Tag Archives: China

How did we get here? Chinese Exclusion Act buildup (1848-1872)

When co-blogger Chris Hendrix started off a series a couple of years ago on the origins of immigration restrictions, he fittingly began with the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), looking at the arguments made for the act at the time. He examined them both the evidence available at the time and the evidence that has emerged since then. In a subsequent post in the series, I briefly examined the early years of the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1910). While both these posts examined some aspects of the Chinese Exclusion Act in some detail, there is a lot about the history and aftermath of the Act that went unexplored.

Recently, I had the opportunity to create a number of Wikipedia pages on topics related to the Chinese Exclusion Act: Chae Chan Ping v. United States, Angell Treaty of 1880, Chy Lung v. Freeman, Fong Yue Ting v. United States, and others. As I worked on these pages, I familiarized myself more with the situation surrounding the Chinese Exclusion Act. I became more convinced that a more in-depth look at the Chinese Exclusion Act would help shed light on the modern border control regime.

I therefore intend to do at least three more posts on the subject. The current post will focus on the key developments and tug-of-wars that occurred until about 1872 (with passing mentions of trends that would continue into the late 1870s). A later post will discuss the more eventful years starting 1873. The year 1873 was marked by the Panic of 1873, the beginning of an economic downturn in the United States. The economic downturn was likely a contributing factor to increased anti-Chinese sentiment over the coming years, and key legislative and judicial developments related to immigration happened beginning 1875.

This post looks at the “keyhole solutions” used by state and local law enforcement in California before the federal government got on board with significantly restricting immigration.

Table of contents

Limitations of my analysis

Perhaps the biggest limiting factor to the quality of my analysis is the fact that such little data is maintained about that time period; in particular, about how ordinary people (both Chinese and the others in California) perceived the situation at the time. There is no Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram to gauge public sentiment. There was no equivalent of Gallup polls. There were few newspapers and even those that existed don’t have all their archives available to peruse. Therefore, apart from actual legislative or judicial records, the main guidance present is various summaries provided by historians, who are in turn relying on observations penned by a few people, who may in turn have their own biases.

The lack of good resolution on who was thinking what leads to broad-brush generalizations in many parts of the text. I talk about the “Chinese” and “whites” but both groups were probably quite heterogeneous in terms of their habits, attitudes, beliefs about the other group, legislation they supported, etc. A more able historian with more time to research the issue and more space to devote to describing it would be able to pick nuances better. As such, please take any general statements I make about ethnic groups below with a large grain of salt: they are a third-hand summary of very incomplete data examined through possibly biased lenses.

How my thinking has evolved

Writing this post has led to some minor updates in my thinking. Here is a summary, that you can read without having to read the whole post.

  • As I had previously noted in “Why was immigration freer in 19th century USA?”, there were no restrictions on immigration till the late 19th century (the Page Act of 1875 being the first federal regulation, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882). Even then, the first restrictions applied only to Chinese immigration. But I now see that the sentiment to oppose and restrict migration existed far in advance of actual restrictions, and the reason that it took so long to restrict immigration was mostly the federal structure of governance combined with the poor connectivity of California with the rest of the United States.
  • This post also makes me more confident of observations I had made in my post on South-South migration and the natural state: despite the virulent and hostile response to Chinese immigration in California, migration remained freer and arguably closer to a state-of-nature than it does in the modern world.
  • My feelings on “keyhole solutions”, and in particular, on the question of their feasibility and stability, have evolved a bit. I am now more convinced that they are not a stable equilibrium that placates those favoring restrictions. One reason is that some keyhole solutions, particularly those involving taxes and tariffs, can hurt migrants so much that their subsequent impoverishment makes them look even worse on social indicators to the rest of the population (a point related to what co-blogger Nathan alluded to in his post the dark side of DRITI). Another is that keyhole solutions need to be extremely punitive (at risk of impoverishing migrants and making them look worse) to make a significant dent in migration trends, to the level that would satisfy those who seek restrictions. Keyhole solutions at an intermediate level can generate revenue for government and can address rationally calibrated concerns about immigration, but they can’t really solve the public’s general aversion to migration. Keyhole solutions might work better in quasi-democratic settings. In quasi-democratic settings, not every individual policy choice is debated. Rather, as long as the quasi-democratically elected leaders’ overall performance meets natives’ expectations, they buy into the policy package despite not liking parts of it. A country like Singapore might be an example.
  • Seeing the effects of migration isn’t guaranteed to drive one in favor of migration. In the case of events prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act, in fact, exposure to Chinese migrants led people to oppose it. California, which experienced the Chinese first, turned anti-migration first. Later, when the Chinese arrived in the Eastern cities, anti-Chinese sentiment also spread there. This does not mean that exposure to migrants always leads to anti-migration sentiment, nor does it mean that such anti-migration sentiment is factually grounded. Rather, we have to keep in mind existing narratives and biases that have been developed, in addition to the characteristics of migrants and natives, and results on sentiment towards migration could go in either direction. I don’t think nativist backlash is inevitable, but writing this post has led me to somewhat increase the importance I place on it as a force to reckon with.

First, they came for the Chinese

John’s post on tearing down Chesterton’s fence offers a good bird’s eye view of how immigration restrictions originated worldwide. While researching the subject, I noticed that in at least two other English-descended countries (Canada and Australia) the first significant immigration regulations appear to have been explicitly targeted at the Chinese, as I noted in an Open Borders Action Group post.

The situation in Australia closely paralleled the situation in California. In both cases, large numbers of Chinese moved to the area around 1850 in search of gold. In both cases, resistance to Chinese started off with native miners and labor unions of “natives” (i.e., whites, rather than the indigenous population), but gradually spread to the rest of society. Continue reading “How did we get here? Chinese Exclusion Act buildup (1848-1872)” »

How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)

On May 29, 2013, co-blogger Chris Hendrix started off a very promising post series to explore the origins of immigration restrictions, the rationales used when introducing them, and how they were gradually modified into their present form. His first post in the series took an in-depth look at the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first large-scale restriction of immigration to the United States after nearly a century with nearly unrestricted migration. Chris went into considerable detail into the rationales proffered for the law, and found them flawed in light of both the evidence available at the time and the evidence that would accumulate over the coming decades.

