Tag Archives: territorialism

How opponents of immigration on the left and right differ: territorialism versus citizenism

Post by Vipul Naik (regular blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

Alex Nowrasteh recently tweeted criticisms of open borders from two fronts: Daniel Costa of the progressive Economic Policy Institute in a blog post titled On International Migrants Day, remember that guest worker programs aren’t the solution for immigration reform and Mark Krikorian of the center-right Center for Immigration Studies in a piece on National Review titled Black Unemployment: Just Don’t Mention the Immigration!

So I read both pieces. What struck me (and I also tweeted this) was that a quick reading of the articles wouldn’t reveal clearly which one was coming from a progressive/left-leaning perspective and which one was coming from a right-leaning/conservative perspective. Superficially, both arguments fell under what Bryan Caplan might dismiss as the master race argument — the idea that low-skilled natives are the ultimate interest group who should be given special preference in any policy discussion. It’s not my place here to critique this line of argument (though, if you’re interested, Nathan Smith blogged about teens and immigrants a while back, and Alex Nowrasteh had a critique of a related CIS study several years ago).

The point I want to make is that, despite the superficial similarity in the two pieces, there is one important difference, which I think is the key difference between the left-wing/progressive segment of opposition to open borders and the right-wing/conservative segment of opposition to open borders. Namely, progressive opponents of open borders tend to be influenced by a mix of territorialism and local inequality aversion. Their sphere of moral concern includes everybody who is within the geographical territory of their country, including citizens and non-citizens, and including both legal and illegal immigrants. And, in addition to being concerned about the absolute status of these people, progressive opponents of immigration are also concerned about inequality within the territory. As Arnold Kling notes in his three axes theory, the distinguishing feature of progressives (compared to conservatives and libertarians) tends to be their tendency to give more importance to the oppressor-oppressed axis (I’ve also written about why I find this sort of folk Marxism unconvincing, even when it is ostensibly pro-open borders). Combining a focus on the oppressor-oppressed axis with territorialism and local inequality aversion produces the kinds of proposals and concerns that Costa raised in his EPI blog post. Explicitly, it generally involves a combination of a path to citizenship, stricter enforcement, strong laws against worker exploitation, and an immigration policy designed to benefit currently low-skilled natives.

Anti-immigration individuals on the center-right, which probably includes all the hardcore restrictionist groups from CIS to VDARE and anti-immigration voices in more mainstream conservative outlets, are more likely to favor citizenism instead of territorialism. They are more likely to favor policies that explicitly discriminate in favor of current citizens. Immigrants and non-citizens who happen to reside within the geographic territory do not get the special status that citizens do, and in so far as they crossed borders illegally, it is considered moral to deport them. As per Kling’s three axes, center-right individuals are likely to be more focused on concerns of civilization versus barbarism, and while the alien invasion metaphor is probably an exaggeration, basic concern about how illegal immigration undermines the rule of law adds to the general worries about the harms created by immigration. Thus, center-right restrictionists are more likely to favor reform proposals that include attrition through enforcement and stronger border security while simultaneously reducing future levels of legal immigration, and while they are not completely averse to a path to citizenship, they would probably insist that it be restricted to a very special subclass (for instance, Mark Krikorian has expressed support for a version of the DREAM Act, but not the current version being passed around).

All in all, the main difference between progressive restrictionists and center-right restrictionists lies in how they want to deal with the illegal immigrants already here. Generally, restrictionists in both camps agree that future immigration levels need to be cut down or tailored to the interests of low-skilled natives, that enforcement (both at the border and in the interior) needs to be stricter, and that large-scale guest worker programs create more problems than they solve. Nonetheless, the differences between these two groups present unique challenges to those who are trying to come up with keyhole solutions. A keyhole solution that denies a path to citizenship, or walls off eligibility to the welfare state, might appeal somewhat to some (but not all) center-right restrictionists, but would be taken very negatively by progressive restrictionists.

A quick final note: I don’t mean to suggest that anybody who subscribes to citizenism or territorialism must necessarily be a restrictionist. Open borders do benefit many citizens, and keyhole solutions can be devised that help make them a win-win for the vast majority of citizens and those living in the geographical territory (as an example, see Nathan Smith’s DRITI proposal, or his blog post the citizenist case for open borders). Progressive restrictionists concerned about a path to citizenship might nonetheless come to the conclusion that expanded guest worker programs, despite their ills, and despite the lack of a path to citizenship, are still an improvement over the status quo. While I personally think of both citizenism and territorialism as morally flawed, there is no prima facie inconsistency between adopting these stances and supporting considerably freer migration than the status quo allows.

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.

My thoughts on Jose Antonio Vargas and Define American

Jose Antonio Vargas (life story) is an illegal immigrant from the Phillippines to the United States. Vargas is also a reputed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. In June 2011, Vargas outed himself as an illegal immigrant in the pages of the New York Times, and I learned about this when Bryan Caplan blogged about it. Vargas has also started a website called Define American, which “seeks to change the conversation on immigration reform.” Here’s his website and Wikipedia page.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Jose Antonio Vargas at the University of Chicago. UPDATE: Here is a news article about his talk and here is an interview with the author conducted during his visit for the talk.

Below are some of the thoughts I have about the talk and about Vargas’ views. [Caution: Since I didn’t take written notes or tape the talk, I might have misremembered some of Vargas’ statements]

  • Vargas spent a lot of his time talking about (illegal) immigrant rights, or about the plight of immigrants. But he spent very little time talking about immigration rights. Overall, his expressed moral philosophy seemed pretty territorialist — people don’t have a right to immigrate, but once they’ve done so, they acquire various rights and privileges, and become part of the moral sphere of natives. In Q&A, Vargas did say that he also supports expanded immigration rights for immigrants at all skill levels, but this wasn’t even mentioned (as far as I could make out) in his main talk. As the creator of the Open Borders website, I find the moral imbalance jarring. Of course, it’s possible that, as Bryan Caplan puts it, Vargas was simply engaging in understatement. But I wish he’d openly asked the question: Who’s worse off, somebody who foregoes the huge place premium of migration, or somebody who gets in, then has to put up with a low probability of deportation and harassment?

    In fact, the various videos that Vargas showed seemed, to me at least ,decidedly un-sympathy-inducing. He showed the video below (or some variation of it) to indicate the plight of immigrants:

    But in a world where large numbers of people are poor partly because of immoral restrictions on their right to migrate, the plight of the people depicted in the video hardly seems the worst thing in the world.

  • To be fair to Vargas, he did concede that he was better off immigrating to the United States. In fact, he admitted that both his mother and his grandfather agreed to have him sent to the United States, despite the risks of being undocumented, because they felt that even with those risks, he would have a better life in the United States than being documented in the Phillippines. And it seems, judging from his success as a journalist and now as an immigrant rights activist, that their judgment was correct. What Vargas didn’t do, though, was go the next step and say that immigration rights are a bigger issue than immigrant rights.
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