Immigration enforcement — what’s morally acceptable? A question for fellow open borders advocates

My co-bloggers at this site, particularly Nathan and John, have expended quite a lot of words to the effect that deportation (or self-deportation) is a cruel solution to the problem of illegal/unauthorized immigration (see here, here, and here for some of John’s stuff, and here and here for examples from Nathan). Their arguments draw on the distinction between immigration legislation and morality and on the distinction between law and legislation, plus a lot of moving anecdotes. Nathan has gone so far as to suggest that breaking unjust immigration laws is not merely morally permissible but even morally laudatory — a form of satyagraha — see for instance here.

I’m sympathetic to these kinds of arguments (and I’ve been critical of the “they broke the law” type arguments myself). At the same time, I feel that harping too much on this kind of reasoning is dismissive of some very legitimate concerns, namely, how can you enforce any immigration policy — or any specific keyhole solution — without some enforcement teeth? Christopher Chang makes a related point in a comment:

You repeatedly frame this as a righteous crusade, with some implied urgency. This can be very dangerous. We’re in agreement that fighting poverty is a righteous crusade; I wouldn’t be trying to communicate with you if I thought you were actually enemy combatants. But I can easily come up with mathematical models more accurate than any that Caplan has ever proposed where opening borders *decreases* human welfare, potentially massively so. While there is a human cost to deportation, the reality is that the eventual human costs of not enforcing the law can be far, far greater, so even your “urgent advocacy” example is fallacious. [emphasis added]

In fact, in the way it cheaply exploits normal human biases to try to both undermine accurate accounting and depict more sober thinkers as evil, it’s essentially belligerent. You need to stop doing this, and do a far better job of adhering to the spirit of the “principle of charity” rather than just making a show of it. Otherwise, it will become correct to actually treat you as an enemy combatant, regardless of what your intent is.

Presumably, the reality that Christopher Chang is referring to is the fact that, in the absence of any enforcement teeth, whatever immigration policy or keyhole solution a government puts down on paper will have little effect on the ground. For instance, a policy of keeping out criminals is pointless if the criminals who migrate illegally have immunity from any enforcement actions. Similarly, a policy that imposes an immigration tariff has no real-world meaning if people can migrate illegally with immunity and are insulated from any recourse for failure to pay the tariff.

Open borders advocates are often dismissive of “enforcement first” individuals but I think that this is a very legitimate concern that open borders advocates have done a poor job of addressing publicly. It lies at the heart of the frustration of many restrictionists who are afraid that illegal immigration, moral sanctions against strict enforcement, and periodic amnesties make a joke of the stringent-on-paper immigration policies. To my knowledge (and I may be missing something here) neither Nathan nor John, nor most other open borders advocates, have publicly written about the kind of enforcement teeth they think would both be morally permissible in immigration law and be effective in making sure that the immigration policy is actually enforced. I’m sure they’ve thought about this issue at least a bit, but it would be good to have these thoughts in writing. So, here are some of my questions for fellow open borders advocates, and I’d love to hear answers.

  1. What are some morally permissible enforcement mechanisms for immigration policy and under what circumstances? Under what circumstances is deportation permissible? If there’s an immigration tariff to migrate legally, would a fine that is some multiple of the immigration tariff be acceptable to impose on people who migrate illegally? What type of multiple are we talking here? If the fine is not paid, what are the recourse options for the state? Is imprisonment an acceptable option? Deportation?
  2. At what level of openness of immigration policy would it be morally permissible to expend serious resources into beefing up enforcement? Clearly, my co-bloggers think that a lot of “enforcement” nowadays is misguided because the policy they are trying to enforce is immoral and harmful. But, getting the perfect policy isn’t possible. Would it be morally impermissible to expend resources on enforcement for an immigration policy that moves halfway toward the goal? Would it be morally desirable? Would my fellow open borders advocates get behind stricter enforcement for an immigration policy that is a radical improvement over the status quo but falls far short of open borders? How would they trade off the theoretical openness of borders against the strictness of enforcement?
  3. If non-deportation is a moral side-constraint, does that mean that immigration tariffs need to be price-adjusted for the difficulty of migrating illegally? For instance, if the US computed that the ideal immigration tariff for workers with no specific in-demand skills is $20,000, but a Mexican would choose to migrate legally only if the tariff were $10,000 or less (based on the coyote fees), does this impose a practical restriction on the US to offer a special discount to immigrants from Mexico, compared to immigrants from, say, China or Malaysia? Or would it be acceptable to expend resources on stricter border enforcement once some legal migration option is present?
  4. If you’re convinced that your preferred immigration solution will cause illegal immigration to drop to practically zero, thus rendering all the previous questions irrelevant, why do you think so? After all, there are strong social and legal sanctions against murder, yet there are over 10,000 intentional homicides in the United States every year. What makes you think that illegal immigration will drop to zero, or anything close to that, even under near-open borders?

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