Tag Archives: path to citizenship

The stability of excluding migrants from the franchise: part 1

One of the main concerns surrounding open borders, or radical immigration liberalization in general, is political externalities: migrants may vote in ways that destroy the prosperity-creating institutions of their destination countries. This would be bad not merely from a citizenist point of view, but could also entail killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, thus leading to an overall decline in global utility. To minimize this (potential) danger, a keyhole solution that has been advocated is to significantly increase the length and complexity of the path to citizenship.

My co-blogger John Lee has argued that open borders can be separated from open citizenship both in theory and practice. My co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his DRITI proposal for migration to the United States, has suggested that migrants have some fraction of their income be stored in a mandatory savings account, and once the amount in the account crosses a threshold, they can become citizens, if they are willing to forfeit the amount to the state. This creates a de facto waiting period as well as what amounts to a citizenship tariff.

Stability and other dimensions

In a previous blog post, I had written that any proposed keyhole solution needs to be evaluated along four dimensions:

  • Moral permissibility
  • Desirability
  • Feasibility
  • Stability

The purpose of this post is to consider the keyhole solution of an extended (or, in the limit, an infinite) waiting period for migrants to obtain citizenship (and hence access to the franchise) along the fourth of these dimensions, namely stability. In other words, I’m asking the question: suppose a political compromise were somehow worked out where a new visa class were created whereby it would be very easy to migrate — temporarily or permanently — but very difficult, or almost impossible, to obtain citizenship, and therefore, to vote. Would such a compromise be stable?

Before I begin discussing this, a few brief words about the first three dimensions. Each of these dimensions is very tricky:

  • Moral permissibility is something that many people would disagree on. Is a society where a large fraction of the resident population is disenfranchised morally permissible? I think it is, for similar reasons as those that John Lee offers in his blog post. But it’s a difficult and contentious issue, as Nathan has noted in the past. So I’ll duck the question entirely in this post. Obviously, one would need to seriously consider moral permissibility before actually advocating or lobbying for such a proposal, but the goal of this post is more limited: let’s first figure out if the solution can be stable! I do think that the keyhole solution is, at any rate, not so obviously morally impermissible as to make it pointless to even study it along the other dimensions.
  • Desirability would depend crucially on what we understand of the research on political externalities and the arguments that free migration might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. My co-blogger Paul Crider recently argued that a lengthy path to citizenship was undesirable, contra co-blogger Nathan. To say something intelligent about this would require a lot of space. Suffice it to say that concerns about political externalities are sufficiently plausible that one can make at least a prima facie case that keyhole solutions should be investigated.
  • Feasibility would be something that depends heavily on the current political climate and the specific country where the proposal is being considered. It’s a topic worth exploring in its own right. I believe it makes sense to investigate stability before investigating feasibility, because one of the arguments for infeasibility is that people (whom one would need to get on board for feasibility) are concerned that the solution (of delaying or denying citizenship) isn’t stable.

Stability and the political tug-of-war

My ultimate goal will be to examine historical instances of disenfranchised segments of the resident population and when, if ever, these segments of the population got to vote. Prior to doing that, I’d like to explore a theoretical framework intended to address the question. The framework begins with the observation that decisions about enfranchisement and disenfranchisement are controlled by the elected governments, and the politicians here are concerned about getting re-elected. Although it is not the only motive, one major constraint affecting what politicians can afford to support is the effect it has on their electoral prospects.

