Tag Archives: private charity

My Q1 2022 donation to Free Migration Project

I’m planning to make a donation of 3,000 USD to Free Migration Project (FMP) in January 2022. This blog post goes in some detail on my reasoning.  [EDIT: The donation was formally made on Tuesday, January 4, 2022 via ACH, as planned.]

https://vipulnaik.com/blog/my-q1-2022-donation-to-free-migration-project/ is the post’s canonical location (but does not accept comments). I’m cross-posting to openborders.info here (given that FMP works in that area) as well as the EA Forum here (given that some of my decision-making process was guided by principles similar to effective altruist principles). Borrowing from Larks’ AI alignment reviews, I use #openborders and #eaforum for portions particularly relevant to the readerships of those sites.

Sections:

  • Background of where I am with respect to donations
  • Brief description of Free Migration Project
  • Some considerations specific to my relationship with Free Migration Project
  • Some background thinking motivating this donation
  • Reasons for amount
  • Reasons for timing
  • Potential future donations
  • Thoughts on fundraising dynamics

Background of where I am with respect to donations

In a November 11, 2021 post on another donation, I wrote extensively about where I currently am with respect to donations. The TL;DR is that right now, I’m only looking at time-sensitive donation opportunities that beat fallback donation targets (such as the EA Funds and the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund), and I’m not being super-proactive in identifying these opportunities.

I am also limiting my budget to 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. As of January 2022, the total amount I can spend would be $7,000 (for 7 months) of which I already spent $1,000 on the previous donation. My donation to FMP thus uses up $3,000 of the remaining $6,000, still leaving an unallocated $3,000 that would roll over to increase the budget for potential future donations.

Brief description of Free Migration Project

I’ll quote the entirety of FMP’s Mission and History page, rather than writing my own description which would likely be less accurate:

Free Migration Project represents immigrant clients in their legal proceedings, provides legal support and training to organizers and advocates, engages in public education and outreach, litigates in the public interest, and advocates for fair and open immigration laws.

Free Migration Project represents clients in public deportation defense campaigns and provides legal and strategic support to undocumented organizers fighting for immigrant rights. We believe that working with undocumented clients to elevate their stories and struggles has helped to educate the public and engender support for undocumented communities in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Free Migration Project envisions a world where free movement of people is the legal norm. We call for recognition of a human right to migrate and the abolition of deportation.

Founded in 2016, Free Migration Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

You can also take a look at FMP’s 2021 Annual Report for a more concrete picture of FMP’s program work.

Some considerations specific to my relationship with Free Migration Project

I served on the Free Migration Project board from May 2016 to December 2021 and have had past connections with its founder

I was one of the founding board members of Free Migration Project, attending its first board meeting in May 2016. I’m stepping down from the board at the end of December 2021, a little before my maximum of six years on the board would be completed.

I have known David (Dave) Bennion, FMP’s founder, since 2013. I also wrote the email introducing Dave to Alexander Berger, then Program Officer for U.S. Policy at Open Philanthropy; this would ultimately result in a $24,000 grant from Open Philanthropy. I don’t think the fact of me doing the introduction had much effect on FMP getting the grant (I also wasn’t the person who originally had the idea of connecting FMP to Open Philanthropy).

[#openborders] In the proposal that David Bennion submitted for FMP, he mentions discovering openborders.info in 2013 as one of the influences that led him to start FMP. I had originally started openborders.info back in March 2012.

[#openborders] Back in October, I posted an excerpt from Javier Hidalgo’s Unjust Borders that goes over some of this history rather coarsely, starting with Bryan Caplan’s blogging that influenced my decision to start openborders.info.

I donated in December 2019 to discharge my “board member” obligation

In December 2019, I made a $3,000 USD donation to Free Migration Project. I described my reasons for the donation on my donation history page:

I see it as the equivalent of sending $500/year for 6 years, which is the duration of my board tenure. There isn’t a very specific reason for the timing, other than the fact that at the end of the year, I’m thinking about donation opportunities and in particular looking at donations that I have some sense of “obligation” to make. […] I’m not planning to make a followup donation in the near future, since this donation discharges my responsibility; any further donation decisions will be based on the same sort of extensive analysis that I subjected my EA Hotel donation to.

As a board member, I have access to private information and this influences my decision somewhat

As a board member, I have had access to a lot of private information about Free Migration Project. None of this private information is inconsistent with, or even surprising given, public information. However, the private information does give me a clearer picture of the organization that outsiders don’t have, which gives me more confidence about some things.

In an ideal world, I might want to summarize the private information into nuggets that can be disclosed publicly and run them by FMP before publishing; however, the time constraints I currently have for this post don’t permit that. However, I can describe some of the kinds of information I have access to, that influence my decision to donate, that an outsider wouldn’t have access to:

  • Information on foundation funding received by FMP, including the names of foundations, and in many cases the amount and the timing of commitment and disbursement (only a subset of this information is public)
  • Access to FMP’s strategic plans and some of the legal and tax filings
  • Access to board meeting minutes (as well as my memory of having attended the board meetings) that includes summaries of FMP’s program work, fundraising challenges, and more, at various points in time over the past six years
  • Access to various evaluations done by board members and staff of the executive director
  • Information on FMP’s budget and finances

I will not have continued access to further board updates starting 2022, and any additional information I have access to will be through explicit sharing by FMP with me.

