Tag Archives: in the news

Germany is thinking about abolishing visas

Open borders advocates may have some allies over in Germany. In January this year, Deutsche Welle published this story with the unassuming title German companies want fewer visa restrictions (emphasis added):

Visa applications take too long, representatives from German industry say. They argue that companies lose money when a foreign business partner cannot travel. And they have concrete proposals to reform the system.

A deal worth millions was almost closed at a German agricultural fair, but urgently needed visas could not be issued to the foreign business partner. The telephone number in the documents was wrong, so embassy officials couldn’t reach anyone.

This is not a unique case, according to Andreas Metz, a spokesman for the German business community’s Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations. He cannot understand why old rules are followed to the word.

The visa system is actually a relic of the 19th century,” Metz told DW. “Today, there is a completely different method to ensure security, namely through a biometric passport and computerized information, which impede travel less significantly.” He hopes that visa requirements will be done away with eventually.

The discussion about unrestricted travel is also being discussed at the government level. German Economics Minister Philipp Rösler is pushing for more freedom. He recently called for Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich to give up his opposition to a more liberal issuing of visas.

The Interior Ministry’s main argument is security. The ministry is in favor of simplifying the visa application procedure, but it is against getting rid of visas. It has to ensure that aspects related to security and migration policy are preserved, the ministry said.

It seems difficult to believe that the German government is considering open borders via the abolition of visas. I’m not sure what exactly is being meant here by abolishing visas, since I can’t imagine the German government is eager to invite the entire world to live in its borders. (The article goes on to cite concerns about Turks and Russians unlawfully settling in Germany if visas are abolished.) Probably what’s being envisioned is that visitors would not require visas, so anyone can enter — but settling would still require a residency permit.

(By the way, talking of political externalities — Philipp Rösler is an immigrant from Vietnam who was adopted by a German family, so one can argue he has something of a vested interest in loosening border controls.)

This isn’t true open borders, but it’s one way to start down the road there. As the German lobbyist indicates, the modern visa system is only going to become even more out of place with the advancement of technology. I can still envision scenarios where a reasonable government would require visas: I can see the case for requiring visas from countries which are hotbeds for terrorism or organised crime. But modern technology makes the case for abolishing visas only more compelling.

The Gang of 8 immigration deal

I’m not a political junkie (anymore) and I try not to follow all the feints and counter-offers and posturing and whatnot that comprises so much of political discourse, but at this point the momentum for immigration reform in Washington seems really to be bearing fruit. A deal has been made. The New York Times celebrates:

Huge news from the scorched desert of immigration reform: germination!

At last there is a bill, the product of a bipartisan group of senators who have been working on it for months, that promises at least the hope of citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. It is complicated, full of mechanisms and formulas meant to tackle border security, the allocation of visas, methods of employment verification and the much-debated citizenship path…

There will be much to chew on in coming weeks, but it is worth a moment to marvel at the bill’s mere existence, and at the delicate balancing of competing interests that coaxed this broad set of compromises into being…

The bill gets around the “amnesty” stalemate by turning the undocumented into Registered Provisional Immigrants — not citizens or green-card holders, but not illegal, either. They will wait in that anteroom for a decade at least before they can get green cards. But they will also work, and travel freely. The importance of legalizing them, erasing the crippling fear of deportation, cannot be overstated.

Yes! Deportation is a particular disgraceful feature of the American polity, and it will be a tremendous moral relief to have it, if not permanently and generally abolished, at least abolished for most of the millions who live under the threat of it now. The Times deplores the length and difficulty of the path to citizenship:

That said, a decade-plus path is too long and expensive. The fees and penalties stack up: $500 to apply for the first six years of legal status, $500 to renew, then a $1,000 fine. If the goal is to get people on the books and the economy moving, then shackling them for years to fees and debt makes no sense.

The means of ejection from the legalization path, too, cannot be arbitrary and unjust — people should not be disqualified for minor crimes or failure to meet unfair work requirements. It should not take superhuman strength and rectitude, plus luck and lots of money, for an immigrant to march the 10 years to a green card.

