Tag Archives: assimilation

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.

Open Borders Would be Great for Women

This is a guest post by Victoria Ferauge. Victoria is an American expatriate currently living in France.  She thus has first hand knowledge of how immigration controls work and impact migrants. Victoria also maintains a blog here.

I am an immigrant.  In 1989 right after I graduated from university I left the United States for France.  I have lived nearly 20 years now in the Hexagon where I am a legal resident and hope to be a citizen soon.

I’m not alone. According to the International Organization for Migration, 49% of the 214 million international migrants are women.  So why do so many of the discussions about migration assume that the average migrant is a relatively young man seeking better opportunities elsewhere?  This gender bias makes it very hard to join a conversation that revolves primarily around the economics of migration and ignores all the other factors that go into every woman’s (and man’s) decision to cast him or herself onto a distant shore.

In a previous post here on Open Borders, Joel Newman talked about one advantage that women would have under Open Borders: escape from persecution and discrimination .  This is certainly true but these cases don’t represent the majority of woman migrants.  It’s incorrect to assume that “escape” is the primary reason that woman migrate.  Some of our reasons (like opportunity) are, in fact, very similar to those commonly attributed to men.  The Moroccan women I know here in France came because their language skills and degrees meant more opportunity for them in a Francophone country in the EU, and not because they felt actively persecuted at home.  Other migrants like myself had other reasons to migrate that were just as important as the chase after better opportunities.

Family is one of these.  It can be about joining family members already living outside the home country, it can be a decision to get married and start a family with a native citizen in another country, or it can mean moving the entire family to a safer place to raise children in a society that invests in children.  For the record, one of the primary reasons I’ve heard from American immigrants in Europe and elsewhere for migrating is to raise children in a less violent society with better public schools.  For this, they were more than willing to trade economic opportunity (and pay higher taxes) for a more “family friendly” environment.

The problem women migrants face when they migrate to join family (especially a spouse) is that the woman begins her migration journey as the appendage to the man.  The assumption is one of “dependent” status. This impacts the economic equality of immigrant women within their marriages to citizens or to other legal residents.  In most countries it is a fact that women make less than men.  Many skilled immigrants are under-employed compared to their education level and skill sets during the time that they assimilate and learn the language.  If you combine the two, this means that the difference between the native husband’s income and that of the foreign woman struggling to start or restart a career, can be enormous.  As a result of this inequality, she may have less power when it comes to deciding how the children are brought up, what language(s) to use in the home, and what traditions will be followed.

To be very clear all too often her right to live and work in the country of arrival is based on her relationship with her spouse (or another family member – usually a father or brother) and that gives them extraordinary power over her. This power lessens over time as the woman establishes residency but in the beginning, it is a powerful weapon that can be used to control a woman’s behaviour in the host country.

So my argument for Open Borders is simply this:  It would give us women more equality in our migration journeys.  We could enter other countries on our own terms, and our status and ability to stay, to live and work, would be completely independent of our husbands or fathers.  And finally, it would make bi-national marriages and partnerships where one is a citizen and the other is not, much more equal.

And that is why Open Borders would be good for women everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic status and country of origin.

Land Of The Free

Post by John Roccia (occasional blogger for the site, joined April 2013). See:

Well, let’s just cut right to the chase. On Tuesday, July 2nd, a guest blogger with the handle “Land of the Free” kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest here at Open Borders with a post titled Betting The Republic, and promised to reveal his/her secret identity after a week of debate.

It’s me!

Before the rotten tomatoes start flying, however, let me explain a few things. First, the views expressed by Land of the Free (or LOTF, for short) are not my views. Not even a little. Take a look at my past work here on Open Borders, and you’ll see that I’m as vehemently pro-open-borders as they come. When I wrote the two posts and the various comments as LOTF I was, to put it mildly, lying through my teeth. I wrote deliberate falsehoods about my identity and past work in order to throw you off the scent, and then I created an entirely false – but hopefully plausible-sounding – argument to present to you.

