20 years ago, fewer than half of the people in the world had ever made a phone call. Today, the vast majority of people have a smartphone with internet access, and are learning how people in other parts of the world live. A growing number are refusing to accept their poor luck of being born in poor, corrupt, or oppressive or war-torn countries. After all, nobody chooses their parents or where they are born, so why should people in any country have any more right to live there than anyone else? Shouldn’t everyone start life with the right to live anywhere they choose? If they don’t like it where they were born, why shouldn’t someone migrate to another country to improve their conditions or to give their children a better chance? Why should that country be allowed to refuse them entry? I’d like to give a brief answer, but I don’t have time. So:
People don’t choose their parents, or where they are born, but nor did they exist to make that choice. The rights of the infinite number of non-existent people who could potentially be born to any possible combination of parents at any time, anywhere, under any possible set of circumstances is no basis for any policy. If lives were formed and then somehow assigned parents, the questions would be valid, but people don’t actually reproduce by choosing from some waiting list of would-be embryos. Even religious people don’t believe that their god has a large queue of souls waiting for a place and parents to be born to, assigning each in turn to happiness or misery. Actual people reproduce via actual acts in actual places in actual circumstances. They create a new life, and the child is theirs. They are solely responsible for bringing that life into existence, knowing the likely circumstances it would emerge into. The child didn’t choose its parents, but its parents made it. If they live in a particular country and choose to have a baby, that baby will be born with the rights and rules and all the other attributes of that country, the skin color, religion, wealth and status of its parents and so on. It will also be born in the prevailing international political and regulatory environment at that time. Other people in other countries have zero a priori political, social, economic or moral responsibility towards that child, though they and their country are free to show whatever compassion they wish, or to join international organisations that extend protection and human rights to all humans everywhere, and so a child anywhere may inherit certain internationally agreed rights, and countries will at some point have signed up to accept them. Those voluntary agreements or signings of international treaties may convey rights onto that child regarding its access to aid or global health initiatives or migration but they are a matter for other sovereign bodies to choose to sign up to, or indeed to withdraw from. A poor child might grow up and decide to migrate, but it has no a priori right of entry to any country or support from it, legally or morally, beyond that which the people of that country or their ancestors choose to offer individually or via their government.
In short, people can’t really look any further than their parents to thank or blame for their existence, but other people and other countries are free to express and extend their love, compassion and support, if they choose to. Most of us would agree that we should.
Given that we want to help, but still don’t have the resources to help everyone on the planet to live in the standard they’d like, a better question might be: which people should we help first – those that bang loudly on our door, or those in the greatest need?
We love and value those close to us most, but most of us feel some love towards humans everywhere. Few people can watch the migrant caravan coverage without feeling sympathy for the parents trying to get to a better life. Many of those people will be innocent people running away from genuine oppression and danger, hoping to build a better future by working hard and integrating into a new culture. The proportion was estimated recently (Channel 4 News for those who demand sources for every stat they don’t like) at around 11% of the caravan. We know from UK migration from Calais that some will just say they are, advised by activists on exactly what phrases to use when interviewed by immigration officials to get the right boxes ticked. Additionally, those of us who aren’t completely naive (or suffering the amusingly named ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ whereby anything ‘Fake President’ Trump says or does must automatically be wrong even if Obama said or did the same), also accept that a few of those in the caravan are likely to be drug dealers or murderers or rapists or traffickers or other criminals running away from capture and towards new markets to exploit, or even terrorists trying to hide among a crowd. There is abundant evidence that European migrant crowds did conceal some such people, and we’ll never know the exact numbers, but we’re already living with the consequences. The USA would be foolish not to learn from these European mistakes. It really isn’t the simple ‘all saints’ or ‘all criminals’ some media would have us believe. Some may be criminals or terrorists – ‘some’ is a very different concept from ‘all’, and is not actually disproved by pointing the TV camera at a lovely family pushing a pram.
International law defines refugees and asylum seekers and makes it easy to distinguish them from other kinds of migrants, but activist groups and media often conflate these terms to push various political objectives. People fleeing from danger are refugees until they get to the first safe country, often the adjacent one. According to law, they should apply for asylum there, but if they choose to go further, they cease to be refugees and become migrants. The difference is very important. Refugees are fleeing from danger to safety, and are covered by protections afforded to that purpose. Migrants don’t qualify for those special protections and are meant to use legal channels to move to another country. If they choose to use non-legal means to cross borders, they become illegal immigrants, criminals. Sympathy and compassion should extend to all who are less fortunate, but those who are willing to respect the new nation and its laws by going through legal immigration channels should surely solicit more than those who demonstrably aren’t, regardless of how cute some other family’s children look on camera. Law-abiding applicants should always be given a better response, and law-breakers should be sent to the back of the queue.