Here I’m ambivalent, except about the “means of ejection” sentence. You can’t justly deport someone just because they don’t want a job, and to deport someone for, say, a speeding ticket, is a violation of just proportionality. My sympathies lie with a relatively short and easy path to citizenship. But reason tells me that if your goal is an immigration regime that is simultaneously incentive-compatible and humane, you can’t make the path to citizenship easy. And $500 here and $1,000 there are nothing compared to the income gains that immigrants to the US typically enjoy, though I’d prefer to see money extracted from immigrants in the form of taxes attached to earnings rather than as lump-sum fines and fees, so we can raise more revenue from those doing relatively well while mitigating the hardship we cause for the poorest immigrants. Continue reading “The Gang of 8 immigration deal” »

A DREAM Act for Singapore? Or, the arbitrariness of nationality-based residence laws

There is a 19-year-old Filipino citizen who has literally lived her entire life in Singapore who, as of this writing, risks being kicked out of the only country she has ever called home:

Nadirah was born out of wedlock in Singapore and given a Filipino citizenship, as her mother was a Filipino. Along with her five siblings, two other siblings are also non-citizens while the other three siblings were given citizenship as her parents got officially married in Philippine before they were born.

As Nadirah graduates from ITE, she will soon be asked to return to Philippine once her student visa expires in a month’s time. To be relying on relatives whom she never spoken to for years and a country where she has no memory of, the situation looks utmost depressing for this young lady with a uncertain future.

Nadirah’s situation reminds me all too much of the “DREAMers” of the US –young people who are present in the US without lawful immigration status who have spent most, if not all, of their lives as law-abiding members of US society. The immigration laws of Singapore ought to give people like her relief: there’s an argument to be made that even if she doesn’t deserve citizenship, she certainly ought to be able to reside in the only country she’s ever called home.

But we ought to look beyond the specific issue of young people whose paper nationality does not match the nationality written on their hearts. There are plenty of older people who, whether or not they feel a sense of national belonging to another country, are productive and harmonious members of that country’s society.

My mother may provide a useful illustration: she is a Filipino citizen who resided in Malaysia with our family for several years on a renewable 1-year “social visit pass”: the Malaysian immigration authorities maintained this legal fiction that she was making a “social visit” to my father for an extended period of time. While this is certainly more favourable than how other immigration legal regimes treat families, it also meant my mother had no legal standing to work in the country (despite possessing a post-graduate degree in a STEM field) and risked deportation or being barred entry for fairly arbitrary reasons.

A real risk my family faced was that if my father died, there would be no legal fiction for her to remain on a “social visit” and force her to return to the Philippines (where she has not lived for decades). Moreover, the restrictions of the pass forced my parents to spend multiple working days every year processing the necessary red tape to renew my mother’s visa (a luxury which many less-educated, working-class families probably can’t afford), and deterred my mother from leaving the country (on one occasion, a bureaucratic error in her visa meant that she risked being unable to re-enter the country if she left, even for a brief visit — so she simply did not visit any friends or family in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries until the next year, when her visa was renewed and the error corrected).

In principle, my family could have obtained permanent residency for my mother. In practice, the immigration bureaucracy seemed content not to bother itself with her application. It’s going on 15 years since her application was first filed, and every single time we’ve checked on its status, we’ve been told: “Wait for a letter from us.” The last time my father visited a Malaysian immigration office to discuss this, he saw a white woman berating a civil servant. She had apparently married a Malaysian who had since died, which is probably why she was there at the office that day. She was shouting at the government clerk in fluent, well-accented Malay: “I have been living in this country for longer than you have been alive!”

(Of course, there’s always a story that can top any story you think of. If we are speaking of immigrants’ pulling rank based on seniority, I can only imagine what a Mr. Padilla, who had lived in the US for over 4 decades and fought for it in the Vietnam War, had to say when he received his deportation order.)

The way we think about immigration law assumes citizens must, more or less, live in the country of their nationality. If they live or develop ties elsewhere, they need to prioritise their loyalties and naturalise as necessary. The permanent residency systems of most countries assume that those holding permanent residency will eventually naturalise: I have heard of one Malaysian holding permanent residency in the UK who calls both the UK and Malaysia home being frustrated at the UK border when its immigration officers demand to know why she wants to come in (“because it’s my home!”).

