Tag Archives: self-deportation

Incentives to be accurate about what forms of enforcement work

Does “self-deportation” (also known as attrition through enforcement) work, if the goal is to cut down on (unauthorized) immigration? For those who want to cut such immigration down, this is a key question to answer. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA, CIS and VDARE have generally taken the stance that attrition through enforcement is a workable strategy (see here, here, and here). The Immigration Policy Center, on the other hand, has argued otherwise.

I laid out hints of my own position on the matter here and here. Briefly put, yes, attrition through enforcement does work, but it also imposes costs and collateral damage on citizens/residents. After some reflection, though, it occurred to me that even without knowing much about the details, one would be led to suspect this.

I begin with the assumption that restrictionists actually want to achieve what they say they want to achieve — that there should be less future immigration (legal and illegal) and that most current illegal immigrants should leave the country. It is, of course, possible that people like Mark Krikorian don’t really want their stated agenda to be implemented, because it would make their jobs as restrictionist advocates superfluous. I find this unlikely, because it seems to me that restrictionists are generally extremely talented people who can find employment in a number of areas that involve the skillful and convincing presentation of a weak case — as lawyers, political aides, or lobbyists — and that their sticking to the relatively less lucrative area of immigration restrictionism is at least partly explained by genuine conviction.

If restrictionists sincerely want what they say they want, this means that their incentives are very much aligned towards determining how to achieve it. Thus, when they evaluate policies like attrition through enforcement and border security, they’re probably the best judges of the effectiveness of these policies.

On the other hand, open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups don’t want immigration enforcement (for the most part) to succeed — or at any rate, not without corresponding liberalizations of immigration policy. Their incentives, therefore, are not well-aligned towards an unbiased evaluation of the success or failure of these policies. To an extent, they face conflicting incentives. If they see a particular enforcement measure that is cheaper and more “effective” at achieving restrictionist ends, do they acknowledge this — and end up providing free service to the restrictionist cause — or disingenuously deny it, coming up with reasons against? I suspect that this is a very real dilemma, and many immigrant rights groups resolve it by fooling themselves into thinking that the effective methods of enforcement are ineffective. It’s similar to how drug use legalization people might feel at being asked to evaluate the effectiveness of drug raids at imprisoning drug users.

For these reasons, you’d see why one might have a strong prior that restrictionists would be more likely to have figured out the best methods of achieving their goals than open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups.

Nonetheless, there is another side to the picture: cost and collateral damage. Here, the incentives for restrictionists are bad. Without knowing the details, one would be led to suspect that restrictionists would systematically underestimate the cost and collateral damage of their proposed methods to citizens and natives. The reason is that hardcore restrictionists have a much higher preference for getting rid of illegal immigrants than the general public, so in order to sell their message to a relatively less (but still highly) restrictionist public, they’d need to underplay the collateral costs of their policies. On the other hand, immigrant rights and open borders advocacy groups would be quick to point out the collateral damage to citizens, and run sympathetic stories of citizens, authorized immigrants, and tourists on valid visas getting detained and harmed by over-enthusiastic enforcement.

My own take on this matter is that the best response for a hardcore open borders advocate to discussions of what forms of enforcement work is to first acknowledge that his/her own complete disagreement with the end goal makes him/her an extremely bad person to consult regarding the means to be used towards that end. One can think of this almost in the sense of a “conscientious objector” who refuses to participate in a system that his/her conscience goes against, or a person who refuses to testify against himself/herself in court. If it is necessary to offer an opinion, there are two alternatives. The first is to be genuinely honest about what forms of enforcement work, but argue that something “working” does not mean that you endorse it. The other alternative is to deliberately dissemble about what forms of enforcement work. While the former is more intellectually honest, I suspect that one can make a case for the latter from a consequentialist point of view, at least in the rare cases that one’s opinion could actually influence or shape immigration enforcement. At any rate, however, the trade-off between intellectual integrity and a conscience that forbids lending support to a policy one perceives as evil should be undertaken consciously rather than out of a reflexive desire to disagree with restrictionists.

