Tag: immigration

FAIR’s Confused Criticism of Our Immigration Crime Research

Spencer Raley at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) recently wrote a criticism of a recent Cato brief that estimates illegal immigrant incarceration rates in the United States.  Much of Raley’s critique is perplexing as following his methodology advice would not only lead to an erroneous result but it would reduce illegal immigrant incarceration rates – which is the opposite result that he and his organization desire.  Raley’s points are quoted below, my responses follow.

The authors rely on faulty, voluntary data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).  Even mainstream organizations like Pew Research acknowledge that many illegal aliens are slow to volunteer information about themselves to the federal government.  That’s why reputable research organizations assume a certain undercount when relying on ACS data.  Hesitation to self-report personal information is only increased when surveys include questions about criminal history. So, from the start, the primary source used in this study will yield an undercount of incarcerated illegal aliens because it relies on self-reported data.

The responses of prisoners are recorded by Census officials who interview a sample under the supervision of prison officials who also supply information like immigration status and country of birth.  Although it’s easy for people outside of prison to avoid a Census official, it’s quite difficult for a prisoner to do so if he or she has been selected for an interview by the ACS.  Since the ACS doesn’t ask about the respondent’s criminal histories, Raley’s criticism here is perplexing.  If anything, using the ACS would yield an undercount of the illegal immigrant population – which would increase the illegal immigrant incarceration rate in our brief. 

They also misstate illegal alien crime data from Texas. The authors sliced and diced data from Texas’ Department of Public Safety, claiming that the original data offered by the state was far too high, and that illegal aliens in Texas are half as likely to be incarcerated as U.S. citizens. The real numbers, however, tell a different story. Based on data compiled between June 2011 and February 2019, 25,000 illegal aliens are booked into Texas state and local jails annually, on average.

Raley makes several errors in summarizing my Texas crime research.  First, I didn’t “slice and dice” any data from Texas.  I took the numbers released by the Texas Department of Public Safety, divided them by the relevant subpopulation of Texas in 2015, and then multiplied the result by 100,000 to get a criminal conviction rate.  Second, I didn’t compare illegal immigrants to U.S. citizens.  I compared illegal immigrants to native-born Americans and legal immigrants separately.  Third, my Texas study did not analyze incarceration rates.  My Texas study looked at criminal conviction rates.  Incarceration rates and criminal conviction rates are different. 

Raley’s other criticisms are answered by reading the methodology section of our brief.  This is the most relevant section here which explains why we looked at the 18-54 population:

Another limitation of the ACS data is that not all inmates in group quarters are in correctional facilities. Although most inmates in the public-use microdata version of the ACS are in correctional facilities, the data also include those in mental health and elderly care institutions, as well as those in institutions for people with disabilities. These inclusions add ambiguity to our findings about the illegal immigrant population but not about the immigrant population as a whole, because the ACS releases macrodemographic snapshots of inmates in correctional facilities, which allows us to check our work.

The ambiguity in illegal immigrant incarceration rates mentioned above prompted us to narrow the age range to those who are ages 18-54. This age range excludes most inmates in mental health and retirement facilities. Few prisoners are under age 18, many in mental health facilities are juveniles, and many of those over age 54 are in elderly care institutions. Additionally, few illegal immigrants are elderly, whereas those in elderly care institutions are typically over age 54. As a result, narrowing the age range does not exclude many individuals from our analysis. We are more confident that our methods do not cut out many prisoners because winnowing the 18-54 age range reduces their numbers to about 4.5 percent above that of the ACS snapshot. Natives in our results include both those born in the United States and those born abroad to American parents.

 

Immigration’s Popularity Is Rising Thanks to Trump

I recently reviewed Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.  My review is critical, but there is one major point on immigration that Salam gets right elsewhere: President Donald Trump will undermine the cause of immigration restriction.  Trump’s ugly rhetoric from the beginning, his administration’s casual and unnecessary cruelty in the case of child separations, his pandering with the Muslim travel ban, and his consistent call for a wall that will not slow down the flow of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who turn themselves in to Border Patrol, are all potentially undermining immigration restriction.  Immigration is getting more popular.

