Tag Archives: personal anecdote

A Somali-Swede’s reflections on open borders

This is a personal anecdote post and is a continuation of the series started with an earlier post. The opinions here are not necessarily the same as those expressed by the regular blogging staff at Open Borders. However, we think personal experiences of immigration can still offer interesting perspectives to consider within the wider context of the evidence for and against open borders.

In the 80s in Somalia my father financed an opposition organization hoping to unseat the president Siad Barre. As I, being only a child at that time, do not remember any of the happenings, stories were told to me. Sometime in January 1990 my father, a regular business man, along with other business men, was assassinated in a bomb attack commanded by the president. Shortly thereafter a civil war broke where war lords fought each other over power, so naturally, citizens, or at least those who could, had to flee. Many crossed the borders to Ethiopia and Kenya. While some stayed in Ethiopia and Kenya, many continued their journey to Europe, North America and elsewhere. After fleeing from border to border, my family, consisting of me, my mother and four siblings, made it to Sweden.

I remember coming to a refugee camp in Malmö, Skåne, which is in the southern part of Sweden. We got two rooms to share in a corridor where we jointly had access to a kitchen and a common room, even the bathrooms were jointly shared. Like a student corridor only with less partying.

It took some while to find the right place to live, we moved from town to town until we ended up in Örebro where we stayed the longest. I hated having to change school all the time. However, my mother always reminded me that our situations were different from my friends’ situation.

When I think back, I had never had a problem adapting to our new home. I was a child when we came to Sweden, so naturally it was easier for me to adapt than it was for my older brother, and easier for my older brother than it was for my mother. There were some cultural differences as I remember, but nothing that I ever thought of when I was out in the society, at school, with friends and so on. Only when I was at home as my family is Muslim, meaning that the rules at home and school differed greatly. I had no problem combining the two; I had a school identity and a home identity. Two contesting identities so to speak, so in the end I chose one I firmly believe is the correct one for me.

To further my identity anecdote, a year ago at a Poli-Sci seminar we discussed multiculturalism and what it means. Specifically we discussed what should be done in a society of multiculturalism. Should the state do something or not? Previously we were told to read a few philosophers standpoints on the subject. Students started discussing and to keep it brief some argued for a better integration while some argued for assimilation. I myself argued for neither.

We were told to read philosophers representing different viewpoints in the book Contemporary Political Theory: A Reader edited by Colin Farrelly (Amazon paperback). Some of the philosophers argued for state action. Kymlicka argued in favor of group right, meaning that it is the state’s job to preserve every group’s way of life in society. Taylor stressed the importance of recognition, arguing that misrecognition can inflict harm on people. Parekh pragmatically argued in favor of an open discussion with no further agenda. The authors who are in favor of state action failed to convince me how recognizing special group rights were to be done without misrecognizing another. As I was about to lose both hope and interest I started reading the last chapter. There I found someone who had a convincing proposal. Chandran Kukathas. He argued that if the state has liberal institutions, it does not have to do anything.

Here’s why:

The reason why liberalism does not have a problem with multiculturalism is that liberalism is itself, fundamentally, a theory of multiculturalism. This is because liberalism is essentially a theory about pluralism; and multiculturalism, is, in the end, a species of pluralism. Liberalism is one of the modern world’s responses—indeed, its most plausible response—to the fact of moral, religious, and cultural diversity. Its response has been to say that diversity should be accommodated, and differences tolerated; that a more complete social unity, marked by a uniform and common culture that integrates and harmonizes the interests of individual and community, is unattainable and undesirable; that division, conflict and competition would always be present in human society, and the task of political institutions is to always palliate a condition they cannot cure. Political institutions would be liberal institutions if they left people to pursue their own ends, whether separately or in concert with others, under the rule of law. (Kukathas, Contemporary Political Theory, 2004, p.289)

While that sounds completely rational, here’s what frightens most people. “It [Liberal institution] offers the opportunity, under a state indifferent to the ways or the goals of the different peoples living under the law, for people to coexist and for their different arts and letters and sciences to flourish (or die out) with them.” (Kukathas, Contemporary Political Theory, 2004, p. 294) What frightens people, I suspect, is the possibility of their culture dying out. To get back to my identity anecdote, not preserving our culture is what made my mother the coercive mother she has been throughout my entire upbringing in Sweden. She did her best to remind that we are Somalis and that our culture is Somali. After school she refused to let me play with my friends, I stayed home, and she arranged Somali playmates for me. Only the problem was that I knew my friends at school better than I did my forced playmates, so naturally I did not enjoy playing with them. Preserving my Somali identity was more important to my mother than letting me have a sense of individuality. Recently as the nationalist party, Swedish democrats, grew in popularity, it struck me how similar their views are to my mother’s; they, in favor of preserving the Swedish culture, and my mother, the Somali culture. Out of fear of others, groups tend to alienate themselves. Not much can be done about my mother or Swedish democrats except for asking them to expand their horizons. It is therefore my firm belief that the state should do nothing but to let each group or individual pursue their ends separately, under the rule of law, as Kukathas suggested.

