Tag Archives: arbitrariness

What part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

A common retort to suggestions that our governments regularise the status of irregular immigrants is that these people are “criminals”, they’re “illegal”, and just what part of illegal don’t I understand? The mainstream immigration reform has adopted this rhetoric too, even if they claim to reject it; the rhetoric of US President Obama (who at the time I write just announced a deferral of deportation for some few million migrants) and others has been chock full of insistence that irregular immigrants owe a debt to society, that they ought to do some sort of penance — perhaps pay a fine — in return for any sort of regularisation. In short, the mainstreamers say that they do understand that these migrants are “illegal”, and that they do intend to punish them — just not as badly as the hardcore restrictionists want.

I see no justice in this. As co-blogger Joel Newman says, our governments owe irregular migrants an apology, not a fine. Make no mistake about it: if you’ve done something wrong, if you’ve injured someone or taken someone’s property, you ought to pay the price. But if all you’ve done is an honest day’s work, if all you’ve lived in is a home you’ve paid the price for, then there is nothing to punish you for. Living in the shadows our government forced you into for dreaming of a better future for yourself and a family was more than punishment enough.

The persistent, shrill cries of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?” are pretty blind to the meaning of the term “illegal” in the first place. For instance, most of these people don’t seem aware that it’s not a crime to be present without a lawful immigration status in the US; this is such basic legal knowledge that it didn’t make any headlines when the Supreme Court acknowledged this in an aside as part of a larger ruling on immigration law. For another, most of these people routinely break the law and get indignant when it is actually enforced against them. Just witness the furore when bicyclists are ticketed for cycling on the sidewalk, or when drivers are caught speeding by automated cameras. If committing unlawful acts in the course of ordinary business makes immigrants “illegal”, that makes everyone “illegal”.

Now of course people will say immigration law is on a special plane of existence, something that deserves far more respect than menial traffic laws. Sure. I simply say: let the punishment fit the crime.

The consensus is that half of all undocumented migrants in the US entered lawfully at a border checkpoint, and simply took up residence or employment in violation of the terms of their visa. There is no crime in paying rent for a residence, and no crime in searching for work. If an immigrant applying for my job is stealing from me, then who did I steal from when I applied for the job I hold now? Is it only a crime when immigrants do it?

These undocumented migrants should be punished appropriately for any actual crimes they have committed. If they drove drunk, if they shoplifted, if they committed welfare fraud, whatever — they should do the time, and pay the fine. But they should not be deported or excluded from the country they call home. As long as they are willing to accept the laws of their new home, and accept the punishments of these laws, they should be allowed to stay. They entered legally. The most they should be required to do to stay is fill out a basic form, and submit to legal proceedings for any other unpunished crimes in their past. Innocent immigrants who have done nothing worse than pay rent and earn honest wages deserve an apology for the persecution that our laws unjustly put them through.

As for the other half who entered without inspection at a border checkpoint, they should submit to a screening comparable to what they would have gone through at the border, and register with the authorities. Again, the idea is to make restitution for the original offense. The original offense, in legal parlance, was “entering without inspection”. So let the punishment fit the crime.

But it wouldn’t be fair, you might say. What about all the immigrants waiting in line? Well, whose fault is it that they are waiting in that line? Isn’t it your fault that the government you elected made crappy laws which have kept out all these innocent immigrants, and forced them to choose between waiting in a line that will never end (literally: some visa categories have backlogs that exceed 80 years), or migrating illegally?

I do agree it is not fair to do amnesties in a one-off manner. It is not fair to the good people who want to immigrate legally, but who are banned from doing so by irrational quotas and queues. It is also not fair to all of us who are harmed by the bad apples, the actual criminals, who either hide amongst the innocents in the undocumented population, or worse, take advantage of these migrants’ warranted fear of the government to abuse and exploit them.

Many governments — such as those of France and Germany, to name a couple you may have heard of — do not do one-off amnesties; instead, anyone who migrated illegally but who has otherwise complied with the law for a sufficient length of time is allowed to register with the government and become a legal immigrant. If we can’t have open borders, let’s at least allow anyone who has proven their commitment and loyalty to our laws to come out into the open and register as a law-abiding member of our community. That’s the fair thing to do, instead of having these one-offs.

But at the end of the day, if being fair to those immigrants in line is what bothers you so much, well — it’s the line your government created. The absurdity of having queues backlogged such that people applying today would have to wait an entire human lifetime to get their application approved is something only a government could create. The problem isn’t those good people forced to choose between waiting in line versus entering by other means to rejoin their families or seek gainful employment. The problem is your government and the stupid laws it made up.

Now, those laws aren’t stupid you might say. I agree: to the extent that they protect us from criminals, contagious disease outbreaks, and other harms, they are good laws. But to the extent that they “protect” us from people who just want to pay the market price to live in a safe home and work in a functioning economy, they are bad laws. To the extent that they treat someone whose ambition is to earn minimum wage washing dishes 18 hours a day as if he’s the scum of the earth, they are evil laws.

I’ve written before that the best way to secure the US’s border with Mexico would be to open it. Drug lords and slave traffickers rely on being able to disguise themselves among the masses of innocent people crawling through sewers to rejoin their families; let those innocent people buy bus tickets instead of paying thousands to coyotes, and where will the criminals hide? Restrictionists scoff at the idea of these immigrants being innocent — but you tell me, where’s the sense in treating someone who just wants to mop your floors for minimum wage as if he is the equivalent of a murderous drug trafficker?

