Author Archive for
Peter Spiro

Are Sole Executive Agreements Next on the Roberts Court Chopping Block?

by Peter Spiro

A constitutional challenge is in the works to Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, the anti-offshoring tax measure that is the bane of ordinary US citizens worldwide. The law adds a burdensome layer of administrative requirements to longstanding citizenship-based tax liabilities. If you’re an American living in France, say hello to thousands of Euros in accountant fees.

Foreign banks are a key location for and target of FATCA enforcement, and the Treasury Department has been bringing them into FATCA’s orbit wholesale through bilateral executive agreements with industrial economies. These so-called inter-governmental agreements — “IGAs” in the FATCA glossary — facilitate FATCA compliance by allowing banks to report information to their own governments, who will pass it along to the IRS in turn. (For more on the IGAs, and to get a sense of how accountants and others will benefit, see fatca.thomsonreuters.com.)   IGAs have been controversial in other countries, not the least because the regime may override domestic privacy laws. But other governments have a reciprocal incentive to sign on: we report on offshoring that’s hurting you, you help us out with offshoring that hurting us.

In the US, FATCA (much less the IGAs) has hardly been a blip on the policy screen. The interests of external US citizens consistently fail to register in US politics. But the issue has now caught the attention of the GOP anti-tax crowd. Enter Jim Bopp with a constitutional argument that FATCA and the IGAs violate the Treaty Clause, the Fourth and Eighth Amendments.

I wouldn’t be taking this too seriously (the latter two arguments are not very credible), except that Jim Bopp was the lawyer behind . . . Citizens United.

The Treaty Clause argument is a plausible one, the doctrinal terrain at least unsettled. The FATCA agreements enjoy implied congressional authorization, at best, in the form of prior tax treaties. (McGill’s Allison Christians explains the argument — and its weakness — in this excellent piece for Tax Notes.) We have Dames & Moore taking a contextual approach to the legality of executive agreements undertaken without express congressional approval (before or after the fact). More recently, Justice Roberts adopted a constricted historical view of so-called sole executive agreements in Medellin.

There is a lot of history behind sole executive agreements but not much judicial precedent. Executive agreements have figured importantly in the Obama Administration’s muscular exercise of executive branch power (see this essay from then-Legal Adviser Harold Koh in defense). Could this be another platform for the Supreme Court to advance its formalist turn in foreign relations law?

Piketty/Davos/MayDay

by Peter Spiro

Before the Piketty bubble reaches stage six (at this rate, sometime later today), a few thoughts on the geosocial implications of his theory of inequality. That theory has been getting the lion’s share of the lion-sized attention showered on Capital in the 21st Century (Kindle edition available only). Those of you reading the reviews (if not the book itself) will know that r > g, the rate of return on capital increases more than the rate of economic growth, which means that the rich will get richer relative to the rest of us.

Historically the book points us to the Belle Epoque. What did it take to to dislodge that last era of concentrated wealth? A couple of world wars. War gave rise to social policies and economic growth that tamped down the level of retained “r” and fueled an anomalously high “g”. That evened things out quite a bit by mid-century, about which everyone has gotten so nostalgic.

But the social policies — and indeed the wars themselves — could only be built on high levels of national solidarity. Globalization at the turn of the last century turned out to be a false dawn. Economic interdependence wasn’t enough to prevent a bloodbath among the major economic powers. That was mostly downside, of course. The upside: the consolidation of community based on the nation-state, which in turn enabled thick redistribution.

This time around, globalization is for real. We’re not going to have a World War III to help reslice the economic pie. Transborder economic interdependence is exponentially higher. In social terms, that has consolidated a different kind of community: the transnational elites. They share more of an interest in protecting their collective wealth than in sharing it with their co-nationals. Davos doesn’t quite fit the argument, insofar as (at least nominally) it selects participants on the basis of social utility rather than wealth. But I’m willing to bet that Davos and/or its spin-offs and successors become playgrounds for the generations that inherit Gilded-Age wealth (“patrimonial capitalists,” in Piketty’s vocabulary). The Davos class is a new global community, with its own set of practices, beliefs, ideology, interests.

