Tag Archives: illegal immigration

Snakeheads as high-impact entrepreneurs

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

Sister Ping
Image source: The New Yorker

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


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

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

#1: Who migrates, how, and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#2: Non-cooperating countries

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

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

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

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

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

#3: Sister Ping’s time in China

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

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

#4: What motivates people like Sister Ping?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Related reading

Junk the international refugee system, and open the borders

Refugee and asylum are hot topics these days, with conflict across the world and criminal violence often forcing people to set off for distant lands in search of a better life. It seems to me that most people arguing this issue operate under two misapprehensions regarding how refugee law works:

  1. They believe that refugees don’t have very particular or special rights to migrate under the law — refugees crossing a border without submitting to inspection is unlawful, and countries don’t have special obligations to accept refugees who set foot on their territory.
  2. They believe that international and domestic law adequately protects the rights of refugees, and that most of the problems to do with refugee and asylum-seeker rights originate from governments failing to adhere to their legal obligations, rather than any fundamental failing of refugee law.

Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond. Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor
Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond.
Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor, used in the New Statesman article From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants

Remarkably, I’ve encountered people who hold both views. Usually adherents of #1 are people who don’t know much about refugee law, and/or anti-immigration restrictionists, while adherents of #2 are generally mainstream left liberals. But there are certainly some people who appear to hold both sets of beliefs (possibly because they completely misunderstand both how refugee law works and the actual situation refugees face).

It’s actually pretty easy to debunk belief #1 — international law, and the domestic law of most developed countries (the US included) gives anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to seek and obtain asylum outside their home country, becoming a refugee. You need to do nothing special to enter another country. If you have a legitimate refugee claim, crossing the border without initially obtaining any papers or passing any government inspection is completely legal. (If you think this doesn’t make sense, then consider that it wouldn’t make sense to prevent people from fleeing the Holocaust because their papers at the time weren’t in order.)

After you’ve left your home country and entered the country you’d like to seek asylum in, you must begin the formal process of obtaining refugee status — i.e., you have to start filling out forms and making your case for asylum. In most cases, this means a judge or other government official has to formally rule that you are a legitimate refugee. If they do, then you’re typically scot free and become a legal immigrant under the country’s immigration laws. If the judge rules you’re not a legitimate refugee — maybe the violence you fled wasn’t the right kind of violence — then you’ll be sent home.

Sometimes, you might not want to resettle permanently in the country you initially flee to. In some cases, governments, charities, and/or international bodies will help you migrate elsewhere under a formal refugee resettlement programme. This is usually centrally managed or planned by some large government or intergovernment bureaucracy.

Most countries are reluctant to help refugees resettle; the United Kingdom for example has said it will only resettle 500 refugees from Syria — a country beset by a civil war which has displaced millions of innocents. (“Displaced” of course is an euphemism for “forced millions to leave their home under the threat of murder, rape, or torture”.) As a result, the queues for resettlement are long and few refugees have any serious prospect for being resettled elsewhere — which is why most Syrian refugees are trapped in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

What I’ve just described is not fanciful or imagined — it’s the international refugee system as codified in international law and the domestic law of many countries. The “illegals” who show up in your waters on rickety boats or cross the desert straddling your border are, in many cases, people with legitimate asylum claims — which makes what they’re doing completely legal. They are no more wrong than a Jew fleeing the Holocaust would have been in trying to get to your country.

Now, it seems funky that I think the belief #2 I described is wrong. This system of refugee management has its flaws like any human creation, but it certainly sounds like it would, if implemented properly and in good faith, enable refugees to migrate away from persecution and violence. The line it draws between refugees and those seeking to migrate for other reasons is perhaps arbitrary, but not unreasonable on the face of it — if we had to pick and choose only one type of migrant for some reason, most of us would probably agree we ought to welcome the person fleeing murder.

