Tag Archives: disease

Ebola is utterly irrelevant. Open the borders.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has well and truly frightened the citizens of the world, in vast disproportion to the risk it actually poses to most people outside a relatively small region of Africa. People seem to think Ebola makes a slam dunk case against open borders. But Ebola is actually virtually irrelevant to the question of whether we should have open borders.

The Ebola-/disease-argument for closing — whether selectively or in broad indiscriminate strokes — the borders generally runs as follows:

  1. There is a dangerous disease
  2. This disease is transmitted from person to person
  3. Some foreign people have this disease
  4. Preventing these disease-bearing people from entering our country would eliminate the risk of them transmitting this disease to us
  5. Therefore it would be justified to ban at least some foreign people from entering our country

Now, I think this argument is as a general rule logically sound. It does omit some proper elements of feasibility assessment, risk sizing, and cost-benefit analysis by assuming the worst case scenario in some cases (e.g., that allowing even one foreign person with the disease to enter would be an immense danger) and assuming the best case scenario in others (e.g., that a travel ban would be perfectly implementable and would completely halt the spread of the disease).

It turns out that when you assess the empirical evidence, there’s zero proof that a travel ban would actually halt the spread of Ebola. And in any case, the risk of Ebola becoming widespread in the developed world is exceedingly small — Ebola is a disease that is relatively easy to stop in its tracks when you have a functioning healthcare system (Nigeria has been spectacularly successful at combatting Ebola, and it wasn’t just lucky).

But let’s say that for whatever reason, a travel ban of some kind would contribute to stopping Ebola, or otherwise pass some reasonable cost-benefit analysis. I’d be willing to consider a travel ban in such a scenario. Does this make me a hypocrite for advocating open borders? Does this mean that I actually oppose open borders? I obviously don’t think so.

The “Ebola gotcha” is not any kind of “gotcha” at all. It only appears to be such a trump card if you don’t understand what open borders is in the first place. Of course Ebola is a gotcha argument for those who advocate allowing anyone to go anywhere, irrespective of the actual circumstance. That’s a gotcha argument against open borders in the same way that child porn is a gotcha argument against freedom of the press. After all, you support the prosecution of child pornographers, don’t you? Well, you obviously oppose freedom of speech then.

In human society, every right and freedom is balanced against other liberties. Open borders refers to freedom of human movement — a freedom that must be balanced just like any other. You can dream of a million cases where someone should have their freedom of movement circumscribed — I’ll likely agree with you on most if not every single one of them.

The point though is that freedom of movement is a right which belongs to every human being — it is not a right which can be arbitrarily circumscribed. Restrict the movement of people carrying dangerous diseases? I’m all for that. Put up walls against armed invaders? Seems like a decent idea. The point is that none of these have anything more than the vaguest connection to nationality. You don’t have to be a foreigner to decide to be a drug runner, a terrorist, or a contagious disease-carrier. You just have to be human.

So if you want to ban people with contagious diseases from travelling, that can certainly be justified — but the point is that to achieve its goals, this ban would have to be blind to nationality. If your concern is Ebola, it makes no sense to ban foreigners from entering your country, while still allowing your citizens carte blanche to come and go. That would be the equivalent of banning Facebook because you’ve noticed an uptick in child porn on the internet.

This is why even most of the hysterical proposals for an Ebola-based travel ban actually are arguably consistent with an open borders philosophy: to the extent that they target travellers from particularly Ebola-stricken areas, irrespective of citizenship, they are in theory justifiable. It is not in principle different from applying a different set of procedures to travellers from regions where, say, yellow fever is endemic. The point is that these restrictions are tied to a concrete and articulable reason — you don’t get magically exempted from them just because of your citizenship.

The way our countries’ immigration laws single out non-citizens for arbitrary discrimination and persecution which we would never subject citizens to is what makes them so objectionable. It’s one thing to temporarily restrict travel from disease-stricken regions — e.g., subject travellers from those areas to additional screening. It’s a completely different thing to accept “Ebola” as a reason to ban some foreigners from entering purely because of their nationality, even as we would allow an identical citizen in their shoes free entry.