I would say the most crucial piece of private information I have is around the current financial state of the organization, which gives me a clearer sense of the value of marginal donations.

As a board member, I was asked (not required!) to contribute to FMP’s end-of-year fundraiser

For various reasons (increased staff size meaning a larger annual budget for 2022, some delays with foundation funding being disbursed), FMP is holding a larger end-of-year fundraiser than usual, targeting $20,000 (this is only a small portion of their annual operating expenses; it’s just an amount that was considered a reasonable goal for an end-of-year fundraiser). As a board member, I was asked to think of ways to contribute.

The most common, and the suggested, way for board members to contribute was to run fundraisers. For various reasons, my preferred mode of contribution was to donate directly rather than run a fundraiser; I describe my thinking on this point later in the post.

The “ask” made of board members did not significantly affect my decision to donate or of how much to donate. I feel that I have already discharged my basic financial obligations as a board member with my December 2019 donation, and if I had ultimately decided against the donation, I would not have felt bad about this. However, some of the backdrop (that led to the ask) did influence my decision.

Some background thinking motivating this donation

My reasons for thinking of FMP as worth supporting

[#openborders] My main reason for supporting Free Migration Project is that it is one of the few organizations (and the only one I clearly know) that supports freedom of movement as its core mission. As the person who started openborders.info, I think this is an important cause, and I think even the existence of FMP helps continue to generate visibility for this super-important cause. This provides a kind of lower bound on FMP’s value; even if I were completely unconvinced by the value of FMP’s program work, FMP’s total budget is so small in the grand scheme of things that it seems, from a big-picture philanthropic perspective, that it more than pays for itself.

[#openborders] In terms of activities, the main thing FMP does to directly promote open borders is organize the Open Borders Conference. I reviewed the 2021 conference and overall think the conference is pretty good. I did a little thought experiment a while ago — could something like the Open Borders Conference exist without FMP? I think it could, but it would probably be harder to organize, and it would likely fluctuate more year-to-year based on the whims of individuals involved, rather than being a steady part of the landscape.

Existence value and the Open Borders Conference are my two main reasons. I also mentioned a few other points in my Open Borders Action Group post, but I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around how to assess the direct, object-level impact of FMP’s legal representation work and its activism on beneficiaries. If you want to dig into this yourself based on public information, check out FMP’s 2021 annual report.

[#eaforum] I’m reasonably confident that the direct impact on beneficiaries is positive and cost-effective (in the crude sense that benefits to beneficiaries exceed costs of program work), but have no idea how it stacks up against other philanthropic activities that help people. In general, in my mind, justifications based solely on direct impact on beneficiaries need to clear a very high bar given the alternative of GiveWell top charities, for reasons similar to what Open Philanthropy described here. But I haven’t done too much analysis of FMP’s activities to the point where I could say anything concrete about them beyond these general priors.

For my donation, thus, I strictly considered only the two things I could get a grip on: existence value, and the Open Borders Conference.

FMP has room for more funding

FMP is a small organization and has a small budget. It currently has only three full-time employees. So it doesn’t need a lot of money.

However, as of the time of my donation, it is meaningfully short on funds. Part of this is due to some foundation funding that had been committed but not disbursed yet. Part of this is because FMP’s staff had expanded from a size of one (two years ago) to a size of three, and the fundraising operation had not scaled appropriately.

One other factor is that with the replacement of immigration hardliner Trump by the more moderate Biden, much of the money that would have funded migration-related activism has dried up, as donors have chosen to focus on other causes. Since my interest in free migration is more long-term and not related specifically to the margins of US federal politics, this seems like the right time for donors with my mindset to step in.

Reasons for amount

My donation budget

As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am accumulating a donation budget of 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. By January 2022, I will have $7,000 accumulated, of which I’ve spent $1,000 so far, leaving $6,000. However, I’m making the decision and commitment in December, so in my mind I was really playing with only $6,000 – $1,000 = $5,000.

The donation budget sets an upper bound; I believe that there’s a decent chance that I will identify better donation targets in the coming months, and do want to leave some of my donation budget for those better targets. That partly explains why I am not spending the entirety of the $6,000 or $5,000.

I would say that my donation budget is one of the main reasons I didn’t donate more, but a greater donation budget wouldn’t translate directly to the same increase in how much of a donation I would make. I did a little thought experiment and estimated that I could go up to $5,000 if my donation budget were around $15,000, and up to $10,000 if my donation budget was around $50,000. This brings me to the next topic, the marginal value of funding. (Basically this is trading off the known value of FMP against the value of future opportunities and the likely funds I will need in order to be able to fund those opportunities).

Marginal value of funding for FMP

The amount I have chosen falls well within the range where marginal funding directly helps FMP with its goal of continued existence, which is necessary for its existence value and its ability to sponsor the Open Borders Conference (the two reasons I want to donate to it).

Since I limited my investigation to the range of values that I was actually likely to donate, I don’t have a very clear sense of the marginal value of substantially larger amounts of funding, nor is this the right post to go over that. But I can say the following:

  • I do suspect diminishing returns in donations to FMP to quite an extent (for my goals of existence value and ability to sponsor the Open Borders Conference), and I do think $3,000 is enough to see at least some meaningful change in the slope of the marginal value curve. So the first $3,000 I donated are much more valuable than the next $3,000.