But in the real world, it turns out that figuring out which side of this arbitrary line one is on can be difficult. It’s actually unclear, for example, whether child migrants to the US fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (“fleeing gang violence” here being an euphemism for “running away from people who’ve threatened to rape and then kill them”) actually legally qualify for refugee status. Even if they don’t, they arguably qualify for other protective status of some kind offered by US immigration law, but this is hardly a well-settled legal issue.

Some refugee advocates think the US government should offer special parole to these Latin American migrants, since they don’t fit any typical legal category of refugee. Others, like the UN and even the president of Honduras, argue that although they might not meet the technical definition of refugee, these people certainly fit the spirit and intention of refugee law, and should be classified as such.

Putting aside the thorny issue of child asylum-seekers for the moment, let’s reflect on the ludicrousness of the fact that most countries will not permit anyone claiming refugee status to actually legally travel there. If you enter irregularly, you can fully assert your legal right to stay — but it is illegal for you to travel in order to assert this legal right of asylum!

Say you want to fly from Guatemala to the US, or from Syria to the US, you need a visa. If you can’t prove you have the legal right to travel to the US, no airline or shipping company will issue you a ticket. Since almost all refugees can’t prove they have this right — thanks to the legal system requiring you to be present on the country’s territory to assert your asylum claim — almost all refugees and asylum-seekers are compelled to enter via irregular means, and seek out the aid of smugglers.

The refugees or migrants undertaking an arduous and dangerous journey from Somalia to Italy or Guatemala to the US do so not because they are criminals who have to resort to illegal means by virtue of their own evil — they do so because there is no legal way for them to travel to the US. Some refugees and asylum-seekers resort to other types of crime to travel in search of safety — I have heard stories of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka flying to Western countries by faking fraudulent tourist or immigrant visas in their passports. After boarding their flight using this false documentation, they destroy the fraudulent documents, and claim asylum upon landing. This sort of fraud or human smuggling is just the perfectly-foreseeable and indefensible outcome of a legal system which criminalises the ordinary travel of people who already have the legal right to migrate.

Worse still, any good faith implementation of this legal system still must grapple with the problem of differentiating legitimate refugees from mere “economic migrants” or people seeking to reunite with family. Since international refugee law is silent about the rights of non-refugee migrants, even countries following this legal system in good faith feel free to persecute economic migrants. So if, say, the US government takes measures to deter Latin Americans from coming, this will inevitably discourage not just economic migrants. This will also discourage those who already have the legal right to migrate from exercising those legal rights accorded to them under US and international law. And there’s nothing wrong with this under refugee law, because state violence and coercion of economic migrants is perfectly fine.

To put the implications here in more concrete terms, ostensibly civilised developed countries really do try hard to intercept migrants — almost indiscriminately — before they reach their soil. If you can keep a potential asylum-seeker from touching land, then you can prevent them from ever asserting an asylum claim in the first place — even if they would be completely entitled to do so under your country’s laws. The international refugee system creates a perverse incentive to try very hard to keep refugees from coming, by offering this as a legal channel to stop them. And while states can certainly go overboard in taking harsh measures here, virtually all of them can find some ostensibly good-faith justification for doing so. After all, they aren’t intercepting these migrants for the sake of punishing refugees — they just want to stop economic migration!

This is exactly why Australia tries very hard, for example, to intercept migrants before they reach its waters, and to “process” any asylum claims offshore in countries like Nauru. While what they are doing might run afoul of the spirit of the law, Australia claims to be abiding by the exact letter of international and domestic refugee law. Similarly, the coast guards of European states like Greece and Italy often work to intercept migrants’ boats before they enter their waters — and if these boats do enter their waters, it is not unheard of for the coast guard to actually tow them back out. Such tows or “pushbacks” are actually illegal under refugee law, but there is nothing to prevent the coast guard from doing this, and there’s a very strong incentive to keep these people from touching land and asserting any claims of asylum.

Finally, the international refugee system in at least one important respect appears to be a figleaf for rich countries to disguise how they foist the responsibility for dealing with refugees onto poorer countries. Consider the present Syrian refugee crisis: millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them live in camps in Syria. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and become refugees there.

