Tag Archives: refugees

Why the Cuba “wet feet, dry feet” policy should continue

The United States has historically had a wet feet, dry feet policy for Cuba, that basically says that people from Cuba who arrive at and stay for a nontrivial length in the United States would be allowed to stay in the United States and qualified for expedited “legal permanent resident” status. Historically, this measure was intended to undermine the communist regime in Cuba (for more background on US-Cuba relations, see Wikipedia and the Council on Foreign Relations). The recent thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States has led people to question the wisdom of continuing with the policy. When Cuba announced that it would be more relaxed in allowing people to leave the country for travel, Alex Nowrasteh wrote that this would be good for the US. Recently, US President Barack Obama, and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, announced a new chapter of cooperation in US-Cuba relations. Is the “wet feet, dry feet” policy still relevant?

How the wet feet, dry feet policy is discriminatory

Image credit: Batista’s Cuba Still Hurts U. S. Image. A Little Girl Shows Us How Much from Cuban Insider

Jason Dzubow, author of the Asylumist, a thoughtful blog on asylum and refugee issues, thinks it’s time to end the policy. He writes:

It seems to me that the CAA and our over-all Cuba policy exists because of our government’s decision that this was the best way to isolate the Castro regime and force democratic change on our island neighbor. More specifically, anti-Castro Cubans in Miami pushed our nation’s Cuba policy towards the all-stick, no-carrot approach that—50 years later—has accomplished nothing. Now, it seems attitudes among the Cuban American community have shifted. To be sure, many still oppose normalization, but—so far at least—we have not seen the type of angry, in-the-streets reaction that characterized the Elian Gonzales affair during the Clinton Presidency. Perhaps there is more widespread recognition that the old policy hasn’t worked, and that we need to try something new.

So now that we are moving towards a new phase in our relationship with Cuba, it makes sense to end the CAA. The situation in Cuba is less dangerous than in many other countries, and so there is no longer any justification for the CAA based on humanitarian reasons (though I believe there really never was a valid justification for the law based on humanitarian reasons). The only logical reason for the CAA was as a propaganda tool against the Castro regime. I doubt this ever really worked (except maybe in the minds of some in the anti-Castro Cuban community), and—given that we are moving towards normalized relations—it certainly makes no sense at all any more.

All of this is not to say that the Cuban regime respects human rights or allows political dissent. It’s clear that the government represses the political opposition, and that it detains and persecutes perceived opponents. But that type of behavior is, unfortunately, all too common in many countries, and it does not justify a blanket asylum for everyone who comes from a country with a poor human rights record. Indeed, it is exactly why we have an asylum system in the first place.

Dzubow makes a number of valid points. I don’t think the “wet feet, dry feet” policy is sufficiently important that it is worth maintaining at high political and diplomatic cost. However, I think that proactively trying to get rid of it to engineer a fairer system is misguided. I describe three reasons below:

  1. True fairness requires open borders, not equitable miserly treatment of refugees from all countries
  2. Shortening the queue: special treatment for Cubans means less backlog for other countries
  3. The value of precedent

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Paul Krugman and the Immigration Act of 1924

In 2006 Paul Krugman, prominent liberal economist and New York Times columnist, expressed concern that low-skilled immigration could threaten the American welfare state.  Due to this supposed threat and the claim that the wages of some Americans were lowered because of immigration, he supported a reduction in the number of low-skilled immigrants entering the U.S. (See here for this site’s page on Mr. Krugman.)

So it wasn’t surprising when Mr. Krugman recently declared that he didn’t support open borders.  What was surprising was that he justified immigration restrictions that were enacted in the early 1920s. He stated that without those restrictions the New Deal in the United States “wouldn’t have been possible,” in part because “…there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.” The New Deal of the 1930s, as many readers may know, involved the establishment under Franklin D. Roosevelt of government programs which continue to exist today, such as monetary support for the elderly (Social Security) and aid to poor mothers and their children.

The immigration legislation to which Mr. Krugman referred included the Immigration Act of 1921, which established the first numerical restrictions on European immigration.  It was followed by the longer lasting Immigration Act of 1924, which also involved numerical restrictions and a national origins quota system in which visas were apportioned predominately to immigrants coming from northwest Europe. Maldwyn Jones, author of American Immigration, notes that:

it was American policy which brought to an end the century-long mass movement from Europe. The adoption of the quota system… all but slammed the door on the southern and eastern Europeans who had formed the bulk of the arrivals in the prewar (World War I) and immediate postwar periods. The result was that European immigration slumped from over 800,000 in 1921 to less than 150,000 by the end of the decade. (page 279)

The legislation was in many respects the model for our current immigration system, with its numerical limitations on immigration from individual countries, numerical limitations for certain categories of immigrants,  use of preference groups within these categories, consular control over permission to immigrate, and the creation of the Border Patrol. From an open borders perspective, it was a disaster, ending a long period of generally open immigration from Europe.

