Are immigrant rights activists friends of open borders?

NOTE: This article focuses on the United States, though some of its points may be more generally applicable.

In a blog post I’m currently drafting (which will hopefully be published shortly after this one) I note BK’s criticism of open borders advocates such as Bryan Caplan — pro-migration forces as they actually exist are opposed to all the keyhole solutions that might actually alleviate the concerns of moderate critics of open borders. By siding with these “pro-migration forces” open borders advocates make it appear that their advocacy of keyhole solutions to deal with the problems of migration is a mere rhetorical fig leaf offered to critics of open borders. Here’s an excerpt from BK’s comment:

Those changes [making keyhole solutions politically feasible] would require a big political effort, since pro-migration political forces are mostly very opposed to keyhole solutions since they expect to benefit politically from bringing in immigrants that will vote for them. And so, to implement a Singapore-style solution the key step would be to push to create the legal apparatus and will to enforce that apparatus *before* adding tens of millions of recent low-skill migrants to the electorate.

On the other hand, live immigration proposals of recent years have called for amnesty of all existing illegal immigrants in the U.S. with tens of millions more to follow via family sponsorships, and reduced enforcement to enable more low-skill migration. This would drastically change the political landscape, to the disfavor of keyhole solutions. Recall that support for immigration is the area where recent migrants are most different from locals.

So generalized pro-immigration ideological pushes strengthen the opponents of keyhole solutions more than they support keyhole solutions. And in practice Bryan and folk at this site do seem to use keyhole solutions primarily as a rhetorical fig-leaf to deflect opposition and shut down conversations.

Although BK doesn’t offer any specific links, I think he’s [NOTE: I have strong reason to believe BK is male, even though it’s not obvious from the comment text, so I’ll use “he” to refer to BK] mostly on point regarding the “pro-migration” and even more broadly the “pro-immigrant” forces (even if we ignore pro-immigrant restrictionists for the moment). Frankly, I think that a lot of the pro-migration and pro-immigrant forces aren’t interested in anything approaching open borders, and may not even be supportive of expanded immigration. In fact, I suspect that a lot of what motivates immigrants’ rights activists is territorialism, an ideology that, unlike citizenism, is interested in the welfare and protection of rights of all people who are within the geographical area of the nation, regardless of their citizenship status and of whether they are authorized or unauthorized. Added: A lot of immigrant rights’ activists are also susceptible to local inequality aversion, another obstruction to keyhole solutions.

I will look at a few groups that are often (rightly or wrongly) labeled as pro-immigrant and study how their efforts might help or hurt the development of keyhole solutions.

American Civil Liberties Union

A classic example of territorialism is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU is at the forefront of defending the rights of immigrants, including “illegal” immigrants, via their Immigrants’ Rights Project. I’ve read through a number of pages on the ACLU website, and it seems to me that the ACLU takes no position on what immigration law itself should be. In fact, they concede that the US has collective property rights and can set more or less any immigration policy. The only thing they object to is inhumane deportations. From their Immigrants’ Rights Project page:

Our nation has unquestioned authority to control its borders and to regulate immigration. But we must exercise the awesome power to exclude or deport immigrants consistent with the rule of law, the fundamental norms of humanity and the requirements of the Constitution.

And they seem to take no position on the civil liberties and human rights of non-US people when they are not in US territory.

Now, you might say that this is just part of the “division of labor” that Nathan highlighted in this post. The ACLU is the American (US) Civil Liberties Union, which means that their scope is explicitly limited to what happens within the territory and jurisdiction of the United States. This means that, definitionally, qua organization, they cannot be concerned about the violation of rights of people outside the territory or jurisdiction of the United States, even if individuals at the ACLU feel strongly about these issues. Fair enough.

To my knowledge, the ACLU takes no position on whether immigrants (authorized or unauthorized) should be offered citizenship. Though their concept of civil rights includes the dubious right to vote, they do not list denial of this right to vote as an example of discrimination against non-citizen immigrants. This means that, at least per my understanding, the ACLU’s work is not opposed to keyhole solutions that would allow people to live and work in the US without acquiring citizenship or voting rights — a keyhole solution that would appease those worried about the political externalities of immigration.

As far as I can make out, nothing the ACLU is doing right now is opposed to most of the mainstream keyhole solutions that might further open borders advocacy. But open borders advocates should keep in mind that while the ACLU’s work is valuable in its own right, it is quite orthogonal to open borders advocacy.