With Chris’s permission, I’m taking this very important series over from him. This post will look at the Chinese Exclusion Act, but from a different angle: how was it implemented? As the United States’ first foray into a systematic control of a border, what legal ambiguities did it give rise to, and how were those resolved? What aspects of the modern immigration control regime, in the US and elsewhere around the world, can be traced to the way these ambiguities were resolved?

Let’s first get an idea of the sort of world that existed at the time.

A different world

Migration back in the day was qualitatively similar to South-South migration today: relatively unregulated and unprotected. But this is part of a broader feature of society back then: goverment was less centralized and far less powerful and all-knowing than it is today:

  • Passports did exist, but most people didn’t bother to get them.
  • Social Security, and Social Security Numbers, didn’t exist.
  • There was no federal income tax.
  • Since there was no tax withholding, employers had no federal reporting requirements, and they didn’t have reporting requirements in most states either. In other words, the state didn’t have a reason to record most work activity.
  • There was no Green Card, or Green Card-equivalent. Non-citizen permanent residents had no document that directly established that status for them.
  • There was no nation-wide interior enforcement for immigration law.
  • Entry by land from Mexico and Canada was largely unrestricted.

So what did exist?

  • Ports of inspection for people and goods coming by sea, from the Atlantic or the Pacific. These ports were not intended primarily for immigration enforcement, but were mainly used for customs enforcement. At the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, there were, as far as I am aware, no designated ports on the West Coast exclusively for immigration enforcement. Angel Island, the main such port, would become active only in 1910. The corresponding port in the East Coast, Ellis Island, would open only in 1892, though there were other immigrant processing stations before that on the East Coast, such as Castle Garden.
  • City officials in various cities could act as de facto immigration enforcement. They could ask residents of the area for documentation proving that they were citizens (this would typically involve a birth certificate that would need to match with the city’s records, or a demonstration that the parents were US citizens, or a proof of naturalization). Enforcement would therefore be zealous only in places where the natives and the officials representing them cared enough about the matter. In practice, therefore, immigration enforcement followed the principle of subsidiarity — even though the legislation was determined at the federal level, interior enforcement was largely a local matter.

Racism, citizenism, territorialism, and high versus low skill

All the elements found in the modern border control regime could be glimpsed in the Chinese Exclusion Act as it played out. First off, the act was overtly discriminatory in a racial and ethnic sense. It could be argued that many immigration laws today are racist, albeit in many cases they are not overtly so. But the racial/ethnic component to the Chinese Exclusion Act was both more morally acceptable and palatable and more practically enforceable.

If you are trying to enforce immigration law, that requires a lot of potential violations of civil liberties, not only for the immigrants, but also for people who might be suspected of being immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act explicitly restricted itself only to targeting (a subset of) the ethnic Chinese. This subpopulation was sufficiently distinctive in appearance, customs, and linguistic habits. Thus, the collateral damage inflicted by the law on those not in violation of immigration law was limited to other ethnic Chinese.

In today’s world, it is possible (though still far from easy) to carry out some semblance of border and interior enforcement targeted at potential immigrants that has minimal collateral damage for citizens, without being so explicitly racially targeted. For this, we can thank (or blame) the record-keeping surveillance state that can track people much better. At the same time, it is somewhat harder to use explicit racial/ethnic targeting, because of greater levels of ethnic mixing. People of different national origins no longer look so obviously different, thanks to some degree of global convergence in culture, and also (to a less extent) greater interbreeding leading to many many more intermediate forms of physical appearance.

The racism of the law was therefore necessary for it to get off the ground, and for immigration enforcement to get an early testing bed while leaving the majority of the population unaffected. Just as the income tax started out as a tax on the super-rich and gradually grew to cover a majority of income-earners in the United States (and most other countries) immigration enforcement sharpened its ax on a relatively vulnerable, distinctive, and reviled population before spreading its wings to society at large. As they say, First they came for the Chinese. As history.com puts it:

American experience with Chinese exclusion spurred later movements for immigration restriction against other “undesirable” groups such as Middle Easterners, Hindu and East Indians, and the Japanese. The Chinese themselves remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943.

The second interesting emergent feature of the law, as it came into practice, was its citizenism, in more senses than one. First, as Chris described at greater length in his post, the law was justified in terms of citizenist premises, though there was the occasional nod to how it would be good for China as well to keep all its population within. Second, those Chinese who were already citizens continued to enjoy citizenship — at least in principle. They still were at greater risk of getting into trouble (because they were in the ethnic group suspected of harboring illegal immigrants) and they often couldn’t bring family members in, but they still enjoyed the constitutional rights of citizens. They could leave the country and return as they pleased (provided the officer at the port of entry was convinced they were actually citizens, and there were sometimes messups).

Third, the implementation of the law provided the early contours of territorialism: Chinese who had immigrated but not naturalized prior to the passage of the Act were not allowed to naturalize, but they were not required to leave the country. As long as they were physically present in the country, they enjoyed the rights of non-citizens (subject to the caveat of being harassed due to the suspicion). However, if they left the country and tried to return, they could be denied entry. This was formalized in the Scott Act of 1888 discussed later in the post. This was an early precedent for the current regime that distinguishes between entry visas and authorized stays.

Fourth, the high versus low skill distinction emerged in the law. The law banned the migration of skilled and unskilled laborers, but allowed for the migration of people in white-collar professions, if they could get documentation from the Chinese government to that effect, and could convince the officer at the port of entry. In practice, many people in white-collar professions also found it hard to enter due to lack of adequate documentation. This again resembles the current system, where high-skilled immigrants need to, and often fail to, jump through the many hoops needed to demonstrate their high skills.

