Tag Archives: attitudes to immigration

Humiliating and dehumanising: border controls

I’ve often found it a bit odd how civil libertarians get so upset about the introduction of strict travel regulations post-9/11. The TSA is a favourite whipping boy of civil libertarians, across the political spectrum. Whether you lean Democratic, Republican, Green, or Libertarian, you have little love lost on the TSA. A number of potential explanations come to mind:

  1. Most post-9/11 intrusions on civil liberty are abstract, but everyone who flies gets exposed to this
  2. People get upset that an act as mundane as human movement is presumed to be a danger until proven otherwise
  3. The opacity and arbitrariness of transport regulations terrify and upset people

The true answer is likely to be some combination of these (plus other factors I’ve probably not even thought of). When reading security blogger Bruce Schneier’s summary of the harms of post-9/11 security, factor #3 especially stood out to me. This paragraph in particular stuck a chord:

…if you’re on a certain secret list, you cannot fly, and you enter a Kafkaesque world where you cannot face your accuser, protest your innocence, clear your name, or even get confirmation from the government that someone, somewhere, has judged you guilty. These police powers would be illegal anywhere but in an airport, and we are all harmed—individually and collectively—by their existence.

Schneier is wrong on that last point — these police powers apply to almost any non-citizen at almost any border control in the world. And we sit down and take for granted that this is right. Even if you have a visa, you are never guaranteed entry. In many countries, the US included, your entry is entirely at the discretion of the enforcement officer at the checkpoint, who can decide that, for whatever reason, you shouldn’t be allowed in.

It’s difficult I find to really explain what this feels like to someone who has never experienced it personally. My aunt, who has been a US citizen for two decades, still recounts vividly how happy she was to gain citizenship because she would no longer live in fear of her green card being taken away, or of being denied entry every time she re-entered the US after visiting family and friends abroad. At my company, stories abound of people who flew home to visit relatives and wound up being stuck there for months after they were denied re-entry to the US for various bureaucratic reasons. And figuring out this Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy is more opaque than you might think: the official position of the US government is that the only way one can see one’s own immigration records on file with the government is to file a Freedom of Information Act request — even if one needs these files to fight a deportation proceeding.

Governments take liberties with foreigners’ rights in ways that they would never dream of doing to their own citizens. The concept of due process is at best tenuously applied to dealing with foreigners. One UK Minister recounts seeing whole carts of files being wheeled past him so that officials could truthfully tell Parliament he had “reviewed the files” of those requesting asylum. The way the governments of the world treat people who simply want to cross an arbitrary line drawn on the map is morally wrong.

None of this is to say we ought to abolish borders: open borders and no borders are not the same thing (that’s a debate we can have another time). Those opposed to the “security theatre” that has sprung up since 9/11 don’t demand that law enforcement vanish from the world’s airports. Essentially all of them support the maintenance of airport security checkpoints. Likewise, open borders is not about abolition of border controls: it is about properly according every person the dignity and respect which every human being deserves.

Humane immigration policies would provide prospective visitors and immigrants a clear process for obtaining visas, and grant visas as of right except in unusual cases (such as those with evidence of criminal history or the contagiously ill). All those with visas would be guaranteed entry, again, except in extraordinary cases. Those facing immigration proceedings would be assured access to their files, and would be assured that their case gets the attentive review demanded by due process. These things might sound elementary, but they are near-wholly missing from the immigration process today.

If civil libertarians protest restrictions on domestic transportation, one wonders why so many are silent about the evils of deportation or the arbitrariness of visa policy. The same problems that compel these activists to decry opaque and arbitrary government coercion apply even more in spades to foreigners crossing the border. Here, I think the first reason I suggested for civil libertarians’ concern is the predominant one: the problems of immigrants and other foreigners are simply too abstract for most civil libertarians to bother. That’s literally a crying shame — if libertarians think it’s an unimaginable humiliation to deal with the TSA for a few hours every so often in order to travel, they ought imagine having to deal with an even worse bureaucracy every so often in order to hold down your job and live in your home.

