Some absurdities of immigration policy

One oft-overlooked point about immigration policy is just how absurd and arbitrary it is, in any country you can name. One of the best prima facie arguments against the policy status quo is that it literally does not make sense: it is internally inconsistent, opaque, impossible to make sense of. A couple stories I have rounded up from friends (the VDARE link is courtesy co-blogger Vipul):

Co-blogger Nathan has dug up data suggesting that my fellow Malaysians are the most restrictionist people in the world. The absurdity here is both in public policy and public sentiment: 10% of Malaysia’s population (3 out of about 30 million) are immigrants and depending on how you slice it, 40 to 95% of Malaysians are descended from immigrants. The norm for middle-class Malaysians is to send their children for overseas education, and to encourage them to stay on and work for a time — if not indefinitely. Most of my friends from grade school (I attended public schools in a middle-class suburb of Kuala Lumpur) are currently studying or working in a Western country. When I went home last month for vacation, immigrants were everywhere, in every service job I encountered. The only complaints I heard about immigrants from any actual people was that government policy isn’t generous enough to high-skilled immigrants (the absurdity being that it is easier to hire a restaurant waiter from India than a college graduate from Italy).

Telling an absurd immigration story is like shooting fish in a barrel. One hot off the presses: a US government programme (“Secure Communities”) aimed at deporting illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds is now “optional” in California because a review found that 28% of the deportation victims in California actually aren’t criminals. So much for President Obama’s supposed amnesties (in the first place, this supposedly generous president has deported immigrants at a faster rate than any other president in history).

Finally, here’s the picture which Buzzfeed ranked 26 on its 45 most powerful images of the year:

I can’t even begin to start with the absurdities here:

  • The man and his family are Rohingya from Myanmar; he is begging the Bangladeshi Coast Guard officer to not deport them back to Myanmar, where he and his family are presumably fleeing recent “anti-immigrant” sentiment against the Rohingya, who the Burmese accuse of being “illegals” from Bangladesh
  • This man and his family are being treated like common criminals — clearly, their behaviour here screams “I am a selfish sociopath who hates the law” — and are literally on their knees, begging for mercy from the law for daring to get on a boat and go somewhere
  • In theory, international law ought to protect refugees like the Rohingya — in practice, good luck with that
  • If this family were fleeing crushing poverty or a natural disaster instead of persecution, even in theory international law doesn’t give a damn
  • Let’s not even talk about Bangladeshi or Burmese law — and who can blame these countries, when even most “civilised”, developed countries don’t give two hoots about most refugees?

Literally millions of Pakistani immigrants have risked being shot to death by border guards to get into Iran. The moral case for open borders (a concept no less crazy than free trade, and much more intuitively appealing to human moral sensibilities) demands the governments of the world explain themselves. I’ve used this quote from US Senator Marco Rubio before, but to me it sums up the case for open borders so well, I can’t help using it again:

If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn’t give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn’t a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here.

I certainly understand the pragmatic (and, I agree, almost just as intuitive) case for immigration restrictions in theory. But those making the restrictionist case need to face up to the exacting human cost of any immigration restrictions they propose. And more than that, there is incredible certainty about the human suffering immigration restrictions impose, but incredible uncertainty about the benefits they yield. Who is to say what the exact benefit of shooting one Pakistani in the head is to Iranians?

At the company I work for, various business programmes need to be reviewed and recertified annually by leadership, in order to ensure they are still serving their originally-intended purpose and are still desirable projects. The heritage of immigration restrictions is rooted in prejudice, bigotry, and racism, and they have rarely been audited or reviewed since — except on a piecemeal basis, where the human harm has been explicitly discounted, and the supposed benefits not explicitly considered beyond the vaguest terms (for instance, it is often declared that the goal of immigration policy is to reduce immigration — but with little actual valuation of different restrictive policy options).

The absurdity of the immigration status quo is I think morally indefensible and intellectually very unsettling. I would, with little hesitation, pronounce the immigration policies of most of the world unsound and morally wrong. I recognise it is impractical to do much about them in the short term, and I don’t know if I would recommend “no borders” as a superior option to be implemented tomorrow (if this were even feasible). But I don’t need to have a recommendation to know that closed borders are illogical and just plain wrong.

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.


7 thoughts on “Some absurdities of immigration policy”

  1. “One of the best prima facie arguments against the policy status quo is that it literally does not make sense: it is internally inconsistent, opaque, impossible to make sense of.

    A Malaysian Princeton Fellow working in Brazil waits 7 months and endures contradictory instructions from the Brazilian government to obtain a 12-month long work visa
    The daughter of a British immigrant to the US is awaiting deportation because US immigration law does not provide for long-term residence of immigrants on temporary work permits, and her application for permanent residency was denied on a technicality”

    This proves too much. One can muster such anecdotes against collecting taxes, welfare payments, a standing army, large corporations, medical and life insurance. Large bureaucratic organizations and legislative projects produce oddities and noise as part of their operation. But the rule of law and general rules, as opposed to widespread subjective discretion, has been on the whole very helpful for modern civilization.

    1. “One can muster such anecdotes against collecting taxes, welfare payments, a standing army, large corporations, medical and life insurance.”

      I work in a large corporation so I can certainly muster anecdotes about the absurdities of large corporations. I think this argument excuses too much: it is one thing if government bureaucracy makes mistakes with respect to tax collection or welfare. A tax audit may be a mild form of torture, but for most it’s not the end of the world. The Alternative Minimum Tax in the US is absurd and a huge hassle to calculate as well as pay, but it’s not the end of the world. A government mistake that literally splits families apart or destroys livelihoods — that’s the end of the world for many people, sometimes even people who are citizens. Most large bureaucracies don’t literally hold your life in the palm of their hand.

      “But the rule of law and general rules, as opposed to widespread subjective discretion, has been on the whole very helpful for modern civilization.”

      The absurdity is precisely that the rules don’t make sense and therefore either require logical absurdities to take place or the exercise of discretion to prevent such absurdities. If citizens were subjected to similar bureaucratic obstacles just to be with their families or to hold down a job, they wouldn’t stand for it. The primary reason governments get away with this is because the victims of their ill-thought-out policies aren’t people capable of holding them accountable.

  2. A new absurdity I thought some might enjoy: otherwise law-abiding illegal Canadian immigrant serves as deputy under a sheriff enforcing anti-immigrant laws in Alabama –

    The sheriff’s conclusion now that his prized deputy is risking deportation? “I think the new immigration laws are so complicated, so hard to enforce, that it all needs to be redone,” he said. “This is a country of immigrants, there has to be some standard way that a person can come here, especially someone who is a productive citizen, and become a citizen and get a green card.”

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