Why did I do all of this? I had two main motivators. The primary reason was as a form of social experimentation that Professor Bryan Caplan calls an “Ideological Turing Test.” A brief explanation of an ITT is this: if you can present an argument that is opposed to your own, and present it well enough that people can’t tell that you don’t actually hold those beliefs, you can be said to have “passed an Ideological Turing Test.” If you can’t pass an ITT, then chances are good that you don’t actually understand your opponent’s arguments, and are relying on straw men, being uncharitable, living in an echo chamber, or any other metaphors for poor debate technique. As to whether I think I actually passed the ITT, I’ll discuss that below.

Before I do that, I want to talk briefly about my other motivator. As far as arguments against open borders go, the issue of political externalities is the one I consider to be the strongest. I don’t agree with it, but I certainly think it’s more difficult to argue against than things like welfare drain or job-stealing, which are far more easily refuted. So in presenting this argument specifically, I wanted to draw out the very best of the counter-arguments – and you didn’t disappoint!

Michael Carey, Peter Hurley, David Bennion, Hansjorg Walther, (especially) Nathan Smith and several others presented excellent arguments – so excellent, in fact, that at a certain point I was actually unable to continue arguing the point. Some of my points were easier to refute than others (in fact, several of the points I made as part of my larger argument, such as the mention of IQ and the precautionary principle, I made to obscure my identity and leave false clues, rather than because they were especially good arguments). However, the entirety of this project was aimed towards challenging my fellow open-borders supporters to present their strongest case, and I felt the best way to do that was to present an actual antagonist to argue against.

What follows is a summary of the best arguments presented against LOTF’s main points. After that, I’ll add a few personal notes, as well as some thoughts about the ITT aspect.

  1. Assimilation effects are relatively large. Since the privilege of official political involvement is not automatic with immigration (nor does it have to be under open borders), by the time you are able to meaningfully influence politics, America will have largely changed and assimilated you. At least on average, America changes immigrants far more than immigrants change America.
  2. Additionally, even when they have the ability to vote or otherwise interact with the political process, immigrants as a group are not very involved.
  3. Founder effects, legacy institutions, and political structure all have much more influence on the politics of a nation than any single voting generation.
  4. Immigrants self-select for many traits very beneficial, and even under open borders, this effect would likely not vanish. Even with no institutional barriers to migration, migration is still difficult and those that choose to migrate often do so because they’re “voting with their feet” against the bad policies of their homeland.
  5. Lastly, even if immigrants were very heavily involved politically and voted in uniformly terrible ways, the American electorate is very elastic. Voter turnout is affected by many things, and one of those things could easily be great masses of immigrants voting in ways natives don’t like.

There is plenty of evidence to support those five positions – to start, look no further than the comments on “Betting the Republic!”

I would like to thank all of the commenters who engaged with me under my nom de plume; you made it an enjoyable and educational experience. I am filled with great confidence in the ability of the crew here to debate this topic well!
I would especially like to thank Vipul Naik, who was “in” on the whole charade, even planting a few strategic comments to challenge me further.

And I would like to apologize to Alexander Nowrasteh, who linked to “Betting the Republic” in a recent Cato blog post as an (as far as he knew, genuine) example of a political exernalities argument. The post, genuine or not, serves perfectly well in that role, so I hope he isn’t too upset at my ruse.

Now, lastly, I’d like to take a moment and talk about the actual Ideological Turing Test. I cannot rightly claim to have passed 100%. While none of the comments on “Betting the Republic” (or the other post responding to Bryan Caplan) indicated that anyone thought I wasn’t genuine (though several may have thought I was wrong or even foolish), the true test would have been if any restrictionists had supported me, rather than simply open-borders-advocates opposing me. If you imagine a typical Republican/Democrat debate, it would probably be far easier for a typical Republican to convince other Republicans that he was a Democrat than to convince actual Democrats that he was one of them. All our hypothetical Republican would have to do would be to play into the stereotypes his peers expected and they’d be unlikely to question his credentials – but other Democrats would more harshly judge someone who they thought wasn’t representing their views accurately.

In that sense, I did not necessarily pass the ITT. However, I would like to think that the group of people reading and commenting on “Betting the Republic” represents an above-average level of intellect and reason (to say the least). At least to some extent, convincing such a group that I was a restrictionist (a category of political viewpoint that this group in particular studies rather extensively) is enough to lead me to believe that I am accurately and charitably representing my opponents’ viewpoints. Since no restrictionists commented to support me, however, I can’t say for certain that I would be able to seamlessly pass as one of their own. So I’ll give myself a C+, but I can’t say I deserve an A.

