Is Migration a Basic Human Right? (Ep. 231)
The gist: the argument for open borders is compelling — and deeply problematic.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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[MUSIC: Quel Bordel, “American Style” (from Caravan Treasures)]
When Naveen first arrived in America, she had one big question: where are all the Americans?
NAVEEN: I don’t see any American people. Not a lot. Only Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Polish people. Everywhere I see immigrant people.
She came here from Egypt, with her two kids, in 2013, on a tourist visa. Her husband’s visa, she says, didn’t come through. So, Naveen moved in with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s kids, in Queens, New York.
NAVEEN: We are Christian. We are Coptic Orthodox.
Being a Coptic Christian in Muslim-majority Egypt was never easy, and as the government grew more Islamist, it became outright dangerous. Naveen, who’s 35 years old, says she left Egypt after being threatened by a man who accused her of giving his sister a Bible.
NAVEEN: And he kept calling me to just tell me, “I will kill you. I will kill your children.” So I get fear and we decided to come here.
She says this kind of threat is common.
NAVEEN: They take the children and maybe they kill. They ask for money. So, I scared about my children first.
When her tourist visa ran out, Naveen applied for political asylum. She got help from a friend in her church. After more than a year in the U.S., she and her kids were granted asylum. But her husband is still in Egypt.
NAVEEN: It’s so hard. So hard, I need him. They need him. Because you know it’s responsibility, big responsibility, their age — they need their father. She’s 13, he’s 9 1/2 — and they remember because we was together all the time. You know, all the day we are together many years and just now, nothing for two years and a half. It’s now so different, yeah.
The kids miss their father.
SON: Sitting at home with my dad, we would watch TV together and play a game of cards.
But they are hopeful he’ll join them soon.
DAUGHTER: Yeah, he’ll come, like he’s OK.
So what is it that’s keeping the kids’ dad — Naveen’s husband — separated from them? It’s a combination of things, of course: The lengthy asylum process. The paperwork. And, when you get right down to it, a border. Today on Freakonomics Radio, the economic argument for open borders — although, let me warn you, the economist who makes the argument admits that it’s not so much about economics as morality.
ALEX TABARROK: Money whips around the world at lightning speed. Goods move around the world, very, very quickly. We have container ships transporting goods throughout the entire globe. The only thing which can’t move today is people. And that should be the one thing which ought to have the most rights to move.
Alex Tabarrok is a professor of economics at George Mason University. Like Naveen, he too is an immigrant.
TABARROK: My mother’s family came from England. My father’s family came from Persia — from modern-day Iran.
And, as an academic, he has a long-standing interest in immigration.
[MUSIC: Soundstacks, “March of the Indians”]
TABARROK: Not so much as a research question but more as almost a moral question. Why do we have these tremendous boundaries for people simply exercising their right to move around? The right to move has got be one of the most fundamental rights and yet, for strange reasons, it stops at these arbitrary boundaries we call “national borders.”
DUBNER: You say, “for strange reasons.” But it’s not like we don’t understand the history of the world and power and nation-states and things like that, right? So, how strange are the reasons really? In other words, as much as you may not like those reasons, aren’t they very much a symptom of the way humans have behaved throughout history? Borders, I mean.
TABARROK: So, borders are very common in one sense. As you say, when you look around, that’s the way the world is organized. And we’ve just gotten so used to them that we don’t even ask very much about their fundamental justification. And it’s when you come to ask about the fundamental justifications for borders that they begin to look very strange. Because they run counter to almost all of our moral writings and intuitions and philosophies. So, whether we think about being utilitarians or egalitarians or a whole variety of, you know, libertarian views, borders become very difficult to justify. They’re inconsistent with much of our moral teachings in other areas of our life.
DUBNER: So, how do you reconcile that there’s this great historic literature of philosophy and moral philosophy and so on, which would seem to promote the freedom to go anywhere — to live and work anywhere — how do you reconcile that deep and rich history with the deep and rich history of real borders and real nation-states and real immigration policy? In other words — I’ll be the skeptic for a moment — I could just say, “Well, that’s what philosophers do. Philosophers talk about ‘in a perfect world where all people were X, Y, and Z, things would go like this.'” But we all know that philosophers have no idea how the world actually works.