The “argument from disease” or “argument from armed invasion” against open borders is a complete red herring because it makes up a strawman definition of open borders. Ebola is not a reason to oppose open borders; it’s about as relevant to freedom of movement as child pornography is to freedom of speech. There will always be contagious disease and there will always be sick people perpetrating violence against innocents. To the extent possible, our governments should contain the spread of disease and punish violent criminals. This is not an excuse for our governments to visit injustice upon innocents.

An open borders regime has nothing to do with letting Ebola run rampant. A responsible open borders regime would adopt travel policies that limit the spread of Ebola to the extent possible, while minimising the impact on the mobility of innocent people who have had nothing to do with the virus — irrespective of those people’s nationality.

Sadly, the connection between “foreignness” and disease is a strong one in our minds. Take this recent story for example:

…the flight attendants surrounded the [African] woman and asked her to leave the plane (and threatened to call the airport police if she wouldn’t get off the plane)…

Let’s just be clear about some things about this woman: she was 34, felt she quite possibly could be pregnant, and lived in Boston. She’d been to Nigeria back at the beginning of the year, but came back in fine health. She felt a little nauseated; that’s it. Her eyes weren’t bleeding, she wasn’t spraying revolting fluids out of anything, she was simply a young woman trying to get home.

I was sitting next to a woman who worked at the UNC School of Public Health, who was traveling on the plane with a bunch of other colleagues who knew something about diseases and epidemics. And, interestingly, one of them, an older white man, mentioned he’d been to Liberia recently, and was technically much more of a potential ebola risk than the woman. Nobody asked him to leave the plane.

The well-intended but still harsh and ignorant prejudice these flight attendants exhibited is the exact sort of bigoted “logic” behind the Ebola-motivated arguments for closing borders. If Ebola is your true concern, then you would target those who actually pose the risk of Ebola, irrespective of their nationality.

Ebola is not a gotcha argument against freedom of movement for the same reasons that terrorism is not a gotcha argument against freedom of speech. If you are carrying a dangerous disease, or if you are engaged in armed violence against others, it doesn’t matter which country you’re a citizen of — your freedom of movement can and will be curbed. Open borders is simply about guaranteeing the inverse. If you don’t present a clear threat to anyone else, then no matter where you hail from, it is an abominable injustice for our governments to prevent you from travelling in peace.

Ellis Island and keyhole solutions

Nostalgic treatments of open borders in the United States often reference Ellis Island, an immigration checkpoint through which millions of people from Europe, Africa, and Asia entered the United States from 1892 to 1954 (immigrants from Latin America generally entered via land and did not need to go through a checkpoint). With the exception of a few laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the US had virtually open borders until the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, followed by the more comprehensively restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. In this blog post, I explore a few aspects of the immigration processing at Ellis Island, and compare them with how things are today. This post can be thought of as loosely related to, but not quite part of, the series started by my co-blogger Chris Hendrix.

Then versus now alert

Many things have changed between then and now. Open borders today would be a far more radical proposal than it was back in the era of Ellis Island, just in terms of the number of people who would likely move around. Falling transportation and communication costs, as well as a higher-than-ever place premium, are the obvious culprits. For these reasons, this blog post should not be interpreted as an attempt to sentimentally use a historical analogy of limited scope to sneak in an open borders conclusion, but simply an examination of the kinds of concerns that people had back then.

The legislative backdrop

(This section was added after publication of the post, based on additional understanding I gained about the timeline of immigration legislation in the United States).

