deserving and the undeserving.”13 Many factors are often called upon in U.S. immigration law and policy to justify whether someone like Nellie or I “deserves” to be here, some of the more common ones include; birth in the U.S; time in the U.S.; having family in the U.S.; and the fact that someone will face specific kinds of danger if they leave the U.S. I consider these justifications below, and reflect on why they are morally arbitrary and unfair, and question if and why I deserve to be here.

What you will not find below are arguments against immigration controls that are rooted in economics, utilitarianism, or negative policy outcomes.14 Instead I question whether immigration restrictions on their face can be called fair by any person who assumes all human being are equal.15 As author and professor of history Aviva Chomsky has observed about the very idea that it is ok to restrict the immigration of people for some of the below reasons, “with a bit of critical distance, the notion appears more and more absurd.”16

I. Do I deserve to live here because I was born here?

Nellie was not born in the U.S., and would that she had tried to enter today, she would have been punished for that fact. Under current law persons born inside U.S. territory are U.S. citizens at birth, pursuant to the clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal U.S. constitution, which says “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Such people are welcomed by the law with open arms, completely and unconditionally. By contrast persons born outside U.S. territory(with the exception of some persons who have U.S. citizen parents17) incur the law’s disdain and suspicion as “aliens.”

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: Check out Joel Newman’s post Open Borders Allow People, Not Their Place of Birth, To Control Their Lives

That an immutable characteristic like place of birth should justify discrimination contravenes the idea of equality. Professor of immigration law Hiroshi Motomora, understating what should be more obvious than it is, has pointed out the “inherent tension in immigration law- between the basic idea of national borders, which inherently discriminate between insiders and outsiders – with a sense of justice that embraces a commitment to equality.”18 Political scientist Jacqueline Stephens, putting a finer point on it, says the idea of birthright citizenship is as incompatible with a liberal, egalitarian society as discrimination based on race or religion because it is “the epitome of discrimination based on ancestry” and thus constitutes “global apartheid.”19 And she’s right: I did not earn my birth here; I did not chose my ancestry or pick my passport, any more than I decided my skin color or worked toward my sex at birth. How then, could I have possibly earned access to a life and a job here more than anyone else who has earned and chosen as much as I have, but been born elsewhere? Can I claim anything other than the most naked luck and arbitrary participation in the lottery we call “nationality?” I am not a person who immigrated to the U.S, who performed, what Teresa Hayter has called “staggering feats of ingenuity, courage and endurance to assert their right to move and to flee,”20 in order to be in the U.S. Instead, I was born with an American spoon in my mouth. If birthright citizen were about anything more meritorious than immutable characteristics, then maybe people like me, who exerted no effort or initiative to be here, should be deported. But of course it seems unfair to deport people who have lived here their whole lives. Yet that is exactly what the rules of deservingness do to noncitizens in identical positions – those brought here as infants, lived here their whole lives and known no other country, but still subject to deportation.21 This is the brutality of birthright citizenship.

Birthright citizenship is about privilege. One effect of privilege – whether it comes from skin color, or genitalia or locos of birth –is that it bestows enormous power but asks nothing in return. It is a free lunch in every sense of the term;a gift sent to the wrong address; an inheritance from a relative you never acknowledged; the beneficiary is a spoiled child that did not chose its family. By what right do the privileged hoard the good graces of the universe? By no right, of course, that is why it is a privilege. The same can be said of the birthright privilege to remain. As Aviva Chomsky notes, “[i]llegality is the flipside of inequality. It serves to preserve the privileged spaces for those deemed citizens and justify their privilege by creating a legal apparatus to sustain it.”22 This is why Joseph Carens hit the nail on the head when he compared birthright citizenship to the system of nobility and peasantry during the European middle ages – where your opportunity in life is dictatedentirely by the family of your birth.23

Some have challenged the birth-right citizenship rule, typically to exclude, not include, and this challenge, by virtue of its effort to disenfranchise some people who were born in the U.S., ironically highlights the arbitrary nature of birthright citizenship itself. The effort to deprive citizens of birthright citizenship has been a pet project of the political right in the United States at least since 1985, when a book24 introduced the idea into the minds of people looking to justify their contempt for immigrants.25 The authors and their proponents have argued, among other things, that “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” does not apply to babies born to persons who are inside U.S. territory against its laws, because they were not “subject” to the legal jurisdiction of the U.S.26 That interpretationof the Fourteenth Amendment has never been accepted by the Supreme Court,27 nonetheless, the implications of that argument against birthright citizenship stagger the mind, since its retroactive implementation would literally disenfranchise a hundred million people28 whose parents, or grandparents, or great grandparents were not U.S. citizens when their children were born in the U.S.29 I could be one of those people, if, say, my grandfather was born when great-grandma Nellie was still a citizen of Italy and not the U.S. (I actually don’t know when she naturalized). After all, if Nellie’s youngest (my grandfather) was not a U.S. citizen when he was born to her, then neither was my father when he was born, and thus neither am I.

If the idea of taking U.S. citizenship from whole families living in the U.S. for three or four generations should seem unfair or inequitable to anyone, then it’s worth asking why. Does it seem unfair because people born here to noncitizen parents are in the same position as peopleborn here to citizens? Why, after all, should one group be treated differently for reasons they can’t possibly control?Yet the same can be said of birthright citizenship as it exists today. Birthright citizenship deprives the unluckily-born outside the U.S. of rights for immutable reasons, ones related to ancestors and parents they had no choice about. Nellie would have no right to enter the U.S. because she was unlucky enough to have had a mother who went into labor outside its borders. Birthright citizenship excludes persons born outside the U.S. just as unfairly as would a rule precluding birthright citizenship altogether –in both scenarios people are denied rights because of immutable characteristics.

Do I deserve to live here because I was born here? Equitably speaking, if I don’t then it’s difficult to say who does, and if I do, then it’s equally hard to say who doesn’t.

II. Do I deserve to live here because I grew up here?

Another justification for identifying those who deserve to be here from those who do not, is by bean-counting the number of years they can claim they’ve lived within the U.S. The theory is that the longer a person lives here, the stronger their claim to continue to live here.30 One relatively rare form of relief from deportation, for example, is called “cancellation of removal,” and it applies the bean-counting logic. Upon a showing of a number of other arbitrary factors,31 cancellation of removal may be available to an undocumented non-citizen whois in the U.S. against its unjust laws for ten years. Another, even rarer form of relief will allow someone to have permeant legal residency if they’ve accomplished the difficult feat of remaining undocumented inside the U.S. continuously since January 1, 1972.32 Length of time in the U.S. has also been identified as a “favorable” factor in any discretionary grant of permission to remain in the U.S.33

First, the argument that a person deserves to live in a place more than other people because they grew up there is itself an argument that is not,in practice, applied as consistently to non-citizens as it is to citizens. For example, east-coaster that I am, I have never set foot in California or Kansas or Alaska, yet the millions of non-citizens who have called these places home for years or decades have less of a right to be there than I do, because they’re paperwork is different? I, who could not tell you which way Sacramento is from Los Angeles, have, in fact, a legally absolute right to travel, live and work in LA, while someone with different paperwork who has lived in LA enough years to memorize every interstate number may have no such right.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: Check out The Difference Between an Illegal Immigrant and Me: A Little Memoir and Some Questions It Raises by Robert Higgs

More to the point though, why should my three-plus decades in the U.S. and, say, my two years living in New York City, make me more deserving to live here than someone with fewer years? Why should the accumulation of time in any one location (unearned time vis-a-vis accidental birth, at that) by bootstrapping, create an exclusive right to accumulate more time in that same location? I am here, therefore I should be?

Even assuming time plus geography equals superiority of right to reside, the equitably arbitrary nature of that rule is exposed when one attempts to apply it: Recall that ten years of residence is what an undocumented person34 would need to get “cancellation of removal.” The law says ten, and it means ten.35 So, ten years is enough to deserve to stay here but not nine, never nine – nine would be a ridiculous assertion, as would nine and a half, or nine and three quarters.36 Five years or eight years could never do it, for some just-because reason. And what of the twelve year old child who has lived here for nine years, three quarters of her life? Shouldn’t she have more of a right than a fifty year old who’s lived here for ten years, only one fifth of their life? Ten, in this case, is a number based on little more, it seems, than the vague emotional sense that a decade is a pretty long time, and if deservingness is to sprout out of any length of time, a decade seems a safe duration to choose.

