Tag Archives: human rights

The Cognitive Dissonance of Immigration Law

Jawziya Zaman, a former immigration attorney, wrote a piece in Dissent Magazine last month about why she left the practice of immigration law. She wrote about the internal conflict attorneys face in advocating for their clients’ material interests by collaborating with the government to suppress clients’ inherent human dignity. Zaman practiced immigration law in San Francisco for four years, leaving her job shortly before Trump was elected. She relayed some positive aspects of her work: working with supportive and dedicated colleagues and achieving life-changing outcomes for her clients. Yet, the frustrations of the work eventually drove her from the profession, even before Trump’s candidacy and election unleashed a whirlwind of chaos and hostility upon immigrants in the U.S.

Zaman writes:

My frustration with the job, I learned, had to do with how I felt implicated in the flawed premises of immigration law, including its reductionist narratives about other countries and its dehumanization of foreigners. In virtually every case involving defense against deportation, the law insisted that I reinforce tired stereotypes about the global South and force clients to undergo a ritual flagellation before they could be granted the privilege of remaining in the country.

As an attorney gradually extracting myself from the daily practice of immigration law after nearly 11 years, Zaman’s analysis resonated powerfully with me. The contradictions and hypocrisy of the immigration system, which reflects the U.S.’s problematic position in the world and the injustice of the current global order, became too much for me to bear.

Zaman highlights the dissonance of protesting detention of Muslims at airports while ignoring civilian victims of U.S. bombing in Yemen and other predominantly Muslim countries. She asks, “Is it only by virtue of seeking entry into this country that foreigners become human beings worthy of our regard?” She notes the irony of a legal system that rejects and punishes migrants fleeing from problems caused by U.S. foreign policy. She writes about the wrongs the U.S. has committed in the guise of national defense, foreign policy, development, and trade. Many of these policies have contributed to violence, poverty, and instability that have made migration the least bad choice for many people. For the U.S. to not only reject but morally condemn those same migrants constitutes rank hypocrisy.

Zaman highlights several grating elements of the immigration legal system:

[T]o add insult to injury, the law demands that immigrants renounce the place of their birth and take a kind of medieval oath of fealty to the United States.
. . .

The bedrock upon which the defense and the prosecution build their arguments in virtually every case is the same: America is the superior option—it’s better than wherever you came from.
. . .

Different circumstances call for different forms of legal relief, but a central feature in many of our cases is that our client did wrong and now he’s terribly sorry. Confession and penance are akin to sacraments in immigration law, and the process of asking the government to pardon your client’s digressions is a disconcerting combination of formulaic and theatrical.

These assertions are consistent with my experience. Arbitrary outcomes and nonsensical legal concepts like “crimes involving moral turpitude” support the argument that immigration adjudication is more a moral or social judgment than a legal one. Immigration law often departs from formal principles of the rule of law such as predictability, transparency, and impartiality. Immigration law is complex and opaque, with laws, regulations, case decisions, policies, and guidelines scattered across dozens of court and agency websites. Few sources of law are available in any language other than English, which of course many immigrants do not speak or read. Some immigration laws have been retroactively applied. Due to gridlock in Congress, much of immigration law has shifted from clear statutory rules to discretionary or temporary guidelines, which further decreases predictability of outcomes.

In the wake of the influx of Central American child refugees in 2014, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges described immigration cases as “death penalty cases heard in traffic court settings.” Immigration Courts are administrative courts that are part of the executive branch, not the independent judiciary. As a part of the Department of Justice, they retain an implied prosecutorial mandate. Asylum denial rates among judges vary from 3% to 99%, a disparity that demonstrates the incredible discretion vested in judges. Due process is more limited in the immigration context than in the criminal system. The federal rules of evidence do not formally apply and are often waived or ignored by immigration judges. Many immigrants in deportation proceedings do not have a lawyer, since court-appointed counsel is not required to be provided even for indigent non-citizens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these systemic factors make deportation defense so difficult that hundreds–perhaps thousands–of U.S. citizens are likely deported every year.  

