Tag Archives: amnesty

Partisan politics is holding immigrants’ lives and liberty hostage

In the midst of the ongoing US government shutdown that took effect earlier today, people have been accusing politicians on one side or another of holding the nation and its people hostage to partisan politics. The shutdown will have tragic effects for many lives, no doubt — wage earners are forced to stay home from work, needy people are forced to go without the benefits their government promised to them. But let’s not forget the entire class of innocent people whose lives and freedom have been held hostage to partisan politics for years, if not decades: the innocents, citizens or not, who have fallen prey to the US government’s War on Immigrants.

Some months ago, the National Journal ran an article on the current US immigration debate titled What Undocumented Workers Really Want, with the subtitle: It’s not always citizenship. They just want to do their jobs, cash their paychecks, and be left alone. The article mostly focuses on the lives of restaurant owners and their immigrant employees. It illustrates that the political concerns driving the current US immigration debate are extremely remote from the lives of the people who immigration reform is supposed to help. And one takeaway from this is that Republicans may well be right when they accuse Democrats of cynically caring more about the votes of immigrants than the lives of those immigrants.

The article makes a number of observations about the lives of the unauthorised immigrants in US society:

  • They save substantial amounts of money (sometimes in the thousands of dollars) to pay for smuggling them into the US
  • They lose contact with their family, because they cannot leave the US: one woman in the story had to send condolences for the death of her father by mail
  • They fear any contact with the law, because a simple traffic stop could put them away for life
  • They can easily find employment despite their lack of legal documentation, but always live in fear of losing their job should their legal status be discovered
  • Many employers love their unauthorised workers — not because their labour is cheap, but because they value their employees (to the point that one employer in the story told their unauthorised worker upfront who disclosed her unauthorised status to them that they would worry about it only if the government actually went after them)

The article is obviously only one side of the story. But I think this side of the story is one that the larger empirics back up: immigrants in the US, both authorised and unauthorised, have fantastic labour force participation rates. They have lower rates of detention or incarceration. Most immigrants, whether they are legal or not, are ordinary and innocent people.

The law at the present forces these people to live like criminals. They are on the run from the law for a “crime” that, if it can be called a crime at all, occurred years ago in most cases. There is an easy way to fix this: grant legal residency to these people. Lift the sword of Damocles that threatens to deport and separate them from their homes, families, and careers.

Yet as the article observes, this is not what the current debate about US immigration reform turns on. Rather, the Democratic politicians pushing for “reform” want to make these immigrants into full-fledged citizens — whether today, or some point in the future. Democrats are especially fearful that some immigrants never be able to naturalise.

The article hints that Democrats are motivated by the prospect of these immigrants’ votes. Certainly, Republicans are motivated by the prospect of stopping the addition of these new voters. But what excuse does either party have to hold these people’s liberty and the interests of society hostage to their own partisan interests?

On any other issue, we would be appalled if a political party blatantly blocked or supported an initiative, not because they thought it was a good or bad idea, but because they were afraid of its implications for their partisan strength. The ongoing debate about voter identification rules in the US is surely driven in large part by partisan motivations. Yet you will barely find any Democrats protesting stricter voter ID laws because “It prevents Democrats from voting”. Neither will you find Republicans supporting stricter laws for the same reason. Both cite policy reasons for their position, not partisan politics. But politicians and ordinary people think nothing of baldly citing “It will add more Democratic voters to the rolls” as reason enough to support or oppose the regularisation of the 11 million+ unauthorised immigrants in the US.

It’s galling enough that Republicans are blocking immigration policy reforms on the basis that this is harmful to them. But one oft-overlooked point is that Democrats are similarly likely to overlook potential compromises on the basis that this doesn’t generously enough grant citizenship to unauthorised immigrants. In other words, when given the choice between ending the War on Immigrants (but with less-than-ideal citizenship provisions) or continuing it, Democratic politicians have often chosen to stick with the status quo.

The article obliquely agrees with the Democratic spiel that not granting immigrants citizenship makes them a vulnerable subclass of the community. But how would they be any less vulnerable than they are now? The government’s War on Immigrants makes these people vulnerable to deportation at any time that would take them from their jobs, families, and homes. Even if they do not face deportation, they cannot progress in their career because they can lose their job at any time. The government literally has the power to stop all this with the stroke of a pen, and make this entire class of people much less vulnerable to the oppression of harsh employers or overbearing bureaucrats — all this without the politically explosive granting of citizenship.