However, this has been an enlightening and educational experience for me, and I want to sincerely thank everyone who participated. Now, answer in the comments: Did you think I was genuine (even if you didn’t think my argument was good)?

Discrimination and the semi-open border

A couple weeks ago the American Civil Liberties Union updated its position on the Senate’s immigration bill. Overall, the ACLU seemed to favor the bill for its path to citizenship and for due process improvements in detention and deportation processes. One of their concerns was that “LGBT couples do not have the same rights as straight couples in immigration proceedings.” The ACLU blog post was written before the US Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, a ruling that for the most part renders moot discrimination against gay couples in the Senate immigration bill, at least at the federal level. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that at a time of cascading victories for gay rights, when even opponents feel the inevitability of gay equality, one instance where discrimination can gain support is that of gay couples bestriding the border.

Of course, I’m probably overstating this effect. Those pushing to discriminate against gays in immigration proceedings are the same as those pushing to discriminate against all-American gays. Yet discrimination is a common theme in immigration restrictions. Though I view it as strategically unwise–not to mention unfair and not altogether honest–to denounce immigration restrictions as inherently racist, it’s also unwise to ignore the blatantly racist history of American immigration policies. Chris Hendrix has blogged about the first major restrictionist legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but even before this, naturalization (as opposed to immigration) was restricted on explicitly racist grounds. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to “free white persons” of “good moral character”. This may not be surprising for a nation that allowed legal slavery of Africans and those of African descent for nearly a century, but this racial requirement was the law of the land until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Immigration isn’t the same as citizenship, yet this unpalatable history is clearly relevant to today’s discussions of immigrant assimilation (citizen or otherwise).

Perhaps partially as a result of this legal requirement, much of the history of assimilation has been entwined with the idea of “whiteness”. The story of the Irish in America, for example, has been one of transforming from a “racial” group into an “ethnic” group. In a reflection on St Patrick’s Day a few years ago on racismreview.com, blogger Jessie writes:

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred. Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants have experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

Emphases in original. The intimate relationship between whiteness and American assimilation is possibly best described in the language of historical court decisions. In a paper titled Immigration and the Meaning of United States Citizenship: Whiteness and Assimilation (ungated here), SMU law professor George Martinez quotes some real legal gems:

[Assimilation] as a proxy for whiteness is confirmed by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Thind. In rejecting an immigrant from India’s claim to whiteness and the right to naturalize, the Court explained that Indians were unable to assimilate:

The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.

Lower court cases further confirm a connection between assimilation and whiteness. In United States v. Cartozian, the court considered whether Armenians were white. Connecting assimilation with whiteness, the court held that “it may be confidently affirmed that the Armenians are white persons, and moreover that they readily amalgamate with the European and white races.” Similarly, in In re Ahmed Hassan, the court held that Arabs were not white persons, observing that

it is well known that they are part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominantly Christian peoples of Europe. It cannot be expected that as a class they would readily intermarry with our population and be assimilated into our civilization.

Martinez goes on to quote the Supreme Court’s logic upholding the legality of the Chinese Exclusion Act: “[If Congress] considers the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous to its peace and security … [Congress’s] determination is conclusive upon the judiciary.”

Explicit racism in immigration restrictions persisted after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 formally severed the concepts “American” and “white”. In a curious collusion of Mexican emigration restrictionists and American immigration restrictionists, “Operation Wetback” was launched in 1954 to deport illegal Mexican immigrants and limit further Mexican immigration. The dangers, of course, are that a long history of racist justifications for immigration restrictions doesn’t just disappear down the memory hole when the law is officially changed and that explicit racism in American immigration policy has merely been replaced by implicit racism. One place to start looking for such implicit discrimination would be in the federal Secure Communities program, which has been criticized for encouraging racial profiling.

But I don’t want this post to be entirely about the historical connection between immigration restrictions and racism. Another, more subtle kind of discrimination is at play in the modern immigration debate, even in more enlightened quarters: discrimination against lower classes. A recent incarnation of this is the moralized evocation and denunciation of a “moocher class” composed of the lazy poor who take handouts from the government and give nothing back to society in return. The reality is somewhat different, with many upper class individuals failing to realize when they have benefited from government programs. As with racial discrimination, discrimination by socioeconomic class makes generalizations about large groups of individuals and judges them to be somehow worth just a little less than the dominant group.