UPDATE (March 31, 2014): When I wrote this post, I was broadly of the view that interior enforcement is more effective than border enforcement. However, this blog post by Alex Nowrasteh cites a literature sumary by the Council of Foreign Relations that suggests the opposite. Assuming this summary is correct, restrictionists’ focus on interior enforcement seems puzzling, and the broad claim of this post might well be misguided or false.

The economic effects of Arizona’s immigration crackdown

The state of Arizona in the Southern United States, which shares a border with Mexico, has carried out various immigration crackdowns over the past few years, the most recent of which has been the SB-1070 law. Pro-immigration groups, along with various civil rights advocacy groups, have generally opposed these laws as wrong-headed, while groups opposed to immigration (particularly illegal immigration) have been generally supportive of these laws. Some pro-immigration groups, such as the Immigration Policy Center, have argued that the strategy of attrition through enforcement, which is the general approach that Arizona has followed, is flawed:

These conclusions are bolstered by new research from the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Los Angeles and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. This research indicates that, when it comes to Mexican migration patterns, “northbound flows are holding steady with signs of increasing unauthorized migration, while southbound flows are decreasing. The result is that the size of the Mexican-born population in the United States has fully recovered from losses experienced during the recession.” Moreover, “given the available indicators as of mid-2012, it appears that even a relatively small increase in the demand for Mexican labor in the U.S. economy would prompt a positive response in the migration flows despite intensified enforcement efforts by the federal government, several states, and some local governments.”

I’ve been critical of this economic determinism in the past, and I think that in this respect, restrictionists are right when they argue that increased enforcement (a) decreases the number of new illegal immigrants entering the state, and possibly decreases the total number of illegal immigrants entering the country, and (b) leads some immigrants to leave the state, though this is usually to other states, not the country. Now, in the case of Arizona, the fact that other nearby states like California and New Mexico did not carry out similar crackdowns means that most of the attrition from Arizona happened at the expense (or to the benefit, depending on your point of view) of these nearby states. This reconciles the “economic determinist” observation that state-level immigration crackdowns did not affect the overall flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, and that the decrease is completely explicable by economic trends, while simultaneously vindicating restrictionists’ claim that attrition through enforcement does work at the state level.

But the mere fact that restrictionists’ “attrition through enforcement” strategy “works” in the sense of reducing the number or proportion of illegal immigrants (relative to the counterfactual) does not imply that the strategy “works” in the more relevant sense, i.e., that it brings about the improvements in native quality of life that restrictionists hope to achieve with their policies. To figure out what’s happening to native quality of life, it’s not good enough to look at the proportions of illegal immigrants. Rather, one needs to look at what’s happening to native.

For convenience, I provide here a spectrum of five possibilities:

  1. Dramatic cut in native quality of life. This kind of apocalyptic narrative relies on the idea that immigrants do jobs natives won’t do, and on the questionable assumption that when immigrants leave, the jobs will vanish entirely and there will be no adjustment or reconfiguration. In this view, for instance, if 90% of restaurant workers are illegal immigrants in a city, then when the immigrants leave, then 90% of restaurant jobs will vanish.
  2. Modest cut in native quality of life. This narrative relies on the economy readjusting to the absence of immigrant labor, but while the readjustment optimizes for the new ground realities, the fewer resources available overall means that native quality of life reduces somewhat.
  3. No effect on natives. In this view, either the readjustment is perfect, or the reduction in other problems that immigrants create (crime, welfare state use, etc.) compensates for the economic inefficiencies generated by their departure.
  4. Modest gain in native quality of life. In this view, native wages go up with less immigrant competition, and natives have more resources for themselves now that there is less crime, welfare state use, etc. by immigrants. A few rich and powerful natives lose out because they have to pay higher wages.
  5. Dramatic gain in native quality of life. In this view, all immigrant jobs get replaced by natives doing the same job, so native unemployment goes down to (near-)zero, crime is at an all time low, and the economy undergoes a renaissance.

(1) and (5) are relatively extreme positions, which people more often accuse their opponents of espousing than they themselves espouse. The relevant range is (2)-(4). My view is that the truth lies somewhere between (2) and (3). But is there any research on the issue in the context of Arizona?

