Tag Archives: Jason Riley

Michele Wucker was making the case for open borders 7 years ago

I recently finished Michele Wucker’s Lockout, a 2006 book advocating a liberal US immigration policy. Superficially, it’s overly similar to Jason Riley’s Let Them In; both co-blogger Vipul and I find that mainstream pro-immigration US literature suffers from the pitfall of focusing too much on the US (well, this is a pitfall from an open borders standpoint), and being anchored too much to the status quo. However, compared to Riley, Wucker is much more solutions-focused — and from the solutions she proposes, I would actually suggest she was grappling with the early embryos of all those ideas which eventually led to the formation of this Open Borders blog.

Riley says he wrote his book to rebut mainstream anti-immigration arguments in the US, but Wucker goes one step further to propose a number of changes to US immigration policy. The first 10 chapters of Wucker are incredibly similar to Riley, but the 11th chapter is breath of fresh air. Some of Wucker’s proposals:

  1. Legal residency for current unauthorised immigrants in the US
  2. A guest worker programme or other visa system allowing more people to work legally in the US
  3. Stricter immigration enforcement against those working without permission from the authorities
  4. Penalties for employers of unauthorised immigrants
  5. Immigration processing fees (taxes?) levied on immigrants to support cultural integration programmes and jobs for natives
  6. Devolve substantial portions of immigration rule-making from Congress to government agencies, and have those agencies streamline the existing process further
  7. Establish a special cabinet-level Immigration department, to ensure a single person and agency are solely accountable for US immigration policy
  8. Consciously promote global development, both through conventional development policies and through liberal immigration policy, to reduce wage gaps between poor and rich countries, and thus reduce the impetus for immigration
  9. Reduce the quota for visas granted to adult siblings of US citizens

Most of these are what we at Open Borders: The Case call keyhole solutions — policies that mitigate the risks of migration. They might do this by ensuring that some of the gains from migration go to natives, such as through the immigration levies which Wucker proposes. Or they might do this by managing the inflow of immigrants using some transparent rules to ensure that a country’s institutions are not overwhelmed by sudden, unexpected influxes (which, at least on paper, is what a streamlined bureaucracy would be able to do).

At the same time, there are some things which open borders advocates would probably part ways with Wucker on. Wucker’s strong belief that employers should be punished for hiring unauthorised immigrants seems sincere, and not just a sop to the restrictionist crowd. I think she finds it incredibly unjust that employers can illegally discriminate against these immigrants because of their unauthorised status. She seems to hint that she would prefer the reverse of the current US system (presently the immigrant bears all of the risk in taking up employment, and the employer takes none) — which I suppose is more compatible with an open borders viewpoint. It sounds like she might not be opposed to programmatic, ongoing “amnesties” which some countries have done, allowing unauthorised immigrants to regularise their status even after entering/overstaying without following the standard immigration rules.

Wucker seems incredibly cognisant (at least relative to most participants in mainstream immigration debates) of the terrible suffering that closed borders inflict on immigrants and prospective immigrants. Because of this, I don’t doubt her sincerity in advocating a guest worker programme or something similar to ensure those who seek honest work in the US can come. Putting this in context, when she wrote, most mainstream pro-immigration activists in the US were rejecting any guest worker programme as a form of legalised slavery. Instead, Wucker explored some bold proposals for immigration reform that dovetail incredibly well with open borders and open borders-like keyhole solutions:

The solution to [the dilemmas of immigration policy] is not to dictate what immigrant workers should do but to tailor a menu of options that lets each worker’s individual circumstances guide his or her decision…we could require [high-skilled] immigrants who decide to stay in America longer than ten years to pay a premium; some of that money could be redirected to the immigrant’s homeland and/or to to job training for U.S. workers.

Similarly…lower-skilled immigrants could pay a fee if they decide to stay after their guest worker status ran out….Another possibility could be to ask guest workers or their employers to pay a deposit to be held in an escrow account; if the worker decided to stay in America, the money would be forfeited to a development bank for use in the home country.

