Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 4: A Longer Look at open borders

The Erickson Report, Page 4: A Longer Look at open borders

I promised last week to follow up on the idea of open borders as being worth a look. But what happened is that it wound up turning into A longer look - a longer look at open borders.

Open borders, in case the concept is not clear from the name, refers to a policy of unrestricted immigration, of free travel into and out of a nation with no more fuss than crossing the border between two US states. There can be trivial variations on that, such as requiring you to have either money for a few days' expenses or a place to stay, but we're not going to bother with those.

Okay. There are generally two types of argument, which sometimes overlap, raised in support of open borders: an economic one and a moral one.

At the top, one thing that can't be denied is that it would save money on enforcement. Open borders means no walls, no fences, no screening at airports, no ICE, no deportations, no detention centers, no immigration courts. The US spends in the neighborhood of $20 billion annually in immigration enforcement. Meanwhile, one study pegs the economic cost of wait times at the US-Mexico border alone to be more than $12 billion a year. Add the economic costs of wait times at other ports of entry and we could easily be talking about $40 billion a year on border security.

That's a lot of money but still it's small change in the larger, particularly the world, economy, so there's got be more to the economic argument, and there is. The real economic argument is based on hypothetical notions of economic efficiency.

The idea is that just as open borders in goods - "free trade" - supposedly allows physical resources to flow where they can be deployed most productively for their best use, so open borders for workers allows human resources to flow where they can be deployed most productively - and yes, workers do become more productive as they move from a poor country to a rich one because they join a labor market with ample capital and a predictable legal system.

The result of all this increased productivity, it's claimed, is that the world gets richer.

According to Fortune.com, four different studies have shown that, depending on the level of movement in the global labor market, the estimated growth in “gross world product” - the worldwide equivalent of GDP - would be in the range of 67% to 147%. Effectively, open borders would double the world's economic activity.

But here is the first rub and part of why I find the argument for open borders interesting enough to consider but not really persuasive. Let's suppose that's true, that open borders  produce a major increase in gross world product - GWP if you prefer. The world as a whole is richer but are the people richer? Or have we just created, as the very argument itself suggests, an even and ever greater divide between the rich nations and the poor ones, between the increasingly rich few and the increasingly desperate many? Even if we are to say that those coming in improve their own lot, what does that mean for those left behind?

It's argued that migrant workers often send money back home through remittances, which again could benefit a select few in those home countries, but how much of an impact could that have on the scale of a national economy, even for a poor nation?

And yes, what about those already here? Would the new arrivals drive down wages? Do they improve their own lot at the cost of driving down the lot of those already here to meet theirs?

The New Internationalist, hardly a right-wing source, says that multiple studies say wages are only minimally affected, if at all, by immigration, citing in particular one from Denmark which followed the wages and employment of every worker in the country between 1991 and 2008 and found that low-skilled wages and employment actually rose in response to the influx of refugees during that time.

Okay but even so, that is about low-skilled workers, not the economy as a whole and it's hard to accept that there is no impact when in the US corporations are increasingly using temporary visas known as H-1Bs to replace American high-skilled, particularly technology, workers with foreign workers because they will work for 25 to even 50 percent less than Americans.

More to the point, all of these cases - from the H-1B program to Denmark's dealing with a flood of refugees and all points in between - are still situations of controlled immigration, even if in the case of Denmark temporarily dramatically increased immigration. They are not open borders and it's reasonable to wonder how far those results can be extrapolated.

Meanwhile, the huge and widening wealth gap we are already seeing here at home is well-known enough to require no further reference; so even if we're to say that with open borders, low-skilled workers would be a little better off, the question remains of if open borders are a pathway, even a tool, for making that wealth gap, that gulf, even wider, that chasm even deeper, that barrier even harder to breach, a way to, if you will, give the poor an extra penny so the rich can have an extra dollar. Or ten. Or a hundred. Or a thousand.

Still still still, even if we ignore that, even if we say that well, we are one of those industrialized nations that will economically benefit, so we'll be better off even if it's a pittance so who cares, that only serves to raise a different issue: The fact remains that by some estimates, more than two-thirds of a person’s overall wealth is determined by where they live and work, that accident of place of birth is a major determinent of your wealth.

Which is where the economic and the moral cases come to overlap: Since where someone is born is entirely a matter of chance, the argument goes, there is no moral justification for compelling people to stay in a poor country. By the same token, those lucky enough to have been born in rich countries have no right to exclude others from their good fortune.

But they do: It's estimated that three-quarters of all border walls and fences in the world have been erected since 2000. Approaching 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, everywhere you look the world has more barriers than ever.