The Immigration Policy Center has a page with various ways that Arizona’s immigration crackdown has hurt the state. Some of the data here does would lead a person to be skeptical of whether Arizona’s immigration crackdown has been beneficial to the state. Still, one does not need to be a hardcore restrictionist to find the material on the page unconvincing. The main problem: most of their anecdotes do little to specifically separate out the costs and benefits to natives in isolation, which is what the state-level citizenist really cares about. Also, some of their cost statements seem hypocritical. For instance, they argue that bad publicity from the law, and legal challenges to the law, themselves cost the state of Arizona a lot of money. That’s true, but it sounds an awful lot like victim blaming to me, given that the Immigration Policy Center is at the forefront of generating the bad publicity and supporting the legal challenges.

To my knowledge, the best single piece on the Arizona immigration crackdown, that specifically considers and attempts to isolate and discuss the effects on the native population, is the paper The Economic Case against Arizona’s Immigration Laws by Alex Nowrasteh. Alex traces what happened in Arizona and the nearby states of California and New Mexico in some of the industries that most heavily use (illegal) immigrant labor and would be most likely to be affected (positively or negatively) by Arizona’s crackdown: agriculture, construction, and the restaurant industry. Since there is too little data on SB 1070, Alex looks at the effect of earlier, less comprehensive, crackdowns on immigration.

His findings differ somewhat for the three sectors, but the construction sector findings are perhaps the most interesting: the share of natives employed in construction declined somewhat over the period studied by Alex, even as the share of immigrants employed in construction declined much more. Moreover, the decline in the population share employed in construction for Arizona was more than for California and New Mexico (Alex also told me over email that the decline in share of native employment in construction was also more for Arizona than for California, although he does not mention this detail in his paper). The comparison with other states is relevant because the confounding factor of a recession in the United States around that time that disproportionately affected the construction sector. Similar data discussed by Alex makes the strong case for position (2) in the spectrum I listed above: the immigration crackdown did not spell disaster for Arizona, but likely had a small negative impact on native quality of life.

I have a few reservations about the paper, which I will discuss in a subsequent blog post. Clearly, as with all social scientific analyses, there is a lot of guesswork involved regarding counterfactuals. If you start off with the neutral position which I list as (3) on the spectrum (i.e., no effect on natives), it’s possible that reading the paper, you may still stay at (3), though my sense is that the evidence presented in the paper should move you at least somewhat towards a (2). But at any rate, I don’t see the evidence as moving one’s position towards the restrictionist side.

To my knowledge, there isn’t any comparable analysis written from a restrictionist perspective. The Center for Immigration Studies has a page on SB1070, but this focuses almost completely on the legal aspects, not on the economic effects. The best I could do with a quick search on various restrictionist websites was an article on VDARE titled Arizona Economy Booming Without Illegal Aliens. But this three-paragraph article doesn’t offer any direct evidence — only a link to and quote from a USA Today news item:

As of February, the state had added 42,6000 new, non-farm jobs over the previous year, and state revenues have increased 8.7% so far in 2012. The Arizona Office of Tourism found the state generated $17.7 billion in direct travel spending in 2010 — a 7.9% increase over the previous year. Brewer said there may have been a negative effect in the immediate aftermath of the law, but that the state has rebounded and the “Arizona comeback” is here.

“Businesses are coming. People are recruiting,” Brewer said. “We should get a lot of kudos for what we’ve accomplished.”

Although this discussion might be more directly relevant to SB1070 — since it is over the time period relevant for SB1070, as opposed to Alex’s analysis which is for an earlier period — it does not seem to me to be a very convincing argument for the positive effects of Arizona’s immigration crackdown (just as some of the Immigration Policy Center’s anecdotes are not too convincing in the other direction). If there are more thorough and sophisticated analyses of the economic effects of Arizona’s laws from a restrictionist perspective, I’d definitely like to read through them. Please leave links and references in the comments if you know of any good analyses.

I’ll blog my criticisms and reservations regarding Alex’s paper in a subsequent post.