There are two frequently discussed topics related to immigrants in Sweden, apart from blowing crimes committed by immigrants out of proportion through media, which I will not discuss here. The two are the so called generous welfare system and segregation.

Let’s discuss the welfare system first. I am against the welfare system for moral reasons as I do not endorse coerced redistribution of wealth (just to be clear). One day at one of my poli-sci seminars, I went out to the smoking area, for a cigarette, at the same time as my classmate, a Swedish guy from the southern suburbs of Stockholm. Out of curiosity, I asked him why he never spoke during our seminars. He told me that his views are not welcome as is he is not the political correct type. I jokingly said, “You’re not a weird neo-nazi, are you?” He said, “no, but I would want immigrants to assimilate to my culture or to kindly leave my country.” I had never heard people say such a thing before. I did not get upset, people say all sorts of infantile things. I tried talking to him about diversity in individuals instead of cultures. He did not argue against individual diversity so that gave me the chance to explain that it isn’t that different from multiculturalism. He then admitted that he had no problems with multiculturalism per se, but that he did not want immigrants to come here and cheat off the welfare system. Once that was clear for both of us, we discussed whether he thought that cheating off the system was inherently immigrant behavior. We googled a few scandals (thank God for Google) and saw that many who cheated were also Swedish. He tried to excuse the Swedes who cheated, but the sound of his voice was not as convincing as he stuttered throughout the excuses. I then told him that, yes, some immigrants cheat the system, but so do some Swedes. Bad people can be found in all cultures, there’s nothing inherently bad with one culture. If anything, the welfare system should be abolished or at least significantly reduced, so that those who cheat do not get the chance to cheat, and those who desperately need it can be funded by private donations.

Segregation is not such a big deal. People live in different areas. That’s all. Among those who oppose certain people living in certain areas, seek for one group to influence the other group, often the group they perceive as successful. I’ll let you decide whether that sounds good or not.

Segregation causes people to know more about a certain culture and less about another. It’s not that different from a book you read and book you did not read. So if someone refers to the book you did not read you just stand there clueless. While people often admit that they don’t know a thing about a book they didn’t read, they often speak of other cultures in a polarizing way and this even more because they read certain aspects in media, where they report about an immigrant committing a petty crime. Media is supposed to report unusual happenings and not every day life stories, so I’m not accusing media of polarizing (that may happen among weird journals). This is not something that happens only among Swedes, it happens among immigrants too.

A while ago I lived in Rinkeby, a place where the inhabitants are almost 90 per cent immigrants. I had been at school with some Swedish friends and asked them to tag along to my place. Everyone started excusing themselves and while I understood why, I just laughed about it. One of the guys said, “well, Ladan, it’s okay to hang out with you because you’re not like a typical immigrant, you’re like us, but we’d rather not go to that place.” At a later time in Rinkeby I was hanging out with my foreign friends and people started discussing differences between Swedes and immigrants. They were all joking and laughing about it, saying things like, “oh Swedes are boring, I don’t get their humor. One of their childhood friend is Swedish. So I asked them, why they didn’t find her boring and everyone agreed that Johanna is different, “she’s not like the typical Swede, and she is more like us”.

So in the end people seemed, according to my observation, to be much more relaxed around people they know or can use social references with. Even among my friends who study different fields do not get it each other entirely. I often hear someone who studies politics complaining about how boring it is to talk with someone who studies mechanical engineering, because that person did not get him or her when they tried to discuss Skinner’s theory on Republicanism.

People are different in many ways, and while they should remain different we should all work on being tolerant towards those who are different from us. Diversity is great; it means that we are all free to pursue our own ends. Even if we all lived in one big area, erased borders, domestically or internationally, we’d still be different. Diversity should not worry us, once we become too alike, that should worry us.

An appeal to emotion in the argument for voting rights

This post is a break from our normal type of analysis for a more personal look at the impact of immigration and restrictions on individuals. The opinions here are not necessarily the same as those expressed by the regular blogging staff at Open Borders. However, we think personal experiences of immigration can still offer interesting perspectives to consider within the wider context of the evidence for and against open borders.

See also 18 years of immigration torment, a blog post by John Lee about the story of Atanas.