These are well established attitudes to migration and refugees, but many seek to change them. In our competitive virtue signalling era, a narrative constructed by activists well practiced at misleading people to achieve their aims deliberately conflates genuine refugees and economic migrants to make their open borders policies look like simple humanitarianism. They harness the sympathy everyone feels for refugees fleeing from danger but and routinely mislabel migrants as refugees, hoping to slyly extend refugee rights to migrants, quickly moving on to imply that anyone who doesn’t want to admit everyone lacks basic human decency. Much of the media happily plays along with this deception, pointing cameras at the nice families instead of the much larger number of able young men, with their own presenters frequently referring to migrants as refugees. Such a narrative is deliberately dishonest, little more than self-aggrandizing disingenuous sanctimony. The best policy remains to maintain and protect borders and have well-managed legal immigration polices, offering prioritized help to refugees and extending whatever aid to other countries can be afforded. while recognizing that simple handouts and political interference can be sometimes counter-productive. Most people are nice, but some want to help those who need it most, in the best way. Moral posturing and virtue signalling are not only less effective but highly selfish, aimed at polishing the egos of the sanctimonious rather than the needy.
So, we want to help, but do it sensibly to maximize benefit. Selfishly, we also need some migration, and we already selfishlessly encourage those with the most valuable skills or wealth to migrate from other countries, at their loss (even after they have paid to educate them). Every skilled engineer or doctor we import from a poorer country represents a huge financial outlay being transferred from poor to rich. We need to fix that exploitation too. There is an excellent case for compensation to be paid.
Well-managed migration can and does work well. The UK sometimes feels a little overcrowded, when sitting in a traffic jam or a doctor waiting room, but actually only about 2% of the land is built on, the rest isn’t. It isn’t ‘full’ geographically, it just seems so because of the consequences of poor governance. Given sensible integration and economic policies, competently executed, immigration ought not to be a big problem. The absence of those givens is the main cause of existing problems. So we can use the UK as a benchmark for reasonably tolerable population density even under poor government. The UK still needs migrants with a wide range of skills and since some (mainly old) people emigrate, there is always room for a few more.
Integration is a growing issue, and should be a stronger consideration in future immigration policy. Recent (last 100 years) migrants and their descendants account for around 12% of the UK population, 1 in 8, still a smallish minority. Some struggle to integrate or to find acceptance, some don’t want to, many fit in very well. Older migrations such as the Normans and Vikings have integrated pretty well now. My name suggests some Viking input to my DNA, and ancestry research shows that my family goes back in England at least 500 years. Having migrated to Belfast as a child, and remigrated back 17 years later, I know how it feels to be considered an outsider for a decade or two.
What about the USA, with the migrant ‘caravan’ of a few thousand people on their way to claim asylum? The USA is large, relatively sparsely populated, and very wealthy. Most people in the world can only dream of living at US living standards and some of them are trying to go there. If they succeed, many more will follow. Trump is currently under fire from the left over his policy, but although Trump is certainly rather less eloquent, his policy actually closely echoes Obama’s. Here is a video of Obama talking about illegal immigration in 2005 while he was still a Senator:
Left and right both agreed at least back then that borders should be protected and migrants should be made to use legal channels, presumably for all the same common sense reasons I outlined earlier. What if the borders were completely open, as many are now calling for? Here are a few basic figures:
Before it would get to UK population density, the USA has enough land to house every existing American plus every single one of the 422M South Americans, 42M Central Americans, 411M Middle Easterns, the 105M Philippinos and every African. Land area isn’t a big problem then. For the vast majority in these regions, the average USA standard of living would be a massive upgrade, so imagine if they all suddenly migrated there. The USA economy would suddenly be spread over 2.5Bn instead of 325M. Instead of $60k per capita, it would be $7.8k, putting the USA between Bolivia and Guatemala in the world wealth rankings, well below most of Central and South America (still 40% more than Honduras though). Additionally, almost all of the migrants, 87% of the total population would initially be homeless. All the new homes and other infrastructure would have to be paid for and built, jobs created, workforce trained etc.
Even the most fervent open borders supporter couldn’t pretend they thought this was feasible, so they reject reasoning and focus on emotion, pointing cameras at young families with sweet kids, yearning for better lives. If the borders were open, what then would prevent vast numbers of would-be migrants from succumbing to temptation to better their lives before the inevitable economic dilution made it a worthless trip? Surely opening the borders would result in a huge mass of people wanting to get in while it is still a big upgrade? People in possession of reasoning capability accept that there need to be limits. Left and right, Obama and Trump agree that migration needs to be legal and well managed. Numbers must be restricted to a level that is manageable and sustainable.
So, what should be done about it. What policy principles and behaviors should be adopted. The first must be to stop misuse of language, particularly conflating economic migrants and refugees. Activists and some media do that regularly, but deliberate misrepresentation is ‘fake news’, what we used to call lies.
