The U.S. and Canada Should Open Their Borders to Syrian Refugees

I had hoped that the Syrian civil war would produce, against the odds, a democracy which protected the diverse ethnic groups who live in the country. Either non-jihadist democratic Syrian rebels would prevail and be charitable towards those who have supported the Assad government, or an agreement between the rebels and the Syrian regime would transition the country toward democracy.

None of this has materialized, Syria is devastated, and with the oppressive Assad regime firmly in control of the western portions of the country, political progress appears impossible. According to David Lesch, writing in The New York Times, most Syrians now live in extreme poverty, the unemployment rate is over 50%, half of Syrian children are not enrolled in school, typhoid, tuberculosis, and other diseases are endemic, hundreds of thousands are dead, and millions are injured. Different forces, including the Islamic State, control different parts of the country, and fighting likely will continue between these groups. Hundreds of billions of dollars would be needed to rebuild the country, and Mr. Lesch believes that other countries will not step up to provide reconstruction money.

Not surprisingly, almost five million Syrians have fled their country, not including millions of others who have been displaced within Syria. Almost a million have migrated to Europe. About 18,000 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S., and about 40,000 Syrians have gone to Canada. Most of the refugees are stranded in Turkey (about 2.5 million), Lebanon (about 1 million), and Jordan (about a half million), with limited opportunities to resettle elsewhere.

It is past time for the U.S. and Canada to allow the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to immigrate to their countries. In addition to the fundamental moral reasons that oblige countries to open their borders to almost all immigrants, there are several compelling reasons why there should be swift acceptance of these refugees.

First, while multiple nations and groups have been involved in the Syrian war, the U.S. bears some responsibility for the catastrophe. Since the U.S. has the world’s mightiest military, it always has the option to intervene and have an impact on a conflict. In Syria, the U.S. intervened by providing some support to rebels fighting the Assad regime, but the intervention never was forceful enough to quickly resolve the conflict. According to Philip Gordon, who worked on Middle Eastern affairs at the U.S. National Security Council from 2013 to 2015, the U.S. has only prolonged the Syrian war: “… our policy was to support the opposition to the point that it was strong enough to lead the regime and its backers to come to the table and negotiate away the regime. And that was an unrealistic objective…I think it is fair to say that we ended up doing enough to perpetuate a conflict, but not enough to bring it to a resolution.” The U.S. could have disabled the regime’s air force, as Senator McCain has recently advocated, especially before the Russian military became directly involved in the conflict. That might have saved the lives of many civilians targeted by Syrian aircraft and perhaps led to a settlement between the rebels and the government. (I recognize that direct military action doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes, considering the results in Iraq and Libya.) In addition, other actions short of direct attacks on the Syrian military could have been undertaken to protect civilians, as Nicholas Kristof has noted. These include creating safe zones in Syria protected by the U.S. military and destroying military runways so Syrian warplanes couldn’t be employed. Accepting Syrian refugees would be some compensation for the U.S. failure in Syria to resolve the conflict and protect civilians.

Second, Syrians in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are struggling. (Some refugees are also struggling in Greece.) Many children are not able to go to school, it is difficult for adults to get work, and the refugees are becoming impoverished. (See here and here.) Some Mercy Corps teams “have seen families living in rooms with no heat or running water, in abandoned chicken coops and in storage sheds.” The desperation of the refugees is reflected in the attempt by many of them to reach Europe by making risky sea crossings, during which some have perished.

The host countries are apparently unwilling and/or unable to incorporate the newcomers into their societies. According to Mercy Corps, in Jordan and Lebanon, “weak infrastructure and limited resources are nearing a breaking point under the strain.” As to Turkey, one observer stated: “It remains unclear how the embattled country – which is also dealing with declining GDP, multiple attacks, and a war against Kurdish fighters in the southeast – will be able to accommodate nearly three million refugees, the vast majority of whom are young adults and children seeking jobs and education.”  The U.S. and Canada, with wealthier economies, more political stability, and a tradition of incorporating immigrants, would provide a better refuge for the Syrians than the Middle Eastern countries.

Third, the rapid migration of Syrian refugees to Canada and the U.S. could diminish the threat of terrorism. It is risky to continue the Obama policy of allowing very few Syrian refugees to enter or maintain the Trump policy, which indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from the country. The longer Syrian refugees are stuck in their host Middle Eastern countries, the greater the risk that they will become radicalized. According to a Brookings Institution article, “the risk of radicalization is especially heightened where IDPs and refugees find themselves in protracted situations: marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded. Finding solutions for displaced populations should be an urgent priority for humanitarian reasons but also as a security issue.” (See also here. )

While ideally the Obama administration’s thorough vetting of refugees for admission into the U.S. would continue, its sluggish nature makes it imprudent to maintain. A faster screening process must be implemented in order to bring the refugees into economically advanced, mostly tolerant North America, where they could thrive and become more immune to radicalization.