Since war is not a very plausible or appealing prescription, Piketty is left to press a global wealth tax. That makes sense in the face of higher transborder capital mobility. But it’s never going to happen so long as the Davos class is essentially unopposed. The current landscape looks neo-feudal, the elites moving in their global circles while the not-rich remain confined to their national spaces. (Immigration controls play a part in this, in contrast to free trade in goods.) I don’t have a sense of any real global class consciousness among non-elites. Jennifer Gordon presses conceptually interesting possibility of transnational labor citizenship, but that doesn’t seem to have taken hold on the ground. The Occupy movement hasn’t achieved enough of a critical mass to comprise a counterbalance.

Today is May Day. Can the workers of the world unite?

Supreme Court Takes Jerusalem Passport Case on the Merits

by Peter Spiro

NY Times dispatch here. The Supreme Court will now confront the question of whether Congress can force the Secretary of State to include the birthplace “Jerusalem, Israel” at a U.S. citizen’s option. This could be a huge case or a not-so-huge case. If the Court affirms the D.C. Circuit’s ruling below and strikes down legislation purporting to constrain the Secretary of State’s passport authority, the ruling would be important but hardly epochal. That would protect the president’s authority over foreign relations, and fit neatly into a doctrinal tradition dating back at least a century. It is something new for the Court to get to the merits of the question — that’s why the decision in Zivotofsky I itself marked something of a watershed. If the Court accepts expansive executive branch powers, the jurisprudential gun remains loaded but no shots get fired.

But if the Court upholds the law, it will be a major departure from that tradition. The passport case implicates a genuinely sensitive issue of foreign relations. If the Court forces the State Department into something like formal acknowledgement of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, who knows what would follow on the ground. This isn’t a case like Medellin, which predictably upset Mexico at the same time that our relations predictably weathered any such upset. Nor would it play out like Bond, which even if it restricts the Treaty Power will hardly be noticed by foreign audiences. To use the vocabulary of the foreign relations canon, a Supreme Court ruling against the executive branch in Zivotofsky could severely “embarrass” the President in the conduct of foreign relations. Think unruly crowds outside U.S. embassies.

That would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. But foreign relations law is being normalized. (For an excellent take on the shift, see Harlan Cohen’s piece here.) Foreign affairs has long been immune to judicial activism; maybe no longer. The Court may still hesitate to the extent it sees some real, even uncabinable, damage to the Middle East peace process in siding with Congress on the question. The easier path would have been to duck the case altogether. By accepting review, it may already have tipped its hand in a new direction.

Russia’s Citizenship Power-Play in Ukraine is Pretty Weak

by Peter Spiro

Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev yesterday announced a legislative initiative to fast-track citizenship for non-resident native Russian speakers. He didn’t single out ethnic Russians in Ukraine, but the context says it all. The citizenship shift (variations of which have been floated since the Maidan erupted last month) would allow Russia to amplify its protective justification for the action in Crimea. It wouldn’t just be protecting co-ethnics, it would be protecting fellow citizens. Russia similarly put citizenship policy to use in the South Ossetia action in 2008.

Three thoughts:

1. The citizenship policy would be consistent with international law. The only constraint on the extension of citizenship after birth is that it be volitional on the part of the individual. Russia couldn’t simply impose Russian citizenship on Ukrainians en masse, for example. Otherwise, citizenship policies can be as relaxed as a country wants them to be (it’s when they are too tough that international norms come into play). Russia certainly has a closer link to Russian speakers in Ukraine than, for instance, most Sephardic Jews do to Spain, and yet nobody is complaining about the latter.