Whether or not Mr. Krugman is correct or not that the 1920s immigration restrictions helped to provide a political environment conducive to passing the New Deal legislation, there are two reasons why his support for the restrictions are surprising. One is that the legislation was largely racist. The Immigration Act of 1924 was inspired by racist sentiment and, as noted, discriminated against the immigration of people from eastern and southern Europe, who were perceived by some to be racially inferior. As John Higham has written in Strangers in the Land, as the House of Representatives worked towards the 1924 legislation, the champions of the legislation:

now largely ignored the economic arguments they had advanced in behalf of the first quota law three years before. Instead, they talked about preserving a ‘distinct American type,’ about keeping American for Americans, or about saving the Nordic race from being swamped. The Ku Klux Klan, which was organizing a vigorous letter-writing campaign in support of the Johnson bill, probably aided and abetted this swell of racial nativism… (page 321)

The second reason why it is surprising Mr. Krugman would be supportive of the 1924 immigration law is that because it, combined with other restrictionist maneuvering, blocked many of Europe’s Jews from fleeing the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s. David Wyman has written in Paper Walls that,

if, in the crucial years from 1938 to 1941, the world had opened its doors to the victims of persecution, the history of Europe’s Jews from 1942 to 1945 would have been significantly different. Instead the barriers held firm and relatively few refugees found asylum. (page xiii)

Mr. Wyman also has noted that although America received more refugees (about 250,000) from Nazism than other countries during the period 1933 to 1945 (p. 209),  “the total response of the United States… fell tragically short of the need.” (preface) According to Mr. Wyman, it was the 1924 law that was the fundamental barrier to the people seeking refuge in the U.S., noting that “the quota limitations formed by far the most significant bulwark against large-scale American rescue of refugees.” (p. 210)

It is difficult to determine the number of would-be refugees who were killed because of U.S. immigration restrictions.  However, the following information from the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum site suggests the large numbers who were put at risk from the restrictions:

In late 1938, 125,000 applicants lined up outside US consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000. Most visa applicants were unsuccessful.

The fate of 908 refugees aboard the ship named the St. Louis who were denied refuge in the U.S. in 1939 is more certain, with 254 perishing in the Holocaust.  Mr. Wyman also notes that other refugee ships, either without a place to land or planning to land illegally in Palestine, sank, drowning hundreds. (pp. 38-39)

Mr. Krugman must surely be bothered by the racist nature of the 1924 legislation and must certainly wish that the U.S. had been more welcoming to refugees during the Nazi period. Furthermore he has noted that he is “grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.” Had his grandparents tried to enter America after the 1924 restrictions were in place, they may not have been allowed in and may have perished at the hands of the Nazis.

How does Mr. Krugman square all this with his support for the 1924 immigration legislation? Was the suffering associated with the legislation an acceptable sacrifice in order to ensure that the New Deal legislation could be passed? Mr. Krugman might respond to this question by wishing that the U.S. had adopted a more generous refugee policy during the Nazi period within a system of immigration restriction, but the fact is that the U.S. didn’t.

Of course, even setting aside the history of the American immigration system’s response to the refugees fleeing the Nazis, the suffering associated with immigration restrictions are immense. Co-blogger Nathan Smith challenges Mr. Krugman’s suggestion that the American welfare state is of higher moral value than open borders.  He writes that: 

Krugman wants a social democratic welfare state even at the cost of excluding most of mankind by force. I start from a utilitarian universalist ethics and conclude that its need for immigration exclusion renders the welfare state a moral travesty. 

Nathan argues that a truly moral anti-poverty policy would focus on alleviating the extreme poverty of the Third World rather than the poverty found in the U.S.:  “Domestic redistribution is at best from the very-rich to the relatively-rich.”  He writes that “the best thing America could do for the poor is to open the borders.”

I support both open borders and the welfare state.  Fortunately, perhaps with the use of keyhole solutions, countries may be able to have both. Mr. Krugman should explore this possibility, as well as reconsider his support for the 1924 immigration legislation.

Featured image: Paul Krugman’s press conference following his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics, by Prolineserver from Wikimedia Commons.