If the immigration legal system is disconnected from the principles of rule of law, something else must be driving immigration adjudication. Following up on Zaman’s piece and based on my own experience, the unwritten principles of immigration law can be distilled as follows:

  1. You have no right to be here. Your presence depends on the government’s forbearance and your willingness to participate in your own ritual humiliation. This country and the people who truly belong here owe you nothing, which is why judges, bureaucrats, prosecutors, and even your own defense counsel can transgress social norms and ethical rules with impunity. By being here, you have violated a critical norm. This is true even if your presence in the U.S. is technically legal, for instance, if one of the federal immigration agencies made a legally erroneous determination that landed you in court or if you applied for asylum, which is legal under domestic and international law.
  2. Your country of origin is inferior to the U.S. in some essential way. Your government abuses or neglects its people; your compatriots subscribe to racist, homophobic, or misogynist ideas; your legal and economic systems are irredeemably corrupt and ineffective; or your culture fails to produce in its people whatever characteristic makes Americans successful and prosperous. The U.S. has avoided these pitfalls through the perseverance and foresight of its people. At home and abroad, the U.S. government respects human rights and the rule of law, fosters prosperity, and is, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “a beacon of freedom and opportunity.” Americans are always and everywhere the good guys; you and your culture, however, are guilty until proven innocent.
  3. You are nothing–less than nothing–but if you prove yourself worthy, you too can receive the bounty that awaits the chosen few. In its benevolence, the U.S. has opened its arms to you, one among the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But only if you don’t screw up the paperwork. Your diligence in that regard will signify your worthiness.

Of course, these “principles” have little to do with justice, rule of law, security, or any defensible moral code. Instead, they are predicated on the racist underpinnings of the immigration system and fundamental ingroup/outgroup dynamics.

In her piece, Zaman captures the indignity of the performative humiliation that is often required of clients in order to avoid deportation. Defense counsel is typically expected to join in the ritual shaming. Not doing so can imperil the defense in individual cases and even damage the advocate’s ability to effectively represent other clients. Maintaining cordial relationships with counsel for the government can pay clear dividends, as the ICE and DOJ attorneys have remarkable influence to impact the ultimate decision under the legal principle of “prosecutorial discretion.” To conserve law enforcement resources, prosecutors have ample discretion regarding the filing of charges, availability of defenses, and ultimate outcome. During the Obama administration, prosecutorial discretion became even more central to the immigration regime. Prosecutorial discretion provided the legal justification for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the proposed extension of deferred action to a larger subset of immigrants, and the enforcement priorities guidelines that allowed tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people to stave off deportation. While hostile judges can find a justification under the law to deny almost any case that comes before them, sympathetic judges and prosecutors can utilize discretion to grant relief in cases that would not warrant relief under a strict reading of the law. The robust discretion granted to prosecutors and judges creates an incentive for counsel to try to stay in their good graces.

As Zaman notes, immigration cases typically begin with a concession of the defendant’s deportability. Early in the Obama administration, a colleague and I challenged that presumption at the outset of several cases at the legal services nonprofit we worked at, filing “motions to suppress” evidence of nationality in an effort to stop deportation cases before they could really begin. We argued that the government did not have sufficient evidence to prove legal deportability, having obtained the evidence in violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on unlawful search and seizure through home raids or pretextual police stops. While this legal strategy had been pioneered in other courts by attorneys like Rex Chen, it was new to the Philadelphia Immigration Court. The ICE prosecutors’ response to our approach was one of disbelief and indignation. The judges were initially baffled. We weren’t playing along like we were supposed to: first yield, then plead for mercy. Eventually, the judges and ICE attorneys got used to suppression cases, and they became another tool in the litigator’s toolbox.

Zaman described a particular case where a client of hers, an older Korean man, was initially unwilling to perform penance to win his case. He wasn’t willing to relinquish his inherent dignity so easily. But when confronted with the immense situational pressure of an immigration hearing, and fearing the stark consequences of failure, he submitted. Reading that description, I recalled a former client of mine who had committed some minor infraction, the details of which now escape me, and was applying for his green card. He had a forthright and unapologetic demeanor. I suggested, with the infraction in mind, that he adopt a more humble attitude during his green card interview. As soon as he figured out what I was trying to say, he said he would do nothing of the kind. His case was approved anyway, and I regretted my advice.   

I fear that many of my undocumented clients have internalized U.S. society’s expectations of them: to be humble, law abiding, hard-working, and family oriented. They are defined by their economic contributions and family connections to U.S. citizens. They ask for nothing more than the opportunity to work to support their families. This narrative is demeaning and ratifies the de facto caste system our immigration system produces. It elides the exploitative nature of the U.S. economic system. I am encouraged when immigrant activists and organizers refuse to adopt the deferential attitude they are expected to have.  