Gallup has been asking the same question on immigration since 1965:

Thinking now about immigrants – that is, people who come from other countries to live here in the United States, in your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?

Since Trump was elected in 2016, the percentage of Americans who wanted increased immigration has risen by 9 percentage points from 21 percent to 30 percent (Figure 1).  Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who want less immigration has fallen from 38 percent to 31 percent.  In other words, the difference between those who want to increase immigration and those who want to decrease it currently lies within the statistical margin of error.  The percentage of those who want to keep immigration at the present level has stayed constant over that time.  The last time support for increased immigration climbed that much in so short a time was between 2011 and 2014, during a debate over a major reform bill in Congress.  Although the pro-reform side did not convince Congress to liberalize immigration law, they may have changed the minds of many Americans.

The current and gradual shift toward the pro-immigration opinion is especially large compared to 1993 when only 6 percent of Americans wanted to increase immigration and 65 percent wanted to decrease it.  Since then, the percentage of Americans who want more legal immigration has increased 5-fold while the percentage of those who want to cut immigration has more than halved. 

Figure 1

One criticism of the above Gallup question is that it asks about all immigration, which also includes illegal immigration.  Anecdotally, many people tell me that the question is bad because it doesn’t specify legal immigration and that support for legal immigration is much higher.  Gallup asked the same question about LEGAL immigration in 2018 and the results were barely different from the ALL immigration question (Table 1).  Fewer people support decreasing legal immigration and more support increasing it, but the difference is minor.  Bottom line: Most people who read the “all immigration” question understand that it includes “legal immigrants” and isn’t limited to just illegal immigrants.  The group of Americans who is “very opposed to illegal immigration and very supportive of legal immigration” is likely small.    

Table 1

Gallup has a suggestive and intermittently asked poll where they attempt to gauge the public perception of the threat that illegal immigrants pose.  In 2019, 47 percent said that it was “critical” (the highest threat level), but that is below the 50 percent who rated it as “critical” in 2004.  Looking at the two Gallup poll results, some of the people who think that illegal entry is a critical threat do not want to cut immigration.  This has potentially important implications for whether the perception of chaos is a driver of immigration opinion.

Immigration and Civil War - Should You Be Worried?

Some modern immigration restrictionists are arguing that immigration will cause a civil war in the United States or other countries unless it is curtailed or radically altered. Reihan Salam’s recent book Melting Pot or Civil War? is the most glaring example. In addition to the title, he points to immigration being a problem in and of itself that also increases the severity of other issues dividing American society. The result could be a civil war. Salam writes that “[t]he divisions that define this moment in American history are not yet as worrisome as those that led to the Civil War or the bloody battles putting workers against industrialists at the dawn of the last century … [n]evertheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that our luck might soon run out.”  

David Frum hints at the possibility of a racialized civil war by arguing that young white voters are also worried about immigrants bringing demographic changes, leading to the rise (again) of nationalist political parties in Europe that are running on platforms to restrict immigration. The problems of immigration are apparently so well-known that even countries that are not the destinations for immigrants, such as Hungary and Poland, are turning to nationalist politicians – sometimes. The notion of a racialized civil war caused by immigrants or as a reaction to them has even entered popular culture. Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, which is about a Muslim political party winning a presidential election in France in the near future and pursuing policies to turn that nation into an Islamic theocracy, includes conversations between characters about a civil war in France. 

But could immigration cause a civil war? Since it’s been raised so often, I think it’s an important issue to address. Much of my research over the last several years is about how immigrants affect the economic and political institutions of the countries where they settle, finding positive or null effects. But if immigrants did cause civil wars, which are usually the deadliest types of wars, then that would be a very large cost that we’d need to consider. 

Fortunately, there is a large set of peer-reviewed literature on the causes of civil wars that should diminish the fears of immigration restrictionists who think the United States or other Western countries could sink into racialized civil wars due to immigration. According to a wonderful review in the Journal of Economic Literature by Christopher Blattman and Edward Miguel, civil wars are more likely to occur in countries that are poor, are subject to negative income shocks, have weak state institutions, have sparsely populated peripheral regions, and possess mountains. Modern developed countries do not possess most of those features. 

