Tag Archives: moral case

Our Wedding and Immigration Disaster

This post is part of a series by Justin Merrill describing his personal experience with immigration and his embrace of open borders. It is part of our ongoing series of posts that are based on personal anecdotes. The first post in the series is here.

I was a senior in high school when terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001. I was at a critical point in deciding what to do after graduation and decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. I went to boot camp one year after 9/11. After I finished my combat and job training, I was sent to my first duty station in Okinawa, Japan. My time in Okinawa was bittersweet because our command was really strict and paternalistic and my office made me work incredibly long hours. But unlike many of my peers, I made an effort to soak up the culture and experience more of the off-base life than just bars. As mentioned in my previous post, I was raised around Japanese exchange students and I also did karate as a kid, so my starting level of Japanese was basic, but higher than most (counting and common phrases).

Eri, my future wife, and I met and started chatting through Yahoo Messenger in 2003. She is from Toyota, Japan (yes, where they make the cars), which is on mainland Japan. Okinawa is a tropical island far to the south, sometimes called the “Hawaii of Japan”. Our relationship was more of a friendly pen pal nature, mostly because there wasn’t any expectation of meeting in the future. I also was opposed to having a serious relationship while in the Marine Corps because I saw how high the strain of military life is on relationships. My tour in Okinawa was only one year and a vacation to visit her wasn’t practical. Eri spoke English well because she was an exchange student in North Carolina for two years and studied English in Australia after graduating from high school. We kept in touch over the years and got to know each other pretty well. After my year in Okinawa, my final duty station was in the Washington, DC area for the remainder of my term. Even though I was raised on the west coast, I liked the DC area so much that I decided to stay there after I got out. I shared an apartment with my newlywed friends and was putting down roots on my terminal leave when Eri told me that she would be visiting her host family that she lived with while in North Carolina. I pointed out that the timing was perfect and that we should meet up. We agreed to spend three weeks together and instantly hit it off. A week after we met we decided to get married. We spent a week in NYC, a first for both of us, during Christmas and New Year’s and bought our wedding rings in the Diamond District. Our families were both very happy for us, but I didn’t want to do a shotgun wedding. I wanted to meet her family first and have the ceremony in Japan, especially since we are both Buddhist and Eri’s mom’s temple offered to perform the ceremony. So we arranged to have receptions in Toyota and Utah for both our families. The wedding was scheduled for February. Eri’s tourist visa would expire soon so she returned to Japan to start planning the wedding and I began looking for a new apartment in DC for us to move in to after the receptions.

Before our wedding, in order for our marriage to be recognized in the States, we had to get a marriage certificate from the US embassy consulate in Osaka, which is pretty far from Toyota. The only day that happened to fit in our busy schedule was Valentine’s Day. We chose against having the wedding on Valentine’s Day because it seemed too cheesy, but our marriage certificate states we were legally wedded on that day. Now we celebrate our anniversary on Feb. 14th and tell people we were “accidentally” married on that day. Only my mom could attend on my side of the family, but our wedding and reception in Japan were great. Her family helped pay for an extravagant celebration and all her friends and family came and supported us. It’s not common to marry a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan. After the wedding we had a honeymoon of sorts and stayed with Eri’s friends, Phil and Yukako, who attended our wedding and who were a couple like us (former Marine husband and Japanese wife). Eri was an exchange student in North Carolina with Yukako and they became best friends; it’s funny they would both marry Marines. Phil was working as a civilian on the Marine Corps Air Base in Iwakuni, which is far to the south. After spending time with them, Eri and I were to fly to Utah to prepare for our reception for my family.

For some reason, I think because I was using a Delta buddy pass, we had to fly on different flights and I arrived a couple days before her. Fortunately I bought ourselves new cell phones and added her to my plan before I left, since we were planning on living in the States. As I was on my way to pick her up in Salt Lake City she texted me that she wouldn’t be arriving and was being taken into custody. She had a layover and her port of entry was Minneapolis, MN. When she went through customs they were suspicious because she had recently visited the States. They searched her luggage and found wedding photos and deduced that she was trying to live in the US. They took her into custody and interrogated her for hours, even playing a good cop/bad cop routine, while I was standing at her terminal, horrified by the nightmare that was beginning. They denied her entry and put a flag on her passport so that she could not reenter the States until we went through the process and got her green card. We later discovered that this was incorrect; she would not be able to enter the country under any condition, something that would have been nice to know before we went through the entire process. Luckily we found a loop hole.