A year ago, I had blegged for which of four possible positions on immigration and US politics readers found most plausible:

  1. Immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans regardless of either party’s position on immigration. In other words, even if the Republicans took a pro-immigration stance, more immigration would still hurt them. The electing a new people argument offered by Peter Brimelow of VDARE has this structure. Mark Krikorian of CIS also makes similar arguments. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Democratic Party.
  2. Immigration good for Republicans, bad for Democrats regardless of either party’s position on immigration. I don’t know anybody who has taken this position, but I’m adding it for logical completeness. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Democratic Party.
  3. Immigration good for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties need to compete to be more pro-immigration, and whichever party manages to be more pro-immigration will benefit more from immigration. This seems to be the view of many open borders advocates and other pro-immigration forces, such as my co-blogger Nathan here and here. This argument naturally appeals to pro-immigration forces trying to simultaneously make inroads into both parties, setting up a “race to open borders” between both parties.
  4. Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties gain from adopting a more restrictionist stance. Restrictionists who are trying to make a broad-based appeal to both parties would find this argument appealing. In this view, the vote of people with restrictionist sympathies matters a lot more than the votes of potential immigrants and their apologists. Thus, whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance will lose a lot more in terms of restrictionist votes, even if they gain a few immigrant votes. Such an argument, if believed, would lead to a “race to closed borders” between both parties. Some restrictionists have made these types of arguments, though they’ve largely focused on (1).

One can consider a similar story with respect to excluding migrants from the franchise. I’ll form the story more generally, since the purpose here is to consider historical examples around the world, not to study modern-day politics. Consider a country with a de facto two-party system where the parties are A and B. Consider the following possibilities for what might happen if migrants excluded from the franchise (under a keyhole solution compromise) were given the franchise:

  1. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party A, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  2. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party B, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  3. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as taking the lead, or being more actively involved, in giving them the franchise.
  4. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as less enthusiastic, or more opposed, to giving them the franchise. One possible story for this is nativist backlash against whichever party is seen to be championing migrants.

In the earlier discussion of Democrats and Republicans, (3) was the ideal position from the pro-immigration perspective, and (4) was the ideal position from the restrictionist perspective. In some sense, the story is flipped now: when trying to judge the stability of the keyhole solution, (3) is the worst possibility (both sides have incentives to compete for granting migrants the franchise), and (4) is the best (each side wants to avoid being seen as friendly to the idea of extending the franchise to migrants). (1) and (2) are intermediate: if it is known in advance that one specific party would benefit by granting the franchise, then the other party would oppose it. If decisions to grant the franchise require supermajorities in the legislatures, and political power is approximately evenly distributed in the legislature, the existing arrangement of denying the franchise would be relatively politically stable.

Although (3) is in some ways the worst for stability, it is plausible to imagine the keyhole solution being stable even if (3) were true, as long as one party had accumulated a huge lead over the other in terms of being seen as friendly to the idea of the migrant franchise. In this case, the other party would need to either expend a lot of effort overtaking its competitor in terms of how friendly it appears to the migrant franchise, or it could just block the legislation to grant migrants the franchise. The latter course of action might well prevail for a fair length of time, if for no other reason than status quo bias.

Stability and feasibility: it’s relative

One plausible argument is that if a keyhole solution were sufficiently feasible as to actually get implemented, it would also be stable. In this view, then, stability is not something to be worried about per se, and all our energies should be focused on the question of feasibility. However, this is not completely satisfactory particularly in the context of the franchise because of the incentives (for members who agree to the original compromise) to later defect and enfranchise the migrants, particularly if (3) is the most valid.

The relevant question (that we will consider for each example we explore) is what, historically, has been relatively easier: liberalizing migration, or enfranchising existing migrants?

Short versus long run: a brief note

The answer to the question of whether a particular electoral arrangement is stable depends to a considerable extent on the timeframe over which the arrangement is considered (as some of the historical examples below, that I’ll discuss in my next blog post, shall clarify). One can critique practically any arrangement by arguing that it will not be stable over the next 100 or 200 years. But such a critique, to be taken seriously, would need to be clarified in at least two ways.