Junk the international refugee system, and open the borders

Refugee and asylum are hot topics these days, with conflict across the world and criminal violence often forcing people to set off for distant lands in search of a better life. It seems to me that most people arguing this issue operate under two misapprehensions regarding how refugee law works:

  1. They believe that refugees don’t have very particular or special rights to migrate under the law — refugees crossing a border without submitting to inspection is unlawful, and countries don’t have special obligations to accept refugees who set foot on their territory.
  2. They believe that international and domestic law adequately protects the rights of refugees, and that most of the problems to do with refugee and asylum-seeker rights originate from governments failing to adhere to their legal obligations, rather than any fundamental failing of refugee law.

Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond. Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor
Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond.
Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor, used in the New Statesman article From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants

Remarkably, I’ve encountered people who hold both views. Usually adherents of #1 are people who don’t know much about refugee law, and/or anti-immigration restrictionists, while adherents of #2 are generally mainstream left liberals. But there are certainly some people who appear to hold both sets of beliefs (possibly because they completely misunderstand both how refugee law works and the actual situation refugees face).

It’s actually pretty easy to debunk belief #1 — international law, and the domestic law of most developed countries (the US included) gives anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to seek and obtain asylum outside their home country, becoming a refugee. You need to do nothing special to enter another country. If you have a legitimate refugee claim, crossing the border without initially obtaining any papers or passing any government inspection is completely legal. (If you think this doesn’t make sense, then consider that it wouldn’t make sense to prevent people from fleeing the Holocaust because their papers at the time weren’t in order.)

After you’ve left your home country and entered the country you’d like to seek asylum in, you must begin the formal process of obtaining refugee status — i.e., you have to start filling out forms and making your case for asylum. In most cases, this means a judge or other government official has to formally rule that you are a legitimate refugee. If they do, then you’re typically scot free and become a legal immigrant under the country’s immigration laws. If the judge rules you’re not a legitimate refugee — maybe the violence you fled wasn’t the right kind of violence — then you’ll be sent home.

Sometimes, you might not want to resettle permanently in the country you initially flee to. In some cases, governments, charities, and/or international bodies will help you migrate elsewhere under a formal refugee resettlement programme. This is usually centrally managed or planned by some large government or intergovernment bureaucracy.

Most countries are reluctant to help refugees resettle; the United Kingdom for example has said it will only resettle 500 refugees from Syria — a country beset by a civil war which has displaced millions of innocents. (“Displaced” of course is an euphemism for “forced millions to leave their home under the threat of murder, rape, or torture”.) As a result, the queues for resettlement are long and few refugees have any serious prospect for being resettled elsewhere — which is why most Syrian refugees are trapped in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

What I’ve just described is not fanciful or imagined — it’s the international refugee system as codified in international law and the domestic law of many countries. The “illegals” who show up in your waters on rickety boats or cross the desert straddling your border are, in many cases, people with legitimate asylum claims — which makes what they’re doing completely legal. They are no more wrong than a Jew fleeing the Holocaust would have been in trying to get to your country.

Now, it seems funky that I think the belief #2 I described is wrong. This system of refugee management has its flaws like any human creation, but it certainly sounds like it would, if implemented properly and in good faith, enable refugees to migrate away from persecution and violence. The line it draws between refugees and those seeking to migrate for other reasons is perhaps arbitrary, but not unreasonable on the face of it — if we had to pick and choose only one type of migrant for some reason, most of us would probably agree we ought to welcome the person fleeing murder.

But in the real world, it turns out that figuring out which side of this arbitrary line one is on can be difficult. It’s actually unclear, for example, whether child migrants to the US fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (“fleeing gang violence” here being an euphemism for “running away from people who’ve threatened to rape and then kill them”) actually legally qualify for refugee status. Even if they don’t, they arguably qualify for other protective status of some kind offered by US immigration law, but this is hardly a well-settled legal issue.

Some refugee advocates think the US government should offer special parole to these Latin American migrants, since they don’t fit any typical legal category of refugee. Others, like the UN and even the president of Honduras, argue that although they might not meet the technical definition of refugee, these people certainly fit the spirit and intention of refugee law, and should be classified as such.

Putting aside the thorny issue of child asylum-seekers for the moment, let’s reflect on the ludicrousness of the fact that most countries will not permit anyone claiming refugee status to actually legally travel there. If you enter irregularly, you can fully assert your legal right to stay — but it is illegal for you to travel in order to assert this legal right of asylum!