  • The investigation I did would make me confident of donating up to $10,000 if my donation budget were not constrained, even taking into account other funds FMP expects to raise. After $10,000, I wouldn’t be sure this is a clearly time-sensitive opportunity that beats out fallback donation targets (which are actually pretty good value-for-money, so this is a high bar). To be clear, $10,000 is way less than the amount FMP needs for its budget. And also, my investigation scope was limited to looking at the kind of funds I actually expect to give.

One takeaway for other donors: if you’re fully aligned with me and less constrained than I am on donation budget, I think donating up to $7,000 total would be great. I don’t expect to influence more than 2-3 people, so donating up to $1,000 should be safe; even if 3 people ended up donating $1,000 based on this post it would still be well under the $7,000. If you’re thinking of donating more than $1,000, I recommend getting in touch with FMP and doing your own marginal value calculation based on the most up-to-date information at the time of your donation.

Reasons for timing

FMP’s financial situation

One of the main reasons for the timing is FMP’s financial situation. I already described some general aspects of this in an earlier section “FMP has room for more funding”. I can’t go into further details, but basically I do believe this is one of those relatively rare times in the organization’s history where the value of donations is high.

My donation budget accumulation

As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am accumulating a donation budget of 1,000 USD per month starting July 2021. By January 2022, I will have $7,000 accumulated, of which I’ve spent $1,000 so far, leaving $6,000. This gives me room to make donations.

My exit from the board

Even before being apprised of the financial situation, I had been considering making some sort of donation to mark my exit from the Free Migration Project board at the end of 2021, as a sort of “parting gift”. However, this consideration is minor in the scheme of things.

Maturing of background investigation

I have been thinking off and on about related topics and collecting information over the past few months. Around December, I felt I had enough information to make a case (to myself) for a donation.

[#openborders] My Open Borders Conference 2021 review can be thought of as one public-facing piece of such background investigation; so can my post on understanding Open Philanthropy’s migration policy work. My work on the timeline of immigration detention in the United States and the Berks County Residential Center was also for the loosely related goal of understanding the space. I also had a number of private conversations, mostly in November 2021, and most of them not directly related to FMP, to build understanding of the space.

Tax considerations favored deferring the donation to January

Content warning: technical section, highly specific to US income taxes, people in high-tax states, and people within some income brackets. This section can be skipped without loss of context.

My only donation in 2021 was not tax-deductible in the United States. Thanks to the SALT deduction cap of $10,000, and the fact that my California state taxes are over $10,000, the total deductions I can take if I itemize deductions are $10,000 + charitable donations. The standard deduction for 2021 is $12,550 and the standard deduction for 2022 is $12,950.

Donations to FMP are tax-deductible.

So we can run the two scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: I donate $3,000 to FMP in 2021. I get to itemize deductions, since my itemized deductions of $10,000 + $3,000 = $13,000 exceed the standard deduction of $12,550. I save $13,000 – $12,550 = $450 in taxable income (so something between $100 and $200 in taxes).

    However, for 2022, I start from scratch, and my first $2,950 of donations are not tax-free since that’s what’s needed to make my itemized deductions reach the standard deduction threshold.

  • Scenario 2: I donate $3,000 to FMP in 2022.

    In this case, for 2021, I just take the standard deduction of $12,550. I don’t get benefits of extra deductions.

    For 2022, since $10,000 + $3,000 = $13,000 exceeds the standard deduction of $12,950, I itemize my deductions. I save $50 in taxable income, which is between $10 and $20 in taxes — not a big deal. But now, all further donations in 2022 are tax-free.

So if I’m planning to donate $X in tax-deductible donations in 2022 (over and above this FMP donation), my total saving, across both years, over the standard deduction works out to:

Scenarios Case X < 2,950 Case X >= 2,950
Scenario 1 450 450 + (X – 2,950) = X – 2,500
Scenario 2 50 + X 50 + X

After some further math, we find that if X >= 400, then Scenario 2 is preferable to Scenario 1. So if I expect to donate at least $400 in 2022 (over and above this $3,000 FMP donation), I expect to save on taxes by deferring to 2022. The amount I save on taxable income is X – 400 for X up to 2,950, and for larger X it’s just 2,550 USD.

The intuitive explanation for this:

  • Let’s say that the standard deduction didn’t change across years. Then it would always make sense to engage in donation bunching (aka donation bundling), so that as much of your donations as possible are working to reduce your taxable income. Since I didn’t make other donations in 2021 but might in 2022, this argues for deferring to 2022.

  • However, the standard deduction increases each year, so that is an argument for donating earlier so as to benefit from having more of a reduction in taxable income from exceeding the standard deduction.

  • Combining both of these considerations, we see that the amount we plan to donate in 2022 needs to exceed the standard deduction increase from 2021 to 2022 (namely $400) in order for us to benefit from deferring to 2022.

Although I’m not totally sure, I actually do expect that I’m likely to donate at least $400 in 2022 excluding the FMP $3,000 donation, so it makes sense to defer. With that said, if I ended up donating less than $400, I would not be devastated. I’m unlikely to deliberately change my donation behavior to get past the $400 point just to prove my past self right.