2. Protecting citizens abroad does not justify uses of force or other acts of aggression. Putin is working from the 19th/20th century playbook in framing military action in protective terms. That’s the irksome part: integrating citizenship policy into expansionist designs. (Spain is not going to use the pretext of protecting Sephardim as the basis for military operations in France.) Traditional international law accepted the use of force to protect nationals against foreign depredations — the U.S. justified scores of military actions on that basis (presidents still do, as a matter of domestic constitutional law, for purposes of constitutionally legitimating the use of force in the absence of congressional approval). Leaving aside narrow exceptions — military deployments should be consistent with international law where necessary to safely evacuate citizens from trouble zones — that’s no longer okay. In other words, the presence of even a large number of Russian citizens in Ukraine adds no weight to Russia’s case for military intervention.

3. Ukraine’s threatened criminalization of dual citizenship is more problematic. Ukraine prohibits dual citizenship, though the ban is apparently underenforced. By way of a counter-move to the Russian proposal, a bill before the Ukraine parliament would impose fines on dual citizens. Dual citizen voting and office-holding would be subject to prison sentences of up to 10 years. Other countries bar dual citizens from officeholding (many through constitutional bars); none bars dual citizen voting. Prison sentences for either would be without precedent. Ukraine would be on firmer ground stripping the citizenship of those having or acquiring Russian citizenship. But that move would create problems of its own, and would hand Russia an additional argument in the (largely false) narrative that Russians are being oppressed in Ukraine.

The bottom line: this is a nothing-burger. Probably the most important consequence of the new Russian policy would be to open the door for newly minted citizens to move to Russia. If Russia’s happy having them, that’s its business, not ours.

Presidential Authority for Visa Restrictions (for Ukraine and Otherwise)

by Peter Spiro

President Obama issued an executive order this morning imposing entry bans on those responsible for actions that “undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine,” “threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine,” or involve “misappropriation of state assets of Ukraine or of an economically significant entity in Ukraine.”

Sec. 2. I hereby find that the unrestricted immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens determined to meet one or more of the criteria in subsection 1(a) of this order would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of such persons. Such persons shall be treated as persons covered by section 1 of Proclamation 8693 of July 24, 2011 (Suspension of Entry of Aliens Subject to United Nations Security Council Travel Bans and International Emergency Economic Powers Act Sanctions).

The power to specify covered individuals is delegated to the Secretary of State.

Obama is acting under section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives the President a blank check when it comes to imposing entry restrictions:

 Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

Obama has used this power at least twice, both in the summer of 2011. He used the authority to ban the entry of serious human rights abusers with this proclamation. In the proclamation referenced in today’s executive order, he banned the entry of individuals subject to UN sanctions regimes. The latter is particularly interesting insofar as it appears to delegate immigration policy to an international organization, directly incorporating UN decisions into US law. In any case, the use of the 212(f) power is consistent with Obama’s orientation to maximally exploit delegated powers.

Ukraine, International Law, and the Perfect Compliance Fallacy

by Peter Spiro

Eric Posner on international law and Ukraine (“exhaustively”, in his own description):

The international law commentariat has been pretty quiet about the most important geopolitical event so far this year. Hello? Anyone want to offer an opinion? Let me fill in the silence:

1. Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine violates international law.

2. No one is going to do anything about it.

International law is chimera, QED. (FWIW, the international law commentariat is starting to pipe up. In addition to Chris’ post below, see this primer from Ashley Deeks on Lawfare.) The move — a standard one among the anti-internationalists — implicitly idealizes other forms of law accepted as such. No system of law achieves perfect compliance; why should international law be any different?

Writing at the Monkey Cage, Eric Voeten finds the a tweeted version of the Perfect Compliance Fallacy

not terribly persuasive. Surely we would question a domestic legal system in which a select set of powerful actors can confidently and predictably ignore legal rules while insisting that these nonetheless apply to everyone else.

While pleading the 140-character defense, I take the point, at least as applied to common criminals who get away with it. But there are better analogies. I’m not in the corporate law world, but I’m willing to bet that there are some laws that big players get away with ignoring on a predictable basis. In the context of constitutional law, there are many contexts in which law isn’t enforceable against institutional players. One example: notwithstanding the Chadha decision, which declared the legislative veto unconstitutional, Congress and the President blithely persist with the practice. This 2009 Harvard Law Review article by Jack Goldsmith and Daryl Levinson does a good job exploding the argument that international law is somehow distinctive in facing an enforcement deficit.

