My thoughts on Jose Antonio Vargas and Define American

Jose Antonio Vargas (life story) is an illegal immigrant from the Phillippines to the United States. Vargas is also a reputed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. In June 2011, Vargas outed himself as an illegal immigrant in the pages of the New York Times, and I learned about this when Bryan Caplan blogged about it. Vargas has also started a website called Define American, which “seeks to change the conversation on immigration reform.” Here’s his website and Wikipedia page.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Jose Antonio Vargas at the University of Chicago. UPDATE: Here is a news article about his talk and here is an interview with the author conducted during his visit for the talk.

Below are some of the thoughts I have about the talk and about Vargas’ views. [Caution: Since I didn’t take written notes or tape the talk, I might have misremembered some of Vargas’ statements]

  • 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 foregoes the huge place premium of migration, or somebody who gets in, then has to put up with a low probability of deportation and harassment?

    In fact, the various videos that Vargas showed seemed, to me at least ,decidedly un-sympathy-inducing. He showed the video below (or some variation of it) to indicate the plight of immigrants:

    But in a world where large numbers of people are poor partly because of immoral restrictions on their right to migrate, the plight of the people depicted in the video hardly seems the worst thing in the world.

  • To be fair to Vargas, he did concede that he was better off immigrating to the United States. In fact, he admitted that both his mother and his grandfather agreed to have him sent to the United States, despite the risks of being undocumented, because they felt that even with those risks, he would have a better life in the United States than being documented in the Phillippines. And it seems, judging from his success as a journalist and now as an immigrant rights activist, that their judgment was correct. What Vargas didn’t do, though, was go the next step and say that immigration rights are a bigger issue than immigrant rights.
  • Given the moderation of his positions, I was struck by the overall combativeness of Vargas’ tone. I also think he wasn’t charitable to restrictionist concerns. I think his portrayal of restrictionists was a caricature, albeit one with some elements of truth. Vargas began his talk by showing a letter from somebody who told him to leave the country and wished him ill, and used it as a window into restrictionist thinking. Later in his talk, he played a video of a drunk restrictionist in (I think) Alabama saying that illegal immigrants should get their papers in order or leave (I can’t locate the video online). Again, using the words of one drunk guy who was suddenly accosted by a journalist or photographer hardly seems to be a fair way of gauging the restrictionist position. This was particularly jarring considering that Vargas himself hardly seemed to be a clear-cut open borders advocate.

    Vargas was also quick to make accusations of racism rather than addressing the merits (or lack thereof) of retrctionist arguments. Second, he was quick to dismiss what he called restrictionist “research” into the alleged harmful effects of immigration. It’s possible that Vargas was suggesting that such research was merely an intellectual cover for racism. While such a claim is plausible, it cannot simply be asserted offhand. Even if restrictionist research is in many ways flawed (as I believe it is) that’s not sufficient to deduce that restrictionists are motivated by racism, particularly when there are other more plausible explanations. My own understanding of the different philosophical premises that motivate restrictionism are listed here.

  • In Q&A, in response to a question on birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, Vargas suggested that birthright citizenship not be awarded to anybody, but rather, everybody have to earn citizenship. I don’t know if Vargas meant it tongue-in-cheek, but the suggestion is interesting. At a minimum, I think it may be a good idea to require competency tests for voting rights that are comparable to the tests people need to take to acquire a driver’s license. In other words, you don’t need to demonstrate awesome skill, but enough competence that you don’t mess things up badly. Whatever the appropriate restrictions on voting rights should be, I don’t think that the right to live, work, and form relationships should be restricted without good reason, regardless of what country you hail from.
  • Vargas made a number of arguments of the “demography is destiny” flavor that seemed neither relevant nor very helpful to his case. He kept harping on how “whites” are a shrinking proportion of the US population and “minorities” are rising in proportion. This is misleading in a number of ways. First, it’s questionable whether white versus non-white is the main racial cleavage in the United States. Some have suggested that the main cleavage is black versus non-black, and that East Asians, Hispanics, and South Asians are likely to be treated as “white” over time. This already happened with the Irish, Italians, and East European Jews, and it’s been quietly happening for many East and South Asians. Perhaps even the black-non-black cleavage is not too central and will disappear over time.

    But more importantly, in so far as Vargas is right about the “whites versus non-whites” cleavage, this doesn’t make a case for more immigration, because the demographic decline in proportion of whites is itself largely a consequence of immigration, not merely of differential birth rates. If somebody is concerned about the decline in the proportion of the white population, this bolsters the case for immigration restrictionism. By constantly harping on the decline of white hegemony in so far as it exists, Vargas seems to be daring restrictionists. And it doesn’t seem strategic to issue dares to people who already have the upper hand.

9 thoughts on “My thoughts on Jose Antonio Vargas and Define American”

  1. I have to disagree with you on the competency tests for voting rights. While voting badly can really mess things up, who would decide what counts as evidence of incompetence? Given the emotional nature of political debates, and the tendency to ignore the principle of charity, I can easily see voting for or against certain issues becoming evidence of voting incompetence itself. In the US, look at the partisan reactions to both the Tea Party and the Occupiers, and imagine those partisans getting to decide who can vote or not.

    1. I agree that to establish the case for an actual implementation of voter’s licenses in an existing democracy such as the US, I’d need to address the objections that you raise. Perhaps I will do so in another forum. In this context, though, my purpose was simply to say that I don’t see anything wrong in principle with voter’s licenses, just as I don’t see anything wrong with competency tests for driver’s licenses. Note that existing competency tests for driver’s licenses don’t ask opinion-based questions about what gas taxes should be, whether one-way or two-way streets are safer, whether more money should be spent on freeways or mass transit, etc. In principle, it should be possible to adapt a high school civics test into a voter competency test, without introducing political bias. For instance, questions about the branches of government, presidential term lengths, the number of justices on the Supreme Court, the term lengths of senators and representatives, etc.

    2. I am not an anti-immigration fanatic. I understand the desire to come to my country and make a better life. I would just like people who are doing that to come and try to do it legally. I don’t have unreal expectations of immigrants.I believe Immigrants should follow a few simple rules.!. Follow the Law of my country2. Try your best to assimilate. Learn the language, customs etc. I am not saying forget your heritage but you belong to a different group, now: You are an American.3. Build our nation up don’t tear it down.These rules are important because just because you can get to America does not mean you deserve to stay. I want those who really want to better themselves, their families and our country. I don’t want Criminals, Terrorists, angry exiles, or any other non-desirables. Everyone in this county is descendant of immigrants.

  2. I think that anyone should be allowed to come here. Are the people who were born here more important or less reckless in nature than those born somewhere else? I think it might be good if there was an optional program which educated immigrants about American principles and ideals and how to function normally in this society. America is a nation that was founded by immigrants. Did people have to be processed as they were arriving in the 16 /1700 s? To assume that those who come here need to go through some kind of system to insure that that aren’t going to commit crimes is ludicrous. It would be better to just let them come here and then arrest them if they break the law. Preventative laws do more damage than good because they restrict the freedom of everyone rather than punishing only those who commit crimes. Remember, a person is innocent until proven guilty.

  3. They pledge allegiance to our flag was part of the presidents message. I am mentally challenged but wasn’t it him and his kind that made it illegal for our own children to pledge in school? This girly man lies so much and you can not even hear his lies. The king is naked can’t you see?
    On his behalf I imagine they could be meeting in secret to say the pledge of allegiance.

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