The photograph featured at the top of this post is of a Customs and Border Patrol agent conducting a patdown of a Mexican girl being detained. Courtesy of the US government.

Open borders and the impending apocalypse

A common approach rebutting open borders is to argue that the costs of liberal immigration policies outweigh the benefits to humanity. I’ve never actually seen this belief explicitly expressed in a universalist manner — the argument is usually focused on how immigration will destroy the wealthy economies and liberal societies of the world. But I think this argument is a serious one, and I give it serious credit.

This does not always seem to be the case; one may sometimes feel that open borders advocates are a tad glib in dismissing concerns that open borders might “kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” To be blunt, this is because there is no empirical evidence supporting this claim.ChineseExclusionActHandbill[1]

If we look at the past, the same concerns people have today about Latin American, African, Arab, or South Asian immigrants used to be directed at East Asian, Southern European, and Eastern European immigrants. The same people today who vocally embrace “high-IQ” or “high-skilled” immigration of Jews, Europeans, and East Asians, would find that these very same groups of people used to be the “low-IQ” and “low-skilled” immigrants who were not so long ago literally treated as vermin in their countries. Fears that the unintelligent, criminal, brute Catholic Irishman or Italian, or the conniving and unintelligent Jew, might ruin civilisation turned out to be unfounded.

If current levels of immigration were a harbinger of impending doom, it would be quite easy to prove this. It’s fairly easy to point to anecdotes — but surely laying one’s finger on the data would be easy too. You’d show skyrocketing rates of crime, environmental collapse, or economic depression and clearly link them to immigration in some fashion. Yet no credible academic study I’m aware of has been able to do this. Restrictionist memes blame immigrants for the impending collapse of civilisation in Western Europe or California, yet the actual academic backing for these views is hard to find.

It’s surely not because academics are afraid of voicing politically incorrect views. A vast conspiracy of intellectuals to open the borders and silence such a devastating finding would be quite difficult to keep secret. And yes, one can find credible empiricists skeptical of immigration. Yet the most famous academics whose works actually credibly show negative impacts from immigration — George Borjas and Robert Putnam — both do nothing but disappoint.

Borjas finds that immigration to the US slightly reduces the incomes of the poorest American citizens — something that could easily be addressed through keyhole solutions which redistribute some of the gains from migration to poor natives. Putnam finds that social diversity reduces a theoretical measure of “social capital“, but even his credible result has been challenging for other researchers to replicate. If this is the worst we have to fear from immigration, I say bring it on.

The truth is, we don’t know very well what a world with open borders would look like. We know it would double world GDP — studies of the effects of  greater immigration on world GDP are remarkably consistent in predicting a massive boost to world income, regardless of their theoretical specifications or empirical approach. But given that far too few academics are seriously studying the impacts of immigration in an empirical fashion, we don’t have enough data to say with certainty that much of what we currently know to be true about immigration would still hold true in a world with massively looser immigration policies than today’s. We couldn’t guarantee that immigration would continue to be more or less neutral with respect to native incomes, and have a neutral to positive impact on crime.

But the precautionary principle only militates against immediate open borders. There is nothing stopping us from experimenting with a little more immigration. As the world’s population grows, as humanity grows richer, it makes absolutely no sense that our visa policies are held hostage by the immigration quotas of decades ago.

Open borders advocates actually aren’t asking for much. We simply believe in making the presumption that all who seek to move may do so — a presumption that can be overriden by a clear and pressing need, such as, say, the actual risk that your civilisation might collapse if you don’t shoot the next prospective immigrant in the face. As philosopher Phillip Cole puts it:

In effect all I’m proposing is that immigration should be brought under the same international legal framework as emigration. Immigration controls would become the exception rather than the rule, and would need to meet stringent tests in terms of evidence of national catastrophe that threatens the life of the nation, and so would be subject to international standards of fairness and legality.