In addition to rescuing the refugees from potentially radicalizing conditions in the Middle East, there is another mechanism by which admitting them might prevent terrorism. In a previous post, I suggested how open borders could help protect receiving countries from terrorism, including by freeing up resources for screening immigrants for terrorist threats, by improving government relations with Muslim immigrant communities which could assist with stopping terrorism, and by providing more Muslim immigrants who could join Western intelligence agencies. Similarly, admitting Syrian refugees from the Middle East could generate goodwill among the American and Canadian Muslim communities, perhaps resulting in an increase in the number of Muslims willing to assist in preventing terrorism.

Evidence of this may be found in the German government’s recent admittance of over a million immigrants, many of whom are Syrian refugees. This may have earned Germany more support from its Muslim community in efforts to prevent terrorism, according to Robert Verkaik, writing on CNN‘s website. He notes that

In October last year, two Syrians managed to capture a terror suspect in Leipzig who was planning a bomb attack on German airports… And in November last year, a German Muslim man who had returned from fighting ISIS in Syria provided information to German security services that led to the arrest of a major extremist cell. These examples show that the German security services, in common with agencies across Europe, critically rely on intelligence passed on by members of its Muslim communities.

He also seems to suggest that a Muslim informant warned the security services about the suspect before the attack on the Berlin Christmas market last year.

Many people are concerned that Syrian refugees could commit acts of terrorism in the U.S. However, they should consider that about half of the refugees are children, who “don’t fit the typical profile for terrorists.”  And, as noted elsewhere, most Muslims are peaceful. (Some Syrian refugees are not even Muslim.) Furthermore, Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has determined, based on historical data, the statistical chance of being killed by a foreigner committing a terrorist act in the U.S.: 1 in 3.6 million per year. For the risk of being killed by such an act by a refugee, the risk is 1 in 3.64 billion per year. If the 9/11 attacks are excluded, “21 foreign-born terrorists succeeded in murdering 41 people from 1975 through 2015.” Nowrasteh’s conclusion is that “foreign-born terrorism on U.S. soil is a low-probability event.” Its risks are minuscule when compared to other causes of death.

It is also notable that, as co-blogger Hansjörg points out, the German experience with the recent influx of Muslim refugees belies the predictions by restrictionists that their admittance would result in lots of terrorist acts there. Hansjörg notes that the number of lethal Islamist terrorist attacks in Germany (ever) is in the low single digits. There is minimal risk involved for Canada and the U.S. to accept millions of Syrian refugees, even without consideration for the aforementioned ways their admittance could actually help prevent terrorism.

Furthermore, it might be better for the Syrian refugees to go to North America than to some European countries. Many argue that the U.S. does a better job than European countries at integrating immigrants. One writer notes that “the conditions of Muslims in some European countries can create fertile breeding grounds for extremism, whereas societies with more-integrated Muslim populations like the United States are less susceptible.” (See also herehere, and here.) David Frum, writing in The Atlantic, states: “Europe is coping poorly with its large population of alienated, under-employed, and in some cases radicalized Muslim immigrants and their children. It seems then the zenith of recklessness to make that population larger still.” Another writer even suggests that radical Muslims in Europe will infect Syrian refugees with their ideology, although he proposes vigorous integration efforts rather than exclusion from Europe.

At the same time, some are sanguine about European integration of its Muslim residents.  Shada Islam of Friends of Europe asserts: “Make no mistake; while extremists of all ilk may decry multi-cultural Europe, the process of adaptation, accommodation, integration, of Europe and Islam is already well underway… Europe’s once solely security-focused approach to dealing with Muslims has been replaced with a more balanced view that includes an integration agenda and migrant outreach programmes.” Similarly, co-blogger Hansjörg, who lives in Germany, states that “on the whole, my personal impression is that integration works quite well also in Europe. There is a tendency, especially in the US (but also in Europe from those who are critical), to present this as a story of severe problems, divides that cannot be bridged, etc. I don’t think that is true (not to say there are not some problems).”

Finally, admitting millions of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and Canada may not be very disruptive in other respects. A study for the Centre for European Economic Research on the recent migrant influx into Germany has found that there are “no signs of quick and clear deleterious effects in Germany post ‘migrant crisis’ involving, as the authors conclude, ‘more than a million’ migrants entering Germany in 2014-15 on native employment, crime, or anti-immigrant politics specifically linked to the presence of migrants on the county level.” In the U.S. it is notable that “eleven percent of Syrian immigrants to the U.S. own businesses, according to a new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. That compares to four percent of immigrants overall and three percent of people born in the United States.” According to one Syrian immigrant, self reliance is emphasized in Syrian culture, a trait that is compatible with American culture. Moreover, a research director at the Fiscal Policy Institute states that Syrian immigrants in the U.S. have generally been successful and could help the refugees adapt to life here.

