Tag Archives: NumbersUSA

Incentives to be accurate about what forms of enforcement work

Does “self-deportation” (also known as attrition through enforcement) work, if the goal is to cut down on (unauthorized) immigration? For those who want to cut such immigration down, this is a key question to answer. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA, CIS and VDARE have generally taken the stance that attrition through enforcement is a workable strategy (see here, here, and here). The Immigration Policy Center, on the other hand, has argued otherwise.

I laid out hints of my own position on the matter here and here. Briefly put, yes, attrition through enforcement does work, but it also imposes costs and collateral damage on citizens/residents. After some reflection, though, it occurred to me that even without knowing much about the details, one would be led to suspect this.

I begin with the assumption that restrictionists actually want to achieve what they say they want to achieve — that there should be less future immigration (legal and illegal) and that most current illegal immigrants should leave the country. It is, of course, possible that people like Mark Krikorian don’t really want their stated agenda to be implemented, because it would make their jobs as restrictionist advocates superfluous. I find this unlikely, because it seems to me that restrictionists are generally extremely talented people who can find employment in a number of areas that involve the skillful and convincing presentation of a weak case — as lawyers, political aides, or lobbyists — and that their sticking to the relatively less lucrative area of immigration restrictionism is at least partly explained by genuine conviction.

If restrictionists sincerely want what they say they want, this means that their incentives are very much aligned towards determining how to achieve it. Thus, when they evaluate policies like attrition through enforcement and border security, they’re probably the best judges of the effectiveness of these policies.

On the other hand, open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups don’t want immigration enforcement (for the most part) to succeed — or at any rate, not without corresponding liberalizations of immigration policy. Their incentives, therefore, are not well-aligned towards an unbiased evaluation of the success or failure of these policies. To an extent, they face conflicting incentives. If they see a particular enforcement measure that is cheaper and more “effective” at achieving restrictionist ends, do they acknowledge this — and end up providing free service to the restrictionist cause — or disingenuously deny it, coming up with reasons against? I suspect that this is a very real dilemma, and many immigrant rights groups resolve it by fooling themselves into thinking that the effective methods of enforcement are ineffective. It’s similar to how drug use legalization people might feel at being asked to evaluate the effectiveness of drug raids at imprisoning drug users.

For these reasons, you’d see why one might have a strong prior that restrictionists would be more likely to have figured out the best methods of achieving their goals than open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups.

Nonetheless, there is another side to the picture: cost and collateral damage. Here, the incentives for restrictionists are bad. Without knowing the details, one would be led to suspect that restrictionists would systematically underestimate the cost and collateral damage of their proposed methods to citizens and natives. The reason is that hardcore restrictionists have a much higher preference for getting rid of illegal immigrants than the general public, so in order to sell their message to a relatively less (but still highly) restrictionist public, they’d need to underplay the collateral costs of their policies. On the other hand, immigrant rights and open borders advocacy groups would be quick to point out the collateral damage to citizens, and run sympathetic stories of citizens, authorized immigrants, and tourists on valid visas getting detained and harmed by over-enthusiastic enforcement.

My own take on this matter is that the best response for a hardcore open borders advocate to discussions of what forms of enforcement work is to first acknowledge that his/her own complete disagreement with the end goal makes him/her an extremely bad person to consult regarding the means to be used towards that end. One can think of this almost in the sense of a “conscientious objector” who refuses to participate in a system that his/her conscience goes against, or a person who refuses to testify against himself/herself in court. If it is necessary to offer an opinion, there are two alternatives. The first is to be genuinely honest about what forms of enforcement work, but argue that something “working” does not mean that you endorse it. The other alternative is to deliberately dissemble about what forms of enforcement work. While the former is more intellectually honest, I suspect that one can make a case for the latter from a consequentialist point of view, at least in the rare cases that one’s opinion could actually influence or shape immigration enforcement. At any rate, however, the trade-off between intellectual integrity and a conscience that forbids lending support to a policy one perceives as evil should be undertaken consciously rather than out of a reflexive desire to disagree with restrictionists.

UPDATE (March 31, 2014): When I wrote this post, I was broadly of the view that interior enforcement is more effective than border enforcement. However, this blog post by Alex Nowrasteh cites a literature sumary by the Council of Foreign Relations that suggests the opposite. Assuming this summary is correct, restrictionists’ focus on interior enforcement seems puzzling, and the broad claim of this post might well be misguided or false.

“Pro-immigrant” restrictionists — the fine print

NOTE: This post is mostly US-specific, but some of the observations may also apply in other countries. I don’t have enough knowledge to comment about other countries.

The US’s leading restrictionist think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies, describes itself on its website as “low immigration, pro immigrant.” NumbersUSA, another restrictionist group focused more on having a grassroots influence and affecting the decisions of policy makers, also makes it clear that it opposes immigrant-bashing. And John Tanton, the man who helped found and raise funds for CIS, NumbersUSA, and FAIR, clearly describes himself as “pro immigrant” on his website.

