Tag Archives: legal versus illegal

Should we call them “undocumented immigrants”?

We’ve given some thought to nomenclature for illegal immigrants on this site, but there are some salient points which ought to be made from an open borders advocacy standpoint. Personally, I don’t have a problem with most terms normally used for illegal immigrants, other than simply calling them “illegals” or “criminals” (which for I hope obvious reasons seems dehumanising; the term “criminal”, at least under US law, is actually completely erroneous, though it may be technically accurate elsewhere). But on reflection, I do think there are reasons to prefer a term like “undocumented immigrant” and to shy away from “illegal immigrant” — not necessarily from a standpoint of morality or dignity, but more from simply taking the right and fair rhetorical approach. Many immigrant rights activists have a questionable stance on open borders. But in using the term “undocumented immigrant”, they are not overly favouring their side, but rather adopting a term that most law and order-abiding folks, regardless of their stance on illegal immigration, should be fine using.

This is an area where I think open borders and immigrant rights groups should be able to share common ground. Indeed, I would say that given the way immigrant rights groups interpret this term, it’s incredibly pro-open borders of them, because they don’t buy into the common narrative that the problem with “illegal immigration” is entirely with the immigrant, instead of the legal system sharing some blame. From an immigrant rights or open borders standpoint, the issue at stake is that the immigrant did not properly document their arrival with the authorities. Even if you don’t go through the standard legal channels, your breaking the law need not define you any more than a speeding driver’s breaking the law ought to define them; what defines you is that you consequently don’t have the legal documentation or approval you might want or need to go about your business.

At the same time, “undocumented immigrant” does not preclude the possibility of blame attaching to the immigrant himself. Especially in the US, but in many other countries too, immigration is a matter of administrative law, not criminal or civil law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you are not an illegal earner; you are a tax evader. It may seem overly pleasant to refer to an undocumented immigrant as such, when they have no doubt broken the law. But to do otherwise strikes me as equivalent to going out of one’s way to find the most vicious term possible to describe someone driving without  insurance or a valid licence. We describe such drivers as unlicensed or uninsured, not as illegals. Moreover, the typical undocumented immigrant poses less of a threat to life and property than the typical unlicensed or uninsured driver!

The adjective “undocumented” is fairer to both the cases for and against more immigration by keeping the possibility open that the legal system shares some fault for what has happened. This language declares that what’s wrong is not that someone chose to immigrate — it’s that someone chose to immigrate, but couldn’t or didn’t obtain the appropriate papers to do so. “Illegal driver” would after all imply that driving by itself can be an illegal act — but it is not the act of driving that is illegal any more than the act of immigrating is. It is the act of doing so without the proper papers that is the problem — and this can be the fault of the person who breaks the law, or the fault of the law for making it impractical to comply. “Undocumented immigrant” is significantly more agnostic about the legal process for immigration than the term “illegal immigrant” — and rightly so, I dare say.

After all, the legal processes for immigration in most countries mean that most people around the world, no matter how much they may be acting in good faith, have near zero legal chance of immigrating via lawful channels to the country of their choice. In many cases, they have almost just as little chance of even visiting or studying in the countries they would like to. The workings of the legal processes for immigration in many countries are opaque, arbitrary, and absurd; it’s not hard to find examples of contradictory instructions from immigration bureaucracies, or “obvious” good-faith immigrants (like a white girl from the UK who grew up in the US) facing deportation proceedings. One recent change in US immigration law allows certain people who are already entitled to a US visa to apply for it without leaving the country — prior to this change, roughly half of those who left and applied for it got it quickly, while the other half faced waits measured in years.

For this reason, to focus on the term “illegal” when discussing such immigrants is to I think prevent the attachment of any blame or fault to the legal system, even though a very reasonable case may exist for such blame. Even a good deal of people who complain about illegal immigration focus on the fact that undocumented immigrants immigrated unlawfully — it’s not the act of immigration by itself that they take issue with. But the term “illegal immigrant” favours the presumption that this is mostly or entirely that immigrant’s fault for not “waiting their turn” or what have you. It implicitly assumes there is no chance the legal system could share some blame, for failing to offer such immigrants practicable legal avenues to cross the border. The term “undocumented immigrant” is more agnostic about who might get the blame.