I understand the intuition that one should comply with the law, and that failing to comply with the law generally marks you as a bad person — somewhere on the scale between reckless and just plain criminal. But this intuition only works for laws where the burden of compliance applies equally to everyone. Everyone knows what it means to not steal. But does everyone know what it means to comply with immigration law?

I would bet anyone that the majority of citizens of any country have no idea how the typical migrant in their country should comply with their own country’s immigration laws. Why should any of us know? All we ever did to comply with the law was be born. We didn’t have to do anything else, just slide out of the right person’s uterus at the right time, on the right soil.

Anyone in the US who has ever been in trouble with their taxes should know the feeling: you did everything right, and yet apparently your filing was still illegal — the government says you didn’t pay enough taxes. US tax law is so complicated that in some cases even the Internal Revenue Service throws up its hands and admits it doesn’t know what the law says. Yet for all your trouble, the public lambasts you as a tax evader, blasts you for not paying your fair share. And that is pretty rich, when virtually everyone who files taxes has likely fallen afoul of some technicality in the law (did you really report on your tax return the $20 in income you earned from that casual bar bet with your cousin?).

Multiply this frustration a few hundred times over and you can imagine the frustration of complying with immigration law. Some of the best, most honest and decent people I have personally known have been “illegal”. In some cases they didn’t even realise it until after the fact: as a student, your visa bans you from working more than a certain number of hours. Exceed the limit, and bam, you’re “illegal”. In other cases, delays or government processing issues while you’re transitioning from one visa type to another mean that you can “fall out of status” until your new visa is approved. Bam! Illegal.

And these are the lucky ones: they were already present in the US, and nobody could conveniently detect they’d committed these violations of immigration law. Usually nobody would ever be the wiser that they had, for a period of time, been “illegal”. Millions more such innocent people are trapped in the unlucky position of either waiting decades in line, or just jumping a fence that shouldn’t be keeping them out in the first place. Long wait times for immigrants to the US aren’t unusual; they’re the norm. Stories of the insanity of immigration law are a dime a dozen: see this, this, this, or this.

But how many citizens know of this? They know nothing, of course: the law has nothing to do with them. They can feel free to demand 100% compliance with the law, because they will always be 100% compliant. All they have to do is breathe. It’s pretty easy to follow the law when you have to do nothing. How can you demand people follow the law when you yourself have no idea what the law demands, and you yourself don’t have to do anything to comply with it?

I am making no claim to perfection here. As a Malaysian, I have no idea what laws the foreigners living in my country have to comply with. When people ask me about how easy it is for foreigners to live in Malaysia, all I can say is “Well I saw a lot of them in my junior college so I think it’s pretty easy to come in”. I honestly have no freaking idea what our visa laws are; I have no reason or incentive to, because by definition, it is impossible for me to ever break the law!

Claims that “Well, my ancestors followed the law” ring pretty hollow. After all, what laws did your ancestors follow? In the case of most Americans, their ancestors immigrated legally because all you had to do to immigrate was not be Chinese. If by definition it is impossible for you or your ancestors to have broken the law, then it is pretty rich of you to insist that you know exactly what laws others should comply with. Yet people often pretend they know exactly what the laws are, and blame the victims of these abusive laws for not submitting to their unwarranted punishment.

Anti-Chinese poster

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if you want people to prove their loyalty and knowledge of your country by passing a test, then why don’t you subject yourself to that same test? Why not? Didn’t your schooling prepare you for that test?

If millions of ordinary people can waste 20 years of their adult lives waiting for government permission to pay rent and apply for jobs, why not you? What makes you so special? Isn’t it unfair to others who did wait those decades in line, who actually complied with the bullshit hoops your government made them jump through? Your ancestors didn’t jump through those hoops — so don’t you owe it to them to follow the law on their behalf?

And so on you go, railing against “amnesty”, even though there’s a good chance if you are American that you are only here today thanks to an amnesty your ancestors arguably didn’t deserve. I refer, of course, to that time some of your ancestors took up arms in violent rebellion against the lawful government of the United States, and were rewarded with an unconditional amnesty for their trouble.

At the end of the day, there is nothing that makes sense about most immigration laws. A handful of restrictions actually target terrorists, criminals, or contagious disease carriers. The rest of these laws just treat people who want to pay market rent for a safe home and the chance to earn the market wage for honest work as though they are criminals for doing the same things as everyone else. There is no sense in treating a minimum wage cook like a cutthroat, and there is no justice.

The real question isn’t what part of illegal don’t I understand; I’m well aware that, at least far as my own country goes, I don’t understand, because I have no reason to! No matter how many laws I break or how many wrongs I commit, I’ll always be in compliance with Malaysia’s immigration laws.

The real question is, what part of “illegal” do you understand at all? You don’t understand any of it. You don’t know what it’s like to be worried that accidentally working one extra hour a week this semester might mean that you’ll get deported. You don’t know what it’s like to earn pennies a day, banned from earning the dollars which your hard work could easily earn you because this year, only 23 people from your country of millions will be given work permits.