  1. The critique should point out to specific features of the proposed arrangement that make it more unstable relative to other arrangements. It is not enough to point out that the arrangement will be unstable. Even the status quo isn’t particularly stable over a sufficiently long time frame. The world in 2013 looks different — very different — from the world in 1913.
  2. The critique should elaborate on whether the factors that make the arrangement unstable over the long run also affect our assessment of its desirability over the longer run. In other words: does the keyhole solution self-destroy because the problem to which it was a solution became irrelevant? To the extent that this is the case, the long-term instability of the keyhole solution is not a problem. Let’s say, for instance, that a concern is that if migrants are given a quick path to citizenship, then they will vote badly. Somebody proposes a keyhole solution of a lengthy path to citizenship. One might critique such a keyhole solution on the grounds that in a century, most people will be very loath to make any distinctions based on nationality of origin or length of stay in granting citizenship, due to a shift in global values surrounding human rights and the relationship between people and political institutions. This is plausible, but one would simultaneously need to consider whether this changed relationship also nullifies, or at any rate, weakens, the original political externalities concern. On the other hand, if the instability of the keyhole solution arises from factors that make the underlying problem worse (for instance, a world war or large-scale ethnic conflict) then indeed this is a problem.

As Nick Beckstead and Carl Shulman explained, the long run is very important, if we care about humanity without much bias for the present. And the long-run effects of open borders and/or keyhole solutions are very important. To the extent that we can speculate intelligently about these, or even better, make guesstimates, such speculation and guesstimates have considerable value. Nonetheless, we should be wary of the risk of making the future a Rorschach test for whatever we prefer to believe about the world, a point that Will Wilkinson eloquently made in a related context.

What historical examples are useful for understanding the question?

Any arrangement that has persisted for a reasonable length of time in the real world can safely be called stable, concerns of tipping points notwithstanding. There may well be other stable arrangements that have not yet existed in the real world, so this is just a starting point. The most direct evidence in this regard would be historical examples of large non-citizen populations that arose as a result of guest worker programs or illegal immigration, and the extent to which there were pressures to grant citizenship and the franchise to the large numbers of non-citizens that accumulated as a result of these programs.

In my next post, I will look at the following historical examples.

  • In the United States, slavery was ended after the Civil War of 1861-1865. However, blacks (including freed slaves) were de jure and de facto barred from political participation on a significant scale via Jim Crow-era voter literacy tests, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (there were admittedly a number of smaller civil rights acts in the years leading up to that). The arrangement appears to have been stable for a considerable length of time, and does not seem to have attracted any vocal political opposition until the end of World War II, although there were unsuccessful legal attempts to overturn other parts of Jim Crow-era legislation such as enforced segregation. In private conversation, Ilya Somin cited this as an example of how excluding people from the franchise can be stable for considerable lengths of time, and my co-blogger Chris Hendrix cited the same example in an EconLog comment. Is that a justified inference to draw? What other lessons can we draw from this historical fact? (Note that the purpose here is to assess stability, not to discuss the moral permissibility or desirability of the exclusion from the franchise).
  • In relative terms, have pushes for granting citizenship (and hence the franchise) to existing non-citizen residents (including both legal and illegal immigrants) been more powerful than pushes for expanding migration, or less? The answer is not clear-cut, and a reasonable case could be made either way. In the United States, for instance, a typical “comprehensive immigration reform” proposal typically focuses on (a) creating a path to citizenship for existing residents (the pro-immigration side), (b) more resources for enforcement and border security (the restrictionist side). This is what is considered a reasonable compromise. Even expanding high-skilled immigration gets low priority in comprehensive immigration reform bills, and guest worker programs are opposed by both the territorialist left and citizenist right (loosely speaking). On the other hand, “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals rarely make headway anyway (the only major amnesty in the US was in 1986, though Europe seems to have had amnesties on a more regular basis). Expansions of legal migration opportunities have happened in small steps, but more steadily. The evidence is decidedly mixed.
  • Germany has had a large Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program and it has been argued that, for a considerable period of time, there was no political pressure to grant citizenship to these guest workers (a large number of them from Turkey), despite their forming a large mass of possible voters. How true is this? This question is worthy of further investigation.
  • Other examples worth looking at might be: how did the Reform Act of 1867 (enfranchising the British working class and lower middle class), championed by Benjamin Disraeli, affect the electoral landscape in Britain? How did the 19th amendment to the United States constitution (granting women the right to vote), favored mainly by the Democratic Party, affect US electoral politics? How sensitive were the votes of Jews to the perceived anti-Semitism of European parties?