I did confirm that deferring from December to January did not meaningfully affect FMP’s finances

In general, tax considerations are only a minor factor in my donation decisions. In fact, neither my Q1 2019 EA Hotel donation decision nor my most recent donation were tax-deductible for me, but I made them. FMP is tax-deductible, and if considerations on the FMP side led me to believe that there was a significant benefit from donating sooner, I would have done so.

However, based on the information I had, I concluded that donating in January — as long as I committed and communicated the donation in December — would be good enough.

Potential future donations

A lot depends on other donation opportunities I might find

It’s possible that over the coming months, I will find other donation opportunities that I consider a more meaningful use of my donation budget. I’m not committing anything to FMP beyond this donation; moreover, since I am exiting the board I won’t have any obligations of any sort.

I would want to understand FMP’s role in spreading the idea of free movement and open borders better

If I were to donate to FMP in the future, or to recommend to others to donate more to it, one thing I’d like to nail down is a better picture of how exactly FMP is spreading the idea of free migration and open borders, and how successful it has been. I might have further conversations with Dave on this point in the coming weeks and months, and might write more about this (even if I don’t make a further donation, as long as I think there’s enough value in what FMP is doing to be worth bringing to the attention of others).

Thoughts on fundraising dynamics

FMP’s overall fundraising strategy

[#eaforum #openborders]

I can’t comment too much on the details of FMP’s overall fundraising strategy, but I will say that the bulk of FMP’s funding at present does not seem to come from avid open borders believers or the effective altruist community or its penumbra. The funding pattern seems to be reasonably similar to what you would expect of a migrant rights organization; even more specifically, of a migrant rights organization based in the Philadelphia region.

Given FMP’s staff expansion in the last few years, the organization needs to, and is working to, expand its fundraising to keep pace with its size. I expect the bulk of this expansion to be with the same sort of donor base that has sustained FMP so far. Most of these donors have fairly different terminal values than I do; also, instrumentally, the fundraising techniques that will work with these donors will be different from the things that would appeal to me.

The role of donors more broadly similar to me (interested in open borders, some connections to effective altruism in the sense of interest in doing the most good) will likely depend on the extent to which FMP is able to make the case for how its activities help promote open borders more broadly. I expect to get a better understanding of this in 2022.

The alternative approach of running fundraisers

Many others on the board are running or considering running end-of-year fundraisers for FMP using Facebook fundraisers; I heard that other board members were using Stack for fundraisers. Here are two of the fundraisers: Jamila HammamiJasmine Rivera. Two of the board members are also running a trivia night fundraiser.

Doing a fundraiser did not personally sit well with me (though I wish the best of luck to those running them). I’m articulating below some of my reasons, that are partly personal and partly general epistemic considerations:

  • [#eaforum] I generally favor making fewer, larger donations that have a lot of thought in them, over several smaller donations: This is based on a more nuanced version of the one charity argument (amazingly enough, the linked post I wrote over 12 years ago, back when I was a much less sophisticated thinker, still seems to be one of the best expositions I know on the subject). The world of donations, in particular in the effective altruist sphere, has evolved a lot since that crude argument, but I think the general crux — the idea that we should keep directing donations to the top charity at the relevant margin until the margins change enough — still applies.

    While we can imagine some charities, such as the local soup kitchen, where the marginal calculus changes after a few hundred dollars, most moderate-sized charities won’t have the margin change at those small amounts. As a rule of thumb, I set a minimum of $1,000 per donation and generally think in multiples of thousand when thinking about how the marginal value of donations may change. If my donation budget were under $1,000 (which it isn’t right now, but was at some points in the past), I would allocate it all to at most one charity.

    I know of three kinds of exceptions to the rule favoring larger donations:

    • Donations as gifts: As I noted in my earlier post, I would cap such donations at three times the private benefit to me. Donating to FMP doesn’t really fit in this category.

    • Donations as compensation for effort answering questions: In the past, I’ve had cases where I talked to a nonprofit about donation, but became less excited about donation after thinking and talking more. However, I want to reimburse the nonprofit for the effort of talking to me. A donation of a few hundred dollars seems appropriate for this sort of case.

    • [#eaforum] Donations coordinated with multiple other donors, e.g., as part of something like a S-process: As Andrew Critch explains in a video, S-process funding with multiple funders takes turns allocating small portions of each funder’s budget in decreasing order of marginal value. For organizations that all funders are similarly excited about, this process spreads out the funding for the organization across funders. The key is that an individual funder isn’t going completely before or after other funders. So the marginal value of each additional unit of funding from an individual funder changes not just due to that funder but due to the funds from other funders.

      If there are several highly similar funders participating in a S-process, all of whom have very similar marginal value functions, this process could lead to smaller per-funder allocations from individual funders to the organization.

      This donation is not part of an explicit S-process, nor can I identify even any implicit S-process-like mechanism here. Also, I as a donor have very different marginal value functions from most of FMP’s donor base.

  • One possible argument for fundraisers is that they raise awareness of the organization (FMP), and some of those participating in the fundraiser may form a direct relationship with FMP and donate more in future years. I think this is plausible but unlikely if I ran a fundraiser (given my friend group), though the consideration might be more plausible for some of the others running fundraisers.

    However, I am trying to raise awareness in other ways; for instance, with my Open Borders Action Group post and with this blog post you’re reading right now. If anything, I think making a donation sends a more credible and convincing signal, though that was a very minor consideration for me when deciding to donate.