TABARROK: So, you know, our moral intuitions and indeed our laws today are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, because of their gender, their sexual preference or other issues. But for odd reasons, it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else. You can, in fact, put up walls and machine guns and prevent someone from moving simply for the reason that they were born somewhere else. Now, to defend philosophy, for very long periods of time, racism was perfectly normal; people have been doing it for thousands of years. And then people began to ask, “Well, what justification is there for treating someone so differently just because of their race?” And when people couldn’t come up with an answer to that question, when they were forced into this discomforting area that they can’t justify this terrible injustice, things began to change. There are fundamental human rights. There are rights which accrue to everyone, no matter who they are, no matter where they are on the globe. Those rights include the right to free expression. They include the right to freedom of religion. And I believe they should also include the right to move about the Earth.
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MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think it is a human right, but I do think that there is a kind of sense of, “somebody’s taking my bread, so why don’t they live in their own country?”
That is Madeleine Albright.
DUBNER: Among other things, you were the U.S. Secretary of State, and before that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, correct?
ALBRIGHT: Absolutely, that is true.
Secretary Albright was herself a refugee, twice.
ALBRIGHT: Well, my father was a Czechoslovak diplomat and when the Nazis marched into Prague in March, 1939, I was two years old and my parents decided that they had to leave.
The family fled to London, endured the Blitz, and after the war returned to Czechoslovakia. Again, Albright’s father worked as a diplomat.
ALBRIGHT: When the Communists took over in February 1948, he had just gotten a new assignment which was to be the Czechoslovak representative on a commission to do with India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
But he did not want to work for the new Communist regime.
ALBRIGHT: And so he resigned, defected, and asked for political asylum in the United States. And it was granted. And we were technically called “displaced persons.” And we were refugees. And I hesitate to compare myself at all to the people that now are walking in deserts and drowning in boats and being refused entry into any country that they would like to go to, because my story was clearly one where we didn’t have that kind of suffering in order to get into the United States. But my father, on a regular basis, would say, “Other countries say, ‘sorry your country’s been taken over by terrible people, and you’re welcome here and when are you going home?’ And when we came to the United States, people would say, ‘We’re sorry your country’s been taken over by a terrible system, you’re welcome here and when will you become citizens?’” And he said that is the difference between other countries and America.
DUBNER: We should say, you are, admittedly, probably, the No. 1 poster girl for immigration to the United States. We were pretty lucky to get you.
ALBRIGHT: Well, I certainly am grateful, and I describe myself on my Twitter account as a grateful American. And I’m sitting in my office, and I have in front of me the manifest of the ship that I came in on — the SS America — on November 11, 1948; I have my commissions on the wall signed by President Clinton; and then, if I may, on the other side I have the Medal of Freedom that President Obama gave me. That’s my story and I’m grateful to be an American.
DUBNER: It’s hard for me to imagine that your own background did not inform the way you’ve looked at geopolitics as a professional, but maybe I’m wrong.
ALBRIGHT: Yes, absolutely it is true in the following way: I am a child of World War II and the Cold War, there’s no question about that. And when I saw very specifically — as you mentioned I was Ambassador at the United Nations — and when I saw what was happening in the Balkans, and people being loaded into trucks and trains and sent to concentration-slash-labor camps, I thought, “We’ve seen this before.” And when people in Bosnia and Kosovo later were being ethnically cleansed only because they were Muslims, I thought, “We can’t have that” when — you know, I was in the government —when I could argue for us doing something. So, yes, very much, I was informed by my own background. In addition, I later found out about my Jewish background, and people thought that maybe my action in Bosnia had to do with that. It didn’t because I obviously knew about the Holocaust; I didn’t however know that it applied to my own family. But, there is no question that my background definitely informed the way that I see things.