Because it is agnostic, “undocumented immigrant” is a more favourable rhetorical term for open borders advocates. After all, “illegal immigrant” favours a presumption that there is (and perhaps ought to be) no legal right for such immigrant to be here, and that any authorisation such immigrant receives is a gift at the behest of the natives or authorities. “Undocumented immigrant” does not militate against any such presumption that a right to migrate might exist. “Undocumented immigrant” reminds us that the focus ought to be on the immigrant’s entry not being appropriately documented by the authorities as required by law — and that how we apportion blame for this between the immigrant and the legal system is a subjective question.

I don’t object to the term “illegal immigrant” on grounds of morality or dignity, but I do think it has a tendency to lower the societal status of undocumented immigrants relative to how society actually views them. Thomas Sowell approves of the view that “undocumented immigrant” is about as appropriate a term as “unlicensed pharmacist” would be for a drug dealer. This neat analogy is not nearly so neat as it first appears — something I plan to briefly discuss in a future post. But for now, open borders advocates and those looking for a less-charged term to discuss illegal immigration might remember that undocumented immigrant is no less an appropriate — and actually, I would contend, a far more appropriate — term than illegal immigrant.

Possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders

Please don’t confuse this with the blog post open borders advocates and private charity, which is about a criticism of hypocrisy leveled against open borders advocates.

A while back (November 23, 2012), open borders advocate Bryan Caplan did an immigration charity bleg. His question for his blog readers:

Suppose you wanted to spend your charitable dollars to increase the total number of people who migrate from the Third World to the First World. What approach would give you the biggest bang for your buck? Are any specific countries, organizations, or loopholes especially promising?

Unconventional answers are welcome as long as they’re genuinely effective. Please show your work.

I have been considering this question for a while. On October 27, 2012, I had a Skype conversation with Holden Karnofsky of charity evaluator GiveWell where we discussed related ideas. GiveWell decided not to publish the conversation, as it was too preliminary and tentative, so I won’t go into the details of what was discussed; GiveWell does publish better-quality conversations on its conversations page. More recently (December 7, 2012), Shaun Raviv, blogging for effective giving advocate-cum-charity evaluator Giving What We Can, expressed interest in migration as a way of helping the poor, with the first in a planned series of blog posts published about three weeks ago.

In this blog post, I will discuss various ways to increase migration and/or move towards open borders, drawing heavily on the comment responses to Caplan’s bleg.

Possible different goals people could have in mind

I want to begin with the same caution that I expressed in my own comment on Caplan’s bleg:

I think you need to be a bit more specific on what the goal is. Is the goal to simply increase the quantity of migration from people living in Third World countries, or do you wish to focus on poor people in these countries? Would a reasonably well-to-do graduate student in computer science who wants a job in the IT sector qualify for your concern? Are you okay with guest worker programs that have a return date stamped on them, or do you insist on immigration with no such return restrictions?

How you rank and rate the various ideas presented below, and which ones you consider worthy of further investigation, depends a lot on whether your goal is to increase migration numbers, whether you care about world GDP, whether you place more weight on the same numerical GDP gain concentrated on poorer people, and many other deep questions of ethics. This is one reason I’m not going to try the daunting task of ranking the many options presented.

For the rest of this blog post, I’ll use the term “immigration” to refer to both immigration and temporary movement for students and guest workers, even though that is not technically correct.

Also, just to be clear, I do not necessarily endorse all the ideas here. An evaluation of the pros and cons (moral as well as strategic) of each idea here would make this post far too long. I will discuss the more interesting ideas among these in more detail in subsequent posts, and will be happy to share my views on specific ideas in the comments if you have questions.