Why should we hold protection for these people hostage to the partisan interests of any party, Democratic or Republican? For the Democrats, is holding out for citizenship for these immigrants worth allowing the government to continue spending its scarce resources on terrorising them and their communities? Is it truly humane to support continuing government-sponsored terrorism of innocent families and employers simply for the sake of shutting down any chance of a guest-worker programme?

In fairness to the Democrats, they have not been the primary roadblocks in the current US immigration policy debate. The Republican members of the US House of Representatives may be the ones standing in the way of further movement on amnesty for the 11 million unauthorised immigrants like those in the article. But there are still plenty — by one count, 84 — who believe in ending or at least tamping down the War on Immigrants. It should be incumbent on the Democrats in the House to do all they can to work with these Republicans to find an acceptable compromise and move forward. If we can somehow obtain Republican support by tightening provisions in the law for citizenship in return for ending the War on Immigrants, we should seriously consider this option. We can’t just take it off the table.

Immigrants are no different from anyone else. They want to live in peace with their families and earn honest wages. It makes a mockery of the Republicans’ and Democrats’ supposed commitments to the family and to the hard worker when they prefer to keep the War on Immigrants going instead of offering these people a path to legal residency. It’s one thing to play political games about infrastructure projects. It’s a completely different thing to play political games about bringing the entire armed force of the state to bear on people who just want to earn an honest living and live with their families. Keeping the war on these people going, whether for the sake of a broader naturalisation policy or purely playing a partisan game, is absolutely unacceptable.

Uphold the rule of law, and let your illegal immigrants stay

A common restrictionist trope is that allowing people who have settled unlawfully to regularise their legal status would be an intolerable departure from legal tradition and the rule of law. But in his recent book Immigrants and the Right to Stay, philosopher Joseph Carens demonstrates that the opposite is true: our legal and moral traditions demand a rules-based system for regularising the unauthorised. Justice and the rule of law are perverted when they deny people due process and instead offer them justice so delayed that to call it anything but denied would make the term “delay” a mockery.

Carens’s basic contention: anyone who has lived in a community for a certain period of time can be reasonably considered a member of that community and should be afforded similar rights as other members of that community. This sounds rather abstract, so let me put this to you: someone is a pillar of your community. Attends your religious services, well, religiously. Always ready to lend a helping hand when a neighbour could use it. Always the first to chip in a donation for someone in need. Never in trouble with the law. One day, the authorities raid his home and evict him, on the grounds that a long, long time ago, he didn’t fill out the right form allowing him to join this community. Not that he murdered someone; not that he trafficked drugs; he filled out the wrong forms, and that makes him “illegal”.

Carens’s contention, which makes eminent sense, is that your status as part of a community of people does not flow from a piece of paper. It flows from your contributions to and standing with your peers. We do not gain our humanity, our family, our friends, our neighbours from the law. We learn about and make our families, friends, and neighbours long before the law ever got or gets involved. In his book, Carens notes that the British immigration authorities once tried to deport an 80-year-old woman who had lived in the United Kingdom her entire adult life, and only public outrage stopped them. If living somewhere for 60 years makes you a member of the community, Carens notes, then might not a shorter time period still grant you similar standing? He ultimately proposes a waiting period of 5 to 7 years. Irrespective of what the right period should be, the principle is clear: living somewhere in peace with your fellow man eventually makes you a part of that community. The law cannot tear that community apart without tearing up basic morality.

Carens notes that tradition is on his side: that even countries like the US, where today any amnesty is seen as taboo by many, have a long history of allowing people who have lived there for a certain period of time to regularise. Even today, many countries have ongoing rules-based regularisation regimes: simply identify yourself to the authorities, present proof you’ve lived peacefully in the community long enough, and the sword of Damocles over your head is lifted.

Basic legal principles are on Carens’s side too: typically, the statute of limitations on most crimes isn’t more than a few decades, and for many crimes it’s under a decade. (The statute of limitations refers to the period of time after a crime after which the state can no longer prosecute you for it.) In most jurisdictions, only the worst crimes, such as murder, don’t have a statute of limitations. As I’ve written before, the US legal system treats crossing an imaginary line (which harms nobody) as a crime worse than exploiting children for sex. US law essentially sends the message that crossing a border illegally is worse than filming child pornography or committing murder!

And regardless of what harm may inherently occur from crossing an invisible and arbitrary line, I certainly don’t think you can reasonably compare it to filming child pornography or murder. The primary “harm” of non-violent border crossing is economic competition between foreigners and natives. But how is Josef “stealing” a job from Joe supposed to be harming Joe, while John taking a job Joe could have taken isn’t any harm at all? Why do we criminalise Josef from earning an honest living because it might “harm” someone, while we allow Johns to steal jobs from Joes every day? Competing on a level playing field is not an infringement of anyone’s legal rights, unless you believe some people are less human than others.