Civil wars likely have causes on both the micro level and on the macro level. On the micro level, a theoretical multiplayer game model developed by Joan Esteban and Debraj Ray where each player has imperfect information about the costs of conflict shows that Pareto-improving social decision making becomes impossible and conflict is certain to ensue with four or more players. Based on additional research by Ray (cited here), conflict may be unavoidable even with enforceable contracts between coalitions. Thus, in a situation where society divides along multiple lines – by geography, religion, race, ethnicity, or economic class – it may be impossible for the government to arrange a set of transfers or policies that prevent conflicts among all divisions simultaneously. If immigration increases the number of divisions in society, then it is theoretically possible that it would increase the chance of civil war according to these models.

On the macro level, a country’s degree of ethnic fractionalization reduces the chance of civil war, income inequality has no effect, and democratic government is not a significant predictor of conflict risk conditional on the existence of poverty, negative income shocks, weak state institutions, sparsely populated peripheral regions, or mountains. The finding that more ethnic fractionalization does not lead to civil war seems counter-intuitive, but that’s due to observer bias.  Economist Paul Collier observed that “[c]onflicts in ethnically diverse countries may be ethnically patterned without being ethnically caused. International media coverage of civil wars often focuses on history and ethnicity because rebel leaders adopt this sort of discourse.  Grievances are to a rebel organization what image is to a business. The rebel group needs to stimulate a sense of collective grievance to build cohesion in its army and to attract funding from its diaspora living in rich countries.” 

Furthermore, republican institutions reduce the chance of civil war as they help to enforce intertemporal commitments and lower transaction costs. As a result, immigrants would be more likely to cause a civil war if they weakened republican political institutions, but there is no evidence of that, no evidence that democratic political institutions attract immigrants (independent of other factors), and plenty of evidence that immigrants move between countries with similar levels of democracy.

The exception to this is that refugee flows increase the chance of civil wars under very specific circumstances that do not exist in developed countries. From 1951 through 2001, Salehyan and Gleditsch found that the baseline chance of a country fighting a civil war if there were no refugees present and no civil war in a neighboring country was about 3.5 percent per year. That percentage rose to 4.5 percent per year if the ratio of refugees to the population goes up to the global average. A similar increase in refugees combined with a civil war in a neighboring country further increased the annual chance of having a civil war to 6.2 percent. From zero refugees and no neighboring civil war to an average number of refugees and a neighboring civil war, the chance of having a civil war increased by 2.7 percentage points or 77 percent. Stronger democratic governments and more interregional trade diminish the chance of civil war even in the presence of civil war in a neighboring country and refugee flows who are members of cross-border ethnic groupsAll of the civil wars during the 1951 through 2001 period that Salehyan and Gledistch considered occurred in poor countries with weak governing institutions. 

Since a civil war has never been caused by immigrants in a developed country and refugee flows only increase the chance of civil war under very specific circumstances in developing countries from 1951 through 2001, immigration restrictionists should feel relieved. On the other hand, the extreme downside risk of electing nationalist governments in the developed world is very high. The extreme downside risk of civil war caused by refugee or immigrant inflows into a developed country has historically been zero. Both or either of these findings could change in the future and there is a possibility that immigration could lead to the election of nationalists, but nationalism is the far greater threat for those concerned about civil war or other radical shifts that could damage our civilization.  In either case, managing the nationalist reaction or immigration seems easier and more likely to succeed than acceding to their policy demands before they are elected.

New Immigrants Are More Culturally Different than They Used to Be

Native-born American concerns about immigration are primarily about how immigration will affect the culture of the country as a whole and, to a lesser extent, how the newcomers will affect the economy.  One’s personal economic situation is not a major factor.  It’s reasonable to assume that the degree of cultural difference between native-born Americans and new immigrants affects the degree of cultural concern.  Thus, Americans would likely be less concerned over immigrants from Canada or Singapore than they would be over immigrants from Egypt or Azerbaijan. 

A large team of psychologists recently created an index of the cultural distance of people from numerous countries around the world relative to the United States.  The index is constructed from responses to the World Values Survey as well as linguistic and geographical distances.  Their index includes numerous different psychological facts such as individualism, power distance, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation, indulgence, harmony, mastery, embeddedness, hierarchy, egalitarian, autonomy, tolerance for deviant behavior, norm enforcement, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, creativity, altruism, and obedience.  These are all explained in more detail in the paper.

