Tag Archives: Europe

Immigration restrictions and casual moral assumptions

David Goodhart, a British writer and thinker, has some interesting thoughts on the interplay between immigration, multiculturalism, and policy. I think he does a great job of pointing out some problems with traditional approaches to multiculturalism, and how the left is often too blithe about the problems that living in a plural society can create. However, early on in the interview, he makes some comments that I find questionable. The first is where he quite rightly calls out immigration liberals for making unrealistic assumptions:

In a nutshell, what is the historical context of today’s multicultural Britain?

Britain had an open door policy from 1948 to 1962, when anybody from the empire or Commonwealth could come and live in Britain. That is essentially saying to some 600 million people around the world, most of them from the working classes or the peasantry, that there are no restrictions on their entry. Which was a magnificent idea, but also a bit of a disaster. Those who framed the legislation thought that no-one would come, but they did – half a million came between ’48 and ’62, albeit a small number compared to today’s figure.

Which is over half a million during the last year alone.

Yes, in terms of inflow – although there is also quite a bit of outflow. We had a parallel situation two generations later in the early 2000s, with Eastern Europeans coming to Britain from the EU. Only 15,000 were meant to come, but in reality a much larger number did.

Yes, the liberals were wrong in their estimates of how many would come. But how wrong were they about the harmful impacts of immigration? Did the UK economy collapse because hundreds of thousands instead of tens of thousands came under the EU’s open borders? This is an obvious question, but it’s left undiscussed. The casual assumption is that lots of immigrants are obviously harmful, and the interviewer does not challenge this. Goodhart explains in theoretical terms why he believes they are harmful, citing Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, but he never points to concrete instances of harm from European immigration, nor does he explain a clear causal mechanism for how lower immigrant inflows would have facilitated assimilation.

Moreover, it’s taken for granted that Putnam’s research (assuming it is correct in finding that diversity has undermined social capital in the US) is easily generalisable to other contexts. Abdolmodhammad Kazemipur attempted to reproduce Putnam’s research in Canada, and actually found the opposite: Canadian communities with greater diversity have more social capital than their homogeneous counterparts.

Goodhart makes an interesting point that historically, Britain has pursued a “light touch” when it comes to integrating non-British into its society, citing its approach to colonial governance. I’m not sure how true this is, however: in past centuries the UK had little trouble integrating Huguenot refugees or other European immigrants, even though they initially formed ethnic enclaves of their own. Goodhart makes a fair point that UK policymakers did in fact make some false assumptions about assimilation in the era of Commonwealth open borders: to my knowledge, it is true that contemporarily many people erroneously assumed the working class Briton would embrace his Commonwealth peers from Asia and the Caribbean. Stories abound of Caribbean immigrants entering the UK only to be astonished to find that although they considered themselves British, the Britons did not think the same.

Once we’ve breezily assumed that immigration must by definition reduce social capital, and assumed that this reduction in social capital outweighs all the relevant benefits of immigration (Goodhart does not clearly spell out how he is performing this cost-benefit analysis), the obvious conclusion is to reduce immigration levels:

What is to be done?

I think levels of immigration must be reduced. I certainly favour a cap, although it’s a little arbitrary and difficult to manage. But we also need to relearn how to encourage people to join in. We need to develop better ideas of integration and of what it is to be a British citizen, particularly in areas with high immigration settlement like Tower Hamlets in London, dominated by Bangladeshis, or Bradford in Yorkshire dominated by Pakistanis.

Britain has not set up patterns of residence, schooling and employment that make it easy for people to join in. Certain groups that have the cultural resilience do join in and often flourish, even if they often remain residentially segregated. But other groups tend to live separately in all areas of life, and have reproduced many of the institutions of their home country in England.

If the problem is with integration policy, why not fix integration policy? Arbitrarily forcing people to stay out of the UK is by definition incredibly harmful to all these immigrants, as any exercise of government coercive force would be. As Goodhart concedes, it is also incredibly difficult to implement. I find it particularly galling that Goodhart so breezily assumes away the problems of coercion and arbitrariness in capping immigration that he feels he should spend most of his time dwelling on integration policy instead. If immigration liberals have been too blithe in their assumptions about assimilation or quantifying immigration, this shows incredible blitheness about the injustice and difficulties involved with arbitrarily restricting immigration.

I link to this interview because I think Goodhart has interesting ideas about the challenges of integrating immigrants into British society. Many of his recommendations seem sensible. But I find it interesting that an otherwise sensible person makes so many blithe assumptions of his own about the impact of immigration, and casually embraces arbitrary use of government force against prospective immigrants. The most dangerous assumptions tend to be the ones we don’t even realise we are making.

