Tuesday, April 26, 2011

passports, the right of emigration, and the rule of law

As someone who likes to gallivant around the world to see new places, I take a bit of pride in my passport, or at least regard it with some kind of affection. But it's worth remembering that a passport is actually owned by the issuing government, and that we are not actually free to leave a sovereign territory without the blessing of the government. For most of Americans, this is an academic point. If you want a passport, all you have to do is provide some minimal documentation and a nominal processing fee and voila. But times, they may be a-changin':
What if I told you that a cadre of "birther" Republicans want to prevent President Obama from appearing on Election 2012 ballots unless he fills out a form listing every address he's lived at since birth; every job he has ever held; the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of his supervisors; a list of his siblings and personal details about them; the address of his mother one year prior to his birth, on the day of his birth, and one year after his birth; the name of his mother's obstetrician and the dates when she received prenatal care; the names and addresses of people present at his birth; and details about any religious ceremony held to mark his birth.

You'd scoff at those requirements, and rightly so! They'd be unnecessary, laughable, outrageous.

Ironically, the form I described is not one dreamt up by birthers, or meant to parody their obsession. It is, in fact, the actual information the Obama administration wants to require of some US citizens when they apply for a passport. I kid you not. The form, proposed by the U.S. State Department, can be viewed here. Above I've laid out the actual information it requests of any U.S. citizen who 1) wants a passport and 2) "wasn't born in a medical facility" (or didn't have their birth recorded within a year of it happening). Incredibly, Foggy Bottom staff estimates that providing the answers to all those questions will take the average applicant just 45 minutes.
That is from Conor Friedersdorf. A couple points:

This is an affront to the rule of law. By making the form impossible to complete in the requested level of detail, what constitutes satisfactory completion will be left to the whims of the bureaucrats in charge. This provides an opportunity for the passport office to grant or deny the passport privilege for hidden, possibly political, reasons. A disappointed petitioner will just be told that any one of a dozen pieces of crucial information was lacking. And then there is the possibility of being charged with perjury for failing to fill out the impossible form.

All the things I might say about the right to immigrate apply to the right to emigrate as well. Fortunately, for once I think most "common sense" views from salt-of-the-earth types probably coincide nicely with my cosmotarian take on the right to leave a country. For most Americans or other Global Northerners, it may not seem like a big deal that a government assert authority over when, where, and how a citizen can leave the nation's territory. But this is exactly the power that makes North Korea and the former East Germany prison states. Less dramatically but closer to home, recall that it is illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. This smacks of the idea that the State owns the individual.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

the human right of migration

Apropos of nothing especially current, I recently read Michael Huemer's slam-dunk essay "Is There A Right To Immigrate?" I was directed to it by this talk Bryan Caplan gave to the Future of Freedom Foundation. For the audio-inclined, Caplan's talk is a close substitute for Huemer's essay, and a good way to spend an hour.

The essay revolves around a few thought experiments that illustrate how restrictions on immigration actively coerce and harm, rather than passively allow misfortune to persist. The distinction is important if, as many ethical systems suggest, you think that while a) you don't have a moral obligation to go out of your way to help alleviate existing injustice, b) you do have an obligation to refrain from inflicting new injustice. The mood setter:
Suppose that, through no fault of mine, Marvin is in danger of starvation. He asks me for food. If I refuse to give him food, I thereby fail to confer a benefit on Marvin and, at the same time, allow Marvin to go hungry. If Marvin then starves to death, those who accept the doing/allowing distinction would say that I have not killed Marvin, but merely allowed him to die. And some believe that this is much less wrong than killing, possibly not even wrong at all. But now consider a different case. Suppose that Marvin, again in danger of starvation, plans to walk to the local market to buy some food. In the absence of any outside interference, this plan would succeed--the market is open, and there are people willing to trade food for something that Marvin has. Now suppose that, knowing all this, I actively and forcibly restrain Marvin from reaching the market. As a result, he starves to death. In this situation, I would surely be said to have killed Marvin, or at least done something morally comparable to killing him.
The actions of the federal government of the United States are more analagous to the case in which I restrain Marvin from reaching the market, than to the case in which I merely decline to provide him with food. The government's immigration policy is not a merely passive one--the government does not, for example, merely fail to assist people in coming to the United States. Rather, the government hires armed guards to stop people from coming in and to forcibly expel people who are already here. The federal government spends almost $13 billion a year on actively excluding or expelling unauthorized immigrants. The United States is like the market where would-be immigrants could satisfy their needs. There are Americans wiling to hire immigrants, to rent them living spaces, and in general to engage in all other kinds of needed interactions with immigrants. My charge is not that the U.S. government fails to give Third World inhabitants what they need. It is that the government actively and coercively prevents many Third World inhabitants from taking a course of action that they otherwise would undertake and that would in fact succeed in enabling them to meet their needs. This is much closer to inflicting a harm than it is to merely allowing a harm to occur.
In most cases, immigration is not such a life-and-death situation. Mexico, for example, is a fairly comfortable middle income country. But sometimes it is quite close to life-and-death, as in the case of the earthquake-fleeing Haitians being turned away at gunpoint. Or to be less America-centric, take the efforts of the EU nations to turn back refugees from the conflicts in North Africa. In any case, however dramatic the example, it illustrates that immigration restrictions are coercive violations of the rights of would-be migrants as well as willing natives to peacefully interact with one another.