The persistence in which people pretend that complying with the law is no burden, that if their ancestors could do it then so can anyone else, truly boggles the mind. Laws which ban parents from paying to put a roof over their children’s heads and ban dutiful children from sending home money to care for their aging parents criminalise the virtues we so often commend to ourselves. What can this be, if not hypocritical injustice? Let me ask you — what part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

Ebola is utterly irrelevant. Open the borders.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has well and truly frightened the citizens of the world, in vast disproportion to the risk it actually poses to most people outside a relatively small region of Africa. People seem to think Ebola makes a slam dunk case against open borders. But Ebola is actually virtually irrelevant to the question of whether we should have open borders.

The Ebola-/disease-argument for closing — whether selectively or in broad indiscriminate strokes — the borders generally runs as follows:

  1. There is a dangerous disease
  2. This disease is transmitted from person to person
  3. Some foreign people have this disease
  4. Preventing these disease-bearing people from entering our country would eliminate the risk of them transmitting this disease to us
  5. Therefore it would be justified to ban at least some foreign people from entering our country

Now, I think this argument is as a general rule logically sound. It does omit some proper elements of feasibility assessment, risk sizing, and cost-benefit analysis by assuming the worst case scenario in some cases (e.g., that allowing even one foreign person with the disease to enter would be an immense danger) and assuming the best case scenario in others (e.g., that a travel ban would be perfectly implementable and would completely halt the spread of the disease).

It turns out that when you assess the empirical evidence, there’s zero proof that a travel ban would actually halt the spread of Ebola. And in any case, the risk of Ebola becoming widespread in the developed world is exceedingly small — Ebola is a disease that is relatively easy to stop in its tracks when you have a functioning healthcare system (Nigeria has been spectacularly successful at combatting Ebola, and it wasn’t just lucky).

But let’s say that for whatever reason, a travel ban of some kind would contribute to stopping Ebola, or otherwise pass some reasonable cost-benefit analysis. I’d be willing to consider a travel ban in such a scenario. Does this make me a hypocrite for advocating open borders? Does this mean that I actually oppose open borders? I obviously don’t think so.

The “Ebola gotcha” is not any kind of “gotcha” at all. It only appears to be such a trump card if you don’t understand what open borders is in the first place. Of course Ebola is a gotcha argument for those who advocate allowing anyone to go anywhere, irrespective of the actual circumstance. That’s a gotcha argument against open borders in the same way that child porn is a gotcha argument against freedom of the press. After all, you support the prosecution of child pornographers, don’t you? Well, you obviously oppose freedom of speech then.

In human society, every right and freedom is balanced against other liberties. Open borders refers to freedom of human movement — a freedom that must be balanced just like any other. You can dream of a million cases where someone should have their freedom of movement circumscribed — I’ll likely agree with you on most if not every single one of them.

The point though is that freedom of movement is a right which belongs to every human being — it is not a right which can be arbitrarily circumscribed. Restrict the movement of people carrying dangerous diseases? I’m all for that. Put up walls against armed invaders? Seems like a decent idea. The point is that none of these have anything more than the vaguest connection to nationality. You don’t have to be a foreigner to decide to be a drug runner, a terrorist, or a contagious disease-carrier. You just have to be human.

So if you want to ban people with contagious diseases from travelling, that can certainly be justified — but the point is that to achieve its goals, this ban would have to be blind to nationality. If your concern is Ebola, it makes no sense to ban foreigners from entering your country, while still allowing your citizens carte blanche to come and go. That would be the equivalent of banning Facebook because you’ve noticed an uptick in child porn on the internet.

This is why even most of the hysterical proposals for an Ebola-based travel ban actually are arguably consistent with an open borders philosophy: to the extent that they target travellers from particularly Ebola-stricken areas, irrespective of citizenship, they are in theory justifiable. It is not in principle different from applying a different set of procedures to travellers from regions where, say, yellow fever is endemic. The point is that these restrictions are tied to a concrete and articulable reason — you don’t get magically exempted from them just because of your citizenship.

The way our countries’ immigration laws single out non-citizens for arbitrary discrimination and persecution which we would never subject citizens to is what makes them so objectionable. It’s one thing to temporarily restrict travel from disease-stricken regions — e.g., subject travellers from those areas to additional screening. It’s a completely different thing to accept “Ebola” as a reason to ban some foreigners from entering purely because of their nationality, even as we would allow an identical citizen in their shoes free entry.

The “argument from disease” or “argument from armed invasion” against open borders is a complete red herring because it makes up a strawman definition of open borders. Ebola is not a reason to oppose open borders; it’s about as relevant to freedom of movement as child pornography is to freedom of speech. There will always be contagious disease and there will always be sick people perpetrating violence against innocents. To the extent possible, our governments should contain the spread of disease and punish violent criminals. This is not an excuse for our governments to visit injustice upon innocents.

An open borders regime has nothing to do with letting Ebola run rampant. A responsible open borders regime would adopt travel policies that limit the spread of Ebola to the extent possible, while minimising the impact on the mobility of innocent people who have had nothing to do with the virus — irrespective of those people’s nationality.

Sadly, the connection between “foreignness” and disease is a strong one in our minds. Take this recent story for example:

…the flight attendants surrounded the [African] woman and asked her to leave the plane (and threatened to call the airport police if she wouldn’t get off the plane)…

Let’s just be clear about some things about this woman: she was 34, felt she quite possibly could be pregnant, and lived in Boston. She’d been to Nigeria back at the beginning of the year, but came back in fine health. She felt a little nauseated; that’s it. Her eyes weren’t bleeding, she wasn’t spraying revolting fluids out of anything, she was simply a young woman trying to get home.