I’m an immigrant entrepreneur. For the past 12 years, I’ve been dutifully paying U.S. taxes and contributing to the American economy. I have committed no crimes, and I have never used social security benefits. Yet I still haven’t received permanent resident (“green card”) status, let alone citizenship. At the same time, the kid next door, who just turned 18 and recently got out of juvenile detention, can vote.

This is the beginning of a story told to me by a fellow entrepreneur. He came to the United States 12 years ago as a software engineer, and went through all the hoops of the system. He worked on an H-1B visa for six years, with the associated risks and downsides – inability to switch employers without losing his place in line for the green card, requirement to leave the United States or find another visa sponsor in case of losing his job at once (there no official grace period), and a permanent feeling of impermanence, of not being supposed to grow roots. Why would one purchase assets such as a house if they knew they could be forced to liquidate those assets within days?

Next, he applied for employment-based permanent resident status, a process that imposes waits from 5 to 10 to 70 years (depending on the country of citizenship – a clear case of discrimination), due to a myopic policy of limiting any country (be it China or Montenegro) to a total of 7% of an again artificially limited visa quota of 140,000 per year. Every time he returned to the U.S. from international travel, he had to be “paroled” (a process solely at the discretion of a Customs and Border Protection officer), with the occasional detention for several hours (which happens even if you have a green card).

Today, my friend is still waiting for his green card, while working on a web startup that he founded. Assuming he obtains his permanent residency status this year, it will take another five years until he is eligible to apply for citizenship. By that time, he will have been in the United States for 18 years, as long as his teenager neighbor with a police record. In the meantime though, he risks being kicked out of the country on a technicality, an occurrence far from rare, if we only consider the widely publicized cases in the media:

One of the keyhole solution alternatives to a blanket immigration ban has been preventing immigrants from voting until they become citizens, after passing a test which in its current form is notably inaccurate, and which many natives would probably flunk. In the light of the story I’ve just shared, one must consider the ethical basis for the inequity between an entrepreneur with 18 years’ worth of contributions to the welfare budget, deep familiarity by now with the social, political and economic realities of the Unites States, and a newly minted voter with likely no history of productive employment.

On what possible ethical basis are we to favor the latter?

I will leave the question above as a rhetorical device in the arsenal of open borders advocates. Hopefully it will be useful where reasoned arguments may not convince. If you interlocutor isn’t impressed by the fact that fully 19% of the 2012 Fortune 500 Companies were founded by a 1st-generation immigrant – while only 1% of the U.S. population are high-skilled immigrants – tell them the story of my Indian friend and his neighbor.

World poverty

If there is a single worthiest cause, a goal most deserving of our best efforts, that goal may be the alleviation of world poverty. That is not the only reason I favor open borders, but it is the biggest. It was to try to do something about world poverty that I enrolled in the MPA/ID program at the Kennedy School of Government ten years ago. I had lived in Prague, far from the poorest place in the world but certainly poorer than the US, and traveled through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Turkey. I felt the guilt of privilege. I had a very high opinion of my own intelligence then, and when I was admitted to the MPA/ID program, I was confident I could be useful, somehow, though I had no idea how. Afterwards, I went to the World Bank, and spent a couple of months, in the spring of 2004, on a project in Malawi.

It may be that by the time I’m an old man, such poverty as I saw in Malawi will have vanished from the world for good. Malawi has improved since I was there (nothing to do with my work), though it’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. At that time, it was chronically on the brink of hunger. There had been, not quite a famine, but a food shortage in 2002. I was there in the spring, and my colleagues would look at the maize fields and say it wasn’t enough, they foresaw hunger coming. A Peace Corps volunteer I met, who had been there during the hunger in 2002, said she had seen someone dead in the road, dead simply of hunger. I was told that people from the cities visiting their relatives in the villages in those days would bring food, but with a layer of clothes on top. If stopped, they would claim they were delivering clothes. Food would be stolen. That’s hearsay, but I saw plenty with my own eyes. There were beggars everywhere. That seems to be a cultural difference, in part, for even well-off Malawians would ask you for stuff. One group of young people we met and spent an evening with had jobs in government ministries, yet afterwards they sent us an e-mail explaining their problems and asking for a few hundred dollars. But most of the beggars really were desperate.