I understand that time is how we measure home – length of time builds bonding with places and the more time the greater the pain of separation. So perhaps the law is simply saying it’s less inclined to tear someone away from the U.S. the longer they’re here, for, say, humanitarian or sentimental reasons. Of course people shouldn’t be torn from places they love, but neither should they be exiled from places just because they lack nostalgia for them. Isn’t nostalgia itself an unfair standard to measure deservingness to enter and remain? Does that mean a ten year old citizen is more easily deportable than a ninety year old citizen, since the latter is clearly more closely bonded with their city or state? What about the U.S. citizens who live in a place, but don’t like it very much (say, teenagers who are tired of their boring hometown), should they be forced to go? No, of course, because citizens cannot be deported at all.37 Thinking it through reveals there is nothing equitable about bean-counting years as it treats non-citizens compared to citizens.

Nellie eventually lived in the U.S. for several decades after her arrival, but before doing so, of course, she could not have claimed deservingness on this ground. I have lived in the United States almost since I was born here, in July 16 of 1982. (I say almost, because counting all the time I’ve spent outside the U.S. leaves me with thirty one and a half years, give or take, of living inside the territory of the U.S). The rationale in immigration law implies that these three decades are a sort of fertile temporal soil out of which my deservingness has sprouted. Yet, as we’ve seen, even for the non-citizen born outside the U.S. who nonetheless lives here for the same period of time, the law says the same is not true for them. One potential retort to the magical ten year line, or for that matter to birthright citizenship, or any other arbitrary rule, is that “we have to draw the line somewhere.” But actually, the whole point of a thousand blog posts on this very site is that no, actually, you don’t have to draw the line anywhere.38 Immigration law is fundamentally unfair precisely because it presumes it can draw a line at all.

III. Do I deserve to live here because I have family here?

The manifest of the S.S. Algeria does not show Nellie arriving with any relatives, though she was only 15.39 It’s possible that she had relatives here already, but it’s also possible she had no family here to greet her. In which case Nellie’s lack of family in the U.S. would today probably keep her out of lawful status her entire life, if not out of the country itself. The law makes out a number of ways for noncitizens to remain in the U.S. if they can show some special relationship to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. For example, remember “cancellation of removal”? In addition to the ten years in the U.S., the undocumented noncitizen would have to show, among other things, that their deportation would result in “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to their U.S. Citizen of green card-holding spouse, parent or child.40 Putting aside for a moment the fact that this “exceptional and extremely unusual” standard is extremely high and incredibly difficult to reach,41 this relief shows that the immigration court is concerned, not with the life or death of the noncitizen(indeed their deportation could result in their certain death for all the immigration court cares (more on that below)) but with the “hardship” caused to the citizen or LPR. In other words the non-citizens presence in the citizen’s life must benefit them so much that their deportation would cause them this astronomically high level of “hardship.”

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: Check out Nathan Smith’s blog post The right to invite

But whether or not a person’s presence benefits or does not benefit a U.S. citizen is really just a way to measure someone’s worth or desirability based on how much use they are to others. The law of “cancellation of removal” is saying the non-citizen has no inherent worth, not by themselves anyway – their value is measured only by how much their absence does or does not negatively affect citizens, whether financially, socially or otherwise. This is an unambiguous statement about the inferiority or sub-human character of a person because they were born elsewhere. Of course plenty of citizens give no benefit to other citizens, but we don’t deport them. There are also many citizens who have no spouse or child in their lives, such that their deportation would really affect no child or spouse negatively, except themselves(for example,former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court David Souter or Oprah Winfrey) – but the law will not deport them.Reducing a person to what they’re materially “worth” is what the law does when it asks about their “family ties” and how much “hardship” they would cause the citizen if they were exiled from the country. The inquiry is just a euphemistically veiled process of treating a living human being like a broken kitchen appliance, which is to say like an object, and disposing of them with proportional inhumanity when they’re without use to a citizen. This idea that a noncitizen’s worth can be altered only by way of their relationship to a citizen is also the foundational idea for how many people acquire the infamous green card, or permanent residency in the U.S. Unless you can get a green card through an employer (itself a difficult task),42 or something called the “diversity lottery” (you can’t get more arbitrary than a lottery!),43 or you’re one of the rare ones who gets some form of (very) rare humanitarian relief,44 acquiring a green card through a close family member is just about45 the only other way one can hope to acquire permanent residency in the U.S. Assuming you meet a handful of threshold criteria,46 you might be able to get a green card, for example, through a spouse, parent,twenty-one-year-old-or-older child, or sibling. Without one of these relationships the law will deem the noncitizen undeserving of living in the U.S., classifying such a person as an invisible non-human creature, until they are bestowed with equality and humanity through their marriage to or parenting of a citizen. Again, this rulesuggests that citizens can bestow worth upon noncitizens, but not vice versa – implicitly assigning more humanity to one than the other.

As it happens, I am not married to my partner, so if I lost my citizenship through, say, some vicious reinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, my partner wouldn’t be able to help me stay here at all – our relationship, like my worth as a person, would be invisible to the law.I do have two parents and a brother in the U.S. who are U.S. citizens, and I suppose, in a scenario where I was without U.S. citizenship,I could rely on them as the measure of my value as a human being. I’m certain, however,that were I to try and make out a claim for “cancellation of removal,” I could absolutely not show “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to thesefamily members in any event(a standard which is, it bears repeating, unbelievably high),47 because they simply don’t rely on my enough to make my departure “extremely unusual,” to them. Yet, no one’s ever come knocking on my door with a one-way ticket for Naples or forced me to weigh my right not to be exiled from my life in the U.S. against how useful I am to other, more privileged people.

IV. Do I deserve to live here because I would face danger elsewhere?

To quote Teresa Hayter, “I do not accept the moral distinction between political refugees and those who cross frontiers in search of work.”48 This is not meant to lessen at all the moral imperative of giving sanctuary to the asylum seeker – but is instead meant toaffirm the right to immigrate as so fundamental and unconditional, that the reason for a person’s migration is irrelevant. We should not even reach the question of why the person is migrating because, as Hayter put it, “the people best able to decide whether they need to migrate, or to seek refuge, are migrants themselves.”49 Any implication that an asylum seeker has even a smidgen more of a right to enter and remain than someone coming for different reasons, serves to deny everyone their fundamental right to migrate.

The most common way a non-U.S. citizen might seek safety in the U.S. from danger in their home country is through asylum – but qualifying for asylum is notoriously difficult because it requires applicants to squeeze through some very narrow criteria. Like birthright citizenship, the narrow criteria of asylum eligibility highlights the arbitrariness with which the law excludes so many people, even under asylum law’s most liberal interpretation. Under asylum law, a noncitizen may remain in the U.S. if they can demonstrate that they have been persecuted or have a “well-founded fear” of future persecution in their home country. But actually, it’s much narrower than all that – because the non-citizen has to show they were or will be persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, their political opinion, or their “membership in a particular social group”50– persecution for any other reasons, or danger from any other source, won’t get you asylum.51 But actually, it’s even narrower than that, because the non-citizen also has to show their government can’t or won’t protect them from the persecutor, and that theycan’t relocate safely within their own country, and they have never participated in the persecution of anyone else themselves, oh and that they’ve never committed a “particularly serious” crime anywhere.52 If you can’t show all of these things – and I do mean all of these things – the person can be deported, even if their deportation would lead to their death, or immense suffering, or a life of grinding poverty, or anything else really.53 That means there are many more scenarios that asylum does not protect you from than the ones it does protect you from – crushing poverty, natural disasters, disease, etc. – even if the end result is the same and just as likely: your bodily harm or death.54

Suppose Nellie, 15 years old, were someone who faced poverty, or sickness, or death or murder if returned to Italy (I have no idea what she actually faced if she was returned to Italy, although poverty is a safe bet). The question of who, under asylum law, “deserves” to live in the U.S. (this often means who deserves to live at all) is ultimately in such tension with the idea of equality, that it does not take much effort to imagine multiple scenarios that highlight this. Let’s list some scenarios in which asylum law would not protect someone like Nellie from harm. Feel free to reflect on whether or not you feel the scenario increases or decreases Nellie’s deservingness to enter the U.S. as compared to someone eligible for asylum, which is to say the merits of Nellie’s right to live at all (I would invite you to substitute your own loved one’s name for Nellie’s):