Ellis Island became operational as an immigration station in 1892. It was part of the implementation of the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1891 (note: I created this Wikipedia page). This Act built on the Immigration Act of 1882 (the first major federal immigration enforcement legislation) and the Alien Contract Labor Law. In particular:

  • The Immigration Act of 1882 was the first to set formal rules regarding the regulation of entry of immigrants by sea. The Immigration Act of 1891 also extended this to people arriving by land.
  • The Immigration Act of 1882 had a few classes of excludable immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1891 expanded the list significantly, and also had a provision for medical inspection of immigrants. The medical inspection procedure at Ellis Island was the implementation of this provision.
  • The head tax on migrants mentioned later in the post was first provided for in the Immigration Act of 1882, and upheld by the Supreme Court in Head Money Cases. This tax was gradually increased in tandem with increases in the cost and complexity of immigration enforcement. I discuss the “user-funded” nature of immigration enforcement here.
  • The Immigration Act of 1891 clearly specified that the financial burden of returning prospective migrants who were deenied entry fell on the migrant’s sponsor. For migrants who had just arrived, it was the responsibility of the captain or master of the ship that brought the migrant to carry the migrant back home. Refusal to do so carried a fine, and refusal to pay the fine caused the ship to be grounded.

There was also a parallel stream of legislation developing to more effectively exclude Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in May 1882, the same month as the Immigration Act of 1882. There was other legislation pertaining to the Chinese (Scott Act of 1888, Geary Act of 1892). We currently have a blog post by Chris Hendrix on the debates leading up to Chinese Exclusion and how well the arguments hold up, and separately, by me on the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The period also saw increased rates or rejection of people from Asia (in particular, from Japan) using the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1891. However, most prospective migrants from Asia landed at ports on the West (i.e., bordering the Pacific Ocean) and are therefore not too relevant to the story of Ellis Island.

Whites/Europeans only?

Some critics of open borders would be quick to point out that migration to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century was largely migration of “whites” from Europe, whereas open borders today would entail huge amounts of migration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is true that the de facto levels and proportion of migration from these continents would be much more today than in the 20th century. But I haven’t found any evidence that, apart from the Chinese Exclusion Act (which Chris argues was a terrible idea in hindsight) there was any large-scale attempt to block immigration, de jure or de facto, from any other nationality (until the Acts of 1921 and 1924). In addition to European immigration, there was some immigration from Africa and the Caribbean, mostly arriving via the Atlantic. Immigrants from Asia (excluding China) mostly arrived at ports in the Western United States, via the Pacific Ocean. A couple of people have made related points suggesting there may have been some level of discrimination based on nationality:

  • People of Asian ethnicity and appearance were probably discriminated against. Anti-Chinese prejudice was a special case of a somewhat larger phenomenon of anti-Asian prejudice, and though only the former manifested itself in law, the latter may have had some effect on the ground. In particular, Asians were more likely to get rejected based on provisions of the Immigration Act of 1891, as being deemed likely to become public charges. Note, however, that most Asians didn’t even arrive at Ellis Island, but rather at Western ports. The Pacific analogue of Ellis Island, Angel Island, would only become operational in 1910.
  • In his post about Thomas Sowell, Alex Nowrasteh talked about the Dillingam Commission. Officers at the immigration checkpoints may well have been influenced by the findings of these commissions, and this may have influenced their decision of whom to admit and whom not to admit.

With all that said, the overall rejection rate at Ellis Island was estimated as being around 2%. This means that even the worst discriminated against nationalities are unlikely to have had a huge rejection rate (as noted, this excludes most entrants from Asia). Incidentally, this rejection rate earned Ellis Island the nickname of “Heartbreak Island” (more on that later).

How did Ellis Island process potential immigrants?

Here are two quotes from the Wikipedia page:

Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge”. About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity.[24] Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island”[25] because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs and kisses.

The trickiest part appears to have been the medical inspections:

To support the activities of the United States Bureau of Immigration, the United States Public Health Service operated an extensive medical service at the immigrant station, called U.S. Marine Hospital Number 43, more widely known as the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. It was the largest marine hospital in the nation. The medical division, which was active both in the hospital and the Great Hall, was staffed by uniformed military surgeons. They are best known for the role they played during the line inspection, in which they employed unusual techniques such as the use of the buttonhook to examine aliens for signs of eye diseases (particularly, trachoma) and the use of a chalk mark code. Symbols were chalked on the clothing of potentially sick immigrants following the six-second medical examination. The doctors would look at the immigrants as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area to the Great Hall. Immigrants’ behavior would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase. Some immigrants entered the country only by surreptitiously wiping the chalk marks off, or by turning their clothes inside out.