I and I think other open borders advocates take concerns about global catastrophe quite seriously. Given that we typically come from universalist and sometimes even nationalist or citizenist moral starting points, we have every reason to be concerned that open borders might mean the end of the world as we know it, in a horrible way. But search the evidence, and you find no actual reason to be concerned about current immigration levels, and every reason to believe that open borders would immensely benefit us all. Even if you don’t find the evidence sufficiently compelling to tear down the border checkpoints right this moment, it’s compelling enough to demand more thorough research and compelling enough to demand experimentation with ever more liberal immigration policies.

How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: Intro

As Vipul Naik has recently commented on, I am going to be starting a new series of posts here on  Open Borders. The goal of this series will be to examine how border restrictions have changed and what arguments were used to justify the new rules. Border restrictions of various sorts do have long histories, but why does a more open system tend to close up or a closed system become more open? How do the arguments made in the past compare to modern immigration arguments? Did those arguments hold up given the information available at the time? Do they hold up better or worse knowing what we know now? And in cases where dire predictions for or against immigration restrictions were made, how well did those predictions hold up?

This discussion can help move discussion away from a status quo bias. All else being equal, people tend to prefer the status quo to a change. This is very often a good thing. Indeed, the precautionary principle would indicate that the burden of proof should lie with new policies that they are not harmful. As an example, if you don’t know whether doing exploding a bomb will blow up the planet, but you think it might, then the safe action to take would be avoid blowing up that bomb. However, this principle holds less weight when the reason a status quo is in place to begin with is because of faulty reasoning and that status quo causes great harm itself. We have lots of examples on this site of how current policy creates lots of harm for the world be preventing what we could otherwise achieve or maintaining a status quo that isn’t working for hundreds of millions, but were there good reasons to put the restrictions in place to begin with? Did periods of greater immigration cause serious problems avoided by restriction? And have immigration systems been set up well given the concerns which motivated their creation? Here’s where historical examination and this series of posts in particular come in. I’ll be looking at the arguments used at the time and try to determine which made sense, which were over blown, and which were complete rubbish. Historically, all sides in immigration discussions have made mistakes, screwed up predictions, or even stated outright lies. Such is the nature of politics. But has one side or the other tended to be closer to the truth? If so, shouldn’t we be more suspicious of arguments from the opposite corner? If not, then at least we gain perspective that arguments for and against immigration have been equally bad and that the current status quo (whether one thinks too many or too few immigrants are allowed in) was established with shaky reasoning.

In any event, I hope to cover topics I already know some about such as the closing of the US border, Roman and early feudal restrictions, the end of passportless borders in Europe during World War 1, the partial re-opening of the US border starting in 1965, and the establishment of the open border Schnegen Area in Europe. If any of you readers have suggestions for other examples for me to look into please leave them in the comments and I’ll see what I can dig up! The first real post in this series will deal with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and when that goes up I’ll give a link in this post as well. Given that this kind of project takes quite a bit of time and that I am trying to keep sources mostly limited to data available online and in English (an unfortunate restriction but one that helps keep the conversation accessible to as many readers as possible), I’m always open to sources you all find! For the upcoming post the major sources I intend to use can all be found under the primary and secondary source sections of this page. So if there’s a decent source (whether primary or secondary…I figure my need for tertiary sources is probably met in most cases by Wikipedia), let me know in the comments.

Germany is thinking about abolishing visas

Open borders advocates may have some allies over in Germany. In January this year, Deutsche Welle published this story with the unassuming title German companies want fewer visa restrictions (emphasis added):

Visa applications take too long, representatives from German industry say. They argue that companies lose money when a foreign business partner cannot travel. And they have concrete proposals to reform the system.

A deal worth millions was almost closed at a German agricultural fair, but urgently needed visas could not be issued to the foreign business partner. The telephone number in the documents was wrong, so embassy officials couldn’t reach anyone.