The economic impact on the U.S. actually could be positive. People throughout the U.S. welcome refugees because they know from experience the beneficial effect that refugees have on communities, according to David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee. He writes that “to take one example, over the course of a decade, refugees created at least 38 new businesses in the Cleveland area alone. In turn, these businesses created an additional 175 jobs, and in 2012 provided a $12 million stimulus to the local economy.” In Rutland, Vermont, the mayor has advocated resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq in his city to help address a declining and aging city population. Population loss there could lead employers like General Electric to leave the city. (A 2013 post looks at efforts by various American cities to attract immigrants in order to help their economies.)

In summary, allowing millions of Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. and Canada not only would be morally warranted, it could minimize the risk of future terrorism, relieve the suffering of many, and enrich both countries. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, with Trump ordering an indefinite stop to the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. The longer he blocks their entry, the greater the perils for both the refugees and the West.

Deportation Constitutes Cruel and Unusual Punishment

“As Justice Brandeis recognized long ago, deportation is akin to the loss of property or life, or ‘all that makes life worth living.’” (Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, 1997, 2(18), p. 737)

Donald Trump recently suggested that U.S. citizens who burn the American flag should be punished, perhaps by being stripped of their citizenship. This elicited a reminder that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that revoking someone’s citizenship in order to punish that person for a crime is unconstitutional, violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” In that ruling, the court stated that revocation of citizenship

“… subjects the individual to a fate of ever-increasing fear and distress. He knows not what discriminations may be established against him, what proscriptions may be directed against him, and when and for what cause his existence in his native land may be terminated. He may be subject to banishment, a fate universally decried by civilized people.”

For undocumented immigrants and other immigrants vulnerable to deportation from the U.S., the court’s language describes their predicament, especially for those with deep roots in the U.S. They fear losing their work permits (those who have them), apprehension, and deportation, and if expulsion comes, it is devastating. (It is undoubtedly also devastating for those who have spent less time in the U.S., especially if they are sent back to a country where they are endangered, but here I am limiting my focus to those immigrants whose experience is very similar to that of a denationalized citizen.) The ruling thus suggests that the suffering caused by the U.S. deportation regime, which includes both deportation itself and the threat of it, constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” let alone being immoral from an open borders perspective. (The term “punishment” is used here because it connects to the Constitution. Punishment of any kind based on immigration status is, in my opinion, immoral.)

Joseph Carens would likely agree that expelling immigrants who have long resided in the U.S. constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” In addition to arguing for open borders generally, Carens has emphasized the injustice of deporting immigrants who have established roots in a society:

“Living and working in a society makes immigrants members of that society over time, even if they arrived and settled without permission. This is clearest for those who arrived as young children. Everyone has heard stories about the Dreamers, young people who were raised in the United States and who are now stuck in limbo because they do not have legal status. They are Americans in every respect that should count, and they can’t be blamed for coming here because they were only children when they arrived. So it would be morally wrong to kick them out… when people have been here for a long time, living peacefully and contributing to the community in ordinary ways, the morally right thing to do is to let them stay, regardless of how they arrived.”

The election of Donald Trump has exacerbated immigrant suffering, heightening their anxiety and threatening greater numbers of deportations, although it is unclear what his policy will actually be. At times, he has pledged to deport all undocumented immigrants.  More recently, he has suggested he would focus on immigrants with criminal records. It is also unclear whether he will overturn President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which has protected hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation and provided them work permits. (It should be remembered that, despite DACA, the deportation regime thrived under Obama.)

Immigrants who are protected under DACA are certainly distressed by the possibility that their protection will disappear under Trump. The New York Times, which has reported on some of these young immigrants, notes that if Trump terminated the program, at first they would lose their work permits, depriving them of sometimes middle class salaries: “…the Dreamers could see the accouterments of middle-class life — a studio apartment in Brooklyn, a driver’s license, a biweekly paycheck with deductions for retirement, a coveted desk in a financial firm — disappear.” A teacher at a middle school said of possibly losing her work permit, “‘I wouldn’t lie to say it won’t devastate me.’”  Moreover, there is the fear of being deported: “Advocacy groups have been inundated with calls from people afraid or despondent,” reports The New York Times. A 27 year old financial consultant stated: “‘The first thought I had is that I have done everything right and it is all going to be taken away from me… It feels a little bit like a betrayal. I’ve been here since I was 4 years old. I’m an American.’” A legal assistant who has been in the U.S. for almost thirty years, said “‘It feels like a step backward, to be back in this insecure place where you don’t know what the next step might be,’ she said, her voice breaking with tears. She has tried not to cry in front of her children and to assure them that she is safe.”