Continue reading “How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)” »

South-South migration and the “natural state”

This blog post builds upon an Open Borders Action Group post of mine and the comments on it.

In an earlier post on what open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can learn from each other, one of the things I had said open borders advocates can learn from scholars of migration and development was the importance to give to forms of migration that currently exist, as opposed to what might exist in a hypothetical open borders world:

More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: […] [I]t might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

World Press 2014 Signals from DjiboutiWorld Press 2014 photo: Signal from Djibouti, source National Geographic. The photo shows people from Somalia living in Ethiopia trying to catch Somali cellphone networks at the border of the country so as to talk cheaply with their families.

This post can be considered a partial attempt to put that learning in practice. Here are some examples of “South-South migration” that I have in mind when listing my general observations. Each of these should deserve its own post. For those that don’t already have posts I link to a relevant news article or paper:

Some of the salient features of much of this South-South migration:

  1. In most of the cases, the destination countries of migration are large and somewhat heterogeneous economically. The average GDP per capita in the destination may be somewhere between 2 and 5 times that in the source country (with the exception of the somewhat special case of migration from North Korea to China, the range is more like 2 to 3 times). However, this hides a large degree of intranational variation in the destination country. The destination countries, despite their poverty and Third World status, generally have greater scope for people to become rich and successful. They have bigger cities with more opportunities. Compare, for instance, Afghanistan with Pakistan. Pakistan scores pretty poorly in terms of GDP per capita or HDI. But it has cities like Karachi and Lahore, that are (relatively speaking) thriving centers of commerce. Similarly, Indian cities offer opportunities that most Bangladeshis can’t access in their home countries. Even if the migrants don’t initially move to cities, the promise is there.
  2. Large parts of the destination country are rural, and the rural-urban gap on many development indicators is huge. Moreover, the rural areas may not really have much affiliation with or integration into the national identity. Many people in rural areas may not even have any form of documentation establishing citizenship or national membership. Thus, many natives are also “undocumented” and in some ways indistinguishable from migrants. The role of ethnicity as betrayed by appearance and accent is therefore greater than the role of formal citizenship.
  3. Migrants tend to move to border towns and to some large cities, generally those with pre-existing diasporas (cf. diaspora dynamics). These are the places where the issue of migration has the greatest salience, and anti-migration sentiment may be more common, and expressed more openly and virulently than in most developed countries.
  4. There is usually no pro-migration or pro-migrant movement per se, though there may be NGOs focused on providing services for migrants.
  5. If anything, intranational migration might be more salient in many parts of the country. In fact, intranational migration may also quantitatively swamp international migration, as is the case in China and India (here’s a blog post on intranational migration within India and a blog post discussing large-scale migration within India and China). But insofar as there are no real constitutional ways of restricting intranational migration, it might never become a politically important issue at the national level. In many regions, on the other hand, intranational migration may take on more significance than international migration in political rhetoric, even if politicians have little power or little interest in actually curbing such migration.
  6. At the national level, the importance of migration is minimal. This is partly because the destination countries have many more pressing problems. Anti-migration movements are relatively localized, and pro-migration movements are negligible.
  7. For many people in such countries, the issue of open borders and migration restrictions is a largely theoretical one, and their answers to it might represent generic ideas of human fairness untainted by personal interest, so to speak. This might explain why India, despite not being known for having a high degree of tolerance and welcome for foreigners of different races and ethnicities, had a roughly 25-25-25-25 split in the World Values Survey question of how open migration policy should be.

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: (1) wisdom/desirability, (2) technological/financial feasibility, and (3) moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

In many ways, both current South-South migration and historical migration are closer to the “natural state” of migration and the responses it engenders. All is not hunky-dory with this natural state. The occasional outbreak of riots against immigrants, while quantitatively negligible, as well as the more frequent displays of overt private prejudice, are disconcerting. But for all that, the system is still a bigger win-win for migrants and natives than the strict border controls that much of the developed world has successfully implemented, and that the developing world is rapidly building out.

Snakeheads as high-impact entrepreneurs

I recently read The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe. The term “snakehead” is used for a person who manages human smuggling operations for people from China (note that “human smuggling” should not be confused with human trafficking). The book is a fascinating, and in some ways disturbing, story of the huge network used to smuggle Chinese people illegally into the United States. I discovered the book when reading up an obituary of Cheng Chui Ping (better known as Sister Ping), one of the most reputed snakeheads.

Sister Ping
Image source: The New Yorker

There is a lot of interesting material in the book, and although its relevance to the basic moral case for migration is fairly limited, it sheds light on many aspects of the realities of the ground. The book’s focus is the complex human smuggling operation of people from China and neighboring areas (but mostly from the northern part of Fujian province in China) to the United States, with most of them ending up in the Chinatown in New York City. But much of what it discusses is relevant to migration in other contexts.


The book paints a poignant picture of the strength of people’s desire to migrate. There is also plenty of material in the book that sheds light on the international refugee system, and in my view it strengthens the case laid out in John’s recent post. The book does a good job of going beyond the simple (albeit mostly correct) narrative of migrants as ordinary, innocent people who simply want a better life for themselves. Rather, it notes how migrants, like the rest of us, care about their own (and their families’) long-term survival and flourishing deeply enough that they can sacrifice their own short-term interest, as well as a number of ethical scruples, in order to make that happen. Arguably, there is a strong selection effect, both for legal and illegal immigration: people who undertake such arduous journeys are the ones with the most to gain and the least to lose, which could tell us something about the sort of people they are. But the basic urges moving them are present in all of us. Many of the people we know would have taken similar decisions under similar circumstances.

Unfortunately, the existing immigration system makes criminals of these migrants, in both senses of the word: it labels the act of unauthorized border-crossing as a crime, and some of the measures that people take to evade detection often involve them committing, or indirectly financing, activities that are criminal in a more objective sense. While the migrants and their facilitators who engage in the latter are in some (albeit not all) cases blameworthy, some part of the blame also falls on those of us who support the existing closed borders system that aims to shutter off such a basic human desire, in full cognizance of the unintended but easily anticipated consequences. (I’ve had a draft post on the ethics of illegal immigration for a while, but it’s not going to be finished any time soon. But you can read my co-blogger Nathan’s take on the subject or our background page on the morality of violating restrictive immigration laws).