DUBNER: So, Madam Secretary, I have to ask: do you watch Madam Secretary, the TV show?
ALBRIGHT: I do, yes.
DUBNER: I’m guessing you’ve noticed that the Secretary in that show is briefly made Acting President when the line of succession kind of gets to her through a series of circumstances. But because you are not a natural-born U.S. citizen, that was not a possibility for you. I understand you were also excluded from nuclear contingency plans and so on. Did you, and/or do you consider those exclusions sensible based on your having been foreign-born, or more of a strange historical relic?
ALBRIGHT: Well I think it is a little bit of a strange historical relic, because of [Alexander] Hamilton, frankly. But, basically, I do think that naturalized citizens should be eligible, but after living in the country for a long, long time. I think that you cannot be the citizen of a country that you’ve just kind of arrived in, and I do think that it requires understanding the country. The opposite however — you didn’t ask me this, but — President Havel wanted me to become the President of the Czech Republic. And I refused for any number of reasons, but one, because I hadn’t lived there, I didn’t understand it.
DUBNER: How would you characterize the United States’ immigration policies over the last couple centuries? Have they been largely sensible and productive? Or somewhat random and occasionally contradictory, even xenophobic?
ALBRIGHT: I think that they have been episodic, to some extent. I think that mostly we have to remember that we are a country of immigrants and therefore they clearly have worked. And I’m very troubled by some of the discussion now. I know what it’s like. I have renewed my vows on a regular basis as an American. I didn’t become a citizen until I was a junior in college, and I take it very seriously. And then I also participated in a number of naturalization ceremonies and I have to say the most moving one was on July 4th, 2000, during the millennium at Monticello. And, as I handed the naturalization certificates to the people I said, “This is the most important piece of paper you will ever get. I have the same one, guard it with your life.”
[MUSIC: Dominik Hauser, “Drumline for Snares”]
All that said, and even though we are a country of immigrants, Madeleine Albright understands why immigration is so contentious.
ALBRIGHT: Well, I think the basic issue is fear. And the fear often comes from a sense that there’s an economic loss. That somebody’s taken your job, or your house, or married your sister.
You’ve heard these fears expressed, I’m sure. Especially whenever it’s presidential campaign season. These days, there’s the fear of terrorism.
DONALD TRUMP: Believe me, they’re not coming from Syria. They’re not coming in from Syria. Not if I’m here. ‘Cause we’re sending them back. We’re sending them back!
But also, the more historic fear of economic damage.
TABARROK: So, I think on the surface many people worry about jobs. And it is true that, you know, the economy is still somewhat shaky.
But this is where things get complicated.
MICHAEL CLEMENS: The effects on the wages of workers and on the economy as a whole are completely different.
That’s Michael Clemens.
CLEMENS: I’m a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and I’m an economist who studies global migration.
Clemens, like Tabarrok, takes a generally positive view on immigration and jobs. He does not, however, support open borders.
CLEMENS: I support sensible regulation of migration. And I think that sensible regulation of migration has to take into account the tremendous economic benefits of migration and the vast economic costs of barriers to migration.
OK, so let’s consider those benefits and costs. Let’s start with perhaps the most common concern: the effect that migration has on workers’ wages.
CLEMENS: The consensus of the economic research is that there may be a negative effect on the wages of some workers — particularly low-skill workers — in the countries that migrants go to, and that there is a large positive effect on the wages of workers in countries that migrants leave. And first of all it makes sense that there could be some degree of downward pressure on wages in the countries migrants go to. When there’s a greater supply of labor, the price would tend to go down. It’s also, for the same reason, in countries like Poland or Mexico where workers leave, you would expect upward pressure on wages.
That seems sensible: you increase the supply of labor in country X and you might depress wages there for some people. And if the workers came from country Y, their absence may increase wages for the workers left behind. But, Clemens says, the wage decrease in country X is not as scary as it sounds.