This class discrimination arises in the distinction between “skilled” and “low-skilled” immigrants. Many people skeptical of allowing more low-skilled migrants across the border can even be quite enthusiastic supporters of more immigration of skilled workers. Reihan Salam of the National Review has summed it up this way:

The goal of means-tested benefits and publicly-funded human capital investment is to better the lives of all members of the American polity, but particularly the most vulnerable, by giving them a foundation for participation in our shared economic and civic life. We might disagree about how much we ought to spend and how these programs are structured, with people like me favoring a limited scope for social programs, choice and competition, and an emphasis on work supports, etc., but support for the idea of a safety net and a place for the public sector in education is pretty firmly entrenched. When we expand the American polity, it makes intuitive sense that we would want to do so by welcoming individuals who are already well-prepared to fully participate in economic and civic life, as we’ve learned through long experience that people who are ill-prepared will face tremendous difficulties, as will their children. For a variety of reasons, individuals with 8th grade education and limited English proficiency are less likely to flourish in the U.S. than individuals with a college education and a high degree of English proficiency. If it is also true that less-skilled and less-affluent U.S. residents with limited English proficiency benefit more from an influx of skilled immigrants (potential customers or complements) than from an influx of less-skilled immigrants with limited English proficiency (potential competitors), the case for a more selective, skills-based immigration policy becomes even stronger.

While this technocratic approach sounds sensible enough from some national central planner’s perspective, it sounds paternalistic from a view closer to the ground, as if those who are deciding when and how to “expand the American polity” are protecting low-skilled migrants from the “tremendous difficulties” of living in a developed country. People have been migrating to strange new places with novel difficulties to navigate ever since we spread beyond Africa. As autonomous agents directing the course of their own lives, presumably migrants have assessed the risks and difficulties of migrating to a new country and have judged their chances of flourishing to be greater with moving than with staying. This is true even for migrants “low-skilled” but nonetheless savvy enough to pursue higher wages when and where they can be found. If “low-skilled” workers will fail to flourish in a high-income host country, then they will almost certainly fail to flourish to a greater degree in their poorer countries of origin. And of course flourishing may be relative, with modest living in a rich country amounting to serious comfort to those who have only experienced modest living in a poor country.

The paternalistic, for-their-own-good argument seems to be a thin veil concealing the desire to make the “American polity” look a certain way.  The low-skilled migration restrictionists do not seem to be concerned with removing poverty so much as with removing poverty from view. I suspect the distinction between low- and high-skilled immigrants is really a euphemism for discriminating against poor and lower class immigrants. High-skilled immigrants, regardless of absolute wealth levels, are usually richer than low-skilled immigrants and they are certainly more educated. High-skilled immigrants have grown up in families that would be considered culturally elite or at least middle class in their countries of origin (this is how they attained the human capital to qualify as “skilled”). As such, high-skilled workers will more easily fit into “nice” parts of the rich world, like suburbs and medical schools. And they will do the host country the benefit of adding diversity to these institutions, making them appear more inclusive while still keeping out the riff-raff. They will not need to live in dense slums many-to-a-room in living conditions middle class natives find distasteful.

Low-skilled immigrants, by contrast, are more likely to come from lower social classes in their countries of origin and this will translate immediately, if not permanently, into a similar socioeconomic status in a rich host country. With that status come all of the disadvantages the native poor face, with the additional disadvantage living under constant threat of unceremonious deportation.

I don’t doubt the desire of folks like Reihan Salam to improve the lots of low-skilled natives, and even better, their desire for an institutional framework in which low-skilled natives improve their lots themselves. The problem is that their motivation to do so is to create a more superficially attractive nation, rather than to construct an actual engine of human flourishing.

Are the linguistic externalities of open borders important?

One of the most obvious, automatic arguments against open borders is that people won’t be able to understand each other. “They don’t speak English,” is one of the knee-jerk complaints about (some) immigrants. People will tell anecdotes about how they went into the grocery store and wanted to ask where the soup was, and the employees couldn’t help them because they were only Spanish-speaking. I don’t think I’ve seen the movie  Now, as our linguistic assimilation page points out:

To the extent that the problem [of the failure of linguistic assimilation] is genuine, a keyhole solution to it is to impose linguistic and cultural fluency requirements as a precondition for migration.