Say you want to fly from Guatemala to the US, or from Syria to the US, you need a visa. If you can’t prove you have the legal right to travel to the US, no airline or shipping company will issue you a ticket. Since almost all refugees can’t prove they have this right — thanks to the legal system requiring you to be present on the country’s territory to assert your asylum claim — almost all refugees and asylum-seekers are compelled to enter via irregular means, and seek out the aid of smugglers.

The refugees or migrants undertaking an arduous and dangerous journey from Somalia to Italy or Guatemala to the US do so not because they are criminals who have to resort to illegal means by virtue of their own evil — they do so because there is no legal way for them to travel to the US. Some refugees and asylum-seekers resort to other types of crime to travel in search of safety — I have heard stories of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka flying to Western countries by faking fraudulent tourist or immigrant visas in their passports. After boarding their flight using this false documentation, they destroy the fraudulent documents, and claim asylum upon landing. This sort of fraud or human smuggling is just the perfectly-foreseeable and indefensible outcome of a legal system which criminalises the ordinary travel of people who already have the legal right to migrate.

Worse still, any good faith implementation of this legal system still must grapple with the problem of differentiating legitimate refugees from mere “economic migrants” or people seeking to reunite with family. Since international refugee law is silent about the rights of non-refugee migrants, even countries following this legal system in good faith feel free to persecute economic migrants. So if, say, the US government takes measures to deter Latin Americans from coming, this will inevitably discourage not just economic migrants. This will also discourage those who already have the legal right to migrate from exercising those legal rights accorded to them under US and international law. And there’s nothing wrong with this under refugee law, because state violence and coercion of economic migrants is perfectly fine.

To put the implications here in more concrete terms, ostensibly civilised developed countries really do try hard to intercept migrants — almost indiscriminately — before they reach their soil. If you can keep a potential asylum-seeker from touching land, then you can prevent them from ever asserting an asylum claim in the first place — even if they would be completely entitled to do so under your country’s laws. The international refugee system creates a perverse incentive to try very hard to keep refugees from coming, by offering this as a legal channel to stop them. And while states can certainly go overboard in taking harsh measures here, virtually all of them can find some ostensibly good-faith justification for doing so. After all, they aren’t intercepting these migrants for the sake of punishing refugees — they just want to stop economic migration!

This is exactly why Australia tries very hard, for example, to intercept migrants before they reach its waters, and to “process” any asylum claims offshore in countries like Nauru. While what they are doing might run afoul of the spirit of the law, Australia claims to be abiding by the exact letter of international and domestic refugee law. Similarly, the coast guards of European states like Greece and Italy often work to intercept migrants’ boats before they enter their waters — and if these boats do enter their waters, it is not unheard of for the coast guard to actually tow them back out. Such tows or “pushbacks” are actually illegal under refugee law, but there is nothing to prevent the coast guard from doing this, and there’s a very strong incentive to keep these people from touching land and asserting any claims of asylum.

Finally, the international refugee system in at least one important respect appears to be a figleaf for rich countries to disguise how they foist the responsibility for dealing with refugees onto poorer countries. Consider the present Syrian refugee crisis: millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them live in camps in Syria. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and become refugees there.

Under refugee law, these people are now trapped in the country they’ve initially claimed asylum in. The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan aren’t trying to gas them to death like Bashar Assad is, nor are they trying to oppress them in the way the Islamic State is presently doing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So these people have no legal way to leave the countries they initially flee to — and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan just have to deal with these populations.

In theory, the UN and various governments would work together to help resettle these refugees elsewhere in the world, so they don’t just burden the countries immediately next to the calamity that caused them to flee. In practice, rich countries like the UK agree to take a couple hundred refugees and call it a day.

People claim that taking refugees would overwhelm their countries. People from the West and other richer countries (like my own, Malaysia) can give all sorts of great excuses for why they cannot take in more than a few hundred refugees. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon had no choice but to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees — this was and is their obligation under international law. Short of the conflict ending, there is no way for these migrants to leave. If a refugee living in Jordan or Turkey tries to migrate elsewhere, they can be legally rejected and treated as a mere “illegal” — they’re just “economic migrants”, not real “refugees”, since the governments of Jordan and Turkey don’t actually try to kill these people.

I won’t argue that these countries are perfect, or that they’ve been perfectly able to cope with these inflows, but it’s plain as day that these refugee flows have not caused a humanitarian disaster to befall the nationals of these countries. I don’t see masses of Turks, Jordanians, or Lebanese starving or going without shelter because of resources diverted to caring for Syrian refugees. If these poor and relatively small countries can cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is frankly absurd that far richer and larger countries like Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK — or even Malaysia — can only cope with taking in a few hundred. Yet this absurdity is exactly what the international refugee system would recommend.