Suppose Nellie faces lethal poverty in Italyif she is not permitted to enter and stayin theU.S., does she deserve to enter and stay as much as a traditional asylum seeker? What if Nellie is certain to return to homelessness or famine? What if a volcano went off in Italy and covered Naples in a pyroclastic flow – does she deserve to flee and enter the U.S. as much as an asylee now? Suppose Italy is engulfed by civil-war, or the government collapsed and Naples is just Mad-Max-like bedlam ruled by pale gangsters in spikey cars, does she deserve to flee and remain in the U.S.? What if Naples has the highest murder rate in the world? What if it has the highest rate of accidental traffic death in the world? What if turn-of-the-century Italy is overcome by the ebola virus? What if it’s sinking into the sea? What if the water was tainted or a chemical-plant exploded and there was just a higher risk of poisoning or food-born illness, not certain doom, but a much higher likelihood of doom, does she deserve to enter as much then?What if it’s just a higher risk of doom instead of a much higher risk? Are you willing to let your loved one risk it? Forget big macro-level causes of death, what if Nellie is being chased by a bear, and the only way to save her life is to let her cross the border? Replace the bear with a chainsaw-wielding maniac, how does her life fare against an asylee’s life now? What if Nellie needs medical attention she can’t get in Italy? What if she needs medication or care for a chronic illness she can’t get in Italy, and staying there is certain to cut her life short? What if Nellie’s crossing the border is the only way to save someone else’s life? Maybe she has blood or a kidney someone needs. How about if that someone else is a noncitizen? If they’re a citizen does your answer change? What if Nellie has a toddler and Italy has the highest infant mortality rate in the world? What if it’s your toddler? What’s if it’s you?

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: Check out John Lee’s blog post Junk the international refugee system, and open the borders

How little it would matter to any of us exactly what the cause or method of our loved one’s death or maiming is – all we would care about is the fact that they faced death or maiming at all. How unwilling we would be to weigh in our minds their merits of living or even their merits of being happy, against someone else’s “stronger” claim to life or happiness. Why then should immigration law distinguish in the same way between other people’s lives – between who deserves sanctuary from harm and who doesn’t? Why should, in each scenario above, a non-citizen be denied asylum (and they would be, in each of those scenarios above, with the possible exception of the chainsaw wielding maniac56), denied the right to live, or the right to be safe, because their method of death or maiming just didn’t fit one of the five protected grounds?57 Why would we limit at all the number of grounds for which we’re willing to protect human life or human freedom?There are few examples outside asylum that show as clearly as it just how unambiguously the law values the lives of non-citizens less than citizens.

V. Do I deserve to live here because I am a human being?

I have a right to be here because I am a person and this is my planet. I’m unwilling to gauge anyone else on any criteria beyond those. These laws raise questions about what broader principles of inequity are at work behind them, but here are some possibilities: noncitizens are worth less than citizens; humanity is tied to citizenship; non-Americans are sub-human; the value of human life is contingent on locus of birth.

When a person’s right to something is not recognized, the law must instead rely upon an arbitrary judgment of their deservingness in order to determine their fate. Toask whether someone deserves to be free or safe is to make that person’s wellbeing entirely dependent on the discretionary mercy, compassion or contempt of someone else. Author and professor of political science, Ayten Gündoğdu describes this condition of the immigrant as one of “rightlessness,” that is, having not even the right to have rights, becausethey have “lives that are dependent on the favors, privileges, or discretions of compassionate others.”58 Gündoğdu observes that relying on the “capricious moral sentiment” of others, instead of enjoying the protection a right would afford them, “risks unmaking the equal personhood of migrants.”59 A person dependent on compassion to be alive is a person without a right to be alive. Without a right to be here a person loses their status as an equal human being altogether, and they will be subjected to state violence vis-à-vis a thousand arbitrary rules animated by the moral inequity of rightlessness. Sorting through the cruel minutia of U.S. immigration law, I can find no rational justification for why I have more of a right to be here than someone else born, raised, or running from somewhere else. And I can see no reason in the idea that my great grandmother or someone like her, had or would now have less of a right to enter and remain than anyone else born or raised or related to someone here. All I can see in the immigration laws are double standards – one set of rules for this group of people and another set of rules for that group of people – all justified by the dehumanizing idea that U.S. citizenship is the arbiter of human worth.Either everyone has a right to be here, or no one does. Anything in between is a lie.

Related reading

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Also of interest:


