Michele Wucker was making the case for open borders 7 years ago

I recently finished Michele Wucker’s Lockout, a 2006 book advocating a liberal US immigration policy. Superficially, it’s overly similar to Jason Riley’s Let Them In; both co-blogger Vipul and I find that mainstream pro-immigration US literature suffers from the pitfall of focusing too much on the US (well, this is a pitfall from an open borders standpoint), and being anchored too much to the status quo. However, compared to Riley, Wucker is much more solutions-focused — and from the solutions she proposes, I would actually suggest she was grappling with the early embryos of all those ideas which eventually led to the formation of this Open Borders blog.

Riley says he wrote his book to rebut mainstream anti-immigration arguments in the US, but Wucker goes one step further to propose a number of changes to US immigration policy. The first 10 chapters of Wucker are incredibly similar to Riley, but the 11th chapter is breath of fresh air. Some of Wucker’s proposals:

  1. Legal residency for current unauthorised immigrants in the US
  2. A guest worker programme or other visa system allowing more people to work legally in the US
  3. Stricter immigration enforcement against those working without permission from the authorities
  4. Penalties for employers of unauthorised immigrants
  5. Immigration processing fees (taxes?) levied on immigrants to support cultural integration programmes and jobs for natives
  6. Devolve substantial portions of immigration rule-making from Congress to government agencies, and have those agencies streamline the existing process further
  7. Establish a special cabinet-level Immigration department, to ensure a single person and agency are solely accountable for US immigration policy
  8. Consciously promote global development, both through conventional development policies and through liberal immigration policy, to reduce wage gaps between poor and rich countries, and thus reduce the impetus for immigration
  9. Reduce the quota for visas granted to adult siblings of US citizens

Most of these are what we at Open Borders: The Case call keyhole solutions — policies that mitigate the risks of migration. They might do this by ensuring that some of the gains from migration go to natives, such as through the immigration levies which Wucker proposes. Or they might do this by managing the inflow of immigrants using some transparent rules to ensure that a country’s institutions are not overwhelmed by sudden, unexpected influxes (which, at least on paper, is what a streamlined bureaucracy would be able to do).

At the same time, there are some things which open borders advocates would probably part ways with Wucker on. Wucker’s strong belief that employers should be punished for hiring unauthorised immigrants seems sincere, and not just a sop to the restrictionist crowd. I think she finds it incredibly unjust that employers can illegally discriminate against these immigrants because of their unauthorised status. She seems to hint that she would prefer the reverse of the current US system (presently the immigrant bears all of the risk in taking up employment, and the employer takes none) — which I suppose is more compatible with an open borders viewpoint. It sounds like she might not be opposed to programmatic, ongoing “amnesties” which some countries have done, allowing unauthorised immigrants to regularise their status even after entering/overstaying without following the standard immigration rules.

Wucker seems incredibly cognisant (at least relative to most participants in mainstream immigration debates) of the terrible suffering that closed borders inflict on immigrants and prospective immigrants. Because of this, I don’t doubt her sincerity in advocating a guest worker programme or something similar to ensure those who seek honest work in the US can come. Putting this in context, when she wrote, most mainstream pro-immigration activists in the US were rejecting any guest worker programme as a form of legalised slavery. Instead, Wucker explored some bold proposals for immigration reform that dovetail incredibly well with open borders and open borders-like keyhole solutions:

The solution to [the dilemmas of immigration policy] is not to dictate what immigrant workers should do but to tailor a menu of options that lets each worker’s individual circumstances guide his or her decision…we could require [high-skilled] immigrants who decide to stay in America longer than ten years to pay a premium; some of that money could be redirected to the immigrant’s homeland and/or to to job training for U.S. workers.

Similarly…lower-skilled immigrants could pay a fee if they decide to stay after their guest worker status ran out….Another possibility could be to ask guest workers or their employers to pay a deposit to be held in an escrow account; if the worker decided to stay in America, the money would be forfeited to a development bank for use in the home country.

Wucker explicitly says that immigration policy should form part of a development strategy that will close the income gap between rich and poor worlds:

Paradoxically, in the long run, the best way to slow desperate immigration is to let people come here, build their skills, and then take those skills back to their homelands. Also paradoxically, the best way for people to help their homelands is to adapt as fully as possible to American society, for this is the key to succeeding here. By encouraging people to study here and go back and forth freely, we can encourage brain circulation and the creation of industries that will provide jobs in migrant-sending countries and markets for U.S. goods.

This development focus I find incredibly unusual for a mainstream immigration policy book. Wucker wrote in 2006, before economists Lant Pritchett and Michael Clemens fully fleshed out the concept of the place premium, showing how closed borders artificially create wage gaps that result in some people earning 6 cents (adjusted for purchasing power) doing work in their home countries, for which the equivalent wage in the US would be 1 dollar. Clemens and Pritchett would go on to argue that such wage gaps, as high as 94%, have never existed between any jurisdictions that permit freedom of movement. Following from this, the labour market convergence of open borders would end the worst poverty in the world and double world GDP. It amazes me that Wucker would take this angle in 2006, before development economists had even gotten around to begin digging into quantifying how badly closed borders is holding back the world economy, and the economies of our poorest countries.

Finally, one last remarkable thing is how antsy Wucker is about conceding much ground to restrictionists. She makes the usual sops to restrictionism, such as stricter internal labour market enforcement, and reducing the number of visas for citizens’ siblings, and…that’s it. Unlike other mainstream liberalisation advocates, she doesn’t plump for a border fence, or neglect the all-important need to reform the US’s broken visa system. It’s quite clear she wants more immigrants, because morality and good economics demand this, and she’s not afraid to say it. She says she rejects open borders, but literally in the same breath insists her only concession to restrictionists will be reducing the visa quota for citizens’ siblings.

From an open borders standpoint, Wucker’s book is not particularly useful or illuminating. In a sense, because of the work of Clemens and Pritchett, Wucker’s Lockout is now substantially outdated. But it is for that reason that I find Wucker so interesting: she was advocating open borders-style keyhole solutions, using the same stylised arguments as open borders advocates, years ahead of us.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


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