Undocumented immigrants have suffered systemic oppression for decades, without regard to the party in power. The scenarios that clients of mine or of my colleagues have endured are too numerous to recount here. They include:

  • A man knocked unconscious by police in pursuit of another suspect was charged with assaulting the police and put into deportation proceedings.
  • An asylum applicant who panicked and tried to flee to Canada to apply for asylum there was stopped by U.S. border patrol on his way across the border, imprisoned, and deported back to his birthplace. (He would not have been subject to the Safe Third Country Agreement, had he been able to enter Canada.)
  • An infant 10 days old was imprisoned with her asylum-seeking mother. U.S. officials claimed the baby was on her way to the U.S. to work.
  • After a 19-year-old mother imprisoned with her daughter at one of President Obama’s infamous “baby jails” was the victim of institutional rape by a guard, the prison forbade the inmates from wearing “tight-fitting” clothing. The prison added several paragraphs to the Spanish version of the inmate handbook instructing women how to modify their behavior to avoid being assaulted at the prison, instructions that were missing from the English version.
  • A woman who had been trafficked into sex work by a transnational criminal syndicate was “freed” by ICE in a raid of the house where the women were being held. ICE referred her to a local nonprofit and washed their hands of the matter. She declined to fight her deportation, since the traffickers had threatened her children who had remained in her country. She most likely either remained in the U.S. or left and was re-trafficked, either way returning into the arms of her traffickers.
  • A woman presented herself at a port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a group seeking asylum. To pressure her to relinquish her claim, U.S. officials took her U.S.-citizen children into custody and turned them over to local child welfare officials to be placed into the foster system.

Each of these examples occurred under the Obama administration. It didn’t matter to these people whether or not George W. Bush and Donald Trump were “worse” on immigration policy than Obama. The system designed to crush immigrant lives has long been a bipartisan endeavor.

In evaluating a client’s mental state in order to provide evidence of trauma to support an application for relief in immigration court, mental health practitioners unfamiliar with the immigration system at first point to causative factors stemming from the deportation process itself. These factors can include detention or the threat of detention, the threat of long-term separation from family members, and the paralyzing uncertainty produced by an open-ended and inscrutable legal process. Experienced mental health evaluators know that most judges and prosecutors are blind to harm caused by the deportation process. Even judges who might empathize with a client typically discount such factors, following conventional interpretation of case law. Immigration attorneys soon find that one of their jobs is to persuade clients to jettison their existing ideas about what U.S. society claims to value, since traversing the treacherous path to safety may require it.

I’ve started to tally asylum cases where the harm visited on my clients by the U.S. government or actors the government is unable or unwilling to control would satisfy the legal standard for asylum, were that harm to occur in another country. It happens more often that we might like to admit.

As Zaman notes, the practice of compelling people to denounce their home countries and cultures is troubling. Migrants’ relationships to their birthplaces can generate a complex mix of powerful, sometimes contradictory emotions. Governments in countries of origin are often corrupt and hypocritical. Bigotry in its various forms is deeply embedded in many places. But leaving one’s home, family, and culture is rarely easy. And the U.S. has little standing to criticize other governments, given its own failings. Yet the U.S. immigration system tends to expect a reductive and derogatory accounting of immigrants’ experiences in their countries of origin.

Over time, practitioners get worn down. It’s easier not to fight each routine indignity. I’m inspired by my colleagues in the immigration bar who don’t reflexively concede, the troublemakers and reprobates, the pugilists and iconoclasts. (You know who you are.) And the immigrant fighters who stand up to a system meant to destroy them are simply heroes.

In the course of learning about immigration law and its problematic norms, I became more and more aggravated. Blogging and providing support to immigrant rights organizers helped temper my frustration. Later, I encountered the Open Borders website and a nascent online community of proponents of radically freer immigration policies that the site fostered. My gradual acculturation to the immigration system, and my resignation to the reality that zealous advocacy on behalf of any individual client usually meant participating in their degradation, signaled that it was time to leave the daily practice of immigration law. Last year, I incorporated a nonprofit organization to advocate for open borders. I stopped taking on new clients. I felt as though a burden had been lifted. While my obligations to existing clients mean that I’ll be working on immigration cases for years to come, I am able to think about my work with optimism again.

Zaman writes:

Before I left the United States, I spent much time wondering why our legal system is so intent on shaming immigrants before granting them any rights. For undocumented immigrants, especially, the unspoken assumption seems to be that they demand what isn’t owed.

Zaman astutely identifies the core assumption underlying the immigration regime: that immigrants are owed nothing since the right of the sovereign state to restrict immigration outweighs the immigrant’s right to migrate in almost all cases. But that assumption is wrong. Immigrants are owed their basic human rights, including the right to enter, the right to remain, and the right to full economic, social, and political inclusion. Those who do demand those things should be supported, not shamed or silenced.

