Tag Archives: Aviva Chomsky

Reparations are not a sound basis for making immigration policy

The recent influx of child migrants into the US has put immigration and refugee issues in the limelight. Because many of these children are fleeing violence in countries like Honduras and El Salvador — countries where US foreign policy has empowered violent gangs and created political instability — the debate has also seen the resurgence of what I call the “reparations argument” for liberal migration laws.

In essence, this argument runs:

  • The US (or whatever potential host country is being discussed) created a bad situation in the migrant-/refugee-sending countries
  • Therefore, the US is actually responsible for creating the flow of migrants from these countries
  • Therefore, the US must do one or more of the following:
    • Welcome these migrants
    • Send more foreign aid to these countries
    • Change its foreign policy

This cartoon from the Facebook page Muh Borders is a good summary of the reparations argument:
If you didn't want to deal with refugees, you shouldn't have f***ed with their countriesNow, I think this argument does make logical sense and is a pretty decent framework for thinking about foreign policy. If one nation wrongs another, it seems intuitive that reparations should be on the table.

But I don’t think the reparations argument makes sense as a justification for the status quo plus limited liberal treatment of migrants from certain nationalities. It could perhaps be logical to say “We ought to recognise the right to migrate for all people. But if we can’t agree on that, we should at least agree that those people we have harmed have an especially strong claim on the right to migrate.”

But note that this reparations argument is pretty much orthogonal to the case for open borders — it doesn’t have much bearing on the question of whether we ought to recognise a right to migrate, which is probably why not many open borders advocates rely on it. Reparations are just a “second best” argument. Indeed, the only open borders advocate I’m aware of who regularly uses this argument as direct support is Aviva Chomsky, and as both co-blogger Vipul and myself have noted before, her arguments are actually not that sound.

The problem becomes acute once we depart from making the case for general open borders, and just attempt to marshal this reparations argument for selective openness as the very best solution. e.g., “There isn’t any such thing as a right to migrate, but we should at least let people from countries we’ve harmed come here.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how much suffering excluding and deporting innocent people might cause — you’re perfectly in the right to do this unless you’ve originally created suffering in their home countries.

This may sound appealing and consistent at first, but actually making this argument work in practical terms is maddeningly hard. Nobody I have seen making this case actually clearly articulates the exact details of how they’ve concluded open borders with a given country (such as Guatemala) are a moral imperative, while still rejecting open borders for other countries.

After all, although most of the child migrants arriving in the US today are from countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, these three countries are far from the only ones in Latin America who have been wronged by the US. The US sponsored a coup in Chile; the US has a history of repeatedly invading Haiti; the US once invaded Mexico and occupied its capital city; in the lifetime of many of us, one of the biggest political scandals in the US was its funneling of arms into Nicaragua to destabilise the government. And if we’re going to talk about the harmful effects of the drug war, surely gang wars in Mexico and Colombia ought to be in the picture too. What’s the reason the US shouldn’t have open borders with — or at least adopt a more liberal stance towards migration from — these countries?

But wait, there’s more: we’ve only been talking about the countries of the Western hemisphere. Elsewhere on the globe, it wasn’t long ago that the US waged a war in Vietnam, and dropped bombs and chemical weapons over Cambodia and Laos. It colonised the Philippines for decades, imposing an initial harsh military occupation to subjugate Filipino nationalists bent on independence for their country. The US has directly sponsored the weapons used to murder hundreds of innocent Palestinians and subsidised the Egyptian and Israeli governments which prevent Palestinians from fleeing violence in Gaza or seeking work and opportunity outside a narrow strip of land. And, of course, it would be hard to argue the US isn’t responsible for much of the violence happening in Iraq and Afghanistan today. If we count the second order impacts of those recent American invasions, we could certainly argue these invasions have dreadfully harmed the people of Syria and Pakistan as well by empowering Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in those countries.

