A Resident’s Bill of Rights: Fixing Immigration While Protecting Communities Reply

This is probably the best and most comprehensive set of proposals for immigration reform that I have seen to date in the sense of upholding humanitarian values, while giving due consideration to everyone’s interests.

By Nathan Smith

My fundamental convictions have not changed: I support open borders. And yet one can’t tilt at windmills too long without feeling a sense of futility and even foolishness. We may have had an impact. We have been noticed in high places, a little. But of course there is no prospect of open borders being adopted as official policy in any of the world’s developed countries anytime soon. Meanwhile, there is room for reasonable hope that immigration policy will move quite a ways in the right direction, and for reasonable fear that it will move far in the wrong direction, in the coming years, and it’s far from clear that advocating open borders is the best way to help accomplish the former, or avoid the latter. To advocate open borders, assuming, as seems likely, that that aim cannot be achieved for decades at least, can only help indirectly, e.g., by expanding the “Overton window,” and might plausibly hurt, by provoking a restrictionist reaction against an open-borders bogeyman. For those idealists who really want to know what justice demands, we’ve explained that. I’d be happy to explain it again, debate it, whatever. But the value of refining the case for open borders still further seems doubtful until there’s evidence that people exist who really want to do the right thing, have read what has been argued so far, and are still unconvinced. My impression is that among people with a thorough exposure to the public case for open borders, as it has been made here and elsewhere, the insufficiency of the arguments offered is not a very important factor in any failure to persuade. Some of the unconvinced just aren’t very smart, while more aren’t good enough to do the right thing when they start to see it, so they bluster and stonewall and scoff.

So in this post, I’m going to attempt something a bit different, involving an unaccustomed degree of compromise. I’m going to lay out a policy platform that, while falling well short of open borders, lies, I think, at the radical end of what might actually find a coalition to carry it through to success in the United States in the near future. It doesn’t institute open borders. If passed, deportations would still occur, and billions who would benefit from immigrating would be excluded from the territory of the United States permanently from birth. Indeed, the centerpiece of this proposed policy, the Residents’ Bill of Rights, wouldn’t increase at all the number of people enjoying a definite legal right of residence, much less a path to citizenship. But it would ensure that all those residing in the United States would be treated a little more justly. It would make it harder to backslide into a harsh enforcement regime or a reduction of immigrant numbers. It would give the foreign born, however they got there, a certain dignity and a certain security. It would cause many acts of wickedness, many violations of fundamental human rights, to cease. It would give conscientious Americans the right to be substantially less ashamed of the way their government treats immigrants. At the same time, by empowering immigration skeptics to act locally instead of nationally, it would appease some of their more legitimate fears. It would not institute open borders, but I believe it would help to prepare the way.


How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity? 3

This article by Nathan Smith is the best analysis of the immigration issue that I have seen to date in terms of nuance, honesty, and depth. He argues that there would be both tremendous benefits and tremendous costs if the borders of the United States were to be opened completely (where moving to the USA from another country would be no different than moving from California to Texas or from Virginia to Maryland). Smith summarizes his analysis as follows:

In short, I think the most wild-eyed predictions of the open borders optimists will come true, and to spare, but I think a lot of the forebodings of the grimmest open border pessimists will also prove more than justified.

He ultimately comes down on the side of open borders, primarily on the grounds that the Global South would be the net winners on the economic level. See a critique of Smith’s position by Robert Montenegro here.

By Nathan Smith


A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “The American Polity Can Endure and Flourish Under Open Borders.” I would not write that post today. The American polity might endure and flourish under open borders, but I wouldn’t claim that confidently. What changed my mind? A greater familiarity with the theoretical models that are the basis for “double world GDP” as a claim about the global economic impact of open borders, especially my own. It turns out that these estimates depend on billions of people migrating internationally under open borders. Previously, my vague and tentative expectations about how much migration would occur under open borders were akin to Gallup poll estimates suggesting that 150 million or so would like to migrate to the USA. Others may disagree, but I was fairly confident at the time that the US polity was robust enough to absorb 150-200 million immigrants (over, say, a couple of decades) and retain its basic political character and structure. I do not think the US polity is robust enough to absorb 1 billion immigrants (even, say, over the course of fifty years) and retain its basic political character and structure.