I was sitting next to a woman who worked at the UNC School of Public Health, who was traveling on the plane with a bunch of other colleagues who knew something about diseases and epidemics. And, interestingly, one of them, an older white man, mentioned he’d been to Liberia recently, and was technically much more of a potential ebola risk than the woman. Nobody asked him to leave the plane.

The well-intended but still harsh and ignorant prejudice these flight attendants exhibited is the exact sort of bigoted “logic” behind the Ebola-motivated arguments for closing borders. If Ebola is your true concern, then you would target those who actually pose the risk of Ebola, irrespective of their nationality.

Ebola is not a gotcha argument against freedom of movement for the same reasons that terrorism is not a gotcha argument against freedom of speech. If you are carrying a dangerous disease, or if you are engaged in armed violence against others, it doesn’t matter which country you’re a citizen of — your freedom of movement can and will be curbed. Open borders is simply about guaranteeing the inverse. If you don’t present a clear threat to anyone else, then no matter where you hail from, it is an abominable injustice for our governments to prevent you from travelling in peace.

I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion

To many, even those sympathetic towards it, I imagine liberalising immigration policy is just another pet bleeding heart cause — similar to saving the environment, helping battered women, aiding the homeless, etc. It can seem arrogant of open borders advocates to compare our cause to historical antecedents such as the abolition of slavery or apartheid. And I get these sentiments — in fact, I quite agree with them on a very fundamental level.

In the daily news, it’s rare to not come across a photograph or story of some activists fighting for an immigration-related cause. Sometimes it’s for the cause of allowing immigrants in the US to get in-state university tuition benefits; other times, it’s protesting the detention of asylum-seekers (whether in the US, UK, Australia, or elsewhere); most commonly, it’s a protest, somewhere in the US, demanding the cessation of deportations. Recently, the cause celebre has been, of course, the problem of children migrating to the US. Now, to be fully honest with you, I often look at these pictures and read these stories, and feel that I just don’t care.

Now, of course I do care very much about the issues at stake here: I spend a lot of time writing about open borders, for pete’s sake! So why do I read about immigration in the news and just go “meh”?

To add to the puzzle, this is actually a very personal and emotional issue for me. It’s impossible, actually, for me to understand migration without reference to emotion and personal experience. As a child, I lived for years knowing that my mother could be deported if she and my father were to separate, or even if she were to be widowed, thanks to my country’s immigration laws. As a student in the US, I wondered whether I’d ever be able to get a job here, with visa laws effectively banning me from taking a job outside investment banking or management consulting. And now as a US resident, I’ve seen my friends — and even my girlfriend — be forced to leave this country, thanks to its patently ridiculous laws.

So why then my disconnect from all these stories? My epiphany came when I read a story in the Washington Post about an American woman bidding her Bangladeshi husband farewell before his impending deportation. I’ve felt the same fears and worries they do and lived through similar frustration and farewells thanks to arbitrary immigration controls. I could put myself in their shoes.

Now this actually made me despair further: how can advocates of liberal migration laws win people’s hearts and minds with sob stories like these? Hardly any citizens will ever face the violent force of their own governments’ exclusionary immigration policies. How can citizens begin to care about the effects of their immigration laws, let alone be moved to support changing them? How, when even someone like me — one who deeply cares about immigration and demands open borders — can only be affected by a story that’s personally connected to my own?

Then, I read this comment on the Washington Post article:

Sorry, but she is making a choice here and it is not for her husband. If she is placing all these things before him, then it cannot be helped. If I were in her shoes there would be no way that I would not be on that plane with my spouse. I might miss Kansas, but I would make the necessary arrangements and I would be at his side.

Our actions reveal where are loyalties lie, and this lady appears to be more concerned with living in Kansas and the job she loves and all the rest, than in being with the man whom she married.

My reaction to this was anger. I fumed. To restate the cold logic here: “If the government forces your husband to live in a strange country where there are no jobs for you or him, and you choose to keep your job and the home you’ve both shared for decades, you clearly just love money and comfort more than your husband.” Pretty easy to say this when you’ve never had the government kick your partner out of the country — as has actually happened to me and to many of my friends.

After I calmed down, I asked myself why a commenter might react to the story in this manner. As a general rule, people are not randomly vindictive. So why the harsh reaction aimed at this woman and her husband? The obvious answer is that the commenter did not think to question the justice system’s decision to exclude someone; if the system has decided, the decision must be correct. Justice must be served.

But why is it that we don’t think to question the justice of this system? Why does this story not move us to ponder whether the law here was just? Why do the journalists and activists putting these stories out there not explicitly question the justice of an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth?

I’ve come to think that the reason I don’t care when I see pictures of hunger strikers protesting deportations, or picketers demanding immigrant access to certain benefits, and so on, is because these stories have always been framed in terms of compassion — not justice.

This is not to say I consider myself heartless or lacking compassion, although I am not in any place to judge myself. Rather, it is that when I read about stories which don’t directly affect me, it is simply difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. And when these stories try to engage me by asking me to feel compassion for those affected, I only feel a sense of weariness.