A small but growing number of activists, attorneys, and organizers argue that immigration restrictions should be abolished altogether. Scholars like Joseph Carens and Bryan Caplan have set out a compelling conceptual framework justifying open borders. Attorney Steven Sacco has argued that immigration lawyers can assist their clients to resist the oppressive immigration system, but that does not alone satisfy their moral obligation to be abolitionists. In her piece, Zaman aptly articulates the cognitive dissonance that results from working to promote human rights within a system that is incompatible with human rights. But there is a way forward, and it begins with dismantling the immigration regime.

International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day

Last year, we decided to observe March 16 as the annual Open Borders Day. The date was chosen because Open Borders: The Case, the website, officially launched on March 16, 2012. Broadly, the goal of the day is to ponder a world with open borders, the moral case for it, and how such a world might differ from the status quo.

Before settling on March 16, we had an internal debate among our regular and some of our guest bloggers about the choice of date. Various dates, including the Fourth of July, had been proposed, but we ultimately decided to go with our own day, so that it would be free of the baggage (positive or negative) of other days, and could be used to highlight open borders as an issue in its own right. At the time, I (and as far as I can make out, the others participating in the discussion) weren’t aware of perhaps the closest contender: International Migrants Day. The day was designated and is recognized by the United Nations to be on December 18 each year, starting in the year 2000. The Migrant Rights Network has a nice-looking website devoted to the day.

In this blog post, I explain three ways that International Migrants Day and Open Borders Day differ:

  1. Focus: the status quo versus open borders
  2. The attention to migrants as a separate class of people
  3. The focus on migrants, territorialism, and the overlooking of quantity issues

Continue reading “International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day” »

Frederick Douglass: Migration is, and always has been, a fundamental human right

It is almost impossible to make it through an explanation of the right to migrate without a listener interrupting: “But you can’t let everyone come! You just can’t!” There’s often a litany of plausible-sounding reasons.

Now, I suspect that these plausible-sounding reasons are actually much less defensible and plausible than you might think. But before we get into a deep discussion of the evidence here, the interrupting interlocutor often concludes: “What you say sounds nice in theory, but will destroy us. Your fancy moral theories will sink our ship of state. You are stupidly blinding yourself to the consequences of recognising a right to migrate.”

Yet when I probe into why our objector believes this, I often find he has no evidence for his belief that freedom of migration will destroy his country or the world. All he has to go on is the insistence that it’s a theoretical possibility that recognising the right to migrate will be disastrous. Yes, that’s a possibility — one we’ve thought about a lot.

But you could make such objections against just about every right. We restrict freedom of speech for much less than catastrophic disaster: most countries’ laws ban libel and slander, and many go even farther than that. This doesn’t mean the right to freedom of speech must be exterminated and never recognised — it just means that the right to free speech must be balanced against others’ rights. Such is the case with the right to migrate.

Peculiarly, people often seem allergic to the idea that foreigners have rights at all (never mind that humanity has recognised this ever since the first laws of war were drawn up), let alone the right to migrate. One of the most common objections I hear is that while such a right was feasible to recognise in earlier times, such a right is infeasible in the modern world.
Statue of Liberty(Image source: Christian Science Monitor)
But these objections are not new. They are so old, in fact, that they were anticipated almost 150 years ago. Here is Frederick Douglass, speaking in 1869 against the movement to ban Chinese immigration:

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.

But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself.

People often say that the words of the Statue of Liberty no longer apply today, because things are just fundamentally different. No longer should we declare:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Whether stated or unstated, the suggestion is that the people of the 19th century who so eagerly embraced the right to migrate would, today, agree we ought to shut the door and wall out the “wretched refuse” of the world. But reading Douglass’s words, I find this difficult if not impossible to believe.

The same concerns people have about migration today were the ones raised to Douglass in the 1860s. Yet Douglass did not contemplate any reduction or circumscription of the right to migrate. He recognised the theoretical problems that the spectre of migration raises — and he rejected arbitrary prohibitions on human movement as the only solution to these problems.

He did not say they are categorically unfounded, nor did he say they should not be managed. He simply insisted that these theoretical problems are not a good enough reason in of themselves to restrict “essential human rights” — such as the right to migrate. It behooves us to solve these problems with solutions that least-infringe upon fundamental human rights.