I don’t necessarily endorse the argument that because the US has pursued policies which have harmed the people of the countries I just named, the US is obligated to pay reparations to these countries, or offer reparations in the form of liberal treatment for their nationals who might want to migrate to the US.  My point in laying out these hypothetical arguments is that not a single person who wants liberal treatment specifically for El Salvadoran or Guatemalan asylum seekers on the basis of reparations owed has explained why their argument wouldn’t justify similar treatment for nationals of other countries who have been severely harmed by American policy.

That said, let’s assume we can resolve this tension somehow — either we find some intellectually consistent way to welcome El Salvadorans while deporting Mexicans (note that this is actually close to the status quo for unaccompanied child migrants in the US), or we choose to welcome the nationals of any country the US has harmed (within some reasonable and widely-agreed upon definition of harm).

The other leg of this argument tends to be some form of the following: accepting these migrants will be a temporary form of relief for these countries, while we figure out a way to help them and make proper reparation for messing them up in the first place. In other words, if the US dumps billions of dollars into El Salvador and shuts down the drug war, then deporting El Salvadorans and treating them as “illegals” will become morally acceptable.

I think people who advance this argument often believe that if the US stops its harmful policies and makes large enough aid payments to these countries, then these countries will bloom and prosper,

  • making it justifiable to deport people back to these countries; and/or,
  • reducing or eliminating any flows of migrants from these countries, since people wouldn’t want to leave.

Embedded in all this is the huge assumption that it would be possible for the US to magically destroy the problems of political instability, corrupt institutions, gang warfare, and rotten infrastructure that might plague these countries, if only the US were to do something different. I find this assumption incredibly questionable, to put it lightly.

But let’s say that the US were able to accomplish the incredibly-unlikely, and actually wipe out the worst poverty and violence that plague many of the countries whose people are desperate to seek a better life in the US. Would this reduce or even eliminate migrant flows? The evidence suggests that in general, such economic development would lead to more migration.

The reason is simple: people who are very poor can’t afford an expensive journey, even if the economic returns from taking a job in a much more developed economy would more than justify it. They simply don’t have the money to finance it. As countries become richer, their people become better able to afford the journey, and so more of them will leave in search of better work and fairer wages.

So in all likelihood, pursuing reparations for the US’s past harms to these countries will not markedly stem the pressure to migrate to the US or other developed countries in search of a better life. Advocates making the reparations argument don’t even present empirical evidence that throwing billions of dollars at these countries will fix their problems (whether or not the US created those problems in the first place) — they assume that magically the US can do something different, and all the problems will go away. Worse still, they ignore empirical evidence that assuming their proposed reforms actually succeed in helping these countries develop, the likely outcome will be even stronger pressure to migrate for better jobs and wages.

Rohingya refugee family beg the Bangladeshi coast guard to not deport them

What then? Would it be just and right to tell an El Salvadoran child fleeing rape or murder “You have to go home because we paid your government a few billion dollars — that you’ll be killed or raped because we’re deporting you is now not our problem”? Would it actually be honest to say that the US isn’t responsible for the death or rape of this child if the US government then sends this child “home” to be raped and killed? Heck, if the child just dies of starvation or illness because his home country doesn’t have a functioning economy or healthcare system — i.e., the child is just an “economic migrant” — would it somehow be any better that the US sent him back to die?

My answers to these questions is, of course, no. But the reason why I answer in the negative has nothing to do with whether the US owes any reparations to the people of the countries it has harmed — as important an issue as that may be. It is fundamentally unjust to exclude an innocent human being — especially one fleeing violence or murder — purely because of where they are from. Where these people are from simply does not matter — every government owes justice to every human being under its jurisdiction. Excluding innocent human beings purely because of their national origin is at its heart an act of barbarism and injustice.

Aviva Chomsky on open borders: weak on economics, stronger on politics and history

I recently finished reading Aviva Chomsky’s They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Amazon ebook). Like co-blogger Vipul, I did not find the book on the whole convincing. Chomsky’s grasp of economics is questionable at best, and her suggestion that poor countries became or remain poor primarily because of oppression from the rich world may be true in some cases, but is likely not a good general principle of development economics. She also unwittingly trivialises the place premium by accepting the mistaken belief that the only thing keeping firms in developed countries from paying their employees developing world salaries are things like minimum wage laws. In spite of this, I would actually recommend Chomsky’s book to the critical reader with an open mind: her grasp of economics may be weak, but her social and political history is on stronger footing — and the political arguments she makes from historical backing are worth considering.