Yet there is no reason to bind citizenship and residency together: even in the status quo we can simply define citizenship as membership in a polity, and residency as the right to reside there and submit to that polity’s laws. Perhaps Nadirah wouldn’t be satisfied without citizenship — she might have grounds for this, since it sounds like she has always thought of herself as a Singaporean. But she and her Singaporean friends and family would still find this arrangement a whole lot more palatable than the alternative, which is to expel her as a non-resident to a country that is just as foreign to her as it is to Lee Kuan Yew.

The very fact that some of Nadirah’s siblings are Singaporean citizens and some are not speaks volumes about the arbitrariness and ridiculousness of how immigration law treats human beings: the entire lives of people, and the communities they are embedded in, hinge on some pieces of paper. Whether it’s a birth certificate (God bless those lucky people whose foreign parents were rich enough to give birth to them in the US and entitle them to American citizenship) or a marriage certificate (which gave some of Nadirah’s siblings the legal imprimatur that she lacks), it serves as an entirely arbitrary division between people who, for all other intents and purposes, are identical.

If immigration policy prevents people who call a place their home — a home that their community recognises as theirs — from actually living in that home, then as a moral matter, immigration policy is wrong. Plain and simple. We recognise the moral truth of platitudes like “Home is where the heart is.” We may sing paeans to the importance of community and how that defines the space we call home. But when home is on the line for members of our communities who, by an accident of birth, don’t have the legal right to live in their own home, do we have the moral courage to change the laws which make a mockery of the concepts of home, family, and community?

Imaginary lines: the borders of Southeast Asia and the Nusantara

As I write, a stand-off has been ongoing in East Malaysia for almost a month: the Sultan of Sulu, who in reality is a private Filipino citizen with no sovereignty in his own right, ordered his paramilitary forces to press his historic claim to the territory of Sabah, which has been a state of Malaysia since 1963. Already dozens have died in the conflict. The conflict is a sad reminder of the generally arbitrary and somewhat accidental nature of many borders: it’s purely an accident of history that the main territory of Sulu passed to the Philippines instead of Malaysia, and that its hereditary Sultan is today a Filipino instead of a Malaysian.

Farish Noor, a respected Malaysian scholar who currently teaches in Singapore, recently authored an excellent piece on the subject. Even if you are otherwise completely uninterested in the region, I think it makes for fascinating reading. Farish is by training a historian, and he does a fantastic job of illustrating how the modern nation-state maps rather awkwardly to the way people historically have led their lives, and even awkwardly to the way people live today. A snippet:

Sabahans have never had a problem with other communities settling there, and that is why we still see large numbers of Suluks, Bajaos, Malays and Chinese across the state, settling into mixed families or into smaller settlements. Furthermore Sabahans are attuned to the reality of living in a fluid archipelago, which is why its coastal settlements have always been transit points where people from abroad come in and out with ease.

Just before the Lahad Datu incident I was informed that a large number of Suluks had arrived for a wedding, and they came in without passports and visas, and left peacefully afterwards.

It has been like that in Sabah since my childhood. But my fear is that culture of openness and fluidity came to an untimely and graceless end when some of the followers of the Sultan of Sulu landed with guns and rocket-launchers.

Historian Benedict Anderson chose Indonesia as the classic example of an “imagined community” for a reason: most Southeast Asian states have no real reason to follow the boundaries they do today. The Nusantara (the Malay name for the Malay archipelago, which today maps more or less to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Timor Leste, and possibly some other states/territories I’ve neglected to name) has historically been, as Farish says, “a fluid space.” The nation-state is an extremely blunt instrument that maps poorly to the multitude of identities — many of which are blended and melded in the same person or household — forming the cultural patchwork of Southeast Asia. The divisions on this map below map more to the arbitrary carving up of the Nusantara by colonial powers in the 19th century than they do to any meaningful differences between their peoples, then or now:


Does this mean we should abolish the nation-state? Work towards no borders, instead of open borders? Not necessarily so, and again Farish is incredibly insightful on this point — so insightful that it’s difficult not to quote him almost in full:

Gone are the days when a Malaysian, Filipino or Singaporean would be born in his country, study in the same country, work and die in the same country. In the near future, we may well live to see the birth of the first ASEAN [Southeast Asian equivalent of the European Union] generation who are born in one country, study in another, work in another and die in another, all the while feeling that he or she is still at home, in Southeast Asia.