People say that times change and that what was once a right might not be valid today. But how then can they answer Douglass’s insistence that the right to migrate is universal and indestructible? How can they explain that restricting migration isn’t really so wrong, when in Douglass’s time it was clear that this constituted an “essential human right”, one that he asserted for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever?

I say that Douglass’s words ring as true today as they did well over a century ago. Migration is a fundamental human right. Like all rights, there may come a time when it must be restricted. But restrictions have to balance one set of rights against another — not to categorically declare that a right simply does not exist, and that we have carte blanche to utterly disregard it. As did Douglass, I assert today the universal and indestructible right to migrate equally for all human beings — now, and forever.

Source for featured image: Wikimedia Commons, original photographer unknown.

Open Borders Editorial Note: See also Open Borders guest blogger Ilya Somin’s blog post Frederick Douglass on immigration at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Constitutionally entrenching migration as a fundamental human right: Argentina and open borders

US President Obama just announced a major policy change that will, at least temporarily, allow some immigrants a reprieve from the threat of deportation. Co-blogger Michelangelo’s pointed out that this is still extremely far from the true liberal reforms which the unjust, draconian US immigration system sorely needs. People are falling over themselves to contest the constitutional permissibility of Obama’s actions — for more on that, see our guest blogger and law professor Ilya Somin’s take. Irrespective of that legal issue, Michelangelo is right that we need to dream bigger — so let’s talk about one country in the world which legally enshrines freedom of movement as a universal human right: let’s talk about Argentina.

Now, I don’t have the time or space in this post to cover every single aspect of the Argentinean story: despite the many parallels between Argentina and any number of Western or developed countries you can name,  Argentina is not the canonical open borders country; it does not represent a template that can be copied whole sale. Neither can it be a representative test case illustrating the likely effects of open borders if another country were to adopt them.

The empirical learnings to be had from the Argentine experience are worth a whole set of blog posts, if not books. Today, I want to just talk about the laws and constitution that govern immigration to Argentina — for in of themselves, they prove that what so many restrictionist naysayers call legally and philosophically impossible can in fact be done without the nation-state collapsing into a black hole of philosophical contradictions.

Argentina, like the US and many other countries, has a long history of being shaped by migration. Prior to the abolition of international open borders in the early 20th century, as much as a third of the Argentine population was comprised of immigrants. Over the course of the 20th century, restrictive immigration laws were introduced by various dictatorships, and the immigrant population eventually dwindled to a small fraction of its former size. So far, the Argentine story is much like that of every other country in the world: open borders up until the early 20th century, and restrictionism thereafter.

Up until a decade ago, Argentinean immigration law was like that of any other country’s. It disclaimed and disdained any concept of freedom of movement as a human right. Sizeable populations of undocumented migrants lived in the shadows, legally separated from the course of ordinary human life, and routinely deported when discovered. This legal-philosophical framework, we are supposed to believe, is the natural order of things: it is impossible to have an immigration law that abolishes arbitrary deportation, impossible to have an immigration law that recognizes mobility as a human right.

But in 2004, the Argentine government swept all this away, and adopted a new immigration law, simply labeled Law 25.871. This unremarkable name aside, the law is sweeping in its defence of movement as an inalienable human right. Article 4 states simply:

The right to migrate is essential and inalienable to all persons and the Republic of Argentina shall guarantee it based on principles of equality and universality.

The law does not go as far as to abolish visa or border controls, but it lays out a simple — at least on paper — process to immigrate to Argentina: find an employer or family member who will sponsor you. Once sponsored, you become a temporary resident. After one to two years, you can apply for permanent residency. After a few more years, you become eligible to apply for naturalisation as a citizen. There are no visa caps or quotas to worry about — something which already puts the Argentine system way ahead of every other country in the world in respecting the human right to migrate.

But Argentina goes further: not every individual who enters Argentina might be able to find a sponsor. And although the law prohibits entry without a visa or similar legal documentation, people will find a way in — not least because you could always just overstay a temporary visa. It’s virtually impossible to seal your borders without becoming a military dictatorship. And Argentina recognises this, with Law 25.871 declaring that those who migrate to Argentina without legal residency are simply “irregular migrants”.

Remarkably, Law 25.871 bans discrimination against irregular migrants in the provision of healthcare or education. Deporting an irregular migrant requires a court hearing, and generally may only be executed if the government offers the irregular migrant a chance to regularise their status, and the migrant refuses this offer. Exceptions, of course, are made for criminal convicts and the like, but otherwise, deportation is rarely enforced, and instead large-scale “amnesties” — though the more accurate term would be regularisations — have been the norm. The International Detention Coalition summarises Argentine deportation policy:

Migration decisions are made by immigration authorities but are reviewable by a court, with no detention during this period. Legal aid is available throughout the deportation process for all irregular migrants. Deportation and detention are both decisions that must be ordered by a court, with detention used only as a final resort after all other remedies are exhausted. Detention is limited to 15 days pending removal. In practice, migrants who have been committed to prison for criminal offences are the only immigration detainees.