#1: Who migrates, how, and why?

The book’s focus is on Cheng Chui Ping (better known as Sister Ping), who owned a modest storefront and restaurant in Chinatown in New York City, but whose main business involved servicing migrants in two ways: facilitating their smuggling into the United States, typically via an intermediate country such as Hong Kong or Thailand, and providing a low-cost service for them to send remittances back home.

The operations managed by Sister Ping, and others with whom she collaborated, were extremely complex. Her money transfer system relied on peer-to-peer movement of money: the person sending money gives it to Sister Ping in New York, and her Chinese counterpart gives the money to her family. Occasionally, she may need to physically transfer some money between her New York City and Fujian operational centers. Banks do the same thing (at least in principle) but bureaucratic and regulatory overhead make them more costly, and moreover, many of Sister Ping’s clients didn’t have bank accounts. Sister Ping’s operation is similar to the Hawala system, an extremely cheap system of money transfer in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The people smuggling operation similarly required cooperation from people at different locations. First, people were smuggled from China to a holding country such as Thailand or Hong Kong. Thailand was good for holding because there was a sufficient density of corrupt officers who could be bought to look the other way as people waited en route to the United States. The trip from Thailand to the United States could be undertaken by plane or by ship. Usually, the ships sailed across the Pacific and landed in California. Sometimes, they went via the Indian Ocean, stopping in East Africa or South Africa before setting off across the Atlantic. Since landing directly on the US Coast was tricky, sometimes they would land in one of the Central American countries and then cross by land or by boat.

This operation is pretty nontrivial and involves considerable risk. The money transfer and human smuggling business netted revenues in the billions of dollars annually during their peak, and the gains to the migrants and their families back home were considerably greater.

The smuggling operation was complex and impressive. But more than simply marvel at the ingenuity of the operation, we should note how it often failed people: there were accidents en route that killed people, and often the smuggling operation wasn’t successful. Sometimes people would be caught on arrival. The sad fact is that the closed border system led to much ingenuity, risk, and effort being directed to undoing the damage of closed borders, rather than to moving the world further forward (cf. the parable of the broken window).

The fees for smuggling were high. Even back in the 1980s, smuggling fees could be as high as eighteen thousand dollars. A pretty huge sum. And although the snakeheads like Sister Ping made a profit, the profit margin wasn’t extraordinary: the price was high because the costs and risks were high. So why were migrants willing to pay the fee, and how could they afford it?

The answer to the why is pretty clear: a huge place premium: The pay in Chinatown in New York City, even for somebody doing a menial job and with zero English language skills, was an order of magnitude more than what the person could make in rural Fujian. The male adult of the family could migrate, send remittances home, and work really hard so that his wife and children could enjoy a good standard of living (relative to the other natives) back home. (For more on the network of jobs accessible to these migrants, see this New Yorker piece).

What about the question of how? In short, diaspora dynamics, which in this case literally involves early migrants paying for later migrants. For the most part, smugglers like Sister Ping held migrants who’d just arrived in captivity until their family members and friends within Chinatown had paid the smuggling fee. The migrant was then released and not tracked. He now owed money, but not to Sister Ping, but to his relatives. And that created a stronger incentive system to repay. Either way, Sister Ping didn’t have to track the migrant or worry about what he ended up doing.

But how did the relatives come there in the first place? This is the basic idea of diaspora dynamics: the first few people are unusual in some way: unusually wealthy, unusually enterprising. They either migrated legally or were able to personally finance their unauthorized journey into the United States. Both of these signal some unusualness relative to the reference population they were from. Then they smuggled their relatives in. And they smuggled their relatives in. And so on. This does suggest that, after a few iterations, the selection effects could be somewhat weaker than one might expect a priori.

#2: Non-cooperating countries

A Slate article talks about the importance of spoiler countries and corrupt officials in facilitating the global human smuggling network:

Sister Ping’s operation involved associates in dozens of countries, and corrupt officials in a string of strategic entrepôts. In the early ’90s, she funneled passengers through Bangkok, Thailand, where corrupt airline inspectors turned a blind eye to phony documents. By the late ’90s, she was sending ships full of migrants to the shores of Guatemala, from whence they could proceed overland through Mexico. She didn’t need to worry about the Guatemalan navy. She had them on the payroll.

This was one of the most surprising (and daunting) themes to emerge in my research: If criminal organizations, like multinational corporations, are mobile and opportunistic and can migrate wherever they like, engaging in a kind of jurisdictional arbitrage and seeking out an optimal environment in which to do business, then all it takes is one spoiler country, like Thailand or Guatemala, to render them virtually untouchable. When Sister Ping fled the United States after the Golden Venture incident, she settled in her home village in Fujian Province, where she enjoyed the protection of the Chinese authorities and proceeded to continue running her business for six long years. The FBI knew exactly where she was. But when they asked China to extradite her, Beijing brushed them off.

At least she was confined to China, you might say. But she wasn’t. She traveled all over the world during those years—even, amazingly, to the United States. How? When she was finally arrested in Hong Kong in 2000, she had a passport with her picture and someone else’s name. It was issued by Belize, a classic spoiler country.

Is the existence of spoiler countries a feature or a bug? If you consider the current closed borders system a moral anomaly, then it’s a feature, but if you strongly respect the status quo, it’s a bug. Some might argue countries don’t have the prerogative to be lax about facilitating migration to other countries while strictly enforcing their own migration laws, for that may be hypocritical. I don’t buy that argument. Nonetheless, some of the spoiler countries have relatively lax de facto immigration laws too, in some (albeit not all) senses. Thailand is arguably one such example (more on Thailand in another post).

