Tag Archives: attitudes to immigration

Yakko’s World and the incredible danger of fetishising borders

Recently, I stumbled across this clip from the children’s cartoon Animaniacs, which in a little ditty lists the countries of the world:

The ditty is not actually accurate for two reasons:

  1. The map and composition are based on information that was current in the early 1990s, which is well over two decades ago;
  2. For musical purposes, not all countries are named and some countries are incorrectly named

Both of these reasons, in other words, highlight the incredible arbitrariness of national borders. Some I noticed in just one listen:

  1. “French Guiana” is one of those former European new world colonies that are still in old world hands today
  2. “Russia” in the video is really the USSR, comprising many regions that today are independent countries
  3. “Germany now in one piece”
  4. “England” is only one constituent country of the United Kingdom
  5. “Two Yemens” (Yemen used to be two separate states)
  6. “Sumatra and Borneo” — the island of Sumatra is entirely Indonesian (although it once had an active and violent separatist movement), while Borneo is divided between Indonesia and Malaysia
  7. “Somalia” is arguably two or three countries, depending on whether you recognise governments like those of Somaliland
  8. “Sudan” is now two countries

You can easily conceive of a very different world map, one where:

  1. French Guiana is its own country
  2. Russia/the former USSR are partitioned or united in different configurations
  3. Germany remains partitioned
  4. The United Kingdom is splintered into its constituent countries (some people are still trying to make this happen)
  5. Yemen is splintered (this potentially could happen, given the unrest today)
  6. Sumatra and Borneo could be countries of their own, or divided in some different way between Malaysia and Indonesia (Sumatra is actually culturally and linguistically more similar to Peninsular Malaysia than Borneo is)
  7. Somalia is splintered, and Somaliland could be a sovereign state in its own right
  8. Sudan would still be unified

All of those outcomes are either incredibly realistic, being actively worked towards, or once actually were the case. What reason do we have for these not being the case, other than accidents of history? If the British and the Dutch hadn’t signed a few pieces of paper because Napoleon invaded the Netherlands, Singapore might be part of the former Dutch East Indies (i.e. Indonesia) today, while Sumatra could be a thriving former British colony instead of a region of Indonesia. Nothing innate about the people of Singapore or Sumatra dictated that their borders be where they are today — in a larger sense, Napoleon had more to do with how their borders are set and where these people may travel than any living Singaporean or Sumatran does today. A similar story applies to just about any patch of land you might pick in Southeast Asia.

Depending on which side of a line you were born on, or on what side of the midnight hour the clock read when you were born, you could be Sudanese or South Sudanese. You could be Dominican or Haitian. You could be Pakistani or Bangladeshi. And based on these totally arbitrary factors, where you can live, travel, work, and study will forever be defined. If Napoleon invaded your former coloniser two centuries ago, maybe you wound up British or Singaporean instead of Dutch or Indonesian, or vice-versa. I do not see the sense in this.

There are two sensible ripostes I can think of:

  1. Some arbitrariness is inherent to the workings of the world, and necessary if we are not to go insane
  2. Countries and their unique institutions and cultures are incredibly relevant to shaping who you are

I would articulate the first as similar to observing that in the US, if you drink at 11:59PM in the evening you can be committing a crime, and 2 minutes later, simply exercising the natural right of an adult to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. But while arbitrary cutoffs may be necessary, at least these arbitrary cutoffs which lawmakers set are based on some non-arbitrary study. Governments (one hopes) consider the relevant medical and social science research in deciding an arbitrary minimum drinking age, just as they consider traffic engineering research in deciding an arbitrary speed limit. So remind me, why is it that Napoleon’s invasion of the Netherlands means someone born in Sumatra can’t work in Singapore today without begging for permission? What social science study are we relying on here?

As to the second point, I think this is all well and good. But it is one thing to suggest that countries are relevant to policymaking and our real lives. Nothing inherent to this point demands an automatic ban on foreigners living and working in your country. Maybe it demands a special language test. Maybe it demands an immigration surtax that funds language classes for immigrants or subsidises job training for displaced natives. The point I am making is that you cannot rely on the relevance of the institution of countries to demand a fetishisation of their arbitrary borders. I probably have more in common with a New Yorker of Asian descent than I do with a Borneo longhouse-dweller, yet I am a “foreigner” to the first and a “fellow citizen” to the second. Yet I am allowed to “impose” myself on the Bornean’s community and not the New Yorker’s, because ostensibly I have more in common with the Bornean and pose a threat to the New Yorker.

