Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti and cognitive dissonance in immigration

Michael Clemens lays out a case for helping Haiti (and other nations of the poor world) by liberalizing migration policy in the Washington Post.
I am not suggesting that, if some of these people died in the earthquake, U.S. immigration policy is responsible. But it would be just as ludicrous to contend that we could not foresee very bad things happening to people forced to live in extreme poverty. Life in destitution is a brittle existence. There is no extra money to buy good building materials, invest in quality schooling or take preventive health measures. So when shocks arrive, as they must -- an earthquake, a job loss, a sickness -- problems become calamities. Such consequences are predictable. For this reason, the United States is complicit in the agony many Haitians are now suffering.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, one of the principal ways its victims helped themselves was by leaving. Katrina prompted one of the biggest resettlements in American history. Who would have blocked Interstate 10 with armed guards, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to suffer in the disaster zone, no matter how much assistance was coming in from outside? We wouldn't have done that, because it would have made us collectively responsible for their continued suffering. Why then, in the thoughtful debate that has emerged over how best to aid Haiti and help its citizens help themselves, are Americans still quiet about this sinister face of our immigration policy?
I think there is a cognitive dissonance common in thinking about immigration. Americans (and presumably most people in the rich world) clearly appreciate the common humanity of the world's poor. Hence the outpouring of aid (both private and government) to the victims of the Haitian earthquake and every other disaster that makes the news. According to this poll, Americans think we spend 15% of the federal budget on foreign aid ("Way too much! We should fix the problems in our own country first!"), but they don't want to completely ignore the needs of the truly destitute and so would be willing to spend 5%. Nearly 18% of respondents say that even the 1% of the federal budget we actually spend on foreign aid is too much, but I would bet most people in this category belong to churches that engage in mission work abroad, which generally has a humanitarian component. The point is Americans in general like the idea that we help the rest of the world out.

But we don't want them anywhere near us. Is this just because poverty isn't pretty? There is a strong tendency to ascribe to them unsavory motives when they arrive in the rich world. They will steal 'our' jobs, or worse, they come to America, not for work, but for welfare (a fear that keeps my retired mother awake at night), or they're simply criminals who will steal our stuff and engage in violent crime. From, perhaps, another ideological vantage, the poor of the world are seen as needing protection from emigration. Emigration will increase the emigrant's carbon footprint, lead to his exploitation by corporations and capitalism, or it will harm the sending country by effecting a brain drain and separating families.

As long as the poor stay well away from us, they share our common humanity, and deserve our aid and sympathy. But as a poor individual from afar approaches, his aims and designs become more nefarious, or he loses his agency all together. Well, this is preposterous, and it is hard to view such instincts as anything more than veneer over simple tribalism. Poor individuals from other parts of the world have all the agency, desires, innate potential, and humanity as those of us who, by arbitrary accident, happen to live in rich countries like America.

Clemens' Katrina example shows the consequence of this cognitive dissonance. Keeping migrants out of the country requires physical violence. Just because migrants are not citizens of a nation does not mean they should be subject to arbitrary coercion, at least not under any liberal theory of justice that we would instinctively apply to fellow citizens we have never met from three thousand miles away. But this logic is somehow difficult to apply to fellow human beings we have never met from three thousand miles away. Clemens (video!) and Lant Pritchett do a fantastic job of detailing the enormous benefits to alleviating poverty that lifting restrictions on migrant labor can do, but first we need to wrap our heads around the idea that those nice folks over there are still nice folks when they're over here.


  1. Great post. My half-baked theory is that the desire to help out the rest of the world while keeping them at arm's length stems from the imperialist tendencies that our culture is still steeped in. We'll send a country food and supplies, we'll send missionaries, hell we'll even go all Habitat for Democracy and build them a nice new government. But that's mainly just to reinforce USA as #1; we wouldn't want them to go thinking they even have a chance at being our equals.

  2. Paul,

    Liberalizing our immigration policy towards Haiti makes no sense whatsoever.

    (1) We only retard the development of Haiti if we allow its best human capital to flee to the U.S. instead of work towards the rebuilding of their own society.

    (2) In any event, the francophone Caribbean culture of Haiti means that it would be very difficult for its people to properly integrate into our Anglo-centric culture. There are other parts of the Caribbean and/or Central and South America that would be a better fit for Haitian emigres than the U.S.

    (3) If the true goal of liberalizing our immigration policy is to alleviate the suffering of people by bringing them to a society that enjoys a relatively high standard of living then why should we privilege Haitians over the billion other desperate peoples of the Earth? Aren't the debased masses of Mumbai and Rio just as worthy of our tender mercies as the helpless Haitian? And is there enough room in America for everyone?