1 More on this right to come in future posts.
2 “Nationality itself has its origins in racial thinking and still bases itself on birth and origin in ways that echo racialism.” Aviva Chomsky, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal 14 (2014).
3 I do not use the word ‘hate’ lightly. In my view, racialism and white supremacy cannot be separated from U.S. immigration law and policy (I’m not even convinced they can be separated from the very concept of nationality). See supra note 2. Like the ideas that fuel racist ideology, the ideas encouraging immigration restrictions are often sub-conscious and the person acting on them may be unaware they are doing so, or may believe themselves to be unbiased. Nonetheless, these ideas come from a place that is very much fueled by hate, inasmuch as the word ‘hate’ is semantic shorthand for those beliefs that allow us to de-humanize other human beings. That is how I’m using the word here.
4 See ship manifest on file with author.
5Under “occupation” the shipping records list my great grandmother’s occupation as “Help”. See shipmanifest on file with author.
6 The Chinese exclusion Act of 1882 prevented persons of Chinese or Japanese ancestry from migrating to the United States. [FIX!] See Erin L. Murphy, “Prelude to Imperialism”: Whiteness and Chinese Exclusion in the Reimagining of the United States, 4 J. of Historical Sociology 457-490, 476 (Dec. 2005).
7 See Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law 67-68 (2014).
8 Black’s Law Dictionary (9th Ed., edited by Bryan A. Garner) 619 (2009).
9 See 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(4).
10 See, e.g.,
11 Teresa Hayter, Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls (2d Ed.) 2004, at 161
12 Hayter, at 161.
13 Hayter, at xxV.
14 Many others have already made these argument far better than I can. At any rate, one does not need to reach or rely on these if one accepts that immigration restrictions are wrong in principle, regardless of their outcome.
15 Of course I’m far from the first to confront these questions – others have asked them before and in more eloquentprose than I (See, for example, the writings of Joseph Carens, Linda Bosniak, or other authors referenced here). I engage these questions again here both because (our world being what it is) they bear repeating, and because I think it is important for immigration lawyers, who may be seen as proponents of the immigration system, to be vocal about their personal opposition to immigration restrictions generally.
16 Aviva Chomsky at 20.
17 See 8 U.S.C. § 1401.
18 Motomora at 98.
19 Chomsky at 36.
20 HAYTER, at 152.
21 In one 2009 case, for example, a man who was “born in Mexico in 1972 and 1973,” was nonetheless ordered deported. See Hernandez-Aguilar v. Holder, 2009 WL 4067644 (9th Cir. 2009), 86 No. 46 Interpreter Releases 2932, at 2935 (2009).
22 Chomsky at 19.
24 Rogers Smith & Peter Schuck, Citizenship Without Consent: the Illegal Alien in the American Polity (1985).
25 See Cristina M. Rodriguez, Symposium: The Second Founding: The Citizenship Clause, Original Meaning, and the Egalitarian Unity of the Fourteenth Amendment, 11 U. PA. J. CONST. L. 1363 (2009).
26 See Rogers Smith & Peter Schuck, Citizenship Without Consent: the Illegal Alien in the American Polity (1985).
27 See, e.g.,U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649, at 688 (1898)(“. . . the fundamental rule of citizenship by birth within the dominion of the United States, notwithstanding alienage of parents, has been affirmed, in well-considered opinions of the executive departments of the government, since the adoption of the fourteenth amendment of the constitution.”).
29 In theory, of course – barring any statute or like-policy that would preclude a retroactive application of such a catastrophic idea.
30 Actually, this justification is not even afforded to non-citizens in immigration law as much as you might imagine – and there are plenty of circumstances where living here for decades earns you nothing in the eyes of the law, save a prison cell and a flight back where you came from.
31 In addition to continuous presence in the u.s. for ten years, the person must have “good moral character,” not have been convicted of certain crimes, and demonstrate that their deportation would result in “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to their U.S. Citizen of Green card holding spouse, parent or child. See 8 USC 1229b(b)(1).
32 See 9 USC § 1259.
33 33SeeJeh Charles Johnson, “Memorandum: Policies for the Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants,” November 20, 2014; John Morton, “Memorandum: Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion Consistent with the Civil Immigration Enforcement Priorities of the Agency for the Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Aliens,” June 17, 2011
34 For what it’s worth, I hate this term “undocumented,” but I have not year heard of any more polite alternative to describe persons residing in U.S. territory without the permission of the U.S. government. I welcome others to volunteer alternative nomenclature because I am actively seeking out the same.
35 35See, e.g., Galvez-Martinez v. Holder, 356 Fed.Appx. 47, at 49 (9th Cir. 2009) (“Petitioners’ argument that Jose’s longer physical presence in the United States should be imputed to his daughter Alma so that she might satisfy the 10-year statutory presence requirement of 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(b)(1)(A) is foreclosed … [t]he BIA correctly found that Alma lacked the 10 years of physical presence necessary to qualify for cancellation of removal.”)
36 There is actually an exception to this rule – a temporary absence of no more than 90 consecutive days is permitted, but if the aggregate amount of time outside the U.S. is 180 days or more, then you areineligible, strict standards that open themselves up to the same criticism the strict 10 year-rule does. See8 USC § 1229b(d)(2).
37 See Lopez v. Franklin, 427 F.Supp. 345, 347 (E.D.Mich. 1977).
38 See literally any post on this website.
39 See ship manifest on file with author.
40 See 8 USC 1229b(b)(1).
41 For example, the fact that a non-citizen’s U.S. citizen child, upon the non-citizen’s deportation, would suffer from poverty and poor schools in their home country was simply not unusual enough, let alone extremely unusual, to rise to the level of the kind of hardship you’d have to show. SeeIn Re: Angel Lojano A.K.A. Manuel Pauta, 2012 WL 1705667, at *2.
42 For example, you might be able to get a green card through employment if you were an Iraqi translator for the U.S. government, you worked on the Panama Canal, you’re “an alien of extraordinary ability,” (i.e. you’re a genius in your field, and not, as it sounds, a Kryptonian) or if you can show there aren’t enough “U.S. workers able, willing, qualified and available to accept” the job you want. See, e.g., U.S. Immigration and Customs Service’s “Green Card Through A Job” at
43 See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(c).
44 Only a few forms of humanitarian relief, each more difficult to acquire than the last, provide a path to a green card,including such options as asylum, relief under the Violence Against Women Act, special immigrant juvenile status, a U-visa (given to certain non-citizens who were the victim of crime in the u.s. and reported that crime to the police) or T-visa (for victims of human trafficking). If you’ve lived in the U.S. since January 1, 1972, you’re also eligible for a green card, but there aren’t many undocumented people left who’ve managed to live under radar for forty three years.
45 You can also get a green card via that cancelation of removal thing I mentioned before, or by being one of the
slippery 43+ year olds whose evaded capture since 1972.
46 You’ve entered lawfully, or in some cases you have no unlawful presence, or you have a waiver for one of these, or there’s actually not a ten year wait for someone in your category, etc., etc., etc.
47 “Extremely unusual” means the hardship must be “substantially different from, or beyond, that which would normally be expected from the deportation of an alien with close family members here,” so even though a mother demonstrates that her deportation would cause her daughters, aged 11 and 6, to “face complete upheaval in their lives and hardship that could conceivably ruin their lives,” in Mexico, this still does not rise to the level of “extremely usual,” because any child forcibly taken away from their family and lives in the U.S. would have their lives ruined. See In re Andazola-Rivas, 23 I. & N. Dec. 319, at 322-324 (BIA 2002).
48 Hayter, at vii.
49 Hayter, at xxv.
50 (a phrase that is legally more complicated than I can possibly relate here).
51 See 8.S.C. § 1158(a).
52 See 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b).
53 One possible exception to those denied asylum is relief under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) – which doesn’t require persecution on one of those five protected grounds, but does demand you meet a much higher burden of proof – vastly reducing the number of people who can seek refuge under CAT.
54 See, e.g., Begzatowski v. I.N.S., 278 F.3d 665, 670 (7th Cir. 2002) (“. . . if war, famine, political violence or other dangerous conditions affect an entire nation, those conditions cannot establish an individual claim for asylum.”). Sichone v. Gonzales, 183 Fed.Appx. 50, 51 (2d. Cir. 2006) (finding Zambian applicant ineligiblefor asylum, even though “however regrettable” it may be, the applicant is HIV positive and will not have access to medications in Zambia.); Fakalawa v. Mukasey,279 Fed.Appx. 573 (9th Cir. 2008) (finding applicant ineligible for asylum because she “only fears a life of poverty,” if returned to Fiji).
55 Take, for example, the guy who was not eligible for asylum even though his home was destroyed by a Hurricane and he was indebted to the mob. See Cruz-Funez v. Gonzales, 406 F.3d 1187, 1190-91 (10th Cir. 2005).
56 If, say, the maniac were trying to kill Nellie because of one of those five protected grounds and Italy could not protect her from said maniac, then she might have an asylum claim – but if the maniac were just a serial killer, then she would not no claim.
57 One might qualify for relief for similar relief to asylum, such releif under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) where they don’t qualify for asylum, but each comes with their own comparably narrow, inequitable criteria. See, e.g., Cruz-Funez v. Gonzales, 406 F.3d 1187, 1192 (10th Cir. 2005).
58 Ayten Gündoğdu, Rightlessness in an Age of Rights 93 (2015).
59 Gündoğduat 113.

Open Borders and International Migration Policy: Book Summary

This blog post summarizes the author’s October 2015 book Open Borders and International Migration Policy. The book is available both electronically and in print from Amazon, Google Books, and the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan.

Although political philosophers debate the morality of open borders, few social scientists have explored what would happen if immigration were no longer limited. This book looks at three historical examples of temporarily unrestricted migration into the United States, France, and Ireland: the arrival of Mariel Cubans in Miami (Florida) in 1980, the flight of Pied Noir and Harki refugees from Algeria to Marseille in 1962, and the migration of Poles and other new European Union ‘Accession 8’ citizens into Dublin in 2004. Based on personal interviews, archival research, and statistical analysis, the study finds that the effects of these population movements on the economics, politics, and social life of these cities were much less catastrophic than opponents of free immigration claim. Detailed chapters cover schools, crime, ethnic politics, unemployment and wages, public finances, housing, and racial violence.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background page on the Mariel boatlift.

Political philosophers Joseph Carens, Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, and Will Kymlicka have argued for the morality of an open-borders immigration policy, yet such other social theorists as Michael Walzer, Stephen Macedo, and John Isbister dismiss this approach because of the supposed harm that unrestricted immigration would cause to natives. After exploring the normative arguments for and against open borders, the first chapter concludes that the crux of many theoretical objections to unrestricted immigration is empirical. Unfortunately, however, many of the factual assumptions that immigration restrictionists make have not been fully or rigorously tested. This new book therefore aims to see if unregulated immigration actually hurt natives.

The following chapter replicates David Card’s 1990 now-classic, natural-experiment-based article demonstrating that the Mariel migrants had no significant immediate effect on native wages or unemployment rates in Miami. Chapter 2 extends Card’s findings to two European cities that experienced sudden waves of migration comparable to the Mariel Boatlift in south Florida: Marseille, France, which faced the influx of Pieds-Noirs and Harkis “repatriates” from Algeria in 1962; and Dublin, Ireland, which received thousands of new European-Union, “Accession 8” citizens from Eastern Europe beginning in 2004. Based on elite interviews, archival materials, and ARIMA regression models, this study of two additional natural experiments concludes that rapid, “uncontrolled” migration had no statistically significant effect on the native employment market in Marseille or Dublin. The analysis likewise finds that sudden immigration appears to have boosted overall wage rates both in Marseille’s total employment market and in Ireland’s construction sector. Theoretically, this investigation thus confirms Card’s optimistic conclusions about the economic effects of immigration. It also shows that his findings are robust across different Western, industrialized countries.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background pages on suppression of wages of natives and the US-specific version.