None of this means we should discard the nation-state, treat it as irrelevant, or even refuse to consider nationality in policymaking. Even borders have some relevance: they define the boundaries of a certain legal jurisdiction, and I would hesitate to just tear that down.

But we cannot take borders for granted. If we find ourselves suddenly declaring someone shouldn’t count or matter because of this arbitrary line, we need to be absolutely sure why we believe this. We cannot grant borders all the due deference in the world. When borders depend on which tyrant invaded your country a century or more ago, that’s a strong reason to instead believe borders might not be worth the paper they’re drawn on. Considering how often our fetish of borders gets in the way of exploring new ideas about citizenship or adhering to our most-cherished civilisational beliefs, this is no trivial matter.

How did we come to be so certain that closed borders are our salvation?

Editorial note, added December 26, 2014: Welcome, Hacker News readers! This website is devoted to discussing the case for open borders, including the moral arguments for it and the practical question of how to get there. To address concerns surrounding migration liberalization, we suggest keyhole soutions and slippery slopes to it. For more about the site, you might want to read our site FAQ. Another post that you might find particularly relevant is Nathan Smith’s post on Mark Zuckerberg and FWD.us.

One puzzling thing I notice about debating immigration is how certain people often are that strictly restricting immigration is the right policy. Almost any person, when prompted, can articulate almost immediately a tonne of reasons why restricting immigration makes sense:

  • National governments have carte blanche to exclude any foreigner from their territory as matter of moral right
  • Open borders would let terrorists into our country
  • Open borders would let foreigners steal jobs from our people
  • Open borders would allow a foreign people to invade and steal our country from us
  • Permitting immigration imposes foreign cultures on our people
  • Immigrants will abuse our welfare system
  • Immigrants will undermine our institutions and replace them with their inferior ones
  • Liberalising immigration won’t really help poor foreigners anyway
  • Too many immigrants will swamp our territory or society to the point that it cannot function any longer
  • Letting in low-IQ/-skilled immigrants harms our economy or polity

But for some reason, the same people eager to expound on the litany of catastrophic harms that would no doubt ensue under open borders are rarely able to cite any sort of academic literature that backs them up. Their best retort, in terms of academic prestige, is George Borjas’s work on immigration’s impact on American wages, and maybe Robert Putnam’s work suggesting that diversity reduces some theoretical measure of “social capital”. You can’t find any empirical estimates that seriously support the above hypotheses — at least not to the degree that has people so certain the only right immigration policy is building a better and higher prison wall.

Now, if you turn the above propositions around, on all of them, we are either certain that open borders is immensely beneficial, or we’re just unsure. We know for a fact that liberalising immigration immensely helps the poorest human beings alive. Hardly any serious restrictionist disputes this; the only ones I’ve encountered who do are basing their certainty on foundations of sand: the most memorable example was a person who suggested that estimates of the place premium are wrong, because when you adjust for purchasing power parity, people in poor countries have better living standards than people in the US — such an economically-illiterate claim that it doesn’t even merit a rebuttal here. Most restrictionists are happy to concede that immigrants are made better off — they just believe that the act of immigrating makes natives dramatically worse off.

But the propositions to do with crime and “job theft” are our runners up for certainty: in the empirical literature, it’s difficult to find any serious social scientist who believes immigration increases crime rates, especially in a significant manner. And among economists, Borjas alone sticks out like a sore thumb for producing estimates showing dramatic depression of native wages (“dramatic” being a short-run reduction of a few percentage points). If there are any serious peer-reviewed, published analyses showing immigration leads to a significant spike in crime, or any landmark studies besides Borjas’s contradicting the economic consensus, I’d love to see them, because they seem to have slipped the minds of the restrictionists I’ve met so far.

Still, for virtually all the other propositions above, the evidence is either limited, decidedly mixed, or both. The long-run institutional, political, and societal effects of immigration have not been thoroughly studied in an empirical manner. But assuming we place the most weight on these outcomes (and ignore the other findings on the economics and crime of immigration), this means we ought to be cautiously uncertain about what the right immigration policy is. It means that even if we favour restrictionist policies, we do so with great uncertainty.