Under refugee law, these people are now trapped in the country they’ve initially claimed asylum in. The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan aren’t trying to gas them to death like Bashar Assad is, nor are they trying to oppress them in the way the Islamic State is presently doing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So these people have no legal way to leave the countries they initially flee to — and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan just have to deal with these populations.

In theory, the UN and various governments would work together to help resettle these refugees elsewhere in the world, so they don’t just burden the countries immediately next to the calamity that caused them to flee. In practice, rich countries like the UK agree to take a couple hundred refugees and call it a day.

People claim that taking refugees would overwhelm their countries. People from the West and other richer countries (like my own, Malaysia) can give all sorts of great excuses for why they cannot take in more than a few hundred refugees. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon had no choice but to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees — this was and is their obligation under international law. Short of the conflict ending, there is no way for these migrants to leave. If a refugee living in Jordan or Turkey tries to migrate elsewhere, they can be legally rejected and treated as a mere “illegal” — they’re just “economic migrants”, not real “refugees”, since the governments of Jordan and Turkey don’t actually try to kill these people.

I won’t argue that these countries are perfect, or that they’ve been perfectly able to cope with these inflows, but it’s plain as day that these refugee flows have not caused a humanitarian disaster to befall the nationals of these countries. I don’t see masses of Turks, Jordanians, or Lebanese starving or going without shelter because of resources diverted to caring for Syrian refugees. If these poor and relatively small countries can cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is frankly absurd that far richer and larger countries like Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK — or even Malaysia — can only cope with taking in a few hundred. Yet this absurdity is exactly what the international refugee system would recommend.

The international refugee system was meant to protect the rights of refugees to seek refuge from violence. Yet the outcome has been something quite plainly different. People seeking asylum from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who are caught by Australia and “processed” offshore live in detention camps where the conditions are so terrible that they often wish they’d never come — which is likely the desired effect from the Australian government’s point of view. Children fleeing threats of rape or murder from places like Honduras are now at risk of being deported back to face their assailants, simply because they might not technically be refugees. Governments pursue harsh measures to deter channels for migration, in the name of “legitimately” excluding economic migrants, even if these harsh measures force legitimate refugees to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys which leave them at the mercy of illicit smugglers and violent criminals.

Now, of course, you could argue that it’s only “fair” to take some measures to deter economic migration, even if harming a few refugees is the resulting collateral damage. Refugee advocate Sonia Nazario vehemently demands the deportation of economic migrants. The operative assumption seems to be that these migrants aren’t fleeing “real” danger or suffering.

I’ll let journalist Stephan Faris field this one, from his book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration:

Life expectancy in [Nigeria] is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30.

If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.

And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred.

The modern refugee system at its heart is incapable of assisting many fleeing truly horrific danger and suffering.

If a murderous dictator wants to murder your child, and you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who specialise in human trafficking via life-threatening desert or sea routes so your child can make it to Western soil, you might be able to make a claim of asylum and save his or her life.

But if your child dies from diarrhea because his parents were forced to live in a country with terrible health infrastructure and a poor medical system, then that’s totally fair. Any attempt you might have made to bring him to a country where doctors actually know how to treat diarrhea would have been mere “economic migration” — an unlawful act!

Development economist Lant Pritchett captures the absurdity well in his book Let Their People Come:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Almost as a perfect reductio ad absurdum, Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times has compared the low mortality rates in the United States to the even lower mortality rates in Singapore to discuss the issue of less than 20,000 missing Americans — with no mention of the issue that is smaller by orders of magnitude than the missing people in any poor country.

Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.