The international refugee system was meant to protect the rights of refugees to seek refuge from violence. Yet the outcome has been something quite plainly different. People seeking asylum from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who are caught by Australia and “processed” offshore live in detention camps where the conditions are so terrible that they often wish they’d never come — which is likely the desired effect from the Australian government’s point of view. Children fleeing threats of rape or murder from places like Honduras are now at risk of being deported back to face their assailants, simply because they might not technically be refugees. Governments pursue harsh measures to deter channels for migration, in the name of “legitimately” excluding economic migrants, even if these harsh measures force legitimate refugees to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys which leave them at the mercy of illicit smugglers and violent criminals.

Now, of course, you could argue that it’s only “fair” to take some measures to deter economic migration, even if harming a few refugees is the resulting collateral damage. Refugee advocate Sonia Nazario vehemently demands the deportation of economic migrants. The operative assumption seems to be that these migrants aren’t fleeing “real” danger or suffering.

I’ll let journalist Stephan Faris field this one, from his book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration:

Life expectancy in [Nigeria] is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30.

If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.

And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred.

The modern refugee system at its heart is incapable of assisting many fleeing truly horrific danger and suffering.

If a murderous dictator wants to murder your child, and you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who specialise in human trafficking via life-threatening desert or sea routes so your child can make it to Western soil, you might be able to make a claim of asylum and save his or her life.

But if your child dies from diarrhea because his parents were forced to live in a country with terrible health infrastructure and a poor medical system, then that’s totally fair. Any attempt you might have made to bring him to a country where doctors actually know how to treat diarrhea would have been mere “economic migration” — an unlawful act!

Development economist Lant Pritchett captures the absurdity well in his book Let Their People Come:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Almost as a perfect reductio ad absurdum, Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times has compared the low mortality rates in the United States to the even lower mortality rates in Singapore to discuss the issue of less than 20,000 missing Americans — with no mention of the issue that is smaller by orders of magnitude than the missing people in any poor country.

Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.

Trying to arbitrarily redefine migration as a privilege accessible only to “legitimate” refugees is no way to protect human rights. Drawing this arbitrary line is merely an excuse for tolerating government oppression of innocent migrants, even the actual refugees among them. If we really care about human rights and the rights of refugees, then we ought to just junk the international refugee system — and open the borders.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you:

Reparations are not a sound basis for making immigration policy

The recent influx of child migrants into the US has put immigration and refugee issues in the limelight. Because many of these children are fleeing violence in countries like Honduras and El Salvador — countries where US foreign policy has empowered violent gangs and created political instability — the debate has also seen the resurgence of what I call the “reparations argument” for liberal migration laws.

In essence, this argument runs:

  • The US (or whatever potential host country is being discussed) created a bad situation in the migrant-/refugee-sending countries
  • Therefore, the US is actually responsible for creating the flow of migrants from these countries
  • Therefore, the US must do one or more of the following:
    • Welcome these migrants
    • Send more foreign aid to these countries
    • Change its foreign policy

This cartoon from the Facebook page Muh Borders is a good summary of the reparations argument:
If you didn't want to deal with refugees, you shouldn't have f***ed with their countriesNow, I think this argument does make logical sense and is a pretty decent framework for thinking about foreign policy. If one nation wrongs another, it seems intuitive that reparations should be on the table.

But I don’t think the reparations argument makes sense as a justification for the status quo plus limited liberal treatment of migrants from certain nationalities. It could perhaps be logical to say “We ought to recognise the right to migrate for all people. But if we can’t agree on that, we should at least agree that those people we have harmed have an especially strong claim on the right to migrate.”

But note that this reparations argument is pretty much orthogonal to the case for open borders — it doesn’t have much bearing on the question of whether we ought to recognise a right to migrate, which is probably why not many open borders advocates rely on it. Reparations are just a “second best” argument. Indeed, the only open borders advocate I’m aware of who regularly uses this argument as direct support is Aviva Chomsky, and as both co-blogger Vipul and myself have noted before, her arguments are actually not that sound.

The problem becomes acute once we depart from making the case for general open borders, and just attempt to marshal this reparations argument for selective openness as the very best solution. e.g., “There isn’t any such thing as a right to migrate, but we should at least let people from countries we’ve harmed come here.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how much suffering excluding and deporting innocent people might cause — you’re perfectly in the right to do this unless you’ve originally created suffering in their home countries.