And yet dehumanisation of the foreign-born is yet another message which the legal system sends: we give inanimate objects more rights than people. The robot that “steals” your society’s jobs has an easier time getting into the country than a foreign-born person who might be able to do that robot’s job for even cheaper. And what does that robot contribute to your society? Maybe it creates jobs for robotics maintenance crews, but that’s about it. The human being is a living, organic part of our community — he or she creates jobs for and immeasurably enriches the lives of landlords, restauranteurs, hairdressers, community organisers. Despite this, most countries’ laws look more kindly on importing inanimate objects that “destroy” jobs than they do on allowing free people to come in and “create” service jobs. And we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that this legal system makes moral sense: I once asked a free trade advocate why he opposes liberalisation of immigration laws. He proudly told me that it was because he believes, I quote, “people are not commodities.”

Sure, you can pretend your legal system humanely does allow immigrants to come. But most people consider waiting a year for any government document a rather intolerable delay. For many immigrants — on occasion, even the spouses and children of citizens — a year’s wait is far better than anything they got. Some immigrants to the US are getting their visas today after waiting in the “queue” for over two decades. Many of the “queues” for US visas are backlogged by decades — 80 years in some cases. And the US has one of the better immigration systems out there! Is it even right to speak of a queue for immigration to the UK, when the government’s avowed goal is to cut net immigration essentially to 0 — and it has every intention of accomplishing this by hook or by crook, regardless of how many families and communities and jobs it must destroy? If the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” was not coined to describe the world’s immigration laws, it seems remarkably apt.

The world’s numerous legal systems have tried to ban many things in the past. They have experimented with banning various sexual acts among consenting adults, banning alcohol production/distribution, banning interracial families. They have tried and they have failed. What we find is that pretending to enforce the unenforceable only engenders disrespect for the law. It makes a mockery of the rule of law when we concoct laws that cannot be enforced. Now, these are not laws that many people were willing to risk their lives to violate — yet these laws could not stand. Meanwhile, every single day, innocent people around the world risk death in deserts or on the high seas to get into countries that offer them no legal way to enter. What hope have we of ever enforcing a law that bans innocent, hardworking people from supporting themselves and taking care of their families?

Moralists and conservatives often worry about what message the law is sending. I have to agree: what message does the law send when it deports a mother for caring for her children? When it denies the husband a visa to live with his wife? When it tells the hardworking wage-earner, “Sorry — the queue is 50 years long, don’t even dare send an employer your CV”? We are making a mockery of fundamental morality when we criminalise the family and we criminalise honest wages. As Carens says, the law is violating social reality.

Yes, the message is supposed to be: when crossing made-up lines on the map, identify yourself to the proper authorities. Somehow this is a crime worse than exploiting children for sex, and at least as bad as murder. If that is the message the law wants to send, ok. But if our message really is that innocent people identify themselves properly, why not allow them to do so? If this really is your concern, what do you have against allowing people to identify themselves after they have entered — or simply allowing people to enter and identify themselves at regular ports of entry, instead of making them wait in a queue that’s so long, it shouldn’t be called a queue at all?

There are a lot of things we could do to move to a more just legal system, one offering all people the due process they deserve. But Carens’s moral and philosophical case for ongoing regularisations intrigues me, precisely because it so neatly reconciles many of the moral absurdities of arbitrary immigration restrictions with the rule of law. Offering people a transparent legal process to acknowledge their standing as contributors to our society and community resonates with the principles of justice. The punishment fits the crime, if you can call crossing a made-up line a crime at all.

We wouldn’t send people to jail 40 years after the fact for a speeding ticket. So why would we wreck families and communities years or decades after the fact? When we are presented with such absurdities, as shown in the case of the grandmother facing deportation from Britain, we recoil because we recognise that the law is destroying the community and imposing a punishment all out of proportion to the offense. A legal mechanism for regularising “illegals” should be essential for any civilised society. If we can’t have truly open borders, we should at least have an immigration regime that doesn’t make a mockery of the rule of law. Only barbarians believe the law should send the message that the just reward for doing our job or taking care of our family is deportation and exile from the place we call home.

