Arguing about the Immigration Ban

Scott Adams (yes, that Scott Adams) has a post up where he tries to show how irrational the debate on immigration has gotten. I think he succeeds for the most part, but he can’t help putting his finger on a scale a bit to tilt it into the anti-immigration column.

I don’t actually mind that too much in this case. The gatekeepers of public discourse seem to have decided that there is Nothing Good about President Trump’s recent immigration order. They may be right, but the effect of this is that public attention is so heavily weighted toward dissenters that I start to worry we’re not discussing this rationally.

Here’s what Scott Adams considers a "rational and honest opinion" in immigration:

  • I favor immigration of X type, and…
  • I understand that the likely cost in American lives will range between zero and several thousand dead and wounded over the next ten years. On top of that, I recognize that the families of the victims are destroyed at the same time, so perhaps 100,000 people will be adversely affected by looser immigration of the type I favor. I accept that risk to maintain the rights of non-Americans to immigrate here and to preserve the national character of the United States as a nation of immigrants. I also think it makes it easier to combat terrorism because it makes us look like less of an enemy to Islam.

That strikes me as a bit dishonest for its omissions.

Let’s grant his figure of "100,000 people adversely affected by looser immigration" in the next 10 years. Keep in mind that this is the upper end of his range. So, we’re talking about 1000 "adversely affected" per annum tops.

What’s dishonest about this is that it doesn’t take into account anyone who may be positively affected by immigration.

Take an analogy with automobiles. We know that cars "adversely affect" a lot more people than immigrants. There were about 35,000 highway deaths in 2015, for example. We seem to be allowed to multiply this by 10-ish to account for people "adversely affected," so that’s a guaranteed 300k+/yr adversely affected by car driving. Clearly, we should get rid of it.

But of course we shouldn’t, because driving cars also has a lot of positive effects. Like, WAY more positive effects than adverse effects. That’s true even if we confine ourselves to just the question of lives saved vs. lives lost. I mean, the existence of ambulances alone makes up the difference, to say nothing of the food distribution system! But in the case of cars, people get that – because they depend on cars every day for their livelihood.

The benefits of immigration are harder to see, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Any killings by an immigrant have to be balanced against them. In terms of saving lives, well – for a certain class of refugee that benefit is quite direct. But there’s an indirect benefit in the form of immigrants who bring economic skills. These people take jobs here and benefit the economy that keeps us all clothed and fed. Given the stricter requirements placed on entrants from the list of currently-banned nations, immigrants from these places are ironically more likely to bring such benefits (because it was harder for them to qualify for entry in the first place – they faced a harsher filter).

Probably not nearly as much as cars do, though, and this is where I get off the typical libertarian "open borders" bus. In sufficent numbers, immigration can have really adverse effects on the whole character of a nation. Large groups of immigrants import their culture, and dealing with alien cultures is always more difficult and expensive than dealing with your own. More to the point, this new culture starts to affect the native culture, and this isn’t always positive. I’m in the camp that thinks some cultures are better than others, but even if you prefer not to judge cultures in a ranked way, you can probably agree that there might be such a thing as cultural integrity that is damaged when cultures blend, if for no other reason than it increases uncertainty among the members of the host culture about what the proper way to act around people is. Mixng is sometimes good, but often it is not.

Any discussion of immigration laws needs to take place in that context, and so yes, it’s quite frustrating that one side of this debate can only ever cry "racism!" and the other side can only ever cry "terrorism!" A rational debate should start from the agreement that we’re not realistically talking about either an absolute ban on immigration nor thowing open the borders. Not even President Trump’s so-called "muslim ban" is a real ban. It’s a temporary freeze on immigration from a list of countries that all happen to be islamic, but which do not represent the entirety of the muslim world by a long shot. So let’s stop with the silliness.

You’re pro-immigration? Fine. How many? What kind? What are your honest estimates of the costs and benefits? What sort of vetting process is involved? Immigration policy is hard – and it’s about a lot more than just PR in muslim countries. In fact, if there’s one thing that needs to change in this debate I think it’s that we need to just stop talking about how this or that immigration policy affects our national image. The people you claim to be trying to win a PR war with don’t honestly care what our immigration policies are. They simply dislike us. Sure, they’re happy to use immigration policy as a wedge issue if they can, but if they can’t they’ll find something else. The Arab Muslim world is angry because life there sucks, and it can’t get its shit together, and it knows that this is mostly homegrown, however much we may have additionally made it all worse. I think it’s really, really rich that the same people who can instantly analogize any attempt to overplay the danger from foreign enemies with Hitler when President Trump is doing it somehow can’t imagine that terrorists as just as capable of inventing enemies for recruitment purposes as anyone. If we wanted to take this analogy where it really goes, it’s a bit like saying that Jews could’ve placated the Nazis by just getting super patriotic in public – you know to remove any reason for demonizing them. I think we all have a good idea just how effective that would’ve been. If you’re basing your immigration policy on what terrorists think to any significant degree, you’re a chump. No one actually picked up a gun and joined ISIS because his visa expired.

All that said, I think the President’s recent executive order is wrong. For one thing, it’s probably unconstitutional (though, for my money, Judge Robart’s order suspending it is not much better, jurisprudentially speaking). For another, it doesn’t pass any prima facie cost-benefit analysis I can think of. All evidence is that our system for filtering out dangerous travellers from the countries in question works pretty well for the most part. I’m not opposed, in principle, to temporary suspensions of travel from various countries, but only if there’s reason to believe there’s a heightened danger. No one has given any such reason for the current suspension. Really, it’s just so much political theater, a thing we need a lot less of.

Which is the point. Everyone needs to calm down and let the court system work here. Stop getting hysterical about things the system is designed to handle. It’s worth having a national discussion about immigration that really weights costs and benefits. Scott Adams is doing beter than most people I see online, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear, and I wasn’t that impressed with his jump. The real arguments in favor of immigration are humanitarian and economic, as Adams well knows. If he’d rather you talk about promoting our brand with islamic terrorists, then probably because he’s in favor of President Trump’s executive order and would rather not say so.

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