Trying to arbitrarily redefine migration as a privilege accessible only to “legitimate” refugees is no way to protect human rights. Drawing this arbitrary line is merely an excuse for tolerating government oppression of innocent migrants, even the actual refugees among them. If we really care about human rights and the rights of refugees, then we ought to just junk the international refugee system — and open the borders.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you:

Partisan politics is holding immigrants’ lives and liberty hostage

In the midst of the ongoing US government shutdown that took effect earlier today, people have been accusing politicians on one side or another of holding the nation and its people hostage to partisan politics. The shutdown will have tragic effects for many lives, no doubt — wage earners are forced to stay home from work, needy people are forced to go without the benefits their government promised to them. But let’s not forget the entire class of innocent people whose lives and freedom have been held hostage to partisan politics for years, if not decades: the innocents, citizens or not, who have fallen prey to the US government’s War on Immigrants.

Some months ago, the National Journal ran an article on the current US immigration debate titled What Undocumented Workers Really Want, with the subtitle: It’s not always citizenship. They just want to do their jobs, cash their paychecks, and be left alone. The article mostly focuses on the lives of restaurant owners and their immigrant employees. It illustrates that the political concerns driving the current US immigration debate are extremely remote from the lives of the people who immigration reform is supposed to help. And one takeaway from this is that Republicans may well be right when they accuse Democrats of cynically caring more about the votes of immigrants than the lives of those immigrants.

The article makes a number of observations about the lives of the unauthorised immigrants in US society:

  • They save substantial amounts of money (sometimes in the thousands of dollars) to pay for smuggling them into the US
  • They lose contact with their family, because they cannot leave the US: one woman in the story had to send condolences for the death of her father by mail
  • They fear any contact with the law, because a simple traffic stop could put them away for life
  • They can easily find employment despite their lack of legal documentation, but always live in fear of losing their job should their legal status be discovered
  • Many employers love their unauthorised workers — not because their labour is cheap, but because they value their employees (to the point that one employer in the story told their unauthorised worker upfront who disclosed her unauthorised status to them that they would worry about it only if the government actually went after them)

The article is obviously only one side of the story. But I think this side of the story is one that the larger empirics back up: immigrants in the US, both authorised and unauthorised, have fantastic labour force participation rates. They have lower rates of detention or incarceration. Most immigrants, whether they are legal or not, are ordinary and innocent people.

The law at the present forces these people to live like criminals. They are on the run from the law for a “crime” that, if it can be called a crime at all, occurred years ago in most cases. There is an easy way to fix this: grant legal residency to these people. Lift the sword of Damocles that threatens to deport and separate them from their homes, families, and careers.

Yet as the article observes, this is not what the current debate about US immigration reform turns on. Rather, the Democratic politicians pushing for “reform” want to make these immigrants into full-fledged citizens — whether today, or some point in the future. Democrats are especially fearful that some immigrants never be able to naturalise.

The article hints that Democrats are motivated by the prospect of these immigrants’ votes. Certainly, Republicans are motivated by the prospect of stopping the addition of these new voters. But what excuse does either party have to hold these people’s liberty and the interests of society hostage to their own partisan interests?

On any other issue, we would be appalled if a political party blatantly blocked or supported an initiative, not because they thought it was a good or bad idea, but because they were afraid of its implications for their partisan strength. The ongoing debate about voter identification rules in the US is surely driven in large part by partisan motivations. Yet you will barely find any Democrats protesting stricter voter ID laws because “It prevents Democrats from voting”. Neither will you find Republicans supporting stricter laws for the same reason. Both cite policy reasons for their position, not partisan politics. But politicians and ordinary people think nothing of baldly citing “It will add more Democratic voters to the rolls” as reason enough to support or oppose the regularisation of the 11 million+ unauthorised immigrants in the US.

It’s galling enough that Republicans are blocking immigration policy reforms on the basis that this is harmful to them. But one oft-overlooked point is that Democrats are similarly likely to overlook potential compromises on the basis that this doesn’t generously enough grant citizenship to unauthorised immigrants. In other words, when given the choice between ending the War on Immigrants (but with less-than-ideal citizenship provisions) or continuing it, Democratic politicians have often chosen to stick with the status quo.

