Tag Archives: arbitrariness

18 years of immigration torment

 Atanas Entchev is an immigrant to the US who is currently penning a book about what he calls “[his] family’s 18-year US immigration ordeal.” He is currently blogging excerpts from the book. Atanas’s story is a poignant reminder of the harshness of immigration restrictions and the climate of fear they create. Atanas is a recognised leader in his field of geospatial studies, one of his clients being the US government. He was legally present in the US for most of the last 20 years — but because of a legal snafu in 2011, he became eligible for deportation. He and his son were arrested and held in custody for over 2 months, facing deportation proceedings.

The Free Atanas campaign published a fairly comprehensive (if obviously sympathetic) summary of why his family was facing deportation, and why they were seeking prosecutorial discretion. Atanas and his son were detained in the autumn of 2011, making them one of millions of victims of the Obama administration’s heavyhanded immigration crackdown. Obama purports to have targeted threats to public safety and prioritised them for deportation, but as far as one can tell, there is no real reason why Atanas and his family were prioritised.

After a campaign mounted by people who knew Atanas both personally and professionally, he and his son were freed at the government’s discretion, with permission to remain for 1 year. Information on why the government did this is scarce, though it probably helped that a Congressman and Senator signed on to the petition for Atanas’s release.

I’ve written before about the absurdities of immigration enforcement, and Atanas’s case is a perfect addition to the list. Atanas and his family lived legally in the US for 2 decades. He so thoroughly integrated his family into the US that his son, despite holding Bulgarian citizenship, speaks no Bulgarian. He became eligible for deportation because his lawyer made a mistake, and immigration law offered him no way to correct that mistake. Then he was prioritised for deportation for reasons unknown, detained, and then released, also for opaque reasons. What way is this for government to make decisions that literally turn people’s lives upside down?

Atanas is currently seeking a literary agent to help him get his book published. It looks like he’s been slow to release much on his blog, so I hope he gets around to publishing. It looks like it’ll be something worth reading.

The “No One Is Illegal” YouTube video

A YouTube video by the No one is illegal group has been doing the rounds (if you have trouble playing the embedded video, access it on YouTube here). I’d like to thank John Roccia (here’s his blog) for sending me the link.

The video, which appears to have been shot in London, is set up as follows: the protagonist sets up an arbitrary barrier on a bridge and says that all those on one side of the bridge need to show their documents and prove their worthiness in order to cross over to the other side of the bridge, drawing on the idea that immigration restrictions are arbitrary and that there is a prima facie moral right to migrate. The people in the video whose bridge-crossing rights were denied seem to have been actual people, not stage actors, and there are some interesting verbal exchanges in the video.

Both sophisticated and unsophisticated restrictionists would be quick to scoff at the video’s arguably naive critique of borders. Certainly the video is not the final word on the matter, and there are any number of counterarguments that can be made to its implicit critique of borders. These counterarguments can be met with counterarguments, which can again be met with counterarguments … the game can go on indefinitely. In many ways, the video is a simplistic rendering of an argument that fails to acknowledge many complex issues.

Nonetheless, I think it is a valuable contribution as a beginning move in an argument for open borders. I believe that the right to migrate is presumptive, not absolute. But it is a presumptive right, which means that restricting this right arbitrarily requires a strong justification, a justification that should be at least somewhat stronger than a purely utilitarian/consequentialist argument. There are plenty of theoretical rights frameworks, such as Nathan Smith’s theory of the streets (details on the right to migrate page), that help make the case. This video, by blocking access on the literal street, makes Nathan’s point about the theory of the streets.

Moreover, while the counterarguments offered by restrictionists, mainly about the harms to immigrant-receiving countries, do offer some possible edge cases and exceptions to the right to migrate, they do not destroy the validity of the underlying idea of the right to migrate, which is put across well by the video. So, although the video is a simplification, it is still a simplification that is correct in essentials.

PS: Some commenters on YouTube and elsewhere have suggested that the protagonist of the video is an international socialist and/or holds other views that make him difficult to take seriously. I don’t know of the protagonist’s work in other areas (there’s only one other video on this specific YouTube channel, which seems to be on a similar theme) but my purpose here is to offer my thoughts on a specific video, not evaluate the protagonist’s overall political stance

Some absurdities of immigration policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do governments owe non-citizens?

A common intuitive response to the case for open borders is, “What do I owe someone I’ve never met, who shares no creed, affiliation, or allegiance with me? What does my government owe someone who isn’t even a citizen?” Co-blogger Nathan has already addressed this line of thought in his own way, but I would like to further grapple with the assumptions underlying this citizenist logic.

The problem I see with this intuition about immigration is it totally denies the existence of any human rights. It presumes that all rights must flow from the existence of a nation-state, and that without the state, one would have no rights. From a law enforcement perspective, this is trivially true: the state is the instrument by which human beings mutually guarantee our rights. But from a moral standpoint, it hardly follows that states only owe anything to their constituents, and owe nothing to anyone else.

Suppose it is true that governments’ only role and mandate is to maximise the welfare of their citizens. Would that justify the hostile annexation of a neighbouring state? Would that justify permitting the theft of non-citizens’ property, or assault against non-citizens? Clearly not.

One can argue that the reason modern states prohibit crimes against foreigners is because of the threat of retaliation from foreign states. Does that imply that it would be fine for any one of us to rob, rape, or kill a stateless person, since we have no retaliatory threat to fear?

