Tag Archives: crime

Open Borders and International Migration Policy: Book Summary

This blog post summarizes the author’s October 2015 book Open Borders and International Migration Policy. The book is available both electronically and in print from Amazon, Google Books, and the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan.

Although political philosophers debate the morality of open borders, few social scientists have explored what would happen if immigration were no longer limited. This book looks at three historical examples of temporarily unrestricted migration into the United States, France, and Ireland: the arrival of Mariel Cubans in Miami (Florida) in 1980, the flight of Pied Noir and Harki refugees from Algeria to Marseille in 1962, and the migration of Poles and other new European Union ‘Accession 8’ citizens into Dublin in 2004. Based on personal interviews, archival research, and statistical analysis, the study finds that the effects of these population movements on the economics, politics, and social life of these cities were much less catastrophic than opponents of free immigration claim. Detailed chapters cover schools, crime, ethnic politics, unemployment and wages, public finances, housing, and racial violence.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background page on the Mariel boatlift.

Political philosophers Joseph Carens, Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, and Will Kymlicka have argued for the morality of an open-borders immigration policy, yet such other social theorists as Michael Walzer, Stephen Macedo, and John Isbister dismiss this approach because of the supposed harm that unrestricted immigration would cause to natives. After exploring the normative arguments for and against open borders, the first chapter concludes that the crux of many theoretical objections to unrestricted immigration is empirical. Unfortunately, however, many of the factual assumptions that immigration restrictionists make have not been fully or rigorously tested. This new book therefore aims to see if unregulated immigration actually hurt natives.

The following chapter replicates David Card’s 1990 now-classic, natural-experiment-based article demonstrating that the Mariel migrants had no significant immediate effect on native wages or unemployment rates in Miami. Chapter 2 extends Card’s findings to two European cities that experienced sudden waves of migration comparable to the Mariel Boatlift in south Florida: Marseille, France, which faced the influx of Pieds-Noirs and Harkis “repatriates” from Algeria in 1962; and Dublin, Ireland, which received thousands of new European-Union, “Accession 8” citizens from Eastern Europe beginning in 2004. Based on elite interviews, archival materials, and ARIMA regression models, this study of two additional natural experiments concludes that rapid, “uncontrolled” migration had no statistically significant effect on the native employment market in Marseille or Dublin. The analysis likewise finds that sudden immigration appears to have boosted overall wage rates both in Marseille’s total employment market and in Ireland’s construction sector. Theoretically, this investigation thus confirms Card’s optimistic conclusions about the economic effects of immigration. It also shows that his findings are robust across different Western, industrialized countries.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background pages on suppression of wages of natives and the US-specific version.

Chapter 3 focusses on public finances. Although popular rhetoric about “immigrants taking our jobs” or “reducing our wages” typically finds little or no support from rigorous empirical studies, such mainstream investigators as the National Research Council conclude that new immigrants sometimes represent a net fiscal burden, especially at the local level in the short run. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effect of various types of migrants on the finances of large cities in particular, this chapter analyzes over-time budgetary data from Miami, Marseille, and Dublin. Based on quantitative panel models, elite interviews, and archival documents, the study concludes that the overall fiscal impact on localities of rapid, “uncontrolled” migration was effectively nil in Miami and Marseille, but positive in Dublin. Theoretically and empirically, this investigation helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible tax- and social-services-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and partly confirms the relevant literature on the differing fiscal influences of refugees versus economic migrants and high- versus low-skilled labor.

The fourth chapter looks at the housing market. Unless public authorities and the private real estate market immediately increase the number of available dwellings, a sudden wave of immigration may increase residential overcrowding. According to standard economic theory, greater demand for housing should likewise boost prices in the rental market, where most immigrants would initially seek shelter. In contrast, interpretations based on a dual housing market predict that immigration-caused demand will not be as likely to boost natives’ housing costs where newcomers are highly segregated. To test these two explanations, this chapter uses interviews with local economists and real estate agents, historical documents, and panel regression models for the three historical natural experiments. Quantitative data include official census statistics on the number of people per room and public or private estimates of changes in rents. Regression models suggest that increased overcrowding occurred in Miami but not in Marseille or Dublin. In contrast, the analysis shows a significant migration-caused rent increase in the normal housing market of only Marseille, the least-segregated city. Theoretically, this work thus tends to confirm the theory of dual housing markets for immigrants versus natives but only partially supports the standard economic model of housing.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See Nathan Smith’s post The great land value windfall from open borders.

Chapter 5 concerns itself with schools. Popular rhetoric claims that because of immigration, native schoolchildren have “no room to learn” and educational standards are being “dumbed down.” Yet relatively few empirical social scientists have examined whether immigration actually causes school overcrowding. A larger group of statistically oriented scholars has examined migration and academic achievement, but they tend to focus more on how well migrant students do in school than on whether immigration hurts native children in the same district. The smaller pool of investigators who have looked at this latter question usually aim to test the “peer effects” theory of immigration effects but often are confronted with the serious methodological problem of endogeneity via immigrant and native self-selection into particular districts. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effects of various types of migrants on the degree of overcrowding and academic achievement in secondary schools in large cities in particular, this chapter therefore analyzes official over-time classroom-density and test-score data from these three natural experiments where immigration is clearly exogenous to the choice of school district. Based on interviews with teachers and school officials, examination of archival materials from relevant institutions, and quantitative panel analysis of educational and census data, my study concludes that the rapid, unrestricteded migration of immigrant secondary-school students neither substantially increased classroom density nor affected the overall test scores in these districts. Theoretically and empirically, this investigation helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible education-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and disconfirms an immigration-based “peer effects” model of academic achievement. Massive immigration does not necessarily cause a decline in student learning, and it does not even seem to boost classroom overcrowding very much if at all.