Path to Citizenship vs. Legalization: Let the Immigrants Choose

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) is working toward a compromise on legalization and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.  This issue is the current bottleneck in the immigration reform debate.  Many Republican, Goodlatte included, are skeptical of a path to citizenship for current unauthorized immigrants.  Many Democrats, however, will not support immigration reform unless some unauthorized immigrants are allowed to become citizens eventually.  Could this impasse make immigration reform impossible this year?

Goodlatte’s proposal, as far as we know, would be to grant unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status.  They would then be legally allowed to work and live here but only eligible for a green card or citizenship if they use the existing immigration system.  This proposal would shrink the number of unauthorized immigration who could eventually earn a green card or gain citizenship.

I suggest a third proposal: create two paths toward legal status.

The first path should lead to permanent legal status on a work permit that cannot be used to earn a green card unless the person marries an American or serves in the military (other categories should be considered too).  This path could be relatively easy and cheap, preferably a few hundred dollars to pay for the paperwork processing fee as well as criminal, national security, and health checks.

The second path should be toward a green card and eventual citizenship.  It should probably be similar to the Senate plan, take many years, and cost more money.  This should be the more difficult legalization process but it should not be any more difficult than what is included in the Senate bill.

Creating two paths will allow the unauthorized immigrants themselves to choose the type of legal status they wish to have in the United States.  This also addresses some of the concerns of immigration reform skeptics while actually allowing a path to citizenship that, theoretically, most unauthorized immigrants could follow.  Furthermore, this plan is probably more politically feasible than a one sized fits all path to legal status.  The sooner a reform is passes, the sooner the deportations can stop.

Currently every interest group involved in immigration reform is trying to choose which legal status unauthorized immigrants should have.  The unauthorized immigrant should instead be able to choose for themselves.  Ever more complex legalization and path to citizenship plans of the type Goodlatte will propose will not accommodate most of the 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants here.  Several paths toward legal status should be created and the unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to choose for themselves.

How Undocumented Organizers Can Lead the Way to Open Borders

My perspective on open borders has been profoundly shaped by my work with undocumented organizers in the U.S. In this post, I make the argument that the people most directly affected by closed borders are best able to create the political conditions necessary for open borders because:

1. They have the most to lose and therefore work the hardest for change,

2. They can better analyze the issues and frame the arguments in support of open borders because they directly experience the consequences of closed borders, and

3. Because of 1 and 2, affected individuals are more persuasive messengers to the voting public than intermediaries.

Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that meaningful social change comes through the creation of tension in an untenable system. In a recent OB post, Paul Crider cited King:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. . . . The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

King’s key insight found expression in the movement for Indian independence, the U.S. civil rights movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the Arab Spring.

Undocumented youth in the U.S. have created tension by engaging in direct action to force the fact of their oppression into the public consciousness. The two most significant political events relating to immigration in the U.S. in the past few years were the DREAM Act vote in December 2010 and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative announced by President Obama in June 2012. Both resulted in large part from direct action by undocumented activists.

Undocumented Youth Push the DREAM Act to a Vote

Before 2010, immigrant rights barely registered with progressives, liberals, and libertarians who weren’t directly affected by the issue. In the 2009-2010 legislative session, with solid majorities in both houses of Congress and in possession of the White House, the Democrats didn’t even introduce a bona fide comprehensive immigration reform bill in either house of Congress until after it was clear it wouldn’t be voted on. Most Democrats preferred not to talk about immigration, much less push bills through Congress.