And a billion people or more speak English, so that still opens up a huge amount of immigration. Of course, more would learn. But let’s set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re thinking about the immigration of non-English speakers.

Let me respond first of all to the supermarket anecdote. The supermarket could presumably hire English-speaking employees. The supermarket would presumably have to pay more to English-speaking employees, reflecting their greater economic value and the greater opportunity cost of their time. The supermarket would pass through the costs associated with their higher wage bill to customers. So customers face a trade-off: English-speaking staff, or higher prices. The question is not, would you rather have English-speaking staff in the grocery store, but, is it worth it to pay 1% or 5% or whatever more for your groceries to have English-speaking staff? If most customers think it is worth it, the supermarket, to remain competitive and maximize profits, would presumably give customers what they want by raising prices and hiring English-speaking staff. So, the fact that the supermarket has hired non-English-speaking staff is evidence that most customers prefer lower prices. Maybe you’re not most customers. Maybe you’d be willing to pay 5% extra for your groceries so that the supermarket staff would be able to tell you where the soup is in English. But why should the government use force to make your preferences prevail over other consumers’ preferences? Notice, by the way, that the conflict is not, for the most part, between English-speakers and non-English-speakers, but among English-speakers with difference preferences over grocery prices versus ease of communication with supermarket staff.

Moreover, the customer who wants English-speaking help may not have to do more than drive down the street to a different grocery store. Typically, free -market capitalism offers a wide variety of goods and services, catering to all tastes, and even minority and niche markets get served. It’s quite possible that the customer who complains about the non-English-speaking staff is actually, at the same time, revealing his preference for non-English-speaking staff plus low prices, by shopping at the supermarket that employs them when other supermarkets, who insist on good English, are available, albeit they charge more. In that sense, it’s improper to regard the lack of linguistic assimilation as a downside of open borders at all. I should be careful not to exaggerate here. Real world markets are imperfect, and the rough-and-tumble of markets probably will see some consumers’ welfare fall, more or less randomly, because of the interaction of these imperfections with their preferences. If you live in a small town with only a few shops, the arrival of immigrants really might deprive you of your preferred shopping environment as other people’s preferences create a new, less English-speaking equilibrium. In the same way, if white hats become fashionable, black hat lovers may suffer as stores don’t bother to carry the unpopular item. But such effects will be small, and society as a whole will enjoy gains from trade with immigrants.

A certain misunderstanding is worth guarding against at this point. Suppose we compare two worlds, in the first of which a country’s 300 million people speak a few dozen languages and have no language in common, whereas in the second, the country’s 300 million people speak those few dozen languages plus they all speak another language which is the common language of the country. Clearly the second situation is better. But that’s simply because the second country has been given, ex hypothesi, a large endowment of extra human capital. In reality, there is an opportunity cost to acquiring human capital. So this is the wrong thought experiment with which to evaluate the effects of open borders.

The starting point of an economic analysis of the effects of linguistic diversity must be that (a) linguistic human capital is valuable, but (b) immigrants who come to a country despite their lack of the appropriate linguistic human capital reveal that they gain thereby, and (c) natives who do business with immigrants despite their lack of the appropriate linguistic human capital reveal that they gain thereby. Markets and prices should accurately value linguistic human capital, and should efficiently resolve the question of whether it is worth it for this or that non-speaker of a country’s dominant language to immigrate or not. The only case which is definitely an exception to this market efficiency argument is when people use language for non-market cooperation, e.g., when you go up to a stranger on the street and ask him for the time, or for directions.

Now, being able to ask strangers for directions and rely, not on getting them since they might not be able or willing to help, but at least on having a common language, certainly has some economic value. The inconvenience of asking two or three people for directions and finding that they are non-English speakers, thus wasting one’s own time and theirs, is certainly a negative externality likely to be associated with open borders. Given the rarity of the event in question, however, I am inclined to rate the importance of the negative linguistic externalities of open borders as low to the point of being trivial. But since this argument pops up again and again, am I, perhaps, missing something? Are the negative externalities of lacking a common language somehow much more important than I suppose? Why? How could this be measured?