Crime is the main topic in Chapter 6. Although xenophobic popular rhetoric about “foreign-born criminals” abounds, relatively few empirical social scientists have examined what, if any link, actually exists between immigration and crime. Those quantitatively oriented investigators who do look at this question, moreover, typically focus on a single country or region and tend to find little or no overall effect from migration. This chapter thus uses cross-national statistics to test the “strain” and “importation” models of migration and criminal deviance. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effects of various types of migrants on the level of violent or “serious” crime (i.e., homicide and burglary) in large cities in particular, I analyze official over-time crime data from the three cities. Elite interviews, archival materials, and quantitative panel models of police and census data indicate that the rapid, “uncontrolled” migration of working- or middle-class refugees or workers did increase burglary rates in all three cities. However, the sudden arrival of primarily low-skilled individuals—some of whom had already served prison time in Cuba—appears to have boosted the homicide rate in Miami only. This investigation therefore helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible crime-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and partly confirms the importation model of homicide and strain theory of burglary. Though massive immigration does not necessarily cause a large rise in all forms of urban crime in the host country, the entry of many poor migrants with few economic opportunities and/or with criminal backgrounds may.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our crime page, our backgrounder page on Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States, and Vipul Naik’s speculative post about crime in the US under open borders.

The last body chapter examines ethnic politics and racial violence. Although some scholars of “realistic group conflict” argue that immigration-related ethnic conflict usually increases with a sudden influx of foreign-born residents, Daniel J. Hopkins’ theory of “politicized places” suggests that the effect of immigrant flows may partly depend on “salient national rhetoric.” To help adjudicate between these two theoretical explanations cross-nationally, this chapter analyzes over-time, aggregate voting data and qualitative accounts of inter-ethnic violence from the three urban natural experiments. Relying on elite informants, archival materials, newspaper accounts, and Gary King’s method of ecologically inferring the degree of ethnic voting, the study generally confirms the “politicized places” interpretation. While rapid, “uncontrolled” migration fueled ethnic voting and violence in Miami, where the media and many elites blamed economic woes on the immigrants, migrant inflows had few such effects in Marseille and Dublin, where media treatment was relatively positive and most leaders welcomed the newcomers relatively early on. Theoretically, this investigation thus expands Hopkins’ theory to immigrant-rich urban settings in three different industrialized countries. The chapter might also guide local and national political leaders wishing to avoid a popular backlash against an unexpected wave of recent immigrants.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background page on nativist backlash.

Chapter 8 summarizes the book’s findings and discusses their implications. Overall, this study concludes that the empirical case against open borders is overstated. The analysis does find overcrowding of housing and a higher burglary rate for all three cities. In Miami only, migration also appears to have led to more homicides, racial violence, and ethnic voting. Residential overcrowding eventually dissipated over time, however, as municipalities built more apartments for the newcomers. Burglaries did increase, but many of the victims were probably the immigrants themselves. Ethnic scapegoating by political and media elites lies at the root of ethnic voting and racial violence, and the many additional murders in Miami arguably represent an atypical case of a sending country deliberately inducing the emigration of violent criminals. With the exception of crime, then, any significant effects from large-scale immigration seem manageable.

On the other side of the coin, what if anything good came of these three migrant streams? First, moving to the U.S., France, or Ireland was undoubtedly good for almost all of the immigrants themselves. Most Mariel Cubans were able to rejoin their families in Miami and eventually move up into the American middle class. Pieds Noirs in Marseille escaped near-certain death at the hands of the Algerian FLN and eventually were able to re-establish their cultural institutions and economically integrate into southern France. And Poles in Dublin found reasonably well-paying jobs, a compatible cultural environment, and a chance to perfect their English. Second, however, these newcomers also contributed greatly to their host societies. Mariel migrant Mirta Ojito grew up to become a journalism professor at Columbia University and win the Pulitzer Prize. The Jewish Pied Noir singer Enrico Macias (born Gaston Ghrenassia in what is today Constantine, Algeria) continues to charm French and global audiences with his Andalusian melodies. At least at the height of the attendant labor shortage, meanwhile, Irish employers eagerly hired Eastern-Europeans to help fuel the Republic’s “Celtic Tiger” economic expansion.

Of course, these three case studies do not constitute the most extreme scenarios of unrestricted immigration, where tens of millions of people might cross international borders suddenly. Within the North Atlantic communities, however, these three examples represent some of the most dramatic and highly concentrated migration flows in modern memory (the not-yet-concluded Syrian refugee crisis aside). A complete lack of enforcement on the southern borders of the E.U. or U.S. would of course encourage larger numbers of poorer migrants to attempt the journey and might cause more significant socio-economic effects on the receiving countries. Yet until such immigration actually occurs, we are reduced to speculating about the consequences. And the analysis of historic cases in this book would be a good place to start developing models of the short-term, localized results of such overwhelmingly large flows should they present themselves. For now, however, any estimation of the socio-economic effects of truly massive, hemisphere-wide open borders requires forecasting beyond historically available data.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See also John Lee’s blog post How did we come to be so certain that closed borders are our salvation?

Perhaps the most morally defensible but cautious immigration policy politically imaginable would be the late economist Julian Simon’s recommendation to “increase the volume of total immigration in substantial steps [i.e., up to double the number of entrants per step] unless [or until?] there appear negative effects that are unknown at present.” As my book shows, actual harm from immigration is much harder to find than allegations of deleterious effects. If North Americans are to adopt immigration laws in keeping with their high professed ideals, they might profitably consider following the lead of the Europeans and South Americans–who have already adopted limited open-borders systems–instead of using racialized rhetoric to scapegoat men and women who desire nothing more than an opportunity to earn decent wages and live in peace.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See also Vipul Naik’s post Slippery slopes to open borders and John Lee’s post Constitutionally entrenching migration as a fundamental human right: Argentina and open borders.

Related reading

If you found this post interesting, you might want to buy the book on which this summary is based. It’s available both electronically and in print from Amazon, Google Books, and the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan.

The following Open Borders: The Case blog posts and pages might also be of interest.

The image featured in the header of this post is a photograph of Chinese immigrants en route to gold mines in Australia, circa 1900.

Can deportation be a key crime-fighting strategy?

This post expands on some points I made in a post to the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. There, I expressed puzzlement at the emphasis people pay to using deportation of criminal non-citizens (and in particular those in violation of authorized immigration status) as a crime-fighting tool. That Facebook post, and this blog post, will focus on the United States, though many of the points made are general.