The cartoon featured in the header of this post dates to 1899, and depicts a Chinese man who has murdered a white woman. The original caption reads: “The Yellow Terror in all his glory.”

Wedging a crack in trans-Atlantic borders: reforming the Visa Waiver Program

Credit for featured image: Wikimedia Commons. It shows in green the countries eligible for the US Visa Waiver Program. For more, see the Wikipedia article.

A few years ago, the South Carolina Journal of International Law and Business published an article by then-law and business student Robert Wilson on the risks that US visa policy poses to trans-Atlantic foreign relations. The article is a good and I think fair review of the case for and against stricter non-immigrant visa policy. Wilson never hides that he favours a looser policy, but he accurately notes the reasons why the US government has felt compelled to tighten the borders.

Wilson’s focus is on the US visa waiver programme (VWP) which allows people from certain countries to enter the US without a visa. They simply need to pass a quick (30 seconds is the figure he cites) check at border control. Wilson notes that this is how some of the 9/11 terrorists were able to enter the US. This is why since 9/11 the US has mandated interviews for almost all visa applicants, and why the US has been reluctant to extend the reach of the VWP.


Visa Waiver Program I-94W form that any person from a VWP-eligible country needs to fill in when landing in the US for a short-term, VWP-eligible trip. Source: magazineUSA.com

But as Wilson notes, sealing the borders in this manner is not practical. It is not any more useful or pragmatic than demanding the search of every cargo container entering the US for bombs or drugs. Other than a cursory check at the border, the VWP essentially throws open US borders to eligible foreigners, with no obligation to present additional information prior to entry. And these foreigners are screened not on any meaningful factual basis other than national origin: an person from Nigeria has to face stringent checks prior to boarding a flight to the US, while an identical twin who happens to have British citizenship can waltz right on up to the border.

I am in favour of open borders, but this manner of implementing them strikes me as arbitrary and self-defeating. Just as there are safe ways to deregulate, there are also plenty of unsafe ways, and this arbitrary discrimination strikes me as just one such unsafe way. Wilson cites how the number of people travelling to the US for tourism and business has been falling since 9/11 because of stricter visa procedures, while equivalent figures for other countries have been trending up.

Wilson recommends the US pre-screen VWP-eligible foreigners, using a system similar to Australia’s. Nathan Sales, a law professor, testified before Congress that this approach would be much more sensible compared to the arbitrary status quo, and more importantly, would allow the US to expand the reach of the VWP. It makes sense to me: a government can legitimately limit entry at its borders if it justifiably believes that this addresses a concerning security risk. Refusing to submit basic biographical information or fill out a basic form signals that you are likely to be a risk of some kind.

I’ve used the Australian electronic equivalent of the VWP before: it’s straightforward and transparent. It’s not open borders, but I’d much rather have an extended visa waiver programme on a similar basis, open to as many people as possible. My belief is that the government should approve visas for anyone who is acting in good faith. Right now, the US denies visas to over 1 million people annually for essentially no reason (they’re not criminals, not carrying communicable diseases, etc.). Give those 1 million people the visas they need to visit or study.

One final point Wilson raises is that expanding the VWP to all the European countries who desire it would allow cooperation with those countries in immigration enforcement. By coordinating governance systems in this area, the US could more effectively deter people with outstanding criminal issues from entering, while opening the borders to those acting in good faith. If the US pursues this, this could eventually lead to trans-Atlantic open borders: even if border controls remain, visas would be available to all good-faith visitors, and one day perhaps even workers or immigrants.

Open borders encourages assimilation: a lesson from the EU?

The Economist recently ran an interesting story on intra-EU migration. Relative to Greece and Spain, Germany has an economy chugging along well. Peripheral immigration to Germany is growing, which was the whole point of the common labour market in the first place. But though visas may no longer be an issue, language remains a challenge. So prospective immigrants are adapting:

When the euro crisis began, the branches in southern Europe of the Goethe Institute, the German equivalent of the British Council, were overwhelmed by demand for German courses, says Heike Uhlig, the institute’s director of language programmes. That demand was also different, she adds: less about yearning to read Goethe’s “Faust” than about finding work. So the institute retooled, offering courses geared to the technical German used by engineers, nurses or doctors.

