Tag Archives: 2016 United States presidential candidates

Refugees and the 2016 US presidential candidates

Last month, I shared with the Open Borders Action Group an interesting Facebook post from Andy Craig, a Libertarian running for Congress in Wisconsin, pointing out the hypocrisy of many US presidential candidates promoting anti-immigrant policies:

Bobby Jindal, who wants to stop so-called anchor babies, was born four months after his parents arrived in the U.S. on temporary student visas.

Donald Trump, who has made actually deporting so-called anchor babies a centerpiece of his campaign, is the son of a woman from Scotland who was naturalized four years before he was born.

Bernie Sanders, who says allowing more immigrants is a Koch brothers plot to reduce wages, is the son of a Polish immigrant who arrived penniless in the United States to escape the Holocaust.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have one and two parents, respectively, who were naturalized after their sons were born. Rick Santorum’s father was naturalized before Rick was born, when his own father brought him here fleeing Mussolini.

A nation of immigrants: where anybody’s child can grow up to run for President and campaign on pulling up the ladder behind them.

(One thing Craig forgot to mention: Trump’s grandfather Friedrich was an unaccompanied child migrant, who was later deported from Germany.)

Now, the hypocrisy these candidates embody is one thing. But something else stood out to me too: none of these candidates’ ancestors were referred to as “refugees,” even though many of them certainly were. For some reason, it’s better to label someone as an “immigrant” rather than “refugee.” But look at these stories:

  • Bernie Sanders’s father fled the Holocaust
  • Ted Cruz’s family fled the Castro regime in Cuba
  • Marco Rubio’s family fled the same Castro regime
  • Rick Santorum’s grandfather fled Italian fascism

Someone who moves across international borders owing to a fear of violence or political persecution is by definition a refugee. By this count, a substantial number of candidates for the US presidency are descendants of refugees!

It sounds strange to put it that way, because we are not used to thinking of refugees in that way. The way we normally think of people labeled as “refugees” is more similar to the thinking I saw in another posting on Facebook:

Refugees can’t be helped, regretfully. You can’t teach them anything, you can’t provide them all with housing, you can’t give them all jobs. Refugees are to remain [a] burden forever, and even their children won’t be able to integrate.

Well of course if you redefine “refugees” as “immigrants” you’ll have a mysterious shortage of refugee success stories. “Immigrant” has a successful ring to it; “refugee” does not. Self-reinforcingly, we think of successful people as “immigrants,” and the less successful ones who didn’t fare so well as “refugees.” We forget that even titans of business like Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel, and George Soros, a self-made billionaire, are literally refugees.

(Of his early life, Grove has said: “By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution,’ the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint…  Some two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped to the West. I was one of them.” Soros’s biography on his website simply states: “Born in Budapest in 1930, he survived the Nazi occupation during World War II and fled communist-dominated Hungary in 1947 for England”.)

All that said, I don’t think the distinction between refugees and “economic migrants” are as important as they’re made out to be. Whether you’re fleeing persecution, escaping economic deprivation, or simply looking to live in a slightly better neighbourhood, I think the law ought to treat you exactly the same way when you show up at the border. All of these are perfectly valid reasons for someone to move.

To this end, I consider it morally suspect to insist economic migrants be deported but refugees be welcomed. Consider: millions of African Americans moved from the southern US to the north and west during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century. Some fled political persecution and racial discrimination. Others simply went looking for better jobs. But both were and are perfectly valid reasons to move.

(Sidenote: Republican presidential candidate and internationally-renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson was born in Detroit to parents who fled the Jim Crow laws of Tennessee, participating in the Great Migration. If you’d like to count “internally-displaced people” as well, you can add another one to that list of presidential candidates descended from refugees.)

At the same time, I think it’s important, as long as the word “refugee” remains part of the English lexicon, to remember that “refugee” does not connote someone who is “to remain [a] burden forever”. People sometimes presume that refugees are tremendously harder to integrate into society or the economy because of their background. This may be true, but it’s simultaneously clear that whatever problems refugees may face, they don’t stand in the way of a refugee like George Soros becoming one of the 30 richest men in the world, or in the way of refugees’ descendants becoming the face of popular national campaigns against immigration.

