Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Immigration & the Rationalization of Deterrent Effects

Much is currently being made of the Trump Administration's new policy separating children from parents at the US border. This is an appallingly indefensible policy on moral and ethical grounds, and it's not even very sound legally. Under US law, asylum-seekers have every right to approach the US border and ask for asylum. Some of this is about taking children away from parents who didn't try to sneak across the Rio Grande, but those who tried to stay within the framework of US law. Even for those who did enter the US illegally, this is unspeakably bad.

Side note: there is no way to square this policy with any version of a Christian worldview. Those who support this policy and who claim nevertheless to be Christians are in thrall to false gods. Franklin Graham must read a very different set of Gospels than I do. But that's a topic for a different day.

One of the interesting aspects to the debate over this new policy is its supporters' claim that separating children from their parents will have a deterrent effect. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed as much when he said, "if you don't like that, don't smuggle children across our border."

Supporters of the policy tout this claim, believing (or claiming to believe) that by being harsher than previous administrations we will dissuade people from trying to cross the border. This displays an appalling ignorance of how deterrence actually works.

Deterrence works if and only if the consequences threatened are both credible and are worse than the available alternative. A minor punishment - a slap on the wrist - isn't enough to deter, because it is assumed that the punishment is less bad than the perceived benefits of doing whatever you don't want the other person to do. Increase the punishment, the thinking goes, and people will rethink their calculus and be deterred.

There are several problems with this logic. First, let's assume that people fleeing to the US are actually rational actors (probably not true, but let's assume). Central American migrants fleeing from violence-ridden societies controlled by gangs weigh their options: do I stay at home and watch my children die, or do I go to the US and save their lives, even if they're taken away from me? Most parents choose the latter every time. Separation and a chance at asylum is better than certain death.

The second problem is information flow. You can change the policy, but that message won't spread consistently across the entire population of Central and South America. Some will find out about it, others will hear different stories - stories of people who made it, who either snuck by the border guards or who successfully got asylum. Given the population, there's no way to credibly get the message out to everyone who might consider trying to migrate. Without a clear signal, deterrence will fail.

The third issue is that this is a (cruel) solution in search of a problem. We don't, in the aggregate, have an illegal immigration problem. Net flow across the southern US border has been outward for years - that is, more people flow across the border going south than come north into the US. And that's before Trump got elected and the racists all came out of the closet. The President's rants about hordes of M13 gang members crossing into the US are paranoid delusions, untethered from facts. The fact that the number of those seeking to get in is down suggests that it is only the most desperate making the attempt today - many "economic migrants" have already decided not to come. Meaning that the remainder are particularly difficult to deter, because the consequences of their not coming are much worse.

If you're really interested in what happens when you put up a serious border wall, we have an excellent example to study. For nearly 30 years the Berlin Wall divided East from West Berlin, rendering the latter an island in the middle of communist East Germany. The Berlin Wall was tall, built of concrete and steel and barbed wire and guard towers and spotlights. It was watched constantly, night and day. Get caught trying to cross it, and you were shot on sight. The East German regime was far more severe than anything that Donald Trump has dreamed up.

Moreover East Germany, while no worker's paradise, wasn't as difficult a place to live as parts of Central America today. There was precious little societal violence. If you kept your head down and didn't criticize the regime, your children would not be killed or kidnapped by gangs. The chances of you being caught in a drive-by shooting were essentially zero. You were spied on by the regime all the time, and dissenters were made to disappear. But everyone had jobs, of a sort, and homes, and while society was repressive it was not deadly. It sucked, but not in a fear-for-your-life-every-day sort of way.

And yet, even under these circumstances thousands of people tried to cross the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1988. At least 138 were killed in the attempt. Many others were arrested and hauled off, undoubtedly to detention far more cruel than anything in the US.

If ever there were a test of a fortified border's ability to deter, it was in Berlin. And it failed. No matter how harsh the East German regime was, people tried to cross it anyway.

In the face of that evidence, does anybody really believe that separating children from parents is going to deter the desperate from seeking asylum in the US? This is a fantasy, cooked up to justify a cruel policy grounded simply in fear and hatred. It is of a piece with much of what this administration does - ignorant, rooted in fear, pandering to our worst instincts. I hope this quickly becomes a bad footnote in US history and not a permanent fixture.

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