One of the important issues Chomsky raises is the question of suffrage and enfranchisement. She notes that historically in the US, non-citizens have been entitled to vote, and this generally held true until the advent of closed borders in the early 20th century. She does not dive into this in detail, but it’s also noteworthy that this remains true in some countries today. Citizens of the Commonwealth (such as myself, by virtue of my Malaysian citizenship) are entitled to vote and sometimes even stand for elections in the UK and in a number of other Commonwealth countries, provided we meet certain relatively loose residency requirements (I know plenty of Malaysians who voted in the UK simply because they were studying there).

Chomsky argues that immigrants should of right be entitled to the vote, because in a democratic society anyone who enjoys the rights and responsibilities of residence should also enjoy the rights and responsibilities of the ballot. If you are a stakeholder in the policies of your community, it seems foolish to disenfranchise you because you happened to have been born elsewhere. I can see the appeal of this argument, even though it is not one that I would necessarily embrace.

Unlike Chomsky, I don’t place a huge priority on voting rights for immigrants. It seems to me that each society should be entitled to decide who should be able to vote, and it’s up to the US, as well as its individual states and localities, to decide which foreigners, if any, should be entitled to vote. A political right is not a fundamental human right. I accept Chomsky’s argument that we should not arbitrarily tie the vote to citizenship, but it doesn’t seem to me that the disenfranchisement of non-citizens is even close to being the worst thing in the world. It isn’t hard to see why even a liberal-minded person would be skeptical of allowing anyone from anywhere to vote in their jurisdiction (though I suspect most attempts to use immigration policy to address this are trying to tackle the problem with a very blunt instrument).

I do think it is harmful to perpetuate the disenfranchisement of non-citizens who indicate a strong commitment to their adopted society. One can demonstrate this commitment in many ways; military service, lengthy residence, marrying a citizen. It would seem arbitrary and unjust to me to declare that because you happened to be born a non-citizen, you can never aspire to become a citizen. Immigrants should be able to expect greater political rights as they integrate into their adopted societies. But again, though I would place great importance on there being a path to citizenship, it is not the most important thing.

Where I think there is a higher bar, and where societies need to be absolutely transparent in how they decide their rules, is the simple act of immigration. Morally, a society is more or less entitled to decide in any arbitrary way it wants who gets to vote in its elections. But morally, a society is not entitled to decide in any arbitrary way who gets to be with their family, and who doesn’t. It is not entitled to decide in any arbitrary way who gets to seek gainful employment, and who doesn’t. It is free to restrict these rights, but it needs to explain itself when it does so.

The other interesting point which Chomsky brings up is the importance of equal protection under the law for immigrants. A recurring theme is how whether explicitly or implicitly, US law has denied non-citizen workers certain rights which citizen workers take for granted. In many cases, because the immigrant workers are unlawfully present, their employers refuse to pay them the legal minimum wage or offer them other forms of compensation (e.g. safety equipment, etc.) which citizens might expect. Immigrant workers are also often limited in their “exit options” — either they keep working with their current employer, or they go home. This is often true not only of illegal immigrants, but legal ones as well: most US work permits, including the H-1B visa for professionals, link immigrants to specific employers, and have a lengthy process (if there is one at all) for the immigrant to change their employer.

Chomsky and other leftists deplore this as yet another instance of the capitalist class oppressing the weak and needy, but one does not need to be an all-out Marxist to see the injustice in this situation. One very understandable fear many activists have when it comes to keyhole solutions such as guest worker programmes is that by tying immigration status to a specific employer, a country would effectively legalise indentured labour. I think most open borders advocates would agree: we cannot meaningfully call an immigration policy one of “open borders” if it really is “you can cross the border, only as long as you work for this specific employer”. That may be an improvement on the status quo, but that speaks more to the foolishness of the immigration policy status quo than anything else.