Which just puts an exclamation point on the moral argument, since the main intention of most of these barriers is to preserve the privilege of the wealthy at the expense of the poor by restricting their access to the resources and opportunities available in wealthy countries - while the ability of the rich and even more of capital to move when and where they like is barely touched.

And by the way, not just move for the sake of mere residency. In 21 nations, mostly in Europe and the Caribbean but also Canada, the United States, Australia, and other places, the rich essentially - not literally but essentially - can buy citizenship by investing in the domestic economy.

By what right, by what moral standard, do we allow the perpetuation of that self-reinforcing cycle that increasingly secures and protects the rich against the world's poor, against the world's desperate, against the world's refugees, against those whose moral and ethical claim to a share of the world's resources is as great as their own?

I think the moral case for open borders is clear and correct. But I'm still divided because I have said many times about open borders that my heart says yes but my head says no.

Because what of the practical issues? We are assuming that open borders will lead to a large influx of new residents into the US, considerably more than are coming now - otherwise there isn't an issue. So what are the practical issues of dealing with that rapidly swelling population?

What are the implications, for example, for public education? For schools and the supply of teachers? For health care facilities and the supply of doctors, nurses, and all the other sorts of health care personnel? For the provision of social services, which we have to assume will need to be greatly expanded?

What are the implications for the housing stock? The people have to go somewhere. Do we wind up with shanty towns or overflowing cities packed with 21st century versions of the darkest days of Hell's Kitchen or the increasingly rapid replacement of farmland with pavement and buildings?

What about the increased demands for energy? What about utilities such as the electric grid? What would be the impacts on air and water pollution?

Speaking of energy, since as Americans our carbon footprint is so large, what would be the impact of increased demands for power on global warming?

There are also social questions. Even advocates of open borders acknowledge that in the short term unchecked migration could certainly corrode social cohesion due to cultural conflicts between natives and immigrants. Although in the longer run it likely would make little difference - recall Peter Andreas, who I quoted last time about the historically insecure nature of our borders, noting once "undesirable" sorts of immigrants being, a few generations later, "unremarkably American" - it is still a concern that would require attention.

And yet - yes, another but - it could just as easily develop that none of that would be a problem, at least not big ones.

Why?

Because open borders not only promote immigration, they promote emigration, they promote immigrants’ return to their original homes. If immigrants know they can go home and then maybe come back again in the future, they are less likely to put down roots. Many will come for a few years, to work or study or save some money, and then go home. This happens routinely in the European Union, which has largely open borders among member states.

Consider that even without open borders, in the 1960s, 70 million Mexicans crossed into the USA - and 85 per cent of them later returned to Mexico. But the more militarized our borders become, the more restrictive our policies become, the more those already here don't leave for fear they would never be able to come back because of the restrictions and the dangers associated with the trip.

And those dangers are very real and extend beyond concerns like arrest, incarceration, and even the tearing apart of families. The number of people dying while crossing borders has reached unprecedented levels.

The group Border Angels estimates that since 1994, about 10,000 people have died in their attempt to cross from Mexico into the US. According to the Customs and Border Protection, over 7,000 people died crossing that border between 1998 and 2017.

Meanwhile, more than a thousand die every year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe, a number that threatens to increase as intensified border enforcement forces people into the hands of smugglers for more perilous journeys while governments, as I noted last time, criminalize programs to save refugees from drowning. Six hundred have already died in 2019.

And the people will keep coming and they will keep dying because on one point history has produced undeniable evidence: No matter how harsh we make their journey, no matter how perilous we make their passage, no matter how dehumanizing we make their detention, no matter how many walls and fences we build, no matter how many guards and guns, dogs and drones we deploy, the conditions of poverty, of hunger, of oppression, of violence, of crime that these human beings experience is bad enough to make the risks worth taking.

Ultimately, it's clear that existing migration policies do not work. The fact is that for all the debates raging in Europe and America, rich countries still take in only a small fraction of the world’s most vulnerable migrants. Indeed, so-called Third World nations take in more refugees than industrialized nations do. Those rich countries - including the US - can and must do more.

I don't know if open borders is a good answer, I truly don't. I believe in it but I have my doubts about its practicality. Maybe I shouldn't worry about practicality in the face of a requirement of morality, but I do. What I can say and do say is that open borders is clearly worth considering and that at the very least we should stop being so afraid to do that.

No comments:

 
// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / jeffcouturier.com (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src="https://sites.google.com/site/occupybanners/home/isupportoccupy-right-blue.png"}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src="https://sites.google.com/site/occupybanners/home/isupportoccupy-right-red.png"}} document.write('');