Options for increasing immigration without changing or breaking immigration laws

The simplest, most immediate, and least risky (in terms of avoiding trouble with the law) proposition is to attempt to increase legal (authorized) immigration within the existing framework of laws. There are many different visa categories, some of which have strict quantity limits with the limits almost always met. Other visa categories have unfilled quotas on a regular basis, and/or have no quotas. Increasing immigration in the categories that have unfilled quotas or no quantity caps is probably the more fruitful option. Some countries do not have quantity restrictions (or are very far from exhausting the quantity restrictions) but have specific points systems that require specific skills (e.g., Canada). Working to help prospective immigrants acquire these skills might be another path. Anyway, here’s the list of suggestions on Caplan’s bleg that fall in this category:

  • Marriage: Most countries offer essentially unrestricted immigration for the spouses of current citizens, wherever in the world these spouses reside. Encouraging more marriages between Americans (or people in the desired target country of migration) and foreigners might therefore be one method. Two proposals in this regard were made on Caplan’s bleg. daubery:

    For the US specifically, look for people willing to marry foreigners. This is the only immigration route that doesn’t have a hard cap. This could even be profit-making if they agreed under the table to kick back some of their increased earnings. You may need to base your matchmaking service off-shore so as not to have the list of clients fall into the hands of the US immigration force, however.

    Here’s Joe Cushing’s response to daubery:


    There is no way on earth, I’d give a woman, whom I don’t know, the power of the state to use against me by marrying me. Although I suppose an immigrant woman would have a bit less power but divorces don’t go well for men, usually. The state sides with the woman. Even if I got to know these women for a few months, you could never trust the state not to screw you over in the end somehow. The state has really inserted itself into our relationships in an unhealthy way and this is true, even for domestic to domestic relationships. It effects divorce rates, divorce outcomes, and the power structure effects otherwise healthy relationships. Whenever women complain about men fearing commitment; I like to tell them that men don’t fear commitment, men fear the state. A marriage to a man is a completely different risk than it is to a woman. This is why woman can’t understand how we feel.

    With all of this to consider, You should focus on American women who would be willing to marry foreign men. The foreign men would be willing to take the risk. Then again, domestic men would be willing to take the risk to find more attractive women than they could find here. That’s why we have these mail order bride services already.


    What about funding an agency which promotes speed-dating between third-world and first-world citizens?

    As for the ethics of this, I think there is little that is more ethical than to help people circumvent evil laws.

  • Adoption: Although the adoption of foreign infants does suffer from some bureaucratic constraints, this does seem to be a category that does not suffer from numerical restrictions of the kind that other visas do. Adoption is also a solution that even restrictionists (such as Mark Krikorian of CIS) would tend not to oppose, because their chief concern — that immigrants arrive already steeped in a different culture — does not apply to people who are adopted into the country they’re immigrating to at birth or when very young, and who are raised by people who are already steeped in the culture. Nonetheless, there are various obstacles arising from international realpolitik. Here’s a post by Dan Carroll (adoptive father of a kid from Ethiopia), critical of various restrictions on adoption (HT: Bryan Caplan, as usual).
  • Education and specific skills training (including language training) to help more immigrants meet the qualifications to immigrate: Lots of suggestions of this sort on Caplan’s bleg. Neal:

    Might not maximize bang/$, but here we go:

    Educational charities (incl universities themselves) who fund people from poor countries to study in rich countries – especially PhDs. They can bypass immigration to an extent as it’s a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn’t directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly.

    For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?

    oneeyedman (excerpt of comment, not the full comment):

    There are probably different answers for different budgets. I suspect that teaching French to African English speaking college students so they can use the Canadian point based immigration system would do it. You could fund French clubs inexpensively and partner with local schools and or professors.

    Motoko responds to oneeyedman:

    “They can bypass immigration to an extent as it’s a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn’t directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly.”

    I’m in an engineering PhD program. The majority of students are foreign. The problem with hiring foreigners for high-caliber work is that they’re culturally and socially illiterate. Maybe 10% of them can overcome this hurdle and get hired in the US.

    But those that can’t… well… they just go back to their home country. They don’t earn half of what they’d earn in the U.S., but they are no longer so poor that they need our help.

    “For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?”