Yet the spectre of open borders seems to produce a stout certainty on the part of many people, who even if they aren’t dedicated restrictionists, seem quite convinced that the status quo or something close to it is certainly the right and best policy, given what we know now. There is strong certainty that a more liberal immigration policy of any kind would be a horrible idea. Yet engaging with these pro-status quo or even pro-closed borders assertions, one finds them disappointingly devoid of empirical backing.

The best ace the restrictionists have in their back pocket is the nuanced argument that reducing the proportion of high-IQ people in an economy below a certain percentage, or raising the proportion of low-IQ people in an economy above a certain percentage, would lead to a slowdown in innovation or corrosion of successful institutions. But even this claim is problematic, since it is difficult to tell how far IQ and economic growth and innovation are causally linked. And if having low-IQ immigrants is so devastating, this effect should surely be easy to demonstrate through meaningful measures of harm: slower economic growth rates, fewer number of patents filed per capita, higher crime rate. If we can’t observe these harms at existing levels of immigration — and, it bears repeating, the overwhelming majority of the empirical literature cannot find any such meaningful harms — then right now we are simply worrying about IQ for the sake of worrying about IQ.

If this whole post seems wishy-washy, since I’m essentially conceding that we are uncertain about the effect of open borders on quite a few dimensions, you’re partly right. But it’s more accurate to say that we are just as equally quite uncertain about the impact of closed borders, and to the extent we know anything with certainty, it’s how devastating they are. We can’t even rule out that closed borders are incredibly harmful to us on a number of dimensions (a straightforward reading of the empirical literature suggests that if you want to cut crime rates, you should subsidise immigration). Worse still, given the consistency of the literature regarding the impact of closed borders on the world economy and global poverty, we are absolutely certain that closed borders keep millions of people in poverty of the worst kind. We know that on average, the effect of closed borders halves the world economy.

Even if you think that the status quo of closed borders is right, it is worrying how uncertain we are about this conclusion. In many cases, the issues at hand simply haven’t been studied enough, and we know virtually nothing (we certainly don’t know enough to support most common restrictionist assertions about immigration). We do know the incredible destruction that closed borders wreaks on the world economy and the people of the world, to the tune of halving world GDP and keeping millions in poverty. We ought to have our top men and women working on figuring out whether we can crack the borders open at all. The fact that we don’t means we are simply irrationally certain that closed borders is the right answer. And that irrationality strikes me as best summed up in this 1881 cartoon, depicting Irish immigrants to the US — men and women bringing terrorism, crime, and corrupt institutions to American shores, people whose only contribution was adding themselves to the welfare rolls:

Editorial note: If you’re interested in discussing the many issues related to open borders, check out the Open Borders Action Group on Facebbook.

Immigration to US for whites only?

An argument that has been made by our friends over at VDare is that the entire idea of America being a nation of immigrants is misguided, at least immigrants of the multi-racial variety. After all, the constitution enshrined slavery (certain heterodox methods of interpreting the document not-withstanding) and the Naturalization Act of 1790 only allowed for citizenship for “free white persons”. Occasionally this argument veers off into strange directions. For instance when Peter Brimelow attempts to minimize the importance of immigration to American history:

It’s also true the intellectual elite tends to think America was Built By Immigrants because they live in New York or Los Angeles or somewhere like that—which are heavily immigrant cities, entirely immigrant cities.

But the last estimate that I saw, when I was researching Alien Nation, was that if there had been no immigration at all after 1790—none at all—the population of the US would still be about half of what it is now, through natural increase.

Having only half the population we currently have doesn’t seem like a way to ensure prosperity and minimizing the importance of cities like New York or LA (which make up a disproportionately large part of the American economy, these two cities alone accounting for about $2 trillion out of a total American economy of $15 trillion, or about one seventh , while combined of the only about 4% of the population, ~12 million people in the cities out of 300 million Americans) is even worse in that regard. But the primary focus of this critique of immigration is of the non-white variety. So, did the founders want only whites in this country (beyond perhaps slaves), and if so should we care?

Now the first and most obvious point is that the Naturalization Act of 1790 was an act about citizenship not immigration. We here at open borders have talked at length about the importance of disentangling these two concepts. But a modern understanding of the difference doesn’t mean that the Founders intended for this to be different. Perhaps they simply assumed that a path to citizenship was a necessary prerequisite for permanent residency in the United States. That’s what VDare would apparently like to argue anyways.

