Software Nerd

Monday, February 26, 2007

Immigration: Cutting in front of "the line"

One of the minor arguments against illegal immigrants is that they're cutting ahead of other people who're waiting in line. There are two problems with this argument.

Problem 1 -- Multiple Lines: Today, the US has many different lines for immigrants. Not everyone waits in the same line. For instance, when waiting for a "Green Card" there are many different categories, and each has it's own waiting list.

The three major categories are "Family based" , "Employment based" and "Diversity". That's not just three waiting lists either. There are 25 (yes twenty-five) different waiting lists within the "Family" category. A person is assigned to a list based on two criteria: type of family relationship, and country of origin. When considering country, India, China, Mexico and Philippines each have 5 waiting lists and all other countries together have 5 lists of their own.

Consider an example from the latest visa bulletin. A Malaysian in the "unmarried son queue" has reached the top of the line if he applied for a Green card in 2001 (yes), while a Malaysian in the "brother" category would be at the top of the line if he applied in 1996 (yes, 10 years of waiting). Meanwhile, a Filipino in the "unmarried son queue" has reached the top of the line if he applied for a Green card in 1992 (yes, check the link for yourself), while a Malaysian in the "brother" category would be at the top of the line if he applied in 1984 (I'm not kidding).

The employment categories are much better. Effectively, there are about 9 different lines and the worst one is backed up only to 2001.

Problem 2 -- Wrong Context: There's another, problem with the "breaking the line" argument, one that is a rather good example of the role of context. The principle that it is wrong to cut ahead of a line is a good one. However, it has a particular context. The typical line is a queue for some type of resource (a movie ticket, a celebrity signature, the opportunity to ask a speaker a question, etc.). When a line is used, it's a recognition that the folks in the line have no "natural precedence", so they'll be treated first-come first-served. (An emergency would be an obvious change of context; but, immigration isn't typically an emergency situation.) There is another important aspect of the typical line: breaking the line puts some people at a disadvantage (the people who are ahead of oneself). This is a vital part of the context that makes breaking a line unjust.

Remove that context, create a situation where breaking the line does no harm to anyone, and the rationale for the "don't break the line" principle disappears. This is the situation with immigration. People who cut in front of the line do not take anything that someone else is entitled to. Further, they do not slow down the rate at which the line moves. In fact, they actually speed up the line for all those who would have got into line behind them. If 1000 people in line before me suddenly melt away, that's good for me.

(One can still object that such people are not vetted against felon and terrorist databases, etc. That's fine, I can buy that argument; however, the line-breaking argument is hereby debunked.)



  • The fallacy in the "cutting in line" argument is the same fallacy in regarding those violating carpool lane rules as taking something unfairly. (This is in places where carpool lanes on public roads are implemented because of social engineering for environmental reasons rather than actually maximizing road throughput measured in terms of number of people.) In fact, carpool violators not only help themselves, but also make the road less crowded for those who aren't violating the rule. You should be thanking them, not reporting them, especially since they are putting themselves at risk for a ticket, while the benefit to you is risk-free.

    Back to illegal immigration, the idea of opposing illegal immigrants because those people are not vetted against terrorism databases is absurd. The proper point of view in that case is to oppose illegal terrorists.

    (Now, you could still use the felon and terrorist database point to make an argument that enforcement of illegal immigration should be stepped up. But you compared it to the line-breaking argument so I took it as regarding judging the individual lawbreaker's actions.)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:23 AM  

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