#3: Sister Ping’s time in China

There is some level of irony in Sister Ping’s relationship with the Chinese government. On the other hand, she lent a helping hand to a large number of people who were escaping political and economic problems created through government policies, including some who were directly persecuted by the government. On that account, we might expect that Chinese government officials would take a negative view of Sister Ping. On the other hand, Sister Ping had helped a lot of people in northern Fujian migrate and become rich, and they had in turn sent back money and enriched their villages back home. This made her a popular figure back home in her region. Even if the government officials’ own feelings for Sister Ping were ambiguous, the people’s love for her made it difficult for the officials to take action against her. It would be a needless risk to their popularity with no upside. But it is ironic that the woman who facilitated so many people from China claiming refuge in the United States spent the latter half of the 1990s seeking refuge in China from the United States regime.

The irony dissipates somewhat by taking a bigger view. People want to be free and comfortable. Free to make choices in their own lives. Free to move elsewhere if those places offer better opportunities. Both the Chinese and the US government have a mixed record when it comes to curtailing those freedoms. The Chinese government’s record is more generally negative: after disastrous experiments with Maoism, the country has liberalized considerably but much progress remains to be made with respect to political and economic freedom. The United States government does a better job in protecting political and economic freedom for people within its territory, but getting in there can be tough (to be fair, the Chinese don’t have a great track record with immigrants either, particularly those from North Korea, who basically have nowhere else to go). Sister Ping and her clients appreciated the United States for its strengths. That’s why she migrated there and helped facilitate her clients’ moves. At the same time, they did not “respect the law” in the cases where it inhibited their basic freedoms. And to the extent that the very flawed Chinese government tolerated Sister Ping, she was happy to seek refuge there.

#4: What motivates people like Sister Ping?

Snakeheads (the people who head the human smuggling operations) differ considerably in their intentions and integrity. But the best among them, such as Sister Ping, seem like upstanding folks. Sister Ping was fairly wealthy. But more than most wealthy people, she had very little opportunity to bask in her wealth. She needed to maintain a very low profile in order to avoid getting noticed by the police, the immigration agencies, and local rival gangsters who might rob her. She generally kept her word to clients. Unlike other snakeheads, she stayed true to her 100% money-back guarantee: in case of a botched operation (even an ultimately successful one) she didn’t charge her clients.

So why did she enter the business? For reasons that, I think, are very similar to the reasons people become entrepreneurs. Ambition, a desire for power, a keen sense for business opportunities, and a desire to have an impact. And a cold, calculating utilitarian ruthlessness. A concern that the balance of her actions was highly positive for her clients, not necessarily that every individual action was beyond reproach. As Keefe (the author of the book I’m drawing on) wrote in The New Yorker:

To the end, Sister Ping remained defiant. Illegal migration is an inherently precarious business. Mattathias Schwartz recently wrote for The New Yorker about the lengths that African migrants will go to wash ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Jim Dwyer, at the Times, published a heartbreaking piece about the death of a young Ecuadorian girl seeking to reconnect with her parents in the United States. In Sister Ping’s view, the balance of her contributions outweighed the costs. “My life remains valuable,” she insisted, during the sentencing phase of her trial. “It remains valuable.”

In Chinatown, many people seem to agree. Her death was front-page news in New York’s Chinese-language newspapers, with articles describing her “righteousness,” and calling her an “immigration hero.” “Her warmth moved everyone,” a local man who came from her village back in Fujian told the Times.

Over in Silicon Valley, there is a stereotype of the bold entrepreneur who forges ahead bravely, taking risks and not caring for social convention. Perhaps one of the most flamboyant examples of the entrepreneur who’s willing to fight hard, John Galt-style, and doesn’t mind appearing arrogant, is Travis Kalanick, Uber CEO. While some of his business choices are arguably ethically challenged, others seem to be ahead of their time in challenging common but mistaken moral norms (such as the norms against surge pricing). Regardless of the specifics, Kalanick is an impressive entrepreneur: after a decade of working on businesses that failed despite being promising, he didn’t give up, and he got it right the third time, with Uber. This is a man who perservered and it paid off, for him, and the large number of people whose lives have been improved by Uber.

But the risk-reward ratio faced by Kalanick pales compared to what Sister Ping faced. Kalanick may end up a billionaire if Uber continues to execute well. Sister Ping probably had just as much, or perhaps even more, business sense, but because she chose to operate in an underground business, the opportunities to her were limited in scope. She had to adopt even more unsavory tactics than Kalanick, including outright violence. And even though she acquired money, it was far less than what Kalanick could accumulate, and she had little opportunity to live it out lavishly due to other constraints. When it comes to the risks, there is no comparison. Sister Ping spent the last 14 years of her life in prison. Kalanick will at worst have to pony up money in a lawsuit and shut down Uber, and in the median case will probably do pretty well for himself.

The following passages from the book illustrate Sister Ping’s determination and relentless resourcefulness:

Whenever people asked Occhipinti about Sister Ping, he told a story that he thought demonstrated just how untouchable she had become. Early on, he had gone to see her at the apartment in Knickerbocker Village, on Monroe Street. He’d taken along another investigator and an interpreter. Occhipinti didn’t have much to bust her on, but he made it clear to Sister Ping, through the interpreter, that he was on to her and he would get her eventually. To Occhipinti’s surprise, Sister Ping wasn’t fazed in the slightest. “You don’t have the time to get me,” he remembers her saying. “Or the resources.” He made a note of the meeting, and it ended up in Sister Ping’s file. It became part of her lore within the agency. But what always struck Occhipinti about the exchange wasn’t just the arrogance of it, or the insult, so much as the fact that she was right.

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (pp. 55-56). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A segment on Sister Ping’s brief jail stint in the early 1990s (distinct from her end-of-life jail stint starting 2000):

Sister Ping did go to prison, in upstate New York. She hated it […] She no doubt was also troubled by the opportunity costs of remaining in jail. Goldenberg had asked that she be permitted to serve her time in a halfway house in New York, arguing that she should be close to her four children, but also that if she was removed from her base of operations in Chinatown, “she would merely languish and her time would not be used profitably.”