To many people, the idea that there exist foreign-born non-citizens, particularly illegal immigrants, who have criminal records and still roam the streets safely is an indicator that United States immigration enforcement is dysfunctional and broken. Thus, Donald Trump’s remarks about illegal immigrants and crime struck a chord with a lot of his audience. And the killing of Kate Steinle by illegal immigrant and repeat felon Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez (who has admitted to firing the killing shots but claims they were accidental) was viewed as evidence of a breakdown of law enforcement. The killing has led to a proposal for a new law called “Kate’s Law” that has led to a lot of discussion, see for instance here and here.

This post has two main goals:

  1. Critiquing the high-level view that deportation can be a key strategy for reducing crime, particularly in the United States. I don’t claim that deportation can never reduce crime, just that it’s not a proven strategy to do so and most of the data suggest its effect is negligible in magnitude, ambiguous in sign, and swamped by the other side-effects.
  2. Emphasizing the importance on the open borders side of not carelessly conceding too much to restrictionists regarding how to deal with criminals, due to concerns about slippery slopes, ratchet effects, and logical inconsistency. I don’t claim that it’s inappropriate to make any exceptions for criminals, just that some exceptions should be made after careful consideration of all the angles rather than as a generous carte blanche of “do what you want with the criminals.”

A couple of notes here. Since this post is largely conceptual, I’m going to conflate a few fairly different notions. There is a notion of birthplace (native-born versus foreign-born), a notion of citizenship (citizen versus non-citizen), and a notion of authorization for status (legal versus illegal immigrant). Also, in the United States, many non-citizens are on non-immigrant visas, i.e., their visa does not specify immigrant intent, although many of them later transition to a long-term immigrant status. A detailed analysis of the empirics of crime patterns would need to avoid conflating these issues, but since the purpose of this post is rather different I’ll be a little careless.

Table of contents

1.1. How does the law treat people convicted of crimes based on immigration status?

The short answer here is that, as far as the law goes, non-citizens convicted of crimes are no more a hazard to public safety than citizens convicted of the same crimes. First off, anybody who is not a US citizen, lawful permanent resident, or conditional permanent resident, and who has been convicted of an aggravated felony, a category of crime that includes both violent and non-violent crimes (some of the latter being victimless crimes) can be subject to a speedy removal process called administrative removal for aggravated felons, which means that the person can be removed simply through some paperwork and without getting a hearing before an immigration judge (more here).

Even so, as immigration.procon.org notes, in the United States, those convicted of violent crimes need to first finish their prison terms, and after that they may be deported to their home country. And the way administrative removal works, they are deported straight out of prison, so they don’t spend a single day free in the streets of the United States: it’s prison in the US and then back to freedom in their home country.

In contrast, citizens are required to finish their sentence in prison, and after that they are free — to roam around in the United States. Even if the deportation of criminal non-citizens is a flawed process with many people failing to get deported, or returning to the United States, it’s at worst as bad (from the public safety perspective within the United States) as the treatment of criminal citizens.

For those convicted of non-violent crimes, the person may be deported before the completion of his or her sentence. Since re-entering the United States seems a task of comparable or greater hardness to having one’s prison term shortened or getting out on parole as a U.S. citizen, it’s again unclear that non-citizens pose a greater risk to public safety than citizens. Of course, there’s a big question mark regarding whether people convicted of non-violent crimes are threats to public safety to begin with.

The United States is also a participant in the International Prisoner Transfer Program. A prisoner who is a citizen of another participating country may transfer from a United States prison to a prison in the home country, subject to approval by both countries. However, such transfer must be initiated through a request by the prisoner, and therefore does not concern us here.

A bit more about re-entering after having been deported for crimes. The United States has a summary removal procedure called reinstatement of removal. What this says is that somebody who re-enters the United States without authorization after having previously been deported, removed, or excluded can be removed again without any kind of hearing or process, simply by “reinstating” the previous order. This in particular applies to those who were subject to administrative removal for aggravated felonies, or otherwise deported or excluded based on criminal history. Of course, after the person gets re-deported, the person may re-enter yet again, and get deported yet again, and so on. But two things to note: first, insofar as this isn’t enough to keep the streets of the United States safe, the problem can’t really be solved by more deportations, but by more imprisonment (which is sort of what Kate’s Law was pointing to). Second, the same public safety challenge applies to citizens as well, except that in the case of citizens, there isn’t even an option to deport people, however temporarily.

The upshot of all this is that, for a citizen and a non-citizen who commit the same crime, the law enforcement response in the case of the non-citizen is equally or more protective of public safety (in the US) compared to the response in the case of the citizen. If the law enforcement apparatus of the United States is lenient enough that criminal non-citizens can roam the streets freely and with impunity, then the same is even more true of criminal citizens.

An old post by Nathan, titled Answer to Vipul’s question about enforcement, has some interesting thoughts on deportation that are relevant to this discussion. Basically, Nathan argues that deportation is rarely the appropriate response, even if there are cases where it is not an unjust response:

I’m not absolutely wedded to the idea that deportation is never permissible. However, I can’t think of any situations where it would be appropriate. There are certainly crimes for which deportation would not be an excessive punishment; but for those crimes it’s usually either inapt or insufficient. A man guilty of rape or murder shouldn’t be deported, but imprisoned. Maybe there are scenarios where deportation would be the right thing to do, but I can’t think of them. I have some sympathy for the Nicene council which banished Arius the heresiarch for his views when they temporarily had the emperor on their side– they had suffered much at the hands of the pagans, and would yet suffer much at the hands of the Arians, and mere banishment is impressively moderate under the circumstances– but it’s not a precedent to imitate today, when the principle of free thought has been firmly established.

1.2. Immigrant crime rates appear lower than, and definitely aren’t significantly higher than, native crime rates

In the United States, one of the main concerns surrounding crime is that of crime by Hispanic illegal immigrants. We have a page on the subject that links to many literature reviews, and you should also read Alex Nowrasteh’s recent summary of the research and my co-blogger Joel’s take on immigrants and crime.