    Good point. We shouldn’t just try to get more people in the States. Generally, we should try to get the needy into better countries that are easy to immigrate to.

    A more cynical approach (that is not suggested by anybody on Caplan’s bleg) is to help foster the creation and expansion of visa mills, which are analogous to diploma mills. While diploma mills offer fake higher education degrees for their credential value to all comers, visa mills offer fake higher education degrees to foreigners to help them get fraudulent student visas. These foreigners can take up small jobs while in the US while allegedly studying, save money, and then either get a permanent job or go home with some saved money. The probable reason is that such visa mills, aside from the ethical issues, are likely to get caught and put in trouble all people who went through the visa mill. Here’s a piece from the CIS critical of visa mills and diploma mills.

  • Better matching of employees with employers: There are some types of employer-sponsored visas for which the quotas are not completely filled, and for these, organizations that better help match employers and employees could be useful. This is particularly the case for relatively “unskilled” jobs, where employers and employees are less likely to already be connected through educational and Internet-based networks. An example is CITA (Independent Agricultural Workers Center) which matches farm owners in the US with people in other countries interested in temporary farm work in the US. The temporary worker can then get a H2 visa authorization to work at the farm. They hope to eventually be self-sustaining, but are currently structured as a non-profit and initially funded by donations. Michael Clemens blogged about CITA here. For related content, see our page on migrant labor in the US agricultural sector. There are probably similar opportunities for other countries and other worker types that help reduce the frictional costs of matching employers with employees across huge geographical distances.
  • Other creative workarounds: A few of these are listed at the migration arbitrage business opportunities page.

Making small changes or tweaks to the laws governing legal immigration

Another possible direction is to increase the quotas for legal immigration in various categories, or reduce the qualifications and requirements for those categories, or make other changes that facilitate increased levels of legal migration. I’m talking of small “tweaks” here that operate within the margins of public indifference, for which there is neither much public enthusiasm nor much public resistance. The startup visa might be an example. Effecting such a change, however, does not seem to be an easy task, at least in the US context, because any change in the immigration regime, however slight, is typically held up by demands for “comprehensive immigration reform” where the definition of “comprehensive” varies from person to person, and where the different sides of the debate often have diametrically opposite conceptions of reform.

Another possible area where policy might be more responsive to special interest lobbying while moving along the margin of public indifference is asylum advocacy. Continue reading “Possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders” »

Legal and illegal immigration: complements or substitutes?

The question of predicting what will happen under open borders involves trying to make predictions both about legal (authorized) migration flows and about illegal (unauthorized) migration flows. In this post, I’ll be discussing immigration mainly to attractive immigrant destinations such as the US. Also, for simplicity, I will gloss over the distinction between temporary and long-run migration, although your predictions may differ for these two categories.

Open borders advocates, restrictionists, and economic determinists would be led to different predictions by their different theoretical frameworks for understanding migration:

  1. The hardline economic determinist holds that migration levels are determined, not by the laws for and against migration, but by economic conditions. According to the hardline economic determinist, then, the total amount of migration under open borders would remain roughly the same as under the status quo, but probably a lot of currently “illegal” migration would become legal. In this view, there is one-to-one substitutability between legal and illegal immigrants. While I doubt that too many people are hardline economic determinists, this is a plausible reading of some of their writings, such as this post by Hein de Haas and this article by Jagdish Bhagwati.
  2. Most open borders advocates, as well as moderate economic determinists, hold that under more open borders, the total amount of migration will increase, and the level of illegal immigration will decrease (to near-zero levels — i.e., in the few thousands — under open borders), but the increase in legal immigration levels would more than offset this decline. In other words, legal immigration does substitute for illegal immigration, but it’s not a one-to-one substitutability and total levels of migration are affected by migration policies. For those who take double world GDP estimates as serious, this is the position that is most consistent with such estimates.
  3. Some restrictionists, however, have argued that increases in legal immigration could lead to increases in, or at any rate are unlikely to lead to decreases in, illegal immigration. An article by Washington Watcher for VDARE titled Legal Si, Illegal No? The Treason Lobby Says Immigration Is Inevitable So We Should “Relax And Enjoy It” makes this kind of argument (though it is not central to the post). Washington Watcher first concedes that under truly open borders, illegal immigration would drop to near-zero levels, but still argues that for a halfway solution (considerably expanded, but not unlimited, legal immigration) the quantity of illegal immigration would increase. Washington Watcher identifies two relevant phenomena — camouflage (whereby large quantities of legal migration make illegal migrants less conspicuous) and chain migration (where legal migrants are able to assist friends/relatives in migrating illegally, something that would not be possible if the legal migrants weren’t in the destination country in the first place). The relevant paras:

    A writer I know once had the chance to ask Griswold just how many visas we should give out. He replied that we should give the same number of additional visas to the total number of illegal aliens and that would satisfy demand.

    But this would not stop illegal immigration—in fact. it would increase it.

    Why? One reason is “Say’s Law” , one of the classic economic doctrines. It states that supply creates its own demand. With an unlimited supply of cheap labor, many jobs that would not exist in an advanced economy exist anyway. For example, in Third World countries, someone making what would be considered a middle class income in America can afford several servants. Because labor is more expensive in the U.Ss, servants only work for the very wealthy. But if labor prices went down, more people would hire servants. For the same reason, cheap labor undercuts the development of labor-saving technological innovations.

    Legal immigration also makes it easier for illegal aliens to live in America without detection. In 1960, 99% of the population outside of the Southwest was White or African American. Were it not for the fact that we admitted legal Braceros, then a farmer with hundreds of Mexican laborers would obviously be hiring illegal aliens. But the legal Braceros allowed for the illegal alien Mexican workers to blend in.

    Most illegal aliens would not even think of coming here to begin with were it not for legal immigration. When a Third World peasant sees that a friend or family member who came here legally can live a relatively extravagant lifestyle, they are going to want to come too—regardless of whether they can get a legal visa.

    Finally, there are a lot of people who have no intention of coming into this country illegally, either because they come from law-abiding societies and respect our laws too and/or they are falsely concerned that they might be deported or be unable to get a job.

Which of these comes closest to reality? I’m inclined to support (2), but then, that’s where my bias lies. I think that the phenomena observed by Washington Watcher in support of (3) are real and genuine phenomena, but I don’t think that these would be quantitatively sufficient to override the effects of (2). Particularly in the context of the United States, considering that the US already has large numbers of people of different ethnicities, camouflage is already almost fully operational, and so the marginal gains in camouflage through additional legal migration are probably not too high.

That being said, the phenomena observed by Washington Watcher might be important in the context of a country that has extremely closed borders, like Japan, to the point that there could be a significant increase in camouflage effects through increases in legal migration. If, for instance, Japan allowed substantially more legal migration from Vietnam, then the camouflage and chain migration effects might lead to more illegal migration from Vietnam as well.

Are illegal immigrants job thieves?

The nomenclature for illegal immigrants page on this site has a summary of the major terminological battles about the labeling of people who cross borders illegally or overstay their visas. Restrictionists prefer to use the term “illegal alien” which is sometimes shortened to “illegal.” Among the criticisms that have been raised regarding this term is that, even if you care a lot about the legal versus illegal distinction and are unimpressed by the moral and practical counter-arguments, it is still inaccurate to call a person an “illegal” because illegality refers to an action rather than to a person. The argument is made, for instance, in this article on Diversity Inc.

Sophisticated restrictionists would no doubt counter that, obviously, discerning thinkers on the issue can understand the difference between illegal presence in a particular country and being an illegal person. Thus, when language change advocates argue against the use of the word “illegal” they are underestimating the intellectual sophistication of the people using these terms. This may well be the case, but I find at least one piece of evidence that points in the other direction: the use of the term “job thieves” for those illegal immigrants who find jobs.