Britain, thanks to English, has an advantage in the competition for foreign talent, which big German firms try to minimise by accepting English as their working language. But many of the job openings in Germany are to be found in medium-sized and private Mittelstand firms, often in remote places, where speaking German is still a must. That’s why Mr Gómez is advising his friends back home in Spain to bone up on the language and then “leave, get out”.

The common labour market is actually encouraging pre-assimilation, because of the incentive it provides for workers to learn the languages of thriving economies. If people have to cross borders unlawfully in times of economic crisis, it is harder for them to command a wage that corresponds to their productivity, since they must work under the table. Consequently, they have less reason to invest in pre-assimilation, or assimilation itself: the marginal return to investing in learning the language is not going to be great, especially if you’re going there to be a janitor instead of a technician, and especially if there’s little reasonable chance of moving up the career ladder.

If immigrants can cross in the full light of day, they have more reason to expect a better career trajectory in their new country. How far they can go will depend more on how much they invest in their careers; they aren’t arbitrarily circumscribed by immigration restrictions. They will have more reason to learn their new country’s language, more reason to try and fit into the new working culture. It is difficult to tell under a closed-borders regime how prospective immigrants would approach assimilation under true open borders (as opposed to more economically distortionary schemes, such as those specifically targeting open borders for refugees or open borders for citizens’ relatives). But the early read from the EU may have lessons for us here.

Anti-immigration marketing, consistent with open borders

I’ve been following the story of the United Kingdom’s plan to run advertising that will deter Romanian immigrants by playing up Britain as a bad destination, but it didn’t really pique my interest that much at first. After all, from an open borders point of view, there’s nothing wrong with anti-immigration speech — it’s anti-immigration coercion that has to clear a bar. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued, after I read this BBC article about a Romanian counter-campaign aimed at inviting British immigration to Romania.

The article is a fun read in of itself, but I also found this quote near the end, from an open letter signed by some Socialist Members of the European Parliament, to be noteworthy:

We are facing the danger of citizens of the newest member states being prevented from exercising their rights guaranteed to them by EU treaties.

What is more, we believe that a wave of hostile statements since the beginning of the year aims to stigmatise these citizens as second-class Europeans who pose a threat to the social systems, just because they want to exercise their basic rights to free movement and work.

I’m a bit of an EU-agnostic, at least when it comes to political integration. But on this particular point, I say to the Socialists, bravo! The only quarrel I would pick with their statement is that it seems curiously myopic for an ideology which started out as explicitly international and humanist in nature. What makes Europeans so much more innately entitled to the “basic rights [of] free movement and work”?

One could make a racial argument I suppose, but even Europeans are a bit antsy about declaring Western and Eastern Europeans as being of the same stock (this is part of the reason there exists British tension about Eastern European immigration in the first place). And besides, outside a vocal fringe, racial arguments are not very compelling.

One could argue that citizenship in an EU member state is what counts, because of the EU’s political nature. In a legal sense, this is absolutely correct. But in a moral sense, it seems odd that a basic right ought to derive from the state. The point of a basic right, after all, is that barring some disqualifying reason, we tend to assume a person in good standing should be entitled to it.

And moving around or working, in of themselves, are not political acts. One could argue that voting is a “basic right” but naturally something to be circumscribed by the state because of its nature. Well and true, but naturalisation, and arguably permanent settlement, are the only ways that immigration might be a political act. Simply exercising one’s freedom of movement and freedom to work is not a political act — it is a basic right.

The Socialists’ statement echoes with me because with a few emendations, it is a concise summary of the open borders moral philosophy:

Arbitrary immigration restrictions stigmatise people as second-class humans who pose a threat to the social system, just because they want to exercise their basic rights to free movement and work.

What do open borders advocates really want?

How do we translate the cause of open borders into specific policy recommendations? The range of policies entailed by “looser border controls” is wide — and the range of policies which might be mistakenly attached to the “open borders” idea is even wider. It is important to be clear on definitions when we discuss the idea of open borders, lest we waste time on proposals which few actually support.

Before I continue, note that I speak only for myself; not for Vipul, not for Nathan, and not for any other advocate of open borders, even though we all support greater immigration. In fact, immigration supporter Tyler Cowen declares himself opposed to open borders, even though I suspect under my definition of “open borders”, he may be one of our greatest advocates.

It is crucial to be clear about what “open borders” really means in terms of end goals. Being vague about the meaning of “open borders” makes it easy for restrictionists to attack straw men, while ignoring the strongest arguments for open borders. So when I seek open borders, here is what I want: people to be able to cross international borders at will, insofar as this is administratively practical.

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