Path to Citizenship vs. Legalization: Let the Immigrants Choose

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) is working toward a compromise on legalization and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.  This issue is the current bottleneck in the immigration reform debate.  Many Republican, Goodlatte included, are skeptical of a path to citizenship for current unauthorized immigrants.  Many Democrats, however, will not support immigration reform unless some unauthorized immigrants are allowed to become citizens eventually.  Could this impasse make immigration reform impossible this year?

Goodlatte’s proposal, as far as we know, would be to grant unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status.  They would then be legally allowed to work and live here but only eligible for a green card or citizenship if they use the existing immigration system.  This proposal would shrink the number of unauthorized immigration who could eventually earn a green card or gain citizenship.

I suggest a third proposal: create two paths toward legal status.

The first path should lead to permanent legal status on a work permit that cannot be used to earn a green card unless the person marries an American or serves in the military (other categories should be considered too).  This path could be relatively easy and cheap, preferably a few hundred dollars to pay for the paperwork processing fee as well as criminal, national security, and health checks.

The second path should be toward a green card and eventual citizenship.  It should probably be similar to the Senate plan, take many years, and cost more money.  This should be the more difficult legalization process but it should not be any more difficult than what is included in the Senate bill.

Creating two paths will allow the unauthorized immigrants themselves to choose the type of legal status they wish to have in the United States.  This also addresses some of the concerns of immigration reform skeptics while actually allowing a path to citizenship that, theoretically, most unauthorized immigrants could follow.  Furthermore, this plan is probably more politically feasible than a one sized fits all path to legal status.  The sooner a reform is passes, the sooner the deportations can stop.

Currently every interest group involved in immigration reform is trying to choose which legal status unauthorized immigrants should have.  The unauthorized immigrant should instead be able to choose for themselves.  Ever more complex legalization and path to citizenship plans of the type Goodlatte will propose will not accommodate most of the 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants here.  Several paths toward legal status should be created and the unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to choose for themselves.

Economists want more immigration, why don’t you?

A perennial assertion of open borders skeptics is that they are the voice of reason and empirics in the immigration debate, while open borders advocates are soft-headed people thinking with their hearts instead of their brains. So this humble blogger spent a Friday lunch hour in Washington, D.C. attending a Cato Institute panel titled What Economists Think About Immigration. Incidentally, the panel was broadcast on C-SPAN, and thanks to them, you can also view the full panel online.

Of the four people on stage, only one was a new face to me:

  1. Alex Nowrasteh (moderator of the panel, Cato Institute researcher, and an Open Borders blogger)
  2. Madeline Zavodny (panelist, chair of the Agnes Scott College economics department)
  3. Ethan Lewis (panelist, associate professor of economics at Dartmouth, and my former econometrics professor)
  4. Michael Clemens (panelist, Center for Global Development researcher, and the man who single-handedly changed the way I think about immigration)

Zavogny presented first, talking about high-skilled immigrants to the US and how they contribute economically to the US. I think even open borders skeptics tend to favour high-skilled immigration. Those who don’t are either unmoored from reality, or openly admit that they don’t have a hard empirical reason for their belief that high-skilled immigrants should be banned from taking good jobs. So I won’t cover Zavogny’s presentation in depth.

Clemens presented third, but similar to Zavogny, I don’t think he covered much terribly new ground in the debate (at least, that would be new to someone already familiar with the academic debate on immigration’s empirical impacts). Clemens presented a version of his double world GDP lecture, covering the usual ground: immense gains to migrants, doubling world GDP, banning “brain drain” dehumanises immigrants and doesn’t help anyone, and ending restrictions on freedom of movement may seem crazy, but crazier things have happened (see: the abolition of slavery).

Lewis, on the other hand, presented some really compelling and new material. To me, one of the new things was how strongly he feels about immigration! I suppose econometrics does not lend itself to very passionate lectures, but although I knew he studied immigration while I was a student of his, I had no inkling of the depth of his support for reducing immigration restrictions.  (Full disclosure: I was also a student of his wife, Elizabeth Cascio, who supervised my senior seminar and final economics paper.) Even more new and exciting to me: Lewis presented some of his latest work, which finds that immigration has boosted the income of Americans across the board — even low-income Americans.

Perhaps the most commonly-cited harm of immigration is its impact on the wages and employment of natives. Immigration supposedly reduces wages across the board. This is a complete myth, which no economist would sign on to (at least, none that I’ve read, including prominent skeptics). There is concern among a few economists that immigration harms income and employment for low-earning natives. However, few find this result, and most that do have been subject to various criticisms: the impact they find is extremely small (the most popular estimate here would suggest that 20 years of immigration to the US resulted in a cumulative 3% decline in low-earning natives’ wages); it’s sensitive to the removal of a few data points; it doesn’t account for how capital investments  react to the influx of labour; it relies on data from a period when other things driving reduction in wages, such as the decline of trade unions, could be confounding the results.