Non-DACA undocumented immigrants who spent many years in the U.S. but who have been deported have suffered immensely, as The New York Times also has shown. Juventino Martin Gonzalez was deported to Mexico after working in the U.S. for 20 years and having three children here. A month after being deported, he came to the border fence separating California from Mexico “for a glimpse of the American side he still considers home. He said, ’I belong over there, not here… this is the closest I can get…’” Miguel Romero was also deported to Mexico:

“For 16 years, he had worked as a glazier in Brooklyn. He married and was raising five children. But earlier this year, immigration officials arrested him while he was installing glass in a storefront in lower Manhattan, Mr. Romero said… His wife, also in the United States illegally, decided not to join him, and he says he does not blame her, since wages here average about $10 a day… He does not dare cross the border illegally again, for fear of getting caught and serving time in jail. ‘My whole life I spent up there, and it’s hard for me to come back,’ he said in perfect English. ‘We have been up there so many years, and most of us don’t commit crimes. People that do nothing but work should get a break.’”

Many additional immigrants who lived in the U.S. for many years have been deported, not because they were undocumented but on account of a criminal record. My opinion is that immigrants (who have not become citizens, in which case they generally are immune from deportation based on their criminal records) who have been convicted of a crime in the U.S. should be punished through the justice system, as would a U.S. citizen, but that they should not face deportation because of the crime, regardless of the offense. Regardless of one’s position on this issue, it is clear that those deported (often for very minor offenses) after living rooted lives in America suffer. The Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School has noted that many Cambodian immigrants to the U.S. have been deported after committing crimes. The center observes that “The U.S. separated them from their homes and families and sent them to a country with which they had little or no connection.” While some individuals eventually accept their life in Cambodia, many struggle to adjust, with some committing suicide. Especially devastating is the separation from loved ones in America: “Deportation destroys these relationships. It forces non-citizens to leave their friends, parents, siblings, and spouses. Furthermore, many must abandon their U.S. citizen children. Of the forty-eight returnees interviewed for this report, twenty-five left behind sons or daughters in the United States. As U.S. law makes it all but impossible for returnees to obtain a tourist visa, most will never see their children again.” One man was deported after forging a $900 check to pay his bills and has never seen his baby girl, who was born while he was in immigration detention before being sent to Cambodia.

Those under the threat of deportation because of their criminal record also are distressed. Lundy Khoy was born in refugee camp in Thailand, arrived in the U.S. thirty five years ago when he was a one year old, and has legal permanent resident status. He is not an American citizen but states “there is no way I am not an American.” In 2000 he pleaded guilty for possessing seven tablets of Ecstasy with intent to sell. His conviction made him deportable, even though he later received a pardon from the governor of Virginia. He has not been deported but has spent almost nine months in immigration detention (he is now released) and is fearful: “If I was deported, I would be sent to Cambodia. But I had never been to Cambodia!”

Another immigrant who faced a similar situation is Qing Hong Wu, who immigrated legally from China when he was five years old. When he was fifteen he pleaded guilty to muggings he had committed. After serving three years at a reformatory for his crimes, Wu worked to become a vice president for Internet technology with a national company. However, almost twenty five years after coming to the U.S., Wu was detained by immigration agents and subject to deportation because of his criminal record. In a telephone interview from detention with The New York Times he said, “’Being permanently banned from the U.S., that’s the biggest stress I’m under… That’s the harshest penalty any person can ever receive.’” Fortunately, after Wu spent four months in detention, the governor of New York pardoned him, which erased the grounds for deportation, unlike in Khoy’s case.

I believe that deportations are immoral, except in extradition cases in which individuals face criminal trials in other countries. However, I am not a lawyer and am not arguing here that the deportation of immigrants with strong roots in the U.S. could be found unconstitutional by a court. Apparently, a legal claim that deportation violates the Eighth Amendment probably would be unsuccessful, since deportation is not legally considered a punishment. The New York Times notes that “under the 19th-century legal doctrine still at the heart of much of modern immigration law, however, neither detention nor deportation counts as punishment, just as administrative remedies for the failure to exclude an undesirable foreigner in the first place, experts say.” It is evident, though, that deportation and the threat of it cause immigrants to suffer the equivalent of what the Supreme Court has deemed to be  cruel and unusual punishment, which is a damning indictment of both the status quo and a possibly even crueler future under Trump.

