The poverty of language/concepts in the migration debate

Victor Reppert is the author of C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, a philosophy book I read a few years ago that develops the Argument from Reason, a refutation of materialism, in C.S. Lewis’s Miracles and elsewhere in his writings. I just discovered Victor Reppert’s blog Dangerous Idea, and this post on immigration:

Do I support open borders?

Bill Vallicella asked me.

No. But I strongly suspect that barriers to legal immigration are probably excessive. We do have to keep out people with criminal records.

I think it’s probably a false dilemma, or a straw man, to claim that anyone who wants to reform the immigration system simply wants open borders. It also doesn’t follow that all “path to citizenship” programs are simply amnesty. Those that I have heard proposed involved paying a penalty, and earning citizenship. (I realize there are a wide range of fairness issues involved in all of this, but the idea that such plans involve our just forgetting that people are here illegally doesn’t seem right to me at all).

This is an Ed Montini column which discusses the effort of Tyson Nash, the hockey player (not related to the Suns Steve Nash, apparently), who, in spite of being a model citizen, came close to being deported. It seems to me that I could ask whether we could make immigration easier without advocating open borders.

I am also convinced that we’ve have to combine a partial immigration reform with an increase in border security. I’d rather stop them before they come in than send them back after they’ve settled in and started contributing to our community.

As for the [undocumented] immigrants that are already here, there are questions in my mind about what the economic impact of their removal from our community would be. The departures from Prince William County in Virginia, which was the basis for the movie 9500 Liberty, showed that it resulted in a lot of economic harm, and an increase in the rate of foreclosures. In short, [undocumented] immigrants are a mixed curse, since they become part of our community and do contribute to its economy, pay taxes, etc. I’m not even sure it’s physically possible to deport all of them, anyway. That flaming liberal Michael Medved said that in order to send all of the back you’d need buses that, laid end to end, would stretch from Tijuana to Seattle. On the other hand, the people that actually do transport these desperate people over the border are, so far as I can tell, the worst sorts of criminals, and surely we can hit them as hard as possible.

I seriously doubt that 1070 is going to result in very many deportations. The cost in ill will between the Hispanic community and the rest of us, to my mind, far outweighs the improvement in will provide in law enforcement, which I suspect will be minimal.

So, without actually having done a full cost-benefit analysis on all of this, I would say start with security at the border, make the process of immigration more rational but don’t just throw it wide open, and then provide some path to citizenship that involves a serious penalty and isn’t just simple amnesty.

A fence? Yes, if it would work, no, if it wouldn’t.

These are fairly conventional views, but what strikes me is that the disclaimer that supporting immigration reform doesn’t amount to supporting open borders should be necessary. It is semi-necessary because moderate restrictionists who want to let those who are here stay, but keep out any new undocumented immigrants, get lambasted as supporters of “open borders” by the nativist right– Victor Davis Hanson, say. But the distinction between open borders and a moderate restrictionist who wants to build fences and is OK with large numbers of deportations should be too obvious to need explaining. That’s what I mean by “the poverty of language/concepts in the migration debate.”

Objections to Reppert. First, it wouldn’t actually be a good thing for the country to “secure the border,” even if it were possible. It would separate a lot of families, prevent California growers and other employers from getting the workers they need, and block a lot of foreigners from opportunities to better their lives. Second, calling possible payments involved with a path to citizenship a “penalty” isn’t quite appropriate since illegal immigration isn’t morally wrong. But OK, that’s hair-splitting. Third, if you do establish a path to citizenship/amnesty, then you’ll strengthen the incentives for other foreigners to come. That’s fine with me! But it’s a problem for proposals to secure the border while letting the people already here gain status. Reppert isn’t an open borders supporter, and my main point is that the use of “open borders” as a straw-man attack on moderate restrictionists from the nativist right is unfair. One useful role that Open Borders: The Case might play is that moderate restrictionists could link to us and say, “I don’t support open borders! Those guys support open borders.” However, Reppert’s seemingly commonsensical moderate position is not actually a feasible, sustainable compromise. One amnesty would create the expectation of another amnesty, which would draw in more immigrants hoping to benefit from the next amnesty, until, hopefully, people start to see that the only way to reconcile a decent respect for human rights with incentivitizing law-abiding behavior is to open the borders. Currently, of course, we’re getting neither– neither decent respect for human rights (over 1.4 million deportations during Obama’s first term)– nor rule of law.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

3 thoughts on “The poverty of language/concepts in the migration debate”

  1. Nice post. I’ve had similar thoughts myself about moderate restrictionists who concede the legitimacy of restrictionism and call open borders a straw man — positioning themselves squarely in the middle of the Overton window, flanked on the one side by hardcore restrictionists and on the other side by fanatical open borders supporters like us. To them, then, we open borders supporters are performing the useful function of shifting the Overton window and making them look moderate and middle-of-the-pack.

    I wonder — how could we here describe ourselves as middle-of-the-pack? If we wanted, we could put ourselves squarely between restrictionists and the supporters of no borders — the people who argue that any attempt at drawing a national border and using any sort of force to distinguish between people inside and outside that border is wrong. We could then scoff at the supporters of no borders as utopian idealists and consider ourselves, as supporters of open borders, to be squarely between the restrictionists on the one hand and the no borders supporters on the other.

    However, that kind of approach doesn’t seem quite honest to me. I think that “no borders” is not an ideal that can meaningfully be striven towards today — but there’s a legitimate debate to be had as to whether open borders or no borders should be the ultimate moral end goal. At any rate, while I’m not a supporter of “no borders” at this juncture of human history, I don’t think it is a straw man. I think that the arguments against borders need to be considered, evaluated, and critiqued seriously rather than dismissed offhand.

  2. Well, I consider myself a moderate on this issue, or even rather conservative, since I prefer my keyhole solution. I consider just about everyone in America today unreasonable extremists, who think the government should have absolute say-so over who comes into US territory. At the extreme pro-open borders end would be God and the Bible.

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