Chapter 3 focusses on public finances. Although popular rhetoric about “immigrants taking our jobs” or “reducing our wages” typically finds little or no support from rigorous empirical studies, such mainstream investigators as the National Research Council conclude that new immigrants sometimes represent a net fiscal burden, especially at the local level in the short run. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effect of various types of migrants on the finances of large cities in particular, this chapter analyzes over-time budgetary data from Miami, Marseille, and Dublin. Based on quantitative panel models, elite interviews, and archival documents, the study concludes that the overall fiscal impact on localities of rapid, “uncontrolled” migration was effectively nil in Miami and Marseille, but positive in Dublin. Theoretically and empirically, this investigation helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible tax- and social-services-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and partly confirms the relevant literature on the differing fiscal influences of refugees versus economic migrants and high- versus low-skilled labor.

The fourth chapter looks at the housing market. Unless public authorities and the private real estate market immediately increase the number of available dwellings, a sudden wave of immigration may increase residential overcrowding. According to standard economic theory, greater demand for housing should likewise boost prices in the rental market, where most immigrants would initially seek shelter. In contrast, interpretations based on a dual housing market predict that immigration-caused demand will not be as likely to boost natives’ housing costs where newcomers are highly segregated. To test these two explanations, this chapter uses interviews with local economists and real estate agents, historical documents, and panel regression models for the three historical natural experiments. Quantitative data include official census statistics on the number of people per room and public or private estimates of changes in rents. Regression models suggest that increased overcrowding occurred in Miami but not in Marseille or Dublin. In contrast, the analysis shows a significant migration-caused rent increase in the normal housing market of only Marseille, the least-segregated city. Theoretically, this work thus tends to confirm the theory of dual housing markets for immigrants versus natives but only partially supports the standard economic model of housing.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See Nathan Smith’s post The great land value windfall from open borders.

Chapter 5 concerns itself with schools. Popular rhetoric claims that because of immigration, native schoolchildren have “no room to learn” and educational standards are being “dumbed down.” Yet relatively few empirical social scientists have examined whether immigration actually causes school overcrowding. A larger group of statistically oriented scholars has examined migration and academic achievement, but they tend to focus more on how well migrant students do in school than on whether immigration hurts native children in the same district. The smaller pool of investigators who have looked at this latter question usually aim to test the “peer effects” theory of immigration effects but often are confronted with the serious methodological problem of endogeneity via immigrant and native self-selection into particular districts. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effects of various types of migrants on the degree of overcrowding and academic achievement in secondary schools in large cities in particular, this chapter therefore analyzes official over-time classroom-density and test-score data from these three natural experiments where immigration is clearly exogenous to the choice of school district. Based on interviews with teachers and school officials, examination of archival materials from relevant institutions, and quantitative panel analysis of educational and census data, my study concludes that the rapid, unrestricteded migration of immigrant secondary-school students neither substantially increased classroom density nor affected the overall test scores in these districts. Theoretically and empirically, this investigation helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible education-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and disconfirms an immigration-based “peer effects” model of academic achievement. Massive immigration does not necessarily cause a decline in student learning, and it does not even seem to boost classroom overcrowding very much if at all.

Crime is the main topic in Chapter 6. Although xenophobic popular rhetoric about “foreign-born criminals” abounds, relatively few empirical social scientists have examined what, if any link, actually exists between immigration and crime. Those quantitatively oriented investigators who do look at this question, moreover, typically focus on a single country or region and tend to find little or no overall effect from migration. This chapter thus uses cross-national statistics to test the “strain” and “importation” models of migration and criminal deviance. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effects of various types of migrants on the level of violent or “serious” crime (i.e., homicide and burglary) in large cities in particular, I analyze official over-time crime data from the three cities. Elite interviews, archival materials, and quantitative panel models of police and census data indicate that the rapid, “uncontrolled” migration of working- or middle-class refugees or workers did increase burglary rates in all three cities. However, the sudden arrival of primarily low-skilled individuals—some of whom had already served prison time in Cuba—appears to have boosted the homicide rate in Miami only. This investigation therefore helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible crime-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and partly confirms the importation model of homicide and strain theory of burglary. Though massive immigration does not necessarily cause a large rise in all forms of urban crime in the host country, the entry of many poor migrants with few economic opportunities and/or with criminal backgrounds may.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our crime page, our backgrounder page on Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States, and Vipul Naik’s speculative post about crime in the US under open borders.

The last body chapter examines ethnic politics and racial violence. Although some scholars of “realistic group conflict” argue that immigration-related ethnic conflict usually increases with a sudden influx of foreign-born residents, Daniel J. Hopkins’ theory of “politicized places” suggests that the effect of immigrant flows may partly depend on “salient national rhetoric.” To help adjudicate between these two theoretical explanations cross-nationally, this chapter analyzes over-time, aggregate voting data and qualitative accounts of inter-ethnic violence from the three urban natural experiments. Relying on elite informants, archival materials, newspaper accounts, and Gary King’s method of ecologically inferring the degree of ethnic voting, the study generally confirms the “politicized places” interpretation. While rapid, “uncontrolled” migration fueled ethnic voting and violence in Miami, where the media and many elites blamed economic woes on the immigrants, migrant inflows had few such effects in Marseille and Dublin, where media treatment was relatively positive and most leaders welcomed the newcomers relatively early on. Theoretically, this investigation thus expands Hopkins’ theory to immigrant-rich urban settings in three different industrialized countries. The chapter might also guide local and national political leaders wishing to avoid a popular backlash against an unexpected wave of recent immigrants.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background page on nativist backlash.

Chapter 8 summarizes the book’s findings and discusses their implications. Overall, this study concludes that the empirical case against open borders is overstated. The analysis does find overcrowding of housing and a higher burglary rate for all three cities. In Miami only, migration also appears to have led to more homicides, racial violence, and ethnic voting. Residential overcrowding eventually dissipated over time, however, as municipalities built more apartments for the newcomers. Burglaries did increase, but many of the victims were probably the immigrants themselves. Ethnic scapegoating by political and media elites lies at the root of ethnic voting and racial violence, and the many additional murders in Miami arguably represent an atypical case of a sending country deliberately inducing the emigration of violent criminals. With the exception of crime, then, any significant effects from large-scale immigration seem manageable.

On the other side of the coin, what if anything good came of these three migrant streams? First, moving to the U.S., France, or Ireland was undoubtedly good for almost all of the immigrants themselves. Most Mariel Cubans were able to rejoin their families in Miami and eventually move up into the American middle class. Pieds Noirs in Marseille escaped near-certain death at the hands of the Algerian FLN and eventually were able to re-establish their cultural institutions and economically integrate into southern France. And Poles in Dublin found reasonably well-paying jobs, a compatible cultural environment, and a chance to perfect their English. Second, however, these newcomers also contributed greatly to their host societies. Mariel migrant Mirta Ojito grew up to become a journalism professor at Columbia University and win the Pulitzer Prize. The Jewish Pied Noir singer Enrico Macias (born Gaston Ghrenassia in what is today Constantine, Algeria) continues to charm French and global audiences with his Andalusian melodies. At least at the height of the attendant labor shortage, meanwhile, Irish employers eagerly hired Eastern-Europeans to help fuel the Republic’s “Celtic Tiger” economic expansion.

Of course, these three case studies do not constitute the most extreme scenarios of unrestricted immigration, where tens of millions of people might cross international borders suddenly. Within the North Atlantic communities, however, these three examples represent some of the most dramatic and highly concentrated migration flows in modern memory (the not-yet-concluded Syrian refugee crisis aside). A complete lack of enforcement on the southern borders of the E.U. or U.S. would of course encourage larger numbers of poorer migrants to attempt the journey and might cause more significant socio-economic effects on the receiving countries. Yet until such immigration actually occurs, we are reduced to speculating about the consequences. And the analysis of historic cases in this book would be a good place to start developing models of the short-term, localized results of such overwhelmingly large flows should they present themselves. For now, however, any estimation of the socio-economic effects of truly massive, hemisphere-wide open borders requires forecasting beyond historically available data.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See also John Lee’s blog post How did we come to be so certain that closed borders are our salvation?

