All posts by Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

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our blog post introducing Joel
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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.

Related reading

My Favorite Three Arguments for Open Borders

There are a prodigious number of moral arguments for open borders. Openborders.info lists libertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and other types of cases for open borders, with a number of arguments within each category.  What are my favorite arguments for open borders?

Before answering this question, it is important to consider what constitutes a strong argument for open borders. First, it should be logical. Second, it should not be overly complicated, requiring layers of explanation. Finally, it should, in the words of Fabio Rojas, appeal to “basic moral intuition;” it should resonate emotionally. While each of the following arguments may not contain all of these elements, they have at least some of them.

In descending order of strength, here are the three best arguments, in my opinion:

1. Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives.

This argument is based on the unfairness that some people are born into poverty in countries that offer little opportunity for them to improve their situations (not to mention that in some of these countries human rights abuses and violent conflict are endemic), while in other countries people are born into relative wealth and have ample opportunities to improve their situations. (For example, the poorest 5% of Americans earn more than 60% of the world’s population. (p. 21) ) Hopefully currently disadvantaged countries will catch up with the advantaged ones, but in the meantime it is unjust to block citizens of disadvantaged countries, through immigration restrictions, from accessing the opportunities available to those born in advanced countries by moving to those advanced countries. Among other negative consequences, restrictions prevent would-be immigrants from benefiting from the place premium, which allows a person from a disadvantaged country to earn much more in an advanced country, even without an increase in the person’s skills. (See also here and here.) An open borders policy addresses the unfairness associated with place of birth, while immigration restrictions maintain it. (Openborders.info communicates the argument thusly: “open borders rectifies a glaring and morally problematic inequality of opportunity based on birthplace.”)

One measure of the argument’s potency is its use by many open borders advocates. Joseph Carens, who made the idea of open borders “intellectually respectable,” states that

In a world of relatively closed borders like ours, citizenship is an inherited status and a source of privilege. Being born a citizen of a rich country in North America or Europe is a lot like being born into the nobility in the Middle Ages. It greatly enhances one’s life prospects (even if there are lesser and greater nobles). And being born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is a lot like being born into the peasantry in the Middle Ages. It greatly limits one’s life chances (even if there are some rich peasants and a few gain access to the nobility)… Is there some story that they [people in rich countries] can tell to the human beings on the other side of this rich-poor divide as to why these existing arrangements are fair? Would they think the arrangements were just if they were in the position of the excluded? I don’t think so.

Using the terms “geographical roulette,” Stephan Faris, author of Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration, likewise notes that “our system of passport controls, immigration restrictions, and closed borders has created a world in which few factors shape a child’s life as much as one she can do nothing about: the flag under which she was born.”  Bryan Caplan of George Mason University states that “when most people are on earth are dealt such a bad hand, to try to stop them from bettering their condition seems a very cruel thing to do to someone.” And R. George Wright of Indiana University has written, in “Federal Immigration Law and the Case for Open Entry,” how those with the “undeserved good fortune to have been born in the United States resist… accommodation of the undeservedly less fortunate.”

I suggested that this argument is a powerful one in a previous post.  It is logical and simple. It also could appeal to the moral intuition of many, especially Americans, who oppose discrimination against others based on factors they cannot control. The American Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, forbids discriminating against someone based on their skin color or gender, traits that people are born with. As Mr. Caplan asks, “What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else? So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

2. If before you were born you didn’t know where you would be born (and who your parents would be) but could choose what the laws would be, you would choose laws allowing open borders because they could be key to your well-being.

This argument was developed by Mr. Carens. In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” he uses John Rawls’ question about “what principles people would choose to govern society if they had to choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ knowing nothing about their own personal situations,” such as their class, race, sex, or natural talents, to address immigration policy. (p. 255) Since people would be prevented “from knowing their place of birth or whether they were members of one particular society rather than another,” (p. 257) he concludes that they would choose an open borders regime: “In considering possible restrictions on freedom, one adopts the perspective of the one who would be most disadvantaged by the restrictions, in this case the perspective of the alien who wants to immigrate. In the original position, then, one would insist that the right to migrate be included in the system of basic liberties for the same reasons that one would insist that the right to religious freedom be included: it might prove essential to one’s plan of life… So, the basic agreement among those in the original position would be to permit no restrictions on migration (whether emigration or immigration).” (p. 258)  (The original position means when people operate behind the “veil of ignorance” about their personal situation when choosing society’s laws.)

