Tag Archives: Thailand

Literally refusing to rescue drowning people: your taxpayer funds at work, putting immigrants to death

Open borders advocates on occasion borrow philosopher Peter Singer’s metaphor of the drowning child:

Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes – in fact, most people think that would be monstrous. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

The analogy is somewhat obvious: many of the people prevented from moving by our immigration laws are fleeing a disaster of some kind that puts their life in serious danger. Those who want to prevent them from moving cannot use the excuse that it might be economically costly to us if we allow them to flee; otherwise, we are literally saying we value an expensive pair of shoes over the life of another human being.

However, open borders advocates are quick to caution that inasmuch as this is a thought trigger, this is not a true reflection of the state of things. Migration is actually rather different: most migrants seeking to move don’t require us to even lift a finger, let alone ruin an expensive pair of shoes. Many of the migrants we exclude, even the weary refugees, are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves. They can afford to pay for their journey to a land safe from political persecution, economic disaster, cholera, or whatever plague ails their native country; they can afford to rescue themselves. All our governments need to do is get out of their way, and allow them to pay for their own fare. The very reason that so many pay expensive fees to smugglers is because our own laws banned them from buying a regular ticket at the market fare in the first place!

Distancing the analogy even further, many migrants are not in any sort of life-threatening bind: they are capable individuals simply seeking to author their own life stories. That many prospective migrants simply want to and are fully capable of authoring their own better life makes it all the more galling that we regularly characterise the migrant as some sort of criminal burdensome leech. The “but my expensive shoes!” sort of excuse doesn’t even hold water when there’s nobody drowning — not when it’s just somebody trying to marry their spouse, pursue an education, or see the city lights, and is perfectly able to do this without troubling any of us in the least.

This is why I rarely refer to Singer’s analogy; it isn’t a very good portrayal of the true situation. If you want a better analogy, the situation is more like a well-dressed person trying to go somewhere, and us standing in the road complaining that if we let him go somewhere, he’ll step on our expensive shoes, and that’s why we need to build a giant electrified fence to keep him from ever coming anywhere near us. Our complaints are unfounded, and the gentleman requires nothing more from us than to move on and go about our own business.

But in another sense, immigration restrictions are far worse than refusing to rescue a drowning child. Most migrants may not face any life-threatening danger — but there are still millions forced to live in countries where they could be tortured or killed, and millions more forced to live in countries where there are no jobs for them outside the sweatshop. When our laws ban these people from moving to a society that won’t literally kill them, we are not just refusing to help a drowning person; this amounts to actively drowning the victim.

In these cases, the drowning person is perfectly capable of swimming to safety; they can buy their own ticket on a plane. The only thing keeping them from saving themselves is our own laws that ban them from doing this. We have prevented the drowning person from swimming to safety; we have become complicit in the death, if not murder, of a human being. When we ban people from fleeing death and suffering, we are complicit in the consequent dangers that befall them.

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African migrants banned from buying a regular ferry ticket await rescue on their disabled, overcrowded vessel in the Mediterranean. Photo credit: AFP/CNN.

Mind you, it is already the case that our laws give no reasonable avenue for bona fide refugees to safely travel in search of safety on aeroplanes or boats like the rest of us. Many people stay in their home countries resigned to lives of poverty or persecution because they have no legal avenue to leave for a society that allows them to flourish. But it only gets worse.

Those who do strike up the gumption to leave are punished even more harshly and actively in our name, at our own expense. Our own law enforcement agencies treat penniless unarmed people as though they are an invading army. And so our governments wind up literally killing people — not merely in silence by banning them from pursuing safety, but vocally and actively, by putting them to death.

Take the case of Australia. It is no secret that Australia pursues “pushbacks” or “towbacks” of migrants seeking asylum; there is video evidence showing it, and eyewitness testimony confirming it. The Australian procedure appears to be:

  1. Send the Navy or Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats;
  2. Transfer migrants from their potentially unseaworthy boats to lifeboats (literally, lifeboats manufactured for use only in dire circumstances when one has to abandon ship)
  3. Tow these lifeboats to Indonesian waters;
  4. Cut these lifeboats adrift; they’re now Indonesia’s problem.

This entire procedure is both legally and morally suspect. Migrants generally set sail in rickety and unsafe boats because they are banned by immigration law from purchasing passage on safer, legal vessels. Then, when they do get close to the country they want to settle in peace — a country not riven by war or sweatshop slavery — they are captured, placed on a slightly less unsafe boat, and cut adrift on the open sea. The Australian government surely gives them some provisions and a presumably slightly better vessel, but the fact remains: the government is setting these people at sea, in reckless disregard of their human lives. To quote one media account,

Indonesian sources have told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The youngest aboard was 18 months old.