One American immigrant to Argentina worried about his spouse overstaying their visa and becoming an irregular migrant describes what happened when he asked an immigration official what he should do:

Then we spoke with another, much kinder immigration official who assured us that there is absolutely no deportation law in Argentina. She laughed when I told her that I feared that a white van would come to our house to take my spouse and deport him. She told me that Argentina is not the United States and they don’t treat immigrants this way. The only time that Argentina would ever consider deporting someone who is illegal is if he or she commits a crime.

Imagine that — a country with no deportations! It’s not just easy if you try: it’s actually real! But not all is roses, naturally: the continued existence of large populations of irregular migrants in Argentina points to the failure of the government to live up to the law it passed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that bureaucratic red tape often constitutes a barrier to successful sponsorship — and while this is a mere headache for middle-class immigrants, for semi-literate members of the working class, complying with the requirements of immigration laws can be more than onerous.

Argentina is hardly unique in this regard: when my family immigrated to the US (after first overcoming the ridiculous quotas that kept us waiting for about two decades after our visa petitions were first submitted), we had to provide documentation from the local police in every jurisdiction we’ve lived in showing that we’ve been citizens in good standing with the law. Obtaining this documentation is at worst a nuisance for a middle-class person — and even then, since documentary burdens like these are many and cumbersome when you’re dealing with immigration authorities, a lot of people in our shoes would have outsourced this gumshoe work to an expensive lawyer. For a working class person who might have frequently moved around a lot without keeping many records, and whose educational attainment may not go past elementary school, obtaining this sort of evidence can border on the impossible.

Aside from the burdensome red tape that makes legal residency difficult to attain, Argentina also strangely upholds legal persecution of irregular immigrants: landlords and employers who do business with irregular migrants are singled out for punishment by Law 25.871. Clearly this has not stopped Argentineans from doing business with irregular migrants, but this does seem discordant with the rest of the law: notably Law 25.871 explicitly states that all leases and employment agreements which irregular migrants enter into will be upheld and enforced by the courts, even though entering into these agreements is in of itself an offense.

Argentina does not have truly legal open borders, but it comes remarkably close. If the bureaucratic requirements for obtaining residency were loosened and the fines for employing or renting to irregular migrants were abolished, I think Argentina would basically have open borders — because every person seeking to travel to Argentina for work, study or pleasure would be free to do so. Those seeking to commit crimes would still be punished and subject to exclusion; all others seeking to move and live in peace would be let in peace.

Argentina is a remarkable counterpoint to those who allege that open borders are by definition inconsistent with national sovereignty, or that open borders by definition threaten the social compact governing the welfare state. We on this blog have spoken a lot about how governments are free to limit migrant access to welfare, and other similar policies that we call keyhole solutions.

Argentina is faring just fine despite throwing these out the window: even irregular migrants have full access to both private and public education and healthcare, and are generally allowed access to other social benefits too. In fact, other keyhole solutions we’ve discussed, such as the imposition of tariffs or additional surtaxes on migrants, are unconstitutional.

That’s right: Law 25.871 didn’t pull the concept of the right to migrate out of thin air. Argentina’s history of open immigration dates a long way back, all the way back to 1853 when it adopted its constitution. Article 16 consciously adopts an egalitarian stand on the rights of citizens and foreigners, treating them all as inhabitants entitled to the same freedoms under Argentine law:

All its inhabitants are equal before the law, and admissible to employment without any other requirement than their ability. Equality is the basis of taxation and public burdens.

The rhetoric about equitable taxation is remarkably repeated twice more. Article 20 of the Argentinean constitution elaborates on egalitarian treatment of foreigners:

Foreigners enjoy within the territory of the Nation all the civil rights of citizens; they may exercise their industry, trade and profession; own real property, buy and sell it; navigate the rivers and coasts; practice freely their religion; make wills and marry under the laws. They are not obliged to accept citizenship nor to pay extraordinary compulsory taxes. They may obtain naturalization papers residing two uninterrupted years in the Nation; but the authorities may shorten this term in favor of those so requesting it, alleging and proving services rendered to the Republic.