CLEMENS: One thing that economists have found is that the downward pressure on wages in countries where migrants go is much less than the upward pressure on wages that migrants leave. And that makes sense too, because when people leave a country, they tend to be pretty good substitutes for the other workers in that country. But workers that arrive in a country tend to be very different from the workers that surround them. Often they have much lower — or much higher — education levels, for example, and tend to complement workers in the workforce. That’s just one of the reasons why the overall effect on wages of workers in the countries that migrants go to is very low, and typically measured around zero.
[MUSIC: Soundstacks, “March of the Indians”]
Did you catch that? The overall effect in country X, where the new workers are coming, is typically “measured around zero.” Some economic research finds that migrants make non-migrants more productive. And Clemens points out that 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies — the 500 largest corporations in the U.S. — were founded by migrants or their children.
CLEMENS: Migrants bring ideas and new technologies. Migrants bring a diversity of culture that can lead to all kinds of unpredictable economic interactions. We’re talking about a story that is way, way more complicated than just: migrants come and for every migrant who comes they take a job.
It might be helpful, Clemens says, to think about a different infusion of labor into the U.S. economy, which didn’t have anything to do with migration.
CLEMENS: So think about women entering the labor force after the 1940s — millions of women entering the labor force working who were not working before outside the home. That had a tremendously positive effect on the U.S. economy, even though economists have shown that some of those women competed, to some degree, with men who were already in the workforce. That is, some women entering the workforce may have exerted modest downward pressure on the wages of some men, particularly low-skilled men. Why do the benefits of that massively exceed the costs? Because the economy is very complex. Women entering the labor force are not exactly identical to men so they often complement men in the workplace rather than substitute for them. Migrants are just like that. Women start businesses that employ men. Migrants do too. Women take the money that they earn in the labor market and spend it on stuff that’s often made by men. Migrants do that as well. That’s why, even though there might have been wage-competition between men and women in the ’50s and ’60s, nobody would say now we would make the U.S. richer by banning women from working, to any degree.
So that’s one way to look at the economic effects of migration within a country. But what about the big picture? What about migration and global productivity? A few years ago, Michael Clemens wrote an influential paper:
CLEMENS: It’s called “Economics and Emigration: Trillion Dollar Bills On The Sidewalk.”
[MUSIC: Morrie Morrison Orchestra, “Pan American”]
The title refers to an old joke. Two economists are walking down the street. (I know, it’s pretty funny already.) One of them sees what looks like a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk. “Hey, isn’t that a $20 bill?” he says. “It can’t be,” the other one says. “Somebody would have already picked it up.” In other words, nobody just leaves free money lying around — except, Michael Clemens argues, when it comes to labor mobility.
CLEMENS: So, you know how in real estate they say that value is all about location, location, location. It’s the same for the value of your labor. And that has a remarkable implication. It means that barriers that keep you in places where you’re less economically productive keep you from making the contribution you could make. And for every person who’s kept in a poor country, that’s a tiny little drag on the world economy that adds up. So, what that means is that even a modest relaxation of the barriers to migration that we have right now — I’m talking about one in 20 people who now live in poor countries being able to work in a rich country — would add trillions of dollars a year to the world economy. It would add more value to the world economy than dropping all remaining barriers to trade, every tariff, every quota — and dropping all remaining barriers to international investment combined.
Isn’t that an astonishing claim? Believable, perhaps, but still astonishing. And that’s why Alex Tabarrok calls immigration “the world’s best anti-poverty program.”
TABARROK: It’s actually very simple. You take a person from a poor country, a country like Haiti for example, and you bring them to the United States or another developed country, and their wages go up. Three times, four times, fives times. I’m told, sometimes as much as ten times. So, it’s an incredible increase in living standards simply by moving someone from where their labor has low value, moving them to where their labor has high value. It’s far more effective than any other anti-poverty program we’ve ever tried.
DUBNER: So, that sounds good on the input side. What about on the output side? Or the emigrating side? So, if I say, “You know, I think I’m going to take the 10 percent best, smartest, hardest-working, most devoted potential employees or students from country X, Haiti,” what does that do to Haiti? Is that a tide that lifts all boats? Or does it lift my boat and the boats of the 10 percent who get here?