Wucker explicitly says that immigration policy should form part of a development strategy that will close the income gap between rich and poor worlds:

Paradoxically, in the long run, the best way to slow desperate immigration is to let people come here, build their skills, and then take those skills back to their homelands. Also paradoxically, the best way for people to help their homelands is to adapt as fully as possible to American society, for this is the key to succeeding here. By encouraging people to study here and go back and forth freely, we can encourage brain circulation and the creation of industries that will provide jobs in migrant-sending countries and markets for U.S. goods.

This development focus I find incredibly unusual for a mainstream immigration policy book. Wucker wrote in 2006, before economists Lant Pritchett and Michael Clemens fully fleshed out the concept of the place premium, showing how closed borders artificially create wage gaps that result in some people earning 6 cents (adjusted for purchasing power) doing work in their home countries, for which the equivalent wage in the US would be 1 dollar. Clemens and Pritchett would go on to argue that such wage gaps, as high as 94%, have never existed between any jurisdictions that permit freedom of movement. Following from this, the labour market convergence of open borders would end the worst poverty in the world and double world GDP. It amazes me that Wucker would take this angle in 2006, before development economists had even gotten around to begin digging into quantifying how badly closed borders is holding back the world economy, and the economies of our poorest countries.

Finally, one last remarkable thing is how antsy Wucker is about conceding much ground to restrictionists. She makes the usual sops to restrictionism, such as stricter internal labour market enforcement, and reducing the number of visas for citizens’ siblings, and…that’s it. Unlike other mainstream liberalisation advocates, she doesn’t plump for a border fence, or neglect the all-important need to reform the US’s broken visa system. It’s quite clear she wants more immigrants, because morality and good economics demand this, and she’s not afraid to say it. She says she rejects open borders, but literally in the same breath insists her only concession to restrictionists will be reducing the visa quota for citizens’ siblings.

From an open borders standpoint, Wucker’s book is not particularly useful or illuminating. In a sense, because of the work of Clemens and Pritchett, Wucker’s Lockout is now substantially outdated. But it is for that reason that I find Wucker so interesting: she was advocating open borders-style keyhole solutions, using the same stylised arguments as open borders advocates, years ahead of us.

Jason Riley makes the case for half-opening the US borders, but not a case for true open borders

A year ago, co-blogger Vipul briefly reviewed Mark Krikorian’s The New Case Against Immigration and Jason Riley’s Let Them In. I have not yet read Krikorian’s book, but I have finished Riley’s. Overall, I second Vipul’s sentiment that despite the radical book cover (the book’s full title is Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders), Riley’s book is incredibly weak because:

  1. It is overly focused on the US (I cannot think of a special reason why the US should be the only or first country to open its borders)
  2. It is overly focused on citizenist and territorialist arguments for immigration (while I think one can make a case for open borders using a citizenist or even nationalist worldview with appropriate moral side-constraints, the book does a poor job of confronting the inherently unethical tensions of these philosophies when they are used to justify closed borders)
  3. It really does not consider more than briefly the tremendous economic harm or moral injustice created by closed borders (Riley trots out the usual arguments about how immigrants benefit the US economy, but there is no reference to the true size of the closed borders problem — when closed borders is halving world GDP, this is a glaring weakness, although to be fair to Riley, I don’t think these estimates were available when he wrote this)

I don’t want to sound overly harsh; I actually would recommend Riley’s book if someone has already exhausted the most basic open borders literature. So if you’ve finished Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come (I would say that if you can only read one book about open borders, you need to make it Pritchett’s), maybe consider reading Let Them In. The main selling points for Riley:

  1. He comprehensively covers all the problems with current US immigration policy (its injustice from even citizenist and territorialist standpoints, its economic inefficiency, etc.)
  2. He does an excellent job of laying out the history of US anti-immigration activism (it will probably be news to many that Benjamin Franklin was complaining almost 250 years ago that low-quality German immigrants were refusing to assimilate and destroying the US)
  3. He uncovers some interesting historical facts about US immigration policy which really need to be widely known (for instance, he reveals that the problem of Mexican “illegal immigrants” in the US was virtually non-existent prior to the mid-20th century, because many immigration laws simply didn’t apply to Western hemisphere nationals until 1965 onwards)

In his conclusion, Riley states:

My primary goal in writing this book was to offer a rebuttal to some of the more common anti-immigrant arguments that I’ve come across while covering the issue as a Wall Street Journal editorialist.

Once I read this, I understood why Vipul and I felt the book had oversold itself as a case for open borders. Riley’s true intention was never to make such a broad case in this book. (In fact, Vipul goes as far as to characterise Riley as a political moderate — this is true of the book’s tone, but from its content, I would say Riley probably is pretty close to the liberal extreme on immigration.) If you’re looking for some good rebuttals to common mainstream anti-immigration US-specific arguments, I highly recommend Let Them In. But if you’re looking for the case for open borders, I would without hesitation point you to Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come.

Stereotyping restrictionists and invoking disgust reactions

I’ve blogged in the past about accusations of racism in the immigration debate and how they may detract from substantive debate. In that earlier blog post, I concentrated on the reports that the Southern Poverty Law Center prepared on the “racist” and “white nationalist” agendas behind a number of prominent restrictionist groups such as VDARE, CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA. While this kind of digging around is SPLC’s job (and they seem to not shy of exposing real and potential hate groups of all races, cultures, and belief systems, as is evident from their website), I expressed the view that advocates of open borders would do better to concentrate on the actual citizenist arguments made by restrictionists and ignore these hidden agendas. I wish to elaborate on that theme.

Here are some examples. An article titled The Unwanted: Immigration and Nativism in America by Peter Schrag (the full article is a 12-page PDF, the link goes to its cover page) says:

It’s hardly news that the complaints of our latter-day nativists and immigration restrictionists—from Sam Huntington to Rush Limbaugh, from FAIR to V-DARE—resonate with the nativist arguments of some three centuries of American history. Often, as most of us should know, the immigrants who were demeaned by one generation were the parents and grandparents of the successes of the next generation. Perhaps, not paradoxically, many of them, or their children and grandchildren, later joined those who attacked and disparaged the next arrivals, or would-be arrivals, with the same vehemence that had been leveled against them or their forebears.


Tanton’s organizations were also the primary generators of the millions of faxes and e‐mails that were major elements in the defeat of the comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. In Congress, both were accomplished with the threat of filibusters, and by putting the immigrants’ face on the often inchoate economic and social anxieties—the flight of jobs overseas, the crisis in health care, the tightening housing market, the growing income gaps between the very rich and the middle class, and the shrinking return from rising productivity to labor—that might otherwise have been directed at their real causes.

Here also there was broad precedence in the economic and social turmoil arising in the new industrial, urban America at the turn of the twentieth century. The descriptions of Mexicans taking jobs away from American workers, renting houses meant for small families, crowding them with 12 or 14 people and jamming up their driveways with junk cars, echoed the rhetoric of 1900 about inferior people brought in as scabs, crowding tenements, bringing disease, crime and anarchy, now become terrorism, who would endanger the nation and lower living standards to what the progressive sociologist Edward A. Ross a century ago would have called their own “pigsty mode of life.”

In the age of Obama, the overt, nearly ubiquitous racialism of the Victorian era, like eugenic science, is largely passé and certainly no longer respectable. Eugenic sterilization is gone. The race‐based national origins immigration quotas of the 1924 Johnson‐Reed immigration act have been formally repealed. But the restrictionists’ arguments echo, often to an astonishing degree, the theories and warnings of their nativist forbears of the past century and a half.