In early 2010, the debate around Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, started to change the conversation on the left. The vote on the DREAM Act in December 2010 further engaged mainstream progressives, who began to learn about immigration and started to pick a side. Even though the bill failed, undocumented youth emerged from the vote as the most visible and empowered segment of the immigrant rights movement.

It wasn’t preordained that the DREAM Act would be voted on at all. In early 2010, the national immigrant rights advocacy groups, then almost exclusively citizen-led, opposed bringing the DREAM Act up for a vote as a standalone bill. Their reasoning was that, having garnered solid bipartisan majorities in the past, the DREAM Act had to be bundled with comprehensive legislation as a sweetener so the larger bill could pass. They also believed that a failure on DREAM would doom any other immigration legislation for the foreseeable future. The advocacy groups told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to hold the DREAM Act in committee, and the CHC communicated the message to Democratic leadership in Congress. The White House was almost entirely disengaged from immigration reform efforts at this time.

By early 2010, some undocumented youth activists were fed up with the hesitance and dissimulation coming from those purporting to speak for them. Through a series of direct actions, including a sit-in in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, Reid changed course and agreed to bring the DREAM Act up as a standalone bill. This account of Reid’s conversion from restrictionist to immigrant advocate appeared in the New York Times recently.

But this is what really happened during the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections.

Even though Reid had been mobilized through electoral politics, most Democrats in Congress were still stuck in a reactive mode. Reid couldn’t bring the Democratic caucus into line on the DREAM Act vote, losing five Democratic votes, which killed the bill given overwhelming Republican opposition.

Rubio Challenges Obama on Immigration and Fails

June 2012 marked another turning point. The GOP presidential primaries were in full swing, with each candidate trying to outdo the next in declaiming immigrants. Obama had little to fear from the Republican candidates themselves. Latinos were not likely to vote for the GOP given the party’s hard turn against immigrants over the previous decade. The question was whether Latino voters would turn out for Obama in sufficient numbers to push him over the top in swing states like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. Obama’s mass deportation campaign, then in its fourth year, was hurting him with Latino voters.

In the spring of 2012, Senator Marco Rubio floated a proposal for a Republican DREAM Act. Observers speculated that Romney might try to undo the damage he’d caused with Latino voters in the primary by selecting Rubio as his running mate, and Rubio seemed to be working towards that outcome with his DREAM Act proposal. Rubio consulted directly with undocumented youth activists about the bill, acknowledging that their support would be crucial to his effort.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), an undocumented youth group formed by the activists who led the first undocumented civil disobedience actions in 2010, came out early in favor of the Rubio proposal. United We Dream, the other, larger national undocumented youth organization, followed suit. Rubio had presented a way for the GOP to get out of the corner it had painted itself in with the Latino electorate. Obama was feeling pressure.

Then in early June, undocumented youth began staging sit-ins at Organizing for America offices in Oakland and Denver. Days later, President Obama announced the most significant immigration policy reform in over a decade: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The policy tracked the requirements of the DREAM Act, and offered formal protection from deportation to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. With DACA, Obama neutralized whatever momentum for the GOP the Rubio proposal had sparked. The predictable backlash against DACA from Republicans, along with the ongoing public theater around Arizona SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant state bills, sealed a lopsided majority of the Latino vote for Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

Without the last several years of youth activism, there would have been no comprehensive immigration bill, as flawed as it is, passing last month in the Senate with a unified Democratic caucus and 17 Republican votes. There would be no generally-acknowledged connection between the future of the Republican Party and its position on immigration policy. Democrats would still be running from the issue or trying to out-enforce the Republicans. Obama likely wouldn’t have beaten Romney in the Latino and Asian-American vote by the margins that he did. Even had Obama won, the election results wouldn’t have been connected to a major immigration policy closely identified with the President–DACA–because the policy wouldn’t have existed without the organizing efforts that forced the President’s hand.