  • In some cases, the pressure to contribute to fundraisers works on a reciprocal basis: I donate to your fundraisers, you donate to mine. Since I generally don’t donate to others’ fundraisers, this reciprocal basis doesn’t really apply to me.

Conclusion

All in all, I am pretty satisfied with my decision to make a $3,000 donation to FMP after writing about it in more depth. I encourage highly aligned donors to make $1,000 donations even without further investigation, and to connect with FMP for the latest fundraising information if they are interested in donating more.

My next step would be understanding more clearly the role that FMP plays in spreading the message of open borders. Such an understanding might influence me to donate more in the future. I might also write more publicly about my understanding in 2022 or later as I acquire more understanding (even if I end up not donating further). However, it’s possible I become more interested in other donation opportunities in the future and decide not to investigate this further.

Welcome Atlantic readers! (And, how you can help)

This morning, Shaun Raviv published an article about open borders in The Atlantic, one of the finest magazines in the world, entitled “If People Could Immigrate Anywhere, Would Poverty Be Eliminated?” Atlantic readers: welcome. If you want to give us money to support the cause, sorry, you can’t. As far as I know, we don’t have an infrastructure for that. What you can do is comment on our posts. We love to get thoughtful, high-quality comments, so as to see what kind of impression our arguments make on outsiders. We adapt what we write about considerably in response to thoughtful criticism. In particular, see here, here, and here. We’re good listeners here. We’re Socratic and inquisitive.

Here’s Shaun’s description of Open Borders: The Case.

Vipul Naik is the face, or at least the voice, of open borders on the Internet. In March 2012, he launched  Open Borders: The Case, a website dedicated to the idea. Naik, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, is striving for “a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.” Naik and his two primary co-writers, Nathan Smith and John Lee, parse research into    immigration impacts, answering claims by those they call “restrictionists”–people who argue against open borders–and deconstructing writings on migration    by economists, politicians, journalists, and philosophers.

My favorite part:

In 2008, Clemens and his frequent co-writer, Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, came up with a new statistic called “income per natural.” Their goal was to show “the mean annual income of persons born in a given country, regardless of where that person now resides.” They found that large percentages of people from Haiti, Mexico, and India who live above international poverty lines don’t actually reside in their home countries. “For example, among Haitians who live either in the United States or Haiti and live on more than $10 per day–about a third of the U.S. ‘poverty’ line–four out of five live in the United States,” Clemens wrote. “Emigration from Haiti, as a force for Haitians’ poverty reduction, may be at least as important as any economic change that has occurred within Haiti.”

Getting this kind of coverage makes me think again about a question that’s sometimes come to us: What can I do to help? For example, Bryan Caplan blegged: “Suppose you wanted to spend your charitable dollars to increase the total number of people who migrate from the Third World to the First World.  What approach would give you the biggest bang for your buck?  Are any specific countries, organizations, or loopholes especially promising?”

A rather staid, cautious answer is that you might be able to join the list of sponsors of the IMPALA data project. They didn’t ask me to solicit money for them and I don’t even know whether they’d accept it, but I assume a large project like theirs would have things to do with financial support, and we could definitely use better data on migration policies around the world. If you want to learn about trade policy, you can go the WITS database hosted by the World Bank, and get very detailed information about volumes of trade around the world, broken down into very specific categories, as well as about tariff rates and other restrictions. There is nothing close to that for immigration law, but the IMPALA data, when available, should help. See this talk for more about IMPALA’s data project.

IMPALA is not agitating for open borders, of course. But as I argued a while back, good indices measuring the openness of all the world’s borders could be quite useful for advocacy: Continue reading “Welcome Atlantic readers! (And, how you can help)” »

Possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders

Please don’t confuse this with the blog post open borders advocates and private charity, which is about a criticism of hypocrisy leveled against open borders advocates.

A while back (November 23, 2012), open borders advocate Bryan Caplan did an immigration charity bleg. His question for his blog readers:

Suppose you wanted to spend your charitable dollars to increase the total number of people who migrate from the Third World to the First World. What approach would give you the biggest bang for your buck? Are any specific countries, organizations, or loopholes especially promising?

Unconventional answers are welcome as long as they’re genuinely effective. Please show your work.

I have been considering this question for a while. On October 27, 2012, I had a Skype conversation with Holden Karnofsky of charity evaluator GiveWell where we discussed related ideas. GiveWell decided not to publish the conversation, as it was too preliminary and tentative, so I won’t go into the details of what was discussed; GiveWell does publish better-quality conversations on its conversations page. More recently (December 7, 2012), Shaun Raviv, blogging for effective giving advocate-cum-charity evaluator Giving What We Can, expressed interest in migration as a way of helping the poor, with the first in a planned series of blog posts published about three weeks ago.

In this blog post, I will discuss various ways to increase migration and/or move towards open borders, drawing heavily on the comment responses to Caplan’s bleg.

Possible different goals people could have in mind

I want to begin with the same caution that I expressed in my own comment on Caplan’s bleg:

I think you need to be a bit more specific on what the goal is. Is the goal to simply increase the quantity of migration from people living in Third World countries, or do you wish to focus on poor people in these countries? Would a reasonably well-to-do graduate student in computer science who wants a job in the IT sector qualify for your concern? Are you okay with guest worker programs that have a return date stamped on them, or do you insist on immigration with no such return restrictions?