The article obliquely agrees with the Democratic spiel that not granting immigrants citizenship makes them a vulnerable subclass of the community. But how would they be any less vulnerable than they are now? The government’s War on Immigrants makes these people vulnerable to deportation at any time that would take them from their jobs, families, and homes. Even if they do not face deportation, they cannot progress in their career because they can lose their job at any time. The government literally has the power to stop all this with the stroke of a pen, and make this entire class of people much less vulnerable to the oppression of harsh employers or overbearing bureaucrats — all this without the politically explosive granting of citizenship.

Why should we hold protection for these people hostage to the partisan interests of any party, Democratic or Republican? For the Democrats, is holding out for citizenship for these immigrants worth allowing the government to continue spending its scarce resources on terrorising them and their communities? Is it truly humane to support continuing government-sponsored terrorism of innocent families and employers simply for the sake of shutting down any chance of a guest-worker programme?

In fairness to the Democrats, they have not been the primary roadblocks in the current US immigration policy debate. The Republican members of the US House of Representatives may be the ones standing in the way of further movement on amnesty for the 11 million unauthorised immigrants like those in the article. But there are still plenty — by one count, 84 — who believe in ending or at least tamping down the War on Immigrants. It should be incumbent on the Democrats in the House to do all they can to work with these Republicans to find an acceptable compromise and move forward. If we can somehow obtain Republican support by tightening provisions in the law for citizenship in return for ending the War on Immigrants, we should seriously consider this option. We can’t just take it off the table.

Immigrants are no different from anyone else. They want to live in peace with their families and earn honest wages. It makes a mockery of the Republicans’ and Democrats’ supposed commitments to the family and to the hard worker when they prefer to keep the War on Immigrants going instead of offering these people a path to legal residency. It’s one thing to play political games about infrastructure projects. It’s a completely different thing to play political games about bringing the entire armed force of the state to bear on people who just want to earn an honest living and live with their families. Keeping the war on these people going, whether for the sake of a broader naturalisation policy or purely playing a partisan game, is absolutely unacceptable.

Uphold the rule of law, and let your illegal immigrants stay

A common restrictionist trope is that allowing people who have settled unlawfully to regularise their legal status would be an intolerable departure from legal tradition and the rule of law. But in his recent book Immigrants and the Right to Stay, philosopher Joseph Carens demonstrates that the opposite is true: our legal and moral traditions demand a rules-based system for regularising the unauthorised. Justice and the rule of law are perverted when they deny people due process and instead offer them justice so delayed that to call it anything but denied would make the term “delay” a mockery.

Carens’s basic contention: anyone who has lived in a community for a certain period of time can be reasonably considered a member of that community and should be afforded similar rights as other members of that community. This sounds rather abstract, so let me put this to you: someone is a pillar of your community. Attends your religious services, well, religiously. Always ready to lend a helping hand when a neighbour could use it. Always the first to chip in a donation for someone in need. Never in trouble with the law. One day, the authorities raid his home and evict him, on the grounds that a long, long time ago, he didn’t fill out the right form allowing him to join this community. Not that he murdered someone; not that he trafficked drugs; he filled out the wrong forms, and that makes him “illegal”.

Carens’s contention, which makes eminent sense, is that your status as part of a community of people does not flow from a piece of paper. It flows from your contributions to and standing with your peers. We do not gain our humanity, our family, our friends, our neighbours from the law. We learn about and make our families, friends, and neighbours long before the law ever got or gets involved. In his book, Carens notes that the British immigration authorities once tried to deport an 80-year-old woman who had lived in the United Kingdom her entire adult life, and only public outrage stopped them. If living somewhere for 60 years makes you a member of the community, Carens notes, then might not a shorter time period still grant you similar standing? He ultimately proposes a waiting period of 5 to 7 years. Irrespective of what the right period should be, the principle is clear: living somewhere in peace with your fellow man eventually makes you a part of that community. The law cannot tear that community apart without tearing up basic morality.