Of course corporate and constitutional actors will never say they’re violating the law. They interpret it to achieve the appearance (plausible or not) of conformity with a set of norms that is accepted as law. Same with Putin, whose MFA will at some point offer a fuller-dress international law justification for its Ukraine moves. (Posner himself offers up some protips to the Russians here.) So it’s not like jaywalking. Russia will face penalties as a result of its illegal action here, penalties that themselves will be framed in law terms.

Survey Says: If You Want Solitary Confinement Reform, Talk Up Treaty Obligations

by Peter Spiro

Here is a timely piece from Adam Chilton on how treaty obligations may be experienced by the American public. He devised an experiment (using Amazon’s mTurk) to test the effect of a putative treaty violation on public support for reform of solitary confinement practices. The piece comes to us just as congressional hearings have focused policymakers on the issue as a matter (mostly) of domestic law.

The experiment framed comparative questions to control for the value of the treaty commitment itself, as opposed to that of unlegalized human rights norms. A statement that solitary confinement violates unspecified human rights didn’t move the needle at all, where an argument that it “violates human rights treaties that the United States has signed” did, in a statistically significant way. (Chilton carefully notes that “signed” was used to avoid confusion, consistent with the vernacular understanding of treaties.) Respondents were moved not by a sense that treaties should be honored or that violations are immoral but rather that U.S. practice should conform to international standards.

One unexpected finding:

Democrats in the control treatment group supported solitary confinement reform at a 4.45 rate. Information on international law increased support by 0.17 to 4.62, but this increase falls short of conventional levels of significance (p-value = 0.16). Republicans, on the other hand, were less supportive of solitary confinement reform overall—the control treatment group averaged 3.31. Information on international law, however, increased approval to 3.74. This was an increase of 0.43, which was both substantively and statistically significant (p-value = 0.05). This suggests that information on the status of international law on domestic human rights practices, at least with respect to solitary confinement, actually has a greater effect on Republicans than on Democrats.

Seems unlikely, but warrants further investigation. Maybe it plays into a “rule of law” mentality? In any case, the experiment seems well-constructed, so that there’s none of the garbage-in-garbage-out aura that one sometimes butts into as empirical legal studies begins to colonize international law, too.

As Chilton notes, “modest changes in public opinion do not automatically result in changes in public policy,” something of an understatement in the context of US treaty ratification and compliance (cue: the Disabilities Convention). But perhaps studies like this will help nudge policymakers in a more productive, international law-compliant direction.

Olympic Free Agency (An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come, Apparently)

by Peter Spiro

I have a piece up on Slate arguing that the Olympics should no longer require competitors to have the nationality of the country for which they compete.

A journalist friend of mine once told me, “Don’t ever read the comments. Just don’t.” Misguidedly thinking that Slate readers were somehow exempt from the laws of the internet, I made that mistake. Maybe 10 to 1 against. A lot of ad hominem stuff. (To this one, really, I’m not such a bad guy.) Doesn’t everyone know that we academics are supposed to play the role of the court jester, saying things that other people can’t?

On the substantive side, two responses:

1) The seemingly reflexive opposition to eliminating nationality requirements (“I’m not even going to read this piece”) takes no account of athlete interests. If you’re the number three player in China, you’re probably also the number three player in the world, but because of the two-competitor per-country quota in singles table tennis, you don’t get to compete. That seems unfair.

Restrictions on transfer of nationality are in some ways worse. The Olympic Charter requires a three-year cooling-off period when an athlete wants to compete for another country (waivable at the discretion of the country of origin). Sporting federation rules add another layer, sometimes extreme. Soccer and basketball prohibit transfers altogether. Once you’ve played for one country at the international level you cannot play for any other. That looks to me like a human rights problem, a kind of modern-day feudalism.