This is not a unique case, according to Andreas Metz, a spokesman for the German business community’s Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations. He cannot understand why old rules are followed to the word.

The visa system is actually a relic of the 19th century,” Metz told DW. “Today, there is a completely different method to ensure security, namely through a biometric passport and computerized information, which impede travel less significantly.” He hopes that visa requirements will be done away with eventually.

The discussion about unrestricted travel is also being discussed at the government level. German Economics Minister Philipp Rösler is pushing for more freedom. He recently called for Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich to give up his opposition to a more liberal issuing of visas.

The Interior Ministry’s main argument is security. The ministry is in favor of simplifying the visa application procedure, but it is against getting rid of visas. It has to ensure that aspects related to security and migration policy are preserved, the ministry said.

It seems difficult to believe that the German government is considering open borders via the abolition of visas. I’m not sure what exactly is being meant here by abolishing visas, since I can’t imagine the German government is eager to invite the entire world to live in its borders. (The article goes on to cite concerns about Turks and Russians unlawfully settling in Germany if visas are abolished.) Probably what’s being envisioned is that visitors would not require visas, so anyone can enter — but settling would still require a residency permit.

(By the way, talking of political externalities — Philipp Rösler is an immigrant from Vietnam who was adopted by a German family, so one can argue he has something of a vested interest in loosening border controls.)

This isn’t true open borders, but it’s one way to start down the road there. As the German lobbyist indicates, the modern visa system is only going to become even more out of place with the advancement of technology. I can still envision scenarios where a reasonable government would require visas: I can see the case for requiring visas from countries which are hotbeds for terrorism or organised crime. But modern technology makes the case for abolishing visas only more compelling.

Immigration Restrictionists – Why Not Eugenics?

I’m a pro-natalist.  I’m in favor of people being born.  Be careful when you think to yourself, “that’s a silly thing to be specifically in favor of; isn’t everyone?”  Because I assure you, not everyone is.  There are plenty of Malthusians out there, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not.  There are people who believe in eugenics; people who think the world would honestly be better if we revoked reproduction privileges from those with low IQ’s, criminal histories, certain racial or ethnic backgrounds, genetic defects, etc.  And if the idea of forcibly spaying and neutering everyone with a wheelchair, a below-average IQ, the wrong skin color, or any other factor appalls you – then breathe a sigh of relief: You have a conscience.

Sadly however, this belief is not universal.  I’m not sure it’s even a majority belief (I hope it is, but the cynic in me says that if you really asked all seven billion people, most would come up with a certain class of people that they’d rather not see more of).  But there is a specific category of person, with a specific category of belief that I want to address here.  That is:  People who do not believe that we should limit births based on any factor, but who are restrictionists when it comes to immigration policy.

In a way, birth is a form of immigration.  Someone is moving from the generic “somewhere else” to the here and now.  The place you occupy and call your home is getting a new occupant.  But obviously there are many differences between a newborn in America and an immigrant in America, for example (by no means do I intend to say that these concerns are limited to America – I use that country solely as an example).  The newborn is going to use vastly more social resources.  The newborn is statistically more likely to be a criminal.  The newborn is less likely to join the labor force, and infinitely less likely to do so within the next ten years.  On the other hand, most newborns immediately have a private support network (albeit one that will rely heavily on public services).

Newborns have lots of other differences from immigrants, of course – they look like natives, they sound like natives, and they’ll probably share native cultural beliefs and social norms.  These are all reasons that other natives will like them more, but they’re not reasons why they would be more beneficial to the country than immigrants, so we’re going to ignore those for now.

Other than the instinctual reasons for liking a newborn more than an immigrant, is the only real benefit that a newborn offers over an immigrant as a choice for “new addition to the country’s population” that they have a private support network of mostly self-sufficient people (at least, as self-sufficient as anyone gets in a modern first-world country)?  If that’s the case, it seems like the immigration issue is pretty easy to solve.  If the one and only criteria that potential immigrants needed to meet before coming in was to find a voluntary supporter, it seems like we’d have plenty of immigration!

