Monday, June 18, 2012

The Hammer of the Gods

Like many of my colleagues, I gave two cheers for the recent announcement by the administration to stop deporting children who may have been born over the border but have lived in the United States their whole lives and may even be in the Armed Forces. It's true that this executive decision is peanuts compared to comprehensive immigration reform, but when you're hungry, even a little airline packet of honey-roasted is better than nothing.

I'm occasionally struck by how strong the anti-foreigner bias is in the United States (make your own jukebox hero joke here if you like). I can sort of understand the nationalism and parochialism I encounter in rural Lithuania, but the American attitude is a bit harder to grok.

Is immigration euvoluntary?

Note I didn't qualify the question. I think that Americans are more tolerant of credentialed immigrants than their paperless fellows, but it's usually only third generation and beyond that end up with anything resembling acceptance. My wife is a naturalized US citizen, has been for close to ten years, and she's still treated... let's say poorly by some of the folks she comes in contact with over the course of a day. It is an empirical regularity that folks dislike listening to weird languages and accents, and I think there's some psychology literature that supports this (sorry I don't have a ready citation, this is off the top of my head, a remnant of a lunch conversation) that cortisol levels rise when hearing an unfamiliar accent. That's a fancy way of saying people get their undies in a twist when they have a hard time understanding jibber-jabber.

That's fine Sam, but is immigration euvoluntary?

There's an explicit assumption among many, borne of a weak grasp of economics that immigrants "steal" the jobs of deserving Americans. Of course, if this is true, we should be more upset with Microsoft, IBM and Sun Systems than with any desert jackal: why, just imagine how many more IT employees we could have if we had to compile code using pen, paper and an abacus. If there were a fixed pool of jobs, there would be no way the US economy could have ever absorbed the labor floods of post-WWII Soldiers' homecoming, the Baby Boom, or the Little Baby Boom of the early 90s. So, economic illiteracy notwithstanding, there's a perception that immigration reduces the alternatives available to natives. However, even the most staunch Border Patriot must acknowledge that the reason people jump the border is to work to provide for their families. Risking their lives for a chance to scrub toilets, mow lawns or to improve amylase synthesis in crested wheatgrass, immigrants reveal through their actions that they have a terrible BATNA. Haitians in particular have the textbook example of a non-euvoluntary... well, everything. Coming to America is an attempt to broaden their set of opportunities. With this in mind, I question whether or not it is consistent to claim to be concerned with the plight of the poor and to be simultaneously in favor of heavy immigration restrictions.

I know at least anecdotally that this contradiction is a real thing that happens to real people. Because I'm oblivious to social convention, I like to press people on this point well beyond the point where they have anything resembling a cogent argument. I have observed the following:

  1. Underpinning people's anti-immigrant arguments are aesthetics. 
  2. De gustibus non est disputandum. 
  3. Pointing out hypocrisy does not eliminate it except in relatively rare cases. 
  4. I don't make a lot of new friends.

Now, if Robin Hanson is right, people are finely-tuned engines of hypocrisy. We are wired to pay nominal respect to egalitarianism, but display strong signals of tribalism and deference to (legitimized) authority. This implies that there may be some approach to convincing people that, indeed, immigration is not only good for the folks who want to come here, but for the folks that are already here, and I think it probably has to do with melding tribes, sort of a pre-assimilation. If we recognize foreigners as one of us, we'll be less likely to grumble when they come here looking for work. Note the comparative lack of rancor against Canadian immigrants.

So, no, immigration as she is done is not euvoluntary, but this does not imply that it must always be thus. There may be room for practical, grassroots reform to shift the framing available to the median voter.
In lieu of discussion questions, I pose more of an engineering challenge:

  • What institutional changes would you suggest foreigners make to ease border restrictions?
  •  How might pro-immigration organizations stateside better tailor their message to closed-borders folks? 
  • Can and should pro-immigration people better understand the moral and aesthetic objections some people have to open borders? 
  • Do diversity initiatives help or hurt immigration reform efforts?
  • Under the assumption that open competition is the sunlight that kills the mildew of bigotry, how do we create a market in citizenship?

Any ideas you have are, of course welcome in the comments, but I would also like to plug Open Borders, a blog similar in spirit to this one, but with a focus on open immigration rather than liberty in trade. They would probably be even more receptive to any ideas you might have than we here at EE (though I do adore your comments when I get them, please keep them coming).

The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. Why limit it more than nature and industry demand?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?