The US really is a Nation of Immigrants – and Peter Brimelow is wrong

Some time back, I got into a discussion with some commenters on Open Borders. The starting point was a claim by Peter Brimelow who is the editor of the restrictionist website VDARE. In an address to the Philadelphia Society, delivered in 2006, he stated it this way:

„But the last estimate that I saw, when I was researching Alien Nation, was that if there had been no immigration at all after 1790—none at all—the population of the US would still be about half of what it is now, through natural increase.“

This is part of an argument that it is misleading to call the US a “nation of immigrants.”

I was baffled by the claim, and my first reaction was to point out that American population would have grown by a factor of 40 since 1790, while the population of Germany grew only by a factor of less than 4, and world population by a factor of 7. A commenter then supplied an argument that very high fertility in the early US was behind it. This seemed to be an explanation, and so I retracted my criticism, but was still amazed how that could be.

Turns out I gave in too fast because:

The US really is a nation of immigrants, and overwhelmingly so.

I will go into more detail in another post because there are further aspects that are interesting (hint: it’s the momentum effect again). Here I will confine myself to a simple argument that shows why something has to be wrong with Peter Brimelow’s claim. I will also derive a more realistic estimate for the counterfactual.

Let’s first look at where the US population in 1790 had come from: Of the slightly more than 3.9 million inhabitants, about 760,000 were African Americans, mostly slaves. Native Americans were not counted at the time. The rest were of European descent, some 3.2 million people. More than 2.5 million of those of European descent or 78.6% traced their ancestry to Britain (59.7% English, 10.1% Scots-Irish, 5.0% Scottish, and 3.8% Welsh).

The reference year for Peter Brimelow’s claim is 1990, and he asserts that about half of the American population would have been there at that time without any immigration after 1790: 122 million in the counterfactual versus an actual population of 249 million (cf. “Alien Nation – Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster”, page 48).

There were 30 million African Americans in 1990. It is certainly an overestimate that all of them would have been there without any immigration after 1790 where this would have to include also forced “immigration.” That’s so because about half of all new slaves were brought to the US after the founding of the Republic.

Let’s be generous and concede 20 million African Americans in the counterfactual. There were also almost 9 million Native Americans who would have been there in 1990. So the number of all those of European descent in the counterfactual works out as 122-20-9 = 93 million people in 1990.

It is reasonable to assume that 78.6% of those 93 million would have been of British descent in the counterfactual, or about 73 million people. Otherwise you would have to explain why other groups (mostly Germans, Dutch, French, and Irish) had vastly diverging fertility over 200 years. I don’t see how you can make that case.

Now, since the counterfactual is just a part of what really happened with immigration, there should have been also at least 73 million actual people of British descent in 1990, or about 29% of the population. Of course, those would only be the same people as in the counterfactual if there had been complete segregation of later immigrants, which was not the case.

What counts here are surnames which anchor a claim to ancestry. Since half of someone’s descendents (usually sons) keep the surname, and half of them (usually daughters) lose it, the shares do not change a lot across generations. That is barring strongly differential fertility or systematic name changes that I find implausible. So the shares for ancestries should be roughly stable.

But then 29% has to be an underestimate because there were another 3.5 million immigrants from the UK between 1820 and 1930 alone. You can get a rough idea from German immigration for the effect of that later immigration in 1990.

There were only 280,000 Americans of German descent in 1790. They should have grown to about 7 million people in 1990 with the same rate as for those of British decent. But there were another 5 million German immigrants between 1850 and 1930. In 1990, there were 58 million Americans of German descent. So the 5 million later German immigrants should have grown to about 51 million people.

Hence it seems reasonable that the 3.5 million later British immigrants from 1820 to 1930 should have grown to some 35 million people. But that means that the share of those of British descent in 1990 would have been about 43% of the total population (108 million out of 249 million).

However, there were only 18.8% in 1990 who claimed to be of British descent or much less than half of what it should have been if Peter Brimelow were right.

There is one objection, though. There were also 6.2% who declared “American”, “US”, “European”, or “white” ancestry in the 1990 census. Probably some of them should be counted as of British descent, too. But even if you include all of them, you only get to 25%, or somewhat more than half of what is required. So the numbers simply don’t add up for Peter Brimelow’s claim, and that is so by a wide margin.

Now let’s derive a more realistic estimate (which has its limitations, but should be much closer to the truth):

If you take the high estimate of 25% for those of British descent (including all those who checked “American” ancestry, “US” ancestry, and so forth), there were about 62 million people in 1990 that belonged to that group. Subtracting the 35 million resulting from immigration after 1790, yields 27 million people, or only somewhat more than a third of the 73 million in the counterfactual.