The broad consensus of these reviews appears to be that the foreign-born are considerably less likely to engage in crime than the native-born, and that this effect holds in aggregate, within each ethnicity, and for every combination of ethnicity and high school graduation status. Admittedly, the threat of deportation for crime is believed to be one contributing factor to the lower crime rate, but scholars who have studied the issue believe it to only be a partial explanation. The a priori selection for greater future orientation is believed to be another driving factor in the lower crime rates, and this applies to both legal and illegal immigration, and to both the status quo and substantially more liberal migration policy.

On the other hand, Hispanics have crime rates somewhere between non-Hispanic whites and blacks, which is a contributing factor to the perception of high Hispanic crime. But a lot of this higher Hispanic crime doesn’t come from foreign-born Hispanics.

In addition to comparing overall crime rates, we can also look at specific research on the effect of deportation on crime rates. Alex’s recent summary of the research includes a discussion of two relevant pieces of research:

The phased rollout of the Secure Communities (S-COMM) immigration enforcement program provided a natural experiment. A recent paper by Thomas J. Miles and Adam B. Cox used the phased rollout to see how S-COMM affected crime rates per county. If immigrants were disproportionately criminal, then S-COMM would decrease the crime rates. They found that S-COMM “led to no meaningful reduction in the FBI index crime rate” including violent crimes. Relying on similar data with different specifications, Treyger et al. found that S-COMM did not decrease crime rates nor did it lead to an increase in discriminatory policing that some critics were worried about. According to both reports, the population of immigrants is either not correlated, or negatively correlated, with crime rates.

As far as long-run immigration policy is concerned, one could plausibly argue that, even if the foreign-born have lower crime rates than the native-born, allowing more immigration can still raise crime if the children of these foreign-born have higher criminal propensity. This line of reasoning is partly supported by evidence, both with respect to Hispanics in the United States, and with respect to other immigrant groups historically; this phenomenon has been discussed under the name of second-generation crime.

For the purposes of deportation policy, however, this doesn’t apply, because we are specifically talking about deporting non-citizens for crimes they have committed, rather than crimes we expect their children might commit. And native-born people in the United States are United States citizens (by birthright citizenship) so there are no official grounds for deporting them.

1.3. In absolute terms, crime by immigrants is a small fraction of overall crime

In the United States, the foreign-born constitute about 13% of the population. Given that their crime rates are somewhat lower than those of the native-born, they account for less than 13% of the overall crime in the United States. Targeting crime by immigrants therefore won’t make a huge dent in the overall crime problem.

Concretely, what this means is that if you believe the criminal justice system is too lenient against the foreign-born, and that this creates a significant crime risk for natives, then you should be far more concerned about the criminal justice system being too lenient overall. For every case of a criminal foreign-born non-citizen individual who was either acquitted or released after serving a prison term and then committed more crimes, you’ll probably find many more native-born citizens who do the same thing. Perhaps the relevant remedy here is to make prison terms longer for particular types of offenses, or to better identify those who may be repeat offenders. What the optimal remedy is, and how to balance the rights of former criminals with public safety needs, is not the topic of this post. But it behooves those concerned about crime levels to consider the problem in generality rather than find solutions for a subset of the population that contributes little to the overall problem.

Note that this definitely won’t hold under open borders: under open borders, the foreign-born will be a much larger share of the population, and are likely to contribute a significant share of overall crime. The question of what crime rates would be under open borders is open. It is plausible that the currently observed phenomenon of lower immigrant crime rates than native crime rates will break down under open borders, though I still don’t expect a massive overall increase in crime rate. I considered these questions in an earlier post, and we’ll hopefully have more coverage of the issue.

1.4. Are there unique challenges associated with domestic criminal law enforcement when applied to non-citizens?

One plausible argument for choosing deportation as a crime-fighting strategy for non-citizens is that domestic criminal law enforcement becomes particularly hard for these people. Is that true?

Ironically, it is, but largely because of immigration enforcement. Law enforcement officers have difficulty carrying out their job in immigrant communities partly because of the distrust in these communities of law enforcement, given their fear of deportation and harassment. This leads to a dynamic where police officers tend to avoid the area, leaving the policing of these areas to those prone to corruption and bullying, further worsening the interaction between police and residents. A similar phenomenon been observed for many black communities in the United States, where the relevant form of enforcement is not immigration enforcement but other laws such as drug enforcement and Broken Windows policing.

It is partly for this reason that many “sanctuary cities” have adopted explicit policies surrounding non-enforcement of federal immigration laws. In other words, police are instructed to focus on the goal of fighting crime, leaving the enforcement of federal immigration law to federal authorities. In other words, to the extent that unique challenges apply to domestic law enforcement for non-citizens, they point in the direction of separating law enforcement from immigration enforcement.

A small note here about crime in border towns specifically as a result of illicit border activity. Organized crime plays an important role in facilitating drug smuggling and migrant smuggling, and the clashes between different organized crime groups, and between them and law enforcement agencies, can be responsible for higher-than-usual violence levels in border towns. That being said, as an empirical matter, it appears that overall crime rates are lower in border towns than in comparably sized interior towns. One of the lowest-crime areas, El Paso, is a border town in Texas whose low crime rate has even been called a miracle. The oft-noted point that border towns account for a disproportionate rate of federal crimes (which include crimes related to smuggling) does not impugn their overall safety record.

2.0. Is this worth making an issue of? Can’t the treatment of violent criminals be a small concession that makes the open borders position much more widely palatable?

Criminals are one of the few categories for which many open borders advocates are willing to make exceptions to their general view that borders should be open to all. Thus, for instance, Bryan Caplan writes:

Hey Mr. Caplan,Do you think Israel should open their borders?

Thanks, Jack

Yes. But I wouldn’t strongly object if they excluded people with violent criminal records or denied new-comers the vote. (Same goes for countries other than Israel, too).