Refugees, like any other kind of immigrant, are people. It is not a valid use of government authority to ban people from travelling somewhere simply because of where they were born. If government can prove that certain kinds of travel would have terrible consequences, of course government can prevent that sort of movement. Take infectious diseases for example: travel restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of dangerous diseases have to be blind to nationality if they are to operate effectively. Border officers don’t need to know or care about someone’s nationality to effectively prevent the spread of Ebola because any person, foreign or not, can carry Ebola.

Now while we’re talking about the effects of refugee movements: the Great Migration of people fleeing political oppression and economic deprivation in the American South was incredibly disruptive. In many cities, from New York to Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle to San Francisco, over the span of a few decades, the black population grew 10 to 20 times over. Boston went from being 2% black in 1910 to 22% black in 1980. Adjusting to these inflows was not easy for the affected communities outside of the South. But these adjustment costs were neither disastrous, nor valid reasons to obstruct the legitimate aspirations of the Americans who moved in search of a better life.

That’s why I support open borders for all people — be they refugees fleeing oppression, economic migrants fleeing poverty, or even just middle-class professionals who dream of living in a different city. No country should allow its public institutions — like its border controls — to become the private property of xenophobic bigots. Yet, the modern refugee system has become a figleaf for border policies of bigotry. What basic morality asks of us and our laws is clear: justice demands that all people with legitimate aspirations be free to move across political borders, be they domestic or international.

The photograph in the header of this post is of African American migrant workers from Florida bound for New Jersey in 1940. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Rand Paul on immigration

On May 16, 2015, I had the opportunity to interview presidential candidate Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky. Another reporter and I had about 12 minutes to ask him questions before he gave a speech in Central Park in Fairfield, Iowa.


The short version of our exchange is this: I asked Paul how, since coercion is normally wrong, immigration restrictions are justified. He responded by saying they were necessary to keep the welfare state from exploding in size. I asked him why the government could not exempt immigrants from welfare if that was the case. He seemed open to the idea of unlimited immigration provided the immigrants came to work and not go on welfare, and suggested cutting welfare and opening the borders in the same stroke is not so easy.


What you see below is a partial transcript of our interview. I have included just the portion that relates to immigration. The full transcript can be found on my blog here.


Andy Hallman: [Let me] move on to another issue, but it’s along that same line about your general philosophy of government, and that is immigration restrictions. Immigration is in the news a lot. Immigration restrictions seem like an act of coercion, an act of aggression, preventing someone from moving where they want to, taking a job where they want to. So it seems like, on the surface, that is wrong. Why do you think immigration restrictions are justified?


Rand Paul: Milton Friedman also had something good to say on this. He said basically you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. So the problem is … we’ve agreed to have some coercion and compulsion in our government. In our system, it’s much greater than I would have, so half of my income is taken from me and given to government. If we say we’re going to have an open border in that system, then it would be 75 percent or maybe 100 percent of my income that goes to other people through a form of compulsion. There was a PEW study that added up data from a lot of different countries, and asked them, if you could, would you go to the United States? 600 million would come. We’re a country of 300 million, it would be a bit disruptive to have 600 million people show up, so it has to be an orderly process, and there is now a great religious sort of struggle and war going on [and people] who for many different reasons, don’t like Americans and would come and kill us, so you have to know they’re coming across the border to try to stop them.


Hallman: Although, screening those out wouldn’t justify the kind of quotas that the government has instituted. To talk about what you just said about welfare, it’s true that welfare is an act of coercion, but I would think immigration controls may be a more grievous kind of coercion. You’re preventing someone from improving their life, perhaps by an order of magnitude in their earnings, if we talk about someone in Haiti or India.