There was a general lack of professionalism. I was working with people from the Malawian statistical agency. We would work 9am to 4pm, at a leisurely pace, which I was always pushing, and then they’d go home and I’d go back to the World Bank offices and keep working. The culture is relaxed. Indeed, the people were as friendly and pleasant as the weather. Americans, by contrast, seem much busier and more stressed. This is only an impression, and I don’t want to give offense, but it seemed to me that Malawians exhibit a good deal less forethought than Americans, or Europeans, or Russians do. It’s not an American thing, nor even a Western thing: in China, I had a very different impression, and I suspect that the Chinese practice forethought as much as Americans do. And doubtless there are exceptions among Malawians; but that did seem to be the pattern. If a Malawian had a full belly– again, take it with a grain of salt, but it was my impression– he was happy. That’s good in a way, but it doesn’t contribute to the long-term planning that grows the economy. Continue reading “World poverty” »

My Path to Open Borders

This is a guest post by Bryan Caplan, one of the most influential voices in the economics blogosphere supportive of open borders. Caplan was a major inspiration for the creation of the Open Borders site and his blog, EconLog, was also an important recruiting ground for like-minded open borders advocates. In this blog post, Caplan describes his personal journey towards open borders.

In the subculture of economics blogs, I’m well-known as a champion of open borders. If you want to hear my reasons, read my “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” and philosopher Michael Huemer’s “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” If you want to discover how I personally came to embrace my contrarian position, though, read on.

Until I was seventeen, my views on immigration were completely conventional. In 11th grade, I wrote a paper defending the “moderate” view that (a) contemporary levels of immigration were good for America, but (b) immigrants should have to learn English. As far as I remember, I didn’t discuss illegal immigration one way or the other. If you asked me about illegal immigration, I probably would have reflexively said, “I’m against it,” perhaps adding, “Well, illegals do a lot of jobs that Americans won’t.”

Growing up in Northridge – a suburb of Los Angeles – I had a lot of casual contact with immigrants. Starting in 5th grade, busing brought many low-income kids to my schools. About 60% were black, 40% Hispanic. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but many of the Hispanic students’ parents – and probably quite a few of the Hispanic students themselves – were illegal immigrants. Starting in junior high, my schools also had a fairly high number of Korean and other Asian immigrants. Since I was in honors classes for grades 7-12, I had disproportionately low contact with Hispanic immigrants, and disproportionately high contact with Asian immigrants. Roughly half of my friends were Asian, the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The rest were white, with no living immigrant ancestors. (My own great-grandparents on both sides were immigrants from Ireland, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine).

My parents owned a few rental properties in Los Angeles, and they occasionally hired Hispanic day laborers to help with upkeep. As far as I remember, we all knew that these day laborers were illegal immigrants. But business was business; though they spoke little English, they worked hard. I vividly remember the day my dad hired a totally disappointing day laborer who spoke fluent English. Eventually my parents concluded that he was a U.S. citizen trying to pose as a hard-working illegal!

I changed my mind about proper immigration policy in my senior year of high school. The impetus, as usual for me, was not first-hand experience, but abstract argument. After reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, I became a vociferous libertarian. Given this orientation, I converted to open borders as soon as another libertarian pointed out that free immigration is just free trade applied to labor. If memory serves, Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market, chapter 3, section E was the pivotal discussion for me.

Still, I was too factually ignorant to grasp the enormity of the issue. I saw no reason to take immigration restrictions more seriously than, say, steel tariffs. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions are far more onerous than trade barriers on steel. I falsely assumed that illegal immigration to the U.S. was pretty easy. I didn’t realize that the labor market is by far the largest market in the world – roughly 70% of national income. I didn’t realize that immigration restrictions trap hundreds of millions of people in Third World poverty.

The corollary, of course, is that I didn’t realize that open borders would drastically change every aspect of our society. Basic economics says that free immigration would drastically increase global wealth and drastically reduce global inequality. But basic psychology says that visibility of the remaining poverty and inequality would sharply rise. (The sobering implication is that even if open borders works as well as I expect, many First Worlders will angrily call it a disaster).

Given my ignorance, I was able to intellectually embrace open borders without taking the issue seriously. In high school and college, I spent far more time debating epistemology than immigration. When I tried to convert others to open borders, my main empirical argument was to point to America’s experience with virtually open borders in the 19th century. If free immigration was great then, why not now?

When critics pointed to the existence of the modern welfare state, I was dismissive: “Yet another reason to abolish the welfare state!” Murray Rothbard in particular inoculated me against all arguments of the form, “We can’t repeal X until we repeal Y.” He was outraged when Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark opposed open borders during the 1980 presidential campaign:

[Clark] has already asserted that we can’t slash the welfare state until we have achieved “full employment”; he now adds that we can’t have free and open immigration until we eliminate the welfare state.  And so it goes; the “gradualists” lock us permanently into the status quo of statism.i

By the time I started my undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, then, I was a staunch yet shallow devotee of free immigration. I simply lacked the knowledge base to understand the magnitude of the issue. Continue reading “My Path to Open Borders” »