This argument is very logical and probably appeals to the moral intuition (or at least the self-interest) of many people by helping them achieve a global perspective. I have not seen the argument used frequently, however, probably because its logic is somewhat intricate. It was used by John Tierney almost a decade ago in an op-ed calling for expanding immigration to the U.S. Despite its infrequent use, it is a potent case for open borders.

3. Immigrants, like everybody else, have a right to not to be harmfully coerced, and implementation of immigration restrictions constitutes harmful coercion. (Or, in the words of Mr. Caplan, leave people alone so they can go and make something out of their lives.)

This argument was formulated by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?”  he argues that unless special circumstances can be identified, physically barring immigrants from entering a country and expelling those already inside a country are violations of immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced. (p. 434) Mr. Huemer addresses a variety of justifications for this coercion against immigrants, including claims that immigration hurts native workers, that immigrants fiscally burden natives, that the government should prioritize the interests of disadvantaged natives, and that immigration threatens natives’ distinctive cultures. Mr. Huemer effectively shows that these justifications do not override immigrants’ right not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

This argument is logical and straightforward. It is not necessarily morally intuitive, since some people see  government as being in the business of harmful coercion through taxation, regulation, and law enforcement, in order to serve the greater good. The hypothetical of “Starving Marvin” contained in Mr. Huemer’s paper humanizes the argument, however. In the hypothetical, Marvin, a potential immigrant in danger of starvation, seeks food by going to a seller in the U.S. The U.S. government, embodied in a person named Sam, forcibly prevents Marvin from reaching the U.S. Marvin then returns home and dies of starvation.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Mr. Carens and Mr. Huemer include caveats to their arguments indicating that extremely harmful swamping under open borders could override them. (Swamping refers to an immense migration flow in a short period of time.) Unfortunately, dispelling concerns about swamping is not as straightforward as presenting one of the three strong prima facie arguments enumerated in this post, since no one knows with certainty what migration flows might look like under open borders or what the effects of swamping would be, should it occur. Vipul has written posts which dispel concerns about swamping and suggest factors that would limit migration initially after implementing open borders, such as the availability of jobs, wage levels, connections in host countries, and moving arrangements. Declining birth rates in some countries, including Mexico, could be another limiting factor, as could strong ties to one’s home country, as Kevin Johnson suggests. (Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws, p. 27)

One can also look at situations where borders are currently open for clues about migration flows under worldwide open borders. Philippe Legrain, in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, observes that Britain hasn’t been deluged with East Europeans despite the ability of citizens from relatively poor East European countries to come and work there. (p. 328) Mr. Johnson has written that despite the fact that the mainland U.S. has a per capita GDP twice that of Puerto Rico, most Puerto Ricans do not leave (p. 29), although many nations are much poorer relative to the U.S. and about a third of the people born in Puerto Rico have moved to the mainland U.S., which is a significant proportion.

On the other hand, co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his recently published paper “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” writes that “Gallup polls have found that hundreds of millions of people worldwide would like to emigrate permanently. But economic models of open borders tend to predict that billions would actually emigrate.” Nathan suggests that these predictions, while uncertain, “deserve at least to be preferred to whatever casual assumptions may be harbored by untrained minds concerning the question.”

Assuming that billions migrate, Nathan’s research suggests, as does that of others, that world GDP would nearly double and that the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide would rise. The impact on Western countries that receive the bulk of the migration would be mixed, but generally positive: “… unskilled workers would see their wages driven down by competition from immigrants. There would be an enormous boom in investment, and elevated returns on capital for decades, as the world adapted to an enormously expanded effective labor supply.”  Nathan’s predictions about the impact on the U.S. political landscape in a forthcoming post similarly suggest significant changes, but not ones that should cause an open borders policy to be overriden.  Keyhole solutions would also be available to ameliorate the impact on receiving countries.

Uncertainty is always associated with radical policy changes, whether they be the abolition of slavery or the enfranchisement of women. This uncertainty should not prevent doing the right thing, however. The three arguments in this post powerfully show that, in the context of immigration policy, implementing open borders is the right thing to do.