There are a million causes in the world, and almost all of them seem to be asking for my compassion when I open the daily papers. Today it’s genocide in Darfur; tomorrow it’s children being kidnapped in Nigeria; next week, it might be people rendered homeless in the wake of a natural disaster (tsunami? hurricane? earthquake?); next month, perhaps another school shooting. I don’t have the time or energy to be emotionally invested in every single one of these issues.

And to the degree that I might choose to invest my emotions, there’s no particularly compelling reason to choose immigration as my humanitarian cause du jour over, say, victims of domestic violence or poaching endangered animals. You can tell me all the reasons why I ought to care more about immigration, but if you have to give me a 21-point list of reasons why I ought to care — if your sob story cannot speak for itself — then you’re not likely to win me over.

It may strike one as galling to so baldly rank and prioritise humanitarian or compassionate causes, but this is exactly what all of us as citizens and individuals do all the time. Virtually every one of these activism stories pulls at the humanitarian, compassionate angle, but none of us has the time to devote to more than a handful of such issues.

Now, the compassionate angle I think actually works especially well for many causes. But I think for migration it seems singularly unlikely to work; if anything, it can easily become counter-productive. Unlike with a cause like animal rights or famine relief — almost everyone’s played with a pet or felt the pangs of hunger before — few of us have experienced the feeling of being persecuted by the state under the aegis of arbitrary immigration laws. You can’t count on your audience to share the emotional experiences you might have as a migrant, activist, or journalist who has personally seen the horror of arbitrary immigration laws.

When you play up the compassionate angle in the story of a victim of deportation, what are you asking for? Unlike with many humanitarian causes, you are not asking for charitable donations. Rather, you are asking people to demand a change or an exception to settled law.

Now, we can certainly demand that laws be changed on compassionate or humanitarian grounds. But how convincing is this? If people believe the justice system has found someone guilty of a crime, are they going to believe the criminal ought to get clemency simply because we ought to have compassion for the criminal? In an ideal world, this could perhaps be true. But in the real world, people believe that if you’re a criminal, you ought to pay the price set by the justice system.

As a result, the constant framing of immigration as a question of compassion perplexes me. This is like asking for a slave to be set free, not because laws permitting slavery are barbaric and need to be repealed, but because poor Uncle Tom really needs to be free, and oh isn’t it such a shame that in this case the law is irrationally separating him from his family?

I mean, yes, the law is inhumane and barbaric and evil — but that’s the whole point! Asking for compassionate special pleading on purely humanitarian grounds, without ever questioning the barbaric law that is in place, simply throws your entire case away. Somehow, this is the modus operandi in how immigration activists campaign for liberal reforms!

Put more bluntly, the case for more liberal migration laws, and yes, open borders, cannot rest on compassionate grounds. Yes, one can make such a compassionate case. But there are a million things needing our compassion. What makes immigrants so special?

The point is not that immigrants are special. No, the point is that immigrants are just like you and me. The point is that our law owes them justice, same as the law owes any and all of us. We cannot use the force of law to exclude people from society in an unjust manner. We cannot allow our government to perpetrate injustice and oppression in our name.

That’s what makes immigration and open borders so compelling to me. I don’t see immigrants as some group in need of special pleading or special compassion from me or the government. I see migrants as ordinary people who, same as anyone else, need to be treated justly. The reason I care so much about this issue is not because I feel immigrants need my special attention — although I think there is a case for more compassion towards those who are strangers in our land. I simply believe that immigrants, like all of us, are entitled to just treatment under the law.

Rohingya being deported from Bangladesh

Immigration reform and open borders are not about making life better for a special, deserving class of people. They are about abolishing systems of injustice which unjustly oppress ordinary people. The woman who loses her deported husband does not need our compassion; she does not need a special exemption from our irrational laws. What she needs, what millions of others like her need, is justice.

The inconsistent social engineers: why do we have border controls, but no birth controls?

I’m not sure who first observed this, but a lot of arguments against allowing people to move freely are based on a set of premises that boil down to: “People are bad. Immigration brings more people ‘here’. Therefore free immigration is bad.” In March this year, British comedian Stewart Lee did a fantastic monologue about this, stepping back through the history of the British Isles and denouncing various peoples who’ve settled the land along the way. After going through the Romanians, the Poles, the Huguenots, the Saxons, and so on, he finally got to the evolution of land-based animals: “They crawled out of the sea onto the land — OUR LAND!” Lee wound up his misanthropic speech with a thunderous denunciation of the Big Bang: “Remember the good old days? When you could leave your door unlocked? Because there was nothing there? Nobody ever asked me if I wanted a Big Bang!”

(I’d link to a video or transcript of this great monologue, but the only extant video I could find seems to no longer work, and nobody seems to have thought to transcribe it. The quotes I’ve furnished here are actually from memory and not verbatim.)