Documented and Afraid

Driving much of the change over the past few years has been a strategy developed by undocumented youth of publicly identifying themselves as undocumented and encouraging others to do so. The concept of “coming out” as undocumented and unafraid was adapted from the LGBT rights movement by LGBT undocumented activists. “Coming out” is an enormously effective strategy, but early adopters risk harsh penalties for challenging the dominant paradigm. As undocumented activists came out, they presented a different immigration narrative than the public had seen. Citizens came to realize that undocumented youth were not much different than their children or peers. Other undocumented youth saw those who had come out and were empowered to come out themselves. This had a ripple effect that rapidly changed the narrative about undocumented youth. The feared repercussions–deportation of those who exposed themselves as undocumented–never materialized.

Initially, most citizen advocates discouraged activists from being public about their undocumented status. “Know your rights” training sessions held by community organizations teach undocumented people never to disclose their immigration status to the police. Lawyers, advocates, and legislators have gone to great lengths to discourage undocumented activists from participating in civil disobedience actions, usually out of a misguided desire to protect the activists from themselves. Undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has talked about how most of the people he consulted before writing his seminal “coming out” piece in the New York Times in 2011 discouraged him from publishing it.

Not only did documented advocates fail to formulate effective organizing strategies, many actively tried to prevent undocumented activists from carrying out their own plans. While often based in good intentions, these efforts to suppress the political expression of oppressed people are patronizing and disempowering. This problem is caused by diverging incentives. Citizen advocates are not themselves at risk of harm, though some have loved ones who are at risk. Immigration lawyers like me–including those at legal services nonprofits–get paid whether we are fighting deportations or helping people apply for status; that is, whether immigration reform passes or not. Advocacy organizations can get funding for immigration work, whether to promote immigration reform or to implement it.

Undocumented activists were driven to riskier tactics out of desperation. Not long ago, ICE was routinely deporting all undocumented youth regardless of the balance of equities in individual cases. The risks the activists took in exposing themselves were real and extended to their families.

Citizen advocates are not only not the best immigrant rights analysts or strategists, but also not the best messengers. Over the past several years, I have appeared in my role as lawyer on panels or at interviews along with undocumented activists. Invariably, the interviewer’s or audience’s interest is drawn to the person who is herself affected, who herself risks imprisonment just by being there. For years, organizations and legislators have told the stories of clients or constituents to generate public support for immigration reform. On this, there is a fine line between empowerment and tokenism. Too often, advocates fail this test.

Leading the Way

Moving forward, affected people must continue to create the political conditions that will make better legislation possible. Momentum is on the side of the reformers. U.S. immigration laws are selectively and arbitrarily enforced. Counterintuitively, those who defy the immigration regime most publicly are the safest from deportation. This tells us that the legal system has become disconnected from the moral and political spheres. Citizen advocates and allies can play an important supporting role in reform efforts, but should not take the lead. If they do, they risk forestalling change yet again.

If Congress approves anything like the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last month, opportunities for citizen civil disobedience will proliferate. For instance, citizens could unlawfully help deported immigrants re-enter the country or knowingly and publicly employ unauthorized workers. The more that citizen allies risk, the more moral authority they will wield. But few will have the incentive or resolve to risk long-term imprisonment–I know I don’t.

Most Americans are taught early on that U.S. democracy is principled, ordered, and fair. Opposing views on a topic are aired and consensus develops. Policymakers respond to and are held accountable by voters. While there were some hiccups in the past (slavery, Native American genocide) we’ve moved beyond those now.

The reality is that millions of noncitizens in the U.S. are exploited, targeted, and reviled with the sanction of the government and approval of the voting public. The U.S. political system not only produced and produces this result but is incapable of rectifying it. These problems are not unique to this time and place. Institutional systems of oppression are rarely overturned through sanctioned channels. Instead, oppressed people must themselves, through nonviolent direct action, create the political conditions necessary to reform the system.

The undocumented population in the U.S. and around the world is a small fraction of the total number of people profoundly harmed by closed borders. But undocumented organizers may present the best hope for reforming the global immigration and citizenship regime.