Related reading

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

The photograph featured at the top of this post is of West and East German border police confronting each other, moments after a woman successfully crossed the interior German border in Berlin, 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via the Google Cultural Institute.

Immigration Restrictions Enable Abuse

The writers at openborders.info frequently describe how immigration restrictions are immoral in the context of official policy.  Governments, in an effort to keep most people from immigrating to their countries, prevent would-be immigrants from entering their territories and detain and deport those who have managed to penetrate their borders; ending these official actions is our overarching goal.  The evils of restrictions are not limited to official government policies, however.  Immigration restrictions make immigrants and would-be immigrants vulnerable to mistreatment by individuals in myriad ways.

Before detailing this mistreatment, it is helpful to consider a similar dynamic in African-American history.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has described in the Atlantic how many whites in America have taken advantage of blacks in the context of government and societal discrimination.  He refers to “.. the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.”  For example, Mr. Coates relates how an African-American sharecropping family in Jim Crow Mississippi, whose landlord was supposed to split the profits from the cotton with them, would lose most of the money to him. The father in the family told his son not to resist this situation “‘because they’ll come and kill us all.’”  In another example described by Mr. Coates, African Americans from the 1930s through the 1960s “were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market,” to a large extent due to Federal Housing Administration policy, which made black neighborhoods usually “ineligible for FHA backing.” As a result, “blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.”

Borrowing terms from Mr. Coates, restrictions herd immigrants into the sights of the unscrupulous. To begin with, migrants crossing borders illegally, by attempting to evade government authorities, are put at risk of being robbed (or worse). A Mexican man who crossed illegally into the U.S. recalled that he was robbed two times that evening. Before he and the other immigrants in his group even crossed the border, they were ambushed by bandits who threaten them with ice picks. He was forced to strip and was robbed of $40. Then, approaching the border wall, another group of robbers approached with guns, but after the immigrants explained they had already been robbed, the second group left them alone. Soon after crawling under the wall into the U.S., they were approached by yet another group of robbers with ice picks. The man was forced to give up his tennis shoes and in return was given a pair of old, used shoes. (Cristine Gonzalez, “Journey to Wenatchee,” The Oregonian, 6/15/07) The New York Times reported that “illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border often encounter bandits, armed civilian patrols and rival smugglers bent on robbing or stopping them.” In February of 2007, men with rifles robbed 18 immigrants who had crossed into Arizona. A day later, a group of undocumented immigrants from Guatemala were traveling in a vehicle along a known smuggling route when gunmen fired on the vehicle, which then crashed. Three of the immigrants were killed, three were wounded, and several others were kidnapped. An official with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said, “’There have been similar cases where undocumented migrants have been taken to a location and relatives in Mexico contacted and extortion took place.’”

Immigrants from Central America who cross Mexico on their way to the U.S. border are exposed to danger even before they reach it. It is easy to cross into Mexico from Guatemala, but, as reported in National Geographic, “it is at the southern Mexican border where the perils begin—the thugs, the drug runners, the extortionists in official uniforms, the police and migration agents who pack undocumented migrants into detention facilities before forcing them onto buses to be deported.” The Central American migrants in a Mexican city near the Guatemalan border “… because they’re isolated, vulnerable, and likely to be carrying money—attract assailants whose toxic presence alarms everybody in town.” The article adds that migrants who ride freight trains north through Mexico are sometimes accosted at stops by locals who beat and rob them, “sometimes with police watching or joining in.”

When undocumented immigrants make it in the U.S., their desperation to have legal residency and their vulnerability to deportation make them targets of other types of theft.  Some attorneys have reportedly defrauded immigrants.  A director of an immigrant advocacy group stated, “Immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous attorneys, and they are often unwilling and unable to complain because they are likely to be deported if they do.”  People who are not attorneys similarly take advantage of the undocumented.  The New York Times reported several years ago that over a hundred undocumented immigrants in the New York area were cheated out of almost a million dollars by two men who had set up a church in Queens, New York. The immigrants were told that green cards were available through churches. They were also told to pay a fee in cash ranging from $6000 to $10,000. The immigrants drained their savings and/or borrowed money from others to cover the fees. After months had passed and the green cards did not appear, the immigrants began asking for refunds. After first threatening to report the immigrants to authorities, one of the schemers simply stopped answering calls and closed the church. “Many of the immigrants say they find themselves in deep financial holes at a time when work is scarce. Officials can offer only limited hope: Full restitution for victims is often difficult in cases of financial fraud, especially in immigration-related cases, which almost always involve cash transactions.” (See also here.)