But that can only mean that also the number of those of European descent in the counterfactual has to be much lower, not 93 million, but only 34 million people. Add in the 20 million African Americans (probably an overestimate) and the 9 million Native Americans, and you arrive at an estimate for the American population in the counterfactual of 34+20+9 = 63 million people.

Hey, that’s not bad, that’s almost the population of France! It is well below that for Germany, though, and only half the Japanese population. But relax, the US would still be more populous than Canada, admittedly not by a lot.

And a population of 63 million people would have been only 25%, and not almost 50% of actual population in 1990. Or in other words: Roughly 75% of the American population were there because of immigration after 1790!

But there is also a silver lining for Peter Brimelow here: The US was taken over by immigrants long ago, and it worked out so well that he is now defending the result as the status quo. Just imagine: No one would have noticed this massive swamping if I hadn’t written my post. And it is a fine example of how a nation of immigrants could become a great country. Make America great again!

Bureaucracy and Domination: An Indirect Argument for Open Borders

People support open borders from very different – and possibly conflicting – philosophical and ideological perspectives. Anarchists such as David Graeber and libertarians such as Bryan Caplan tend not to cite each other. Readers of economist Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come or Michael Clemens’ “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?”  usually do not read geographer Reece Jones’ Violent Borders or activist Natasha King’s No Borders. There are even schisms within disciplines so that liberal philosophers such as Joseph Carens operating in very different idioms from philosophers inspired by continent figures such as Thomas Nail.

The lack of dialogue among open border camps is unfortunate as it isolates potential allies behind disciplinary silos and impoverishes debate. Moreover, there are strong reasons to support open borders – or at least much more open borders – even if we are not convinced by philosophical arguments about freedom of movement or equality. Even a superficial glance at the violence used to enforce border controls should give conscientious people pause.

Border walls and barriers have proliferated in recent years around the world, often with lethal consequences. Border controls have forced migrants to hire smugglers to take increasingly risky journeys to flee violence or seek opportunities. In 2016, nearly 5000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean and hundreds perish each year attempting to cross the US border.

The Obama administration deported over 2.4 million people and, as Stephanie Silverman has recently noted, immigrant detentions in the United States have grown from 70,000 people in 1996 to around 400,000 people today with a 34,000 “bed mandate” for detainees – which include asylum seekers and children.

My article “Immigration Enforcement and Domination: An Indirect Argument for Much More Open Borders” calls attention to one particular problem with immigration enforcement: bureaucratic domination. Immigration bureaucrats have enormous power to reject applications to immigrate (often giving no explanation at all for their decisions), denying opportunities and separating families. They can deport and detain, often at their discretion with little accountability to migrants or to anyone else.

“Immigration Enforcement and Domination” brings together ideas from political philosophy and from critical border studies.  From political philosophy, I draw attention to the problem of bureaucratic domination and analyze it using neo-Republican theories of freedom developed by philosophers such as Philip Pettit and Frank Lovett (and applied to immigration by scholars such as Iseult Honohan, Sara Fine, and Meghan Benton). Neo-republicans understand domination in terms of arbitrary interference and argue that interference with people’s lives can only be justified if those affected have a genuine opportunity to shape and contest decisions and policies. Typical mechanisms to shape and contest decision include participation in democratic politics through voting, lobbying, and public demonstration and using the legal system.

Bureaucratic domination is a problem for everyone living in complex societies and it can never be entirely overcome. One reason for this is that bureaucrats require considerable discretion to do their jobs and this is often beneficial to the people they serve then they are professional, well-trained, and committed to fulfilling legitimate public goals. Nonetheless, domination can often be mitigated by civil society, legal recourse, and democratic politics to ensure that bureaucracies are accountable to the people they serve.

The more power bureaucracies have over people’s lives, the more important these mechanisms to contest and shape policies become. Bureaucrats enforcing immigration policy have extraordinary power: they can send refugees back to torture or to death. They can separate young children and parents for months or years. They can indefinitely incarcerate people who have committed no crime. To avoid bureaucratic domination, it would be necessary to have strong means for migrants to contest decisions.

Unfortunately, migrants do not have resources that would allow them to adequately protect themselves from bureaucratic domination. In most jurisdictions, immigrants do not have political rights such as the right to vote, allowing most politicians to ignore their plight. Furthermore, they are vulnerable to deportation if they do not have legal status or to non-renewal of their visas. Immigrant populations are often racialized and suffer discrimination, exacerbating their vulnerability.

