Today we regard a Northerner circa 1855 who transported, housed, and concealed from authority a fugitive slave as a moral visionary, despite the fact that he was flouting the laws of his time. Is there any morally relevant distinction between that individual and someone today who smuggles a refugee from Zimbabwe into the United States, shelters him in his home, and helps him evade the immigration authorities? ~Tim Lee

My Scene colleague Tim does his best to weight things in favour of his argument with the most extreme example of a misruled country and a comparison with slavery and a title that evokes memories of apartheid.  Since everyone will agree that Zimbabwe is today a waking nightmare, and we will also agree that slavery and apartheid are bad, there must be nothing left for it but to relocate the entire population of Zimbabwe to our shores.  The Zambians will be relieved.  Or maybe there is another answer.

First, it is doubtful that life in a country that is suffering net population loss by the millions because of fears of famine and violence from ZANU-PF-supporting ”veterans” is less brutal than was the antebellum South.  With respect to food production in particular, modern Zimbabweans would be fortunate to live in agriculturally rich and fertile lands that were being used so productively as they were in the Old South.  Slaves in the antebellum era certainly had a much better chance of staying alive and prospering after a fashion than do “free” people in Zimbabwe today.  Give Mugabe his due: his tyranny is just about as brutal as it gets short of mass killing.  

Second, since it apparently needs to be said, people who are actually engaged in human trafficking today and the Harriet Tubmans of the past are very different sorts of people.  First, the former are driven primarily by economic interests, while the latter were a sort of politico-religious agitator.  The moral differences between them are vast.  The former are criminals, not simply by some technicality of federal immigration law, but by trade.  They are smugglers and crooks who exploit and abuse their charges.  Since the people they bring here are on the fast track to being cheap exploited labour, and if we wanted to keep using slavery analogies, they are about as morally pure and high-minded as slave traders.    

Bringing slavery into the debate might introduce other difficulties for the proponent of large-scale immigration, since extreme economic dependency is the state into which these people are entering (or, rather, it is the state in which they will remain).  The argument a pro-immigration person might want to make is that this system of illegal exploitation and human trafficking is one of the reasons why immigrants should not be criminalised for trying to come here, since that would theoretically prevent at least some of them from putting themselves at the mercy of criminal operations.  Of course, even in an era of open borders with all the other problems that would create, such exploitation would continue, especially for those coming by boat, as migrants will still be herded into shipping containers just as they are today if there is an economic incentive for the smugglers to do it and little or no law enforcement to deter them.  Decriminalising immigration, which I take to be the main point Tim wants to make, would not mean that the human traffickers will be any better regulated; decriminalising immigration is a concession to the supposed “reality” that it is already impossible to regulate the “movement of labour.”  If I were wont to get on a humanitarian soapbox and decry the evils of such human trafficking, I could point to this as a massive moral blind spot of the pro-immigration side, but I don’t like humanitarian soapboxes and see this as mostly a distraction from the larger question. 

The larger question is this: how does mass emigration actually help other parts of the world?  Letting in those who can escape the nightmare is all very well and good, but it is almost certain that the most motivated and most capable will be among the first to abandon their “prisons,” as the Free Exchange blogger calls them, leaving their neighbours to endure even greater hardships as conditions continue to deteriorate.  Applied domestically, this would be rather like writing off inner cities as hopeless and encouraging those who could ”get out” to move to the suburbs, leaving the city centers to deteriorate and collapse even more quickly.  In effect, what these humanitarian arguments for ending “international apartheid“ will lead to is resource-stripping of human capital by the developed world, maintaining the “developing” world’s status as a source for raw materials and a world with the export profile of a colonial dependency.  Rather than arguing, as some anti-developmentalists do, that trade and investment will build up the economies of these countries, the “humanitarian” argument for encouraging mass emigration calls for massive divestment from the failed “enterprises” of post-colonial Africa and elsewhere by the very inhabitants of those countries.

As I have argued before against a certain Free Exchange blogger :

Some might think that people who live in these “prison” countries regard the place where they live as their home and might even say that they are not simply labour units to be reassigned to allow for greater efficiencies.  Mass uprooting and relocation of poor populations with migrants moving from the countryside to the city and from the home country to communities abroad, which has happened in virtually every impoverished, modernising nation-state from the independence of Greece on, is all very good for those who can get out, but dooms those who remain (and many will remain) to an even more miserable existence.  Dr. Wilson once remarked on this, asking a rhetorical question that went something like this: “What sort of country robs poor countries of their best and brightest people?”  This blogger’s kind of country, it would seem.