Beyond enabling the fleecing of immigrants, restrictions also make immigrants vulnerable to sexual assault. The National Geographic article on Central Americans crossing Mexico refers to sexual assaults on migrants. In addition, a report by groups that monitor the U.S.-Mexico border states that “smugglers have been regularly accused of coercion, rape, and forced servitude…” (p. 13) The undocumented are also vulnerable to sexual assault when they work. According to an article on the Public Broadcasting Service site, a study of hundreds of low-wage employees working illegally in the U.S. “found that 64 percent of the janitors surveyed had been cheated out of pay or suffered some other labor violation. About one-third said they’d been forced to work against their will, and 17 percent of that group said they’d experienced some kind of physical threat, including sexual violence…” Immigrant agricultural workers are also abused, according to another article on the PBS website: “The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes.”

Immigration agents themselves have mistreated immigrants beyond their official duties of stopping illegal immigration.  This should not be surprising, given the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which volunteers assumed the roles of either guards or inmates.  Soon after the experiment began, the guards began to mistreat the prisoners.  The experiment was shut down early because of the suffering that was occurring. (“The Slippery Slope of Evil,” Mother Jones, July/August, 2015, p. 56)

Restrictions make immigration agents the “guards” and undocumented immigrants the “prisoners.”  Along the U.S.-Mexico border, each year there are hundreds of thousands of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants by armed immigration agents, so it is not shocking that, according to a 2008 report by groups that monitor the border, “in a very small but extremely important set of cases, Homeland Security officers (including Border Patrol officers) have used lethal force. The wider pattern of abuses includes pointing guns at immigrants, wrongful detention, excessive use of force, and verbal and psychological abuse.” (p. 15) In one case, an immigrant reported that on December 19, 2007, “I crossed the border and almost immediately an agent was upon me with his flashlight drawn like a weapon. I turned to run back to the Mexican side, he tackled me and pulled my feet and then there was another agent hitting me. Even though I had reached the Mexican side, the agent pulled me back and the other continued to hit me, and jumped on my back. My chest, hand and leg were hurt, and my body had cuts all over. The agent that was hitting me also pointed his gun at my head and was yelling at me. After I was taken to the border patrol station, an ambulance was called and I was taken to a hospital. After I was released and taken to the detention facility, I had to go back to the hospital two more times because of my injuries.” (Also see here, pp. 9-10)

Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway, notes that as part of writing the book (on the deadly crossing of Arizona’s desert undertaken by a group of undocumented immigrants in 2001) he spent hours in Border Patrol stations and trucks. He reveals some Border Patrol views of undocumented immigrants. “Illegal aliens, dying of thirst more often than not, are called ‘wets’ by agents… ‘Wets’ are also called ‘tonks,’ but the Border Patrol tries hard to keep that bon mot from civilians. It’s a nasty habit in the ranks. Only a fellow border cop could appreciate the humor of calling people a name based on the stark sound of flashlight breaking over a human head.” (p. 16) And this: “There are other games the Border Patrol guys like to play. Sometimes they toss a recently shot rattlesnake, dead but still writhing and rattling, into the cage with the captured wets. Ha ha—that’s a funny sight, watching them go apeshit in the back of the truck.” (p. 27)

In addition, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are literally prisoners in detention facilities in the U.S. each year.  Some are in state and county criminal jails, while others are in facilities run by immigration authorities or private contractors. Amnesty International reports “pervasive problems with conditions of detention, such as commingling of immigration detainees with individuals convicted of criminal offenses; inappropriate and excessive use of restraints; inadequate access to healthcare, including mental health services; and inadequate access to exercise.” (p. 7) The New York Times has described the immigrant detention system as “a sprawling network of ill-managed prisons rife with reports of abuse, injury and preventable death… a system that puts little children in prison scrubs, that regularly denies detainees basic needs, like contact with lawyers and loved ones, like soap and sanitary napkins. It is a system where people who are not dangerous criminals by any definition get injured, sick and die without timely medical care.” A recent report from The Center for Migration Services and The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that “attorneys and pastoral workers from Catholic agencies have learned first-hand of the sexual abuse of women detainees, women forced to deliver babies in restraints, frequent hunger strikes, suicides…” (p. 15)