You could argue then that this would still be a net welfare loss for the nation, because other states might refuse to protect my nation’s citizens in their jurisdictions, unless they see that my nation too upholds the sanctity of human rights. Precisely! Many rights do not flow from the state; they flow from the innate worth and dignity of every human being.

When the topic of open borders comes up, skeptics are quick to say: “But we can’t let everyone in! What do we owe foreigners? We can’t afford to give everyone welfare! And look, not everyone is entitled to be a citizen of my country.” But welfare, suffrage, the privileges of citizenship — those are all political rights, which obviously and by necessity flow only from a state. Beyond political rights, there are fundamental human rights, which the international community and all reasonable human beings recognise derive from no earthly governing body.

Defenders of the status quo love to say “the law is the law; it must be followed” when it comes to immigration. When asked to defend the law on its merits, they insist there is no need to, because every sovereign nation is entitled to its own immigration policy. That may be true, but every human being is entitled to rights of their own too.

We accept that governments have the right to kill people. We accept that they have the right to coerce people. But we would not take it lying down if tomorrow our government told us “I’m going to kill 5,000 people, because I feel like it.” Americans would not be happy if their government said “I’m going to reinstate the draft, because I have the right to do that.” Even the most hardcore restrictionist would probably be unsure about defending the merits of an immigration policy that executes all illegal border-crossers on sight — even though illegal immigrants supposedly have no rights which a foreign state is bound to respect.

None of this is to say that human rights dictate that sovereign governments have no right to an immigration policy, any more than most understandings of international trade would suggest that sovereign governments have no right to a trade policy. But human rights create a strong presumption that governments must rebut before implementing policies that restrict human rights. If a government wants to conscript its residents, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.” And if a government wants to tear families apart, or prevent people from looking for gainful employment, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.”

When government policies destroy families and destroy jobs, there is a clear obligation to justify these policies. You can argue that the benefits of denying certain rights outweigh the costs. But you cannot suggest that the costs are irrelevant. It is amply evident that every human being has rights, and yet that all these rights can be infringed as long as nation states exist. But we must be clear about why we make the difficult choice to declare some human beings’ rights not worth respecting.

Were the UK and US right to deny visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust? Is it right for the UK or US to prevent a native-born child from living with his mother, because she is an unauthorised immigrant? Maybe — there’s a plausible argument that what these governments did and do here is right. But it is not an easy, slam dunk argument to make. The conventional response is that there is no need to make such an argument: governments have no obligations to foreigners; foreigners have no rights or dignity as human beings that are worth respecting. I think this conventional response does not actually make the difficult questions around these policy decisions go away.

Are immigration restrictionists pirates?

Restrictionists frequently criticise unauthorised immigration by insisting on respect for the rule of the law. Dodging questions about the justness or reasonableness of immigration law, they continue to insist the law must be respected, independent of any concerns one might have about ethics or practicality. I wonder, then, if these same people have never illegally downloaded anything in their lives.

The parallels between intellectual property theft and immigration are rather interesting. As currently structured, both intellectual property and immigration laws are:

  • Difficult to enforce
  • Rarely consistently enforced except in extremely totalitarian states
  • When enforced, enforced quite arbitrarily
  • Considered unreasonable and/or unethical by many
  • Routinely disregarded by many, both in the developed and developing worlds

All the arguments for rounding up all “illegal immigrants” in the world and deporting them, as well as “tightening” border controls, are equally applicable to intellectual property laws. Governments should more seriously pursue those who illegally download MP3s, books, games, and software. They should take strong punitive action to ensure previous offenders don’t enjoy the fruit of their offenses, and strong preventive action to ensure nobody can offend these laws again. Consider the enforcement parallels:

  • Deport them all
    • Wipe all their hard drives
  • Build a wall
    • Shut down every filesharing website, including YouTube, Facebook, Google, etc.

You may think I’m kidding, but these enforcement parallels exist: when my alma mater finds a student has been using their wireless internet to illegally download or share files, they make them bring in their computer for a scan to ensure all offending material has been deleted. Automated copyright enforcement schemes even took out NASA’s live video feed, when a false positive led YouTube to declare NASA’s live video had violated the copyright of Scripps Local News.

My personal views of intellectual property law are irrelevant to the parallels I’ve drawn here (though if you’re curious, it’s somewhat close to my view of immigration law: quite clearly inadequate and unjust, but some restrictions will remain administratively necessary for the foreseeable future). Whether you support or oppose the current intellectual property legal regime, the parallels are clear to see. What I want to know is, have restrictionists never downloaded something illegally? Never watched a video on YouTube that wasn’t the uploader’s to upload? Never viewed a webcomic or read a PDF that wasn’t the sharer’s to share?

If restrictionists take their own arguments about the rule of law seriously, they should scrupulously avoid benefiting from the flagrant violations of the law entailed by what we consider day-to-day usage of the internet. It doesn’t matter how unreasonable or unenforceable the law is — the law is the law. Sure, piracy isn’t physically stealing from anyone — and neither is crossing an imaginary line some people drew on a map, for that matter. Besides, it’s not like you’re giving up the job that can pull you out of poverty, or giving up all hope of living with your family — all you’re giving up are movies, TV shows, books, and music which you can and should be paying for already. If restrictionists defending the “rule of law” want to be taken seriously, they can start by showing us the way forward in respecting the world’s copyright laws.