The typical objections people have to greater immigration are after all just as applicable to higher birth rates:

  • More people entering the labour market causes a rise in unemployment and lower wages
  • More people by definition means there will be more criminals, since criminals are people
    • And worse still, if lower-socioeconomic status people have higher birth or immigration rates, we would expect overall crime rates to go up disproportionately
  • More people by definition require larger state expenditures, both for the upkeep of public goods and services like roads, and also for benefits programmes
    • And again, if lower-socioeconomic status people have more children or immigrate more, then the economic burden on the state will increase disproportionately
  • More people create adjustment costs — someone, whether it is the public or private sector, will have to build more homes, open more schools, hire more nurses; the list goes on and on

If all these arguments are valid defences for strict border controls, why not have similar ones for birth controls? Would it not be a catastrophic risk to our society if lower-socioeconomic people began giving birth to more and more children? Co-blogger Johnny Roccia has blogged about this, and more recently guest blogger Bryan Caplan blogged about a hypothetical world of eugenics over at EconLog, After all, if you’re happy to advocate arbitrary and broad-reaching state power over people’s ability to move, because of all the attendant ill-effects of, you know, dealing with human beings, why stay silent about reproductive restrictions? Shouldn’t advocates of border controls who complain about population growth leading to more crime, more welfare payments, fewer jobs, and so on, be worried not just about immigrants but also newborns? Economist Daniel Lin makes light of this on his Twitter, but surely he has a point:

Now, there are some extreme environmentalists who advocate immigration restrictions as just one form of population control among many, but they are a fringe minority. Their minority status is thus puzzling: if people truly worry about where jobs will come from, or who will pay for the burgeoning benefits cheque, or how to manage a growing incidence of crime — to cite three of the most common ills associated with immigration, but also with population growth in general — why focus all energy on stopping immigration, and not consider devoting some effort to implementing a government-backed eugenics policy? Why not ban welfare recipients from having children? Why not sterilise all habitual violent criminals? Why not cap the number of “low-skilled” workers allowed to reproduce, lest the number of low-skilled people in the economy outpace its ability to create jobs for them?

Now, some people do bite the bullet and say “Yes, eugenics is a good idea and the government should be doing something there too.” To these people, I don’t have a lot to say; we will probably just have to agree to disagree. I don’t see a compelling reason, except perhaps in extreme scenarios, for the state to regulate human reproduction. I don’t see an existential threat to our societies or the human race posed by our general lack of eugenics programmes.

But most people try to distinguish border controls from birth controls in some way. The argument is that it’s unjust and immoral for the state to restrict births, but it is not similarly unjust or immoral for the state to restrict human movement. People who argue that migration controls and birth controls should not be compared in this manner often take three tacks:

  1. International migration is an uncommon, unnatural desire, while reproduction is not;
  2. Birth rates are generally predictable, while international migration rates are not;
  3. Immigrants originate from different cultures, while natives give birth to and raise children from a common culture.

Even if you take all their premises for granted, all three are essentially arguments for violent and coercive social engineering by the state. The first argument assumes that the state has a right to quash “unnatural desires”, even if no individual can point to a specific wrong that was committed against them in the process of pursuing this “unnatural desire”. The second assumes that what social changes the state can predict and manage are tolerable, while social changes that the state cannot predict and may not be able to manage are intolerable. And of course the third gives the state explicit authority to use force (not just nudges or incentives) to micromanage the cultures of a society, which seems like the epitome of violent social engineering to me.

But even the premises of these arguments are questionable. To the first argument, UN economists already estimate there are about 250 million international migrants in the world, and another 800 million domestic migrants. This is what occurs even under highly restrictive border regimes; if migration policies were liberalised, we would expect the true numbers to be much higher. How many of those domestic migrants would choose to move internationally instead? These numbers exclude temporary migrants too; those people would also benefit significantly from open borders. If hundreds of millions of people want to move, and do move even under highly restrictive border regimes, in what sense is this desire unnatural or uncommon?

And to the second argument, yes, there is a natural, fixed limit to how many children a woman can bear, making childbearing rates somewhat more predictable than migration rates. But migration rates are hardly impossible to manage either; indeed, to a large degree they can be quite predictable. The main constraint hampering a state’s ability to predict free migration flows today is that we haven’t had open borders for so long that it is difficult to tell what migration flows might result. But that’s an argument at best for gradual opening of the borders; it’s not an argument for maintaining arbitrary border controls in perpetuity.

Finally to the third argument, most countries have plenty of heterogeneity even internally. If the state has a legitimate interest in taking coercive action to prevent the current mix of cultures from changing too much, should the state gear up for action if one cultural group’s birth rate falls behind another? Should the state force citizens from regions or ethnic communities with low birth rates to give birth at gunpoint? Should the state forcibly prevent the births of citizens in regions or ethnic communities where the birth rate seems out-of-whack with what the state believes is warranted or manageable? Shouldn’t Americans be concerned about plummeting birth rates in New England, the cradle of American institutions? Or worried about soaring fertility rates in culturally distinct states like Utah or Texas? Is there not a risk that New Englanders will literally die out, or that Texans will outbreed and therefore wipe out the rest of the American nation? At some point, cultural micromanagement implies not only a strong role for the government in border controls, but birth controls too.

Now, of course, there are plenty of other efficiency-based arguments for implementing either stricter reproductive controls, strict border controls, or both — ones that rest purely on the consequential or utilitarian outcomes of these policies. The eugenics analogy can’t by itself make a comprehensive case for open borders. But what it can do, as economist Scott Sumner’s argued, is really compel us to doubt the wisdom and justness of the typical arguments we use to defend arbitrary border controls.