Undocumented youth in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to mobilize for legislative change because they are able to navigate U.S. culture while credibly speaking for the larger undocumented community. More than the citizens of most other countries, Americans claim to be willing to accept immigrants who make efforts to assimilate. This gives undocumented youth, who often pass as citizens, moral leverage they would not possess in most other countries.

As children, undocumented youth were promised the opportunities afforded to their citizen peers, finding those promises to be hollow only upon reaching adulthood. Straddling the line between global haves and have nots, undocumented youth in the U.S. personify the contradictions between the stated values of the political-economic order and the actual inequality and injustice that the order perpetuates. They blur that line and hint at the possibility of erasing it. If they are able to connect with victims of closed borders in other countries to organize transnationally, undocumented youth in the U.S. could point the way to achieving open borders on a much larger scale.

Oh, the absurdity of thinking that open borders demands open citizenship

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter in discussing open borders is the casual conflation of open borders with open citizenship. For something I consider an incredibly elementary distinction, this apparently eludes plenty of intelligent people. For example, here is EconLog blogger Art Carden casually saying:

An answer to Bryan’s question about how the government should spend a billion dollars. I’m going to take “give it back to the taxpayers” and “print a few hundred million US passports for prospective immigrants” off the table.

Bryan Caplan is one of the most famous and vocal open borders advocates around; he is Carden’s co-blogger. And yet it apparently seems to have escaped Carden that Caplan has never suggested printing US passports for foreigners. Caplan and the rest of the open borders movement want people to be free to move across borders. And you don’t need a US passport to cross the US border! You just need a valid US visa.

People worried that immigrants are going to abuse their welfare system or cast uninformed votes if we open the borders completely ignore that there are millions of foreigners today who legally cross borders whose access to welfare and the vote are curtailed, if not eliminated, by their visa restrictions. This is true in the US, and it is true in virtually any other country you care to name.

This is why I find the pervasive belief that it’ll be impossible to keep citizenship out of the hands of foreigners so puzzling. Surely people realise that in the US, as in most countries, you don’t need to be a citizen to work or settle now. Why would this change under open borders?

The distinction between open borders and open citizenship is critical. If you assume the first implies the second, you still need to clarify why exactly you believe allowing people to move to your country means you would be forced to give them citizenship. When I raise this distinction, I encounter two types of responses:

  1. A total avoidance of the distinction (i.e. the person persists in assuming you need to be a citizen of a country to live there)
  2. A confident certainty that either:
    1. Immigrants would rise up politically to demand and then acquire citizenship
    2. It would be simply immoral to admit a lot of immigrants and not give them citizenship

For scenario #1, I confess I am lost. It’s possible the fault lies with me in failing to communicate the distinction between passports and visas, between citizen and legal immigrant. But how can we best communicate this distinction? Any ideas?

For the scenarios in #2, let’s use US data, because it’s most conveniently at hand (thank you, my Dartmouth classmate Harry Enten!). In general, only 60% of US legal permanent residents naturalise. For those who were given legal immigrant status by the last major US amnesty, in 1986, only 40% naturalised. In short, almost 1 in 2 legal US immigrants don’t really want citizenship.

And right now, it’s fairly straightforward to acquire US citizenship once you’ve met the simple residency requirement of 5 years; the hardest parts tend to be learning English (if you don’t speak it), learning the material on the citizenship test (a bore, but certainly a doable challenge for most), and putting together the necessary paperwork to show you’re not a criminal, etc. It seems highly questionable to me to claim that these people would have rioted if they’d been admitted legally but under a different, stricter residency requirement.