TABARROK: So, I think there are two points to make here: First of all, the 10 percent of Haiti, Haiti doesn’t have a right to say, “We own these people. And they’re going to be chained to our country because if we let them go, the rest of us are going to be worse off.” That’s not how we treat people. Now, on the economic issue, what does happen? It actually looks like everybody is better off. First of all, the Haitians that move, they maintain ties with their older country, they send back lots of remittances, which are again, a very effective anti-poverty program. It’s much better for example, if parents send back money to their kids in Haiti or to their grandparents in Haiti. That’s a much more effective program — individual money transfers — than a transfer of money from one government to another government. So, overall this interconnecting of the world, I think, makes pretty much everyone better off.
So it is on those two foundations – economic and moral – that Alex Tabarrok makes his case for getting rid of national borders. It is such a compelling case that it’s easy to forget, for a moment at least, just how implausible it is.
[MUSIC: KP Devlin, “The Fall” (from Violescent)]
GENE CALLAHAN: A nation has a right to control who does and doesn’t join it and who does and doesn’t enter its borders — just like any other any human group does.
That’s Gene Callahan. He teaches economics at St. Joseph’s College in New York.
CALLAHAN: A characteristic of any human organization, any human group, is the ability to control some sort of border. This radio station couldn’t function as a radio station if everyone who wanted to come in and grab a mic could grab one. The New York Knicks couldn’t function as a basketball team if I could wander out anytime I want and demand to play point guard.
CALLAHAN: Any nation that wants to have a welcome-all-immigrants policy, I think they are entitled to have it. My point is that the nation itself should decide who gets to join and who doesn’t.
Just as Tabarrok uses both morality and economics in arguing for open borders, Callahan does the same in arguing against. First, the moral:
CALLAHAN: I think that it’s a wonderful thing when a nation wishes to be charitable to refugees. I think it’s very much analogous to whether a family would want to take them in. And I think the U.S. could accept Syrian refugees, for instance, in some number. But, no refugee child would have a right to demand that my family take them in. It’s an act of charity. That’s a wonderful thing to do, but a family may not have the capacity. They may already be just scraping by. It’s their decision, in other words.
Callahan’s economic objection to open borders goes to Alex Tabarrok’s political leanings.
CALLAHAN: Being that he’s a libertarian, he has a belief in strong property rights. So, presumably, he doesn’t feel that Bill Gates, for instance, has to let my kids into his family, because Bill Gates’s kids have a lot of opportunities that my kids don’t. So, if we don’t have that principal in terms of property rights, why does it suddenly become mandatory in terms of nations?
So this gets to an even bigger idea than open borders – which is the idea of borders generally, and also of the nation-state. Which means this is probably a good time to take a step back in history. To the earliest borders, which were … when? Very hard to say. The first city-states of Mesopotamia had walled borders, more than 6,000 years ago.
[MUSIC: J. Cowit, “Driplets” (from Hopefully)]
PHILIPPE LEGRAIN: The development of borders accelerated with permanent settlement, the movement to agriculture, and therefore the need to defend particular parts of land, militarily, from people who wanted to take that land or to pillage that land.
That’s Philippe Legrain, an economist and writer.
LEGRAIN: They also develop in order to be able to tax and control trade, to enforce local monopolies, to impose, in effect, import duties and those kinds of things.
So, you might think there’s a straight line from ancient history up to today, with restrictive borders everywhere all the while. But, that’s not the case. Before World War I, Legrain tells us, many Western countries essentially had open borders.
LEGRAIN: Indeed, the United States had an open-door policy. Britain had an open-door policy. Indeed, Britain’s first immigration restrictions came only in 1905. So we do have experience of running countries without the immigration controls we have now. And it worked just fine.
Legrain himself is — well, he’s European.
LEGRAIN: I was born in London. My father is French, and my mother is Estonian.
As for his views on immigration? Well, one of his books is called Immigrants, Your Country Needs Them.