This may sound appealing and consistent at first, but actually making this argument work in practical terms is maddeningly hard. Nobody I have seen making this case actually clearly articulates the exact details of how they’ve concluded open borders with a given country (such as Guatemala) are a moral imperative, while still rejecting open borders for other countries.

After all, although most of the child migrants arriving in the US today are from countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, these three countries are far from the only ones in Latin America who have been wronged by the US. The US sponsored a coup in Chile; the US has a history of repeatedly invading Haiti; the US once invaded Mexico and occupied its capital city; in the lifetime of many of us, one of the biggest political scandals in the US was its funneling of arms into Nicaragua to destabilise the government. And if we’re going to talk about the harmful effects of the drug war, surely gang wars in Mexico and Colombia ought to be in the picture too. What’s the reason the US shouldn’t have open borders with — or at least adopt a more liberal stance towards migration from — these countries?

But wait, there’s more: we’ve only been talking about the countries of the Western hemisphere. Elsewhere on the globe, it wasn’t long ago that the US waged a war in Vietnam, and dropped bombs and chemical weapons over Cambodia and Laos. It colonised the Philippines for decades, imposing an initial harsh military occupation to subjugate Filipino nationalists bent on independence for their country. The US has directly sponsored the weapons used to murder hundreds of innocent Palestinians and subsidised the Egyptian and Israeli governments which prevent Palestinians from fleeing violence in Gaza or seeking work and opportunity outside a narrow strip of land. And, of course, it would be hard to argue the US isn’t responsible for much of the violence happening in Iraq and Afghanistan today. If we count the second order impacts of those recent American invasions, we could certainly argue these invasions have dreadfully harmed the people of Syria and Pakistan as well by empowering Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in those countries.

I don’t necessarily endorse the argument that because the US has pursued policies which have harmed the people of the countries I just named, the US is obligated to pay reparations to these countries, or offer reparations in the form of liberal treatment for their nationals who might want to migrate to the US.  My point in laying out these hypothetical arguments is that not a single person who wants liberal treatment specifically for El Salvadoran or Guatemalan asylum seekers on the basis of reparations owed has explained why their argument wouldn’t justify similar treatment for nationals of other countries who have been severely harmed by American policy.

That said, let’s assume we can resolve this tension somehow — either we find some intellectually consistent way to welcome El Salvadorans while deporting Mexicans (note that this is actually close to the status quo for unaccompanied child migrants in the US), or we choose to welcome the nationals of any country the US has harmed (within some reasonable and widely-agreed upon definition of harm).

The other leg of this argument tends to be some form of the following: accepting these migrants will be a temporary form of relief for these countries, while we figure out a way to help them and make proper reparation for messing them up in the first place. In other words, if the US dumps billions of dollars into El Salvador and shuts down the drug war, then deporting El Salvadorans and treating them as “illegals” will become morally acceptable.

I think people who advance this argument often believe that if the US stops its harmful policies and makes large enough aid payments to these countries, then these countries will bloom and prosper,

  • making it justifiable to deport people back to these countries; and/or,
  • reducing or eliminating any flows of migrants from these countries, since people wouldn’t want to leave.

Embedded in all this is the huge assumption that it would be possible for the US to magically destroy the problems of political instability, corrupt institutions, gang warfare, and rotten infrastructure that might plague these countries, if only the US were to do something different. I find this assumption incredibly questionable, to put it lightly.

But let’s say that the US were able to accomplish the incredibly-unlikely, and actually wipe out the worst poverty and violence that plague many of the countries whose people are desperate to seek a better life in the US. Would this reduce or even eliminate migrant flows? The evidence suggests that in general, such economic development would lead to more migration.

The reason is simple: people who are very poor can’t afford an expensive journey, even if the economic returns from taking a job in a much more developed economy would more than justify it. They simply don’t have the money to finance it. As countries become richer, their people become better able to afford the journey, and so more of them will leave in search of better work and fairer wages.

So in all likelihood, pursuing reparations for the US’s past harms to these countries will not markedly stem the pressure to migrate to the US or other developed countries in search of a better life. Advocates making the reparations argument don’t even present empirical evidence that throwing billions of dollars at these countries will fix their problems (whether or not the US created those problems in the first place) — they assume that magically the US can do something different, and all the problems will go away. Worse still, they ignore empirical evidence that assuming their proposed reforms actually succeed in helping these countries develop, the likely outcome will be even stronger pressure to migrate for better jobs and wages.