Eri was flown back to Japan through Holland. She spent over three days straight on an airplane without a chance to even shower. With only days until our reception, we were trying frantically on both ends to find a way to get her into the country. She went back to the embassy consulate in Osaka and I was contacting my representative and USCIS. Unfortunately there was nothing they could do. They said there was no discretion on this matter and no way to even allow her to temporarily visit for our reception. This close to the reception it was impossible to cancel. Her parents could attend and it was nice that our families could meet, but it was sad that it was under these circumstances. My mother-in-law served as a substitute bride and cut the cake with me. We made the best of the situation.

The stressful part would be to decide what to do next. Fortunately I wasn’t so rooted that I was able to sell off my belongings, cancel and get a refund on my deposit for our new apartment, and cancel our phone plan. I had to sell my recording studio (I started a record label) and back out of a real estate foreclosure deal that would have earned me $200k, but I couldn’t find a lawyer to be my agent while I was out of the country. I mailed the rest of my belongings to our friends, Phil and Yukako. We devised a plan where I could get a job on base before my tourist visa expires and the base would sponsor my visa and let me stay in Japan. I had to take the first job I could get and move up from there, but it was worth it. Eri and I got our own little house and started our new lives together in Iwakuni, Japan.

We both sacrificed a lot, but we just wanted to be together. We were young and naïve and didn’t even know we were breaking the law. We thought that getting a spouse visa was as simple as applying after you entered on a tourist visa (turns out that’s exactly how I did it in Japan). It’s not like she was intending to overstay her visa. We were so busy planning and traveling that we didn’t properly research and the immigrants I did consult immigrated to the US before 9/11 and their information was out of date. I was shocked how they treated Eri like a criminal or terrorist, she was only twenty years old and didn’t fit the profile. I was also surprised at how the policy overrode common sense. It was actually harder for Eri to enter the country because she was married to me. The immigration policy ended up costing us a lot of money, hardship, and productivity and career opportunities over the years, and I must say it felt unnecessary.

Here’s the next post in the series.

Some related background and links (added by our editorial team)

A United States visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. All it does is allow the holder to travel to the United States and present himself or herself at a port of entry. The officer at the port of entry has discretionary authority to deny admission if the officer suspects immigrant intent or other violations of the terms of the visa.

Nationals of about 50 countries (including Japan, where Eri was from) are eligible to enter the United States for short term business and pleasure trips through the Visa Waiver Program. VWP entries are treated similarly to entries made while on a B1/B2 visa. A person can be denied entry based on the VWP or B1/B2 visa if it transpires that the person intends to transition to a long-term non-immigrant or immigrant status. It is also not generally permissible for somebody in the US on VWP or B1/B2 travel to transition while within the United States to a long-term non-immigrant status (such as F student status or H-1B status) or immigrant status (that Eri would have been eligible for as the wife of a US citizen).

Some related reading on denial at a port of entry:

  • Friend, relative, etc. denied entry to the U.S., U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
  • DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP), United States Department of Homeland Security.
  • At the U.S. Border or Airport: What to Expect When Entering. Entering the U.S. may not be easy, even with a valid visa in hand. (NOLO.com).
  • A Tale of “Voluntary Departure” from the Comments by Bryan Caplan, EconLog, August 22, 2011, quoting Tim Worstall:

    Having been caught up in the US system once “voluntary departure” is anything but.

    On entering the country on a 10 year, multi-entry, business visa (I owned a small business in the US at the time) immigration officials decided that I should not be allowed to enter.

    I was not allowed legal representation of any kind. I was interviewed and then the notes of the interview were written up afterwards (ie, what the officer remembered he and I had said, not what was actually said).

    I refused to sign such misleading notes. I was told that if I did not I would be deported, my passport declared invalid for travel to the US for the rest of my life.

    So of course I signed and then made my “voluntary departure” which included being held in a cell until the time of my flight, being threatened with being handcuffed while going to the flight and the return of my passport only upon arrival in London.

    My 10 year multi entry visa had of course been cancelled. My attempts to get matters sorted out, so that I could visit my business, were rather hampered by the way that the interview notes which I had signed under duress were taken to be the only valid evidence by the INS (as was) that should be discussed when deciding upon visa status.

    I lost the business and haven’t bothered returning to the country in the more than decade since.

    There is no law, evidence, representation nor even accurate recording of proceedings in such “voluntary departures”. It is entirely at the whim of the agents at the border post. I was actually told by one agent “I’m gonna screw you over”.

    Something of a difference from what’s scrawled over that statue in New York really. And I’m most certainly not the only business person this sort of thing has happened to.