How you rank and rate the various ideas presented below, and which ones you consider worthy of further investigation, depends a lot on whether your goal is to increase migration numbers, whether you care about world GDP, whether you place more weight on the same numerical GDP gain concentrated on poorer people, and many other deep questions of ethics. This is one reason I’m not going to try the daunting task of ranking the many options presented.

For the rest of this blog post, I’ll use the term “immigration” to refer to both immigration and temporary movement for students and guest workers, even though that is not technically correct.

Also, just to be clear, I do not necessarily endorse all the ideas here. An evaluation of the pros and cons (moral as well as strategic) of each idea here would make this post far too long. I will discuss the more interesting ideas among these in more detail in subsequent posts, and will be happy to share my views on specific ideas in the comments if you have questions.

Options for increasing immigration without changing or breaking immigration laws

The simplest, most immediate, and least risky (in terms of avoiding trouble with the law) proposition is to attempt to increase legal (authorized) immigration within the existing framework of laws. There are many different visa categories, some of which have strict quantity limits with the limits almost always met. Other visa categories have unfilled quotas on a regular basis, and/or have no quotas. Increasing immigration in the categories that have unfilled quotas or no quantity caps is probably the more fruitful option. Some countries do not have quantity restrictions (or are very far from exhausting the quantity restrictions) but have specific points systems that require specific skills (e.g., Canada). Working to help prospective immigrants acquire these skills might be another path. Anyway, here’s the list of suggestions on Caplan’s bleg that fall in this category:

  • Marriage: Most countries offer essentially unrestricted immigration for the spouses of current citizens, wherever in the world these spouses reside. Encouraging more marriages between Americans (or people in the desired target country of migration) and foreigners might therefore be one method. Two proposals in this regard were made on Caplan’s bleg. daubery:

    For the US specifically, look for people willing to marry foreigners. This is the only immigration route that doesn’t have a hard cap. This could even be profit-making if they agreed under the table to kick back some of their increased earnings. You may need to base your matchmaking service off-shore so as not to have the list of clients fall into the hands of the US immigration force, however.

    Here’s Joe Cushing’s response to daubery:

    daubery,

    There is no way on earth, I’d give a woman, whom I don’t know, the power of the state to use against me by marrying me. Although I suppose an immigrant woman would have a bit less power but divorces don’t go well for men, usually. The state sides with the woman. Even if I got to know these women for a few months, you could never trust the state not to screw you over in the end somehow. The state has really inserted itself into our relationships in an unhealthy way and this is true, even for domestic to domestic relationships. It effects divorce rates, divorce outcomes, and the power structure effects otherwise healthy relationships. Whenever women complain about men fearing commitment; I like to tell them that men don’t fear commitment, men fear the state. A marriage to a man is a completely different risk than it is to a woman. This is why woman can’t understand how we feel.

    With all of this to consider, You should focus on American women who would be willing to marry foreign men. The foreign men would be willing to take the risk. Then again, domestic men would be willing to take the risk to find more attractive women than they could find here. That’s why we have these mail order bride services already.

    PrometheeFeu:

    What about funding an agency which promotes speed-dating between third-world and first-world citizens?

    As for the ethics of this, I think there is little that is more ethical than to help people circumvent evil laws.

  • Adoption: Although the adoption of foreign infants does suffer from some bureaucratic constraints, this does seem to be a category that does not suffer from numerical restrictions of the kind that other visas do. Adoption is also a solution that even restrictionists (such as Mark Krikorian of CIS) would tend not to oppose, because their chief concern — that immigrants arrive already steeped in a different culture — does not apply to people who are adopted into the country they’re immigrating to at birth or when very young, and who are raised by people who are already steeped in the culture. Nonetheless, there are various obstacles arising from international realpolitik. Here’s a post by Dan Carroll (adoptive father of a kid from Ethiopia), critical of various restrictions on adoption (HT: Bryan Caplan, as usual).
  • Education and specific skills training (including language training) to help more immigrants meet the qualifications to immigrate: Lots of suggestions of this sort on Caplan’s bleg. Neal:

    Might not maximize bang/$, but here we go:

    Educational charities (incl universities themselves) who fund people from poor countries to study in rich countries – especially PhDs. They can bypass immigration to an extent as it’s a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn’t directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly.

    For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?

    oneeyedman (excerpt of comment, not the full comment):

    There are probably different answers for different budgets. I suspect that teaching French to African English speaking college students so they can use the Canadian point based immigration system would do it. You could fund French clubs inexpensively and partner with local schools and or professors.

    Motoko responds to oneeyedman:

    “They can bypass immigration to an extent as it’s a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn’t directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly.”

    I’m in an engineering PhD program. The majority of students are foreign. The problem with hiring foreigners for high-caliber work is that they’re culturally and socially illiterate. Maybe 10% of them can overcome this hurdle and get hired in the US.

    But those that can’t… well… they just go back to their home country. They don’t earn half of what they’d earn in the U.S., but they are no longer so poor that they need our help.

    “For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?”

    Good point. We shouldn’t just try to get more people in the States. Generally, we should try to get the needy into better countries that are easy to immigrate to.