Their paper has an index where lower numbers indicate a culture more similar to that of the United States while a higher number indicates a culture more distant from that of the United States.  As some extreme examples, Canada’s cultural distance score is 0.025 and Egypt’s is 0.24. 

Using the cultural distance index, I calculated the cultural distance of the stock of immigrants in the United States in 2015 from native-born Americans.  I then compared the cultural distance of the stock to the cultural distance of the flow of immigrants who arrived in 2012-2015.  The immigration figures come from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the U.S. Census Bureau.  If the stock of immigrants in 2015 was more culturally similar to native-born Americans than the flow, then the recent flow is more culturally distinct.  If the stock of immigrants in 2015 was more culturally different from native-born Americans than the flow, then the recent flow is less culturally distinct. 

Table 1 shows the results.  The immigrant flow in 2012-2015 is more culturally different from native-born Americans than the stock of immigrants was in 2015.  In other words, today’s newest immigrants are more different than those from the relatively recent past.  Relative to the stock, the cultural distinctiveness of the flow in 2012-2015 was greater by about one-fourth of a standard deviation.  In other words, the stock of American immigrants in 2015 was very culturally similar to people from Trinidad and Tobago (0.099) while the flow of new immigrants who arrived from 2012-2015 more similar to Romanians (0.11).

Table 1

Cultural Distance of Immigrants Relative to Native-Born Americans

  Cultural Distance
Immigrant Stock 0.10
Immigrant Flow 0.11

Sources: WEIRD Index, ASEC, and author’s calculations.

There are a few problems with my above calculations.  First, those who choose to move here are likely more similar to Americans than those who do not.  There is obviously some difference in cultural values inside of a country as the average person does not choose to emigrate to the United States.  Second, American immigration laws likely select immigrants with similar cultural values through various means such as favoring the family members of Americans and those hired by American firms.  It’s reasonable to assume that foreigners who marry Americans and who are hired by American firms are more culturally similar than the average person from those countries.  Third, the cultural distance index only covers about two-thirds of the immigrant population in the United States.  It is possible that countries not on the list could shift the score significantly in either direction.

New immigrants to the United States are more culturally different than those of the past, but not by much.  This increase in the cultural difference of new immigrants could have had an outsized impact on Trump voters in 2016, but immigration overall is more popular with Americans than it used to be.

The Law of Nations, Sovereign Power Over Immigration, and Asylum: It’s Not As Clear As It Seems

Judge Jon S. Tigar of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently struck down a Trump administration policy barring asylum for those who do not enter through a legal port of entry.  Tigar’s major point is that Trump’s order conflicts with a statute that specifically says that those who entered illegally are eligible for asylum.  Despite this temporary ruling against the administration’s asylum order, a higher court will probably approve Trump’s action by invoking I.N.A. 212(f) that, according to the Supreme Court decision in the Travel Ban case, seems to give the president nearly unlimited power to ban whomever he wants from coming here no matter what the rest of the law says.  I hope I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t bet against that outcome.

Some commentators are outraged by the court order blocking president Trump’s change to asylum because they think it violates the national sovereignty of the U.S. government to determine who can enter without limitation.  Outside of the fringes, debates about national sovereignty are rare in the context of immigration policy because the Supreme Court has frequently affirmed Congress’s plenary (read unlimited) power to pass any immigration law it wants because of inherent power vested in the national sovereignty of the United States.  Despite some arguments that seek to limit that power or that it was invented almost a century after the Constitution was enacted, this inherent power is not seriously challenged and almost nobody would consider it illegitimate.

Those Supreme Court cases cited foundational scholars in the field of international law to support the majority’s opinion that Congress had plenary power over immigration.  In this context, international law refers to the customs, behaviors, and evolving rules that regulated the intercourse between governments and foreign individuals.  The two most cited international law scholars in the above Supreme Court decisions, supporting Congress’s unlimited power to restrict the movement of people across borders, are Emer de Vattel and Samuel von Pufendorf.  A recent article in the European Journal of International Law by Vincent Chetail shows just how selectively the Supreme Court cited those two scholars.