Immigration enforcement — what’s morally acceptable? A question for fellow open borders advocates

My co-bloggers at this site, particularly Nathan and John, have expended quite a lot of words to the effect that deportation (or self-deportation) is a cruel solution to the problem of illegal/unauthorized immigration (see here, here, and here for some of John’s stuff, and here and here for examples from Nathan). Their arguments draw on the distinction between immigration legislation and morality and on the distinction between law and legislation, plus a lot of moving anecdotes. Nathan has gone so far as to suggest that breaking unjust immigration laws is not merely morally permissible but even morally laudatory — a form of satyagraha — see for instance here.

I’m sympathetic to these kinds of arguments (and I’ve been critical of the “they broke the law” type arguments myself). At the same time, I feel that harping too much on this kind of reasoning is dismissive of some very legitimate concerns, namely, how can you enforce any immigration policy — or any specific keyhole solution — without some enforcement teeth? Christopher Chang makes a related point in a comment:

You repeatedly frame this as a righteous crusade, with some implied urgency. This can be very dangerous. We’re in agreement that fighting poverty is a righteous crusade; I wouldn’t be trying to communicate with you if I thought you were actually enemy combatants. But I can easily come up with mathematical models more accurate than any that Caplan has ever proposed where opening borders *decreases* human welfare, potentially massively so. While there is a human cost to deportation, the reality is that the eventual human costs of not enforcing the law can be far, far greater, so even your “urgent advocacy” example is fallacious. [emphasis added]

In fact, in the way it cheaply exploits normal human biases to try to both undermine accurate accounting and depict more sober thinkers as evil, it’s essentially belligerent. You need to stop doing this, and do a far better job of adhering to the spirit of the “principle of charity” rather than just making a show of it. Otherwise, it will become correct to actually treat you as an enemy combatant, regardless of what your intent is.

Presumably, the reality that Christopher Chang is referring to is the fact that, in the absence of any enforcement teeth, whatever immigration policy or keyhole solution a government puts down on paper will have little effect on the ground. For instance, a policy of keeping out criminals is pointless if the criminals who migrate illegally have immunity from any enforcement actions. Similarly, a policy that imposes an immigration tariff has no real-world meaning if people can migrate illegally with immunity and are insulated from any recourse for failure to pay the tariff.

Open borders advocates are often dismissive of “enforcement first” individuals but I think that this is a very legitimate concern that open borders advocates have done a poor job of addressing publicly. It lies at the heart of the frustration of many restrictionists who are afraid that illegal immigration, moral sanctions against strict enforcement, and periodic amnesties make a joke of the stringent-on-paper immigration policies. To my knowledge (and I may be missing something here) neither Nathan nor John, nor most other open borders advocates, have publicly written about the kind of enforcement teeth they think would both be morally permissible in immigration law and be effective in making sure that the immigration policy is actually enforced. I’m sure they’ve thought about this issue at least a bit, but it would be good to have these thoughts in writing. So, here are some of my questions for fellow open borders advocates, and I’d love to hear answers.

  1. What are some morally permissible enforcement mechanisms for immigration policy and under what circumstances? Under what circumstances is deportation permissible? If there’s an immigration tariff to migrate legally, would a fine that is some multiple of the immigration tariff be acceptable to impose on people who migrate illegally? What type of multiple are we talking here? If the fine is not paid, what are the recourse options for the state? Is imprisonment an acceptable option? Deportation?
  2. At what level of openness of immigration policy would it be morally permissible to expend serious resources into beefing up enforcement? Clearly, my co-bloggers think that a lot of “enforcement” nowadays is misguided because the policy they are trying to enforce is immoral and harmful. But, getting the perfect policy isn’t possible. Would it be morally impermissible to expend resources on enforcement for an immigration policy that moves halfway toward the goal? Would it be morally desirable? Would my fellow open borders advocates get behind stricter enforcement for an immigration policy that is a radical improvement over the status quo but falls far short of open borders? How would they trade off the theoretical openness of borders against the strictness of enforcement?
  3. If non-deportation is a moral side-constraint, does that mean that immigration tariffs need to be price-adjusted for the difficulty of migrating illegally? For instance, if the US computed that the ideal immigration tariff for workers with no specific in-demand skills is $20,000, but a Mexican would choose to migrate legally only if the tariff were $10,000 or less (based on the coyote fees), does this impose a practical restriction on the US to offer a special discount to immigrants from Mexico, compared to immigrants from, say, China or Malaysia? Or would it be acceptable to expend resources on stricter border enforcement once some legal migration option is present?
  4. If you’re convinced that your preferred immigration solution will cause illegal immigration to drop to practically zero, thus rendering all the previous questions irrelevant, why do you think so? After all, there are strong social and legal sanctions against murder, yet there are over 10,000 intentional homicides in the United States every year. What makes you think that illegal immigration will drop to zero, or anything close to that, even under near-open borders?