Rohingya refugee family beg the Bangladeshi coast guard to not deport them

What then? Would it be just and right to tell an El Salvadoran child fleeing rape or murder “You have to go home because we paid your government a few billion dollars — that you’ll be killed or raped because we’re deporting you is now not our problem”? Would it actually be honest to say that the US isn’t responsible for the death or rape of this child if the US government then sends this child “home” to be raped and killed? Heck, if the child just dies of starvation or illness because his home country doesn’t have a functioning economy or healthcare system — i.e., the child is just an “economic migrant” — would it somehow be any better that the US sent him back to die?

My answers to these questions is, of course, no. But the reason why I answer in the negative has nothing to do with whether the US owes any reparations to the people of the countries it has harmed — as important an issue as that may be. It is fundamentally unjust to exclude an innocent human being — especially one fleeing violence or murder — purely because of where they are from. Where these people are from simply does not matter — every government owes justice to every human being under its jurisdiction. Excluding innocent human beings purely because of their national origin is at its heart an act of barbarism and injustice.

What does the future hold for asylees in Australia?

I am a optimist when it comes to the future for Australia. The island nation of twenty three million souls is located far away from any geopolitical troubles with opposing polities. It has been gifted with British legal and economic institutions that have allowed it to enjoy stable economic growth throughout its existence.

It does face one major problem though: demographics. Despite its large expanse the continent’s population is slightly smaller than New York’s metropolitan area. The traditional argument had been that Australia is incapable of housing a larger population due to natural resource limitations. There is some in truth in this argument. Much of the continent’s arable land is in the southeastern portion of the continent and this is where most of the current population huddles around.

However limited natural resources are an insufficient explanation for why the continent has such a small population when one considers the large populations of resource starved Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. It is more likely that Australia’s population has been held back by restrictive immigration measures instead of any natural resource limitations. Since before it attained its independence Australia pursued a ‘White Australia‘ policy that only allowed white migrants. The White Australia policy was promoted out of mix of citizenism and partly as a geopolitical measure. Australia is remote enough that it is extremely doubtful any foreign power could ever invade it, but open borders would likely see those of Asian descent quickly outnumber the current white population. For some this result would be little different than an invasion even if the new Asian migrants assimilated to Australian culture or political life.

The White Australia policy was dismantled gradually and officially removed in 1978 when the country’s immigration laws were reformed. As I have written elsewhere, Australia today enjoys some of the most liberal immigration laws when it comes to mid and high skilled migrants thanks to these reforms. It would however be wrong to praise the Australian immigration system without addressing its short comings elsewhere.

The White Australia policy has not been official policy for over three decades but the lack of a viable method for low-skilled workers to enter has acted to effectively perpetuate discrimination against non-whites. In its defense the Australian government policies discriminate against low-skilled migrants. Further research on Australia should attempt to see admission rates of skilled migrants from non-white and white countries alike to see if there is any significant statistical difference  between the two ceteris paribus. Is Australia discriminating against low skilled migrants as a round about way of keeping out non-whites? Or has Australia genuinely moved away from the past injustices of the White Australia policy?Unlawful Non-Citizens by Source Country

If Australia were closer to its neighbors it would likely house a large illegal immigration population from its poorer neighbors. Thanks to its geographic remoteness though the country has only 60,900 illegal aliens as of 2012, equal to less than .3% of its total population. The overwhelming number of these entered on a legal visa and as the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection points out, “most UNCs [Unlawful Non-Citizens] only overstay their visa for a short period and then depart voluntarily.” As such the long term illegal alien population should be assumed to be a small fraction of the figures presented here.

Instead of attempting to enter unlawfully would-be migrants attempt to apply for asylum. Most of these asylum seekers use Indonesia as a launching pad and thereafter ride on rafts or small boats with the hope of reaching Australia’s jurisdiction in order to apply for asylum. Unfortunately some of these rafts are stopped by Australian naval forces, sink at sea due to unfavorable weather conditions, or otherwise never reach Australia. Looking at Australia’s humanitarian migration statistics gives us some idea of who these asylum seekers are. Unsurprisingly most are low skilled migrants fleeing war and poverty ridden countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

One would hope that Australia would welcome asylees, but thus far its politicians have sought to increase the difficulty involved in applying for asylum. Throughout its history with asylum seekers the Australian government has sought to process them offshore in neighboring third countries like Nauru or Papua New Guinea. The logic for offshore processing is that it discourages asylum seekers from coming if they believe they will be stuck in a resettlement camp, away from any legal aid or reliable humanitarian aid, for an indefinite period while their applications are processed.