The role of smugglers and employers in the exploitation of  undocumented immigrants is more ambiguous.  There have been cases where smugglers and employers have clearly mistreated undocumented immigrants.  I earlier noted reports of sexual assault on immigrants by employers and smugglers.  In addition, in at least one case smugglers of Chinese migrants had enforcers extort more resources from them during the voyage. (Peter Kwong, Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor, 1997, p. 80) When smuggled Chinese migrants arrived in America, they would sometimes be tortured to force the migrants’ relatives to pay off the smuggling fees and would even be forced to work without pay. Migrants from Syria and Eritrea often are smuggled across the Sudanese portion of the Sahara Desert on their way to the Libyan coast (and then on to Europe). An article in the Guardian states that “All must brave the desert – and not everyone makes it. At every stage, migrants are at the mercy of the smugglers in that particular area; kidnappings for ransom or for slave labour are common. There are stories of smugglers abandoning their clients in the dunes and of dozens dying of thirst.” Some of those who make it to Libya “are essentially kidnapped by smugglers or even local businessmen… whoever is doing it seems to be holding migrants in warehouses, or treating them as slave labour, until they pay what they owe.” In addition, “there are reports of beatings to extract more money from people while they wait” to begin the trip to Europe.

Employers can use immigration agents as a way of exploiting their immigrant workers. A report relates a situation in Louisiana in which
immigrants working to clean and repair an apartment complex damaged by Hurricane Katrina labored long hours, lived in moldy apartments in the complex, and were owed 15 weeks of unpaid wages. “The employer regularly threatened to call immigration authorities in response to workers’ demands for their pay.” A few days after an attorney sent a letter in 2008 to the employers on behalf of the workers demanding payment, ICE “agents arrived at the exact time and place that the immigrant workers were required to check in for the day, and arrested seven of the workers who had sought back pay.” At least two workers have been deported to Honduras. “As has been the case with many raids conducted by ICE, none of these workers had committed crimes, and the employer was not charged with anything or held liable for its abuse of the workers.” (“Raids on Workers: Destroying Our Rights,” Report of The National Commission on ICE Misconduct and Violations of 4th Amendment Rights, 2009, pp. 40-41) Another report stated that “in raids documented by NNIRR’s HURRICANE initiative in 2008, where employers cooperated fully with ICE’s enforcement operation, employers were subjecting workers to egregious labor rights violations. This included not paying minimum wage, non-payment of wages, including overtime work, threats of deportation, denying access to or not providing safety equipment and not meeting safety standards, sexual and verbal abuse and harassment by immediate supervisors.”

Notwithstanding these cases of abuse by smugglers and employers, on balance I agree with Vipul that “helping illegal immigrants by smuggling them or employing them, even when done for selfish reasons, is a good thing (if nobody were willing to smuggle people across the border, or employ them once they were on the other side, this wouldn’t be good for the immigrants).” (See here and here for Vipul’s elaboration of this perspective.)

The exploitation and abuse of undocumented immigrants described in this post is not a complete survey of all the suffering inflicted by immigration restrictions.  I did not explore the suffering and death from exposure to the environment in an attempt to evade immigration authorities, whether that involves crossing a desert or a long stretch of sea.  I did not relate the suffering caused by deportation and raids and the “normal” suffering associated with detention, such as separation from loved ones.  I did not address the lost opportunities for those prevented from migrating to a different country.  It should be kept in mind that the mistreatment discussed in the post accounts for only part of the suffering associated with restrictions.

It also needs reemphasizing that the ultimate responsibility for the mistreatment related in this post should be assigned to the people who create the laws that restrict immigration (and, in democracies, the citizenry that elects them). The immediate perpetrators of misdeeds against immigrants, whether they are border agents, robbers, swindlers, or prison guards, certainly bear responsibility for their actions, but they have been enabled by the policies that make immigrants vulnerable to their depredations. When immigration restrictions disappear (while keeping limited restrictions such as the exclusion of terrorists) and open borders are realized, the ability of people to abuse immigrants should dissipate.

Related reading

If you liked this post, you might also find the following relevant:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Borders Is the Best Way to Help Haiti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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