This article of the Immigration Policy Center is not an isolated instance. The introduction of Jason Riley’s Let Them In has this passage:

Steve King, a congressman from Iowa, compares Mexican aliens to livestock. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman who sports T-shirts announcing that AMERICA IS FULL, says Hispanic immigrants have turned Miami into a “Third World Country.” And Don Goldwater, nephew of conservative icon Barry Goldwater, and an unsuccessful candidate for governor in Arizona, has called for interring illegal immigrants in concentration camps and pressing them into forced labor building a wall across the southern U.S. border.

A little later, Riley writes:

Nativists warn that the brown influx from Mexico is soiling our Anglo-American cultural fabric, damaging our social mores, and facilitating a U.S. identity crisis. Anti-immigrant screeds with hysterial titles like Invasion by Michelle Malkin and State of Emergency by Pat Buchanan have become best-sellers. Tomes by serious academics like Samuel Huntington and Victor Davis Hanson make the same arguments using bigger words and giving the cruder polemicists some intellectual cover.

Now, my thoughts.

I think proponents of open borders are correct in pointing out that a number of restrictionists craft their arguments in a manner as to invoke disgust reactions against immigrants and to bolster anti-immigrant sentiment. Continue reading “Stereotyping restrictionists and invoking disgust reactions” »

Jason Riley’s solution to the US immigration policy disconnect puzzle

Restrictionists in the United States often harp on one key aspect of the US immigration policy disconnect — specifically the part about how the immigration policies supported by US political leaders fall short of the preferences expressed by citizens for reduced immigraton. To open borders advocates, the difference may seem like a rounding error. But restrictionists are often quite exercised about the matter, and have come up with a variety of explanations for this, including ideological blindness and stupidity as well as self-interest accusations.

At a basic level, the complaint checks out: the US citizenry have preferred lower immigration levels than their political representatives. Setting aside whether this is a valid argument against open borders, it’s still interesting to ask why there is such a disconnect. My general theory is that when politicians support an unpopular policy consistently, the probable reason is that they know that the medium-to-long-term consequences of supporting the unpopular policy more than compensate for the short term damage. A politician might choose to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration because he/she thinks that the increased economic growth that would result from that, or the goodwill generated with immigrant citizens and their sympathizers, more than offset the unpopularity of the policies. Some of these benefits to the politicians are inherently zero-sum (more votes to one politician means less for the other) and don’t really constitute “benefits” of immigration in a global sense. Other benefits, such as greater economic growth, if true, do constitute benefits of immigration that the politicians may be able to see more clearly than their bosses at the voting booth (i.e., the citizenry).

Jason Riley, in his book Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, provides a slightly different but compatible theory. Continue reading “Jason Riley’s solution to the US immigration policy disconnect puzzle” »

Efficient or artificial? Restrictionists versus open borders advocates

After reading books by both Krikorian and Riley, I am struck by the contrast in what they consider the natural/efficient state of labor markets to be.

Restrictionists like Krikorian view the “natural” state of the labor market as one with no immigrants. Thus, if large scale immigration increases the supply of labor in a particular labor market, Krikorian refers to this as an “artificially loose labor market” which he in turn blames for the suppression of wages of natives and slowdown in technological progress. This isn’t to suggest that Krikorian isn’t open to allowing immigration when it is helpful, but rather, he views any immigration as a distortion of labor markets that needs justification. Quotes are included below the fold.

On the other hand, moderate open borders advocates such as Riley, as well as more radical open borders advocates like Lant Pritchett, view local labor markets as inherently embedded in global labor markets, and the “efficient” state as one with relatively unrestricted labor mobility. To Riley, then, it is immigration restrictions that constitute a distortion of the labor market. Again, this is not to suggest that Riley would not be open to immigration restrictions under any circumstances, but rather, he would view them as a distortion of the labor markets that would need to be justified on other grounds. Quotes are included below the fold.

Is there a way of resolving the issue? Continue reading “Efficient or artificial? Restrictionists versus open borders advocates” »