Scott is not an open borders supporter, though he advocates significant liberalisation of immigration policies. But he found Bryan’s eugenics hypothetical to powerfully illuminate how the arguments we deploy for border controls are actually rooted in exactly the sort of injustice that we would immediately decry if manifested instead in advocacy for reproductive controls:

I’ve actually met academics that favor China’s one child policy. I’m pretty sure they’d be horrified by this story. They’d say it’s unfair to punish the innocent child for the sins of their parents. But is it really possible to have a clean, antiseptic one child policy that doesn’t punish the children?

Now ask yourself how many of those academics that supported the one child policy actually thought through what would happen to the millions of children born in violation to that policy? I’d guess not very many. Now let’s consider immigration restrictions. Is there a clean, antiseptic way to keep out illegal immigrants?

Bryan has not convinced me that 100% open borders are clearly the way to go. But he has convinced me that my objections to his arguments are not as reliable as I might have assumed. My reservations about open borders are actually pretty similar to the reservations that people in a eugenics society would have had to a proposal for an open birth policy.

The fact that superficially similar arguments against birth restrictions would have been rejected out of hand by a eugenic culture should, at the very least, make us do a bit of soul-searching.

Let’s face it, most people oppose open borders at the gut level, and then they search for logical reasons to support the position that had already formed in their reptilian brain.

None of this is to say that all border controls are bad, or that all birth controls are bad. In some cases, the state may have compelling reasons to restrict human reproduction, or human movement. (Forcible sterilisation and mandatory residence registration of sex offenders comes to mind.) There may be a human right to a family and a human right to migrate — but all the same, as long as we accept the authority of our governments, no right is truly unqualified.

But before our governments take coercive action against these rights, they are obligated to weigh the far-reaching implications of doing so, and comprehensively rule out more humane alternatives. The callous attitude towards human life implied by eugenics wrought untold horror and injustice throughout the 20th century, even in what we once thought to be “civilised” societies. Just because the government can micromanage our culture and society through birth controls does not mean it always ought to do so.

And the desire to have a family is just as strong and natural as the desire to move for a better life. We cannot exclude someone from our society and economy without just cause — just as we cannot forcibly sterilise someone, or coercively matchmake a couple, without just cause. Before we enact broad, far-reaching curbs on the exercise of these human rights, we need to be sure that strict controls are the only tolerable option we have to achieve the ends we have in mind. If we wouldn’t force innocent people to have sex at gunpoint to achieve this goal, it’s worth asking why we’d be all right pointing guns at innocent people to accomplish the exact same thing.

British hostility to immigration, and myths that refuse to die

The United Kingdom in the past few years has embarked on an aggressive campaign to cut down immigration. Restrictionist sentiments are alive and well amongst the British. A few months back, I wrote about how perplexing it was that even British left liberals, such as author David Goodhart, readily embrace restrictionist myths and assumptions. Unfortunately, in the UK — just as in most countries — the well-meaning side making the case on anecdotes instead of facts wins. Instead of debating the real issues at hand — such as what keyhole solutions are appropriate — we’re essentially debating whether Jews do in fact poison wells or Mexicans are in fact potheads.

Goodhart recently authored a book, The British Dream, purporting to show the disaster that has been British immigration. This book turned out to have played very loose and fast with the data, as economist Jonathan Portes observed in the London Review of Books. If you enjoy watching a train wreck, Portes published an unabridged version of his debate with Goodhart (since the LRB refused to give them both sufficient space to respond to each other) — Portes shows clearly how Goodhart has ignored the economics of immigration and blatantly insisted on substituting anecdotes for data.

This fact was driven home to me a couple months ago when I attended a Cato Institute panel on what economists think about immigration. The economic consensus: there is no evidence that immigration economically harms natives; any harms are so small that they are virtually indistinguishable from zero. Yet looking at the debate on immigration, you would think that only deportation can save the welfare state or provide jobs. Goodhart himself blames British immigrants for impoverishing British whites and stealing their jobs — and he is on the left of the British immigration debate!

After the Cato panel, one audience member from Ukraine came up to moderator Alex Nowrasteh and panelist Michael Clemens to say: your presentations were great, but what do your opponents say to rebut your claims that immigration doesn’t harm natives? Alex and Clemens essentially said: “nothing!” Even the strongest finding here has been that 20 years of immigration to the US caused a total 3% drop in the wages of low-skilled natives. If you take a simple average of that, it’s a 0.15% drop per year. And that itself is a figure which many economists mistrust, because it makes arguably naive assumptions about the economy — such as assuming capital investments don’t change in response to labour market changes. Why do even people on the left buy into the myths of immigration’s costs? This would be like a leftist saying “Yes, I suppose we can’t let all the Chinese in, since otherwise they might rape too many of our women, but we have to treat those we do let in better!”

The Cato panel focused on the US economy, but economists who’ve studied the issue in other developed countries have had just as hard a time finding harmful impacts to natives. Portes covers the issue well in his full discussion with Goodhart — British data show that youth unemployment fell in communities receiving more immigrants, which is exactly counter to Goodhart’s claims. Yet the myth that immigrants “steal” jobs persists.

The myth that immigration destroys jobs or drives down wages may seem a petty issue in comparison to the myth that Jews drink the blood of babies or that Mexicans are drug mules (this latter myth came up in plenty of informal discussion after the Cato panel, since one American Congressman had only just that week made the physically impossible assertion that virtually all unauthorised Mexican immigrants carried 75 pounds of marijuana with them across the border). But these economic myths are I daresay even more harmful than the petty racist myths that no right-thinking person today believes. These myths give a veneer of respectability to inhumane immigration policies that in fact destroy jobs, tear apart households, and spit upon the concepts of justice and fairness.