It’s not clear to me if making a clear exclusion for criminals is philosophically consistent, but the argument for public safety being a valid concern in immigration law does carry some weight. In an earlier post in December 2012, I considered in detail the question of whether blanket denial of the right to migrate based on a criminal record is just (and also linked to many other people who had conceded an exception to open borders for violent criminals).

My purpose when I wrote that post, way back in 2012, was to simply explore the space of possibilities regarding how to trade off the right to migrate with public safety concerns in receiving countries. However, as I’ve thought more about this and looked more at the types of disputes and debates that arise in practice, a few other concerns have emerged in my mind.

2.1. Scope creep with criminality and immigration

The idea of keeping criminals out, and deporting those who commit crimes, is subject to significant scope creep. Once we start seeing immigration policy as a way to select and shape a better society, why stop at merely excluding violent criminals? Why not also aim to exclude people who have a 50%+ probability of being net fiscal drains, or who are more likely than not to vote the wrong way? And even within the realm of crime, why stop merely at those crimes that actually merit prison terms? Why not expand the scope to everything ranging from playing loud music to running a gambling house to downloading music in violation of copyright law?

In fact, this particular slippery slope is not merely hypothetical. It’s already happened. As already mentioned, United States immigration law can exclude and deport people for aggravated felonies, many of which are neither aggravated nor felonies. The Immigration Policy Center, an immigrant rights and legal advocacy group, has a good overview. Here’s how the IPC’s overview puts it:

As initially enacted in 1988, the term “aggravated felony” referred only to murder, federal drug trafficking, and illicit trafficking of certain firearms and destructive devices. Congress has since expanded the definition of “aggravated felony” on numerous occasions, but has never removed a crime from the list. Today, the definition of “aggravated felony” covers more than thirty types of offenses, including simple battery, theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court. Even offenses that sound serious, such as “sexual abuse of a minor,” can encompass conduct that some states classify as misdemeanors or do not criminalize at all, such as consensual intercourse between a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old.

While aggravated felonies are considered serious enough to allow for administrative removal for those who are not US citizens or permanent residents, there are also other, lesser, “crimes” that can be used to both exclude and deport people, albeit with more of a semblance of due process (i.e., they cannot be used as a basis for administrative removal, but they can still be used as evidence against the alien in a hearing before an immigration judge). Crimes that can be used to exclude and deport people are called crimes involving moral turpitude (aka crimes of moral turpitude, and abbreviated as CMT). This category includes aggravated felonies but also includes other crimes. NOLO has a good review.

The United States has also historically passed many laws restricting immigration based on one’s speech and political views, including the Immigration Act of 1903 (also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act) and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. This, despite the fact that freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Once we grant that the public safety interest justifies special punishments for non-citizens (over and above the usual fines and prison terms), keeping the domain of application restricted to crime would be hard.

My co-blogger John Lee has done a great post linking to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse’s discussion of how migrants could be deported for minor offenses (also read John’s follow-up post discussing the resolution of one of the discussed cases).

2.2. Who has responsibility for shaping a criminal?

Personally, I reject the notion that state or national governments are morally responsible for the criminal actions of particular individuals who were born there or raised there. There could be exceptions where state propaganda or state action facilitates criminal activity, but state complicity in private crime needs to be positively established — not merely assumed. Therefore, I don’t believe, for instance, that just because a Chinese citizen came to the United States and committed crimes, the Chinese government, the Chinese nation, or the Chinese people as a whole are “responsible” for that crime and “deserve” to have the person back (this argument is a variant of the state responsibility thesis that has been cited by some philosophers as an argument against open borders).

Even if you believed in high-level national responsibility for the criminal actions of individuals, it’s not clear what nation gets the blame for immigrant crime. Is it the nation the person holds official citizenship of? Is it the nation the person grew up in? Is it the nation where the person first started on the path to crime? In the United States, DREAMers are likely to have had many of their formative experiences in the United States. Thus, we could reasonably argue in the case of DREAMers who commit crimes, any national responsibility for the crimes falls on the United States, rather than their birthplace. Even for those who migrate as adults and then commit crimes, their path of crime may well have begun in the United States. At best, the logic of responsibility can be used to deport criminals who committed their first deportation-worthy crime in their country of origin, in the same way as it could be used to deny initial entry.

2.3. Criminals can commit crimes elsewhere too

From a universalist perspective, deporting those with criminal proclivities, whom we believe could be repeat offenders, doesn’t really solve the problem: the person could commit crimes elsewhere too. There could be some cases where deportation might reduce criminality, for instance, deporting members of a gang could break up the criminal activity of the gang, and individual deported gang members may be unlikely to continue to engage in the relevant crimes (on the other hand, they may start new gangs). It’s unclear that the countries the criminals are being deported to would be more capable of dealing with the criminal activity — they may well be less able to handle it. Perhaps a cost-benefit analysis would still show that deportation reduces overall expected global crime, but such a claim needs careful argumentation.

Of course, citizenists and territorialists in any country would consider the reduction of crime within the country (and/or directed at citizens of the country) to be more important than reducing global crime. So it’s understandable that they accept deportation as a possible crime reduction strategy. But those of a more universalist bent should push back against this reasoning.

Co-blogger Joel pointed me to an article in The Atlantic that made the interesting claim that deporting gang members from the U.S. had actually increased organized criminal actiity both in the U.S. and in the countries the people were deported to. Here’s a key excerpt from the article:

MS-13 formed in the Rampart area of Los Angeles in 1988 or 1989. A civil war in El Salvador had displaced a fifth of that country’s population, and a small number of the roughly 300,000 Salvadorans living in L.A. banded together to form the gang. But MS-13 didn’t really take off until several years later, in El Salvador, after the U.S. adopted a get-tough policy on crime and immigration and began deporting first thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Central Americans each year, including many gang members.

Introduced into war-ravaged El Salvador, the gang spread quickly among demobilized soldiers and a younger generation accustomed to violence. Many deportees who had been only loosely affiliated with MS-13 in the U.S. became hard-core members after being stranded in a country they did not know, with only other gang members to rely on. As the gang proliferated and El Salvador tried to crack down on it, some deportees began finding their way back into the U.S.—in many cases bringing other, newly recruited gangsters with them. Deportation, incubation, and return: it’s a cycle we’ve been caught in ever since.

