Tag Archives: personal journey

My Summer in the Orchard: How I Came to Support Open Borders

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.

I have been offered the opportunity to write some guest blog posts of my experiences with immigration. My area of expertise is money, banking and finance, not immigration policy. I stay fairly current of the research on immigration, but I am a consumer, not a producer of it. Despite my specialization, I believe that a peaceful foreign policy and open borders are more urgent than any free banking reforms, which says a lot. I’ve decided to share my transformative personal experiences in chronological order to provide their proper context.

I was born in Ellensburg, Washington, a smallish town in the center of the state. It was an agricultural community that often relied on immigrant help. Tree Top Fruit Company is a cooperative based in the neighboring town of Selah and farms, ranches and orchards filled the countryside. Ellensburg also is home to a university whose sister university is in Japan. My mother worked at the university and I ended up learning a lot from her Japanese exchange student interns. Maybe it was fate that I’d end up marrying a Japanese and living in Japan (a future story). But this was my childhood experience with immigrants, mostly Japanese and Mexican. I lived in a community that had both a lot of nativists and immigrants. It was a microcosm of the immigration debate because both sides of the argument were so visible. Clearly the agricultural economy relied on immigrants, but some of those same immigrants caused social ills, such as crime and drains on public resources. Yakima, WA, the city nearest the orchards of Selah, had at or near the highest violent crime rates per capita in the US in the early 90’s, earning the moniker “Crackima” for its rampant drugs and gangs. Conventional wisdom was that the gangs consisted almost entirely of immigrants, who came here to work in orchards, or their children, who then turned to a life of crime, especially if they were here illegally and had no legitimate means of employment. Yakima’s crime was notoriously bad and its ills were perceived to be related to immigration. In school, we played sports against another small town called Mattawa, whose population is 97% Hispanic. Seeing the town’s poverty, crime and education system drowning in ESL students who were failing to adjust planted a seed of doubt in my young mind as to the merits of open immigration. These observations plus some additional experiences with crime formed my nativist beliefs; that is, until I worked in an orchard.

During my adolescent years I’d often spend my summers living with my cousin, Colin, in Idaho. Usually we’d help on our Grandma’s ranch and spend the rest of the time playing, but when we were 14 we decided it was time to get a job that paid. The best paying job we could have gotten was a stock clerk working at a grocery store, but we were too far from town and too young to drive. The only job we were qualified for that was within our bicycling range was working in an orchard at the top of the lane. Colin and I were in for a shock. Aside from the family that owned the business, we were the only native English speaking people out of hundreds of employees. We made the minimum wage, $5.10 at the time. The hours were early. We’d start by 5:00 am sometimes so we could get as much work in before it got too hot in the field. We were put under the supervision of the boss’s son and were treated differently than the other employees. Most employees did the same job over and over. If you picked fruit in the field, that’s what you always did. Women were more likely to stand on the conveyor line sorting fruit by quality. It was air conditioned, but an arduous job. It required standing on your feet and constantly combing through the fruit with both hands working on the conveyor belt, sorting the good fruit to go to fresh produce and the badly bruised fruit to get turned into jam. Colin and I started doing this, but after a week or so they moved us into the orchard. Usually we would help load the picked fruit onto a truck, but often we were given special tasks. The tasks they gave us usually required detailed instructions, such as how to prune this kind of tree specifically, and I noticed how much our native language skills were an advantage, despite our relative lack of experience compared to our Spanish speaking coworkers.

Over time, Colin and I became more friendly towards (less scared of) the Hispanic workers and started to learn Spanish from them. We learned what life was like for them back in Mexico, and one hot afternoon, they let us off early for safety and the workers invited us to a barbeque in their residence, which was almost like a camp. By then it started to click. These were some of the hardest working, nicest, most caring people I’d ever met. This smashed every stereotype I’d had from the bad towns in Washington. I realized that punishing these people because of some gang members was wrong. I also realized that maybe the restrictive immigration policies caused crime as an unintended consequence by preventing undocumented immigrants from attaining work. I realized that what was a summer job to earn some money to buy CDs and movies for two teenagers was the livelihood of these people. We took a $5/hour job because we were limited to a five mile radius. They took the same job but had to leave their home country and travel over a thousand miles away from home for the summer. And even while at the same job, our experience wasn’t the same. Our language advantage gave us a leg up, despite being only fourteen. This is the summer when I became an open borders advocate.

The painting of an orchard featured at the top of this post is by Camille Pissarro, and available in the public domain.

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” »

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I am no recent convert to the cause of open borders, but like others in the blogosphere, including Vipul himself, I have become increasingly convinced that this is the most important moral cause of our times. Vipul has kindly invited me to join this blog, and I consider it a great privilege. My convictions about immigration stem not only from intellectual pondering, but personal experience.

A bit about myself: my father is Chinese Malaysian and my mother is Filipino (with some Chinese heritage). My parents met during graduate school in Thailand. I was born while my father was completing further studies in Japan. I lived in Singapore for the first few years of my life, and grew up in Malaysia, a country I am proud to call home. I came to the United States for college, unexpectedly obtained a green card before graduation, and presently work in a major US retail bank. Along the way, I’ve studied abroad in the United Kingdom and held immigrant visas in both Australia and New Zealand (both rather long stories for another time there).

As a matter of nature, of genetics, I literally would not be here today without immigration. As a matter of nurture, of life experiences, I would not be who I am today without immigration. I’ve virtually lived the benefits of open borders. Being able to cross borders has taught me countless things about life and about humanity; it has given me countless acquaintances and friends; it has made my life immensely richer in ways you can never aspire to place a dollar value on. If we do talk dollar values, I earn much more in my current job than I would at the highest-paying similar alternative in Malaysia.

Yet I have enjoyed the benefits of immigration through blind luck: I have caught more than my fair share of lucky breaks. I had no say about being born into a relatively wealthy, well-educated and highly mobile family, the biggest lucky break of all. Nothing entitles me to the great blessings I have had, the same blessings which have largely been denied to, say, the children of farmers in Bangladesh.

Continue reading ““The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”” »