Alex Nowrasteh sent me a link to a book chapter by Claudia Goldin where she writes (speculatively):

Because the shipping companies that brought immigrants across the ocean were responsible for the return voyage of any who did not meet U.S. immigration standards, it is likely that these companies would have administered a literacy test of their own, in the same way that they screened for health violations in European ports.

A few things that struck me:

  1. In a sense, it’s telling that a rejection rate of about 2% earned the island the nickname of “Heartbreak Island.” Today, the rejection rate for first-time applications is about 15-20%, and the rejection rate considering repeated applications is about 10-15% (see here and here). One might also argue that there is more pre-screening today than in the past: people who don’t have the appropriate authorization documents don’t even get to the stage where they apply for a visa, because the system won’t accept their application, and the application fee deters frivolous applications. (The shift to requiring a visa began at the end of World War I and was solidified in the 1920s; more information is on the Wikipedia page on consular nonreviewability (history section). On the other hand, having to pay for a voyage and actually undertake it is also pretty strong pre-screening for desire to move. Further, the quote above suggests that shipping companies did some pre-screening of their own, though the extent of that is unclear.
  2. It can also be argued that immigration law today can be just as strict as that at Ellis Island while being far less cruel. In the days of Ellis Island, a person had to endure a long and expensive journey in cramped conditions and then got to “apply for a visa” so to speak. Today, people can apply for visas to consulates in their home countries. Possibly, with more open borders, consulate capacity would need to be expanded, or outsourced (and the higher costs of this expansion could be met through increased fees on immigrants). But at any rate, in so far as the process of rejection happens before the immigrant books the plane, bus, or ship ticket, this is less cruel on the immigrant.
  3. It’s also interesting that, even in this era where a federal welfare state, and state-level welfare states, were practically non-existent, immigration authorities were concerned about the ability of potential immigrants to fend for themselves and not become “public charges” — however, we need to keep in mind that poverty was a lot worse overall, so there were serious concerns about immigrants overstretching private charitable resources when a lot of natives were in desperate need of these. It’s notable, though, that very little money was charged of the immigrants. [ETA: I had originally written that no money was charged of the immigrants, but this seems to be factually incorrect. The Immigration Act of 1882 set a head tax of 50 cents on all entering immigrants, which was increased in stages to 8 dollars by 1917. It’s not clear if this tax was charged of all immigrants.]They were simply required to demonstrate that they possessed some money; it wasn’t taken from them: “The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars.” According to this website, $25 in 1900 dollars would be somewhere between $583 and $18,300 in today’s dollars, and the simple CPI calculation would put it at $691, and the actual “head tax” would, under the same CPI calculation, come to about $200. I think the relevant figure for our purpose is a CPI-type value, so this is not a demanding requirement]. Presumably, the goal was that there should be enough money for them to move around in search of jobs and places to live. Today, most people who migrate temporarily or permanently already have their first job or place to live lined up for them. Reading some restrictionist critiques of that era, it seems one of the chief (and valid) concerns of restrictionists was that the immigrants would essentially stay stuck near the port of arrival because they didn’t have the funds or knowledge to look for jobs elsewhere in the country — so a requirement to demonstrate some funds probably went a long way here.
  4. The medical inspections procedure feels demeaning, but in another sense it is probably one of the fastest and most efficient ways of handling a large number of immigrants. The rough idea: quick physical inspection to identify people who might need a more thorough inspection, then follow up with more detailed inspection for those people marked for more inspection. This was also a time and era where there was much more serious danger of infection and much fewer resources and techniques to combat such infections. In today’s world, it’s possible to have far more reliable screening for diseases at possibly a somewhat higher cost, without being demeaning or imposing much uncertainty on migrants.