She could still communicate with Yick Tak and the rest of the family in New York City, and as her lawyer had observed, Sister Ping was eager to use her time profitably. The nature of the alien smuggling business, after all, is that there is a pipeline. It sometimes took months to move people from Fuzhou or Changle to Chinatown, so at any given moment there were numerous people at stations along the way: in Shenzhen or Hong Kong, Guatemala or Belize, Tijuana or California, Vancouver or Toronto. “Sister Ping had to keep working from prison,” Patrick Devine explained. “Because when she went in, there were already dozens of people en route to the U.S.”

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (pp. 94-95). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But rather than merely admiring the net benefit that Sister Ping may have given her clients, the more important lesson we should take is that our perverse migration restriction regime made it the case that a business that involved such violence and high risk to life and limb was still one with high social value and a decent personal profit opportunity. How much better would the world be if the need for this kind of innovation was eliminated through a more open regime for legal migration? Sister Ping’s innovative energies could then have been directed to creating additional value rather than merely undoing the damage of immigration restrictions (yes, I know I’m repeating myself here).


The book is interesting in two other senses that each deserve their own post.

#1: Writers on the subjects of ethnicity, race, culture, and immigration in the United States often describe Chinese immigrants as a model minority, with Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants being contrasted unfavorably with the Chinese. While the case for Chinese superiority cannot be completely ruled out, this book does a good job of deflating the strongest and most exaggerated forms of the myth. Highly selected people who migrate from China through legal channels, and their children, disproportionately inform elite commentators’ impressions of Chinese immigrants. Illegal immigration and human smuggling from China to the United States suffers many of the same qualitative problems that illegal immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries does. If the United States had a land border with China and an ocean separating it from Mexico, it’s plausible that Mexicans would be touted as the model minority for Chinese to emulate (note also that the population size difference makes it easier to select highly successful Chinese immigrants). More in this OBAG discussion on Facebook.

#2: There is plenty of discussion in the book about various attempts to game the ambiguous rules for refugee status among Sister Ping’s clients. How morally justified were these attempts to stretch the spirit of the rules? This is a topic that requires a post of its own, but the upshot is that almost inevitably, a close examination of each individual case would make one sympathetic to it, even if it did not fit the narrow framework of political persecution reqired to qualify for refugee status. Chapter 13 of the book talks about the People of the Golden Vision, a movement that arose to release a bunch of people who landed ashore in New York City after the ship smuggling them, called the Golden Venture, ran aground. The chapter describes how ordinary Americans, whose prior views on immigration ranged across the spectrum of mainstream views, came to identify with the story of the immigrants. Once people got to hear the people’s stories and interact with them up close, they were convinced that these people should be granted the opportunity to stay in the United States. This is a topic that deserves a separate blog post, since it offers a blueprint of sorts for successful activism in the migration domain, and also provides insight into how actual contact helps resolve people’s moral contradictions in the direction most consistent with a free migration regime.

#3: The relation between human smuggling and organized crime at different levels is worth exploring. The book discusses the connection between snakeheads and local gang activity in Chinatown, with gangs playing important enforcement functions for snakeheads. This too is a topic worth further exploration in a separate post, in the broader context of understanding the role of crime in both the enforcement and the defiance of migration controls.

Related reading

What will the rapid economic growth under open borders look like?

Open borders will lead to rapid economic growth in some countries, particularly the countries that receive migrants. This will be true even if the per capita income of natives doesn’t rise much (or even if it falls). The total size of the economy will grow. The situation with countries sending migrants is more complicated: the decline in population means that the size of the economy could shrink, even if per capita income rises. On the other hand, very high remittances or reverse migration and joint multinational businesses could offset the huge population loss. This blog post explores the sorts of things that could happen under open borders.

A few historical and current examples worth considering:

  • The United States in the second half of the 19th century: The example fits well in the following ways: immigrants were quite poor, the economy as a whole was backward but improving fast, and the immigrants were from many different cultures and spoke many different languages. The example fits badly in the following ways: the US was at the technological frontier, the place premium wasn’t huge (both sending and receiving countries were poor), and the whole event occurred in a time when many other aspects of global culture and technology were different. In particular, due to greater costs of transport and communication, and many other reasons, the total foreign-born proportion of the population was not too high: it peaked at 15% in 1910, compared to about 13% now under fairly closed borders in the US (more here).
  • China from after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 (we expect to write more about China later; for now, check out our blog posts tagged China): The very rapid “catch-up” economic growth in China is comparable to the sort of growth we’d expect to see in migrant-receiving countries under open borders. The scale of rural-urban migration over the preceding and coming decades is in the hundreds of millions, comparable to the levels we’d expect with a decade or more of open borders. The proliferation of cities in China in recent years provides a model for what might happen under open borders. On the flip side, migration in China is happening across a far more homogenous linguistic and cultural milieu than what we’d expect under open borders. Moreover, China has a single government that can (and to some extent does) coercively restrict and coordinate migration in ways that wouldn’t work for global open borders unless there is world government or some supranational body that exerts heavy control over the coordination of international migration. China is also unrepresentative of global open borders because the place premium isn’t that huge.
  • India since its economic liberalization beginning in the late 1980s and with the main big step around 1991 (more on India here; see also all blog posts tagged India): India offers an example that’s both better and worse than China in terms of predicting what will happen under open borders. On the “better” side, there’s the fact that India is linguistically more diverse, so that many of the global challenges faced by migrants are experienced on a smaller scale in India. Although India is also religiously diverse, the religious diversity isn’t too strongly linked to location (the major religions are dispersed over many locations). India also offers a better model of a situation where the government does not plan either to stop migration or to prepare to accommodate it, unlike China, where both national and local governments have taken a more proactive approach to regulating flows. As of 2001, India measured 191 million internal long-distance migrants, about 20% of the population then. This number is comparable with the sort of migration magnitude we’d see under open borders, though it’s somewhat less than the amount of rural-urban migration in China. As with China, the place premium isn’t big enough to test some of the concerns associated with open borders. On the “worse” side, India is an even poorer country than China, so the parts of India that receive immigrants serve as bad models of how the destination countries under open borders would look.
  • The European Union today (see this related post by Hansjoerg and all our posts tagged the EU): This example is better suited in the respect that the target countries of migration are wealthy First World countries, which we expect will see a lot of immigration under open borders. But none of the source countries is too poor: the poorest countries in the EU are Romania and Bulgaria, which are middle-income countries (things will become more interesting once Albania joins). Quantitatively, migration between EU states on the whole is much lower than intranational migration in India and China, and much lower than what we’d predict under global open borders. About 3.2% of EU residents were born in another EU country, compared to 6.3% who were born outside the EU (see here and here).