However, the Naturalization Act of 1790 could not have possibly been meant as an immigration restriction. After all article 1 section 9 of the United States Constitution states:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

While this was primarily to prevent a blocking of the slave trade before 1808, the addition of “migration” as well as importation of “persons” seems to imply more than just slaves. Furthermore, the act which banned that trade did not attempt to ban voluntary non-white immigration. The text  only bans importing “any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, in any ship or vessel, for the purpose of selling them in any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States as slaves, or to be held to service or labour.” If the founder’s intent was to deny non-whites entry or the right to migrate to the United States they seem to have left enormous loop holes.

Also while writers at VDare are quick to cite Federalist No. 2 to support the idea of the white American ethnic identity, whether John Jay is truly encapsulating the ideas of his fellow founders, or is even accurate in his description of the United States at the time, is questionable. The relevant quote from Jay being:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs

With religion for instance, allow me to quote Thomas Jefferson in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.

And over at the Huffington Post, David Bier present us with a number of quotes in favor of immigration generally and at least one quote from Thomas Paine directly in opposition to Jay’s view of the United States:

If there is a country in the world where concord… would be least expected, it is America…made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable.

And yet Paine still argues the country works as a propositional nation (the very thing VDare is attempting to deny). What this demonstrates is not the Founders were unambiguously denying that America had a particular ethnic origin, but that they were divided on the issue. Their ultimate actions however look a lot more similar to keyhole solutions we here at Open Borders: The Case might support than the close the border solutions of VDare. If the United States was meant by some of the Founders to be for whites only, it’s equally not clear that the men who warned against the dangers to liberty of standing armies would have supported militarizing a border against peaceful immigrants.

But this leads us to the question of whether in the modern world we should even care what the founders thought? The founders also failed to end the immense injustice of slavery or give women voting rights, things even conservative admirers of the founders should find to be major failings. Franklin’s own position on Germans in the United States would seem to be rather problematic now that Germans are the single largest ancestry for Americans to claim. Losing 17% of the US population that is almost entirely white probably would not be a preferred outcome for the VDare writers.

But ultimately the founder’s views can only be a proxy. They were certainly intelligent men and the opinions of intelligent people are generally worth at least considering. But in the modern world we have far more data and experience on how economics, politics, and just the way the world in general works. Thus both people asserting the founders supported immigration and those saying they opposed it are discussing a point of view that should carry very little if any weight in modern debates. The founders may have intended a propositional nation or may not have (or more likely some believed in one position and others in the other). But they no longer have to live with the consequences of such a choice and those who do should decide the issue.

Social conservatism and attitudes to immigration

A little while ago, I got into a debate with Vipul Naik over the link between social conservatism and open borders. My hypothesis was that social conservatives would oppose open borders because they are defending in-group privilege. Also, being socially conservative correlates with Republican party identification, which correlates with negative views of immigrants. In contrast, Vipul thought that the opposite might be true. Social conservative ideas (e.g., anti-abortion) do not logically entail anti-immigrant views. Immigration attitudes might be decoupled from social attitudes.

Here is what I found out when I used the General Social Survey to explore this issue. First, you have to identify an immigration question. The GSS has a few. The most general is “527. Do you think the number of immigrants from foreign countries who are permitted to come to the United States to live should be increased a lot, increased a little, left the same as it is now, decreased a little, or decreased a lot?” 1 – increased a lot. 5 – Decreased a lot. Roughly speaking, 8% increase, 37% stay the same, 54% decrease immigration.

Ok, let’s crank through some measures of social conservatism:

* Ideology: “66 A. We hear a lot of talk these days about liberals and conservatives. I’m going to show you a seven-point scale on which the political views that people might hold are arranged from extremely liberal–point 1–to extremely conservative– point 7. Where would you place yourself on this scale?” Correlation? .094 – p-value <.001. n=2598.
* Abortion attitudes: “251. Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or never legal under any circumstance?” 1 – Always. 3 – Never. Correlation? .016, not significant. N=1497.
* Gay Rights: “219. What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex–do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” 1- Always wrong, 4 – not wrong at all. Correlation? -.138, p <.001. N=1702.
* Affirmative action for blacks/women: “153/552. A. Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks/women should be given preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring and promotion of blacks is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your opinion — are you for or against preferential hiring and promotion of blacks?” 1. strong support to 4 strong oppose. Correlations? .198/.091 . p<.001/p =.07. N= 383 (each).
* Biblical literalism: “120A. Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible? a. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. b. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word. c. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” 1 – word of God, 3 – book of fables. Correlation? .071, p=.16. N=383.