Clearly, the Southern Poverty Law Center is skeptical of such claims, as they note here:

Although the think tank bills itself as an “independent” organization with a “pro-immigrant” if “low-immigration” vision, the reality is that CIS has never found any aspect of immigration that it liked.

Nonetheless, having read the book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal by CIS director Mark Krikorian (which I blogged about earlier here), I think that some restrictionists (though not all) are pro-immigrant. For instance, I was impressed by Krikorian’s thoughtful and detailed response to the civil rights implication of state-level immigration crackdowns. Clearly, Krikorian, and his colleagues at CIS such as Steven Camarota, take seriously the concern that crackdowns on illegal immigration might hurt recent legal immigrants who share the ethnicity of the majority of illegal immigrants.

But they are “pro-immigrant” only in a very specific sense of the word. There is some fine print there, that may not be that obvious to many people who first hear the term “pro immigrant.” In the rest of this post, I will elaborate on the fine print. Continue reading ““Pro-immigrant” restrictionists — the fine print” »

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” »

Accusations of racism in the immigration debate

One of the tactics that many people on the pro-immigration side of the immigration debate adopt is to point out the unsavory “racist” and “eugenicist” associations that some immigration restrictionists have, or might have. I’m going to argue here that focusing on these associations, whether or not they are true, does not do much to advance the case for open borders, and detracts from the substantive debates. Continue reading “Accusations of racism in the immigration debate” »

Roy Beck unwittingly makes the case for open borders

In a video titled Immigration, World Poverty, and Gumballs, Dr. Roy Beck (CEO of NumbersUSA, an immigration restrictionist group) argues for the futility of trying to solve the gigantic problem of world poverty by permitting a trickle of immigration:

Dr. Beck’s goal is to argue against immigration, but a careful reading of his arguments shows that they provide strong support to substantially more open borders as a mechanism to double world GDP and end world poverty.

What Dr. Beck gets right

Dr. Beck is correct to point out that the United States currently takes in a very small number of immigrants, and even the most ambitious currently realistic proposals, which may double or triple the number of immigrants, would still be quantitatively insignificant relative to the size either of the United States or the countries sending immigrants. Further, he is also right that, with the exception of illegal immigration (most of it along the southern border with Mexico) most immigration to the US is that of highly skilled workers, rather than the few billion people who live in moderate and extreme poverty.

Thus, Dr. Beck is right to chide those supporters of the status quo who believe that current US immigration policy is making a significant direct impact on reducing world poverty. It’s not.

What Dr. Beck gets wrong and omits from consideration

Dr. Beck does, however, get a few things wrong. Most importantly, he ignores the fact that the value of an individual escaping poverty and improving his or her condition of life is not reduced by the existence of others in poverty. Saving a single starving child is no less worthwhile an endeavor if there are a hundred other starving children. Consider the story of The Girl and the Starfish (quote from Everything2.com):

Once there was a great, great storm. Waves high as mountains, winds strong as giants.

But that’s not important

What is important is the next day, when Old Man Acha comes walking down the beach, looking for bodies and treasure, the last remnants of ships gone to sleep in the storm. He has to pick his way carefully, ’cause the beach is littered in starfish, castaways from the deep. The storm plucked them from their watery beds and deposited the poor souls on the sandy shore. Acha steps around them – many still alive. He keeps ambling up the beach, minding his own business, when he spies a youngling. She’s throwing starfish into the ocean, many as she can, but still not makin’ a dent in the piles. The Old Man, he wonders at this and says:

“Why bother to throw back any? How can it matter when there are so many? You throw back one, you still left with a ton? You never save them all.”

That little girl she doesn’t even pause to glance his way. She just keeps on flinging those ‘fish back in the sea. She stops only long enough to say:

“It matters to this one”

as she flings it into the ocean.

As noted on the Double world GDP page, a literature summary by Michael Clemens suggests that even partial open borders would lead to a greater increase in world GDP than the removal of all barriers to trade and capital flows. Also, as noted on the end of poverty page, a significant fraction of the individuals from poor countries who escape poverty have done so through migration, even with currently restrictive migration policies. The country-level aggregated statistics often paint a misleading picture due to compositional effects, which is why development economists Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett use income per natural instead of income per resident to track the effect of migration.

Dr. Beck alludes to some of the other harms to immigrant-sending countries, notably brain drain. However, he does not consider all the arguments against worrying about brain drain. And he doesn’t even mention that remittances to poor countries are far bigger in magnitude than all foreign aid.

Finally, Dr. Beck’s argument contains an interesting asymmetry. On the one hand, he dismisses the value of a few million people from third world countries escaping poverty and/or a few skilled workers from third world countries being able to find a job in the developed world that allows them to put their skills to better use for the benefit of the world, based on the logic that these are only a drop in the bucket. On the other hand, he expresses great concern for the even more modest harms to immigrant-receiving countries.

All in all, it’s a great speech, and despite its errors of omission and commission, it does get one thing right: what the United States has today is far from open borders. Something much more radical is needed to make a rapid dent in world poverty. Kudos to Dr. Beck for spreading this important truth!