Against economic determinism for migration trends

My co-blogger John Lee recently retweeted Hein de Haas’s tweet which began with “Migration… it’s the economy, stupid!” and linked to a blog post of the same name. The central claim of this blog post is that trends and variation in migration are better explained by changes in the economy than they are by changes in immigration policies and the extent of crackdown on illegal/undocumented immigration. Hein de Haas writes:

Politicians know all too well that migration serves vital economic interests, and cannot stop immigration even if they would want so, but do not dare to tell so to their voters. Their tough talk about reducing immigration is usually nothing more than a smokescreen to hide their inability and unwillingness to stop immigration.

Hein de Haas also links to an article by Jagdish Bhagwati that appeared in Foreign Affairs in 2003, titled Borders Beyond Control, which makes the same point.

Bhagwati writes:

Paradoxically, the ability to control migration has shrunk as the desire to do so has increased. The reality is that borders are beyond control and little can be done to really cut down on immigration. The societies of developed countries will simply not allow it. The less developed countries also seem overwhelmed by forces propelling emigration. Thus, there must be a seismic shift in the way migration is addressed: governments must reorient their policies from attempting to curtail migration to coping and working with it to seek benefits for all.

Bhagwati later writes:

All three problems raise issues that derive from the fact that the flows cannot be effectively constrained and must instead be creatively accommodated. In designing such accommodation, it must be kept in mind that the illegal entry of asylum seekers and economic migrants often cannot be entirely separated. Frustrated economic migrants are known to turn occasionally to asylum as a way of getting in. The effective tightening of one form of immigrant entry will put pressure on another.

This “economic determinism” — the idea that migration that happens for economic reasons is beyond the ability of governments to stem — runs rife through the writings of many people generally considered to be pro-immigration. For instance, the Immigration Policy Center blog recently had a piece titled New Research Casts Doubt Upon “Attrition Through Enforcement” stating:

These conclusions are bolstered by new research from the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Los Angeles and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. This research indicates that, when it comes to Mexican migration patterns, “northbound flows are holding steady with signs of increasing unauthorized migration, while southbound flows are decreasing. The result is that the size of the Mexican-born population in the United States has fully recovered from losses experienced during the recession.” Moreover, “given the available indicators as of mid-2012, it appears that even a relatively small increase in the demand for Mexican labor in the U.S. economy would prompt a positive response in the migration flows despite intensified enforcement efforts by the federal government, several states, and some local governments.”

My quick reaction upon reading these: these statements, although correct in a very narrow sense, are wrong and misleading and play right into the hands of restrictionists.

Technical problem with the research: open borders and closed borders out of sample

The research seems to be correct in so far as it estimates the relative roles of variations in the economy and variations in immigration enforcement policy over the years in terms of determining migration trends. But the main reason this is so is that, despite some widely publicized moves on the pro-immigration and anti-immigration side, the immigration enforcement policies of the US, and of many other countries, has been remarkably consistent across the years. There has been too little variation in these policies to meaningfully say that drastically freer migration, or drastically less free migration, would not be more decisive in determining migration flows.

Claiming the inevitability of immigration plays into the hands of support for the status quo

Bryan Caplan says of democracy:

“In the naive public-interest view, democracy works because it does what voters want. In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want.”

I’ll shamelessly borrow Caplan’s logical structure:

“Restrictionists claim that immigration restrictions (if well designed) can and do work, and that’s a good thing. Economic determinists claim that immigration restrictions cannot or do not work and are overruled by the economy, and we just have to live with it. Open borders advocates argue that immigration restrictions do work, and the very fact that they work exactly (or approximately) as advertised is the problem.”

