Immigration and Democracy


It is easy for someone who regularly follows the news on immigration to lose one’s faith in humanity’s basic decency. It is not just the stories about people dying in the Mediterranean, imprisoned in the indefinite limbo of refugee camps or detention facilities, or wrenched from their families. In some ways, the public comments are worse. People who feel compelled to add their opinion to the bottom of news on immigration usually offer little insight, a great deal of misinformation, and too much hate. It is hard to comprehend the rage against people seeking a better life, sometimes by fleeing gang violence or civil war. In more optimistic moments, I believe that if more people understood how the enforcement of border controls hurts, maims, and dehumanizes, their attitudes toward immigrants would soften.
As I’ve been reflecting on the role of democracy in immigration policy, I’ve been reading David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook Martin’s important Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas. FitzGerald and Cook Martin dispel a reassuring myth among immigrant theorists that liberal democracy and racism are fundamentally at odds. On one influential account by Gary Freeman, the costs and benefits of immigration policy on immigrant and employer interest groups are concentrated, whereas the costs and benefits on the general public – which is often mildly anti-immigration – are diffuse. Given that immigration policy is largely formed by interest groups and representatives behind closed doors, this results in expansionary immigration policies, including the decline of ethnic selection policies that plagued settler societies until recently (e.g., the US for the most part abandoned national quotas in 1965 and date given for the end of the White Australia Policy is usually 1973).
A more reassuring account for political philosophers, mostly prominently associated with Christian Joppke, is that rights become embedded in liberal societies. Rights tend to be expansive (e.g., immigration activists in the United States often see their movement as connected to the civil rights movement) and the judicial branch of government takes an active role in enforcing them, sometimes against public opinion or government legislation.
In contrast to Freeman and Joppke, FitzGerald and Cook Martin survey the history of immigration policy in much of the Americas and find that much of the reason for the decline of racist immigration policies lies in international relations rather than in liberal democracy. The authoritarian governments of Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Mexico deracialized their immigration policy significantly before the United States or Canada.
For a political philosophy, what this literature seems to indicate is that ethics progress, at least with regard to immigration, is largely a result of power and interest instead of ideas such as human equality and anti-racism. Certain institutional structures mitigate against at least explicitly racist policies. For Freeman, interest group politics promote change. For FitzGerald and Cook Martin, it is a system of sovereign states that views discrimination against its members as nationally humiliating. For Joppke universal rights play a major role.
What role does democracy, understood as majority rule, play in promoting a progressive immigration policy? In many cases, democracy is part of the problem. California’s Proposition 187 that sought to deny unauthorized migrants public benefits including any health care services or education for children is a particular egregious example. Recently, in Oregon voters vetoed Senate Bill 833 that would have allowed people who could not prove their legal status in the United States to obtain drivers’ cards.
For hundreds of years, democracy has had a bad reputation. Plato compared democracy to a ship in which the sailors completely fail to understand that any genuine sea-captain has to study the yearly cycle, the seasons, the heavens, the starts and winds, and everything relevant to the job, if he’s to be properly equipped to hold a position of authority in a ship. In fact, they think it’s impossible to study and acquire expertise at how to steer a ship (leaving aside the question of whether or not people want you to) and at the same tie be a good captain. (488a)
The masses are not only ignorant and ruled by their passions, on Plato’s account, but they choose leaders who flatter their ignorance, despising those with knowledge and wisdom. Democracy leads to dissent, conflict, and instability, ultimately degenerating into tyranny.
Plato’s concerns are particular apt when applied to public opinion on immigration. A recent poll in The Guardian shows that people around the world grossly exaggerate the levels of immigration. The American Immigration Council has a useful list of immigration myths here, ranging from the claim that immigrants absorbed a larger share of benefits to that suggestion that they refuse to learn English. Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter suggested that public opinion diverges systematically from the opinion of experts in many topics, including immigration: economists tend to see immigration as fiscally positive (with a few qualifications about how benefits and burdens can be unevenly distributed), whereas the public filters immigration through an anti-foreign bias. Anti-immigrant movements employ a series of framesthat allows them to condemn immigration without engaging with research.
I find all of this depressing. First, I want to believe that social change occurs through the spread of moral ideas as opposed to competition for power. Immigration policy should be guided by fundamental moral principles such as we should not discriminate against people because of their race or ethnicity or that we should not adopt policies that causes severe harms without a compelling reason (such as preventing a greater harm).
Second, I dislike elitist accounts of democracy that insist that the best we can hope for is well-meaning elites who are subject to periodic recall by voters (this is essentially Weber and Schumpeter’s account of democracy). As I wrote in my previous blog post, President Obama’s executive action is laudable, but it’s still unfortunate that progress could only be made by an executive order. One of the problems with elitist accounts of democracy is elites are often not on the side of the people (e.g., Obama expanded Secure Communities and earned the label “Deporter in Chief” from Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza).
The many immigration rights movements around the world give me hope. Though I have some doubts about the direct effects of activists and education, Adrian Carrasquillo’s claim that the immigrant rights movement deserves the credit for Obama’s executive action rings true to me. Sometimes it is possible to shift popular opinion for the better. Misinformation, confusion, and indifference are more common than hate.
I also have hope for more deliberative modes of democracy, for example, James Fishkin’s deliberative polling suggests some successin educating people on immigration and moving them to more a generous and less restrictive position. This suggests that changing how the public affects immigration policy may involve changing the democratic system at a more fundamental level.

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