Conversation between Steve Teles and GiveWell

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation between GiveWell staff (Holden Karnofsky and Timothy Telleen-Lawton) and Steve Teles, Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University about policy advocacy. I have included only the excerpts that directly discuss immigration, although the immigration section of the discussion includes a lot of general discussion of the policy advocacy “map” as Teles calls it.

Steve Teles: Within a year or two there will be a bill passed, and that is likely to exhaust Congress’s desire to legislate on immigration for about a decade. So it’s not worth investing a lot of money on the legislative lobbying side, at least as it’s currently defined: along the lines of numbers, regularization of status, internal enforcement.

It will be a very complicated bill, with a lot of responsibility passed on to regulatory agencies. There will be lots of litigating as well, so getting the optimal outcome from the law requires acting at the regulatory rulemaking side through the agencies, the litigation stage, and the actual implementation of the law in practice.

The process will be very long, maybe indefinite. The Clean Air Amendments of the 1970s are still being fought over. So it’s worth investing on the litigation and rulemaking side more than the legislative side.

Related material we’ve covered at Open Borders includes part 2 and part 3 of Fabio Rojas’ series on how to move in the direction of open borders.

Later in the conversation:

GiveWell: On the immigration reform bill, how do we figure out how much capacity is already there and how much room there is for funding? How would we decide how to get involved?

Steve Teles: You should talk to Min Hsu Chen, a professor at CU Boulder, who knows a lot about immigration, law, and civil rights.

It’s useful in these cases to do an advocacy map: who’s out there working on this, what are they working on, how stable is their funding. Since many of these issues are incredibly technical you often need people who have been doing this for a long time. The reputation of the people is normally the most important thing, and is inherently non transparent, since everyone has an interest in distorting how influential they are. The goal is to fund someone who has influence, which requires gaining the trust of people who can tell you who really has influence and who doesn’t. This makes it important to go deeply into an issue over time. Being a long term funder puts you into a multi iteration game with people you deal with, decreasing the probability of getting burned.

Back to opportunities on immigration: the regulatory side is the most elite dimension, involving lawyers, regulators, politicians, law review articles, etc. Another side would be immigrant self organizing, something funders rarely do. Funding tends to do things for immigrants, rather than increase their capacity to organize themselves. They’re a population that’s tough to organize, being transient and weakly settled, and are a group that politicians are rarely afraid of. The most important thing in politics is fear, and if they had organizational capacity politicians might fear them.

Organizing immigrants might impact employers or the media, eventually affecting people’s perception of what the nature of the issue is. Depending on the status of immigrants this could include electoral organizing. Ben Sachs (Harvard) writes about a potential role for organized labor in helping immigrants: casual immigrant workers are at risk of not getting paid or having regulations broken, and modern style labor organizations can help with these issues. Immigrant rights probably has more of a “funding arbitrage” opportunity than immigration as such.

Immigrants can be organized via worksites or at churches. The immigration bureaucracy is a mess and especially difficult for individuals who aren’t organized.

Related material on our website includes an optimistic blog post on the role of organizing by David Bennion, a post by Nathan Smith about Jose Antonio Vargas, and a more pessimistic and cynical take from me.

GiveWell: We’ve heard the claim that there aren’t many people interested in letting people from the
developing world into the US – either in support of it for humanitarian reasons, to improve the US, or for libertarian anti-border reasons.

Steve Teles: Admittedly immigration is not one of the topics I know much about, comparatively speaking. On this question, it’s partly a function of funding. It’s also the way people think about it – many people think of the humanitarian issue on an individual level, not as a numbers issue, or they think of it as letting family members in rather than letting in people from impoverished countries more broadly. The “trade not aid” argument is the same idea as immigration, but immigration doesn’t get discussed in that context generally – maybe it could be.

The most disruptive thing to a political environment is a new issue dimension. It tends to motivate and mobilize a new set of people who realize they have a stake, and it changes what people think the issue is about. So injecting a new issue dimension into immigration may be valuable. This could be accomplished either with a new, special purpose organization or an existing one. A new organization would start out with no branding, which is good and bad: you have neither the cachet nor the baggage of an existing group.

Philanthropists do create new things all the time. The NRDC was basically created by the Ford Foundation. They look for an opportunity that doesn’t already exist, find good people and give them some seed capital. These people might be ones who already work in a space but aren’t achieving their potential or want a new job. Finding them probably requires being embedded in a space, so that people trust you and tell you things like this.

Related material on our site: my blog post double world GDP versus scope insensitivity.

GiveWell: What about other countries? We would potentially see value in bringing about more open borders in any developed country, but that seems like a difficult field to survey.

Steve Teles: There are comparative immigration policy experts. In fact, the system at the moment is better in the US than many other countries, which are using human capital weighted systems to figure out who to bring in. Funding people in European countries would be very difficult, since we don’t know the landscape. The US system is more permeable, whereas the systems of bargaining and deep bureaucracy in European countries make them difficult to influence from an outside perspective.

Some good people to talk to: Antje Ellermann, at the University of British Columbia, who has written about deportation and knows a lot about German policy specifically. She’s a humanitarian, less of a nationalist. Peter Skerry of Boston College knows the INS bureaucracy really well. He’s more of a restrictionist but would be an interesting person to talk to. He knows something about the European bureaucracy as well. Rebecca Hamlin at Grinnell is working on a book comparing the immigration policies of the US, Britain, and Australia, looking at immigration processing at a deep regulatory level, and knows the intersection of regulation and courts really well. Many of the people at that intersection are former students of Robert Kagan of Berkeley.

A blog post by Carl Shulman is related.

One thought on “Conversation between Steve Teles and GiveWell”

  1. Teles’s thoughts are interesting. I generally agree with what he says about organizing. There is an electoral dimension we’ve seen relating to the Latino electorate, much of which has undocumented family members, that is supposed to be causing the political fear that moves votes in Congress. But the fear hasn’t materialized for House Republicans, though it may for some in a decade or more.

    He talks about organizing immigrants, though, as if this can be done from the outside. It can’t. Straights didn’t “organize” gays in the gay rights movement, whites didn’t organize Southern blacks in the 1960s, men didn’t organize feminists, etc. Citizens can’t organize undocumented people effectively, for the reasons I set out in my post last week. Affected people must organize themselves. Undocumented immigrants are largely unorganized, partly because they are afraid and marginalized and partly because citizen-led groups are purporting to organize them, occupying that space and hindering more productive efforts.

    The few undocumented-led groups that exist are largely unfunded, as Teles predicts, because funders don’t know they exist, or the groups have alienated mainstream allies, or the funders have standard restrictions like only donating to citizens or 501(c)(3)s, which screen out most of the undocumented groups.

    If I understand what Teles means by a new issue dimension, I think SB1070 and the Dream Act were two that have impacted the debate in recent years.

    Teles may be overly optimistic in predicting a big bill within the next year or two. He’s correct that, if/when there is one, the bill will spawn massive activity in the regulatory/policy machine. The new law will be the primary focus of the institutions and mainstream organizations on both sides of the issue. What Teles may not anticipate is that the nascent undocumented rights movement could feed back into the policy sphere in ways that are hard to predict. Whatever bill passes will be malleable to an extent as the undocumented movement grows in power. How much the movement will grow depends on whether and when a bill passes and how many people are legalized. If 2 million are excluded and deported, the movement may subside as the majority of undocumented people begin to be integrated and view the exclusions as deserved. If 6 million are unable to legalize and targeted for deportation, as I think would be the case under the current Senate bill as written, or if no bill passes for another 3-5 years, the movement could grow rapidly.

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