The other points Chomsky makes are interesting, but certainly open to question. A major pitfall of the book is that although its primary focus is immigration, a secondary focus seems to be attacking almost any non-leftist political ideology. Chomsky is prone to digress into tangential topics which aren’t totally relevant to the subject at hand, and the connections she draws seem tenuous at best. She is strongest when she discusses the sordid history of immigration law in the US, and explicitly articulates the reason for attacking specific policies; even if I disagree with her, I can understand where she is coming from and why her views are important. For this reason, I would recommend Chomsky’s book to the interested reader, subject to qualifications I’ve discussed here.

Addendum: I am currently reading Teresa Hayter’s Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls, which makes arguments similar to Chomsky’s from a left-liberal British standpoint, but with a much tighter focus on immigration — especially on the issue of refugees. I intend to review Hayter’s book as well when I am finished with it.

Folk Marxist arguments for open borders

While creating the Open Borders website, I’ve tried to include a wide range of perspectives for the moral caselibertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and various hybrid versions. I’ve also tried to search for a wide range of practical arguments in support of open borders. But there’s one category of arguments that I’ve avoided, and I’ll try to explain the reasons behind that in this blog post.

The arguments fall broadly under the category of folk Marxism, a term introduced by Arnold Kling in the essay Folk Beliefs Have Consequences. Roughly, folk Marxist theories are theories that see events and actions in the context of a struggle between oppressor classes and oppressed classes. Folk Marxist arguments for open borders see developing countries and migrant workers as the oppressed classes. Business interests in the developed world and racist/nationalist type folks in the developed countries are variously seen as oppressors. It’s argued that the actions of the oppressors cause violence and poverty in the lands of the oppressed, forcing them to migrate to the lands of the oppressors (developed countries) and work there. On this view, mass immigration is not something to celebrate, but rather, an unfortunate consequence of exploitative policies. Turning away the immigrants, or dehumanizing their status (for instance, by labeling them as illegal and denying them rights and privileges accorded to citizens) is a further wrong against them. Welcoming immigrants is the least that can be done, while the root causes of mass migration are fixed. I present below a passage from the beginning of the final chapter (Myth 21) of They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Amazon ebook) by Aviva Chomsky (Wikipedia page).

Today’s immigration is structured by contemporary relationships among countries and regions, and by their history of economic inequality. Unequal economic relationships should be changed — not because they lead to migration, but because they lead to human suffering and an unsustainable world. High levels of migration are a symptom of a global economic system that privileges the few at the expense of the many. It could be called capitalism, it could be called neoliberalism, it could be called globalization, it could be called neocolonialism. As long as it keeps resources unequally distributed in the world, you’re going to have people escaping the regions that are deliberately kept poor and violent and seeking freedom in the places where the world’s resources have been concentrated: in the countries that have controlled, and been the beneficiaries of, the global economic system since 1492.

So, why is this line of argument not included in the Open Borders website? The reason is three-fold. First, I personally don’t think that this line of reasoning is correct or plausible in general as a reason to support open borders. This is not to deny that exploitation does not occur, but rather, to claim that the occurrence of exploitation is not a suitable generic rationale for open borders.

Second, and more importantly, it is in tension and contradiction with the other pro-open borders arguments presented. While it’s good to present multifaceted case for open borders, it is bad to present an internally contradictory case.

Third, even if the folk Marxist arguments were correct, I don’t think they add much weight to the pro-open borders position. Yes, folk Marxists often do make correct and convincing arguments favoring open borders. However, these are typically the arguments that can also be made, and have been made, from a non-folk Marxist perspective. The value added by the folk Marxist perspective seems to me to be zero or negative. For instance, folk Marxists often seem to side with restrictionists when they accept mass migration as a problem but shift blame from the migrants to capitalists and other oppressors. This is not exactly a position that bolsters confidence in open borders.

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