Second, an honest debate needs to be had on how best to help refugees, whether by offering them residency or by building and resourcing adequate refugee camps, and also regarding how much we can widen legal immigration channels for migrants while sustaining our existing economy and culture. If a refugee wants to immigrate, that really ought to be a separate consideration and handled via immigration channels and rules. Dealing with them separately would immediately solve the problem of people falsely claiming refugee status, because all they would achieve is access to a refugee camp, and would still have to go through immigration channels to proceed further. Such false claims clog the courts and mean it takes far longer for true refugees to have their cases dealt with effectively.
Thirdly, that debate needs to consider that while countries naturally welcome the most economically and culturally valuable immigrants, there is also a good humanitarian case to help some more. Immigration policy should be generous, and paralleled with properly managed international aid.
That debate should always recognize that the rule of law must be maintained, and Obama made that argument very well. It still holds, and Trump agreeing with it does not actually make it invalid. Letting some people break it while expecting others to follow it invites chaos. Borders should be maintained and properly policed and while refugees who can demonstrate refugee status should be directed into refugee channels (which may take some time), others should be firmly turned away if they don’t have permission to cross, and given the information they need to apply via the legal immigration channels. That can be done nicely of course, and a generous country should offer medical attention, food, and transport home, maybe even financial help. Illegal immigration and lying about refugee status should be strongly resisted by detainment, repatriation and sending to the back of the queue, or permanently denying entry to anyone attempting illegal entry. No country wants to increase its population of criminals. Such a policy distinguishes well between legal and illegal, between refugees and migrants, and ensures that the flow into the country matches that which its government thinks is manageable.
The rest is basically ongoing Foreign Policy, and that does differ between different flavors of government. Sadly, how best to deal with problems in other countries is not something the USA is known to be skilled at. It doesn’t have a fantastic track record, even if it usually intends to make things better. Ditto the UK and Europe. Interference often makes things worse in unexpected ways. Handouts often feed corruption and dependence and support oppressive regimes, or liberate money for arms, so they don’t always work well either. Emergencies such as wars or natural catastrophes already have polices and appropriate agencies in place to deal with consequences, as well as many NGOs.
This caravan doesn’t fit neatly. A few can reasonably be directed into other channels, but most must be turned away. That is not heartless. The Mediterranean migration have led to far more deaths than they should because earlier migrants were accepted, encouraging others, and at one point it seemed to be the EU providing a safe pickup almost as soon as a trafficker boat left shore. The Australian approach seemed harsh, but probably saved thousands of lives by deterring others from risking their lives. My own solution to the Mediterranean crisis was:
https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/ and basically suggested making a small island into a large refugee camp where anyone rescued )or captured if they managed to make the full trip) would be taken, with a free trip home once they realized they wouldn’t be transferred to mainland Europe. I still think it is the best approach, and could be replicated by the USA using a large refugee/migrant camp from which the only exit is back to start or a very lengthy wait from the back of the legal migration queue.
My opening questions on the inequity of birth invite another direction of analysis. When people die, they usually leave the bulk of their estates to their descendants, but by then they will also have passed on a great deal of other things, such as their values, some skills, miscellaneous support, and attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Importantly, they will have conveyed citizenship of their country, and that conveys a shared inheritance of the accumulated efforts of the whole of that countries previous inhabitants. That accumulation may be a prosperous, democratic country with reasonable law and order and safety, and relatively low levels of corruption, like the USA or the UK, or it may be a dysfunctional impoverished dictatorship or anything between. While long-term residents are effectively inheriting the accumulated value (and problems) passed down through their ancestors, new immigrants receive all of that for free when they are accepted. It is hard to put an accurate value on this shared social, cultural and financial wealth, but most that try end up with values in the $100,000s. Well-chosen immigrants may bring in value (including their descendants’ contributions) greatly in excess of what they receive. Some may not. Some may even reduce it. Whether a potential immigrant is accepted or not, we should be clear that citizenship is very valuable.
Then analysis starts to get messier. It isn’t just simple inheritance. What about the means by which that happy inherited state was achieved? Is one country attractive purely because of its own efforts or because it exploited others, or some combination? Is another country a hell hole in part because of our external interference, as some would argue for Iraq or Syria? If so, then perhaps there is a case for reparation or compensation, or perhaps favored immigration status for its citizens. We ought not to shirk responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Or is it a hell hole in spite of our interference, as can be argued for some African countries. Is it a hell hole because its people are lazy or corrupt and live in the country they deserve, as is possible I guess, though I can’t think of any examples. Anyway, heredity is a complex issue, as is privilege, its twin sister. I did write a lengthy blog on privilege (and cultural appropriation). I probably believe much the same as you but in the hostile competitive offence-taking social media environment of today, it remains a draft.
Sorry it took so many words, but there is so much nonsense being spoken, it takes a lot of words to remind of what mostly used to be common sense. The right policy now is basically the same as it was decades ago. Noisy activism doesn’t change that.