Today, MS-13 has perhaps 6,000 to 10,000 members in the United States. It has grown moderately in recent years and now has a presence in 43 states (up from 32 in 2003 and 15 in 1996). Most members of the gang are foreign-born. Since 2005, ICE has arrested about 2,000 of them; 13 percent have been deported before.

Salvadoran police report that 90 percent of deported gang members return to the U.S. After several spins through the deportation-and-return cycle, MS-13 members now control many of the “coyote” services that bring aliens up from Central America. Deportation—a free trip south—can be quite profitable for those gang members who bring others back with them upon their return.

While I don’t know enoughabout the specifics to endorse the claim of the article, this is the sort of ripple effect that people concerned about the long-run effects on global crime would have to account for. These kinds of effects are hard to predict, but a reasonable rule of thumb is that they’re likely to be less positive overall than the naive view of deportation as “taking criminals off the streets” suggests.

3. Conclusion

Much of the current discussion on immigration and crime comes from two angles: the use of anecdotes to justify strong immigration restriction and deportation policies against non-citizens accused of crimes, and the use of empirical data to study the relationship between migration status and crime. In addition, the defense of the civil and procedural rights of non-citizens accused of crimes is also a perspective that gets some airing. My post looks at the issue from a few slightly different angles. It focuses on whether deportation can or should be an important part of a crime-fighting strategy, and highlights some other relevant considerations about moral responsibility and effects that often get sidelined by the tug-of-war between the citizenist and due process-defending perspectives.

In addition to the many inline links in the post, the following might be of interest to readers:

The photograph featured at the top of this post depicts police personnel at a 2006 march for immigrant rights in Los Angeles, California. Photograph by Jonathan McIntosh and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.

The Moral Imperative of Open Borders Trumps (Pun Intended) Immigrant Crime Rates

Many in the U.S. are currently focused on the amount of crime committed by immigrants in the country. This is due to remarks made by presidential contender Donald Trump in June and a murder allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in July.  Mr. Trump suggested that many Mexican immigrants are criminals. In this post I argue that even if it were true that immigrants would increase crime rates in America, open borders would still be justified.

In response to Mr. Trump’s remarks and the San Francisco murder, both The Washington Post  and The New York Times have noted that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has surveyed the research on immigration and crime rates and drawn a similar conclusion. The Immigration Policy Center also released a report which states that “the available evidence indicates that immigrants are not only less likely to end up behind bars than the native-born, but that immigrants are also less likely to commit criminal acts to begin with.” (p. 9) In a 2012 post, Vipul  communicated the same message that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.

Focusing on Mexican and Hispanic immigration, Mr. Nowrasteh notes that although one study showed that Mexican immigrants were committing more property crimes than native-born Americans, another demonstrated that Mexican immigrants “had no effect on violent or property crime rates in major U.S. metropolitan areas.” He also cites a study on Hispanic immigrants in Chicago that found that they were much less prone to committing violent criminal acts than native whites or blacks in the city.

The Immigration Policy Center offers an explanation for why immigrants commit less crime: “This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Unauthorized immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.” (p. 20)

What about the crime rate of the offspring of immigrants? They do appear to become more prone to crime than their immigrant relatives, which an editor at the Pew Research Center calls the “dark side of assimilation.” An article on reason.com notes that “every year that an immigrant lives in the U.S. is associated with a 1.9 and 0.9 percent increase in nonviolent and violent crime respectively.” In addition, “the behaviors of the children of immigrants over time begin to resemble that of native-borns.”  However, the offspring do not appear to commit more crimes than Americans generally.  (Census data from 2000 indicate that U.S.-born young males of Mexican, Cuban, and three Southeast Asian ethnicities are incarcerated at higher rates than the overall U.S.-born average. Vipul notes, however, that “locking out entire ethnic groups due to the anticipated future crime rates of their descendants based on past data, which aren’t that much higher than native rates anyway, causes substantially more harm than letting them in and dealing with a crime rate that might fall less slowly or rise slightly in the future.”)

But could this picture of relatively low immigrant criminality change under open borders, which would mean a larger flow of immigrants and probably higher proportions from certain countries? Vipul explored this question in his 2012 post and concluded that with open borders “the odds of crime rates going up versus down are about even, and they almost certainly will not explode.” In reaching this conclusion, Vipul noted that the future orientation associated with migrants is generally incompatible with criminality, that the worldwide crime rate is similar to that of the U.S., that much of the immigration to the U.S under restrictive immigration laws already comes from countries with relatively high crime rates (other countries in the Americas), and that India and China, which likely would be the sources of large numbers of immigrants under open borders, have lower crime rates than the U.S.

Some Americans who care only about the well-being of citizens  might call for an end to immigration altogether, let alone open borders, because one citizen death caused by immigrants, in their view, might be too many. If it were possible to stop immigration, that policy would eventually lead to no more murders or other crimes committed by immigrants because there would be no immigrants. (But of course the inevitable reproduction of the citizen population would lead to the creation of more people who would commit crimes, so they would have watch out for these new citizen criminals. They might also have to worry about the migration of citizens within the country who might commit crimes in their new areas of residence.)

More thoughtful American citizenists might look favorably on the impact of immigration on crime under the status quo of immigration restrictions that allow some immigration. Looking at the data, they might think, “The immigration system works pretty well right now in terms of crime. Those immigrants who make it into the U.S. are generally more law abiding than us citizens. They are revitalizing blighted urban areas, which reduces crime, and places with concentrated immigration are especially safe.  (p. 6) If they are really knowledgeable, they might say, as does Mr. Nowrasteh, that perhaps by “contributing to greater economic prosperity through pushing natives up the skills spectrum through complementary task specialization,” immigrants keep some Americans away from crime. They might agree that “It is easy to focus on the horrible tragedies when somebody is murdered by an immigrant but it’s very hard to imagine all of the people who weren’t murdered because of the lower crime rates created by increased immigration.” However, despite Vipul’s arguments that crime rates would most likely not explode under open borders, they wouldn’t want to take that risk. Besides, they would probably have other concerns about immigration’s impact on citizens.