Before summarizing Chetail’s research on Vattel and Pufendorf, one must understand that they inherited and altered an international legal tradition that preceded them by centuries. 

Chetail’s paper begins with the work of Francisco de Vitoria (1480-1546), who is frequently portrayed as the founder of international law (also known as the law of nations).  He argued that the free movement of persons is a cardinal feature of international law through the right of communication, meaning that the right of humans to communicate with each other implies that they also have the right to move in order to communicate.  He used this to argue that when the Spaniards sailed to the Americas, they had no right of conquest or to occupy the Americas.  However, he went on to argue that Spaniards did “have the right to travel and dwell in those countries so long as they do no harm to the barbarians.”  This right supposedly comes from the law of nations, which derives from natural law and is not abridged by the division of the world into nations.  Vitoria argued that the right of free movement is mandatory so long as it does not cause harm to the host society, meaning crime.  He even argued, quite radically, that nations that refuse admission to non-criminals are committing an act of war.  Vitoria applied his argument to Europeans, arguing that “[I]t would not be lawful for the French to prohibit Spaniards from traveling or even living in France, or vice versa, so long as it caused no sort of harm to themselves; therefore it is not lawful for the barbarians either.”  Vitoria argued that these principles also support universal free trade, free navigation, and birthright citizenship. 

Chetail then moves on to discuss the work of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), who endorsed Vitoria’s description of international law and refined it further by arguing that individuals have a right to leave their own country and to enter and remain in another.  In essence, Grotius argued that in order for there to be a right to emigrate, there must also be a right to immigrate.  He even argued, like Vitoria, that the right of movement can be taken by force if it is unjustly denied by the government.  Those who are criminals, would harm society, or skirt essential duties like repaying loans can be barred from immigrating or emigrating under Grotius’s theory.  He applies the same limitations on emigrating as he does on immigrating. 

Next, Chetail looks at the work of Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694).  He was the first international law scholar who argued that state sovereignty and the state’s power to choose whom to admit dominated any natural right of movement.  Pufendorf argued that individuals have the right to emigrate, but not to immigrate.  He did not elaborate on why his opinion differed from that of Grotius and Vitoria on this matter.  However, Pufendorf did write about two exceptions: shipwrecked sailors and some asylum seekers.  He wrote:

[I]t is left in the power of all states, to take such measures about the admission of strangers, as they think convenient; those being ever excepted, who are driven on the coasts by necessity, or by any cause that deserves pity and compassion. Not but that it is barbarous to treat, in the same cruel manner, those who visit us as friends, and those who assault us as enemies [emphasis added].

Those exceptions aren’t as broad as they first seem.  Although he argued that states should accept foreigners because “we see many states to have risen to a great and flourishing height, chiefly by granting license to foreigners to come and settle amongst them; whereas others have been reduced to a low condition, by refusing this method of improvement,” Pufendorf ultimately argued that those humanitarian concerns of admitting asylum-seekers should only occur when the host state decides to so do. 

Pufendorf reversed the reasoning of Grotius and Vitoria.  They argued that free movement was the general rule with some specific exceptions, but Pufendorf argued that no movement was the general rule with some specific general exceptions and total state control otherwise. 

Christian von Wolff (1679-1754) is the next philosopher of international law in the tradition of total state control over migration.  Wolff’s main contribution was to argue that the sovereign owns the nation, and he exercises this power as an individual property holder does regarding entry of people onto his land.  

Wolff does grant several exceptions to this general state power.  Foreigners have a right to enter a country if they do not harm the state.  This right of harmless use means that foreigners can travel through a nation’s territory on their way elsewhere, that asylum seekers or refugees have the right to enter and remain, and that “foreigners must be allowed to stay with us for the purpose of recovering health, … study, … [or] for the sake of commerce.”  Wolff went on to write that “permanent residence in [a nation’s] territory cannot be denied to exiles by a nation, unless special reasons stand in the way [emphasis added].”         