Bottom line: Anti-immigration views are always positively correlated with what we’d consider indicators of being socially conservative. In some cases, the correlation is strong, in other cases not significant. However, there are no cases where being conservative is correlated with having pro-immigration views.

Open Borders editorial note: You might also be interested in Nathan Smith’s post Who favors open borders?, that examines World Values Survey (WVS) data comparing attitudes to immigration in 48 countries around the world.

Forget not the temporary migrants

There are many different ways to think about migration; when we discuss the subject, often people’s vision seems to be of someone moving with intentions of permanently settling and acquiring citizenship in their new country. Occasionally, they might give some passing thought to explicitly temporary guest workers on the side. The popular “permanent migrant” characterisation might accurately describe a lot of people, but I am skeptical that it captures the full picture. Here are some other broadly-painted immigration stories that don’t often come to mind:

  • The tourist who falls in love with a country she visits. One day while browsing job postings, she finds and applies for a job in that country.
  • The student who decides to apply for a university abroad on a whim. He finds he enjoys life there, and seeks to work afterward there.
  • The manual labourer who decides to look for construction work in a country with a better economy than his own.

These people could all follow the typically-envisioned track, and stay permanently in their new country. But they could well not: perhaps the tourist finds life in her new country is not all it’s chalked up to be. She moves on to another country, or returns home. Maybe the student and manual labourer are happy to stay and work for years, or even a few decades, but later move home to take care of aging parents and raise a family.

Common discourse around migration tends to assume two paths. Either you are:

  1. A permanent migrant, and once your visa is approved, you are on a one-way path to citizenship
  2. A temporary migrant, and you should be a seasonal commuter (working in a foreign country for one or two seasons, returning home for the rest of the time)

(Less sophisticated discussions sometimes even forget the second category. More sophisticated ones might include in the second category guest workers whose seasonal commutes are a little longer, working for the span of a few years at a time.)

But this common discourse is incapable of fitting real human beings into its shoehorned categories. Realistically, new immigrants don’t know whether they want to commit to a new country, and if so, for how long they’ll want to make that commitment. Maybe they’ll commit to it for a career, but not for family. (Or maybe it’s the other way round: I know some people who have migrated primarily for family reasons, but maintain jobs or businesses in their home country.) Maybe you commit to one country for the harvest season, but not for the rest of the year. Maybe you commit to it for only as long as construction work is available, or only until you’ve saved enough to buy what you want at home.

You might consider these trivial or rare scenarios, but I would argue they’re more common than you think. I consider myself one of these amorphous immigrants: I am a Malaysian who is currently a permanent resident in the US, but I’m not sure how long I’ll live here. The range of possibilities for how long I live and work here in my opinion range from 5 years to 50 or more. They are contingent a great deal on my career path in the US, whether my significant other is allowed by the government to live and work in the US (she is also a Malaysian), the political and economic climate back home, and what opportunities I might find in other countries.

(Speaking of countries I’ve fallen in love with as a tourist, I’ve often thought it would be fun to work in London or in another Western European city. My girlfriend thinks it might be interesting to work in Hong Kong, where she studied for a few years. If we do migrate to one of these places, who’s to say whether we’ll live and work there for 1 year or 10? Or our lifetimes?)

If you prefer hard numbers, consider the polling data: over 1 billion people (over 25% of the world’s population) say they desire to temporarily move to another country in search of work. This is about double the number of people who say they desire to permanently move to another country. I find these numbers a bit dicey for two reasons:

  1. A lot of people might not even be bothered to think of moving, permanently or temporarily, when they know that our system of global apartheid makes it impossible for most people to live and work outside their country of birth — this would artificially depress these numbers.
  2. Some people might not be sure whether they want to move temporarily or permanently. If you ask me whether I am a temporary or permanent migrant, I would honestly answer that I don’t know.

But these numbers are definitely directional. If when you think of migration and when you think of open borders, you only think of permanent settlement, you’ve erased 2/3rds of all the people who would like to migrate. You’ve written off the hopes, dreams, and futures of over 1 billion people. Open borders is not just about the permanent settler. It’s about ensuring people with all kinds of goals and motivations can make the most of themselves and contribute as much as they can.