The Cato panel on what economists think about migration came to mind again and again as I followed a recent debate in the UK House of Lords about the impact of new immigration laws. The full transcript of that debate is quite interesting reading, and you can also always watch the debate if you prefer (the video opens at the start of the debate in the House of Lords that day, around 11am; skip ahead to 3:41pm for the start of the immigration debate).

The gist of the problem is this: the British government wants to reduce rates of immigration, by hook or by crook. To accomplish this, they have enacted seemingly arbitrary requirements for prospective immigrants to meet. And now, the government is reaping what it has sowed: British citizens are unhappy that their rights to invite and engage with foreigners have been severely curtailed, in the service of a regime that reduces jobs and families down to a single number: zero net non-EU migration. This debate in the House of Lords centred specifically on restrictions of the rights of British citizens and residents to invite their family members to the UK — rights that have been arbitrarily curtailed in worship of a nonsensical goal.

The debate is so interesting that I hope to blog about it in depth separately. Suffice it to say that it is a litany of failures in every imaginable way. When you have a government trying to centrally plan immigration — to issue an edict from upon high that no more than X number of immigrants must be allowed in — you have an economic and human disaster. Doctors who cannot care for their aged parents leave the country. British businesspeople who marry foreigners are told they should go live in Australia. A Syrian refugee trying to join her sons in the UK, with a charity guaranteeing and sponsoring her, is told by the British government that she should stay in the war zone that is Syria. The British government purports to establish a fair and firm regime for immigration — by mandating that only high-income Britons may marry a foreigner. It is estimated that almost half of all Britons do not earn enough to meet the income requirements for sponsoring a spouse’s visa — and even if they can apply, success is not assured, as in the case of one British-Australian couple told their visa was denied because there is no pressing need for their family to leave Australia.

In what must certainly be a frustrating turn of events for economists like Clemens and Portes, most of the Lords in that debate paid lip service to the goal of reducing immigration, taking for granted that it is, as matter of good policy, important and desirable to cut down immigration by what is essentially an arbitrary number pulled out of thin air. Some even forthrightly state that many of the new restrictions are good insofar as they create jobs for British youth. It is like hearing a lawmaker declare that it’s unfortunate that good people would be harmed by exiling all Jews, but at least this mass deportation would reduce the prevalence of poisoned wells in Britain.

Open borders — by which I mean an actual fair visa regime that grants a presumptive freedom of movement to all — is the only regime that can truly avoid the calamities and catastrophes we are witnessing today in the UK, and continue to witness every day across the world. As long as arbitrary laws ban our fellow humans from being with their families and seeking honest wages, we will continue to count the costs of closed borders in wasted tears, sweat, and blood. Any regime that declares “I have the arbitrary right to ban good people from being with their families if I feel like it” — which is exactly what the unjustified, pulled-out-of-thin-air numerical quotas of the sort we see in virtually every country today amount to — is utterly irreconcilable with basic humanity.

Open borders is not costless. One can well imagine that if we moved overnight from the closed borders regime to an open one, most developed countries would face an unmanageable flood of people. But it’s not clear to me why we count this as a cost of the open borders regime, rather than a cost of the closed one. If we had never closed the borders in the first place, we would never have had to worry about the adjustment costs of undoing our grievous mistake. Before we closed the world’s borders, we had no evidence that levels of immigration then reduced wages or employment. This is unsurprising; economists agree that the long-run effect of open borders is nil. It is only the short-run sudden release of migrants, held back artificially by arbitrary laws, that we need to manage carefully.

Only a few days ago, the Bristol Freedom Society hosted a debate on open borders — one that apparently went rather better for the open borders side than the similar Intelligence Squared debate recently hosted on the American side of the pond. Reflecting on the Bristol debate, Ben Southwood of the Adam Smith Institute cogently observed:

Any claim that migration should be kept to a particular level, because of the risk of undermining British institutions, implies an assumption about how much damage the marginal immigrant does or will do (reliably or with some probability). One cannot cop out of the question, you need to have an answer. But no one has yet set out good evidence about exactly how much damage to institutions the marginal immigrant does or will do—typically arguments in this area depend on anecdote or things that people feel they “just know”. This won’t do when the benefits to immigration are so high. We cannot simply assume the cost to our institutions outweighs the other benefits.

As Southwood suggests, the paucity of evidence for the claims frequently made about migration is appalling. Meanwhile, the evidence of the moral horrors of how we treat migrants is plain for all to see. Closing the borders for the sake of an arbitrary number ruins lives. We see that writ on a large scale today in the UK. There is no sense or logic possible under the law the moment justice is enslaved to an arbitrary quota. And it is all the more sad that the profound injustice of a quota on jobs and a quota on families is being perpetuated on the basis of ignorance and falsehoods. In no other area of law or public policy do we let the government so wantonly rip up families and destroy jobs, without due process, relying only on the evidence of myths — to the extent they rely on evidence at all. It’s time we demanded our governments do something different about immigration — something actually informed by the evidence and consistent with the rule of law.

The cartoon featured in the header dates to 1886, and depicts fears of Chinese immigration to Sydney, Australia.