It is also likely that the ACLU would oppose more radical keyhole solutions such as ending birthright citizenship. As far as I can make out, this is the only way the ACLU may be impeding the move toward open borders. Expect to see more blog posts from me and other Open Borders bloggers soon on whether ending birthright citizenship is an acceptable keyhole solution to the problems created by immigration. [For the record, I think that ending birthright citizenship is a bad idea, for reasons similar to those given by Alex Nowrasteh here, but it may still be an acceptable keyhole solution if it could be traded off for substantially freer migration — something that will be discussed in future blog posts.]

Jose Antonio Vargas, Define American and pro-DREAM Act forces

I already blogged my thoughts about Jose Antonio Vargas and Define American five months ago, so I’ll just quote myself:

Vargas spent a lot of his time talking about (illegal) immigrant rights, or about the plight of immigrants. But he spent very little time talking about immigration rights. Overall, his expressed moral philosophy seemed pretty territorialist — people don’t have a right to immigrate, but once they’ve done so, they acquire various rights and privileges, and become part of the moral sphere of natives. In Q&A, Vargas did say that he also supports expanded immigration rights for immigrants at all skill levels, but this wasn’t even mentioned (as far as I could make out) in his main talk. As the creator of the Open Borders website, I find the moral imbalance jarring. Of course, it’s possible that, as Bryan Caplan puts it, Vargas was simply engaging in understatement. But I wish he’d openly asked the question: Who’s worse off, somebody who forgoes the huge place premium of migration, or somebody who gets in, then has to put up with a low probability of deportation and harassment?

It seems to me that Vargas is deliberately underplaying his support for expanded immigration in order to make more headway in enabling the passage of DREAM Act-like legislation. Fair enough. It’s possible, and likely, that Vargas’ efforts complement, rather than compete with or detract from, open borders advocacy.

Still, I’m uneasy about Vargas’ efforts. A lot of the efforts of Define American and other DREAM Act activists are geared toward giving the people eligible under DREAM Act-like legislation full equal status to native Americans — full citizenship (and hence also voting rights and eligibility for welfare programs), in-state tuition and federal tuition assistance eligibility, and more of the complicated network of privileges that citizens are eligible for. It doesn’t seem to me like these people would be very open to keyhole solutions such as guest worker programs that might dramatically expand immigration but restrict the eligibility of these workers for welfare, citizenship, voting rights, tuition subsidies, etc.I’m suspicious that, like various “pro-immigrant” restrictionists, they are uncomfortable with the idea of a two-tiered system of citizens and second-class residents.

Thus, although my co-blogger Nathan Smith would probably disagree, I think open borders advocates should be wary of hitching their wagon too close to Define American and other DREAM Act activists.

The Immigration Policy Center

The Immigration Policy Center (IPC) (website here) is another example of one of the “pro-migration” groups that BK may have been referring to. The IPC does not have a tagline declaring its love for immigrants. In fact, its mission statement is carefully neutral-sounding:

The Immigration Policy Center (IPC) is the research and policy arm of the American Immigration Council. IPC’s mission is to shape a rational conversation on immigration and immigrant integration. Through its research and analysis, IPC provides policymakers, the media, and the general public with accurate information about the role of immigrants and immigration policy in U.S. society. IPC reports and materials are widely disseminated and relied upon by press and policy makers. IPC staff regularly serves as experts to leaders on Capitol Hill, opinion-makers and the media. IPC, formed in 2003 is a non-partisan organization that neither supports nor opposes any political party or candidate for office.

Still, going over the website, it’s hard to see them offer anything negative about immigrants, which means that IPC is de facto, if not de jure, pro-immigrant. If anything, their Restrictionists Watch page sounds harsher on restrictionists than the Open Borders website or blog. They also seem to oppose state-level laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.

So, what’s their take on keyhole solutions that might help radically open borders? Personally, I am very skeptical of the extent to which they would support such keyhole solutions. For one, considering that they are an immigration policy group, it’s amazing how many resources they devote to addressing claims of voter fraud made by restrictionists. This makes me suspicious. Admittedly, I am unimpressed with claims about “voter fraud” and “non-citizen voters” on restrictionist websites. But if the IPC were genuinely immigration-focused, they’d know which restrictionist claims to pay attention to, and which ones to ignore. Given how much effort they devote to the issue of voter fraud — something that has only tangential importance for immigrants and potential immigrants, most of whom aren’t citizens, and many of whom, even if citizens, aren’t interested in voting — I suspect that IPC would oppose keyhole solutions that might appease people concerned about political externalities and hence enable considerably more open borders.

Also, consider the following excerpt from their blog post about the second 2012 presidential debate in the United States (emphasis mine):

It’s hardly surprising that Governor Romney went after the President on his broken campaign promise, as many immigration advocates, and the Latino community more broadly have expressed dismay about the administration’s initial hesitance to push harder for reform.