LEGRAIN: So, you see that many arguments that are framed in the economic way actually are xenophobic in origin. So, you can see that when migrants are working they’re accused of stealing our jobs, and when they’re out of work, they’re accused of sponging off welfare. When they’re rich, they’re accused of driving prices up and when they’re poor, they’re accused of driving standards down.
[MUSIC: J. Cowit, “At the Top of Sunset” (from Metamorphosis World Peace)]
Legrain used to be an economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, which gave him a front-row seat to one of most amazing open-border experiments in history: the European Union and the Schengen Agreement that preceded it.
LEGRAIN: The Schengen Agreement started with a handful of countries in the 1980s. It’s since been broadened to 26 countries, 22 of which are members of the European Union, and four of them are not. And people can move freely across them without showing their passport. That’s true whether they’re crossing the border, for example, between France and Belgium or France and Italy. And it’s true if they’re taking a plane between those countries. So, in effect it’s like when you cross the United States, going across the state line or taking a plane from one place to another.
So, parts of Europe have been experimenting with open borders since the 1980s. Then, in 2004, several poorer, former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe joined the E.U. That increased the supply of people eligible to move about – by about 100 million people.
LEGRAIN: Now, one would expect, therefore, that 100 million — or, indeed, perhaps a very large proportion of that — would have moved. And in fact, what one finds is that only four million out of those 100 million have moved, and most of those have moved temporarily. And one should not underestimate the divisions in incomes between these countries. Romania, for example, is about six times poorer than Sweden. That’s a bigger gap than exists between the United States and Mexico. And despite those huge gaps, you see that only a fraction of people move, and that those who do move tend to move temporarily. Second, it simply isn’t true that society has collapsed. On the contrary, all the studies show that the immigrants have been good for the economies to which they’ve moved, that they haven’t taken jobs, that they haven’t depressed wages, that they’re net contributors to public finances — so they pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits — indeed, you know, they tend to complement the work of local workers, and therefore enhance their productivity. So, for example, if you’ve got hard-working Polish builders, they may encourage their British co-workers to work harder; they may enable the British owner of the company for which they work to expand. Insofar as they’re more willing to work, they may increase the size of the building industry in general, and we’ve seen all those things happen. And as a result of that, both the Poles themselves and Britons are better off.
And what about the effect on Poland?
LEGRAIN: Now, it’s true that if too many people leave a country, an economy, that it may suffer as a result. But it’s hard to make that case with Poland. Poland is the most successful economy in Europe by a long stand since the crisis. So it’s hard to make an argument that Poland is suffering from that. I think you can go one step further and just say, even if Poland were suffering, that’s not a reason to restrict freedom of movement. We don’t generally say that one ought to constrain people’s freedom simply because it might be detrimental to the place where they happen to be born.
[MUSIC: Soundstacks, “March of the Indians”]
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[MUSIC: Stag, “Ides of March” (from Stag)]
DUBNER: So Alex, would an open-border policy as you’re proposing be essentially an immigration policy only or does it become quickly much broader than that? I mean, the way I envision it working, as you propose, is that it would inherently, maybe not quickly, but inherently lead essentially to end of the nation-state, no?
TABARROK: No, not necessarily. I mean, after all look, we have open borders in the Unites States between states, and Texas is still different than New York is different than Mississippi. We have open borders between cities, but Los Angeles is a different place than Chicago. So, I’m not against different regions having their own laws and cultures and mores. But I think people ought to be able to move between those regions.
CALLAHAN: I at one point, myself, held the libertarian position like Tabarrok’s on immigration. Many of the libertarian economists are anarchists actually, and are in favor of the nation-state going away. And they think that private-law institutions could handle everything the nation- state does. So in many cases, I suspect that the real objection is to the existence of the nation-state, not to its particular policy.
Callahan’s view on the nation-state, meanwhile, is clear.