Lewis presents a slide (at roughly the 25:30 mark in the C-SPAN recording) suggesting that not only has immigration increased the wages of high-skilled natives, as you would expect — it has also increased the wages of low-skilled natives. Why does the wage data suggest this? What plausible mechanisms are there? Lewis suggests two major things:

  1. Changes in the use of capital — firms respond to an influx of immigrants by investing less in capital than they had planned, creating jobs for low-skilled natives as well as immigrants and ameliorating the potential negative wage impacts for low-skilled natives
  2. Immigrants compete in a different labour market than natives — immigrants whose English fluency is limited or non-existent will compete among one another for jobs, and natives emerge unscathed thanks to their English skills

Lewis presents the arguments for these mechanisms quite well, so I’d urge you to watch his talk yourself. In particular, he has a number of interesting charts backing all these points up. My understanding is he has a forthcoming paper that will fully flesh out the ideas in his presentation. My take is this is just one data point, but if you’re analytically evaluating the likely outcomes of more immigration, seeing this ought to make you revise upward your assessment of the probability that immigration helps or doesn’t harm natives. And given the existing literature, that assessment should already have been assigned a fairly high probability in the first place — certainly not the 0% chance that so often seems to be assumed in immigration debates.

Lewis wraps up his talk by urging the audience to think beyond the current policy debate in Washington, which focuses today primarily on whether to regularise the 11 million unauthorised immigrants currently living in the US. He points out that it makes absolutely no sense to ban people from migrating in the first place, and given the immense gains to the migrants, even if you don’t believe his estimates, you should be happy to enforce a tax or fee on them that captures some of those gains, to ensure all natives benefit from immigration.

Economists overwhelmingly reject popular myths that immigrants are economic harms. Yet these myths refuse to die. We no longer believe that Jews drink the blood of babies, that Chinese eat rats, or that Irish are just drunk beggars. Why do we believe that people born on the other side of an invisible line called the national border are an incredible harm to us, while people born on the other side of an invisible line demarcating a county or province are perfectly guiltless? Both types of people are as likely to “steal” our jobs and drive down our wages. But one person we call a criminal for crossing that invisible line; the other, we call a good citizen.

I can’t echo my former professor’s words enough. We need to think beyond today’s debates about immigration. The fact is, today’s debates rely on ignorant assumptions about immigration. They assume immigrants are “job thieves”. Having a debate on these terms is like arguing whether we should let more Jews in or hold back lest they start drinking our children’s blood or poisoning our wells. We’re starting from premises so utterly wrong that there’s no point having the debate.

Of course the US should have a process for legalising people who’ve lived in the US for a long period of time. If they ever did any harm by crossing an invisible line 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, as long as they aren’t committing any crimes and harming anyone today, we should live and let live. This is so basic that as Lewis says, we need to think bigger. We need to reject the myths of the past, and adopt a reality-based immigration policy — one that embraces all human beings as people with dreams and goals and potential and contributions that will enrich us all and build our communities.

Immigration Reform Is Not Amnesty

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Many opponents of immigration reform have labeled any type of legalization for unauthorized immigrants “amnesty.” In common terminology, an amnesty is a general forgiveness for past offenses. Calling immigration reform amnesty brands it with a scarlet letter in the minds of many who are skeptical of reform. A recent video made by the Cato Institute explains just some of the many steps an unauthorized immigrant will have to go through to become legalized if the Senate’s immigration reform becomes law:

Here are some of the steps (this is not an exhaustive list) an unauthorized immigrant must follow to earn the initial registered provisional immigration (RPI) status:

  • In the country prior to 2012
  • Pays any and all outstanding tax bills (not back taxes)
  • Goes through national security and background checks
  • $1,000 fine
  • $500 fee
  • Then the unauthorized immigrant will receive a work permit valid for six years

After six years, the immigrant will need to apply for another RPI permit:

  • Proves that she’s been employed for virtually the entire six year period
  • Be at no less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level
  • $500 fee

After four years, the immigrant can apply for a green card if she:

  • Proves she can speak English
  • Proves she hasn’t been on welfare
  • Passes another round of background and security checks
  • Pays all of the normal fees associated with a green card
  • The federal government meets most of its immigration enforcement goals

That doesn’t seem like amnesty to me.