They also said the asylum seekers were fed and medically treated by Australian authorities, but claimed to have run out of food 48 hours before landing in Java.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says it is concerning that children were on board the lifeboat.

“I’m very concerned that there are reports that there were children as young as 18 months old, toddlers on board this boat,” she said.

“It is never safe to turn back a boat, push a boat back to the high seas with children that young on board.”

But hey, nobody’s died yet from these pushbacks, so maybe it’s ok to leave babies as young as 18 months afloat on a tiny vessel, days away from any shore, and have them fend for themselves — right? This is surely extremely morally dubious. And as it turns out, legally dubious too, if Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney is to be believed:

Australia cannot turn back boats if it would expose a person to return to persecution contrary to the [UN] refugee convention. That includes sending people back to countries which do not offer effective refugee protection. Those can include transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia where there is no refugee protection status given to people who are there to claim refugee status.

The second consideration is under the law of the sea. It is not legal to turn back a boat which is unseaworthy and on which the lives of passengers are in danger or at risk.

[Towbacks] would ultimately require the safety of the vessel to be ensured, so Australia presumably would then need to tow it right back to an Indonesian port. It couldn’t just then leave the boat stranded without a motor on the edge of the Indonesian territorial sea, for example.

Australia’s brazen disregard for ethics and the law is hardly unusual. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights sanctioned Italy for performing near-identical pushbacks. The only substantive difference? Rather than putting migrants into new lifeboats, Italy transported migrants on its own boats back to Libya, where the Gaddafi regime promptly imprisoned many of them. Some of the people who were pushed back were even later granted asylum by the Italian government, a tacit acknowledgement that their initial towback was wrong.

Consider the above interview with some of the migrants immorally and unlawfully sent back to Libya. Does it morally matter whether these people were put in harms way by setting them afloat on a tiny vessel at sea, by returning them to a tyrant’s jail, or by settling them literally in the Sahara Desert? Whether you die of thirst, exposure, or tyrannical murder, whatever the case may be, if you were sent to your death by the Italian government, was your death not effected at the hands of the Italian taxpayer?

This 2012 decision did not seem to affect the Greek government, which has reportedly sent masked commandos to effect near-identical pushbacks of migrants fleeing the mass murder of Bashar Assad and the Islamic State in Syria. And yes, Greece has drowned some of these poor people. About a year ago, the Greek coast guard was towing a refugee boat (survivors allege they were being taken to Turkey, while Greece claims it was towing them to a Greek island) when rough seas, poor handling, or a combination of the two caused the boat to sink, sending many — including children — to death by drowning.

Now, one could take a sympathetic view to the governments of rich countries. They are somewhere in between a rock and a hard place: people will complain no matter what they do. If they allow migrants in, people will circulate false claims of lavish government treatment for these poor people — while at the same time complaining that these people are also cluttering up the streets begging, and also stealing their jobs. If they don’t allow migrants in, they get some bad press, but it’s not their own citizens drowning in the sea or being tortured in some mass murderer’s jail, so nobody capable of holding them accountable will actually bother to do so. So these governments might as well get some blood on their hands; it’s easier than the alternative.

And facetious as I might sound, I do see some room to sympathise with the people effecting these pushbacks. It’s ultimately the citizenry and the institutions that are responsible for political outcomes, and so this political drowning of immigrants is not wholly the fault of, say, the Australian, Italian, or Greek governments. It is the fault of bigotry and the fault of institutions that allow bigotry to fester — that allow us to say our expensive shoes are worth more than human life.

The challenges governments face in handling the problems of migrants, especially the most destitute, are very real. Take for example one report of the Thai government pushing back Burmese Rohingya migrants (though from the description, it sounds like these are actually true deportations, as these migrants have already landed):

The 259 will be put back on boats and sent back to Myanmar, said Police Colonel Sanya Prakobphol, head of Kapoe district police.

“They are Muslims from Myanmar … They are illegal migrants,” Sanya told Reuters by telephone.

“If they come in then we must push them back … once they have crossed the sea border into Myanmar then that’s considered pushing them back. What they do next is their problem.”

Sanya hardly sounds like a sympathetic character. Much like Australia, he intends to set people adrift at sea — and in presumably worse conditions than an Australian lifeboat. But he is really between a rock and a hard place:

Sanya said the 259 people were currently being held at a community hall and that his team were “looking after them like relatives” but that they would soon be put back on boats.

“Who will feed them? I’m struggling day to day to feed them,” said Sanya.

If he were a rich country official, one might be tempted to play him the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin. But he is a developing country official with hardly any resources to effect an orderly resettlement of refugees. He can perhaps feed them for a while, but he cannot help them find homes or jobs. In his shoes, it’s hard to say we could do much different than deport these poor people back to persecution and suffering in Burma.

But this is only a problem because we continue to tolerate the bigotry that views deportation as an solution to poverty, and the bigotry that denies migrants the agency to run their own lives. The Rohingya fled for a reason: they would rather run the risk of starving in a hostile land than continuing to suffer in their own country. Pushbacks and deportations do not cleanse our hands of guilt.

If the Rohingya come to misfortune in our own countries because of their own failings, that is one thing. But if we send them back to the very suffering they toiled so hard to flee, we are directly complicit in all that may befall them — which, in the case of the Rohingya, often turns out to be slavery, summary execution, torture, or rape.

Who will feed them? Ideally, they should feed themselves. But irrespective of how they are fed, the answer to this question of feeding is not “Send them away to be enslaved, murdered, tortured, or raped.”

One would hope that the more “civilised” governments of the Western world would have a more elegant solution to this than Sanya’s “Send them back to the country that’s killing them, then it’s not my problem.” But unfortunately, besides elaborate commando gear and expensive lifeboats, there seems to be little that separates the rich world from poor in the matter of drowning migrants. Whichever the government may be, its callousness is galling.

People often take it to be a strawman when I say that defenders of the border status quo are in essence apologising for persecution and murder. But when governments are putting unarmed civilians adrift at sea, and don’t seem to care whether they live or die as a result, it surely behooves us to ask what on earth these people did wrong to merit such punishment, such endangerment. And when on occasion, someone does pose this question, as one British journalist did, we find the “protectors” of our borders proffering the following:

The British government’s position is that the rescues should stop, because they only encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. All of the people I interviewed for this story made their first journey to Europe in a smuggler boat across the Mediterranean. Our government believes that, had any of them drowned, it would have been a useful deterrent to others.

We are drowning people for the crime of fleeing destitution and persecution. We are drowning people for seeking to preserve their own lives. We are drowning people to send a warning to anyone else who might dream of a life in a society where they can be free to pursue their ambitions and realise their potential. We are literally drowning innocent children.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for how we should implement immigration law, how we should deal with refugees, or how we should police our borders. But I do know that there is no satisfying rationale for why our governments drown people — metaphorically in the home countries they might want to leave, or literally in the seas surrounding our countries where they dream of being free from oppression and murder.

It is no strawman nor exaggeration to say that our closed borders kill people. Our border politics have led to our governments suggesting it would be quite literally better to let people drown.  And yet one of the most grating aspects of the status quo is that nobody even feels compelled to articulate a justification for so many parts of it that seem obviously wrong — like the fact that ostensibly civilised societies are condoning the drowning of innocent people.

Nobody feels pressured to justify the way we specifically treat immigrants. There are plenty of philosophical arguments for the state’s authority to “control” its borders, but none that specifically explain why throwing people into prison camps or literally refusing to rescue drowning people is a morally acceptable or required method of doing so.

The drowning children are real, and yet we don’t have to do anything to rescue them; they can swim just fine on their own. All we have to do is allow them to save themselves. Yet we would rather use our own ships and our own taxes to prevent them from saving themselves, and watch them drown. Why do we do that? How can we justify it? Maybe you can tell me.

The image featured at the top of this post is an Australian government advertisement warning prospective immigrants and refugees that they are not welcome in Australia.

Related reading

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

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you. Some of these are also linked inline from the post:

Snakeheads as high-impact entrepreneurs

I recently read The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe. The term “snakehead” is used for a person who manages human smuggling operations for people from China (note that “human smuggling” should not be confused with human trafficking). The book is a fascinating, and in some ways disturbing, story of the huge network used to smuggle Chinese people illegally into the United States. I discovered the book when reading up an obituary of Cheng Chui Ping (better known as Sister Ping), one of the most reputed snakeheads.

Sister Ping
Image source: The New Yorker

There is a lot of interesting material in the book, and although its relevance to the basic moral case for migration is fairly limited, it sheds light on many aspects of the realities of the ground. The book’s focus is the complex human smuggling operation of people from China and neighboring areas (but mostly from the northern part of Fujian province in China) to the United States, with most of them ending up in the Chinatown in New York City. But much of what it discusses is relevant to migration in other contexts.

TL; DR

The book paints a poignant picture of the strength of people’s desire to migrate. There is also plenty of material in the book that sheds light on the international refugee system, and in my view it strengthens the case laid out in John’s recent post. The book does a good job of going beyond the simple (albeit mostly correct) narrative of migrants as ordinary, innocent people who simply want a better life for themselves. Rather, it notes how migrants, like the rest of us, care about their own (and their families’) long-term survival and flourishing deeply enough that they can sacrifice their own short-term interest, as well as a number of ethical scruples, in order to make that happen. Arguably, there is a strong selection effect, both for legal and illegal immigration: people who undertake such arduous journeys are the ones with the most to gain and the least to lose, which could tell us something about the sort of people they are. But the basic urges moving them are present in all of us. Many of the people we know would have taken similar decisions under similar circumstances.

Unfortunately, the existing immigration system makes criminals of these migrants, in both senses of the word: it labels the act of unauthorized border-crossing as a crime, and some of the measures that people take to evade detection often involve them committing, or indirectly financing, activities that are criminal in a more objective sense. While the migrants and their facilitators who engage in the latter are in some (albeit not all) cases blameworthy, some part of the blame also falls on those of us who support the existing closed borders system that aims to shutter off such a basic human desire, in full cognizance of the unintended but easily anticipated consequences. (I’ve had a draft post on the ethics of illegal immigration for a while, but it’s not going to be finished any time soon. But you can read my co-blogger Nathan’s take on the subject or our background page on the morality of violating restrictive immigration laws).

#1: Who migrates, how, and why?

The book’s focus is on Cheng Chui Ping (better known as Sister Ping), who owned a modest storefront and restaurant in Chinatown in New York City, but whose main business involved servicing migrants in two ways: facilitating their smuggling into the United States, typically via an intermediate country such as Hong Kong or Thailand, and providing a low-cost service for them to send remittances back home.

The operations managed by Sister Ping, and others with whom she collaborated, were extremely complex. Her money transfer system relied on peer-to-peer movement of money: the person sending money gives it to Sister Ping in New York, and her Chinese counterpart gives the money to her family. Occasionally, she may need to physically transfer some money between her New York City and Fujian operational centers. Banks do the same thing (at least in principle) but bureaucratic and regulatory overhead make them more costly, and moreover, many of Sister Ping’s clients didn’t have bank accounts. Sister Ping’s operation is similar to the Hawala system, an extremely cheap system of money transfer in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The people smuggling operation similarly required cooperation from people at different locations. First, people were smuggled from China to a holding country such as Thailand or Hong Kong. Thailand was good for holding because there was a sufficient density of corrupt officers who could be bought to look the other way as people waited en route to the United States. The trip from Thailand to the United States could be undertaken by plane or by ship. Usually, the ships sailed across the Pacific and landed in California. Sometimes, they went via the Indian Ocean, stopping in East Africa or South Africa before setting off across the Atlantic. Since landing directly on the US Coast was tricky, sometimes they would land in one of the Central American countries and then cross by land or by boat.

This operation is pretty nontrivial and involves considerable risk. The money transfer and human smuggling business netted revenues in the billions of dollars annually during their peak, and the gains to the migrants and their families back home were considerably greater.

The smuggling operation was complex and impressive. But more than simply marvel at the ingenuity of the operation, we should note how it often failed people: there were accidents en route that killed people, and often the smuggling operation wasn’t successful. Sometimes people would be caught on arrival. The sad fact is that the closed border system led to much ingenuity, risk, and effort being directed to undoing the damage of closed borders, rather than to moving the world further forward (cf. the parable of the broken window).

The fees for smuggling were high. Even back in the 1980s, smuggling fees could be as high as eighteen thousand dollars. A pretty huge sum. And although the snakeheads like Sister Ping made a profit, the profit margin wasn’t extraordinary: the price was high because the costs and risks were high. So why were migrants willing to pay the fee, and how could they afford it?

The answer to the why is pretty clear: a huge place premium: The pay in Chinatown in New York City, even for somebody doing a menial job and with zero English language skills, was an order of magnitude more than what the person could make in rural Fujian. The male adult of the family could migrate, send remittances home, and work really hard so that his wife and children could enjoy a good standard of living (relative to the other natives) back home. (For more on the network of jobs accessible to these migrants, see this New Yorker piece).

What about the question of how? In short, diaspora dynamics, which in this case literally involves early migrants paying for later migrants. For the most part, smugglers like Sister Ping held migrants who’d just arrived in captivity until their family members and friends within Chinatown had paid the smuggling fee. The migrant was then released and not tracked. He now owed money, but not to Sister Ping, but to his relatives. And that created a stronger incentive system to repay. Either way, Sister Ping didn’t have to track the migrant or worry about what he ended up doing.

But how did the relatives come there in the first place? This is the basic idea of diaspora dynamics: the first few people are unusual in some way: unusually wealthy, unusually enterprising. They either migrated legally or were able to personally finance their unauthorized journey into the United States. Both of these signal some unusualness relative to the reference population they were from. Then they smuggled their relatives in. And they smuggled their relatives in. And so on. This does suggest that, after a few iterations, the selection effects could be somewhat weaker than one might expect a priori.

#2: Non-cooperating countries

A Slate article talks about the importance of spoiler countries and corrupt officials in facilitating the global human smuggling network:

Sister Ping’s operation involved associates in dozens of countries, and corrupt officials in a string of strategic entrepôts. In the early ’90s, she funneled passengers through Bangkok, Thailand, where corrupt airline inspectors turned a blind eye to phony documents. By the late ’90s, she was sending ships full of migrants to the shores of Guatemala, from whence they could proceed overland through Mexico. She didn’t need to worry about the Guatemalan navy. She had them on the payroll.

This was one of the most surprising (and daunting) themes to emerge in my research: If criminal organizations, like multinational corporations, are mobile and opportunistic and can migrate wherever they like, engaging in a kind of jurisdictional arbitrage and seeking out an optimal environment in which to do business, then all it takes is one spoiler country, like Thailand or Guatemala, to render them virtually untouchable. When Sister Ping fled the United States after the Golden Venture incident, she settled in her home village in Fujian Province, where she enjoyed the protection of the Chinese authorities and proceeded to continue running her business for six long years. The FBI knew exactly where she was. But when they asked China to extradite her, Beijing brushed them off.

At least she was confined to China, you might say. But she wasn’t. She traveled all over the world during those years—even, amazingly, to the United States. How? When she was finally arrested in Hong Kong in 2000, she had a passport with her picture and someone else’s name. It was issued by Belize, a classic spoiler country.

Is the existence of spoiler countries a feature or a bug? If you consider the current closed borders system a moral anomaly, then it’s a feature, but if you strongly respect the status quo, it’s a bug. Some might argue countries don’t have the prerogative to be lax about facilitating migration to other countries while strictly enforcing their own migration laws, for that may be hypocritical. I don’t buy that argument. Nonetheless, some of the spoiler countries have relatively lax de facto immigration laws too, in some (albeit not all) senses. Thailand is arguably one such example (more on Thailand in another post).

#3: Sister Ping’s time in China

There is some level of irony in Sister Ping’s relationship with the Chinese government. On the other hand, she lent a helping hand to a large number of people who were escaping political and economic problems created through government policies, including some who were directly persecuted by the government. On that account, we might expect that Chinese government officials would take a negative view of Sister Ping. On the other hand, Sister Ping had helped a lot of people in northern Fujian migrate and become rich, and they had in turn sent back money and enriched their villages back home. This made her a popular figure back home in her region. Even if the government officials’ own feelings for Sister Ping were ambiguous, the people’s love for her made it difficult for the officials to take action against her. It would be a needless risk to their popularity with no upside. But it is ironic that the woman who facilitated so many people from China claiming refuge in the United States spent the latter half of the 1990s seeking refuge in China from the United States regime.

The irony dissipates somewhat by taking a bigger view. People want to be free and comfortable. Free to make choices in their own lives. Free to move elsewhere if those places offer better opportunities. Both the Chinese and the US government have a mixed record when it comes to curtailing those freedoms. The Chinese government’s record is more generally negative: after disastrous experiments with Maoism, the country has liberalized considerably but much progress remains to be made with respect to political and economic freedom. The United States government does a better job in protecting political and economic freedom for people within its territory, but getting in there can be tough (to be fair, the Chinese don’t have a great track record with immigrants either, particularly those from North Korea, who basically have nowhere else to go). Sister Ping and her clients appreciated the United States for its strengths. That’s why she migrated there and helped facilitate her clients’ moves. At the same time, they did not “respect the law” in the cases where it inhibited their basic freedoms. And to the extent that the very flawed Chinese government tolerated Sister Ping, she was happy to seek refuge there.

#4: What motivates people like Sister Ping?

Snakeheads (the people who head the human smuggling operations) differ considerably in their intentions and integrity. But the best among them, such as Sister Ping, seem like upstanding folks. Sister Ping was fairly wealthy. But more than most wealthy people, she had very little opportunity to bask in her wealth. She needed to maintain a very low profile in order to avoid getting noticed by the police, the immigration agencies, and local rival gangsters who might rob her. She generally kept her word to clients. Unlike other snakeheads, she stayed true to her 100% money-back guarantee: in case of a botched operation (even an ultimately successful one) she didn’t charge her clients.

So why did she enter the business? For reasons that, I think, are very similar to the reasons people become entrepreneurs. Ambition, a desire for power, a keen sense for business opportunities, and a desire to have an impact. And a cold, calculating utilitarian ruthlessness. A concern that the balance of her actions was highly positive for her clients, not necessarily that every individual action was beyond reproach. As Keefe (the author of the book I’m drawing on) wrote in The New Yorker:

To the end, Sister Ping remained defiant. Illegal migration is an inherently precarious business. Mattathias Schwartz recently wrote for The New Yorker about the lengths that African migrants will go to wash ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Jim Dwyer, at the Times, published a heartbreaking piece about the death of a young Ecuadorian girl seeking to reconnect with her parents in the United States. In Sister Ping’s view, the balance of her contributions outweighed the costs. “My life remains valuable,” she insisted, during the sentencing phase of her trial. “It remains valuable.”

In Chinatown, many people seem to agree. Her death was front-page news in New York’s Chinese-language newspapers, with articles describing her “righteousness,” and calling her an “immigration hero.” “Her warmth moved everyone,” a local man who came from her village back in Fujian told the Times.

Over in Silicon Valley, there is a stereotype of the bold entrepreneur who forges ahead bravely, taking risks and not caring for social convention. Perhaps one of the most flamboyant examples of the entrepreneur who’s willing to fight hard, John Galt-style, and doesn’t mind appearing arrogant, is Travis Kalanick, Uber CEO. While some of his business choices are arguably ethically challenged, others seem to be ahead of their time in challenging common but mistaken moral norms (such as the norms against surge pricing). Regardless of the specifics, Kalanick is an impressive entrepreneur: after a decade of working on businesses that failed despite being promising, he didn’t give up, and he got it right the third time, with Uber. This is a man who perservered and it paid off, for him, and the large number of people whose lives have been improved by Uber.

But the risk-reward ratio faced by Kalanick pales compared to what Sister Ping faced. Kalanick may end up a billionaire if Uber continues to execute well. Sister Ping probably had just as much, or perhaps even more, business sense, but because she chose to operate in an underground business, the opportunities to her were limited in scope. She had to adopt even more unsavory tactics than Kalanick, including outright violence. And even though she acquired money, it was far less than what Kalanick could accumulate, and she had little opportunity to live it out lavishly due to other constraints. When it comes to the risks, there is no comparison. Sister Ping spent the last 14 years of her life in prison. Kalanick will at worst have to pony up money in a lawsuit and shut down Uber, and in the median case will probably do pretty well for himself.

The following passages from the book illustrate Sister Ping’s determination and relentless resourcefulness:

Whenever people asked Occhipinti about Sister Ping, he told a story that he thought demonstrated just how untouchable she had become. Early on, he had gone to see her at the apartment in Knickerbocker Village, on Monroe Street. He’d taken along another investigator and an interpreter. Occhipinti didn’t have much to bust her on, but he made it clear to Sister Ping, through the interpreter, that he was on to her and he would get her eventually. To Occhipinti’s surprise, Sister Ping wasn’t fazed in the slightest. “You don’t have the time to get me,” he remembers her saying. “Or the resources.” He made a note of the meeting, and it ended up in Sister Ping’s file. It became part of her lore within the agency. But what always struck Occhipinti about the exchange wasn’t just the arrogance of it, or the insult, so much as the fact that she was right.

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (pp. 55-56). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A segment on Sister Ping’s brief jail stint in the early 1990s (distinct from her end-of-life jail stint starting 2000):

Sister Ping did go to prison, in upstate New York. She hated it […] She no doubt was also troubled by the opportunity costs of remaining in jail. Goldenberg had asked that she be permitted to serve her time in a halfway house in New York, arguing that she should be close to her four children, but also that if she was removed from her base of operations in Chinatown, “she would merely languish and her time would not be used profitably.”

[…]

She could still communicate with Yick Tak and the rest of the family in New York City, and as her lawyer had observed, Sister Ping was eager to use her time profitably. The nature of the alien smuggling business, after all, is that there is a pipeline. It sometimes took months to move people from Fuzhou or Changle to Chinatown, so at any given moment there were numerous people at stations along the way: in Shenzhen or Hong Kong, Guatemala or Belize, Tijuana or California, Vancouver or Toronto. “Sister Ping had to keep working from prison,” Patrick Devine explained. “Because when she went in, there were already dozens of people en route to the U.S.”

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (pp. 94-95). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But rather than merely admiring the net benefit that Sister Ping may have given her clients, the more important lesson we should take is that our perverse migration restriction regime made it the case that a business that involved such violence and high risk to life and limb was still one with high social value and a decent personal profit opportunity. How much better would the world be if the need for this kind of innovation was eliminated through a more open regime for legal migration? Sister Ping’s innovative energies could then have been directed to creating additional value rather than merely undoing the damage of immigration restrictions (yes, I know I’m repeating myself here).

Addenda

The book is interesting in two other senses that each deserve their own post.

#1: Writers on the subjects of ethnicity, race, culture, and immigration in the United States often describe Chinese immigrants as a model minority, with Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants being contrasted unfavorably with the Chinese. While the case for Chinese superiority cannot be completely ruled out, this book does a good job of deflating the strongest and most exaggerated forms of the myth. Highly selected people who migrate from China through legal channels, and their children, disproportionately inform elite commentators’ impressions of Chinese immigrants. Illegal immigration and human smuggling from China to the United States suffers many of the same qualitative problems that illegal immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries does. If the United States had a land border with China and an ocean separating it from Mexico, it’s plausible that Mexicans would be touted as the model minority for Chinese to emulate (note also that the population size difference makes it easier to select highly successful Chinese immigrants). More in this OBAG discussion on Facebook.

#2: There is plenty of discussion in the book about various attempts to game the ambiguous rules for refugee status among Sister Ping’s clients. How morally justified were these attempts to stretch the spirit of the rules? This is a topic that requires a post of its own, but the upshot is that almost inevitably, a close examination of each individual case would make one sympathetic to it, even if it did not fit the narrow framework of political persecution reqired to qualify for refugee status. Chapter 13 of the book talks about the People of the Golden Vision, a movement that arose to release a bunch of people who landed ashore in New York City after the ship smuggling them, called the Golden Venture, ran aground. The chapter describes how ordinary Americans, whose prior views on immigration ranged across the spectrum of mainstream views, came to identify with the story of the immigrants. Once people got to hear the people’s stories and interact with them up close, they were convinced that these people should be granted the opportunity to stay in the United States. This is a topic that deserves a separate blog post, since it offers a blueprint of sorts for successful activism in the migration domain, and also provides insight into how actual contact helps resolve people’s moral contradictions in the direction most consistent with a free migration regime.

#3: The relation between human smuggling and organized crime at different levels is worth exploring. The book discusses the connection between snakeheads and local gang activity in Chinatown, with gangs playing important enforcement functions for snakeheads. This too is a topic worth further exploration in a separate post, in the broader context of understanding the role of crime in both the enforcement and the defiance of migration controls.

Related reading

Who favors open borders?

The World Values Survey records quite a bit of information about public opinion related to immigration. I’d like to do in-depth analysis of it at some point. Here are a few things I’ve noted so far (no rich statistical analysis yet though):

  • Young people worldwide are more favorable to open borders, but the effect is very slight. There is no sign– yet– that generational change will tilt the world towards open borders.
  • Children of immigrants are somewhat more favorable to immigration.
  • There seems to be NO correlation worldwide between attitudes towards immigration policy and self-positioning on the left-right spectrum. (This surprised me.)
  • There seems to be no correlation between social class and attitudes towards immigration policy, unless it’s that the middle classes are a bit more favorable.
  • Correlations with life satisfaction are weak; however, the most strongly restrictionist attitudes seem to be more common among people leaning towards dissatisfaction with their lives.
  • People who trust foreigners “completely” are more favorable to a welcoming immigration policy (well, duh), yet 13% of those who don’t trust foreigners at all still say “let anyone come.”
  • People who don’t want immigrants as neighbors are more likely to favor strict limits on or prohibition of immigration (58%, to 42% of those who don’t mind immigrant neighbors) but some of these, too, favor “letting anyone come.”
  • No difference between men and women.

There are large differences across countries in attitudes towards immigration policy. Only 48 countries seem to be covered by the survey, but among those, two-thirds have public opinion more favorable to immigration than the United States, as measured by the share saying “let anyone come.” In particular, Mexican attitudes towards immigration policy are more liberal than Americans’. Some commenters at this site have suggested Asia as an example of a more restrictionist society that nativist Americans might desire to emulate. The WVS data suggest that this is true at the level of public opinion: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have some of the lowest shares of open borders supporters in the world, though in the terms of the number favoring “strict limits” or more, South Koreans are more liberal on immigration than Americans are.

What I find most interesting in the international data is that some developing countries have far more favorable attitudes towards immigration than any rich country. In Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, nearly half the population favors letting anyone come. India has an unusually large number of open borders supporters as well, though it is also tied for highest in terms of the number of people supporting complete prohibition of immigration. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America also seem to have more open borders supporters than any of the rich countries, except Sweden, which appears to be an outlier, with a far more pro-open borders populace of any rich country included in the survey.

Country Let anyone come As long as jobs available Strict limits Prohibit

1

Vietnam

49%

27%

22%

1%

2

Burkina Faso

43%

45%

10%

1%

3

Rwanda

41%

48%

8%

2%

4

Ethiopia

40%

28%

27%

5%

5

Mali

34%

46%

16%

4%

6

Morocco

28%

41%

20%

11%

7

Romania

23%

42%

23%

11%

8

Uruguay

23%

56%

17%

3%

9

Peru

23%

50%

21%

6%

10

India

23%

22%

25%

30%

11

Ukraine

21%

53%

19%

7%

12

China

20%

51%

21%

8%

13

Ghana

18%

39%

36%

6%

14

Sweden

18%

54%

27%

1%

15

Guatemala

17%

55%

21%

7%

16

Argentina

15%

45%

34%

6%

17

Serbia

14%

26%

46%

14%

18

Bulgaria

13%

55%

24%

8%

19

Moldova

13%

50%

26%

11%

20

Poland

12%

35%

46%

6%

21

Mexico

12%

45%

25%

17%

22

Zambia

11%

30%

44%

15%

23

Brazil

9%

47%

33%

11%

24

Georgia

9%

19%

56%

16%

25

Finland

9%

40%

48%

3%

26

Turkey

9%

43%

27%

21%

27

Italy

8%

49%

37%

6%

28

Canada

8%

51%

39%

2%

29

Spain

8%

48%

42%

3%

30

Slovenia

7%

56%

29%

8%

31

Germany

7%

43%

45%

5%

32

USA

7%

37%

49%

8%

33

Chile

6%

50%

35%

9%

34

Cyprus

6%

36%

51%

7%

35

S Africa

6%

16%

48%

30%

36

Switzerland

6%

67%

26%

1%

37

Indonesia

6%

15%

72%

8%

38

Andorra

5%

72%

22%

1%

39

Egypt

5%

25%

43%

26%

40

Thailand

5%

16%

65%

14%

41

Norway

4%

53%

42%

1%

42

Trinidad And Tobago

4%

32%

55%

10%

43

Australia

3%

54%

41%

2%

44

S Korea

3%

56%

36%

5%

45

Japan

3%

42%

50%

5%

46

Taiwan

3%

30%

58%

9%

47

Jordan

2%

28%

46%

25%

48

Malaysia

2%

8%

72%

18%

 

Another very interesting pattern emerged when I dug down into the data involving religion. When asked “How important is God in your life?” on a scale of 1 to 10, about half the respondents answered “10” and half answered something less.  I was distressed to discover that those for whom God was very important in their lives seemed to have less favorable attitudes towards immigration. But when I broke it down by religious demonination, I found something different. While Muslims who regard God as very important in their lives tend to be more restrictionist, Christians of each denomination are more likely to support open borders if they are strongly in touch with God, as shown in the table below (which includes all denominations for which there were over 500 observations in the WVS dataset):

 

How important is God in your life? (scale: 1-10)
Religious Denomination <10 10
Roman Catholic 9% 15%
Protestant 7% 15%
Evangelical 7% 11%
Orthodox 13% 19%
Church of Sweden 16% 19%
Muslim 19% 13%
Buddhist 7% 9%
Ancestor worship 44% 57%
Hindu 12% 15%

 

The percentage in each cell represents the share of respondents saying “Let anyone come.” Note that it is not the case that Christians are more supportive of open borders in general. Many factors affect support for open borders, and it seems that public opinion in rich countries is often less favorable to open borders. And of course most rich countries are nominally/historically Christian. So Muslims are actually more likely than most Christian denominations to favor open borders. But within each Christians denomination, there is a statistically significant (though fairly small) positive correlation between rating God’s importance in one’s life “10” and advocating “let anyone come.”

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