Those exceptions seem like strong limitations on the power of states to deny entry, but Wolff pulls a lawyer’s trick to argue that foreigners have the right to enter if those above conditions are met but also that there is no enforcement mechanism.  Thus, Wolff argues that states have total control over entry and no private actor can commit violence to enforce the right of admission.  Foreigners have a right to ask for admission under Wolff’s system and the state is morally bound to accept many of them, but the state is legally free to refuse them. 

The last international law scholar that Chetail writes about is Swiss author Emer de Vattel (1714-1767), who is also the most important, as he is cited extensively in the Supreme Court cases discussed above.  Vattel synthesized the work by the earlier scholars.  He argued that there is a qualified power of state sovereignty to control immigration with the two substantial caveats of innocent passage and necessity.  Innocent passage and necessity can only be denied using excellent reasons regarding the security of the admitting state.  He wrote:

[T]he introduction of property cannot be supposed to have deprived nations of the general right of traversing the earth for the purposes of mutual intercourse, of carrying on commerce with each other, and for other just reasons. It is only on particular occasions when the owner of a country thinks it would be prejudicial or dangerous to allow a passage through it, that he ought to refuse permission to pass. He is therefore bound to grant a passage for lawful purposes, whenever he can do it without inconvenience to himself. And he cannot lawfully annex burdensome conditions to a permission which he is obliged to grant, and which he cannot refuse if he wishes to discharge his duty, and not abuse his right of property [emphasis added].

The fact that Vattel argues for exceptions is important because the Supreme Court didn’t recognize these exceptions when it quoted him in the 1892 case Nishimura Ekiu v. United States:

It is an accepted maxim of international law, that every sovereign nation has the power, as inherent in sovereignty, and essential to its self-preservation, to forbid the entrance of foreigners within its dominions, or to admit them only in such cases and upon such conditions as it may see fit to prescribe. Vattel, lib. 2, §§ 94, 100.

Chetail doesn’t pull any punches when criticizing the judges who wrote the Nishimura Ekiu decision:

At the time of this judgment, the authority of Vattel proved to be instrumental in justifying a radical breakdown from the time-honoured tradition of free movement … the famous dictum of the US Supreme Court was based on a biased and selective reading of Vattel. In fact, the two earlier-quoted passages from the Swiss author were taken out of their context, with the overall result of providing a partial account of his views on the admission of foreigners. This misreading of Vattel has prevailed until now among US judges.

Most relevant to the ongoing chaotic situation on the Mexican border where many migrants stormed it and were repelled by tear gas, is that Vattel seems to endorse a right to illegal entry if legitimate entry is unjustly blocked by the government.  Recall that asylum-seekers, which includes those fleeing dire poverty under Vattel’s definition, fall under the necessity exception:

When a real necessity obliges you to enter into the territory of others – for instance, if you cannot otherwise escape from imminent danger, or if you have no other passage for procuring the means of subsistence, or those of satisfying some other indispensable obligation – you may force a passage when it is unjustly refused.

Vattel, one of the two intellectual heavyweights whom the Supreme Court cites to justify Congress’s plenary power over immigration, argued that the government cannot bar asylum-seekers and many other migrants from entering the United States and that those unjustly refused entry can do so illegally – a very radical position.  According to Vattel, that right is not restricted and can be enforced against the will of any sovereign so long as illegal entry is the only way to safeguard an essential interest of the foreigner.        

This post is not an argument for one or another of the views held by the above-mentioned writers, but instead a summary of fascinating recent work by a professor of international law on an important subject.  The most shocking thing is how selectively the Supreme Court cited Vattel over a century ago to grant Congress a vast and unrestricted power that Vattel did not recognize.  

Immigration Politics Is About Perceptions of Control, Not Immigration Policy

Many major political changes over the last few years are related to immigration. From the rise of Eurosceptic political parties in Germany, France, Italy, and elsewhere, to Brexit, and the U.S. election of Donald Trump, many political commentators are blaming these populist and nationalist political surges on unaddressed anti-immigration sentiment among voters. Although anti-immigration opinions certainly have a role to play in those political upsets, voter feelings of chaos and a lack of control over immigration are likely more important.