However, from an open-borders perspective, even if crime rates were to increase significantly under an open borders policy, the moral importance of having open borders outweighs such a development. (The manifesto of the group No One Is Illegal similarly suggests that principle should trump the concrete consequences of immigration, whether positive or negative. Since the consequences can change, “statistics are useful to refute distortions and lies, but cannot be the bedrock of our opposition to controls.” ) In a previous post, I noted two strong moral arguments (from Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer) for open borders, both of which would countenance large increases in crime levels under open borders, should they occur. For both arguments, the right to open borders could be overridden only if the flow of people under open borders led to a “breakdown of public order” or a “disastrous” result in the receiving country. A significant increase in the crime rate, unlikely as it would be, would not constitute such a cataclysm.

In sum, the evidence strongly suggests that currently immigrant crime rates are lower than those of native-born Americans. The crime rates of immigrants’ offspring resembles those of Americans but doesn’t appear to be higher. Vipul has convincingly argued that under open borders the crime rate in the U.S. likely wouldn’t change dramatically. Even if it did, an open borders policy would still be morally warranted.

The photograph of Donald Trump featured on this post was taken by Gage Skidmore and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

What part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

A common retort to suggestions that our governments regularise the status of irregular immigrants is that these people are “criminals”, they’re “illegal”, and just what part of illegal don’t I understand? The mainstream immigration reform has adopted this rhetoric too, even if they claim to reject it; the rhetoric of US President Obama (who at the time I write just announced a deferral of deportation for some few million migrants) and others has been chock full of insistence that irregular immigrants owe a debt to society, that they ought to do some sort of penance — perhaps pay a fine — in return for any sort of regularisation. In short, the mainstreamers say that they do understand that these migrants are “illegal”, and that they do intend to punish them — just not as badly as the hardcore restrictionists want.

I see no justice in this. As co-blogger Joel Newman says, our governments owe irregular migrants an apology, not a fine. Make no mistake about it: if you’ve done something wrong, if you’ve injured someone or taken someone’s property, you ought to pay the price. But if all you’ve done is an honest day’s work, if all you’ve lived in is a home you’ve paid the price for, then there is nothing to punish you for. Living in the shadows our government forced you into for dreaming of a better future for yourself and a family was more than punishment enough.

The persistent, shrill cries of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?” are pretty blind to the meaning of the term “illegal” in the first place. For instance, most of these people don’t seem aware that it’s not a crime to be present without a lawful immigration status in the US; this is such basic legal knowledge that it didn’t make any headlines when the Supreme Court acknowledged this in an aside as part of a larger ruling on immigration law. For another, most of these people routinely break the law and get indignant when it is actually enforced against them. Just witness the furore when bicyclists are ticketed for cycling on the sidewalk, or when drivers are caught speeding by automated cameras. If committing unlawful acts in the course of ordinary business makes immigrants “illegal”, that makes everyone “illegal”.

Now of course people will say immigration law is on a special plane of existence, something that deserves far more respect than menial traffic laws. Sure. I simply say: let the punishment fit the crime.

The consensus is that half of all undocumented migrants in the US entered lawfully at a border checkpoint, and simply took up residence or employment in violation of the terms of their visa. There is no crime in paying rent for a residence, and no crime in searching for work. If an immigrant applying for my job is stealing from me, then who did I steal from when I applied for the job I hold now? Is it only a crime when immigrants do it?

These undocumented migrants should be punished appropriately for any actual crimes they have committed. If they drove drunk, if they shoplifted, if they committed welfare fraud, whatever — they should do the time, and pay the fine. But they should not be deported or excluded from the country they call home. As long as they are willing to accept the laws of their new home, and accept the punishments of these laws, they should be allowed to stay. They entered legally. The most they should be required to do to stay is fill out a basic form, and submit to legal proceedings for any other unpunished crimes in their past. Innocent immigrants who have done nothing worse than pay rent and earn honest wages deserve an apology for the persecution that our laws unjustly put them through.

As for the other half who entered without inspection at a border checkpoint, they should submit to a screening comparable to what they would have gone through at the border, and register with the authorities. Again, the idea is to make restitution for the original offense. The original offense, in legal parlance, was “entering without inspection”. So let the punishment fit the crime.

But it wouldn’t be fair, you might say. What about all the immigrants waiting in line? Well, whose fault is it that they are waiting in that line? Isn’t it your fault that the government you elected made crappy laws which have kept out all these innocent immigrants, and forced them to choose between waiting in a line that will never end (literally: some visa categories have backlogs that exceed 80 years), or migrating illegally?

I do agree it is not fair to do amnesties in a one-off manner. It is not fair to the good people who want to immigrate legally, but who are banned from doing so by irrational quotas and queues. It is also not fair to all of us who are harmed by the bad apples, the actual criminals, who either hide amongst the innocents in the undocumented population, or worse, take advantage of these migrants’ warranted fear of the government to abuse and exploit them.

Many governments — such as those of France and Germany, to name a couple you may have heard of — do not do one-off amnesties; instead, anyone who migrated illegally but who has otherwise complied with the law for a sufficient length of time is allowed to register with the government and become a legal immigrant. If we can’t have open borders, let’s at least allow anyone who has proven their commitment and loyalty to our laws to come out into the open and register as a law-abiding member of our community. That’s the fair thing to do, instead of having these one-offs.

But at the end of the day, if being fair to those immigrants in line is what bothers you so much, well — it’s the line your government created. The absurdity of having queues backlogged such that people applying today would have to wait an entire human lifetime to get their application approved is something only a government could create. The problem isn’t those good people forced to choose between waiting in line versus entering by other means to rejoin their families or seek gainful employment. The problem is your government and the stupid laws it made up.