2) A number of commenters suggest my proposal will lead to corporate teams rather than national ones. I’m not suggesting (for now) that the Olympics abandon the state-based orientation, for team sports at least, just that individual players not be required to have citizenship in the country whose team they’re playing for.

But the role of corporate sponsorship is implicated here. It might be part of the answer. To the extent that the Jamaican bobsled team attracts a lot of attention, corporations should be interested in footing training bills in a way that Jamaica the state may not be. A big part of the charm is that the team is labeled as Jamaican. Corporations will have an interest in backing teams not just from the United States and other big countries. (Here is an example from Sochi involving tiny Tonga, though perhaps not one to be emulated.)

Regardless of nationality rules, we seem to be moving towards corporate sponsorship in any case. Would that be the end of the world? In Korea, baseball teams sport the name of companies not cities (and the fans are astonishingly fanatic). To the extent companies had their name on Olympic scorecards, they might be even more generous with their teams, with athletes and fans as the ultimate beneficiary. But I mean this as a THOUGHT EXPERIMENT ONLY, so please, no need for negative responses below!

Obama’s NSA Reform: Foreigners Get Protections, Too

by Peter Spiro

From the third paragraph of President Obama’s implementation of surveillance reforms (Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-28).

[O]ur signals intelligence activities must take into account that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their nationality or wherever they might reside, and that all persons have legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information.

The primary operative provision of the directive, section 2, adopts limitations on bulk surveillance data that “are intended to protect the privacy and civil liberties of all persons, whatever their nationality and regardless of where they might reside.” Likewise for section 4 and the safeguarding of personal information. (Protections for non-citizens are much more prominent in the operative instrument than in Obama’s Justice Department speech today, which unsurprisingly played to domestic politics more than international sensitivities, though it is there, too.) 

So Obama bought into a key Review Group recommendation. Whether or not one thinks the overall policy will suffice to rein in the NSA (a mixed verdict, at best), the fact that it applies to citizens and non-citizens alike strikes me as a pretty big deal – can’t think of an obvious precedent. As the biggest player on the global landscape, it will certainly contribute to the crystallization of an international right to privacy.

It also reduces the importance of the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in Verdugo-Urquidez, which found non-US citizens outside the United States to enjoy no Fourth Amendment rights (and which no doubt supplied the key legal authority for NSA programs aimed at foreigners). That doctrine becomes less consequential as the net supplied by other sources of law rises below rights located in the Constitution. The absence of constitutional rights no longer translates into no rights. This is another front on which sovereigntist victories in the Supreme Court will be hollowed out over the long run by forces beyond its control

Citizenship Round-Up: Nine Trends from 2013

by Peter Spiro

Citizenship practice and policy is mostly below the news radar; change is slow; and the field tends not to be reported in any sort of integrated way. So here are the key threads from 2013 and how they might spin out in 2014.

1. Citizenship is not priceless.  A growing number of states are selling citizenship. Malta is the latest. EU citizenship can be yours for 1.15mn Euros. Hungary, Spain, and Portugal now offer permanent residency in return for smaller investments in residential property, which can lead to citizenship in short order; and Cyprus tossed consolation passports to foreigners who lost more than three million Euros in the country’s banking collapse. The trend has been somewhat predictably lamented by liberal nationalists (see this forum, for example, on EUI’s excellent citizenship observatory site, with a lead contribution from Ayelet Shachar), but look for other states to cash in on a commodity that has no effective marginal cost. Will 2014 see a passport price war?

2. Even the Germans can live with dual citizenship. Americans will have a hard time understanding how big a flashpoint dual citizenship has been in German politics over the last 15 years. As a condition for remaining a part of Angela Merkel’s coalition after recent elections, Social Democrats secured the elimination of the so-called “option model” that had required German-born dual nationals to renounce one or the other by age 23. Dual Turkish-German citizens living in Germany are the big winners. If Germans can live with dual citizenship, any country can. Expect the dramatic trend towards acceptance of the status to move into its mopping up stage, with remaining holdouts (e.g., Japan) giving up their old-world jealousies.