The following table provides a comparative summary of the four cases considered above in terms of how good they are in their similarity to how we expect open borders to unfold (so “good” here means “good as a model for figuring out how things will be under open borders”, not “normatively good” or “desirable”):

Attribute 19th century US China India EU
Scale of migration Moderate Good Good Bad
Absolute poverty in source countries Good Good Good Bad
Absolute wealth in target countries Moderate Moderate Bad Good
Place premium Moderate Moderate Moderate Moderate
Cultural heterogeneity Moderate Bad Moderate Moderate

A few other examples that aren’t quite as good because the scale involved is too small, but are still interesting in some respects:

  • Open borders between Puerto Rico and the United States (see this blog post by Bryan Caplan): The place premium was moderate, the cultures were different (English versus Spanish). The scale of migration, over the long term, was huge relative to the sending country, but small relative to the receiving country. This example isn’t so helpful for our purpose because the US is too huge relative to the Puerto Rico for the migration to have had huge effect; however, some parts of the US (such as New York and Florida) have been influenced by Puerto Rican migration.
  • Israel has had open borders of sorts for Jews from around the world. A large number of East European and Russian Jews have migrated to Israel. Joel Newman crunched the numbers in this blog post. Although this is open borders of sorts, the small absolute size of the experiment makes it uninteresting in terms of figuring out how migration works at scale and can lead to rapid economic growth.
  • South Africa’s end of internal apartheid (discussed by Grieve Chelwa here) is also interesting, but again the scale of migration is insufficient to provide a clear sense of how things will proceed under open borders. The South Africa example is more interesting in that it involves a significant policy change in the open borders direction, but the focus of this blog post is more on the economic growth facilitated by mass migration than on the suddenness of the change.

The mix of labor and capital

Economic growth has been classified as intensive growth and extensive growth. Intensive growth involves changes in the mix of inputs and/or changes in the production technologies, i.e., the introduction of new ideas or new methods to produce more from the same inputs. Extensive growth involves an increase in inputs.

Now, to some extent, the change under open borders is extensive: a lot more labor is being added to the world economy. But in another respect, the change is intensive: the ratio of labor to capital shifts drastically worlwide, and even more so in countries that are migrant destinations. For more on this point, see Nathan Smith’s blog post on John Kennan’s paper on open borders. I quote a part of Kennan’s original paper that Nathan quoted; Nathan’s elaboration is worth reading at the link:

These gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries, and even this effect disappears as the capital-labor ratio adjusts over time; indeed if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.

I see two sorts of trajectories that could unfold:

  • The planned trajectory is one where borders are opened gradually and labor regulations are modified to better use the new labor mix. In this case, people have more time to accumulate more capital stock. I would expect that in this case, industry will play a big role in migrant-receiving countries: entrepreneurs and industrialists will set up large factories in anticipation of the huge migrant workforce they can have access to. They will undertake huge construction projects or expand agribusinesses.
  • The unplanned trajectory, where migration barriers are removed quickly with little coordination and planning, would probably see more of a shift to the services sector, which is less capital-intensive and where new people can join quickly.

Indeed, of the examples of China and India, the more planned and controlled case (China) has had more reliance on industry whereas the more chaotic case (India) has had more reliance on services (see more here). Note that in the longer run, I’d expect everything to move in the direction of services, when industry becomes so efficient that adding more people isn’t worthwhile at all (even at zero wages). But we’re far from there yet.

What about growth due to technological progress at the frontier? It’s possible that the progress of the frontier will not be affected much by open borders, but I personally expect that frontier progress will happen somewhat faster under open borders than under the counterfactual. This is the basis of the innovation case and the one world vision of open borders. I do expect that sending countries are likely to experience intensive growth and technological progress due to the circulation of people and ideas, though whether their economies as a whole grow or shrink would depend on how the magnitude of this effect compares with the decline in population. For arguments that open borders impede the progress of the technological frontier, see our page on killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The creation of new cities

There’s evidence to suggest that migrants who travel long distances tend to move to cities, for a variety of reasons. While living in one’s own village or small town may be preferable for many, living in a small town that one does not have connections with is hard. Cities are more conducive to strangers from faraway lands. They offer a wider range of job opportunities as well as amenities. The existence of a larger population allows for restaurants and supermarket products offering ethnic cuisine that wouldn’t be economically feasible in a smaller town.

It’s likely that there will be a lot of migration to the existing top cities of the world, but these cities have sky-high rents and are unaffordable to many poor migrants who don’t have enough skills to find jobs that could pay those rents. What I expect to see is many new cities crop up. Most likely, these cities will grow from existing small towns, potentially disrupting the lifestyles of residents of those towns. Natives are likely to have a mixed reaction: those who wanted city life but didn’t have the money for the big cities can benefit from the greater urbanization of their small town, and those who didn’t like city life may experience a decline in their quality of life (some of them may migrate to other places in their own country to get away from the overcrowding). Recall also Nathan Smith’s land value windfall argument: the price of new housing of a given quality can remain the same or even decline, even as the price of existing housing can keep rising due to an increase in the demand for living in established cities and towns.