But for this to happen, we cannot bypass the nation-state entirely; for we need the nation-state in order to transcend the nation-state. We need the nation-state to evolve where it may one day accept the reality that its citizens have multiple origins, multiple destinies, multiple and combined loyalties.

We need to work towards an ASEAN future where our governments may come to accept our complex, confounding hyphenated identities as something normal, and not an anomaly; when someone who is Javanese-Dutch-Indian-Arab like me can claim to come from Indonesia, be born in Malaysia, work in Singapore and love the Philippines.

Ironically, this is the impasse we are at today: To revive our collective memory of a shared Southeast Asian past, we need to work with and through the nation-state as the dominant paradigm that governs international relations.

Like Farish, I see no necessity for the abolition of the nation-state. The nation-state is a tool of governance; it is not a suicide pact. Where the nation-state furthers our lives by protecting us from harm and pursuing the common interest, all is well. But we should not ramshackle the nation to the state and the state to the nation.

I am the global version of Farish’s ASEAN citizen: I am of Chinese-Filipino descent, born in Japan, raised in Singapore and Malaysia, studied in the US and the UK, and now working in the US. I have multiple affiliations, loyalties, identities. These are just as arbitrary as the accidents of fate that determine which sports team you root for, and yet no less meaningful. We have learned to live and let live in our sporting affiliations (for the most part, the occasional European football or Canadian hockey riot notwithstanding), recognising their arbitariness but reveling in their significance. We can do the same with the nation-state and its borders.

Borders serve a purpose: they delineate the laws and institutions which govern a territory. To the extent that our legal institutions need to track comings and goings of people, just as they do with goods or services, they can erect border checkpoints and controls. To the extent that they need to maintain order and forestall invasion, they can forcibly keep people out at these checkpoints. But that is all. We need not make a fetish out of these borders: they are significant but arbitrary boundary markers. There is no reason beyond prejudice to arbitrarily keep some people out, and arbitrarily let others in. When we keep people from seeking gainful employment, when we keep friends and families apart, we need a good reason to do so.

The nation-state once was an instrument for oppression: initially oppression of domestic subjects by the sovereign, later the oppression of foreigners in distant lands. Over time, we have discarded the oppressive aspects of the nation-state, and embraced the state’s furtherance where it seems beneficial. And so as Farish says, the clarion call for open borders is not to abolish the nation-state: it is to take the nation-state toward the next step in its evolution.

Rand Paul’s interesting precedent

While I don’t generally buy into the views of Ron or Rand Paul on foreign policy, Rand Paul’s filibuster, which is being credited with giving new momentum to the GOP, sets a promising precedent. Paul’s insistence that the president has no constitutional authority to use drone strikes against Americans on US soil was morally obvious, yet at the same time profoundly subversive, since it implies that there are, after all, limits on state authority, and therefore that the doctrine of sovereignty in the pure Hobbesian sense is fall. Bravo! Interestingly, since the Republicans have a reputation as the hawkish party, strong on national security, Paul’s stand actually went against part of what Republicans identify with, but the political configuration allowed Paul to appear, sort of, as the voice of the GOP against the soulless statism of the Obama administration. Paul’s message was fundamentally the doctrine of human rights or natural rights: it’s wrong to kill innocent people, period.

It probably wouldn’t work right now, but one wonders whether at some point in the future, Republicans could be flip-flopped on the immigration issue with similar ease. If a Republican candidate opportunistically assailed the Obama administration for its draconian deportation policies, that would doubtless alienate some of the base, but the GOP might look like white knights and protectors of the weak, and become more popular in some quarters, and Republicans who aren’t particularly nativist might just embrace it. What’s at stake here is the moral high ground. Seizing it is really a lot of fun, and it can pay off in the oddest and most delightful ways.