No extraordinary taxes — and foreigners enjoy all the same civil rights as citizens! And Article 25 of the constitution states:

The Federal Government shall foster European immigration; and may not restrict, limit or burden with any tax whatsoever, the entry into the Argentine territory of foreigners who arrive for the purpose of tilling the soil, improving industries, and introducing and teaching arts and sciences.

No tariffs on the entry of immigrants either! We’ve proposed such schemes as potential mechanisms to mitigate possible fiscal burdens of managing migrant inflows, but Argentina has expressly ruled these out — and yet nobody can say that open borders or open immigration are what is ruining Argentina. Argentina has easy naturalisation (you can become a citizen within five or six years of entering the country) and birthright citizenship for anyone born on its territory — all things restrictionists dread — and yet hardly anyone can say this is what’s ruining the country.

If anything, Argentina seems to have been designed as a decisive rejection of all the philosophical ideas immigration restrictionists hold dear. Most arguments for the arbitrary restriction of immigration rest on this moral philosophy sometimes labeled as “citizenism”: the belief that the government of a country is justified in excluding, abusing, and mistreating non-citizens as long as this is for the benefit of its own citizens. Even if these non-citizens come in peace, even if they want to work with you, work for you — the government has no business considering any of this. The government is established for the benefit of current citizens alone, to the exclusion of all others.

Acuerdo_de_San_NicolásAcuerdo de San Nicolás de los Arroyos, a treaty between different governors signed in 1852 to convene a Constitutional Convention that drafted the constitution of 1853, source La Guia 2000, discovered via Wikipedia
Well, the preamble of the Argentine constitution explicitly rejects citizenism — I’ve added emphasis to make this clear:

We, the representatives of the people of the Argentine Nation, gathered in General Constituent Assembly by the will and election of the Provinces which compose it, in fulfillment of pre-existing pacts, in order to form a national union, guarantee justice, secure domestic peace, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves, to our posterity, and to all men of the world who wish to dwell on Argentine soil: invoking the protection of God, source of all reason and justice: do ordain, decree, and establish this Constitution for the Argentine Nation.

A constitution that insists on treating immigrants as virtual equals with citizens, and a constitution that enshrines immigrants’ rights to justice, peace, welfare, and liberty: it sounds like an utopian dream, but it is real, and it’s in Argentina.

There are many things not to recommend about Argentina; its overly burdensome red tape, both in immigration and in just about every other arena of public life, famously strangle ordinary economic activity. The long legacy of Peronism has seen Argentina’s economy stagnate, and even today, Argentina’s government chronically mismanages the public fisc. But none of these problems have anything to do with immigration, and everything to do with problems endemic to the culture of Argentinean public life — a culture that has remained remarkably resilient despite Argentina’s long history of open immigration and now its reopened borders.

Argentina is far from perfect, but its constitution and immigration laws show us the way forward in guaranteeing the just and equitable treatment of all human beings subject to our governments’ laws, be they citizen or foreigner. In drafting their constitution, Argentina’s founding fathers drew on the constitution of the United States. Perhaps now those Americans opposed to open borders and freedom of movement would do well to take a page from the Argentine playbook, and remember the wisdom of their own founding fathers.

The American and Argentine tradition of open borders did not emerge from a legal or philosophical vacuum, after all. At the founding of modern Germany in the 1860s, German legislator Wilhelm Liebknecht articulated the legal rationale for egalitarian principles like those upheld in Argentina’s constitution and immigration laws:

A right that does not exist for all is no right… Gentlemen, it is necessary for us to proceed in the same fashion that England, that free country, has already taken, and to extend to foreigners the same right that exists for Englishmen. There is no such thing as police expulsion in England; the government there does not have the right to deny someone their place of residence.

Or, as one of Liebknecht’s colleagues put it,

…it is a barbarity to make a distinction between foreigners and the indigenous in the right to hospitable residence. Not only every German, but every human being has the right to not be chased away like a dog.

I could not have said it any better myself. Argentina is not perfect, but its laws come far closer to the wisdom of our ancestors on freedom of movement than the laws of virtually any other country today. Obama’s action to provide relief from deportation for a few million American immigrants is welcome, but it is not true justice. There cannot be justice until America, and every country in the world, recognises that every human being has the right to not be chased away like a dog. Stop the deportations — not one more!

I am indebted to Barbara Hines’s The Right to Migrate as a Human Right: The Current Argentine Immigration Law and discussions with members of the Open Borders Action Group for their assistance in preparing this article.