Some other general reading:

UPDATE: Victoria Ferauge, who has previously written a guest post for the site, wrote a post on her personal blog titled A US Immigration Tale commenting on the story:

In the last paragraph of his post I can hear his bitterness at how his wife was treated.

We were young and naïve and didn’t even know we were breaking the law. We thought that getting a spouse visa was as simple as applying after you entered on a tourist visa (turns out that’s exactly how I did it in Japan). It’s not like she was intending to overstay her visa. We were so busy planning and traveling that we didn’t properly research and the immigrants I did consult immigrated to the US before 9/11 and their information was out of date. I was shocked how they treated Eri like a criminal or terrorist, she was only twenty years old and didn’t fit the profile. I was also surprised at how the policy overrode common sense. It was actually harder for Eri to enter the country because she was married to me.

And as I read this I was amazed at how things had changed in just a few short years. Pre-911 my French husband got his Green Card in Seattle. He had landed in the US on one kind of visa and it was just a matter of going down to immigration and filling out the paperwork to get residency status based on his marriage to me, l’américaine. Very simple. No one at immigration so much as blinked twice when we explained what we wanted. The final interview lasted less than 10 minutes. That’s all it took for the very pleasant official to decide that my husband merited a Green Card.

We were just as naive as Merrill and his wife. We took for granted that because we were married, we could choose which country we wanted to live in. And our assumptions proved true at that time.

In this story we can see how a vigorous and punctilious application of immigration law can hurt not only the immigrant but the native citizen as well. Please note that the US not only lost an immigrant, but they forced one of their own into emigrating. Merrill and his wife didn’t get to choose where they wanted to live – they were forced in the direction of the country that would take both of them.

Interestingly enough, that turned out to be Japan – a country that many Americans consider to be unfriendly to immigrants.

Oh, the irony…

UPDATE 2: The post was picked up by MetaFilter and got 34 comments there. Read the MetaFilter thread: my mother-in-law served as a substitute bride.

The photograph featured at the top of this post is of Mario Chavez embracing his wife Lizeth through the US-Mexico border fence at Playas de Tijuana. The original photograph is copyright David Maung, and was published by Human Rights Watch; a higher-resolution version is available at their website.

Just a reminder: here’s the next post in the series.

How do you convince people to sustainably support migration liberalization?

I think open borders is a radical proposal, given how far the world is from it. I also think that open borders (or even partial steps in that direction) will significantly transform the global economy, culture, and society, and the details can’t clearly be predicted. Economists have estimated that open borders will increase global production by 50-150%. Even though I think this might be overstated, I think that even with that overstatement, open borders is still worth pushing for, which is why I’m sticking with it.

If open borders is such a big deal and the consequences are so unclear and uncertain, why should people who are already well off support it? If you lead a comfortable life in the First World and are generally risk-averse, open borders may well not pass a cost-benefit analysis for you. You might gain somewhat economically and in terms of cuisine options, but on the other hand you might see a slight wage dip and have to deal with changes to your neighborhood that you may not like. Even if you gain a bit on net in expectation (and I think there are good reasons to believe that most First-Worlders will benefit from open borders, both as natives of countries receiving migrants and because their own migration options have increased), it may not be enough to get you excited.

Co-blogger Nathan says something similar when discussing differences between the open borders movement and the gay marriage movement:

An important difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that it is widely and plausibly held (though I think it’s a half-truth at best) that same-sex marriage is a victimless reform which will have hardly any effect on the lives of non-LGBT individuals, or for that matter of LGBT individuals who don’t choose to marry. If so, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just cheap talk but cheap action. Open borders, by contrast, will involve, if not perhaps great sacrifice, then certainly great upheaval. Many will benefit– perhaps wisely-designed policies could even ensure that everyone benefits— but lives and societies will be transformed. That doesn’t alter the fact that saying one is for open borders is a cheap and easy way to display one’s virtue and benevolence.

Economic illiteracy and xenophobia probably explain a large part of why the world is far from open borders, but even if you get rid of these, open borders simply isn’t an exciting proposition for many reasonably well-off First Worlders from a purely self-interested and risk-averse perspective. What I mean by this is that, if open borders were to become the status quo, they’d probably get used to it and be quite okay with it over a long timeframe. But it’s not something whose benefits are huge, tangible, and clear.

For me in particular, open borders is interesting because of its global impact (undoubtedly, I would likely personally benefit from it, but not enough to justify all the time and effort I’m spending on it). But most people aren’t that interested in global impact. They (rightly or wrongly) care about their personal lives and their neighborhood (hence all the focus on territorialism, local inequality aversion, and the border as blindfold). They may bear no ill-will to foreigners but aren’t particularly concerned about them.

