Tag Archives: United States

Can deportation be a key crime-fighting strategy?

This post expands on some points I made in a post to the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. There, I expressed puzzlement at the emphasis people pay to using deportation of criminal non-citizens (and in particular those in violation of authorized immigration status) as a crime-fighting tool. That Facebook post, and this blog post, will focus on the United States, though many of the points made are general.

To many people, the idea that there exist foreign-born non-citizens, particularly illegal immigrants, who have criminal records and still roam the streets safely is an indicator that United States immigration enforcement is dysfunctional and broken. Thus, Donald Trump’s remarks about illegal immigrants and crime struck a chord with a lot of his audience. And the killing of Kate Steinle by illegal immigrant and repeat felon Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez (who has admitted to firing the killing shots but claims they were accidental) was viewed as evidence of a breakdown of law enforcement. The killing has led to a proposal for a new law called “Kate’s Law” that has led to a lot of discussion, see for instance here and here.

This post has two main goals:

  1. Critiquing the high-level view that deportation can be a key strategy for reducing crime, particularly in the United States. I don’t claim that deportation can never reduce crime, just that it’s not a proven strategy to do so and most of the data suggest its effect is negligible in magnitude, ambiguous in sign, and swamped by the other side-effects.
  2. Emphasizing the importance on the open borders side of not carelessly conceding too much to restrictionists regarding how to deal with criminals, due to concerns about slippery slopes, ratchet effects, and logical inconsistency. I don’t claim that it’s inappropriate to make any exceptions for criminals, just that some exceptions should be made after careful consideration of all the angles rather than as a generous carte blanche of “do what you want with the criminals.”

A couple of notes here. Since this post is largely conceptual, I’m going to conflate a few fairly different notions. There is a notion of birthplace (native-born versus foreign-born), a notion of citizenship (citizen versus non-citizen), and a notion of authorization for status (legal versus illegal immigrant). Also, in the United States, many non-citizens are on non-immigrant visas, i.e., their visa does not specify immigrant intent, although many of them later transition to a long-term immigrant status. A detailed analysis of the empirics of crime patterns would need to avoid conflating these issues, but since the purpose of this post is rather different I’ll be a little careless.

Table of contents

1.1. How does the law treat people convicted of crimes based on immigration status?

The short answer here is that, as far as the law goes, non-citizens convicted of crimes are no more a hazard to public safety than citizens convicted of the same crimes. First off, anybody who is not a US citizen, lawful permanent resident, or conditional permanent resident, and who has been convicted of an aggravated felony, a category of crime that includes both violent and non-violent crimes (some of the latter being victimless crimes) can be subject to a speedy removal process called administrative removal for aggravated felons, which means that the person can be removed simply through some paperwork and without getting a hearing before an immigration judge (more here).

Even so, as immigration.procon.org notes, in the United States, those convicted of violent crimes need to first finish their prison terms, and after that they may be deported to their home country. And the way administrative removal works, they are deported straight out of prison, so they don’t spend a single day free in the streets of the United States: it’s prison in the US and then back to freedom in their home country.

In contrast, citizens are required to finish their sentence in prison, and after that they are free — to roam around in the United States. Even if the deportation of criminal non-citizens is a flawed process with many people failing to get deported, or returning to the United States, it’s at worst as bad (from the public safety perspective within the United States) as the treatment of criminal citizens.

For those convicted of non-violent crimes, the person may be deported before the completion of his or her sentence. Since re-entering the United States seems a task of comparable or greater hardness to having one’s prison term shortened or getting out on parole as a U.S. citizen, it’s again unclear that non-citizens pose a greater risk to public safety than citizens. Of course, there’s a big question mark regarding whether people convicted of non-violent crimes are threats to public safety to begin with.

The United States is also a participant in the International Prisoner Transfer Program. A prisoner who is a citizen of another participating country may transfer from a United States prison to a prison in the home country, subject to approval by both countries. However, such transfer must be initiated through a request by the prisoner, and therefore does not concern us here.

A bit more about re-entering after having been deported for crimes. The United States has a summary removal procedure called reinstatement of removal. What this says is that somebody who re-enters the United States without authorization after having previously been deported, removed, or excluded can be removed again without any kind of hearing or process, simply by “reinstating” the previous order. This in particular applies to those who were subject to administrative removal for aggravated felonies, or otherwise deported or excluded based on criminal history. Of course, after the person gets re-deported, the person may re-enter yet again, and get deported yet again, and so on. But two things to note: first, insofar as this isn’t enough to keep the streets of the United States safe, the problem can’t really be solved by more deportations, but by more imprisonment (which is sort of what Kate’s Law was pointing to). Second, the same public safety challenge applies to citizens as well, except that in the case of citizens, there isn’t even an option to deport people, however temporarily.

The upshot of all this is that, for a citizen and a non-citizen who commit the same crime, the law enforcement response in the case of the non-citizen is equally or more protective of public safety (in the US) compared to the response in the case of the citizen. If the law enforcement apparatus of the United States is lenient enough that criminal non-citizens can roam the streets freely and with impunity, then the same is even more true of criminal citizens.

An old post by Nathan, titled Answer to Vipul’s question about enforcement, has some interesting thoughts on deportation that are relevant to this discussion. Basically, Nathan argues that deportation is rarely the appropriate response, even if there are cases where it is not an unjust response:

I’m not absolutely wedded to the idea that deportation is never permissible. However, I can’t think of any situations where it would be appropriate. There are certainly crimes for which deportation would not be an excessive punishment; but for those crimes it’s usually either inapt or insufficient. A man guilty of rape or murder shouldn’t be deported, but imprisoned. Maybe there are scenarios where deportation would be the right thing to do, but I can’t think of them. I have some sympathy for the Nicene council which banished Arius the heresiarch for his views when they temporarily had the emperor on their side– they had suffered much at the hands of the pagans, and would yet suffer much at the hands of the Arians, and mere banishment is impressively moderate under the circumstances– but it’s not a precedent to imitate today, when the principle of free thought has been firmly established.

1.2. Immigrant crime rates appear lower than, and definitely aren’t significantly higher than, native crime rates

In the United States, one of the main concerns surrounding crime is that of crime by Hispanic illegal immigrants. We have a page on the subject that links to many literature reviews, and you should also read Alex Nowrasteh’s recent summary of the research and my co-blogger Joel’s take on immigrants and crime.

The broad consensus of these reviews appears to be that the foreign-born are considerably less likely to engage in crime than the native-born, and that this effect holds in aggregate, within each ethnicity, and for every combination of ethnicity and high school graduation status. Admittedly, the threat of deportation for crime is believed to be one contributing factor to the lower crime rate, but scholars who have studied the issue believe it to only be a partial explanation. The a priori selection for greater future orientation is believed to be another driving factor in the lower crime rates, and this applies to both legal and illegal immigration, and to both the status quo and substantially more liberal migration policy.

On the other hand, Hispanics have crime rates somewhere between non-Hispanic whites and blacks, which is a contributing factor to the perception of high Hispanic crime. But a lot of this higher Hispanic crime doesn’t come from foreign-born Hispanics.

In addition to comparing overall crime rates, we can also look at specific research on the effect of deportation on crime rates. Alex’s recent summary of the research includes a discussion of two relevant pieces of research:

The phased rollout of the Secure Communities (S-COMM) immigration enforcement program provided a natural experiment. A recent paper by Thomas J. Miles and Adam B. Cox used the phased rollout to see how S-COMM affected crime rates per county. If immigrants were disproportionately criminal, then S-COMM would decrease the crime rates. They found that S-COMM “led to no meaningful reduction in the FBI index crime rate” including violent crimes. Relying on similar data with different specifications, Treyger et al. found that S-COMM did not decrease crime rates nor did it lead to an increase in discriminatory policing that some critics were worried about. According to both reports, the population of immigrants is either not correlated, or negatively correlated, with crime rates.

As far as long-run immigration policy is concerned, one could plausibly argue that, even if the foreign-born have lower crime rates than the native-born, allowing more immigration can still raise crime if the children of these foreign-born have higher criminal propensity. This line of reasoning is partly supported by evidence, both with respect to Hispanics in the United States, and with respect to other immigrant groups historically; this phenomenon has been discussed under the name of second-generation crime.

For the purposes of deportation policy, however, this doesn’t apply, because we are specifically talking about deporting non-citizens for crimes they have committed, rather than crimes we expect their children might commit. And native-born people in the United States are United States citizens (by birthright citizenship) so there are no official grounds for deporting them.

1.3. In absolute terms, crime by immigrants is a small fraction of overall crime

In the United States, the foreign-born constitute about 13% of the population. Given that their crime rates are somewhat lower than those of the native-born, they account for less than 13% of the overall crime in the United States. Targeting crime by immigrants therefore won’t make a huge dent in the overall crime problem.

Concretely, what this means is that if you believe the criminal justice system is too lenient against the foreign-born, and that this creates a significant crime risk for natives, then you should be far more concerned about the criminal justice system being too lenient overall. For every case of a criminal foreign-born non-citizen individual who was either acquitted or released after serving a prison term and then committed more crimes, you’ll probably find many more native-born citizens who do the same thing. Perhaps the relevant remedy here is to make prison terms longer for particular types of offenses, or to better identify those who may be repeat offenders. What the optimal remedy is, and how to balance the rights of former criminals with public safety needs, is not the topic of this post. But it behooves those concerned about crime levels to consider the problem in generality rather than find solutions for a subset of the population that contributes little to the overall problem.

Note that this definitely won’t hold under open borders: under open borders, the foreign-born will be a much larger share of the population, and are likely to contribute a significant share of overall crime. The question of what crime rates would be under open borders is open. It is plausible that the currently observed phenomenon of lower immigrant crime rates than native crime rates will break down under open borders, though I still don’t expect a massive overall increase in crime rate. I considered these questions in an earlier post, and we’ll hopefully have more coverage of the issue.

1.4. Are there unique challenges associated with domestic criminal law enforcement when applied to non-citizens?

One plausible argument for choosing deportation as a crime-fighting strategy for non-citizens is that domestic criminal law enforcement becomes particularly hard for these people. Is that true?

Ironically, it is, but largely because of immigration enforcement. Law enforcement officers have difficulty carrying out their job in immigrant communities partly because of the distrust in these communities of law enforcement, given their fear of deportation and harassment. This leads to a dynamic where police officers tend to avoid the area, leaving the policing of these areas to those prone to corruption and bullying, further worsening the interaction between police and residents. A similar phenomenon been observed for many black communities in the United States, where the relevant form of enforcement is not immigration enforcement but other laws such as drug enforcement and Broken Windows policing.

It is partly for this reason that many “sanctuary cities” have adopted explicit policies surrounding non-enforcement of federal immigration laws. In other words, police are instructed to focus on the goal of fighting crime, leaving the enforcement of federal immigration law to federal authorities. In other words, to the extent that unique challenges apply to domestic law enforcement for non-citizens, they point in the direction of separating law enforcement from immigration enforcement.

A small note here about crime in border towns specifically as a result of illicit border activity. Organized crime plays an important role in facilitating drug smuggling and migrant smuggling, and the clashes between different organized crime groups, and between them and law enforcement agencies, can be responsible for higher-than-usual violence levels in border towns. That being said, as an empirical matter, it appears that overall crime rates are lower in border towns than in comparably sized interior towns. One of the lowest-crime areas, El Paso, is a border town in Texas whose low crime rate has even been called a miracle. The oft-noted point that border towns account for a disproportionate rate of federal crimes (which include crimes related to smuggling) does not impugn their overall safety record.

2.0. Is this worth making an issue of? Can’t the treatment of violent criminals be a small concession that makes the open borders position much more widely palatable?

Criminals are one of the few categories for which many open borders advocates are willing to make exceptions to their general view that borders should be open to all. Thus, for instance, Bryan Caplan writes:

Hey Mr. Caplan,Do you think Israel should open their borders?

Thanks, Jack

Yes. But I wouldn’t strongly object if they excluded people with violent criminal records or denied new-comers the vote. (Same goes for countries other than Israel, too).

It’s not clear to me if making a clear exclusion for criminals is philosophically consistent, but the argument for public safety being a valid concern in immigration law does carry some weight. In an earlier post in December 2012, I considered in detail the question of whether blanket denial of the right to migrate based on a criminal record is just (and also linked to many other people who had conceded an exception to open borders for violent criminals).

My purpose when I wrote that post, way back in 2012, was to simply explore the space of possibilities regarding how to trade off the right to migrate with public safety concerns in receiving countries. However, as I’ve thought more about this and looked more at the types of disputes and debates that arise in practice, a few other concerns have emerged in my mind.

2.1. Scope creep with criminality and immigration

The idea of keeping criminals out, and deporting those who commit crimes, is subject to significant scope creep. Once we start seeing immigration policy as a way to select and shape a better society, why stop at merely excluding violent criminals? Why not also aim to exclude people who have a 50%+ probability of being net fiscal drains, or who are more likely than not to vote the wrong way? And even within the realm of crime, why stop merely at those crimes that actually merit prison terms? Why not expand the scope to everything ranging from playing loud music to running a gambling house to downloading music in violation of copyright law?

In fact, this particular slippery slope is not merely hypothetical. It’s already happened. As already mentioned, United States immigration law can exclude and deport people for aggravated felonies, many of which are neither aggravated nor felonies. The Immigration Policy Center, an immigrant rights and legal advocacy group, has a good overview. Here’s how the IPC’s overview puts it:

As initially enacted in 1988, the term “aggravated felony” referred only to murder, federal drug trafficking, and illicit trafficking of certain firearms and destructive devices. Congress has since expanded the definition of “aggravated felony” on numerous occasions, but has never removed a crime from the list. Today, the definition of “aggravated felony” covers more than thirty types of offenses, including simple battery, theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court. Even offenses that sound serious, such as “sexual abuse of a minor,” can encompass conduct that some states classify as misdemeanors or do not criminalize at all, such as consensual intercourse between a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old.

While aggravated felonies are considered serious enough to allow for administrative removal for those who are not US citizens or permanent residents, there are also other, lesser, “crimes” that can be used to both exclude and deport people, albeit with more of a semblance of due process (i.e., they cannot be used as a basis for administrative removal, but they can still be used as evidence against the alien in a hearing before an immigration judge). Crimes that can be used to exclude and deport people are called crimes involving moral turpitude (aka crimes of moral turpitude, and abbreviated as CMT). This category includes aggravated felonies but also includes other crimes. NOLO has a good review.

The United States has also historically passed many laws restricting immigration based on one’s speech and political views, including the Immigration Act of 1903 (also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act) and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. This, despite the fact that freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Once we grant that the public safety interest justifies special punishments for non-citizens (over and above the usual fines and prison terms), keeping the domain of application restricted to crime would be hard.

My co-blogger John Lee has done a great post linking to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse’s discussion of how migrants could be deported for minor offenses (also read John’s follow-up post discussing the resolution of one of the discussed cases).

2.2. Who has responsibility for shaping a criminal?

Personally, I reject the notion that state or national governments are morally responsible for the criminal actions of particular individuals who were born there or raised there. There could be exceptions where state propaganda or state action facilitates criminal activity, but state complicity in private crime needs to be positively established — not merely assumed. Therefore, I don’t believe, for instance, that just because a Chinese citizen came to the United States and committed crimes, the Chinese government, the Chinese nation, or the Chinese people as a whole are “responsible” for that crime and “deserve” to have the person back (this argument is a variant of the state responsibility thesis that has been cited by some philosophers as an argument against open borders).

Even if you believed in high-level national responsibility for the criminal actions of individuals, it’s not clear what nation gets the blame for immigrant crime. Is it the nation the person holds official citizenship of? Is it the nation the person grew up in? Is it the nation where the person first started on the path to crime? In the United States, DREAMers are likely to have had many of their formative experiences in the United States. Thus, we could reasonably argue in the case of DREAMers who commit crimes, any national responsibility for the crimes falls on the United States, rather than their birthplace. Even for those who migrate as adults and then commit crimes, their path of crime may well have begun in the United States. At best, the logic of responsibility can be used to deport criminals who committed their first deportation-worthy crime in their country of origin, in the same way as it could be used to deny initial entry.

2.3. Criminals can commit crimes elsewhere too

From a universalist perspective, deporting those with criminal proclivities, whom we believe could be repeat offenders, doesn’t really solve the problem: the person could commit crimes elsewhere too. There could be some cases where deportation might reduce criminality, for instance, deporting members of a gang could break up the criminal activity of the gang, and individual deported gang members may be unlikely to continue to engage in the relevant crimes (on the other hand, they may start new gangs). It’s unclear that the countries the criminals are being deported to would be more capable of dealing with the criminal activity — they may well be less able to handle it. Perhaps a cost-benefit analysis would still show that deportation reduces overall expected global crime, but such a claim needs careful argumentation.

Of course, citizenists and territorialists in any country would consider the reduction of crime within the country (and/or directed at citizens of the country) to be more important than reducing global crime. So it’s understandable that they accept deportation as a possible crime reduction strategy. But those of a more universalist bent should push back against this reasoning.

Co-blogger Joel pointed me to an article in The Atlantic that made the interesting claim that deporting gang members from the U.S. had actually increased organized criminal actiity both in the U.S. and in the countries the people were deported to. Here’s a key excerpt from the article:

MS-13 formed in the Rampart area of Los Angeles in 1988 or 1989. A civil war in El Salvador had displaced a fifth of that country’s population, and a small number of the roughly 300,000 Salvadorans living in L.A. banded together to form the gang. But MS-13 didn’t really take off until several years later, in El Salvador, after the U.S. adopted a get-tough policy on crime and immigration and began deporting first thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Central Americans each year, including many gang members.

Introduced into war-ravaged El Salvador, the gang spread quickly among demobilized soldiers and a younger generation accustomed to violence. Many deportees who had been only loosely affiliated with MS-13 in the U.S. became hard-core members after being stranded in a country they did not know, with only other gang members to rely on. As the gang proliferated and El Salvador tried to crack down on it, some deportees began finding their way back into the U.S.—in many cases bringing other, newly recruited gangsters with them. Deportation, incubation, and return: it’s a cycle we’ve been caught in ever since.

Today, MS-13 has perhaps 6,000 to 10,000 members in the United States. It has grown moderately in recent years and now has a presence in 43 states (up from 32 in 2003 and 15 in 1996). Most members of the gang are foreign-born. Since 2005, ICE has arrested about 2,000 of them; 13 percent have been deported before.

Salvadoran police report that 90 percent of deported gang members return to the U.S. After several spins through the deportation-and-return cycle, MS-13 members now control many of the “coyote” services that bring aliens up from Central America. Deportation—a free trip south—can be quite profitable for those gang members who bring others back with them upon their return.

While I don’t know enoughabout the specifics to endorse the claim of the article, this is the sort of ripple effect that people concerned about the long-run effects on global crime would have to account for. These kinds of effects are hard to predict, but a reasonable rule of thumb is that they’re likely to be less positive overall than the naive view of deportation as “taking criminals off the streets” suggests.

3. Conclusion

Much of the current discussion on immigration and crime comes from two angles: the use of anecdotes to justify strong immigration restriction and deportation policies against non-citizens accused of crimes, and the use of empirical data to study the relationship between migration status and crime. In addition, the defense of the civil and procedural rights of non-citizens accused of crimes is also a perspective that gets some airing. My post looks at the issue from a few slightly different angles. It focuses on whether deportation can or should be an important part of a crime-fighting strategy, and highlights some other relevant considerations about moral responsibility and effects that often get sidelined by the tug-of-war between the citizenist and due process-defending perspectives.

In addition to the many inline links in the post, the following might be of interest to readers:

The photograph featured at the top of this post depicts police personnel at a 2006 march for immigrant rights in Los Angeles, California. Photograph by Jonathan McIntosh and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Immigration Restrictions Enable Abuse

The writers at openborders.info frequently describe how immigration restrictions are immoral in the context of official policy.  Governments, in an effort to keep most people from immigrating to their countries, prevent would-be immigrants from entering their territories and detain and deport those who have managed to penetrate their borders; ending these official actions is our overarching goal.  The evils of restrictions are not limited to official government policies, however.  Immigration restrictions make immigrants and would-be immigrants vulnerable to mistreatment by individuals in myriad ways.

Before detailing this mistreatment, it is helpful to consider a similar dynamic in African-American history.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has described in the Atlantic how many whites in America have taken advantage of blacks in the context of government and societal discrimination.  He refers to “.. the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.”  For example, Mr. Coates relates how an African-American sharecropping family in Jim Crow Mississippi, whose landlord was supposed to split the profits from the cotton with them, would lose most of the money to him. The father in the family told his son not to resist this situation “‘because they’ll come and kill us all.’”  In another example described by Mr. Coates, African Americans from the 1930s through the 1960s “were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market,” to a large extent due to Federal Housing Administration policy, which made black neighborhoods usually “ineligible for FHA backing.” As a result, “blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.”

Borrowing terms from Mr. Coates, restrictions herd immigrants into the sights of the unscrupulous. To begin with, migrants crossing borders illegally, by attempting to evade government authorities, are put at risk of being robbed (or worse). A Mexican man who crossed illegally into the U.S. recalled that he was robbed two times that evening. Before he and the other immigrants in his group even crossed the border, they were ambushed by bandits who threaten them with ice picks. He was forced to strip and was robbed of $40. Then, approaching the border wall, another group of robbers approached with guns, but after the immigrants explained they had already been robbed, the second group left them alone. Soon after crawling under the wall into the U.S., they were approached by yet another group of robbers with ice picks. The man was forced to give up his tennis shoes and in return was given a pair of old, used shoes. (Cristine Gonzalez, “Journey to Wenatchee,” The Oregonian, 6/15/07) The New York Times reported that “illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border often encounter bandits, armed civilian patrols and rival smugglers bent on robbing or stopping them.” In February of 2007, men with rifles robbed 18 immigrants who had crossed into Arizona. A day later, a group of undocumented immigrants from Guatemala were traveling in a vehicle along a known smuggling route when gunmen fired on the vehicle, which then crashed. Three of the immigrants were killed, three were wounded, and several others were kidnapped. An official with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said, “’There have been similar cases where undocumented migrants have been taken to a location and relatives in Mexico contacted and extortion took place.’”

Immigrants from Central America who cross Mexico on their way to the U.S. border are exposed to danger even before they reach it. It is easy to cross into Mexico from Guatemala, but, as reported in National Geographic, “it is at the southern Mexican border where the perils begin—the thugs, the drug runners, the extortionists in official uniforms, the police and migration agents who pack undocumented migrants into detention facilities before forcing them onto buses to be deported.” The Central American migrants in a Mexican city near the Guatemalan border “… because they’re isolated, vulnerable, and likely to be carrying money—attract assailants whose toxic presence alarms everybody in town.” The article adds that migrants who ride freight trains north through Mexico are sometimes accosted at stops by locals who beat and rob them, “sometimes with police watching or joining in.”

When undocumented immigrants make it in the U.S., their desperation to have legal residency and their vulnerability to deportation make them targets of other types of theft.  Some attorneys have reportedly defrauded immigrants.  A director of an immigrant advocacy group stated, “Immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous attorneys, and they are often unwilling and unable to complain because they are likely to be deported if they do.”  People who are not attorneys similarly take advantage of the undocumented.  The New York Times reported several years ago that over a hundred undocumented immigrants in the New York area were cheated out of almost a million dollars by two men who had set up a church in Queens, New York. The immigrants were told that green cards were available through churches. They were also told to pay a fee in cash ranging from $6000 to $10,000. The immigrants drained their savings and/or borrowed money from others to cover the fees. After months had passed and the green cards did not appear, the immigrants began asking for refunds. After first threatening to report the immigrants to authorities, one of the schemers simply stopped answering calls and closed the church. “Many of the immigrants say they find themselves in deep financial holes at a time when work is scarce. Officials can offer only limited hope: Full restitution for victims is often difficult in cases of financial fraud, especially in immigration-related cases, which almost always involve cash transactions.” (See also here.)

Beyond enabling the fleecing of immigrants, restrictions also make immigrants vulnerable to sexual assault. The National Geographic article on Central Americans crossing Mexico refers to sexual assaults on migrants. In addition, a report by groups that monitor the U.S.-Mexico border states that “smugglers have been regularly accused of coercion, rape, and forced servitude…” (p. 13) The undocumented are also vulnerable to sexual assault when they work. According to an article on the Public Broadcasting Service site, a study of hundreds of low-wage employees working illegally in the U.S. “found that 64 percent of the janitors surveyed had been cheated out of pay or suffered some other labor violation. About one-third said they’d been forced to work against their will, and 17 percent of that group said they’d experienced some kind of physical threat, including sexual violence…” Immigrant agricultural workers are also abused, according to another article on the PBS website: “The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes.”

Immigration agents themselves have mistreated immigrants beyond their official duties of stopping illegal immigration.  This should not be surprising, given the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which volunteers assumed the roles of either guards or inmates.  Soon after the experiment began, the guards began to mistreat the prisoners.  The experiment was shut down early because of the suffering that was occurring. (“The Slippery Slope of Evil,” Mother Jones, July/August, 2015, p. 56)

Restrictions make immigration agents the “guards” and undocumented immigrants the “prisoners.”  Along the U.S.-Mexico border, each year there are hundreds of thousands of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants by armed immigration agents, so it is not shocking that, according to a 2008 report by groups that monitor the border, “in a very small but extremely important set of cases, Homeland Security officers (including Border Patrol officers) have used lethal force. The wider pattern of abuses includes pointing guns at immigrants, wrongful detention, excessive use of force, and verbal and psychological abuse.” (p. 15) In one case, an immigrant reported that on December 19, 2007, “I crossed the border and almost immediately an agent was upon me with his flashlight drawn like a weapon. I turned to run back to the Mexican side, he tackled me and pulled my feet and then there was another agent hitting me. Even though I had reached the Mexican side, the agent pulled me back and the other continued to hit me, and jumped on my back. My chest, hand and leg were hurt, and my body had cuts all over. The agent that was hitting me also pointed his gun at my head and was yelling at me. After I was taken to the border patrol station, an ambulance was called and I was taken to a hospital. After I was released and taken to the detention facility, I had to go back to the hospital two more times because of my injuries.” (Also see here, pp. 9-10)

Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway, notes that as part of writing the book (on the deadly crossing of Arizona’s desert undertaken by a group of undocumented immigrants in 2001) he spent hours in Border Patrol stations and trucks. He reveals some Border Patrol views of undocumented immigrants. “Illegal aliens, dying of thirst more often than not, are called ‘wets’ by agents… ‘Wets’ are also called ‘tonks,’ but the Border Patrol tries hard to keep that bon mot from civilians. It’s a nasty habit in the ranks. Only a fellow border cop could appreciate the humor of calling people a name based on the stark sound of flashlight breaking over a human head.” (p. 16) And this: “There are other games the Border Patrol guys like to play. Sometimes they toss a recently shot rattlesnake, dead but still writhing and rattling, into the cage with the captured wets. Ha ha—that’s a funny sight, watching them go apeshit in the back of the truck.” (p. 27)

In addition, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are literally prisoners in detention facilities in the U.S. each year.  Some are in state and county criminal jails, while others are in facilities run by immigration authorities or private contractors. Amnesty International reports “pervasive problems with conditions of detention, such as commingling of immigration detainees with individuals convicted of criminal offenses; inappropriate and excessive use of restraints; inadequate access to healthcare, including mental health services; and inadequate access to exercise.” (p. 7) The New York Times has described the immigrant detention system as “a sprawling network of ill-managed prisons rife with reports of abuse, injury and preventable death… a system that puts little children in prison scrubs, that regularly denies detainees basic needs, like contact with lawyers and loved ones, like soap and sanitary napkins. It is a system where people who are not dangerous criminals by any definition get injured, sick and die without timely medical care.” A recent report from The Center for Migration Services and The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that “attorneys and pastoral workers from Catholic agencies have learned first-hand of the sexual abuse of women detainees, women forced to deliver babies in restraints, frequent hunger strikes, suicides…” (p. 15)

The role of smugglers and employers in the exploitation of  undocumented immigrants is more ambiguous.  There have been cases where smugglers and employers have clearly mistreated undocumented immigrants.  I earlier noted reports of sexual assault on immigrants by employers and smugglers.  In addition, in at least one case smugglers of Chinese migrants had enforcers extort more resources from them during the voyage. (Peter Kwong, Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor, 1997, p. 80) When smuggled Chinese migrants arrived in America, they would sometimes be tortured to force the migrants’ relatives to pay off the smuggling fees and would even be forced to work without pay. Migrants from Syria and Eritrea often are smuggled across the Sudanese portion of the Sahara Desert on their way to the Libyan coast (and then on to Europe). An article in the Guardian states that “All must brave the desert – and not everyone makes it. At every stage, migrants are at the mercy of the smugglers in that particular area; kidnappings for ransom or for slave labour are common. There are stories of smugglers abandoning their clients in the dunes and of dozens dying of thirst.” Some of those who make it to Libya “are essentially kidnapped by smugglers or even local businessmen… whoever is doing it seems to be holding migrants in warehouses, or treating them as slave labour, until they pay what they owe.” In addition, “there are reports of beatings to extract more money from people while they wait” to begin the trip to Europe.

Employers can use immigration agents as a way of exploiting their immigrant workers. A report relates a situation in Louisiana in which
immigrants working to clean and repair an apartment complex damaged by Hurricane Katrina labored long hours, lived in moldy apartments in the complex, and were owed 15 weeks of unpaid wages. “The employer regularly threatened to call immigration authorities in response to workers’ demands for their pay.” A few days after an attorney sent a letter in 2008 to the employers on behalf of the workers demanding payment, ICE “agents arrived at the exact time and place that the immigrant workers were required to check in for the day, and arrested seven of the workers who had sought back pay.” At least two workers have been deported to Honduras. “As has been the case with many raids conducted by ICE, none of these workers had committed crimes, and the employer was not charged with anything or held liable for its abuse of the workers.” (“Raids on Workers: Destroying Our Rights,” Report of The National Commission on ICE Misconduct and Violations of 4th Amendment Rights, 2009, pp. 40-41) Another report stated that “in raids documented by NNIRR’s HURRICANE initiative in 2008, where employers cooperated fully with ICE’s enforcement operation, employers were subjecting workers to egregious labor rights violations. This included not paying minimum wage, non-payment of wages, including overtime work, threats of deportation, denying access to or not providing safety equipment and not meeting safety standards, sexual and verbal abuse and harassment by immediate supervisors.”

Notwithstanding these cases of abuse by smugglers and employers, on balance I agree with Vipul that “helping illegal immigrants by smuggling them or employing them, even when done for selfish reasons, is a good thing (if nobody were willing to smuggle people across the border, or employ them once they were on the other side, this wouldn’t be good for the immigrants).” (See here and here for Vipul’s elaboration of this perspective.)

The exploitation and abuse of undocumented immigrants described in this post is not a complete survey of all the suffering inflicted by immigration restrictions.  I did not explore the suffering and death from exposure to the environment in an attempt to evade immigration authorities, whether that involves crossing a desert or a long stretch of sea.  I did not relate the suffering caused by deportation and raids and the “normal” suffering associated with detention, such as separation from loved ones.  I did not address the lost opportunities for those prevented from migrating to a different country.  It should be kept in mind that the mistreatment discussed in the post accounts for only part of the suffering associated with restrictions.

It also needs reemphasizing that the ultimate responsibility for the mistreatment related in this post should be assigned to the people who create the laws that restrict immigration (and, in democracies, the citizenry that elects them). The immediate perpetrators of misdeeds against immigrants, whether they are border agents, robbers, swindlers, or prison guards, certainly bear responsibility for their actions, but they have been enabled by the policies that make immigrants vulnerable to their depredations. When immigration restrictions disappear (while keeping limited restrictions such as the exclusion of terrorists) and open borders are realized, the ability of people to abuse immigrants should dissipate.

Related reading

If you liked this post, you might also find the following relevant:

The Moral Imperative of Open Borders Trumps (Pun Intended) Immigrant Crime Rates

Many in the U.S. are currently focused on the amount of crime committed by immigrants in the country. This is due to remarks made by presidential contender Donald Trump in June and a murder allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in July.  Mr. Trump suggested that many Mexican immigrants are criminals. In this post I argue that even if it were true that immigrants would increase crime rates in America, open borders would still be justified.

In response to Mr. Trump’s remarks and the San Francisco murder, both The Washington Post  and The New York Times have noted that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has surveyed the research on immigration and crime rates and drawn a similar conclusion. The Immigration Policy Center also released a report which states that “the available evidence indicates that immigrants are not only less likely to end up behind bars than the native-born, but that immigrants are also less likely to commit criminal acts to begin with.” (p. 9) In a 2012 post, Vipul  communicated the same message that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.

Focusing on Mexican and Hispanic immigration, Mr. Nowrasteh notes that although one study showed that Mexican immigrants were committing more property crimes than native-born Americans, another demonstrated that Mexican immigrants “had no effect on violent or property crime rates in major U.S. metropolitan areas.” He also cites a study on Hispanic immigrants in Chicago that found that they were much less prone to committing violent criminal acts than native whites or blacks in the city.

The Immigration Policy Center offers an explanation for why immigrants commit less crime: “This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Unauthorized immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.” (p. 20)

What about the crime rate of the offspring of immigrants? They do appear to become more prone to crime than their immigrant relatives, which an editor at the Pew Research Center calls the “dark side of assimilation.” An article on reason.com notes that “every year that an immigrant lives in the U.S. is associated with a 1.9 and 0.9 percent increase in nonviolent and violent crime respectively.” In addition, “the behaviors of the children of immigrants over time begin to resemble that of native-borns.”  However, the offspring do not appear to commit more crimes than Americans generally.  (Census data from 2000 indicate that U.S.-born young males of Mexican, Cuban, and three Southeast Asian ethnicities are incarcerated at higher rates than the overall U.S.-born average. Vipul notes, however, that “locking out entire ethnic groups due to the anticipated future crime rates of their descendants based on past data, which aren’t that much higher than native rates anyway, causes substantially more harm than letting them in and dealing with a crime rate that might fall less slowly or rise slightly in the future.”)

But could this picture of relatively low immigrant criminality change under open borders, which would mean a larger flow of immigrants and probably higher proportions from certain countries? Vipul explored this question in his 2012 post and concluded that with open borders “the odds of crime rates going up versus down are about even, and they almost certainly will not explode.” In reaching this conclusion, Vipul noted that the future orientation associated with migrants is generally incompatible with criminality, that the worldwide crime rate is similar to that of the U.S., that much of the immigration to the U.S under restrictive immigration laws already comes from countries with relatively high crime rates (other countries in the Americas), and that India and China, which likely would be the sources of large numbers of immigrants under open borders, have lower crime rates than the U.S.

Some Americans who care only about the well-being of citizens  might call for an end to immigration altogether, let alone open borders, because one citizen death caused by immigrants, in their view, might be too many. If it were possible to stop immigration, that policy would eventually lead to no more murders or other crimes committed by immigrants because there would be no immigrants. (But of course the inevitable reproduction of the citizen population would lead to the creation of more people who would commit crimes, so they would have watch out for these new citizen criminals. They might also have to worry about the migration of citizens within the country who might commit crimes in their new areas of residence.)

More thoughtful American citizenists might look favorably on the impact of immigration on crime under the status quo of immigration restrictions that allow some immigration. Looking at the data, they might think, “The immigration system works pretty well right now in terms of crime. Those immigrants who make it into the U.S. are generally more law abiding than us citizens. They are revitalizing blighted urban areas, which reduces crime, and places with concentrated immigration are especially safe.  (p. 6) If they are really knowledgeable, they might say, as does Mr. Nowrasteh, that perhaps by “contributing to greater economic prosperity through pushing natives up the skills spectrum through complementary task specialization,” immigrants keep some Americans away from crime. They might agree that “It is easy to focus on the horrible tragedies when somebody is murdered by an immigrant but it’s very hard to imagine all of the people who weren’t murdered because of the lower crime rates created by increased immigration.” However, despite Vipul’s arguments that crime rates would most likely not explode under open borders, they wouldn’t want to take that risk. Besides, they would probably have other concerns about immigration’s impact on citizens.

However, from an open-borders perspective, even if crime rates were to increase significantly under an open borders policy, the moral importance of having open borders outweighs such a development. (The manifesto of the group No One Is Illegal similarly suggests that principle should trump the concrete consequences of immigration, whether positive or negative. Since the consequences can change, “statistics are useful to refute distortions and lies, but cannot be the bedrock of our opposition to controls.” ) In a previous post, I noted two strong moral arguments (from Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer) for open borders, both of which would countenance large increases in crime levels under open borders, should they occur. For both arguments, the right to open borders could be overridden only if the flow of people under open borders led to a “breakdown of public order” or a “disastrous” result in the receiving country. A significant increase in the crime rate, unlikely as it would be, would not constitute such a cataclysm.

In sum, the evidence strongly suggests that currently immigrant crime rates are lower than those of native-born Americans. The crime rates of immigrants’ offspring resembles those of Americans but doesn’t appear to be higher. Vipul has convincingly argued that under open borders the crime rate in the U.S. likely wouldn’t change dramatically. Even if it did, an open borders policy would still be morally warranted.

The photograph of Donald Trump featured on this post was taken by Gage Skidmore and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

Open Borders Is the Best Way to Help Haiti

Advocates have suggested open borders (here and here) as a way to help Haiti, which has a long history of poverty, environmental disasters, political turmoil, and human rights abuses. Yet after a devastating earthquake in 2010 led to billions of dollars of outside help for Haiti in the form of humanitarian and development aid, as well as debt relief, has Haiti improved significantly? Has massive aid been the solution to Haiti’s problems? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no, and open borders as a solution for much of Haiti’s misery continues to be as important as ever.

Even after the infusion of aid, Haiti has a per capita GDP of $1,800, placing it 209th out of 230 countries, with the 230th being the poorest. The Associated Press  recently described Haiti as a “…deeply poor nation, with an official unemployment rate of about 40 percent and the World Bank says more than 6 million out of roughly 10.4 million inhabitants live under the national poverty line of $2.44 per day.” Statistics from three years ago show that about 23 percent of young children in Haiti were chronically undernourished and 4 percent were acutely malnourished.

Haiti also has been been cited as one of five countries where slavery is most prevalent. Human Rights Watch states that thousands of children from poor families are sent to live with wealthier families in order to provide them with schooling in exchange for domestic work, but often the children do not receive an education and are abused.  Human Rights Watch also notes “long-standing human rights problems” in Haiti, as well as “concerns about the resurgence of political violence.”

Aid from other countries clearly hasn’t and might never transform Haiti. Per capita GDP has increased from $1200 in the years 2009-2012 to $1800 in 2014, but it is difficult to know to what extent this increase is due to foreign aid, remittances (see below), or other factors. The bottom line is that Haiti continues to be very poor, along with suffering from other problems.  Foreign Policy in Focus concludes that “four years and billions of dollars later, conditions do not appear to have improved for Haitians affected by the earthquake; in fact, it can be argued that things are worse.” Similarly,  GlobalPost, referring to American aid for Haiti, states that “the extent to which that money is creating sustainable progress remains unclear even four years after it began.”

While some good has been accomplished in Haiti because of outside help (see here and here and here), problems with its delivery have been identified. U.S. government aid for Haiti has largely gone to American companies and non-profits, and The Guardian notes that “Critics have argued for years that donors’ practice of spending aid money through organisations located in their own countries has hampered efforts to build self-sufficiency abroad, and works to the detriment of local businesses and industries.”  And the impact of nearly $500 million raised by the American Red Cross for Haiti since the earthquake has been underwhelming, according to a recent investigation by National Public Radio and ProPublica. The groups found “… a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success…” associated with the funds. The American Red Cross built a total of six permanent homes in Haiti, even though housing is the area in which “the Red Cross made its biggest promises.” An article on the NBC News site states that “to Jonathan Katz, author of ‘The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,’ the aid story is one of good intentions and bad policy, short-term fixes without a ground-breaking long game, Band-Aids over self-sufficiency.” (See here and here and here for additional criticism of aid efforts.)

On the other hand, emigration is much more promising than foreign aid, both for the Haitians who leave Haiti and for those who stay behind. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development argues that international migration is “the cheapest and most powerful economic tool” for helping Haitians.  He states that “the large majority of Haitians who have ever escaped poverty have done so by leaving Haiti.”  Citing research by others that was published in 2008, he notes that Haitian immigrants to the U.S. gain a 680% wage increase due to the migration.  He adds that “for those who don’t move, remittances… unlike foreign aid, generally go directly into the pockets of Haitian families. They are spent almost entirely on locally-produced goods and services…”  The CIA World Factbook notes that for Haiti “remittances are the primary source of foreign exchange, equaling one-fifth of GDP and representing more than five times the earnings from exports in 2012.”  Mr. Clemens concludes that “migration has been a principal cause of convergence, to date, between the incomes of Haitians and Americans.”  (He does suggest that the gains to migrants might be diminished under open borders.)

There are more than half a million Haitian immigrants in the U.S.  And many more Haitians want to come. A Gallup poll indicates that, if given the opportunity, about a quarter of Haiti’s adults would move permanently to the U.S.

However, under the status quo of border controls, the ability of Haitians to emigrate to the United States is limited. The U.S. has worked hard to keep many from coming. Since 1981 the U.S. Coast Guard has been interdicting, or intercepting, Haitian migrants traveling by boat to the U.S. Under a 1981 agreement with Haiti, the U.S. returns migrants to Haiti but ostensibly does not repatriate refugees. A study by the former Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) found that from 1981 to 1990 almost 400 Haitian vessels were interdicted, 21,000 Haitians were returned home, and only six Haitians were allowed into the U.S. for a full asylum hearing, despite a “high incidence of serious human rights violations in Haiti during that period.” (from Stephen Legomsky, The USA and the Caribbean Interdiction Program, 2006) Since 1990, tens of thousands more Haitians have been intercepted and sent home. (See here and here.) It was reported  that as a group of Haitians was forced back to Port-au-Prince in 1995, one of the returnees, handcuffed and carried down the gangplank, moaned, with “tears streaming down his cheeks,” “’I don’t want to come back to a country like this and die in the streets.’” And the interdictions continue, as indicated by statistics for fiscal year 2014.

Even after the earthquake struck Haiti, the New York Times reported that a U.S. Air Force plane flew over Haiti broadcasting a message from the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., who said in the message, meant to dissuade Haitians from fleeing to the U.S. on boats, “’If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.’” The Times also reported that the Coast Guard patrolled Haitian waters, ready to intercept anyone trying to escape. Moreover, the U.S. denied many seriously injured people permission to enter the U.S. for treatment. Only 23 were allowed to enter the U.S. for treatment, as well as some orphaned children.

Many have sought a better life in the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispanola, but many have experienced hardship there. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians, both those from Haiti and their offspring born in the Dominican Republic, live there. Minority Rights Group International states that Haitians there experience discrimination based on their skin color and culture. In addition, “they earn 60 per cent less than average Dominicans. They often do not have access to proper nutrition or adequate health care due to poor pay, their illegal status and fear of deportation.” Most sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic are Haitian. Conditions for the workers are poor, and workers are sometimes coerced into working. Recently, the Dominican Republic has threatened to deport many Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. A court ruling in 2013 took away Dominican citizenship from children of Haitian migrants. Similarly, the Bahamas requires noncitizens, including those born in the Bahamas, to have passports, “a rule that human rights groups say unfairly targets people of Haitian descent,” according to the New York Times, and there have been immigration raids in “predominately Haitian shantytowns.” (See also here.) Under open borders, Haitian migrants could avoid these inhospitable destinations, and these countries could not use immigration restrictions as a tool to discriminate against Haitians.

Beyond the tremendous good that could be realized for Haitians through open borders, an open borders policy would help redress the harm U.S. foreign policy has caused the country over two centuries. Haiti, a French colony largely populated by African slaves, won its independence from France in a bloody struggle in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Once independence was achieved, however, the U.S. and European powers were hostile to the new republic. Randall Robinson notes that after independence “the United States, France and western Europe would quickly join together in a program of measures designed to defeat the new black republic’s prospects for success. For the next two hundred years, Haiti would be faced with active hostility from the world’s most powerful community of nations. The new country endured a variety of attacks, some imposed concurrently, others consecutively, including military invasions, economic embargoes, gunboat blockades, reparations demands, trade barriers, diplomatic quarantines, subsidized armed subversions, media volleys of public traducement, and a string of twentieth-century U.S.-armed black dictators, beginning with Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, who rose to power in 1957…” (p. 18, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2007) Mr. Robinson concludes that “the Haitian economy has never recovered from the financial havoc France (and America) wreaked upon it, during and after slavery.” (p. 22) Michael Falco, in a letter to the New York Times, similarly writes that “Haiti spent its early existence handcuffed by crippling reparations to France — a penalty for rejecting the shackles of slavery. At the peak of this debt, Haiti was paying 80 percent of its national budget to foreign creditors. After the debt was ‘paid off,’ a string of brutal dictators — many propped up by the United States — ransacked the country’s coffers. Haiti never had a chance…”

In summary, while foreign aid has achieved some good for the Haitian people, open borders has the potential to enormously help. Haitian immigrants in economically advanced countries could earn much more than they could in Haiti, remittances could benefit those who remain in Haiti, U.S. interdictions of migrants could stop, Haitian migrants could bypass countries that mistreat them, and the world could begin to make up for its historic abuse of Haiti. Of the groups that could benefit most from a world with open borders, the Haitian people are among those at the top of the list.

My reasons for skepticism of linking open borders to legalizing private discrimination

In the world as it stands today, the pro-immigration/pro-immigrant crowd has aligned itself with the anti-discrimination/anti-racist crowd. There is clear common cause in more ways than one:

Many open borders advocates accept or even deploy these arguments, and this helps establish common ground with many mainstream pro-immigration people. However, there is another interesting strain of thought in the open borders movement, stemming from its ideologically libertarian-leaning wing, that affirms the importance of allowing private discrimination. The idea is that freedom of association is of intrinsic value, and forbidding private discrimination interferes with this right. Interestingly, from this perspective, the quest for open borders (specifically framed in terms of the right to migrate and right to invite) and the quest for allowing private discrimination have affinity: both can be justified based on the importance of freedom of association (I discuss this at greater length a little further down in the post, before getting into the implications for open borders).

Now, to be clear, all three positions discussed (open borders, moral opposition to racism and discrimination, and the importance of letting private discrimination be legal) are mutually consistent. Nonetheless, the position that private discrimination should be legal and the view of discimination as morally problematic are connotatively in tension, particularly once we get outside the circle of people with hardcore libertarian beliefs.

An interesting twist to this triad of views was introduced by my co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his blog posts No Irish Need Apply and Private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine, and should be legal and later in a post on the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Nathan argued that allowing private discrimination might be a way to appease people concerned about their ability to avoid (particular types of) immigrants that we’d see more of under open borders. He therefore proposed (open borders + allow private discrimination) as a package deal (in the language of this post of mine, this would qualify as a complementary policy to open borders, though if the legalization of discrimination was restricted to discrimination against immigrants, it would qualify as a keyhole solution in that jargon). In this post, I’ll dissect different arguments of the sort Nathan has articulated and alluded to, and explain my reasons for skepticism of them.

Some background on discrimination

In many contemporary polities, particularly in the United States, opposition to discrimination (particularly along certain dimensions such as race and ethnicity) has attained a moral primacy, at least rhetorically. Philosophically, this has puzzled me. Consider a recent topical category: when incidents of police brutality are reported, there is often significant emphasis on whether the police behavior was discriminatory on the basis of race, often even more so than the question of how justified or excessive the police action was. Racial discrimination was a key theme in discussion of the recent 2015 Texas pool party incident, even though the officer in question had, to begin with, arrested a white girl (this was not part of the viral video, but happened before the video commenced). This led to the weird situation where the officer sought to defend his behavior from charges of racism by pointing out that he had arrested a white girl, even though that arrest too was unjustified.

The emphasis on discrimination can be counterproductive because it can lead to the rejection of Pareto-improving solutions that are discriminatory. In the context of migration, for instance, the expansion of migration quotas or relaxation of migration barriers for people of certain classes or nationalities increases discrimination between potential migrants, even if, overall, it expands human freedom. Reasons of this sort are why those I know who are more hardcore libertarians, as well as more utility-oriented or efficiency-oriented, tend to not give primacy to narratives focused on discrimination. My point here isn’t that hardcore libertarians or utilitarians support discrimination, but rather, that they don’t treat discrimination as a key yardstick by which to judge the morality or desirability of actions.

However, I believe that the focus on discrimination in public discourse is not as irrational or ungrounded as it might appear from a purely philosophical standpoint. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • It feels awful to be discriminated against, and more generally to be in an environment where you’re constantly wondering whether other people’s behavior toward you is influenced by prejudice: Obviously, in cases where the people who might be discriminating against you are people with a huge amount of authority over you (such as police officers, consular officers, or judges) the feeling is terrible. The fear that they are prejudiced against you, whether justified or not, adds insult to any injury they may inflict on you. But even when the other actors involved have little power over you, the fear that their behavior towards you is based on discrimination for reasons you cannot control, can be demoralizing. My co-blogger Nathan has pointed out in his posts the standard economic wisdom that, even if many people discriminate against a particular race or ethnicity, the material harm to members of that race or ethnicity is minimal as long as there are enough people who don’t discriminate. But despite this small material harm, the psychological damage, even if not debilitating, is nothing to be laughed at. If you know that 20% of restaurants will refuse to serve you due to your race, or that 10% of police officers will stop you for absolutely no reason other than your race and subject you to a time-wasting and humiliating strip search, this detracts from your ability to partake of public life with dignity.
  • In addition to the direct effects of discrimination against those parties being discriminated against (as well as others who my incorrectly believe themselves to be the victims of discrimination) there are also ripple effects on economic and social activity. Some of it might get canceled because of the impediments and inefficiencies created by discrimination. A business might choose not to hire the best employee because of discrimination by its customers against the employee’s race/ethnicity. A group of people might decide not to go to a restaurant or cinema hall that they would have enjoyed, because one member of the group would be barred from the place on account of race or ethnicity.
  • Discrimination, insofar as it largely targets people who lack the relevant kind of power (which may be political, economic, or social) means that the people with the power to change policies are often insulated from the consequences. If police officers behave in humiliating ways only when interacting with people who look young and poor, then those who run city governments and police forces, who tend to be older and richer, may never experience the brunt of humiliating policing. Since these individuals don’t get firsthand experience in the implementation of the policies, they have little incentive to change them. A non-discriminatory and egalitarian approach makes sure that those creating and influencing policies eat their own dog food.

The libertarian perspective, that I largely endorse (although this isn’t an issue that I’m passionate enough about to generally argue in favor of) acknowledges these points, but balances them against these considerations (note that while I try to articulate below a libertarianish view, many libertarians don’t subscribe to it, and many non-libertarians do):

  • In the context of coercive state actors, the libertarian perspective seeks to reduce the coercive, discretionary power that lies with these actors in the first place. The less coercive power these actors have, and the less discretionary leeway the actors have, the less scope there is for them to discriminate in invidious ways, while also reducing abuse of these powers at large. In the context of police abuse, reduced police authority to arbitrarily stop and detain people, the legalization of victimless crimes, and an end to Broken Windows policing-like approaches, reduce the scope for those in authority to harass people at large, and also to do so in a discriminatory fashion.
  • In the context of private discriminators, the libertarian position acknowledges that those discriminated against have experiences ranging from unpleasant to traumatizing. However, the libertarian position still gives importance to freedom of association, even when it leads to bad consequences for others, as long as it does not directly violate their rights. Libertarians also point out that forbidding discrimination can have bad effects not only on those engaged in the odious type of discrimination that is the target of the law but in other, more innocuous, forms of discrimination.

James Joyner articulates the second point well:

Paul’s views are identical to those I held when studying Constitutional Law as an undergrad and not all that far removed from my current position. There’s no question in my mind that private individuals have a right to freely associate, that telling owners of private businesses whom they must serve amounts to an unconstitutional taking, and that it’s none of the Federal government’s business, anyway. Further, in the context of 2010 America, I absolutely think that business owners ought to be able to serve whomever they damned well please — whether it’s a bar owner wishing to cater to smokers, a racist wanting to exclude blacks, or a member of a subculture wishing to carve out a place for members of said subculture to freely associate with only their kind out of purely benign purposes.

The problem, circa 1964, was that there really was not right to freely associate in this manner in much of the country. Even once state-mandated segregation was ended, the community put enormous pressure on business owners to maintain the policy. That meant that, say, a hotel owner who wished to rent rooms without regard to color really weren’t free to do so. More importantly, it meant that, say, a black traveling salesman couldn’t easily conduct his business without an in-depth knowledge of which hotels, restaurants, and other establishments catered to blacks. Otherwise, his life would be inordinately frustrating and, quite possibly, dangerous.

In such an environment, the discrimination is institutionalized and directly affecting interstate commerce. It was therefore not unreasonable for the Federal government to step in using their broad powers under the 14th Amendment. I’m still not sure parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (especially the issue in question here) or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (especially treating individual states differently from others) are strictly Constitutional. But they were necessary and proper in the context of the times.

The problem that libertarians and strict Constitutionalists have, however, is that precedents set under extreme and outrageous conditions are often applied to routine and merely inconvenient ones. (Or, as the old adage goes, “Hard cases make bad law.”) Once someone’s private business is transformed by fiat into a “public accommodation,” there’s precious little limit to what government can do with it. Requiring private individuals to treat black people with a modicum of human dignity is one thing and dictating what kind of oil they can cook their French fries in or how much salt they can put on them is quite another. But, in principle, they’re not much different.

Piyo draws parallels between freedom of association and freedom of speech, noting the irrationality in how people unequivocally defend freedom of speech while treating defense of freedom of association as anathema:

I confess that I’ve always found this controversy rather puzzling. Consider the following two propositions:

1. A citizen should be allowed to promote white supremacy and racial segregation in a personal blog, in a book, in flyers that he hands out on street corners, to his children, or among his neighbors at weekly meetings at his home

2. A citizen should be allowed to refuse service to non-whites at his store

I find it incredibly odd that believing #1 is considered normal, enlightened, and mainstream, while believing #2 is considered crazy at best and mega-, KKK/slave-owning/Django-level racist at worst. In fact, judging from the controversy over Paul’s stance, I think many or most people believe that it is totally impossible to believe #2 without being racist. Don’t get me wrong; I can easily imagine a reasonable set of beliefs that would lead a person to agree with #1 and disagree with #2. However, I can’t imagine how everyone seems to believe the following

3. #1 is obviously true and everyone should believe so, and #2 is obviously false, and anyone who disagrees is either evil or being willfully ignorant.

I can think of two reasons why a person might confidently believe that #2 is false. Unfortunately, neither of these theories explain the widespread belief in #3.

[…]

More reasonable, I think, is to conclude that almost nobody’s attitude toward #1 or #2 is based on any kind of ratiocination. Through a combination of historical accident and the all-powerful status quo bias, endorsing #1 has become a way to express to others that you, too, value freedom, and rejecting #2 has become a way of expressing that you, too, think racism is bad. If you hold these beliefs, then you’re part of our “group”.

For more discussion of the libertarian perspective on discrimination and some pushback to it, see this Cato Unbound discussion of the subject.

UPDATE: In an email, reproduced with permission, Nathan responds to my point about it being awful to be discriminated against:

The place where I had least sympathy with the argument was where you talked about being discriminated against and how horrible it feels. I can see why it would be pretty bad to be in the position of African Americans before the civil rights movement, when widespread discrimination was enforced by a sinister conspiracy of the law with the domestic terrorists of the KKK, and when most of the population discriminated against you so that your opportunities to flourish in life were severely limited by discrimination on every side, and when discrimination did seem to be motivated by hatred. But I can’t see how it would be so bad to suffer from occasional statistical discrimination not motivated by hatred. Suppose a taxi cab driver were to tell me, “Sorry, it’s nothing personal, but I don’t pick up young men in this part of town, because young men commit most of the crime, and I only have to pick up the wrong fare once, and my wife’s a widow.” If I needed the cab that would be inconvenient of course, but I wouldn’t feel profoundly insulted. I’d feel sorry for the guy for being in such a risky job and earnestly hope and pray for his safety. The notion that it’s an intolerable indignity to be discriminated against, but it’s NOT an intolerable indignity to be forced by the government and its anti-discrimination laws to open one’s home or business to people one doesn’t like or approve of, seems utterly insane. If it feels so horrible to be discriminated against today, even when it causes negligible inconvenience, I suspect that’s either because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking discrimination is the root of all evil, or because what certain groups (LGBT especially) really want is to coerce people to APPROVE of them, a common motive among those who have power. Discrimination against LGBT is an expression of disapproval and as such must be suppressed.

Bryan Caplan’s weighing of the relative importance of immigration restrictions and anti-discrimination law

In a blog post titled Association, Exclusion, Liberty, and the Status Quo, Bryan Caplan, who supports both open borders and an end to anti-discrimination laws, compared the importance of the issues:

I don’t deny that laws against exclusion occasionally have important effects. But their main effect in the modern U.S. economy isn’t to reduce exclusion, but to pressure businesses to either overpay or avoid hiring workers who can easily sue for “discrimination.”

Now consider regulations on the freedom of association. Many are marginal, too. Not much would change if you legalized gay marriage or polygamy; they’re just niche markets. But one class of regulations has a massive effect: immigration laws. Indeed, they probably have a bigger effect than all other regulations combined.

It’s simple. Billions of people around the world live on a few dollars a day or less. Under open borders, tens of millions of them would migrate to the U.S. every year. Remember: Even if you’re an illiterate peasant from Bangladesh, credit markets and/or employers would be happy to front the money for airfare.

This immigration flow wouldn’t stabilize until real estate prices massively increased and low-skilled wages drastically declined. The U.S. population could easily increase by 50% in a decade. New cities would blanket the country. The level of output would skyrocket – and its composition would rapidly change, too. Whether you love this vision or hate it, you can’t deny that free association would radically and rapidly reshape the face of America.

I’m as supportive of the right to exclude as anyone. But current restrictions on this right are pretty minor. There are plenty of ways for markets to engineer exclusion, and there’s not much demand for greater stringency. In contrast, restrictions on the right to associate are massive, and there is enormous pent-up demand to migrate. Hundreds of millions of people want to move here, landlords want to rent to them, employers want to hire them – but the law won’t allow it.

Contrary to my conservative friend, then, libertarians aren’t the ones with a blind spot. He is. While restrictions on exclusion are occasionally irksome, they rarely ruin lives. Immigration laws, in contrast, usually condemn their victims to life – and often early death – in the Third World. Libertarians rightly emphasize the freedom to associate, because the status quo’s restrictions on exclusion are minor and mild – and the status quo’s restrictions on association are massive and monstrous.

A closer look at the link between legalizing private discrimination and open borders

Here’s Nathan’s Open Borders Action Group Facebook post (which is the most recent formulation of his view, though his previous blog posts are also worth reading):

Would it be useful to the open borders movement to roll back anti-discrimination laws? Consider the following argument, made to a nativist: “Hey, if YOU don’t like immigrants, fine, you don’t have to do associate with them. But stop interfering with those of us who DO want to associate with them.” This argument needs refining, but I think some form of it could have a lot of force if it weren’t for “public accommodation” laws that force all residents of the US to integrate. As long as so-called “anti-discrimination” laws are in place (misnamed of course since for now discrimination against undocumented immigrants is not only allowed but mandated), this argument doesn’t work very well, since the government might force you to hire immigrants. In effect, the current policy choice is whether discrimination against the foreign-born should be mandatory or illegal, whereas of course, the sensible middle way is to make it voluntary. But to get to it, we’d have to legalize discrimination. Now, I’m hopeful that the attack on religious freedom by the LGBT lobby will backfire and lead to a general revival of tolerance and freedom of association, as the absurdity of having the government force people to bake a cake for a “wedding” they don’t morally approve of, forces us to revisit some deep ethical mistakes we’ve been making for the past generation. If this happens, would it help the open borders cause?

There are several different flavors of the argument, that I’ll list before opining:

  1. If private discrimination were legalized first, the open borders position would be more philosophically defensible than it is now.
  2. The (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more philosophically defensible than mere opening of the borders, while private discrimination continues to remain illegal.
  3. If private discrimination were legalized first, the open borders position would be more practically feasible than it is now.
  4. The (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more practically feasible than mere opening of the borders, while private discrimination continues to remain illegal.

I agree with the view (1): the freedom-based arguments for open borders make more sense in a world where people are freer to not associate with immigrants if they so choose, and the other arguments are largely unaffected. I think the change to the strength of open borders isn’t too huge, largely because of the reasons that Caplan articulated in his post that I quoted above.

I also agree (weakly) with (2): bundling open borders with a broader expansion of the freedom to associate (and exclude) would be more philosophically defensible than merely opening the borders. However, unlike (1), (2) only applies from the perspective of the libertarian case. Those whose reasons for supporting open borders are more egalitarian might well disagree with (2). If you agree with Caplan’s post, however, the effect size either way is relatively small.

This leaves (3) and (4), the questions of practical feasibility. Regarding (3), I believe that there are good arguments on both sides, and I think ultimately it will depend on the details of the societal changes that lead to a relaxation or termination of anti-discrimination laws in the first place. However, I am very skeptical of (4). I don’t think an (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more practically feasible. I don’t think those keen to see open borders become a reality should attempt to draft such a deal or push for it. I think the main benefit of discussing such a combination, apart from the philosophical clarity it offers, is that if somehow the circumstances changed and such a deal became the main way to proceed with open borders, then our thoughts on the issue would be clearly fleshed out.

I’ll begin by elaborating on (3). Why might anti-discrimination laws, such as those surrounding public accommodations in the United States, be repealed or relaxed? I believe there are three broad categories of reasons:

  1. The moral argument for the freedom to associate and exclude gains widespread acceptance.
  2. Efficiency-based arguments against such laws take force. This could be helped by public outrage or disgust at what is perceived as spurious use of anti-discrimination laws.
  3. People interested in discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or some other criterion push for the changes, and their views become influential among the public or among policymakers.

I think that, if (1) is the prime mover for the change in laws, there is a decent chance that public opinion would have also shifted more in favor of freer migration, and Nathan’s logic might then accentuate the effect. In the case of (2), public opinion may remain largely unchanged on migration, but Nathan’s logic might help tip it slightly more in favor of free migration. However, in the case of (3), I think it’s quite likely that public opinion will be more hostile to immigration than before. Even if Nathan’s logic serves to counter that somewhat, I think the net effect would still be in a significantly restrictionist direction. I think that, given what we know today about public opinion, in the highly unlikely event that anti-discrimination law is repealed, this is more likely to happen because of reason (3) than because of the other two reasons (though I expect the overall chances of such repeal as pretty low, so this is merely an academic observation).

Finally, as for (4), the reason I’m skeptical is that, in the present day, there isn’t really a large coalition (outside of hardcore libertarians and efficiency-oriented folks) who support the repeal of anti-discrimination law out of a love of true freedom, as opposed to a desire to facilitate discrimination per se. And, outside of libertarians, people have trouble separating private action from government-enforced action. So, this bundle wouldn’t really appeal to many people, and in addition, means that open borders advocates might lose the support of the broader, mainstream, pro-immigrant people.

John Lee offers a detailed response to Nathan’s Facebook post that I largely endorse:

While this is an interesting idea, I don’t see how you would be able to build a political coalition around both liberalising migration and repealing anti-discrimination laws. I’m skeptical that xenophobes would tolerate having more immigrants around if they were allowed to discriminate against them; I mean, I’m persuadable that their opposition to open borders might diminish somewhat, but I don’t think it’d go away.

A lot of the costs that people complain about as far as integration goes have to do with things that anti-discrimination law doesn’t really meaningfully impact: pressing 1 for English, overhearing funny languages in public, not being able to ask for directions in a strange neighbourhood where nobody looks like you or can speak your own language, etc. Repealing anti-discrimination laws solves for essentially none of these xenophobic complaints.

(Technically repealing anti-discrimination law might partially solve for the “press 1” complaint since that’s to some degree a policy caused by public accommodation laws, but in a free market operating in a diverse society, a lot of companies would naturally provide multilingual servicing anyway. Malaysia and Singapore don’t have meaningful anti-discrimination laws but multilingual servicing is omnipresent in the market because of how diverse their societies are.)

As an aside, this idea is not even applicable outside the Western world; to Christopher’s point, I don’t think this is a “reform” that can be bundled into anything in Asia or Africa, perhaps even Latin America, because most non-Western countries don’t have much anti-discrimination laws to speak of. Speaking from my experience, it’s common to see classified ads in Malaysia and Singapore specifying that they won’t accept job candidates or tenants of particular sexes or genders. (Recently some companies have tried to capitalise on public distaste for these kinds of ads by running ads which explicitly state that they don’t discriminate.)

Now to be sure, introduction of new anti-discrimination laws to these non-Western societies would spur blowback, and I would generally advise against trying to bundle liberal immigration reforms with new anti-discrimination laws in these societies. But that’s separate from trying to bundle liberal immigration reforms w/ anti-discrimination legislation repeals in societies that already have these laws.

He later writes:

[T]he reality of mood affiliation makes me skeptical that one could build a coherent political coalition aligned on just these two things without that coalition consisting pretty much entirely of libertarians.

A couple of my comments in the thread are also relevant, and I quote them below:

I don’t think that the repeal of such legislation would make the world more friendly to open borders: your argument for would be balanced by an argument against, namely that the legitimization of discrimination as morally acceptable might make people more forthright about using it as a basis for public policy (given that people generally have trouble keeping private preferences out of the domain of government-enforced public policy).

“But I don’t think there’s any point in pitching an advocacy strategy to such numbskulls. If mankind is as stupid as that, we won’t make any headway. Fortunately, mankind does sometimes exhibit a capacity to think such moderately subtle thoughts as, “Discrimination against the foreign-born should be legal for private individuals but not be mandated by law.””

Most people would be able to understand this idea if they tried hard enough, but people aren’t generally inclined to put in a lot of effort into evaluating political positions. In general, I would expect that a move that legitimizes private discrimination would be seen (by the general public) as a signal that discrimination is more acceptable both in private and in public policy. At the same time, the people you are most trying to appease with such a policy are likely to not stop at private discrimination anyway.

Conclusion

Discrimination is hurtful, both directly when it’s done, and indirectly because of the fear and inefficiency it creates in society. However, freedom of association and exclusion are important values. Libertarian-leaning people (including myself) think that under most circumstances, private discrimination should remain legal. There may be exceptional circumstances where the harm from discrimination is severe enough to infringe on people’s freedom of association and exclusion. Some people sympathetic to the overall libertarian argument have argued that the post-1964 Jim Crow South presented such an exceptional circumstance, but the present day is not similarly exceptional, so legalizing private discrimination in the modern era is okay.

From a libertarian philosophical perspective, that I largely endorse, repealing some anti-discrimination laws make the case for open borders stronger, insofar as open borders will mean dealing more with a wider range of people. However, as a practical matter, I don’t think it makes sense to try to push for a deal packaging open borders with such repeal. If such a deal emerged as the most feasible way to push for more liberal migration, it might be worth supporting.

Related reading

These links are offered in addition to the numerous inline links in the post.