President Trump focused his campaign on the “build the wall” chant that capitalized on the perception of chaos at the southwest border where the worst from Mexico were supposedly crossing. His campaign platform called for cutting legal immigration, mandating universal E-Verify, and many of the other bells and whistles demanded by restrictionists over the years, but “reduce legal immigration” never became a chant because it doesn’t play on the perception of immigration chaos that fueled his political rise.     

The theory is that the perception of greater chaos and less control over immigration leads to opposition to immigration, even the legal variety, and greater political support for harsh repressive methods. Images of Syrians arriving by the boatload and illegal immigrants scaling border walls or walking through the desert spread the perception that immigration is out of control and that crackdowns are needed to regain control. Consequently, few people want to liberalize immigration when there’s a crisis.

As long as many people perceive chaos at the border then anti-immigration appeals will have an effect greater than the share of nativists in the electorate, as I wrote about here. The key idea here is “perception.” The number of people crossing the border illegally is down dramatically since the Bush years, the Border Patrol is much larger, homicide rates on the border are down, but those trends don’t seem to matter so long as the perception of chaos remains.

The Migrant Caravan, Central America, and Vaccination Rates

Many commentators have recently written and said that members of the migrant caravan and Central American immigrants in general are diseased.  Former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent David Ward claimed that the migrants are “coming in with diseases such as smallpox,” a disease that the World Health Organization (WHO) certified as being eradicated in 1980.  One hopes Mr. Ward was more careful in enforcing American immigration law than in spreading rumors that migrants are carrying one of the deadliest diseases in human history nearly 40 years after it was eradicated from the human population.  But even on other diseases, Ward and others do not have a compelling argument.

WHO has national estimates of vaccination coverage rates by country and type of vaccine.  It’s unclear whether vaccination coverage rates include immigrants, but they definitely include those born in each country as of 2017.  Vaccination coverage rates for the United States were unavailable for Tuberculosis and one of the polio vaccines (IPV1) while the IPV1 vaccine coverage rate is also unavailable for Costa Rica.  We shouldn’t expect vaccination rates to be the same in all countries for at least two reasons.  First, some diseases are more prevalent in certain climates so the requirement for vaccination there can be lower or higher.  Second, vaccines have a positive externality so there is less of an individual incentive to become vaccinated as all of the benefits are not internalized to the individual who receives the shot.  I expect the first reason to be more important than the second as enough benefits are internalized for the net-benefit of a vaccine to be positive (yes, vaccines are great) while many of the governments in these countries strongly encourage or mandate vaccination. 

Figure 1 shows that average vaccination rates for Tuberculosis (BCG), Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP1), Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP3), Hepatitis B (HepB_BD), Hepatitis B (HepB3), Haemophilus Influenzae (Hib3), Polio (IPV1), Measles 1st Dose (MCV1), Measles 2nd Dose (MCV2), Streptococcus Pneumoniae (PCV3), Polio (Pol3), Rubella (RCV1), and Rotavirus (RotaC).  The United States is in the middle of the pack with an 89 percent average vaccination coverage rate.

Figure 1 Average Vaccination Coverage Rates

The following figures all show the vaccination coverage rates for different vaccines in Central American countries relative to the United States.  In some figures, some countries are excluded because there are no WHO estimates of their vaccination rates.  The United States does not have the highest vaccination coverage rate for any vaccine reported below.  Perhaps members of the migrant caravan have lower vaccination rates than their fellow countrymen or they are carrying other serious contagions that cannot be vaccinated against.  But for most of these illnesses below, you have more to fear from your fellow Americans than from Central Americans.

Figure 2 Tuberculosis (BCG) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 3 Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 4 Diphtheria, Pertussis, & Tetanus (DTP3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 5 Hepatitis B (HepB_BD) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 6 Hepatitis B (HepB3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 7 Haemophilus Influenzae (Hib3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 8 Polio (IPV1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 9 Measles 1st Dose (MCV1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 10 Measles 2nd Dose (MCV2) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 11 Streptococcus Pneumoniae (PCV3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 12 Polio (Pol3) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 13 Rubella (RCV1) Vaccination Coverage Rates
Figure 14 Rotavirus (RotaC) Vaccination Coverage Rates

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