Now, those laws aren’t stupid you might say. I agree: to the extent that they protect us from criminals, contagious disease outbreaks, and other harms, they are good laws. But to the extent that they “protect” us from people who just want to pay the market price to live in a safe home and work in a functioning economy, they are bad laws. To the extent that they treat someone whose ambition is to earn minimum wage washing dishes 18 hours a day as if he’s the scum of the earth, they are evil laws.

I’ve written before that the best way to secure the US’s border with Mexico would be to open it. Drug lords and slave traffickers rely on being able to disguise themselves among the masses of innocent people crawling through sewers to rejoin their families; let those innocent people buy bus tickets instead of paying thousands to coyotes, and where will the criminals hide? Restrictionists scoff at the idea of these immigrants being innocent — but you tell me, where’s the sense in treating someone who just wants to mop your floors for minimum wage as if he is the equivalent of a murderous drug trafficker?

I understand the intuition that one should comply with the law, and that failing to comply with the law generally marks you as a bad person — somewhere on the scale between reckless and just plain criminal. But this intuition only works for laws where the burden of compliance applies equally to everyone. Everyone knows what it means to not steal. But does everyone know what it means to comply with immigration law?

I would bet anyone that the majority of citizens of any country have no idea how the typical migrant in their country should comply with their own country’s immigration laws. Why should any of us know? All we ever did to comply with the law was be born. We didn’t have to do anything else, just slide out of the right person’s uterus at the right time, on the right soil.

Anyone in the US who has ever been in trouble with their taxes should know the feeling: you did everything right, and yet apparently your filing was still illegal — the government says you didn’t pay enough taxes. US tax law is so complicated that in some cases even the Internal Revenue Service throws up its hands and admits it doesn’t know what the law says. Yet for all your trouble, the public lambasts you as a tax evader, blasts you for not paying your fair share. And that is pretty rich, when virtually everyone who files taxes has likely fallen afoul of some technicality in the law (did you really report on your tax return the $20 in income you earned from that casual bar bet with your cousin?).

Multiply this frustration a few hundred times over and you can imagine the frustration of complying with immigration law. Some of the best, most honest and decent people I have personally known have been “illegal”. In some cases they didn’t even realise it until after the fact: as a student, your visa bans you from working more than a certain number of hours. Exceed the limit, and bam, you’re “illegal”. In other cases, delays or government processing issues while you’re transitioning from one visa type to another mean that you can “fall out of status” until your new visa is approved. Bam! Illegal.

And these are the lucky ones: they were already present in the US, and nobody could conveniently detect they’d committed these violations of immigration law. Usually nobody would ever be the wiser that they had, for a period of time, been “illegal”. Millions more such innocent people are trapped in the unlucky position of either waiting decades in line, or just jumping a fence that shouldn’t be keeping them out in the first place. Long wait times for immigrants to the US aren’t unusual; they’re the norm. Stories of the insanity of immigration law are a dime a dozen: see this, this, this, or this.

But how many citizens know of this? They know nothing, of course: the law has nothing to do with them. They can feel free to demand 100% compliance with the law, because they will always be 100% compliant. All they have to do is breathe. It’s pretty easy to follow the law when you have to do nothing. How can you demand people follow the law when you yourself have no idea what the law demands, and you yourself don’t have to do anything to comply with it?

I am making no claim to perfection here. As a Malaysian, I have no idea what laws the foreigners living in my country have to comply with. When people ask me about how easy it is for foreigners to live in Malaysia, all I can say is “Well I saw a lot of them in my junior college so I think it’s pretty easy to come in”. I honestly have no freaking idea what our visa laws are; I have no reason or incentive to, because by definition, it is impossible for me to ever break the law!

Claims that “Well, my ancestors followed the law” ring pretty hollow. After all, what laws did your ancestors follow? In the case of most Americans, their ancestors immigrated legally because all you had to do to immigrate was not be Chinese. If by definition it is impossible for you or your ancestors to have broken the law, then it is pretty rich of you to insist that you know exactly what laws others should comply with. Yet people often pretend they know exactly what the laws are, and blame the victims of these abusive laws for not submitting to their unwarranted punishment.

Anti-Chinese poster

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if you want people to prove their loyalty and knowledge of your country by passing a test, then why don’t you subject yourself to that same test? Why not? Didn’t your schooling prepare you for that test?

If millions of ordinary people can waste 20 years of their adult lives waiting for government permission to pay rent and apply for jobs, why not you? What makes you so special? Isn’t it unfair to others who did wait those decades in line, who actually complied with the bullshit hoops your government made them jump through? Your ancestors didn’t jump through those hoops — so don’t you owe it to them to follow the law on their behalf?

And so on you go, railing against “amnesty”, even though there’s a good chance if you are American that you are only here today thanks to an amnesty your ancestors arguably didn’t deserve. I refer, of course, to that time some of your ancestors took up arms in violent rebellion against the lawful government of the United States, and were rewarded with an unconditional amnesty for their trouble.

At the end of the day, there is nothing that makes sense about most immigration laws. A handful of restrictions actually target terrorists, criminals, or contagious disease carriers. The rest of these laws just treat people who want to pay market rent for a safe home and the chance to earn the market wage for honest work as though they are criminals for doing the same things as everyone else. There is no sense in treating a minimum wage cook like a cutthroat, and there is no justice.

The real question isn’t what part of illegal don’t I understand; I’m well aware that, at least far as my own country goes, I don’t understand, because I have no reason to! No matter how many laws I break or how many wrongs I commit, I’ll always be in compliance with Malaysia’s immigration laws.

The real question is, what part of “illegal” do you understand at all? You don’t understand any of it. You don’t know what it’s like to be worried that accidentally working one extra hour a week this semester might mean that you’ll get deported. You don’t know what it’s like to earn pennies a day, banned from earning the dollars which your hard work could easily earn you because this year, only 23 people from your country of millions will be given work permits.

The persistence in which people pretend that complying with the law is no burden, that if their ancestors could do it then so can anyone else, truly boggles the mind. Laws which ban parents from paying to put a roof over their children’s heads and ban dutiful children from sending home money to care for their aging parents criminalise the virtues we so often commend to ourselves. What can this be, if not hypocritical injustice? Let me ask you — what part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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