3. American no more. 2013 saw a continued uptick in the number of individuals renouncing U.S. citizenship, with Tina Turner following in the footsteps of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, along with thousands of ordinary Americans living abroad. Taxes supply the clear motivation, as much the burdensome administrative requirements imposed by the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) as the payment obligations themselves. Expat websites are aflame with outraged citizens ready to cut the cord. Expect this story to get closer to the front burner as FATCA enforcement kicks in during 2014. Do external Americans have enough political clout to repulse this IRS juggernaut?

4. Foreigners have privacy rights, too. In the NSA’s massive post-9/11 surveillance apparatus, it was open season on non-citizens outside the United States. With good jurisprudential reason: the Supreme Court (in Verdugo-Urquidez) squarely held that non-resident foreigners have no Fourth Amendment rights against the U.S. government. But that understanding is under pressure from other quarters. There’s the prospect of an international right to privacy. That won’t have much effect on America’s spymasters, at least not in the short run. The President’s NSA review board might be more influential. Its recent report called for substantial limitations on eavesdropping on foreigners (see pages 155-56). It will be interesting to see whether Obama buys in.

5. A human right to citizenship. The Dominican Republic came under withering human rights fire after its Supreme Court declared Dominican-born individuals of undocumented parents (almost all Haitian) not to enjoy Dominican citizenship. The ruling leaves 200,000 effectively stateless. Those crying foul included the major human rights groups, the UN, major powers, the Caribbean Community, and the Dominican diaspora. Expect the DR to reverse course during the coming year or face some material consequences. Other states are also coming under increasing scrutiny for rights-problematic citizenship practices. The Gulf States are getting more bad press for their notoriously ungenerous naturalization laws. Notwithstanding significant goodwill in the wake of the transition to democracy, Burma is not getting a free pass on its continuing refusal to facilitate citizenship for the Rohingyas. Human rights-based citizenship claims are clearly on the upswing, a context in which sovereignty once supplied a trumping defense.

6. Obama’s gives up on The New Citizenship. President Obama centered citizenship as a theme in a number of high profile speeches, including the trifecta of his nomination acceptance speech, his second inaugural address, and the State of the Union. In his words, citizenship “describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.” Lofty rhetoric, but nobody seemed to notice. Don’t expect any more stabs at this one. Much as he would like it to, this will not go down as the defining label of the Obama Presidency.

7. Ted Cruz may be a Canadian, but he is eligible for the presidency. There’s a delicious irony in the fact that the candidate most attractive to Obama-obsessed birthers himself has a much bigger question-mark relating to presidential eligibility. But even though Ted Cruz was born in Canada (and holds Canadian citizenship as a result), he is almost certainly eligible to run for president as a “natural born” U.S. citizen, holding citizenship at birth through his mother. Cruz says he has applied for termination of his Canadian citizenship. Expect the questions to linger if his candidacy looks viable; it’s just too easy a poke in the Tea Party gullet.

8. The path to legal residency matters more than the path to citizenship. At least among those affected, namely, 11-13 million undocumented aliens in the United States, as evidenced in a Pew Hispanic Center poll and reported by Julia Preston in a NYT story here. This can’t be surprising, since the main drawback of being out of status is locational insecurity. So why the persistence of the popular political tagline, “a path to citizenship”? It plays better for political proponents of regularization by lending their agenda a high-minded civic orientation. It also seems required by American notions of equality: we can’t just give undocumented aliens permanent residence insofar as it would offend baseline equality norms. Could reform advocates cave on this in 2014 if it presents the only path to a deal? Maybe.

9. Recementing ties to long-lost brothers and sisters. Spain followed through on its 2012 promise to extend citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain half a millennium ago. Though meaningful ties persist (including in a still-living language spoken by Sephardi), one might wonder if the Spanish government was looking to capitalize on somewhat tenuous ties to its economic advantage, granting citizenship to nonresidents at the same time residents (Moroccans, for example) face significant obstacles to naturalization. More controversially, Hungary moved ahead with policies to extend citizenship — and the vote — to nationalistic co-ethnics in neighboring Slovakia and Romania supportive of the right-wing government in Budapest. Look for more countries to strategically relax requirements for citizenship by descent as they increasingly see diaspora populations as an economic and/or political resource.