    A more cynical approach (that is not suggested by anybody on Caplan’s bleg) is to help foster the creation and expansion of visa mills, which are analogous to diploma mills. While diploma mills offer fake higher education degrees for their credential value to all comers, visa mills offer fake higher education degrees to foreigners to help them get fraudulent student visas. These foreigners can take up small jobs while in the US while allegedly studying, save money, and then either get a permanent job or go home with some saved money. The probable reason is that such visa mills, aside from the ethical issues, are likely to get caught and put in trouble all people who went through the visa mill. Here’s a piece from the CIS critical of visa mills and diploma mills.

  • Better matching of employees with employers: There are some types of employer-sponsored visas for which the quotas are not completely filled, and for these, organizations that better help match employers and employees could be useful. This is particularly the case for relatively “unskilled” jobs, where employers and employees are less likely to already be connected through educational and Internet-based networks. An example is CITA (Independent Agricultural Workers Center) which matches farm owners in the US with people in other countries interested in temporary farm work in the US. The temporary worker can then get a H2 visa authorization to work at the farm. They hope to eventually be self-sustaining, but are currently structured as a non-profit and initially funded by donations. Michael Clemens blogged about CITA here. For related content, see our page on migrant labor in the US agricultural sector. There are probably similar opportunities for other countries and other worker types that help reduce the frictional costs of matching employers with employees across huge geographical distances.
  • Other creative workarounds: A few of these are listed at the migration arbitrage business opportunities page.

Making small changes or tweaks to the laws governing legal immigration

Another possible direction is to increase the quotas for legal immigration in various categories, or reduce the qualifications and requirements for those categories, or make other changes that facilitate increased levels of legal migration. I’m talking of small “tweaks” here that operate within the margins of public indifference, for which there is neither much public enthusiasm nor much public resistance. The startup visa might be an example. Effecting such a change, however, does not seem to be an easy task, at least in the US context, because any change in the immigration regime, however slight, is typically held up by demands for “comprehensive immigration reform” where the definition of “comprehensive” varies from person to person, and where the different sides of the debate often have diametrically opposite conceptions of reform.

Another possible area where policy might be more responsive to special interest lobbying while moving along the margin of public indifference is asylum advocacy. Continue reading “Possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders” »

Open borders advocates and private charity

This post is about an accusation of hypocrisy leveled at open borders advocates. For the philanthropic possibilities towards open borders, see possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders.

Restrictionists have attacked open borders advocates in a number of ways, but one recurring theme in many attacks is the hypocritical private behavior of open borders advocates. Do open borders advocates donate their money to starving children in Africa? If not, what right do they have to advocate open borders, which, in the restrictionist view, impose costs on natives for gains to foreigners? For instance, john oester:

So following your own children analogy, do you feel it morally appropriate to hold back any funds to allow your own children to live at anything more than the basest subsistence level, including a lack of all luxuries from shoes to a college education, while other people’s children are starving throughout the world? If so, then your actions and irrational favoritism of your spawn, are allowing equally deserving children throughout the world to starve just so your children can have central air conditioning, a new winter coat, or other trapping of such a wasteful American lifestyle. I find you to be a monster that you can possibly sleep at night knowing how many children in Sudan could be saved today if you simply signed over your full paycheck to USAid without delay….the clock is ticking.

It would be tempting for open borders advocates to dismiss this as an ad hominem attack and choose not to reply. However, I think that the concerns raised about open borders advocates’ private hypocrisy need to be addressed, particularly given that many open borders advocates rely on their personal credibility to support their arguments.

Let me begin by pointing out that there are radical utilitarians who argue for affirmative moral obligations to give, not just some, but a lot of, one’s wealth to alleviating poverty and its ill-effects, including to people you may never see or know and who live in far-away lands. And they argue this seriously, not as a reductio ad absurdum or to accuse people of hypocrisy. The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has used the drowning child analogy to argue that we are morally obligated to donate a substantial amount of wealth toward poverty alleviation. Singer begins with an observation that most people would sign on to: if your donation can directly save a life for a minor inconvenience to you, you should make the donation. He then goes on to observe, however, that even after you have made the donation, you can make a further donation to save a life, and so on, and therefore you should keep donating until the overall inconvenience to you is sufficiently substantial that donating more is comparably inconvenient to letting a person die. This apparently simple logic has radical implications for how much individuals should donate to poverty alleviation, as per Singer.

Libertarians like me take issue with this consequentialist utilitarian analysis, primarily on the grounds that donating to charity is supererogatory, so even in cases where it saves lives, it is not morally required (for more on my reasoning, see here and here). I would also add that there are a lot of local knowledge and information problems with figuring out what charities do how much good and why. Continue reading “Open borders advocates and private charity” »

The border as blindfold

For the record, I thought it might be worth jotting down what I think is really the reason people reject open borders. Maybe it would be better to say the deepest, most fundamental, most difficult-to-negotiate-with reason people reject open borders. I don’t mean for the restrictionist commenters here or at EconLog: they’re unrepresentative. I mean the reason for the typical person in a typical rich democratic country, the person who hasn’t specially thought about the issue a whole lot. And this is only a hunch. Not only is my evidence merely anecdotal, but it involves a lot of interpretation on top of those anecdotes.