A substantial portion of the essay addresses concerns that immigration involves more than merely allowing people to interact with one another. Citizenship in a country confers benefits, and the spectre of brown hordes swarming over the border intent on sucking dry the teat of American welfare looms large for many otherwise decent people. Whenever I bring up immigration, my mother, a suitable stand-in for your generic, socially conservative Great Plains voter, invariably responds "I don't mind it if they come here and work. I just don't want them to sit on welfare." And this continues to be the response no matter how many dazzling empirical factoids I might deploy. Huemer generously grants some (in my view often implausible) negative effects on natives of immigration as policy stands today. But he argues that it is absurd to argue for coercive remedies to what amounts to our own generosity. If we are really so concerned that immigrants constitute a net fiscal burden via welfare consumption (and I would argue this concern is misplaced), then forbidding immigrants from collecting welfare benefits or charging them special surtaxes would be far more humane than pointing guns at them and violating their freedom to live where they want and interact peacefully with willing native citizens.

Huemer's closing paragraph goes for the jugular:
Racism once caused white Americans to ignore the rights of blacks and to treat small advantages to members of their own race as more important than the most vital interests of members of other races. Similarly, nationalism has caused present-day Americans to overlook the rights of foreigners and to treat small advantages to Americans as more important than the most vital interests of foreigners. Only thus could Americans have been led to think that a small reduction in wage rates for some American workers outweighed the rights of foreigners not to be subjected to extremely harmful coercion. Once we overcome this bias, we will see foreign-born persons and American-born persons as moral equals. Seeing persons of all nationalities as equal need not lead us to abandon the view that the U.S. government has special obligations to its own citizens. But it will surely lead us to abandon the view that modest economic interests of some Americans can outweigh vital rights of the foreign-born.
Many people on the liberal side of the immigration debate, myself included, have tended to focus on technocratic utilitarian arguments. Maybe this is because we don't want to be seen as namby-pamby bleeding hearts, but really the impact of immigration on GDP is beside the point. Immigration is instead a civil rights issue, and one of the greatest of our time. Including foreigners in our ethical considerations could be the next great step in our society's moral advance, similar in kind (if not necessarily scope) to freeing blacks from slavery, liberating women from the home, and welcoming gays and the transgendered in open society. We should respond to subtle and explicit anti-immigrant and anti-foreign attitudes in the same way we respond to racism and sexism: with shame. With luck and effort, our grandchildren will be as ashamed of us for our closed borders as we are ashamed of our great-grandparents for Jim Crow.

Oh hang on, I think I've found a way to make this post current after all. Gary Johnson, ex-governor of a border state who is vying to be the Republican nominee for president, seems to have internalized this radical notion that migrants are human beings deserving of human rights:
Johnson said he doesn't like the harsh tone he's heard in the immigration debate. "At an event the other night and some guy says, 'What we need are A-10s flying low across the border ... guns blazing.'" Johnson said. "I said, 'Really? You want to kill the immigrants? ... We are on different pages here. We really have a serious disagreement about this.'" But a couple of minutes later, Johnson said, the man apologized and said he didn't mean what he said. He said such emotional reactions to the problem "have to do with the notion that (immigrants) are taking away jobs from U.S. citizens."
In this anecdote at least, the soft-spoken shame strategy seemed to yield fruit.