Perhaps the most morally defensible but cautious immigration policy politically imaginable would be the late economist Julian Simon’s recommendation to “increase the volume of total immigration in substantial steps [i.e., up to double the number of entrants per step] unless [or until?] there appear negative effects that are unknown at present.” As my book shows, actual harm from immigration is much harder to find than allegations of deleterious effects. If North Americans are to adopt immigration laws in keeping with their high professed ideals, they might profitably consider following the lead of the Europeans and South Americans–who have already adopted limited open-borders systems–instead of using racialized rhetoric to scapegoat men and women who desire nothing more than an opportunity to earn decent wages and live in peace.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See also Vipul Naik’s post Slippery slopes to open borders and John Lee’s post Constitutionally entrenching migration as a fundamental human right: Argentina and open borders.

Related reading

If you found this post interesting, you might want to buy the book on which this summary is based. It’s available both electronically and in print from Amazon, Google Books, and the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan.

The following Open Borders: The Case blog posts and pages might also be of interest.

The image featured in the header of this post is a photograph of Chinese immigrants en route to gold mines in Australia, circa 1900.

Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible

Restrictionists often bring up a scenario where there are so many immigrants that natives become a tiny minority. In this post, I would like to show that under broad conditions this is not possible: immigrants will almost always remain a minority and will not even come close to becoming a majority. Even if they become a majority, it will not last long and that’s only if you make rather extreme assumptions. Actual swamping with a huge majority of immigrants presupposes even more outlandish assumptions. It is not impossible, but more of a theoretical possibility. If you are afraid of such a scenario you can avoid it with a rather modest restriction on the number of immigrants that for most purposes is not too far from open borders.

In the following discussion, I understand the terms “immigrant” and “native” rather literally: an immigrant is someone who immigrates to a country from another country where he grew up (and so he is an adult or at most an adolescent), and a native is someone who grew up in the country or will grow up there. Even more literally, you could understand this as the distinction between those who are foreign-born and those who are native-born. However, this is a rather technical definition. E.g. the current CEO of Daimler, Dieter Zetsche, was born in Istanbul, so you would have to classify him as an immigrant from Turkey in this sense although he has lived in Germany since he was three years old. Whether you view someone as an immigrant or a native should probably depend more on where someone grew up most of the time. Therefore, I will classify also those as natives who come to the country at a very young age even if they were born abroad. If you have ever seen how fast young children can pick up a new language, this is perhaps not unreasonable. Even if you disagree with me and go for the narrower definition, the results do not change a lot.

You could also have a different view because you think that children of immigrants and maybe even their grandchildren and so forth stay close to the culture their ancestors came from. You might assume persistence for some or all of their traits and that also the descendents of immigrants remain foreign (at least for some time and to a certain extent). I will address the implications of such a broader definition below. But for the moment I would like to stick with the narrower definition and define anyone as native who has lived in the country from age 10 on, and all others I will classify as immigrants.

Why is swamping such a convincing scenario for many people? My guess is that they run a naïve analysis as follows: Suppose you have 100 million people in a country, and each year 5 million immigrate. In the following, I assume no population growth for natives and immigrants to make things more transparent. Then after twenty years, there are 100 million immigrants. It would seem that the total population has risen to 200 million, of whom now natives are only 50%. One year down the road, natives apparently become a minority. After a century, you might think there will be a total of 500 million immigrants, so natives make up only one sixth of the total population then. This would be a situation that people probably have in mind, when they speak of the threat of swamping by immigrants.

The problem with this reasoning is that it is false. This is so because the naïve analysis ignores two separate effects.

The first effect is that although each year another 5 million immigrate, the total number of immigrants in the country will not rise indefinitely as a naïve analysis might suggest. If immigrants come at age 25 and have a life expectancy of 80 years, then after 55 years the initial immigrants will have died out on average. Surely, there will be new immigrants, but after a little more than half a century, they only replace immigrants who came earlier. Hence, with a fixed number of immigrants per year, the total number of immigrants in the country will eventually level off. It is a mistake to extrapolate from the growth you see in the beginning to indefinite growth. Here is what it looks like (I use the stylized assumptions from my previous post “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations” for mortality, and I assume that immigrants come at age 25):

Immigrant Population over 100 years

The immigrant population grows linearly at first. But after about half a century, its growth slows down because previous immigrants die. After about 70 years, growth comes to a standstill, and the immigrant population stabilizes at about 288 million people (the exact number depends on my assumptions, my purpose here is only to demonstrate the effect, not its exact size in all situations).

The first effect is perhaps rather obvious once you have understood it, and it could easily be incorporated into the naïve analysis. So it would still seem as if natives end up in a minority of 1 to 2.88 or slightly more than a quarter of the total population. However, there is another effect that is even stronger and which starts to operate almost right away. And it is far less obvious. This second effect is the momentum effect that I have described in my previous post “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations.” Feel free to read the post for further details. I will explain the effect anyway in a few words, so you can get the thrust of it even without this background.

The momentum effect in the above scenario works like this. The 5 million who arrive in one year are mostly young people who will soon start a family. With replacement fertility (my assumption to focus solely on the momentum effect to the exclusion of other effects), they will have about one child per immigrant (two per couple) over the next years. This means there are not only the 5 million immigrants, but also an additional 5 million children who are, by my narrow definition, natives (some of them were technically born abroad, but entered the country at age less than 10). When the children are old enough they again have children. With replacement fertility, those are another 5 million people who are also natives. Hence you have 2 to 1 natives per immigrant. Since a few of the initial immigrants have died by then, the ratio is a little lower (1.76 to 1 with the stylized assumptions in my previous post). Here is what it looks like (note that in my previous post I looked at immigration in one year whereas here I have a fixed number of immigrants each year, so this is an overlay of many such one-time cases):

Generations over 100 years

On the bottom you have immigrants (blue) as in the above graph (by assumption they come at age 25). The next two layers are their children (red), and their grandchildren (green). And the uppermost layer are all their further descendents (i.e. fourth and higher generations). As you can see, the first effect also applies to the second and third generations and for the same reasons, it only comes later. This becomes more obvious over 200 years:

Generations over 200 years

The uppermost layer keeps growing because there is a constant influx of immigrants. Each annual cohort grows into a population 2.76 times as large and then levels off. This means no people are lost, and because there are new immigrants each year, total population keeps growing (eventually by 2.76 times annual immigration per year).

Now, by assumption, there was also an initial native population of 100 million. I will add them to the uppermost layer (basically, this is the assumption that fourth and higher generation immigrants are natives in any sense). Here’s what you get:

Generations plus Natives

Per my narrow definition only the lowest layer consists of immigrants, all the other people are natives. Here is how the share of immigrants in the total population develops over time:

Share of Immigrants

At first, with more and more immigration, the share of immigrants rises. But after some time, their descendents start to expand the native population, so there is a deceleration until the immigrant share peaks slightly below 40%. Later, when the immigrant population stagnates and the population of their descendents keeps growing (plus the initial native population), the share of immigrants falls off again.

Now immigration of 5% of the initial population is very heavy. Why? As you can see in the above graph, total population grows to more than 12 times its initial size over a century. For a country like the US (circa 320 million in 2015), this would mean that population grows to about 4 billion over a century. Possible, but rather extreme as an assumption.

You might object that for smaller countries it could happen. It surely becomes easier. But take a country like Germany with currently some 81 million inhabitants. Its population would rise to one billion people with this level of immigration. But then population density might work as a limiting factor. Population in Germany is now at 226 per square kilometer (583 per square mile). If it went up by a factor of more than 12, then Germany would have an average population density as the most populated parts of Germany have right now. Or in other words: Germany would become one huge city. Possible, but again pretty extreme. And even then the share of immigrants in the total population would not exceed 40% ever. After a century it would even have fallen to below a quarter of total population. Compare this to the result from the naïve analysis how natives will be only one sixth of total population after a century.

Let’s see how the maximum share of immigrants comes out for other levels of annual immigration, and how far one has to go out to achieve a maximum of 50% at least at the peak. Here’s a graph with the number of immigrants per year in millions on the x-axis (reference population of 100 million), and the maximum share of immigrants on the y-axis:

Towards a Majority

Hence to reach a share of 50% immigrants in the total population (even if only for a short peak after which it falls off again), one would have to have 18 million immigrants each year for an initial population of 100 million. But that implies that total population (even with replacement fertility) will grow to about 45 times its initial size over a century. For the US, this would work out to a population of about 14 billion people, more than total world population according to most projections. And for Germany, it would amount to a population of more than 3.5 billion people. That’s not impossible, but looks rather outlandish as a scenario.