Paul: If it were only border controls that had to do with people coming to work, I’m for as many people coming to work who want to. I’m for an expansive work visa program where we don’t mind people coming to work. The problem is, as Milton Friedman described it, is that we have an enormous welfare apparatus. Not everybody comes to work. Some people come to receive. If 60 million people come here [perhaps he meant 600 million, the figure he stated earlier], it would overwhelm us.


Hallman: It sounds like the solution and the just thing to do is to eliminate the welfare state and to eliminate the quota system. Would you be in favor of that, those two measures side-by-side?


Paul: We rarely get decisions like that. We get decisions on, “Do you want to improve the immigration system?” I think the immigration system is broken for a lot of reasons. We have 11 million people here who came in here and explicitly broke our laws to get here. So we do have to figure out something to do or 11 million more will come, so that means the immigration system writ large needs to be reformed and fixed.


Public domain (US government work). Source http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rand_Paul,_official_portrait,_112th_Congress_alternate.jpg
Public domain (US government work). Source http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rand_Paul,_official_portrait,_112th_Congress_alternate.jpg



One thing we learn from the interview is that Milton Friedman is a major influence on Paul’s views. I am heartened to hear that. It is important to keep in mind that Friedman was against the welfare state, not immigration. In fact, he was fully supportive of immigration as long as it was illegal:

Milton Friedman: Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.


Friedman’s views aside, those who make the welfare objection to free legal immigration must answer two questions: 1) Given there is some tension between the size of the welfare state and free immigration, which is worse? Welfare or immigration restrictions? and 2) Is there some way to mitigate the effects of immigration on the welfare state that do not involve outright prohibition of immigration?


To question #1, it does not at all seem obvious to me that the tension between welfare and immigration implies immigration restrictions any more than it implies living with both open borders and a larger welfare state. As I point out to Paul, welfare is coercive just as immigration restrictions are coercive, so we must weigh the wrongness of each act of coercion.


When we compare the scope of coercion from the two acts, the contest is not close. The welfare state prevents some people from buying things they could have bought if not for the taxes they had to pay, and that is wrong. Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier make a persuasive argument the welfare state even hurts recipients by amplifying the negative effects of their self-control problems.


But there are many things the welfare state does not do. It does not dictate where people can and can’t live, where they can work and for how long, and it does not tell people whom they can marry. Immigration restrictions do all of that.


While the welfare state’s track record on helping the poor is a matter of debate, there can be little doubt that immigration restrictions condemn millions of people to a life of poverty. To take one of the most extreme examples, the average Haitian experiences a seven-fold increase in wages upon immigrating to the United States. By denying Haitians and others the right to immigrate, we aren’t just refusing to help them out of the poverty trap, we’re kicking away the ladder. My contention that some immigrants could see their earnings rise by “an order of magnitude” is an exaggeration for the average immigrant now under mostly closed borders but is not much of an exaggeration for the most destitute immigrants from the Third World.


I do not know where Paul got the idea his taxes would rise to 75 or 100 percent under open borders, but that is an unlikely scenario given what we know about the public’s willingness to fund welfare programs. If 600 million people immigrated to the United States, we would more likely see a drastic reduction of benefits than we would see a drastic increase in taxes because taxpayers do not like paying for people who are not like them.


I was glad to hear Paul say he was in favor of unlimited immigration for people who want to work. Since he is clearly worried about the size of the welfare state, I was disappointed he had not thought of keyhole solutions to allow free migration while cutting immigrants off welfare. We know this is politically feasible because the federal government has already done it. It did it two decades ago with the welfare reform act of 1996, which prevented legal immigrants from accessing many government benefits.


The welfare objection to immigration is the easiest for open borders enthusiasts to accommodate since we know it can be done, so while I was disappointed in Paul’s treatment of the issue, I sensed that he could be converted to the open borders position with a little persuasion and perhaps a keyhole solution or two.

Related reading

The links below were added by the Open Borders: The Case editorial staff and not picked by the author.

Other related links on Rand Paul’s views on immigration policy: