Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters: Making Human Rights Real

I largely agree with what Vipul Naik writes about Jose Antonio Vargas and the Define American project. Philosophically, Vargas isn’t really a fellow-traveler of Bryan Caplan, Vipul Naik, and myself. He seems to still buy into arguments from the other side– as Vipul puts it, “people don’t have a right to immigrate, but once they’ve done so, they acquire various rights and privileges, and become part of the moral sphere of natives.” His position seems ultimately unstable, though possibly that’s true of everyone in the immigration debate except the open borders crowd on one end and some extreme restrictionists on the other. In his defense, though– even if this doesn’t come through in everything he writes or says– the terms of his own project seem to recognize the weakness of his position. For example, from the “About” section of the Define American site:

Our campaign is about asking: How do we define an American? Why do people come to this country? Who are the American citizens who help them? When it comes to undocumented immigrants, what would you do? As a teacher? A friend? A mother?

Define American, with your help, will answer those questions.

So Vargas isn’t saying that he has the answers; rather, he’s asking for help from… well, from whoever the audience of Define American is supposed to be… to find them. Maybe we’ll win him over to the open borders cause at some point.

More importantly, there’s something I think Naik doesn’t quite recognize, namely, that Vargas’s project is well suited to evoke in people the moral intuitions that underlie the concept of natural rights, also known as human rights. Rights seem a bit metaphysically mysterious and plenty of honest people have doubted their existence. But it’s part of human nature that we can recognize when human rights are being violated, when we are close enough to the victims to feel human empathy for them. We see the wrong, we feel injury and indignation, we feel that something deeper and more sacred is at stake than a mere cost-benefit analysis could account for, and our attempts to express, to justify, to articulate that indignation perennially bring us back to the idea of human rights. Vargas’s site emphasizes stories. That’s just what’s needed, because stories bring us close enough to the victims to feel the wrong of what’s being done to them. That the victims whose stories he tells are far from the worst-off victims of migration restrictions is a secondary issue.

A story by a Canadian is a good example:

It was on my 14th birthday that we left Canada for a new life in the United States.  My parents were not the kind to plan and do things by the book so we simply entered the US as tourists, driving across the border with the bare minimum of necessities so as not to arouse suspicion.  Our belongings were scattered amongst several cars driven by friends and family who we met across the border before we continued our journey down to the City of Angels.

It has now been more than two decades since that sad day on my 14th birthday.  A lot of what I knew about Canada has been long forgotten.  I still have wonderful memories of my childhood and am thankful that is where I got to spend my early years.  But those memories are long faded, the friends I once knew unfamiliar and surprisingly old, married and with children.  The life I once remembered is now nothing more than a blur.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to realize but my life is now.

Twenty years.  That is such a long time but I am amazed at how quickly the years have passed.  In that time I’ve finished four years of High School, graduated from a UC school and gotten a job from an understanding employer.  Every year I’ve paid taxes, maybe more than I need to because I’m scared to take anything more than the standard deduction.  Is that what it means to be American?  To go to school, get a job, pay your taxes?

Clearly, this person is not too badly off by world standards. In fact, he is touchingly well aware of this himself:

You know, sometimes I wish things were different with my life and that I had my papers and status.   But every day I try to take the time to thank God for everything he has given me.  I have so much more than many people in this world.  I live a very comfortable life, I have the best friends that anyone could ask for, I’ve had great experiences and great relationships and I’ve been to many wonderful places in the US.  I live in one of the best places in the world with beautiful weather and anything I can ask for within an hour’s drive.  I could be at the beach and go skiing in the same day.   I am thankful for my life and every day I thank God for the blessings that he has given me.  You know how often I am driving down the freeway (well, more like crawling) and see the beauty of Southern California and just kind of breathe it all in and give thanks?  Almost every day.  Maybe being thankful for the beauty that this country offers, the comfort, the way of life is what makes an American an American.

On the other hand, the harms he’s suffered from immigration restrictions, and from being undocumented, are serious and poignant:

I have very few regrets in life and most of them are related to my being out of status.  Not being able to visit one of my favorite relatives in Canada when she was sick absolutely killed me when I was in college and even now, 15 years later, it still brings me to tears.  It’s only recently that I don’t feel any guilt and that I feel she understands why I couldn’t be there.  I’ve missed so many weddings, my best friend in Canada, my best friend in California and my relatives throughout the world.  I met one of the most wonderful girls in the world and regret to this day that I did not pursue anything because I was out of status and she was a foreign national who could not get sponsored to work in the US.  If I had my papers I would have been all over her, like flies on flypaper, it may not have worked out but at least I would not have the lingering doubts in my mind, wondering if things could have worked out.  I still think about her every day.

Failing to visit a sick friend. Missing weddings. Not being able to pursue a romance with someone one is in love with. These are not basic needs in the sense that food, water, and shelter are. A Haitian who can’t get enough to eat, who can’t afford medication for his or his child’s mortal illness, but could do so if he were allowed to move to the US and work, is harmed in a more measurable, indisputable way than this undocumented Canadian immigrant. But love and friendship, too, are a part of human flourishing. Often circumstance, or our own folly, gets in the way of our having or enjoying them. But it was not, in this case, circumstance or individual human folly that kept this person from his sick friend’s side. It was a US law, operating intentionally.

Deportation would be much less bad for this immigrant than for most deportees. He would arrive in his country of birth knowing the language; not everyone does. Still, as he says:

I still think that one day I will just pack up my life and move back to Canada.  Leave all my friends behind.  Leave my family behind.  Actually leave my entire life behind.  What scares me the most is the possibility that I could never return to the US.  What happens if I get caught on the way out and am subject to a 10 year ban from the US?  I haven’t lived in Canada as an adult, I left as a child and it would be strange returning as an adult.  My childhood friends are no longer children.  They have children.  It’s a scary thought, but I think about it every day.  There is a whole world that I want to see, family that I want to visit, friends that I miss and long to see.  But, it’s tough.  Tough for anyone to just leave, and go somewhere that is alien, foreign, and not to mention, very very cold at this time of year.

The US repatriated many Soviet citizens by force after WWII, where they were mostly murdered by Stalin. The US refused to allow the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis admission to the US in 1939; many died in the Holocaust as a result. Actions like these are atrocities, tantamount to murder. By contrast, deportation of the author of the post quoted above would be evil of a lesser order. Still, I think the intimacy of the account evokes natural human empathy in such a way that every reader really knows (even if some ideological restrictionists might refuse to admit it and try to blind themselves to the fact) that what has been done, what might yet be done, what the law in principle requires, is wrong, is unacceptable, ought not to happen. This person has rights, to his home, to his friends, to travel for compelling personal reasons, and his fellow men have a duty to acknowledge those rights, and a society that refuses to do so is in the wrong.

Define American brings these stories to the fore. That’s why Jose Antonio Vargas matters.

Once we acknowledge that immigrants have rights as human beings, whether they’re legal or not, we have to rule out doing, as restrictionist J.D. Hayworth put it in his book title, “whatever it takes.” We are already failing to respect human rights as we ought to do. We must, in conscience, make immigration policy more lenient in its treatment of many individuals. At the same time, we want to make it incentive compatible to obey the law, as opposed to the present situation, in which many people find it in their interests to break the law. What immigration policy would reconcile incentive compatibility with basic human decency and adequate respect for human rights? Open borders. Ultimately, it’s the only option.

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