It seems to me from this, and their various other writings, that they aren’t really interested in imagining a radically different immigration policy from the de facto status quo (i.e., the current pattern of legal and illegal immigration). They view immigration to the United States as a “Latino” issue (and this isn’t an isolated post — they have published more posts on the Latino vote). Under any regime of moderate and radical open borders, the proportion of the immigrant population that would be “Latino” would drop sharply, and the fact that they don’t seem to mention or address this suggests to me that their imagination is heavily limited by the status quo.

[UPDATE: Prompted by BK’s comments, I discovered this post on the Immigration Policy Center website where they reject and ridicule a guest worker programs-style keyhole solution proposed by the Krieble Foundation. As BK points out in the comments, IPC seems to be heavily influenced by territorialism and local inequality aversion, more so than I’d originally envisaged. This confirms and heightens my pessimism regarding the IPC.]

All in all, while I appreciate IPC’s cogent responses to CIS and other restrictionist groups, I’m highly skeptical of whether they would either support radically more open borders or support the idea of keyhole solutions as a compromise that might enable freer migration.

Ethnic advocacy groups

The final types of “pro-migration” groups I want to talk about are ethnic advocacy groups. I think we should call a spade a spade here and not pretend that these ethnic advocacy groups are “pro-migration” in any general or meaningful sense of the word, even if, at particular times and places, their goals and agendas are aligned with support for migration. I’m not saying there is anything wrong making strategic alliances with such groups in order to meet goals that are of importance to both sides, but it’s important not to pretend that their interest in seeing more immigration of their particular group stems from a principled commitment to free migration, or that they won’t turn against freer migration of other ethnic groups.

Overall conclusion

Open borders advocates, like all decent human beings, should definitely support immigrant rights groups in so far as these groups help protect the human rights of immigrants. However, they should not confuse immigrant rights activism with open borders advocacy. They should not expect immigrant rights groups to support radically more open borders. And they should be prepared to oppose immigrant rights groups when they take actions that could destroy the political feasibility of keyhole solutions that might enable considerably freer migration.

14 thoughts on “Are immigrant rights activists friends of open borders?”

  1. “interest in seeing more immigration of their particular group stems from a principled commitment to free migration, or that they won’t turn against freer migration of other ethnic groups.”

    It’s worth saying that Mexico’s GDP is in the top third of countries in the world, with some 5 billion people living in countries with GDP less than its $15,000.

    And several attempts to increase skilled immigration have failed after being held hostage on behalf of legalization for existing unauthorized migrants, family sponsorship, and other Latin American immigration focused policies.

    In contrast, China has a GDP a little over half that of Mexico and migrants and their descendants from there generate much more wealth, get more educated, have political beliefs more like economists, and commit less crime.

    Just shifting the existing quantity of migration slots towards skilled migration allocated by auction with adjustment for externalities would probably be a big humanitarian gain, in addition to creating more wealth and strengthening rather than risking rich country institutions.

    In other words, a Dubai-style citizenist attitude (for the US) of “how can we best exploit the world’s supply of migrant labor for the benefit of our native citizens” would be much better from a cosmopolitan standpoint than even a massive scale-up of existing Latin America biased immigration flows and policies.

    It seems to me that billing lucrative immigration fees (or tariffs, as this site tends to call them) auctioned residency permits as a revenue source for the government is a relatively targeted approach. The desire to increase migration fees (and punish those cheating the government out of those fees) would then tend to massively scale up immigration of those with positive externalities, while differentially leaving out those with negative externalities. Here the thought is that fiscal pressures would provide the feedback to make the new policy situation stable and credible. There is some good specific advocacy of this sort of thing on the site, which does clearly differentially support keyhole solutions, but it seems to be a small minority, and the majority of the content has elements that seem to actively undermine keyhole solutions.

    Open borders is primarily blocked by moral taboos getting in the way of efficient deals involving political or economic inequality, what Nathan Smith calls “local inequality aversion.” Much of the content here aims to provoke moral outrage at the idea of restricting migration, arguments that don’t distinguish between fees and other restrictions. To the extent this moralization succeeds it also threatens to make keyhole solutions non-credible. Spreading empirical knowledge of the possible lucrative migration deals like immigration tariffs among policy elites doesn’t have that same offsetting effect.

    1. BK, thanks for your comment.

      What would you say to an immigration policy that maintains the status quo (i.e., no increase or decrease) for the kinds of immigration you consider problematic, but dramatically increases the kind of immigration that you think might be great in humanitarian terms and for the US specifically? Would you support such a move?