Carens notes that tradition is on his side: that even countries like the US, where today any amnesty is seen as taboo by many, have a long history of allowing people who have lived there for a certain period of time to regularise. Even today, many countries have ongoing rules-based regularisation regimes: simply identify yourself to the authorities, present proof you’ve lived peacefully in the community long enough, and the sword of Damocles over your head is lifted.

Basic legal principles are on Carens’s side too: typically, the statute of limitations on most crimes isn’t more than a few decades, and for many crimes it’s under a decade. (The statute of limitations refers to the period of time after a crime after which the state can no longer prosecute you for it.) In most jurisdictions, only the worst crimes, such as murder, don’t have a statute of limitations. As I’ve written before, the US legal system treats crossing an imaginary line (which harms nobody) as a crime worse than exploiting children for sex. US law essentially sends the message that crossing a border illegally is worse than filming child pornography or committing murder!

And regardless of what harm may inherently occur from crossing an invisible and arbitrary line, I certainly don’t think you can reasonably compare it to filming child pornography or murder. The primary “harm” of non-violent border crossing is economic competition between foreigners and natives. But how is Josef “stealing” a job from Joe supposed to be harming Joe, while John taking a job Joe could have taken isn’t any harm at all? Why do we criminalise Josef from earning an honest living because it might “harm” someone, while we allow Johns to steal jobs from Joes every day? Competing on a level playing field is not an infringement of anyone’s legal rights, unless you believe some people are less human than others.

And yet dehumanisation of the foreign-born is yet another message which the legal system sends: we give inanimate objects more rights than people. The robot that “steals” your society’s jobs has an easier time getting into the country than a foreign-born person who might be able to do that robot’s job for even cheaper. And what does that robot contribute to your society? Maybe it creates jobs for robotics maintenance crews, but that’s about it. The human being is a living, organic part of our community — he or she creates jobs for and immeasurably enriches the lives of landlords, restauranteurs, hairdressers, community organisers. Despite this, most countries’ laws look more kindly on importing inanimate objects that “destroy” jobs than they do on allowing free people to come in and “create” service jobs. And we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that this legal system makes moral sense: I once asked a free trade advocate why he opposes liberalisation of immigration laws. He proudly told me that it was because he believes, I quote, “people are not commodities.”

Sure, you can pretend your legal system humanely does allow immigrants to come. But most people consider waiting a year for any government document a rather intolerable delay. For many immigrants — on occasion, even the spouses and children of citizens — a year’s wait is far better than anything they got. Some immigrants to the US are getting their visas today after waiting in the “queue” for over two decades. Many of the “queues” for US visas are backlogged by decades — 80 years in some cases. And the US has one of the better immigration systems out there! Is it even right to speak of a queue for immigration to the UK, when the government’s avowed goal is to cut net immigration essentially to 0 — and it has every intention of accomplishing this by hook or by crook, regardless of how many families and communities and jobs it must destroy? If the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” was not coined to describe the world’s immigration laws, it seems remarkably apt.

The world’s numerous legal systems have tried to ban many things in the past. They have experimented with banning various sexual acts among consenting adults, banning alcohol production/distribution, banning interracial families. They have tried and they have failed. What we find is that pretending to enforce the unenforceable only engenders disrespect for the law. It makes a mockery of the rule of law when we concoct laws that cannot be enforced. Now, these are not laws that many people were willing to risk their lives to violate — yet these laws could not stand. Meanwhile, every single day, innocent people around the world risk death in deserts or on the high seas to get into countries that offer them no legal way to enter. What hope have we of ever enforcing a law that bans innocent, hardworking people from supporting themselves and taking care of their families?

Moralists and conservatives often worry about what message the law is sending. I have to agree: what message does the law send when it deports a mother for caring for her children? When it denies the husband a visa to live with his wife? When it tells the hardworking wage-earner, “Sorry — the queue is 50 years long, don’t even dare send an employer your CV”? We are making a mockery of fundamental morality when we criminalise the family and we criminalise honest wages. As Carens says, the law is violating social reality.

