One reason we fail to appreciate the economic benefits of immigration is that we are predisposed to see the world in zero-sum terms. We assume, for instance, that there are a limited number of jobs available. Immigrants, we worry, will steal “our” jobs and depress the wages of those who manage to hang on to theirs. This worry is especially prevalent with regard to the poorest, least-skilled workers. In fact, there is little evidence to support this worry. Even the least-skilled migrants do not just suck up jobs; they also help create jobs, since as consumers they raise demand which itself gets translated into more jobs. They can also free up skilled workers to re-enter the workforce by providing childcare, for instance. According to The Economist, the numbers tell a similar story: “Studies comparing wages in American cities with and without lots of foreigners suggest that they make little difference to the income of the poorest.”
Fear of Foreigners
We humans also seem predisposed to fear those who are different from us, and events in recent years have not exactly been reassuring. From riots in France to devastating terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere causing massive damage and loss of life, we see people from different cultures causing various levels of mayhem, and our natural xenophobia is reinforced.
But the unrest in France is not so much evidence of a deep cultural divide between Western hosts and Eastern immigrants. There do exist important cultural differences, but it is also the case that France’s sclerotic employment regulations deserve much of the blame for recent unrest. By making it extremely difficult to fire employees, those regulations discourage the hiring of employees— especially the hiring of foreigners of whom one might already be suspicious. Sky-high rates of unemployment in an immigrant population, while not excusing violent demonstration, surely help to explain it.
As for terrorism, it is clearly just a fanatical fringe of Islamists who are so fervent in their beliefs that they would commit suicide and murder hundreds or thousands of innocents for their cause. There is no reason for a free society to fear the average Muslim immigrant. Nevertheless, the War on Terror will continue to be used to justify such projects as the building of fences along the Mexican border, despite the lack of Hispanic suicide bombers and fact that the September 11 terrorists did not sneak across the Rio Grande. And while fences will not keep many out, they might keep many in. As The Economist points out, “After all, the more costly and dangerous it is to cross, the less people will feel like leaving. Migrants quite often return home for a while—but only if they know it will be relatively easy to get back in. The tougher the border, the more incentive migrants have to stay and perhaps to get their families to join them instead.”
Be Our Guest
If there is little chance that developed countries will just throw their borders open anytime soon, guest-worker plans seem like a practical compromise. For one thing, our Ponzi-style welfare schemes, to which we are still very much attached, cannot support the whole world. Temporary migration, in which foreign workers come for a limited time just to work without drawing on government benefits, would still be appealing to those workers while alleviating concerns about breaking the welfare bank. So why are they not more popular?
Well, there is the concern that some guests might overstay their welcome. As The Economist Report reminds us, “The old joke that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary migrant has more than a grain of truth in it.” The historical record is mixed, with some countries running guest worker programs that function smoothly, and others failing to enforce the temporary nature of their arrangements.
The more serious problem is that even supporters of more open immigration, especially those to be found among well-intentioned elites, as often as not oppose guest worker programs. These critics lament the creation of a second-class of citizens. It is not right, they argue, to withhold welfare benefits from guest workers. They worry also about the possibility of those second-class citizens being taken advantage of and abused by unscrupulous employers. But is the answer to keep people out altogether, holding out for true open borders some day?
Harvard economist Lant Pritchett is the author of Let Their People Come. In an interview with Kerry Howley in the February 2008 issue of Reason magazine, he addresses concerns about second-class citizens: “The world now is divided into first-class citizens of the world and fifth-class citizens of the world.” He adds that, ironically, in places like the Middle East where people are not so concerned about denying migrant workers all the benefits of citizenship, immigration is high but far less controversial. “One of the awkward paradoxes of the world is that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Nepalis are enormously better off precisely because the Persian Gulf states don’t endow them with political rights.” [Emphasis in original.]
There are in fact some libertarians, most notably Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who argue against opening the borders to greater immigration. Hoppe has a case to make, but I don’t think it gets him nearly as far as he thinks it does. First, he points out that a truly free society would have no single, national immigration policy. Rather, the many private owners of land along the “border” would decide whom to allow onto their land, resulting in a patchwork system in which some areas would tend to restrict entry and others would throw their gates wide open. Under current conditions, though, Hoppe sees immigration as “forced integration” because, given existing anti-discrimination laws, people are forced to associate with others they might not wish to associate with. In a truly free society, people would be free to choose with whom they wanted to associate.
Until they are, however, governments should come up with second-best, least-bad national immigration policies. Hoppe argues that in order to minimize the harm to the rightful owners of the land in America (i.e., the current American population) the American government should follow a policy “of strict discrimination.” Immigrants should have “an existing employment contract with a resident citizen” and demonstrate “not only (English) language proficiency, but all-around superior (above-average) intellectual performance and character structure as well as a compatible system of values—with the predictable result of a systematic pro-European immigration bias.”
Of course, we all have an interest in keeping out hardened criminals and terrorists. The main problem I see with Hoppe’s logic, though, is that if America (or Canada) were a truly free society, many hard-working foreigners (and not necessarily Europeans or those of above-average intellect, either) would have bought into ownership of some of the land in North America. A system that tries to minimize harm to the rightful owners of the land should also minimize harm to these multitudes who would have been owners if the society were truly free. This suggests to me far more immigration than Hoppe envisions, and far more than is currently allowed into sparsely populated North America.
Slow But Sure
Lant Pritchett asserts that holding out for more sweeping change is the wrong way to go. “I think we’re going to move ahead on migration; people are going to become more and more exposed to the fact that people from other places in the world are, in very deep ways, human beings exactly like us; and eventually, in an unpredictable way, the attitude toward this will shift.” Small changes will beget more changes—with the added benefit of slower change being less disruptive for host countries.
Removing immigration restrictions, even if only a little at a time, is an excellent way to help the world’s poor. Immigrants themselves benefit, of course, but so do their families back home, through remittances. Says The Economist, “For most poor countries remittances are more valuable than aid. For many they provide more than aid and foreign direct investment combined.” And because money is remitted directly to families, it neatly sidesteps the problem of corrupt government officials siphoning off aid money to enrich themselves.
In the end, those who oppose more open borders must ask themselves by what right they would deny the freedom of movement of others? Put differently, by what right would they deny the freedom of association of those of us who want more open borders? Increased immigration would help the world’s hard-working poor, and without entailing the negative consequences we fear. But most of all, it’s just the right thing to do.