Some Resources to Overcoming the Novice-Expert Problem in Immigration


One theme of this blog (see hereand here) has been that discussion about immigration in political and media circles is often fueled by false or dubious claims. A recent case in point is the new Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee Jeff Sessions’ Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority which is riddled with false claims about the economic effects of immigration and immigration enforcement. 
Sometimes people who make errors about immigration have little interest in understanding it. Senator Sessions’ report is supported almost entirely by references to newspaper articles (including op-ed pieces), Republican party policy documents, and the ubiquitous citation of a “study” by the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies (see my previous blog post). It is hard to believe that Sessions had a serious interest in capturing the reality of immigration.
Nonetheless, there are many people who have opinions about immigration that are also interested in getting the facts – as far as we know them – right. A major problem in any democracy is the “expert-novice” problem. In any complex society, we need a division of cognitive labor: nobody can know everything, so we need to trust specialists to inform us about topics we don’t have time to investigate in depth. The problem is that without knowing a fair bit about a topic, it is hard to discriminate between genuine experts and pretenders. In a field like immigration, many people pretend to be experts to influence public policy, compounding the danger.
With this problem in mind, here are some reliable resources for people with an interest in learning more about migration. I have limited myself to books in the social sciences that are accessible to the general reader and that provide a general overview of immigration (no book can cover all of the topics, but these one cover many major ones). All these books have extensive references to the more specialized literature. Also, the books I have chosen are within the mainstream so that broad minded people with different views should benefit from reading them carefully.
Stephen Castles, Hein De Haas, and Mark J. Miller’s Age of Migration  is the closest there is to a textbook on migration. It is the place to start for an overview of the field and its extensive bibliography is invaluable.

Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron, and Meera Balarajan’s Exceptional People is another excellent introduction to migration. It does not range as widely as The Age of Migration and has a bias toward more open borders. Nonetheless, the authors are experts in the field and people who disagree with their conclusions will benefit from considering their evidence and arguments. 

For what political scientists have written about the causes of how states regulate immigration, James Hampshire’s Politics of Immigration: Contradictions of the Liberal State is the best place to start. (Here’s my short reviewof Hampshire’s book.) 

Joseph Carens’ Ethics of Immigration is a more controversial choice since it is a work of moral and political philosophy with radical implications for policy makers. Carens is most famous for his advocacy of open borders. However, most of the chapters assume that states have a right to regulate immigration. This allows Carens to engage people who reject open borders on issues such as naturalization, integration, irregular migration, and admissions by drawing on principles that most people in Western democracies can accept. Many people will disagree with Carens’ moral vision of immigration, but by reading him they should have a better idea of what they think and of the principles that support their position.

The final resource is the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank, with hundreds of high quality reports analyzing immigration policy and data from around the world. Its coverage is usually fair and even-handed and it is often the best place to go for a quick overview of an issue or a topic.

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