For the open borders advocates, the problem with immigration restrictions is not that they don’t work. The problem is that they do! Open borders advocates should be calling out economic determinists for their flawed reading of history and heavy status quo bias, not siding with economic determinists just in order to contradict or one-up restrictionists! By siding with economic determinists, open borders advocates undersell the significance of immigration restrictions and their effectiveness in destroying wealth.

Even the weaker claim that borders are already at their most closed point is suspect

When I made a condensed version of this argument to John Lee, he pointed out a somewhat different interpretation of Bhagwati’s piece. In John’s reading, it may be the case that borders are already at the most closed level possible. Thus, government policies restricting immigration do affect the levels of immigration, but they cannot cut immigration down to zero, and current policies already achieve the maximum possible restrictiveness for the current political climate.

I am skeptical of this. Continue reading “Against economic determinism for migration trends” »

Immigration, a worse crime than child sex exploitation

I want you to read this story about the families — the American families — who have been separated by US immigration laws. It is heart-wrenching. Most offenses, civil or criminal, have statutes of limitation. Not so for illegal immigration. Most courts offer leniency for offenders who co-operate with law enforcement. Not so for illegal immigration. Most courts have discretion in varying punishment for offenders. Not so for illegal immigration.

Somehow, we see immigrating illegally as beyond the pale — as something that merits the toughest, most inflexible, inhumane punishment possible short of physical harm. The mandatory sentence for people who have been unlawfully present in the US for over 1 year is deportation for 10 years. Those who have crossed the border unlawfully more than once can be barred for life.

To put things in perspective, the median prison term for someone convicted of child sex exploitation in the US is a little over 5 years. The median prison term for molesting a child is half the mandatory deportation term for an “illegal immigrant”! The average sentence for those convicted of “alien smuggling” is a little under 2 years (see the US Sentencing Commission’s 2012 report). In other words, “illegal immigrants” are given a sentence over 5 times longer than the smugglers who aid them!

People blithely say “The law is the law; it must be enforced.” But in what world does it make sense to treat immigrants worse than child rapists? In what world does it make sense to punish people for choosing to be with their families, when the law gives them no lawful option to do so? There are some legal immigrants who have been waiting outside the US for their family reunification visas since 1989 (see the State Department’s latest visa bulletin).

Let’s not play dumb here. Immigrants and their families are no idiots; they know they’re being treated worse than child molesters:

“When they give out these bars, they’re not just giving them to one person. They’re giving them to a family,” Anita said. “It’s actually worse than a prison sentence. People in prison can do a lot less time, and do a whole lot worse things.”

If the law prevents people from being with their families, and then punishes them for following the most fundamental human instinct, it’s not the immigrants who are wrong — it’s the immoral, barbaric legal system which tears families apart. This is not a radical position; this is the official United Nations interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty signed and ratified by most of the world (dark green states have signed and ratified; light green have signed but not ratified; grey have done neither):

This is not a question of theory; as a question of practice, the UN has ruled that under the Covenant long-time residents of a country, even if they do not hold citizenship, have the right to be treated as such — especially if they have long-standing family ties to that country. In Nystrom v Australia, the UN ruled that Stefan Nystrom — a Swedish citizen who until his deportation had only spent 27 days of his entire life in Sweden — had the right to live in the only country he had called home his entire life, and the country where his entire family lives.

It is unequivocally clear that modern deportation laws in most countries violate international laws and norms on human rights. Nystrom’s case is an unusual one because he is a convicted sex offender and possibly mentally ill — but if he had been born 27 days later as an Australian national, nobody would suggest that Australia ought to deport him instead of jailing him for his crimes. How can one justify deportation laws which tear apart families where no crime has been committed, except the “crime” of illegally crossing a border to be with one’s family? American Senator Marco Rubio once said:

If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn’t give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn’t a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here.

If my kids went to sleep without me every night and my country didn’t give me an opportunity to be with them, there isn’t a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from joining them. Under any reasonable sense of morals or ethics — and under international law — there is no possible way to fault the families of “illegal immigrants” for being “illegal”. The only blame lies with the immoral legal systems of the world that violate every human being’s right to be with their family.