Yes, the message is supposed to be: when crossing made-up lines on the map, identify yourself to the proper authorities. Somehow this is a crime worse than exploiting children for sex, and at least as bad as murder. If that is the message the law wants to send, ok. But if our message really is that innocent people identify themselves properly, why not allow them to do so? If this really is your concern, what do you have against allowing people to identify themselves after they have entered — or simply allowing people to enter and identify themselves at regular ports of entry, instead of making them wait in a queue that’s so long, it shouldn’t be called a queue at all?

There are a lot of things we could do to move to a more just legal system, one offering all people the due process they deserve. But Carens’s moral and philosophical case for ongoing regularisations intrigues me, precisely because it so neatly reconciles many of the moral absurdities of arbitrary immigration restrictions with the rule of law. Offering people a transparent legal process to acknowledge their standing as contributors to our society and community resonates with the principles of justice. The punishment fits the crime, if you can call crossing a made-up line a crime at all.

We wouldn’t send people to jail 40 years after the fact for a speeding ticket. So why would we wreck families and communities years or decades after the fact? When we are presented with such absurdities, as shown in the case of the grandmother facing deportation from Britain, we recoil because we recognise that the law is destroying the community and imposing a punishment all out of proportion to the offense. A legal mechanism for regularising “illegals” should be essential for any civilised society. If we can’t have truly open borders, we should at least have an immigration regime that doesn’t make a mockery of the rule of law. Only barbarians believe the law should send the message that the just reward for doing our job or taking care of our family is deportation and exile from the place we call home.

Illegal immigrants and runaway slaves

From my friend Seth Vitrano-Wilson, a Christian missionary:

Throughout the history of the United States, there have been people who didn’t have the freedom to go where they wanted to go. They couldn’t work for themselves in the US and earn their own money legally. If the government found them entering an area illegally, they would deport them back to where they came from. A lot of people believed none of them should be allowed to live freely and legally in the US at all, but even those who accepted they could be in the US free and legally made a distinction between those who earned their free presence in the US by following the rules, and those that broke the law by moving locations via a secret network of human traffickers.

Two hundred years ago, these people were called slaves.

Today, we call these people immigrants.

Nearly everyone today would agree that slavery is wrong, that sending a runaway slave back to their master is wrong, and that helping a runaway slave is right. We wouldn’t care if someone gained their freedom to move and work by “legal” or “illegal” means, because the whole premise that you could justly restrict people’s movement and employment via slavery is an affront to justice. We find it reprehensible that people would keep others as slaves simply for their own economic gain, or because of some supposed inherent superiority by birth, or because we fear how “they” will change the character of “our” country.

So why do we think differently about immigration restrictions today? Why is it wrong to restrict people’s freedom to live and work where and how they want if we call it “slavery,” but somehow right if we do the same thing and call it “immigration policy”? Two hundred years ago, runaway slaves were treated as criminals and deported back to their masters—a terrible stain on our nation’s history. Today, we do the same thing to illegal immigrants—breaking up families, ruining lives, impoverishing the impoverished.

If we look to the example of the abolitionists, the underground railroad, and the brave runaway slaves who risked their lives for freedom, we see just how hypocritical and unjust so much of our rhetoric about immigration is today. “Illegal” immigrants are brave defenders of the principles of freedom and justice. “Legal” immigrants are those blessed with masters kind enough to give them a sanctioned path to freedom. Would we ever dare tell a slave hoping for freedom to “get to the back of the line”? What line?? How many slaves could realistically expect to gain their freedom by legal means? And how many poor immigrants-to-be can realistically expect a legal visa under the current draconian restrictions?

Rather than debating about whether we should spend $20 billion versus $100 billion on the border patrol, or whether we need to catch 90% of the runaway slaves (I mean, “illegal immigrants”) crossing the border, we should be opening up the floodgates of freedom. Let people live and work where they will.

Editor’s note: See this much longer post on the lessons for open borders from the abolition of slavery.