The conclusion from all this is: For all practical purposes, there will never be a majority of immigrants. (I will discuss a few exceptional cases in the appendix, but those do not apply for large countries like the US or Germany. Or you have to make assumptions that would be much worse than swamping .)

Even if you are scared that immigration could become so strong that for a short time immigrants become a majority, all you have to do is introduce a limit on immigration of less than 18 million for an initial population of 100 million. 50 million per year would do for the US, and 14 million for Germany which is orders of magnitude above current levels (below one percent of the population, maybe this year slightly above for Germany).

Now, one objection could be that my definition of immigrants is too narrow, that also second generation immigrants or maybe even third generation immigrants would have to count as immigrants because they stay (partly) foreign. Here is the peak for the share of immigrants, of immigrants + second generation, and of immigrants + second generation + third generation, depending on the number of immigrants per year in millions (reference population 100 million):

Towards Swamping

The blue line is the line I had above for immigrants alone. The red line is for the first two generations together, and the green line for the first three generations together (the peak occurs at a later point in time, so you do not have these shares at the same time). As for the first two generations: they become a majority for about 1.25 million immigrants per year (initial population of 100 million). As for the first three generations, they become a majority for annual immigration of slightly more than 0.6 million immigrants per year.

Of course, it becomes easier and easier to achieve a majority, the more inclusive the definition of “immigrants” becomes. However, it would still only mean a majority at the peak before it falls off again. While a majority for immigrants is almost impossible, it is conceivable for immigrants + second generation, and even more so, if you add the third generation in. Restrictionists are concerned that a majority could change the culture materially or take the country over via the political process. This may sound more plausible if you assume a vast majority of immigrants who are perhaps rather foreign (but also that they are homogeneous or can easily overcome coordination problems). However, that is hardly possible if you have to include the second or even the third generation. It could only happen if you assume very slow assimilation. I will not pursue this here, but will address this point in a further post.

I only discussed the lowest level of “swamping” so far, i.e. that there is a majority of immigrants at some point in time. To get real “swamping”, one would have to have a much higher share of immigrants. If swamping is something like a level of 80%, it is not possible for immigrants alone, or only under totally outlandish assumptions. It is still hard to achieve for the first two generations together because one would have to go to a level of at least 8.5 million immigrants per year (100 million reference population). And even for the first three generations together, one would have to assume 3.5 million immigrants each year for an initial population of 100 million.

As I already noted above: 5 million immigrants each year is a pretty extreme assumption, and even 3.5 million would still mean that total population grows to more than 9.5 times its initial size over a century. For the US, this would amount to more than three billion people. However, here is what the population structure at the peak after 65 years would look like: 31% immigrants, 33% second generation, 17% third generation, and 19% fourth and higher generations plus initial natives and their descendents. Even with moderate assimilation (e.g. a quarter per generation), the effective share of natives (natives in a narrow sense plus the assimilated part of the first three generations) would be a clear majority even in this scenario. As I said, I will leave a more thorough discussion to a further post. But maybe my conclusion is already clear: only with very low assimilation or even reverse assimilation (i.e. of natives to the immigrant culture) can such a swamping scenario play out with very high immigration. Cultural and political results would also presuppose that immigrants are very homogeneous or at least easy to coordinate.

Let me just sum up the main results of this post:

Under broad assumptions, serious swamping by immigrants is practically impossible. A slight majority at the peak presupposes very high levels of immigration and is also hardly possible. For the first two generations to achieve a majority, you still need rather extreme levels of immigration. Maybe you could see a majority for the first three generations together, but then you also have to make an assumption of very slow assimilation and rather homogeneous immigrants to find this concerning. Even moderate assimilation over three generations would mean that the effectively native part of the population remains a clear majority.


As I noted above, there are some exceptional cases where something like “swamping” can come to pass. I would like to address them here and also why they are irrelevant for large countries like the US or Germany.

  •  You can have swamping for new settlers on uninhabitated land: there are simply no natives, so the settler culture will prevail by default. This can happen especially in agricultural societies with little need to cooperate with other settlers of a different origin. But then, such a case does not apply for the US or Germany now.
  • A similar case would be after ethnic cleansing: In a first step you drive away the previous population or kill them off, and then you resettle the new land. You can make such an assumption, but then you should be less concerned about swamping and more about  ethnic cleansing and even genocide. And you would have to explain how this is a realistic scenario.
  • Another variant is if immigration exceeds initial native population by orders of magnitude. E.g. there were a few million Native Americans in what it now the US, and then there was immigration of ten times as many people or so. In addition, there was hardly any incentive or opportunity to assimilate to native culture, so also all descendents remained foreign (as viewed by Native Americans). However, immigration of ten times the current population to the US would mean more than 3 billion immigrants. With the momentum effect, this would build up to an additional population of more than 7 billion. Or in other words: after two generations, everybody in the world would be in the US. Possible, but perhaps a little extreme as an assumption. And then there is no reason to believe there would be no incentive or opportunity to assimilate to American culture. Quite the opposite.
  • Small countries (more like city states or smaller) can have very high rates of immigration and hence a high share of immigrants, simply because they are so small and it does not take a lot of immigrants. Examples would be American Samoa (40,000 inhabitants and 71% immigrants) or the Carribean Netherlands (12,000 and 66%). However, note: for this to be sustainable you have to have very fast population growth. An example would be New York City where population in 1900 was more than 50 times population in 1800. But again, that cannot happen for large countries or countries which have some constraint for population density.
  • A funny example, and perhaps the only real example where “swamping” occurs is a country with fertility of 0 and regular immigration. The native population keeps dying out and is being replaced by immigrants. Actually, there is such a country: the Vatican which has 100% immigrants. Strangely enough, no one believes that the culture of the Vatican suffers from this “swamping.”
  • My argument relies on the momentum effect. If it does not apply or only to a lesser degree then the share of immigrants can become larger. There are several cases where this is possible: (1) The country is a destination for pensioners: they won’t have any children and their previous children might not want to join them. This case is similar to the Vatican. (2) Immigrants who are not allowed to bring in their families. This is the typical situation for the Gulf States where the share of immigrants can be very high: UAE with 84% immigrants, Qatar 74%, and Kuweit 70%. However, this is atypical because it depends on temporary immigration which makes concerns over cultural change or a political takeover a moot point. With permanent immigration the above arguments apply. (3) Immigration of the whole population pyramid including older generations. This can happen with refugees who are forced from their homes. An example of a country with a high share of immigrants because of refugees is Jordan with about 40% immigrants. In this case, there is no or only a mild momentum effect. But note: you also need a rather small country and the share will fall from there because it is hard to sustain the necessary levels of immigration over time. (4) A milder variant of this case is if immigrants come later in life or bring more of their older relatives in (but maybe not all of them). This attentuates the momentum effect and can lead to a higher share of immigrants. However, with a fixed absolute number it also means that effective immigration (people of reproductive age) is lower and the eventual level is lower.
  • If you exclude all exceptional cases with little import for large countries (thinly populated territories, city states with a hinterland that is not counted, the Gulf States regime) and focus on larger countries, the highest share for immigrants are in Switzerland with 29% immigrants and Australia with 28% immigrants. Although it might seem that those are rather low shares, according to the above analysis, the share of immigrants is already rather high. And a further increase hence presupposes much higher levels of immigration to approach 40% and 50%.
  • The share of immigrants can be higher with accelerating immigration, e.g. as a fixed percentage of a growing population. However, this means you get exponential growth for the total population instead of linear growth. This makes the situation even less sustainable.
  • You can have “swamping” by immigrants and all their descendents if there is no assimilation because their numbers keep growing and they remain foreign. With reverse assimilation (to the immigrant culture) the effect could be even stronger. An example would be the Roman Empire where there was a strong incentive for people in newly occupied territories to assimilate to the culture of the Roman “immigrants.” Here immigrants were simply conquerors and it was important for the native population to assimilate to their culture. If you assume that your country is occupied and “immigrants” exert a pull towards their culture because they are in positions of power and wealth, you should be concerned about a military occupation in the first place, not swamping.