Given that freeing up migration often involves changing policy in receiving countries, how do we overcome people’s apathy/risk-aversion, even assuming we could overcome the arguably bigger problems of economic illiteracy and xenophobia? What’s a sustainable way of doing this? In this post, I discuss three strategies:

  • Glossing over harms and exaggerating benefits
  • Buying support
  • Moral inspiration

After discussing them, I outline my own ideal strategy mix. Continue reading “How do you convince people to sustainably support migration liberalization?” »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let them come: treasuring the immigrant legacy of Thanksgiving

US President Barack Obama’s announcement of deferred deportation for millions of irregular migrants is a wonderful gift for many American families this Thanksgiving, whatever the greater (de)merits of his executive action. Truly, the biggest regret one might have is that Obama did not go far enough. Or to put it in the way only an Onion headline can, “5 Million Illegal Immigrants To Realize Dreams Of Having Deportation Deferred.”

As I’ve written, no sane person can defend the immoral persecution which most of these immigrants living in the shadows unjustfly face. But if you haven’t considered the issue well enough, you might unfortunately produce such dross as this cartoon that recently ran in the Indianapolis Star:

Indianapolis Star anti-amnesty cartoonIt is truly curious to me that the main reaction of the mainstream media was to label this as racist. The Indianapolis Star actually initially responded to criticism by removing the immigrant’s mustache and republishing an otherwise identical cartoon! Of all the the things wrong with this image, race is the last thing I would single out. The problem isn’t inherently its depiction of race relations; if anything, it’s hard to say without knowledge of the political context what the ethnicity of that immigrant might be. The problem is inherent to this image’s portrayal of how immigrants actually conduct themselves in society.

Now, the basic idea of this cartoon is pretty simple: immigrants need to ask the government for permission to settle in a new country. Without permission, these immigrants are akin to trespassers. Just as it is wrong for me to set foot in your house without your permission, it is wrong for migrants to set foot on the country’s soil without its government’s permission. In short: illegal immigration violates citizens’ “collective property rights“.

There’s a fundamental problem with this analogy, because it ignores the simple reality that irregular immigrants are not trespassers. After all, what exactly is the problem with me sitting down at your Thanksgiving dinner table, uninvited? The problem is that I am there without your permission.

So where are the immigrants sitting themselves down at dinner tables uninvited? What have they done that is the equivalent of inviting themselves over to stay at your house? The reality is that most immigrants, even those who have entered unlawfully, have done no such thing. You cannot say with a straight face that millions of people have literally invaded the homes of Americans.

The average undocumented immigrant paid for his own passage. Transportation providers — some unauthorised coyotes, others actual bus, train, or airline companies — offered these migrants a seat in return for the market rate. No trespassing or theft occurred; the transportation carriers gladly and willingly offered their services because they were compensated by these migrants. You cannot say these migrants robbed Greyhound by daring to buy a bus ticket.

What next? The migrants settled down, and began looking for work. Again, your average migrant isn’t illegally camping out in someone’s house, or sleeping on the sidewalk: your average migrant is renting a room or a home from someone. It is generally agreed that some one-third of undocumented immigrants in the US actually own their own homes! Whose property were they trespassing on when they paid their rent, or paid the market price for their own home? Who did they steal from?

You may think me obtuse: after all, the answer is that these people trespassed on the land collectively owned by all citizens of the country they’re in. But this frankly ignores the reality that the laws of the US, and most countries, recognise no such concept as collective ownership: if the land belongs to you, John Doe, then you get to decide what to do with it, as long as all applicable real estate, zoning, or tenancy laws are followed. The furthest that most democracies go is limiting the sale of land to foreigners, but in such cases, foreigners remain free to rent their own homes from citizen landlords: after all, the homes belong to the individual citizens, not to the state.

Now, am I saying that there is no public interest in managing the flow of migration, no sovereign authority competent to regulate the flow of people across borders? No; I simply hold that the authority of governments to regulate borders flows from the public interest — not “collective property rights”, which don’t exist outside of communist states which refuse to recognise an individual right to private property.

The invocation of “property rights” as an excuse to dispossess people of property they have paid for in this particular instance is particularly ridiculous, because in no other arena of public life in a modern civilised state do we see such logic trotted out. When the government bans you from building a meth lab in your backyard, nobody says the government is justified in doing this because the citizens that collectively own your land haven’t given you permission to do that. The problem with you building a meth lab on your land isn’t that you failed to obtain the necessary permission from the collective that owns it. The problem is that the public has an interest in not having their own homes burned down if your meth lab explodes.