Moreover, the very nature of immigration enforcement makes it highly unlikely that these avenues could be created. Critical migration scholars such as Ruben Andersson, Josiah Heyman, Sandro Mezzadra, William Walters, and many others have examined how immigration policy is implemented. In popular imagination, borders are thought of as natural lines demarcating pre-existing national territories. In reality, they are not simply barriers preventing entry, but rather shape migration flows (often violent results) and create classes of people with different juridical and social statuses (“illegal immigrants”, temporary workers, family-class migrants, refugees, etc.). Borders are the result of political decisions and actively shape reality.

Critical migration studies draws attention to three aspects of border controls: dispersion, externalization, and privatization. First, immigration enforcement is dispersed, i.e., carried out by multiple actors around the world including airline carriers, private security companies, employers, schools, universities, and NGOs – along with national and foreign governments.

Second, enforcement is externalized, taking place outside of states national territories. In one of the most notorious examples, Australia has sought to deter asylum seekers through mandatory detention in offshore facilities which have been repeated condemned for human rights violations. Europe cooperates with third countries such as Libya to stem migration despite well-documented violence including torture and sexual abuse.

Third, much enforcement is carried out by private organizations such as for-profit prisons. One mechanism for preventing people from claiming asylum is the practice of fining airlines through carrier sanctions  if they allow people without visas to board their flights, forcing asylum-seekers to resort to smugglers.

Together, dispersion, externalization, and privatization make it impossible to overcome bureaucratic domination for immigration enforcement. Not only are the many agents engaged in preventing immigration unaccountable to any democratic republic, but it is often impossible to determine who they are. Despite daily reports around the world of appalling abuse against migrants, abusers are almost never held responsible or sanctioned. Indeed, the dispersion, externalization, and privatization of immigration controls is a strategy allowing governments to abjure responsibility for the brutality of their practices – in many case, they are adopted in order to flout their own laws and to avoid democratic oversight.

The result is that even if there are philosophical reasons for why states are not obligated to open their borders, the nature of enforcement makes most border controls morally repugnant. The only way to avoid the injustice of bureaucratic domination – and a great deal of human suffering – is much more open borders.

Enoch Powell’s Secret Formula

In 2009, the American journalist Christopher Caldwell published his book “Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.” The title is, of course, an allusion to Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, a founding text of modern Conservatism and a classical critique of the French Revolution that first appeared in 1790.

Caldwell’s book is well-written and might seem persuasive to a casual reader.  But as I will show in this and further posts, once you start to look into them more closely, many central claims fall apart. The main technique that Caldwell employs is framing the story early on. If you buy into his grand vista of what is going on in Europe, you hardly need arguments, just illustrations that reinforce what you already think you know.

The framing technique starts right in the very first chapter which is entitled “Rivers of Blood.” Readers from the UK will immediately understand the reference. On April 20, 1968, the Conservative politician Enoch Powell delivered a speech which became known as his “Rivers of Blood” speech. I am German, and I have to admit that I had never heard of it until I read Caldwell’s book. But then I would have recognized April 20 as Hitler’s birthday, you have to give me that.

Enoch Powell describes a dark future for the United Kingdom, with burning ghettos, whole cities taken over by nonwhite immigrants, or as Powell put it:

“It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Towards the end, Powell quotes the Roman poet Virgil to express his pessimistic outlook, and this quote has given the speech its colloquial name:

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”

Christopher Caldwell, of course, taps into this sentiment. But then this was just a prediction in 1968 that at first glance turned out to be totally wrong. Maybe I missed something, but I am not aware of burning ghettos, cities being taken over, or the Thames foaming with blood, much of it. So why would Caldwell want to start off with something like this?

Well, as I said, this is about framing. Once you have absorbed Powell’s gloomy view, you don’t need an argument that the UK really is in a state of civil war, or that there are burning ghettos and massacres. All you need are a few tidbits that show you that something was not perfect over the past 40 years. But still, why should you buy into such a deluded vision?

The main argument is that Powell made one prediction that turned out to be very accurate, and that has baffled a lot of people ever since. So if he could make one astonishing forecast that was right on, he probably had some deep insight into the situation. Maybe “Rivers of Blood” and all the rest have not yet materialized, but then Powell might have been just a little off, and it is still in store, perhaps in a few years or so.

Now my point is that Enoch Powell did not have any deep insight into anything to make his famed prediction. Here is the relevant part in Christopher Caldwell’s words:

 “Although at the time Powell’s demographic projections were much snickered at, they have turned out not just roughly accurate but as close to perfectly accurate as it is possible for any such projections to be: In his Rotary Club speech, Powell shocked his audience by stating that the nonwhite population of Britain, barely over a million at the time, would rise to 4.5 million by 2002. (According to the national census, the actual “ethnic minority” population of Britain in 2001 was 4,635,296.)”