Let’s do a thought experiment.  Let’s pretend that current citizens of America can invite immigrants in using only the same criteria by which they can have children.  Any two people could invite an immigrant in – and the same two people could invite in as many immigrants as they wanted.  They would not have to be able to support those immigrants, though socially speaking there would be pressure to do so.  If you decided two years later that you didn’t like your immigrant, you couldn’t send him or her back, any more than you can “send back” a baby; though you could in theory put yours up for adoption.  Since immigrants can generally take care of themselves, this seems like less of an issue for immigrants than it does for children, so that’s an extra point in favor of immigrants.  You could be irresponsible and invite too many immigrants in the same way that you can be irresponsible and have too many children; but since immigrants can work and are far less dependent on their caregivers than children are, it seems like this is far less of an issue – score another point for the immigrant.

You don’t need to submit to a background check to have a child, so you wouldn’t need one to invite in an immigrant.  The child obviously doesn’t have a background to check, while the immigrant might – but given the respective crime rates, it seems like it would make more sense to check potential parental backgrounds to weed out potential criminals than to do the same with immigrant backgrounds.  Since we don’t do the former, it’s hard to make a moral case for the latter.

Of course, children can’t vote for at least 18 years, so immigrants wouldn’t be able to, either – fair enough (and as a keyhole solution, this has already been suggested).

For those whose restrictionist attitude stems from the fear that immigrants might eventually “take over” the country due to sheer numbers – well remember, that’s guaranteed with children.  If immigrants were brought into this country by a parental figure, the same as children, you’d have the same opportunity to influence them.  It might even make people of competing political or cultural outlooks compete to have MORE immigrants, for the same reason you want to have more kids in that circumstance:  If you think your culture is so great, you want to pass on that culture to the next generation in larger numbers than the “other people” – whoever they are in your eyes.

So there you have it.  Regardless of what opinions you hold about birth and immigration respectively, there’s very little non-instinctual reason to restrict immigration more than birth, relatively.

Of course, there are those that don’t believe births should be restricted along any categorical lines, but do believe that overall restriction in terms of sheer quantity should happen.  Again, I’m a pro-natalist, so I don’t share this view.  But even if you do hold that view, that view isn’t analogous to the view most people have about immigration.  Most people who you’re likely to meet on the street have one of two opinions on immigration:  Either we should restrict it even more than we do now (even to the point of zero), or we should be increasing “high-skill” immigration while decreasing other kinds.  But statistically speaking, only a tiny fraction of American newborns will grow up to be the kind of people the “high-skill” immigration proponents want.  What’s the native birth rate of engineers compared to the total native birth rate?

But let’s say you actually hold comparable quantity-restriction views on both birth and immigration.  You don’t believe in restricting either by category, but you do believe in strict quantity limits on both.  There are a number of problems with this view.  First – what’s the optimal number?  A quota of any kind means that something other than spontaneous order is determining the number of births and/or immigrants, and that’s therefore pretty much guaranteed to be the wrong number.  Then of course are all the administrative difficulties – how do you parcel out the set number, given that the desired number will be higher?  Who gets to come and who doesn’t?   There’s almost no way to do a quantity restriction without also imposing a categorical one, except for some sort of “first come, first served” method that is very unlikely to be satisfactory.  We need only to look to China to see some of the negative effects of a quantity restriction on birth; like any prohibition of something nearly universally desired, the unintended consequences are severe.

Restrictions on immigration based on quantity have all the same problems as restrictions on birth rates based on quantity, and immigration restrictions based on category appear significantly less moral than birth restrictions based on the same.  Considering that we don’t restrict births in any way in America, it would seem difficult to build a moral or utilitarian case to restrict immigration.