Immigrants who actually enter with the intention to commit crime, to steal, to trespass on private property — these are immigrants the government ought to detain, punish, and perhaps exclude via deportation. There I think I and the cartoonist have no quarrel. But where we differ is that the cartoonist clearly believes those who enter with peaceful intentions, those who pay for the homes they live in and the food they eat with the wages of their own sweat, are somehow also tantamount to criminal trespassers.

It is as though you tore down the treehouse I built in my backyard, using the lame excuse that some people might build meth labs in their backyards; that if I really wanted to build a treehouse I should have waited eighty years in line for the requisite bureaucratic approvals to prove that I’m not building a meth lab; that if I don’t like waiting eight decades to jump through bullshit hoops just to go about my own quiet business, I still have no right to question this because it’s the public’s land, not my own.

When it comes to travel, there is an obvious public interest in detaining criminals, treating contagious disease-carriers, and deterring invading armies. This is equally true inside a nation’s borders as it might be true outside. The health and security of the populace are obvious public interests where governments have a role to play. To the extent that we might impose restrictions on where someone can travel, these controls are justified not by imaginary collective property rights, but by the defence of the nation against actual threats to public safety and order.

I say, if someone wants to go somewhere in peace, and is willing to pay the required fare, it’s simply none of my business where that person goes. As long as he doesn’t trespass on my home, I have no business interfering with the peaceful conduct of that person. And if that person pays market rent for a home, I certainly have no business telling that person he is a trespasser — that he ought to get out of the home he has already paid the market price for.

It is all the more shameful and regretful that this ignorant, dehumanising cartoon had to mark the festival of Thanksgiving — a traditional American holiday which commemorates the cooperation of Pilgrims who immigrated to North America with the native Americans who welcomed them. In reality, of course the picture is much less rosier than the traditional account; the Pilgrims themselves might have had peaceful intentions, but many other European colonists were certainly more invaders than immigrants. And of course there is something to be said for the accuracy of this depiction, from a New Yorker cover marking Thanksgiving a few years back:

New Yorker cover of Pilgrims as illegal immigrants

But all the same, whatever the evils wrought by invading colonists, the people of the United States today owe their heritage to peaceful immigration. Most of their ancestors — poor Germans, Irish, Italians — came not to steal land, but to rent or buy their own homes in peace, and build a better future for their families through hard work. Thanksgiving is a holiday which at least in the popular imagination marks the American legacy of immigration — and yet ironically, sentiments like those of the Indianapolis Star cartoon endorse Soviet- or Maoist-style collectivism, the antithesis of all that the US stands for!

Amidst all those Americans who will mark this Thanksgiving by complaining about immigrants who have done nothing worse than crawl through sewers for the chance to pay market rent and earn a market wage, I hope at least some might remember the words of another President, one George Washington:

The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.

There was no qualification for who could or should be welcomed, as long as their conduct was decent. Most immigrants conduct themselves no worse than anyone else: they pay the fair price for their homes, and they expect only a fair wage for their labour. There is nothing indecent or improper about that. The janitor in your office and the line cook in your cafeteria are not invading anyone’s home. It disgraces Washington to pretend otherwise — to pretend that paying rent constitutes theft and trespassing.

People say that today is different; that things have changed. That’s not how I see it. People have always used bigotry to justify excluding innocent people from our societies, always ignorantly used prejudice to justify treating common people as though they are criminals. And people struggling to earn the dignity of a better life with honest labour have always been willing to risk it all for their dreams of a better tomorrow. It is as true today, and as true for people of all creeds and colours, as it has ever been:

Liu said he was happy to hear what his children told him one day about American history that they studied at school: “America was actually founded by people like dad who was unhappy with his home country and decided to take a boat to come to America.”

Liu said, “I heard their boat was called the May Flower. Mine was called Golden Venture.”

There may be much to regret in the history of Thanksgiving — in how many European newcomers to the Americas came as invaders, rather than peaceful immigrants. But all the same, the legacy of Thanksgiving is one of freedom of movement, freedom to search for a better life wherever your peaceful ambitions may lead you.

I am not American myself, but I am grateful today that I at least have the unearned privilege of being able to live in peace in the US. I am grateful that America’s legacy of open borders defended moral decency and civilisation from the depravity of dictatorship during World War II; that, as my German colleague Hansjoerg Walther says, American open borders changed the course of world history. I am thankful for the truly American legacy of open borders:

Haudenosaunee protest new border regulations

To all my American friends, happy Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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