Immigration Orders, Moralizing, and Institutions

Writing an executive order, which is immediately legally challenged, having to make exceptions, and throwing your federal bureaucrats into confusion, can’t be a good strategy. Even for a hard first bargain. I’ve rationalized lots of Trump’s choices in the past, but I’m also concerned that people are viewing him as a larger-than-life strategic genius. Rather than a 70 year old CEO who has a set of strategic heuristic tools that he is really good at using. The recent executive order is a bad idea, since it damages our credibility in making immigration promises. My general view on institutional changes is that invalidating past choices by your institution can irreparably damage future credibility. If the US made immigration promises to residents under a past regime, we should honor those even if the rules change for future applicants. This way you can try to swerve an institution in a new direction, and also believe the choices you make will be respected by the next administration. It’s how a good institution should work in a regime-switching democracy.

On the other hand, the progressive moralizing on the humanitarian evils of the executive order doesn’t make too much sense. They don’t focus on the actual dangerous parts of the policy. Each country on the list is either a failed state or not an ally of the US. The thing is, we don’t take many immigrants from these countries as it stands today. For Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, the US issued permanent residence to 21,107, 13,114, 3,840, 6,796, 127, 734, ad 3,194. As far as refugees, the US takes a shockingly low amount for how up in arms about refugees progressives act. The US took a total of about 70,000 refuges in 2015.

The difficult part to consider in all of this is how small these magnitudes are. What do we compare them to? is there a rational benchmark? Currently the suffering in the world is much, much higher than most people meaningfully consider. Not to mention the banal ways the US can contribute to suffering across the world. Nec Pluribus Impar shared a link on this topic showing that Madeleine Albright is very upset about Trump’s new measure. During her tenure she helped impose sanctions on the Iraqi government that killed a few kids. Well, more than a few, but that stuff is hard to estimate. Let’s say 1000 kids, you know, and be methodologically conservative.

That’s a tough choice to make, isn’t it? At the time Saddam Hussein was accused, correctly, of doing all sorts of horrible things to his own people and the Kurds. In order to pressure his government was it the rational or correct choice to place sanctions that would result in thousands of kids dying from lack of easily preventable death and disease? Was it obvious? Would you make a choice like that lightly?  After all, Madeleine Albright is still a strong figure for progressive values. Sure, not every strategy worked out, and sometimes people die, but it is all done with the goal of creating a much better world.

Or here is another way to think about it, the US donated about $43bn to global ad in 2015. Is that a good amount? Well, current cost per life saved as calculated by Effective Altruist nerds, for the most effective causes, range at about $2,000-$4,000, when aiming at causes such as malaria. It’s not so surprising, the amount of suffering from those in poverty is profound, and most of us don’t donate enough. Doesn’t something seem off to you though? The reality is we took only a few thousand Syrian refugees in 2015, while about 418 thousand ‘global citizens’ died from malaria in that same year?

To be fair, I think comparing any policy to lives saved by EA donations as a benchmark can miss important signals that predict the future. If this is the case though, why wasn’t there this level of feverish moral outrage over the 21,417 deported undocumented residents from El Salvador sent back in 2015? Hillary Clinton supported the deportations of El Salvadorian child refugees. The kids are usually sent on journeys, often alone, to the US, due to being picked to join a gang. At which point you either join, or are killed. There were immigrant activist groups petitioning to have them reclassified as refugees, but the politicians at the time knew that you can’t let everyone in always. That’s not a real policy that a country can sustain. And if you do, you need non-partisan backing from the population, because it’s expensive and hard to justify when parts of the country are rotting, with drug epidemics killing off our working poor. The El Salvadorian immigration issue seemed more like the type of event where you listen to the stories on NPR, think “how horrible, how tragic,” then get out of your car and go to work.

It’s not that hard to imagine a counterfactual-world where Clinton was considered the ‘far right’ candidate, with a even more progressive opponent stoking massive outrage at her willingness to send children back to a country where murderous gangs will literally kill them. As a rule I don’t use counterfactual-world imaginations as evidence, since it’s a weird pseudo-empirical simulation our brains run. Still, it’s a fun theoretical exercise to at least play around with and see if it fits.

This is where it gets hard to argue why Trump detaining a few hundred green card holders temporarily was so awful, because the grim reality is that sending those kids back home to die was acceptable. It was an institutional practice, codified in law, and in line with immigration expectations. As a result our institutions remained stable, and we all went about our normal lives, somewhat oblivious to El Salvador, except for maybe feeling sad when we listen to NPR. Whereas damaging the credibility of what it means to have the right to live and travel in the US is jarring, and the matching rhetoric is an insult to our relationships with these governments.

All policies embed a signal that we can use to understand what future policies might look like, and how they will evolve over time. In that case does this executive order represent a final departure between progressive immigration values, and a xenophobic nightmare? Or is it a small increment on a scale, where the bounds are between the US spending 20% of its money to create refugee safe zones in the mainland, bringing and saving tens of millions of the suffering world poor, and shutting our borders entirely?

If each side was willing to make compromises on immigration reform, they might actually be able to discuss what is sacred, and what is up for debate. Right now it seems that on the progressive side everything is sacred, and the Trump side is carelessly damaging serious institutional credibility by not treading carefully. That’s probably the goal, since Bannon wants to ‘destroy the establishment.’

The whole thing is a mess.




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