I first encountered the term in a fascinating and illuminative piece by the courageous anti-immigration activist Brenda Walker for VDARE titled Sign Of “Improved Economy”—Media Happily Proclaim Illegal Mexicans Are Coming Again. (Walker is an outspoken critic of murders and other crimes committed by illegal immigrants and maintains a website here that sheds light on this important issue. While I’m sympathetic to criticism of violent and property crime, and admire Walker’s courage in raising this issue, I’m more skeptical of her singling out immigrants, particularly considering that the statistics suggest that she could better achieve her noble goal of reducing crime by broadening her focus to include crimes by US natives. But that’s a minor quibble).

In her piece, Walker uses two interesting terms for illegal immigrants that I hadn’t encountered in the past: “pests” and “job thieves.” I was naturally curious about the extent to which this terminology was unique to Walker. Turning to Google, I discovered that “pest” as a synonym for illegal immigrant was quite rare. In fact, the only other use of this metaphor I could find was a Yahoo! Answers question. I will therefore refrain from critiquing this choice of terminology, because I share Bryan Caplan’s rule of thumb:

As a rule, I do not respond to positions that are neither plausible nor popular.

However, “job thieves” seems to be a relatively popular description of illegal immigrants, so it would be incumbent upon me to respond to this choice of terminology. A quick Google search reveals many hits for “illegal immigrants” “job thieves” and a cursory glance suggests that about half these hits are written by people supportive, rather than critical, of the term. Continue reading “Are illegal immigrants job thieves?” »

Are immigration restrictionists pirates?

Restrictionists frequently criticise unauthorised immigration by insisting on respect for the rule of the law. Dodging questions about the justness or reasonableness of immigration law, they continue to insist the law must be respected, independent of any concerns one might have about ethics or practicality. I wonder, then, if these same people have never illegally downloaded anything in their lives.

The parallels between intellectual property theft and immigration are rather interesting. As currently structured, both intellectual property and immigration laws are:

  • Difficult to enforce
  • Rarely consistently enforced except in extremely totalitarian states
  • When enforced, enforced quite arbitrarily
  • Considered unreasonable and/or unethical by many
  • Routinely disregarded by many, both in the developed and developing worlds

All the arguments for rounding up all “illegal immigrants” in the world and deporting them, as well as “tightening” border controls, are equally applicable to intellectual property laws. Governments should more seriously pursue those who illegally download MP3s, books, games, and software. They should take strong punitive action to ensure previous offenders don’t enjoy the fruit of their offenses, and strong preventive action to ensure nobody can offend these laws again. Consider the enforcement parallels:

  • Deport them all
    • Wipe all their hard drives
  • Build a wall
    • Shut down every filesharing website, including YouTube, Facebook, Google, etc.

You may think I’m kidding, but these enforcement parallels exist: when my alma mater finds a student has been using their wireless internet to illegally download or share files, they make them bring in their computer for a scan to ensure all offending material has been deleted. Automated copyright enforcement schemes even took out NASA’s live video feed, when a false positive led YouTube to declare NASA’s live video had violated the copyright of Scripps Local News.

My personal views of intellectual property law are irrelevant to the parallels I’ve drawn here (though if you’re curious, it’s somewhat close to my view of immigration law: quite clearly inadequate and unjust, but some restrictions will remain administratively necessary for the foreseeable future). Whether you support or oppose the current intellectual property legal regime, the parallels are clear to see. What I want to know is, have restrictionists never downloaded something illegally? Never watched a video on YouTube that wasn’t the uploader’s to upload? Never viewed a webcomic or read a PDF that wasn’t the sharer’s to share?

If restrictionists take their own arguments about the rule of law seriously, they should scrupulously avoid benefiting from the flagrant violations of the law entailed by what we consider day-to-day usage of the internet. It doesn’t matter how unreasonable or unenforceable the law is — the law is the law. Sure, piracy isn’t physically stealing from anyone — and neither is crossing an imaginary line some people drew on a map, for that matter. Besides, it’s not like you’re giving up the job that can pull you out of poverty, or giving up all hope of living with your family — all you’re giving up are movies, TV shows, books, and music which you can and should be paying for already. If restrictionists defending the “rule of law” want to be taken seriously, they can start by showing us the way forward in respecting the world’s copyright laws.