Miscellaneous Remarks


  1. There seems to be something about Daimler and Turkey. Edzard Reuter, predecessor of Dieter Zetsche, was born in Berlin in 1928. Since his father was a well-known Social Democrat (mayor of Berlin from 1948 to 1953), the family had to flee Germany in 1935 and obtained asylum in Turkey where Edzard Reuter grew up from age 7 to 17. As far as I know he is fluent in Turkish. So you would have to count him as an immigrant from Turkey. Possibly that was his experience in 1945 although he, of course, also had a strong connection with Germany through his family.
  2. If you insist on the share of the foreign-born and not just immigrants who grew up elsewhere, you would have to include the children brought along by immigrants. With my standard assumptions, an immigrant at age 25 brings 0.22 children along. So you would have to increase all numbers by about 22%. But then your assumption is that someone’s birthplace has a deep influence on their development independent of where they grow up or who their parents are. If you think that the environment you grow up in is the most important aspect, then you would end up with my definition (up to small adjustments). And if you think that the important aspect is that parents influence their children, then you would have to look at immigrants and all their children, no matter where they were born. If you think both play a role, you have to take something in between. Classification as “foreign-born” has perhaps more to do with the fact that it is comparably easy to track someone’s birth place versus where they grew up most of the time or what group their parents belong to.
  3. “Swamping” is a vague concept, and it can mean different things to different people. One other sense might be that population in a country rises a lot, and that could have negative consequences. My arguments make such a scenario more probable because they show that immigration leads to more growth than the sheer number of immigrants alone. I can’t have it both ways: If open borders means that many people have a chance to move to rich countries, then the population in rich countries will have to rise. And if a transfer of many people is optimal, then population will have to rise considerably. Assimilation to rather low native fertility in rich countries, mostly below replacement, might mitigate the effect, though, but only over a longer timeframe.
  4. Impeding family reunion works somewhat like the immigration regime in the Gulf States: either children stay in the source country and so immigrants can become a larger share of the total population. Or children immigrate only after they have (partly) grown up in another country and so would have to count as immigrants, too. Keeping children out means that they will not grow up as natives. Since these are the same people, eventually numbers are the same, so such restrictions can only slow the initial build-up down, but do not change the end result. Likewise for bringing in parents and grandparents. They will not change the end result because they will not have an impact on further development.
  5. One assumption that might look like a trick is that I work with replacement fertility. Maybe this is counterintuitive for some, but higher fertility of immigrants makes it even harder for immigrants to become a majority, let alone “swamp” the native population. Since there are now more children and even more grandchildren, immigrants themselves make up a lower share. So if you are concerned about swamping you would have to applaud high fertility. It also tilts the distribution towards those who have been longer in the country and hence are more assimilated.
  6. One other conclusion from the discussion is that every new cohort of immigrants comes to a country that is overwhelmingly native in culture. There is also a strong incentive to assimilate. So there is hardly a chance that native culture will be replaced by some other culture. This is even more so because immigrants are not a homogenous population. Hence it is very plausible that native culture will serve as a lingua franca for various groups of immigrants. This contradicts Nathan Smith’s vision of a country where there are huge masses of people who are not part of native culture (apart from that, I think Nathan Smith also misses the momentum effect and hence his scenario is also implausible in other ways, I will get back to that).

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Realistically Assessing the Danger of Terrorism From Immigration

Jay Inslee, the governor of the U.S. state of Washington, where I live, is my hero. Most governors have proclaimed their opposition to having Syrian refugees enter their states out of fear that they might commit acts of terror, and most Americans are opposed to admitting the refugees into the U.S., but Mr. Inslee has voiced his support for accepting the refugees after they have been screened for security threats. He has stated, “I have always believed that the United States is a place of refuge for those escaping persecution, starvation or other horrors that thankfully most in America will never experience… I told Washingtonians that I wouldn’t join those who wanted to demonize people because of the country they flee or the religion they practice. I will uphold our reputation as a place that embraces compassion and equality and eschews fear-mongering…”

At issue is the fate of a relatively small group of Syrian refugees, only 10,000 out of millions seeking a safe home abroad. Open borders advocates like myself would prefer the admission to the U.S. of as many refugees as wish to come, excepting any who might be security threats. But accepting the 10,000 is better than not accepting any. It is the right thing to do from an open borders perspective, and as Phil Mader and I have argued, a tool for dealing with terrorism. Mr. Mader points out that refusing Muslim refugees would alienate the refugees, who could be our “natural allies” if allowed to immigrate.  Similarly, I have noted that Muslim immigrants could provide cultural and language skills in the effort against Islamic terrorism.

Beyond providing support for the admission of the refugees, Mr. Inslee correctly urges perspective on the risk involved in admitting the refugees. Referring to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, he writes that “there is no guarantee that the same thing can’t happen here, and no way to erase all risk.” However, “we can take a deep breath, stand up straight and make a realistic assessment of risk.”

Indeed, the terrorist risk to the U.S. posed by the refugees, who will undergo rigorous screening before being admitted, and by Muslim immigrants in general, is minimal, especially when compared to other threats. As has been previously observed, most Muslims are peaceful. American currently has over 2.5  million Muslims, about two thirds of whom are immigrants, but very few are involved in terrorism. Since 9/11, there have been 26 people killed and about 200 wounded from jihadist attacks in the U.S.  (An attack by a Muslim immigrant that killed 4 marines in Tennessee last summer also may have been motivated by radical Islam. ) Most of the eight attackers were born in the U.S., and some were African-American, with no apparent recent immigrant ancestors.

Meanwhile, American right wing extremists have killed more people (48) in the U.S. since 9/11 than have radical Muslims. Most of these attacks were committed by white male Americans. And the second deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history was committed by a white antigovernment extremist in 1995: the truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people, 19 of whom were children.

White males are also responsible for most of the mass
shootings in the U.S. Mother Jones collected more than thirty years of data on public mass shootings in the U.S. which involved indiscriminate killing and the killing of at least four people. Apparently 44 out of 64 perpetrators were white males with no apparent connection to Islam or immigration. (2 of these mass shootings were included in the data on right wing and jihadist attacks.) Dana Ford of CNN writes that “the man who opened fire at a Charleston church on June 17, killing nine people, joined a list many would like to forget. Dylann Roof. Adam Lanza. James Holmes. Jared Loughner. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Their names stir painful memories and conjure images of hate and violence. The killers have other characteristics in common too: They either were, or are, young, white and male.” Texas mayor Mike Rawlings states that he is “more fearful of large gatherings of young white men that come into schools, theaters and shoot people up” than Syrian refugees.

More importantly, all of these jihadist and right-wing attacks and mass shootings are extremely rare and account for a minuscule portion of premature deaths in the U.S. According to Politifact, about 300,000 people in the U.S. have been killed by guns over the last decade, compared to less than a hundred deaths from extremist, both right wing and jihadist, attacks. Deaths from mass shootings have been in the low hundreds in recent years.

Beyond violent deaths, over a third of early deaths in the US. are due to behaviors such as using tobacco, eating a poor diet, and not getting enough exercise.  According to the Population Reference Bureau, “diet alone accounted for more than 650,000 early deaths in 2010.” Almost 19,000 people were killed in car accidents during the first half of this year, along with nearly 2.3 million “serious injuries” from the accidents. Tens of thousands more die each year from chokings, fires, falls, drownings, and poisonings.

Of course, a single terrorist attack can cause enormous carnage and destruction. The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 people directly and caused billions of dollars of damage. And the problem of jihadi terrorism may more likely arise in the offspring of immigrants. The Paris attacks were committed by Muslims who were apparently born in Europe.

However, the U.S. doesn’t seem to have a large number of alienated Muslim residents like Europe does, who may be more prone to committing acts of terror like those seen in Paris. Fortunately, America does a better job than Europe at integrating its immigrants.  It should continue to improve its ability to integrate newcomers, including Muslims.

As for catastrophic events like 9/11, fortunately they are rare, 9/11 itself was the work of temporary visitors to the U.S., not immigrants, and, as discussed, having more immigrants enter the U.S. could help our intelligence agencies foil future attacks. In addition, it should be noted that, as deadly and shocking as 9/11 was, the attack’s toll is dwarfed by the number of deaths resulting annually from accidents, guns, poor diets, and other causes. Moreover, rigorous screening of entrants from abroad, whether immigrants or temporary visitors, without significantly hindering the flow of immigrants, should continue to be the goal.

The minimal harm that Islamic terrorism has caused in the U.S., both absolutely and in comparison to other causes of early death, should reassure those concerned about the threat of terrorism from immigration, whether it involves 10,000 refugees or larger flows under open borders. As Mr. Inslee recommends, people need to realistically assess this risk.

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