      De facto, it seems to me that, in fact, if the US, let’s say, announced open borders with China, then large-scale relatively low-skilled migration from China could partly (though not completely) offset unauthorized border-crossing from Mexico, even if there are no changes in US policy — particularly since the lower income Chinese may be more willing to accept lower wages (though the income gap between China and Mexico is rapidly diminishing and may become zero quite soon). Would you see that as a plus?

      To be clear, I (and the other Open Borders) favor open borders in a far more general fashion. But I would not have any problem with “discriminatory” keyhole solutions that dramatically expand free migration in the short run, if that’s the best that’s politically feasible. I don’t speak for other bloggers on this site, of course.

  2. “What would you say to an immigration policy that maintains the status quo (i.e., no increase or decrease) for the kinds of immigration you consider problematic, but dramatically increases the kind of immigration that you think might be great in humanitarian terms and for the US specifically.”

    I’m not an American, by the way. I’m not very interested in the interests of current Americans as such, but with the global humanitarian impacts, especially the longer run ones growth and stability for civilization as a whole.

    “Would you support such a move?”

    I’d certainly vote for it in a referendum. A free migration agreement with China, or open entry to young able-bodied people who can score at least at the U.S. 70th percentile on a GRE-style test, or people who can pass exams corresponding to college-level science and mathematics college graduates, or those who can pay $250,000 (with the help of lenders who could deduct payments from the migrants wages using the Social Security system), and a variety of other such schemes all seem unambiguously good, to the best of my knowledge. An EU style common labor market for the US, EU, China, ASEAN, and other developed countries would be nice. To lessen transition shocks the annual net flow might be best capped at something like 10-30 million people per annum, 5-10% of the population per annum, but that would still more than double US population in a decade or so.

    However, in my current state of knowledge I fear open borders would be taking a big risk to world technological progress and the institutional quality to navigate global crises, which outweighs short-run gains to migrants. So I would not support an organization or campaign that would mostly increase the chance of open borders but only slightly help or hurt keyhole solutions.

    “open borders with China, then large-scale relatively low-skilled migration from China could partly (though not completely) offset unauthorized border-crossing from Mexico, even if there are no changes in US policy…Would you see that as a plus?”

    Well the increased Chinese immigration seems like a plus regardless of anything else, based off of the historical record of the Chinese diaspora. Perhaps you also are asking whether I think that increased Chinese migration could offset negative externalities of increased migration from countries whose migrants and their descendants perform worse? Yes, I do, but the degree to which this is true depends on the ratio of migrants. So long as there are two or three migrants from sources that have historically led to high-performing rich country folk for each migrant from a low-performing source, I would be unconcerned and favor scaling up to any level of immigration.

    Unfortunately, most potential migrants are not from high-performing sources, at least when migration is scaled up and non-selective, e.g. super-selected Indian migrants to the US, disproportionately pulled from unusually capable and advantaged Indians, do much better than less selected Indian migration streams. A single country encompassing the whole world would have much worse average population and electoral characteristics than rich countries do today.

    1. I’m not a US citizen or permanent resident either — though I currently reside in the US on a student visa. The reason my discussion focuses on the US is because of its importance as an immigrant destination.

  3. Also, if you’re unaware of it, I recommend looking at the Krieble Foundation:

    The Kriebles have been pushing a “Red Card” scheme to allow unlimited workers who would not be eligible for citizenship. They bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign to a significant extent and got his endorsement for the Red Card plan. There was backlash from anti-immigration forces (the Krieble story of a billionaire frustrated at having to pay high wages for staff to take care of her horses is not exactly an ideal pitch for populists), but it’s worth understanding to see the promise and challenges to such a keyhole scheme. At one point prediction markets were giving Gingrich a nontrivial chance of winning the Republican nomination, despite his buy-in to the scheme.

    1. On a quick reading, this seems to me like a pretty good workable keyhole solution — matching the general philosophy of the Open Borders site in terms of first steps (though I think the borders can be made a lot more open in the long run), as discussed on our guest worker programs page.

      Alex Nowrasteh, whose writings are published here as blog posts, wrote positively about this a while back here.

      On the other hand, the Immigraton Policy Center was negative on this — making a strange bedfellow with restrictionist groups. See here.

      I think that we’re in broad agreement about this.

      1. I think of the various keyhole solutions out there, this is actually probably the most liberal proposal I’ve seen yet. Other than maybe immigration tariffs, this is probably the most open borders-esque policy that could be feasibly implemented today.

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