It’s also possible that entire new cities can be created from scratch. One can imagine, for instance, a few companies setting up large factories in an area, and a huge amount of cheap housing for the people working in those factories. Another possibility is that new cities will emerge in wasteland that is at the periphery of existing cities, or from suburban or exurban regions of existing cities.

A useful historical model is China, which is undergoing the world’s most rapid and large-scale urbanization. For more, see Wikipedia, the McKinsey Global Institute report, and this presentation for a Stanford University course. In 1976, about 18% of China’s population was urban, and now about 52% is. It is estimated that by 2025, China will add over 350 million more people to its urban population, of which 240 million will be migrants. That 240 million is more than the number of people who indicate the US as their first-choice migration destination. The following are some key features of growth in China:

  • The rate of migration itself has been accelerating and may be plateauing now, though it will eventually start decreasing once rural areas have depopulated. While part of the mechanism here is diaspora dynamics, the more likely explanation is simply the increasing rate at which the economy is restructuring to increase demand for labor in urban areas and decrease it in rural areas.
  • The creation of new cities is concentrated in the middle phase (city creation was most intense around 1990-2005) rather than very early (when migration is still just beginning, existing cities have enough room for the initial migrants, and it’s not clear where more people will want to settle) or very late (when the patterns of migration are already set).
  • New cities are generally created close to existing cities.

Increase in international trade and foreign direct investment

Immigration and trade can be both complements and substitutes, but I expect that, unless tariffs are raised havily, more migration will facilitate more trade. Multinational small businesses run by family members around the world will become more common. Larger businesses will find it easier to set up shop in a greater range of countries. Diaspora will be eager to invest or get their associates in their new countries to invest in ventures in their source countries, so there will be more foreign direct investment. As people become better connected, there will be a reduction in the anti-foreign bias that motivates restrictions on trade and FDI. Another relevant point is that the move towards open borders is likely to be accompanied by a move towards free trade and FDI, because both proceed through the gradual expansion of free trade and free migration zones (such as the European Union).

A somewhat different vision

I’ll quote below Nathan’s detailed questionnaire answer (this is answer #4 in this very long blog post):

Some of the major problems of developed countries today would be solved by open borders. Government debt becomes less burdensome when population and total GDP rise, even if per capita GDP falls. As mentioned above, long-term demographic problems of shrinking and greying populations would be mitigated or eliminated by open borders (this does depend on the composition of immigrants, but given the relative youthfulness of the world population as a whole and the greater propensity of the young to move, the prediction that open borders would help can be made fairly confidently). Almost all homeowners and owners of real estate would enjoy a windfall benefit from rising population as demand and prices rise. This effect would not be offset by losses to renters, or to people unwilling to sell, from higher rents and property taxes. As cities expanded, renters could still live in comparably dense, interesting places, and homeowners who stayed put would get the windfall not in cash but in being through the midst of more economic activity (i.e., more shops, restaurants, entertainment, interesting streets, jobs and business opportunities, etc.– all the amenities of urban living for which people pay high urban rents).

Savers and owners of capital would tend to benefit as well, from an abundance of investment opportunities, but there would be downward pressure on wages. Crudely speaking, “unskilled” workers would see their wages fall, while some “skilled” workers would probably see their wages rise. But then, some of the basic skills Americans take for granted, like speaking native English, cultural fluency, and driving cars, would become “skills” for which premia could be earned. Immigrants would help poorer natives as customers, by creating a mass market for low-price goods, and giving companies a stronger incentive to pursue “frugal innovation.” There might be more business opportunities for entrepreneurially inclined natives even without a lot of education. Overall, it is extremely likely that natives as a whole would benefit, but without deliberate efforts to prevent it via fiscal policy, a substantial minority of natives would be likely to see their living standards fall due to open borders.

I would both advocate and anticipate that policy would do much to protect the least fortunate natives against a fall in living standards due to open borders. Moreover, this would be fiscally feasible, because open borders would greatly expand the tax base. Some natives might find jobs scarce and/or wages very low, yet receive transfer payments from the government which would enable them to live a “middle class,” house-and-car-in-the-suburbs, lifestyle. Others would see their wages fall but find themselves more than compensated by a rise in the price of their home and the value of their stockmarket portfolio– while also, perhaps, enjoying new transfers and/or tax cuts from a government flush with revenues from immigrant taxes. The hardest part of adjustment would be the moral impact of labor falling in value. One tenet of what I call “the macroeconomic social contract”– that anyone who is willing to work should be able to find a job that enables them to earn a decent living standard– would be further undermined.

Also discombobulating for natives would be the emergence of vibrant shantytowns and ethnic districts on an enormous scale. Pre-assimilation would mitigate the problem of absorbing immigrants into mainstream society, though on the other hand the number of immigrants would be larger than in the 19th century both in absolute numbers and as a share of the population. But Americans would hear more languages spoken on the streets, see more holidays celebrated, see a wider variety of religious buildings and of clothing. There would be neighborhoods where native-born US citizens would have the experience, charming to some but frightening to others, of being on American soil yet feeling like they were abroad. European countries, I expect, would face a different problem, namely, that some immigrants would prefer to assimilate to an “Anglobalized” international bourgeoisie, rather than to Dutchness or Norwegianness or Italianness. They would have to cope with large populations of foreigners who seemed content to reside permanently in their countries, getting by with English. Sweden or the Netherlands might see their living standards rise under open borders, even as Swedish and Dutch faced displacement by English as the nation’s first language. (That might happen anyway, but open borders would accelerate it.)

While the native-born citizens of the rich world need not see their living standards fall and most to all would probably see them rise, likely by a lot, under open borders, there would be far more poor people in the rich world. Germans and Danes and Italians and Washingtonians and Californians would have to get used to seeing a lot more deep poverty on the streets, and content themselves with knowing that there was much less poverty in the world because there was a little more at home. The moral underpinnings of the national socialist models of society that prevailed in the 20th century would have to be abandoned. Territorialism as a meta-ethical prejudice would have to be refuted at the level of reason and then wrung out of people’s intuitions.