Source for featured image: We didn’t keep track of the original source, because there are many similar images available via Google Search. This might have been the original source.

Related reading

Oh, the absurdity of thinking that open borders demands open citizenship

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter in discussing open borders is the casual conflation of open borders with open citizenship. For something I consider an incredibly elementary distinction, this apparently eludes plenty of intelligent people. For example, here is EconLog blogger Art Carden casually saying:

An answer to Bryan’s question about how the government should spend a billion dollars. I’m going to take “give it back to the taxpayers” and “print a few hundred million US passports for prospective immigrants” off the table.

Bryan Caplan is one of the most famous and vocal open borders advocates around; he is Carden’s co-blogger. And yet it apparently seems to have escaped Carden that Caplan has never suggested printing US passports for foreigners. Caplan and the rest of the open borders movement want people to be free to move across borders. And you don’t need a US passport to cross the US border! You just need a valid US visa.

People worried that immigrants are going to abuse their welfare system or cast uninformed votes if we open the borders completely ignore that there are millions of foreigners today who legally cross borders whose access to welfare and the vote are curtailed, if not eliminated, by their visa restrictions. This is true in the US, and it is true in virtually any other country you care to name.

This is why I find the pervasive belief that it’ll be impossible to keep citizenship out of the hands of foreigners so puzzling. Surely people realise that in the US, as in most countries, you don’t need to be a citizen to work or settle now. Why would this change under open borders?

The distinction between open borders and open citizenship is critical. If you assume the first implies the second, you still need to clarify why exactly you believe allowing people to move to your country means you would be forced to give them citizenship. When I raise this distinction, I encounter two types of responses:

  1. A total avoidance of the distinction (i.e. the person persists in assuming you need to be a citizen of a country to live there)
  2. A confident certainty that either:
    1. Immigrants would rise up politically to demand and then acquire citizenship
    2. It would be simply immoral to admit a lot of immigrants and not give them citizenship

For scenario #1, I confess I am lost. It’s possible the fault lies with me in failing to communicate the distinction between passports and visas, between citizen and legal immigrant. But how can we best communicate this distinction? Any ideas?

For the scenarios in #2, let’s use US data, because it’s most conveniently at hand (thank you, my Dartmouth classmate Harry Enten!). In general, only 60% of US legal permanent residents naturalise. For those who were given legal immigrant status by the last major US amnesty, in 1986, only 40% naturalised. In short, almost 1 in 2 legal US immigrants don’t really want citizenship.

And right now, it’s fairly straightforward to acquire US citizenship once you’ve met the simple residency requirement of 5 years; the hardest parts tend to be learning English (if you don’t speak it), learning the material on the citizenship test (a bore, but certainly a doable challenge for most), and putting together the necessary paperwork to show you’re not a criminal, etc. It seems highly questionable to me to claim that these people would have rioted if they’d been admitted legally but under a different, stricter residency requirement.

And on that point, I don’t see any moral reason why the requirement for naturalisation has to be 5 years; it could easily be 15, or even longer. The harm to immigrants from this is minimal. Other than the vote and welfare, most people in the US, lawfully present or not, have identical rights and responsibilities. In fact, the only meaningful harm I can think of is that non-citizens can be deported and citizens can’t be. But the whole point of open borders is that, barring evidence that you are a danger of some kind, you should be able to go where you like. Once we protect non-citizens from arbitrary deportation, the moral harm of raising the bar for citizenship seems almost non-existent. It certainly pales in comparison to the moral harm of keeping people out of your country at gunpoint because you’re afraid letting them in might morally obligate you to throw a blank passport at them.

The question of whether such a moral obligation exists is something worthy of a whole book. But I don’t see a reason why crossing over an arbitrary line should suddenly make people on the other side of that line obligated to give you the vote. Citizenship is fundamentally related to who you are, not where you live, although the two are clearly related. I think most people intuitively understand this, since I don’t see anyone seriously demanding that every person on a student visa or a work permit in a foreign country be permitted to vote there. And I think it shouldn’t be hard to intuitively see that something is wrong with us if we insist on forcefully keeping people jobless and starving because we’re afraid the only alternative is giving them the vote. You don’t need to be a voter to hold down a paying job or rent your own home. So why impose that absurd and arbitrary requirement on someone else?

I am for open borders. I am not for open citizenship. There is a difference, and let’s be clear about that. One is about the fundamental human right to live and work without needing to beg any government for permission to stay in your own home or work for your employer. The other is about the less fundamental political right to cast a vote. The two are not the same, and blurring the difference between them does not serve us well.