If offshore processing was not enough “Illegal Maritime Arrivals“, as the Australian Department of Immigration refers to asylum seekers, are no longer able to petition for visas for their family under the  humanitarian program. This both discourages asylum seekers and encourages those who do come to make the dangerous trans-oceanic trip with their family in order to avoid being split up. The immigration department has also made it clear that no permanent visa will be granted to illegal maritime arrivals.

In recent years Australia has attempted to push asylees towards resettling in Papua New Guinea. Australian officials assert that Papua New Guinea is a safe third country capable of assisting the asylees. Papua New Guinea’s political elites seem to support the ‘PNG solution’ in exchange for bribes in the form of international aid.

Australia is not the first country to move its asylee population to a third country. The United States and Canada are both parties to a Safe Third Country Agreement which allows them to move refugees between one another to best suit their national interests and the interests of the refugees. The difference here though is that both the United States and Canada are well developed countries with the resources necessary to provide humanitarian services. Papua New Guinea on the other hand is an undeveloped nation whose government is unable to provide adequate services for its current population let alone newcomers. For our US audience this would be comparable to the United States moving its illegal alien population to Haiti. Alternatively for our European audience this would be akin to rounding up irregular migrants from northern Africa and moving them into Syria.

Illegal immigrants in the United States have support among the larger migrant community, from sympathetic natives, the governments of their source countries, and in recent years have grown in sufficient affluence that they are capable of advocating on their own behalf. The support system for Australian asylees is not yet so developed.

Indonesia, which acts as the launching point for most of these asylees,  is attempting to persuade Australia to be more welcoming of asylees and has even appealed to the United Nations for help. Some even hope that the United States Secretary of State John Kerry might intervene, but it is doubtful that the secretary will do so. Australia may not be considered a world power, but it is easily the dominant Oceanic power in both economic and military terms. This means that no neighboring power can easily use diplomacy to convince Australian politicians to reform their asylee policies.

Table 7-2: Country of birth of Australia’s overseas born population, 1996 and 2011.

A little over a quarter of Australia’s population is foreign born and ordinarily this might encourage politicians to adopt more friendly policies towards asylees and migrants as a whole. Sadly most of the country’s migrants are from the United Kingdom or New Zealand who enjoy relaxed migration proceedings and therefore have little interest in campaigning on behalf of letting in low skilled asylees in.

As the above table from the Australian government’s latest migration trend paper shows, there is a growing number of Indians and Chinese migrants who might better sympathize with the plight of the asylees but even here it is unclear if this is enough to ferment the creation of an Australian open borders movement since these migrants tend to be high skilled and therefore enjoy a relatively warm welcome compared to low skilled migrants. It would be fruitful for future research on the situation in Australia to see what the attitudes of migrant Chinese and Indians are towards the prospect of relaxing migration rules for low skilled migrants.

None of this should be taken to mean that Australia’s higher skilled migrants do not seek any sort of immigration reform. Kiwis, those of New Zealand descent and Australia’s second largest migrant group, are starting to demand better treatment when migrating. However Kiwis are not fighting over the right to adobe in Australia, they enjoy that privilege thanks to the Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement. Kiwis are fighting to regain their preferred status in Australian immigration law and welfare benefits.

Previously Kiwis were effectively treated little different from native Australians when it came to welfare benefits but these benefits were removed in 2001 and Kiwis must now seek full citizenship if they wish to regain their access to Australia’s welfare programs. Kiwis also previously enjoyed a special pathway to Australian citizenship but due to the aforementioned 2001 agreement they must now apply for permanent residency and apply to citizenship like other migrants. Kiwi migrants and asylees may both want immigration reform in Australia but their goals are so different that it is unlikely that they will become political allies in the near future. If the Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement were ever in serious danger of being repealed then we might see a larger pro-migrant political alliance form.

In summary I have high hopes for Australia’s future but am less optimistic about the possibility of it adopting a viable entryway for low skilled asylees. I am a bit more optimistic that Kiwi demands will be met. Australia is by no means an anti-migrant country. It has a large foreign born population in both raw numbers and as a percentage of the total population. It also has one of the easiest methods to allow mid and high skilled migrants to enter for temporary work or to be become long term Australian citizens. The Australian people should be proud to have such policies and one could only hope the United States follows Australia’s example on those issues. Alas open borders aren’t truly open if we restrict entrance to those who most benefit from migration!