At first glance, this is impressive and comes out of nowhere. But Enoch Powell was no clairvoyant. He, or whoever he relied on for his prediction, simply did his homework. Maybe this was somewhat harder to do in 1968 when computations still mostly meant paper and pencil. But then I will explain how I could obtain exactly the same forecast in Excel, which goes to show that there is no rocket science behind it.

What are the assumptions that Enoch Powell starts from?

Christopher Caldwell writes that there were “barely over a million” nonwhites in Britain at the time. In the respective footnote, he gives the exact number as 1.25 million. As is also clear from another quote from Enoch Powell, he assumed net immigration of nonwhites at a level of 50,000 a year. I have no idea where the non-metric horizon of 34 years from 1968 to 2002 comes from. But anyway, how many nonwhites would you expect in 2002 with those assumptions?

If you tried a naïve forecast, you would arrive at 1.25 million + 34 * 50,000 = 2.95 million, which is, of course, too low. And maybe that was also Christopher Caldwell’s and many other people’s first guess. So against this benchmark, Powell’s forecast was remarkably good. It looks like magic. Enoch Powell must have known something that is not obvious, a deep insight that let him come up with such an accurate figure.

However, you don’t have to have any special insight. The reason is that the naïve analysis is false for a reason. If you have read my previous posts (cf. “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations” and “Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible”), you might guess what it is: It’s the momentum effect, stupid.

The momentum effect means that if you have 1,000 immigrants, they are usually young people who will start families soon. So after only a few years, there will be 1,000 children or a doubling of the population even if you assume only replacement fertility. After some time there will be another 1,000 grandchildren. But since some of the initial immigrants will have died by then, the population comes out somewhere below 3,000, or with the assumptions in my other posts: at about 2,760. And after that, it levels off. So a population of 1,000 immigrants grows to about 2,760 descendants (and to stress it: this is assuming replacement fertility!).

Now, this growth from 1,000 initial immigrants to 2,760 descendants is the case for one-time immigration in a single year. However, Enoch Powell assumed immigration of a fixed number each year. I have done the calculations for this in my post “Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible” (assuming stylized mortality and birth patterns, immigration at age 25). The result is that with 1,000 adult immigrants each year, the whole population including descendants will grow to about 65,000 people after 34 years. There are 34,000 (= 34 * 1,000) immigrants, and the momentum effect almost doubles this number.

And now I take my magic wand, and make my forecast: Since there were 1.25 million nonwhites already in 1968, and assuming 50,000 immigrants a year, my prediction for 2002 is: 1.25 million + 50,000 * 65 = 4.5 million. That’s exactly what Enoch Powell had, and my prediction would have been just as accurate as his.

But then I could have delivered my own “Rivers of Champagne” speech in 1968. Only I would have combined my forecast with the prediction of a peaceful, prosperous, and vibrant country that’s powering ahead. And if the argument is correct that someone who can get the figure for 2002 right must have very deep insight into what’s going on, you would have to believe my other predictions just as much as those Enoch Powell made. That can’t be right, so the claim is false for both of us.

What’s interesting: there are some inaccuracies in the above calculation. The actual figure should be higher at least  for the following reasons:

  • There has to be a momentum effect also for the initial 1.25 million nonwhites because most of them immigrated in the 1960s.
  • Probably fertility was above replacement as it also was for the native population at the time. This might have gone on for some time afterwards.
  • Actual immigration from the relevant countries was somewhat higher than the 50,000 in the calculation.

 Or it could also be lower:

  • There was perhaps also emigration: some went back home and others moved on to other countries.
  • Over two or three generations, there must have been some mixing with the general population. So maybe some people could not find the racial checkbox for “Caribbean-Irish-Pakistani-Welsh” or “Nigerian-Scottish-Indian-French” on the census form and just lied about it and claimed they were “British.”

The interesting thing is that those other effects mostly cancelled out, and so the forecast was pretty accurate. As I claimed in my post “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations”, the momentum effect is almost all it takes to explain such developments, and common explanations (chain immigration, brides from back home, extreme fertility, diaspora dynamics, etc.) are at best second-order effects, or often simply besides the point.

There is only one thing that truly baffles me, namely how close I come: the exact figure I got was 4499,9757 which is off by only 243!

Bonus track

Enoch Powell’s speech made history also in another way. The Beatles recorded “Commonwealth” on January 9, 1969, which poked fun on Powell. The song morphed into “Get Back” over the following sessions which originally had some rather different lyrics.


Creative Commons License The U.S. and Canada Should Open Their Borders to Syrian Refugees is licensed by Joel Newman under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.