And on that point, I don’t see any moral reason why the requirement for naturalisation has to be 5 years; it could easily be 15, or even longer. The harm to immigrants from this is minimal. Other than the vote and welfare, most people in the US, lawfully present or not, have identical rights and responsibilities. In fact, the only meaningful harm I can think of is that non-citizens can be deported and citizens can’t be. But the whole point of open borders is that, barring evidence that you are a danger of some kind, you should be able to go where you like. Once we protect non-citizens from arbitrary deportation, the moral harm of raising the bar for citizenship seems almost non-existent. It certainly pales in comparison to the moral harm of keeping people out of your country at gunpoint because you’re afraid letting them in might morally obligate you to throw a blank passport at them.

The question of whether such a moral obligation exists is something worthy of a whole book. But I don’t see a reason why crossing over an arbitrary line should suddenly make people on the other side of that line obligated to give you the vote. Citizenship is fundamentally related to who you are, not where you live, although the two are clearly related. I think most people intuitively understand this, since I don’t see anyone seriously demanding that every person on a student visa or a work permit in a foreign country be permitted to vote there. And I think it shouldn’t be hard to intuitively see that something is wrong with us if we insist on forcefully keeping people jobless and starving because we’re afraid the only alternative is giving them the vote. You don’t need to be a voter to hold down a paying job or rent your own home. So why impose that absurd and arbitrary requirement on someone else?

I am for open borders. I am not for open citizenship. There is a difference, and let’s be clear about that. One is about the fundamental human right to live and work without needing to beg any government for permission to stay in your own home or work for your employer. The other is about the less fundamental political right to cast a vote. The two are not the same, and blurring the difference between them does not serve us well.

Heightening the contradictions

I hope this becomes law and all…

Report: Senate immigration plan sets deportation timeframe

The bipartisan Senate immigration plan would deport immigrants who illegally entered the U.S. after 2011, a Senate aide told Reuters on Friday.

The plan would give most of the approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants a way to stay in the U.S. and eventually seek citizenship — but those who entered the country since the beginning of 2012 would have to leave, according to the staffer.

“People need to have been in the country long enough to have put down some roots. If you just got here and are illegal, then you can’t stay,” the aide said.

The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators is working out the final details of a broad-ranging immigration reform bill, with hopes to unveil it on Tuesday so the Judiciary Committee can begin to examine it on Wednesday. Sources say major policy differences have been ironed out.

“I don’t see, looking forward the next few days, any major barrier in the way,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has led the immigration talks, said earlier this week.

Negotiators had hoped to unveil the legislation this week, but it slipped down the Senate agenda following Wednesday’s announcement of a deal on gun violence legislation.

The bill would increase border security, give unauthorized citizens permanent legal status and offer some a pathway to citizenship after 13 years, increase the number of high-skilled visas and create a guest-worker program for low-skilled immigrants. Both business and labor coalitions have been involved in the negotiations and are still on board.

… but it still leaves large, seemingly unanswerable questions about implementation and justice. First, the 2011 date is clearly arbitrary. No one could claim it was OK to immigrate with documents before 2011 but wrong thereafter. Second, how do you check whether people arrived in 2011 and after? Of course, everyone will have a strong incentive to say they arrived sooner. Third, the same compelling reasons of humanity and commonsense which motivate this amnesty will obviously still be around to motivate future amnesties. Indeed, an amnesty now (sorry for the politically incorrect terminology) will only further undermine the strange 20th-century national socialist notion that it’s somehow morally acceptable to seize by force a person who has done no one any harm, rip them out of their family and community, and ship them off to some country they don’t want to go to just because they happen to have been born there and weren’t issue some document by a consular official with whom none of the parties concerned (friends, relatives, landlords, etc.) are even acquainted. Fourth, because this amnesty will surely create greater expectations of future amnesties, it will increase the incentives for more people to come in anticipation of future amnesties. I’m all in favor of that. I support the amnesty as a means of incentivizing the next wave of undocumented immigration, as much as out of humanity and decent hospitality towards those who have arrived already. But at the end of the day, the norms and values and behaviors and assumptions of a decent society just cannot be reconciled with the practical aspect of migration restrictionism, and amnesty won’t solve the problem, but will only heighten the contradictions.