And a couple to watch for 2014: what would be the UK/EU citizenship mechanics of Scottish independence; will increasingly common birth tourism packages revive efforts to scale back birthright citizenship in the US; and how will citizenships of convenience play out in the Sochi Olympics. Happy New Year!

Somalia to Ratify Children’s Rights Convention (You Know What That Means)

by Peter Spiro

Not otherwise newsworthy. . . except that it makes the US the only country in the world that will not have ratified it (full list of accessions here). It’s a glaring manifestation of American exceptionalism, and not in a good way.

With the Disabilities Convention making another go of it in the Senate, perhaps the US could turn the corner on its problem with human rights treaties (Bob Corker is wobbling, would be a key switch to yes). Holding out in complete isolation will increasingly be of symbolic value only, catering to a shrinking minority of Boltonite international law nay-sayers, as universal treaty norms move into the realm of customary law and creep in through other channels.

Bhagwati in Foreign Affairs on Bottom-Up Immigration Reform

by Peter Spiro

Columbia University’s Jagdish Bhagwati and Francisco Rivera-Batiz have an excellent piece in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs in which they throw up their hands at the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform and look to the states for some progress on the issue. The piece served as the basis for Bhagwati’s delivery last week of the 2013 Emma Lazarus Lecture, co-sponsored by Columbia Law School and its School of International and Public Affairs. I was delighted to serve as a discussant for the lecture.

Bhagwati makes two basic points in the piece: that federal policy on undocumented immigrants is inhumane in an unfixable way, and that the more promising vehicle for advancing rights is through competition among the states. We should, in other words, give up on Washington and look to state capitals by way of moving forward on immigration reform.

Count me in. As Bhagwati points out (the reflexes of many immigrant advocates notwithstanding), the federal government, even under Democrat presidents, is capable of great cruelties when it comes to the treatment of undocumented aliens. The Obama Administration has deported a record number of non-citizens, many of them for trivial crimes. The Senate’s version of immigration reform includes a ridiculous increase (by almost everyone’s estimation) in the border security budget. Anyone assuming that comprehensive immigration reform will be friendly to immigrant interests has history to argue against.

The states, meanwhile, will see the error of their ways in treating undocumented immigrants badly. If undocumented immigrants feel unwelcome, they will leave for more hospitable jurisdictions. That by itself will harm a state’s economy — witness the crops left rotting on the vines in Alabama after it enacted the draconian HB 56 in 2011. Greater harm results from a tarnished brand. After Arizona enacted SB 1070, it lost tens of millions of dollars in convention and tourism dollars (Mexico issued a travel advisory cautioning against travel there). It can hardly help Alabama’s future efforts to attract big-ticket foreign investment after it locked up German and then Japanese auto manufacturing executives for possible violations of its law.

Hence the very real possibilities of “race to the top” federalism in the immigration context.

Even in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Arizona v. United States, which gutted SB 1070, the states have room to differentiate their treatment of undocumented aliens. States can adopt their own sanctions regimes against those who employ undocumented workers. They are free to grant or deny in-state tuition to undocumented alien college students. They can grant or deny drivers licenses to the so-called childhood arrivals insulated from deportation as a matter of Obama administration policy. They can grant or deny other state public benefits to undocumented aliens. (The most recent example: whether an undocumented immigrant is eligible to practice law.) Finally, they can adopt (or not) the kind of “papers, please” measure that the Supreme Court upheld in the Arizona case.

But this discretion is mostly at the margins. For the states to play a central role in immigration reform, they’ll need more regulatory space. That will require federal activation. Devolving power to the states itself might grease the wheels to securing comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, allowing federal legislators to pass the buck downstairs. . . .