The welfare state / fiscal burden argument against open borders, as well as the political externalities argument, are, as I see it, easily defeasible via keyhole solutions. I think the arguments themselves haven’t occurred to a lot of ordinary people, but the answers to them are simply (a) don’t make immigrants automatically eligible for welfare, and (b) don’t automatically give immigrants the vote. Problem solved. Of course, that’s not all there is to be said. It is possible to argue that excluding immigrants from the welfare state, or from the franchise, isn’t really feasible. I don’t think it is possible to be justifiably confident that excluding immigrants from the welfare state, or from the franchise, isn’t really feasible. At any rate, the difficulty of persuasion does not seem to lie there. Some restrictionists don’t make these arguments, or after making them at first abandon them when they hear the answers to them, yet still resist open borders.

Why? Partly it’s just a natural conservatism of the mind which doesn’t accept novelties, no matter how strong the case may seem to be at the moment. I think this can be wise. Confronted with an articulate advocate of an eccentric view, one may feel oneself bested in the argument but still have good reason to refuse to be persuaded. One hasn’t had time to collect all one’s arguments and/or articulate all one’s intuitions in favor of the mainstream view. One hasn’t had time to consult all the other people who agree with the mainstream view and figure out why they hold it. One may raise one’s estimate of the plausibility of the view, and put it as it were on probation, but reserve judgment until one has had time to absorb a broader range of evidence. “Some clever and earnest people think this,” one might think, “and on the surface they seem to make a strong case. They’re probably wrong because everyone disagrees with them, and most people with such atypical views are wrong. Still, I’ll be on the lookout now for what good arguments there really are for the prevailing view. They might have passed me by before without my noticing. Now I’ll notice them if I hear them. And if they don’t seem to come along, I’ll gradually raise my subjective probability that these eccentrics have really hit on the truth.” That’s how I hope Open Borders: The Case might be influencing some readers. It’s also sort of my response, as of now, to BK’s advocacy of an IQ and the Wealth of Nations-type thesis (see here for more of my take on that).

Anyway– now I’m finally getting to the point– the most stubborn reason I run into, which often seems to be at the bottom of all the others, is that the border protects people from seeing the poverty that it shuts out. As I put it in Principles of a Free Society:

So what an argument like Paul Krugman’s [that once they’re here, we have to take care of them] is that America’s moral obligation to “assure health care and a decent income” for a person is completely non-existent when that person is located outside America’s borders, then magically appears when a person crosses the Rio Grande.

The only guess I can offer as to why anyone would hold this belief is that people want to avoid, not actual guilt, but feelings of guilt that result when one has to see poverty close up. Migration controls serve as a blindfold, enabling Americans to ignore most of the poverty, deprivation, and vulnerability that exist in the world by keeping it physically at a distance. In the past, people lived without this blindfold. The wealthy lived amidst poverty, sometimes engaging in generous charity to the poor, sometimes learning, perhaps callously, to ignore them.

Citizens of a modern welfare state, by contrast, feel that the state should coerce people to give to the poor so as to remove from the streets the kind of visible poverty that would make them feel obliged to give, allowing them to feel conscientious and affluent at once. The price of this moral complacency is paid by would-be immigrants who are not allowed to come to America to better their condition by honest labor, lest their poverty trouble the consciences of affluent Americans. (Principles of a Free Society, p. 148)

Sometimes, people seem to think that immigration creates the poverty because people come here and are poor. Sometimes this is an argument of unguarded moments. Surprised by the failure of one or two favorite arguments, an until-recently-complacent restrictionist says, “But I don’t want to see people starving on the streets!”– even if they recognize that the people would be worse off elsewhere. Sometimes people seem to sense the weakness of the border-as-blindfold argument, and I get the feeling they’re casting about for other arguments, but that not wanting to see a lot of poverty on the streets of American cities is part of what is motivating them. In other cases, people are unapologetic. (I’ve argued this issue with a lot of people over the years.)

For example, one version of the argument I heard is that open borders would reduce private charity by inducing donor fatigue. That is, currently private charity plays an important role in helping the poor, but under open borders, people would see a lot more poverty and become callous, feeling the cause was hopeless, so private charity would fall in absolute terms. To this I would say (a) I doubt it: I think more visible poverty would evoke more private charity, though the average poor native might see less of it; and (b) even if private charity completely disappeared, that would be dwarfed by the benefits, according to the modal estimates, of open borders. But it was interesting to hear a conscientious defense of a position prima facie so embarrassing.

As I have noted elsewhere, using the border as a blindfold is analogous to the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan parable, who crossed to the other side of the road to avoid helping the wounded man. It is a self-interested rationale for closed borders, but self-interested in an odd way, since it presupposes that people feel empathy for their fellow human beings, but also that that empathy is situation-specific and instinctive rather than rational, and that the rational aspect of a person can avoid situations in which his instinct for pity will be awakened to his disadvantage. Maybe some of these people would, as Jesus told the rich young ruler in vain (Mark 10:21), sell all they had and give to the poor, if the world’s poor appeared on their doorstep, and they want the government to protect them from their own generous impulses by keeping the poor out of sight.

Again, all this is just vague guesswork about the thought processes of the typical restrictionist, derived from impressions in a variety of debates with many different kinds of people. I could be wrong, but anyway I think the phrase “the border as blindfold” is worth introducing to the conversation.