CALLAHAN: The nation-state has an obligation to protect the life, the wellbeing, the health of its citizens. This is what the nation-state exists for. And the fact that it treats its citizens different than citizens of elsewhere just means that it’s doing its duty. Its duty is to them. So the fact that it stands in a different relation to those citizens than to citizens of other nations is not a moral outrage. It’s in fact the moral reason that the nation-state exists.
Whether you agree more with Callahan’s view of the nation-state, or Tabarrok’s, is likely the result of many factors, probably many personal factors. Like, how many borders you or your family have crossed, and whether those were round trips or one-way journeys; whether you think the benefits to society outweigh the costs; and whether the nation-state you happen to live in is one where people are desperate to get in to – or desperate to leave.
ALBRIGHT: I do think that what people should do is, frankly, put themselves into the shoes of somebody who is desperate and good and wants to contribute, and is treated in an inhuman way when they arrive at a border.
That’s former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright again. The refugees on her watch, back in the late 1990s, were from Bosnia and Kosovo. The refugees she’s thinking about these days are primarily from the civil war in Syria. They are said to number more than four million.
ALBRIGHT: The thing that I find hard about — and again this goes back to my background and traveling across this huge country — we have room in the United States for people. And immigrants have been pretty good citizens, frankly, and want to be a part of this country. And it’s very hard for us to tell other countries that have more dense populations and less space, “you do something” and we are saying, “not here.” I believe in the role of the United States. I happen to believe we are an exceptional nation of immigrants
DUBNER: Let’s assume that one agrees with your position on the strength of diversity. The practical question to my mind at least becomes then, how does one — meaning a nation, a government, any community – how does one balance that strength with the realities of immigration and economics and so on?” In other words, how does one sensibly set the rules for who’s allowed to move into a country and who’s not? Because if we presumably opened up, let’s say the American borders to anyone and everyone, we’d get pretty crowded pretty fast. And I assume that that’s not the idea that you have in mind.
ALBRIGHT: Look, I do think there need to be certain rules for coming in to a country. I find stunning, the following set of facts. Jordan, they have refugees from Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. In numbers — proportional numbers to their population — it is as though the United States had 60 million refugees. We can’t even deal with 11 million undocumented workers. I think that where we have been makes no sense at all and there needs to be — absent the Syrian issue, even before — some kind of a rational immigration program for the United States. Try to figure out how people come here, what the procedure is, fairness, legality, a whole aspect of things. But for me, the default position should be that we do benefit by the diversity, that we can use more people, that people want to work, and that there can and will be jobs for them. It doesn’t mean that we can just say, “y’all come.” I do think that there has to be some way of checking who is who. I do believe that.
Albright’s position may strike you as moderate, sensible, almost inarguable — depending, of course, on the context. Meaning, at any moment, what’s going on — in the world, in our minds and in the small rooms where big decisions are made?
[MUSIC: Wounded Buffalo Theory, “Thirteen” (from Japan on the Moon)]
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In November, jihadists killed 130 people in Paris. One of the killers them reportedly had a Syrian passport that bore the name of a Syrian refugee. That passport is now believed to be fake. Within hours of the attacks, some presidential candidates in the U.S. called for closing our borders to Syrian refugees.
MONTAGE of presidential candidates
BEN CARSON: To bring them here, under these circumstances, is a suspension of intellect.
CHRIS CHRISTIE: I don’t think orphans under 5 should be admitted to the United States at this point. They don’t have family here. How are we going to care for these folks? We have to put the security of the United States first.
TRUMP: I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, if I win, they’re going back. They’re going back. I’m telling you. They’re going back!
LEGRAIN: Well sure, obviously the Paris attacks are horrific, shocking, and you know, people not just in Paris and France but across Europe, are afraid.
That’s Philippe Legrain, the European economist.
LEGRAIN: I mean, even if there had been border controls within the Schengen Area, there still would’ve been the attacks on Paris. Most of the perpetrators were French; some of them were based in Belgium. So, the idea that somehow closing the borders is the right response to terrorism, I think has no basis in logic. Unfortunately, we’re in a political climate at the moment where all these issues are being conflated, and whereby people are, one, reacting in the spirit of the moment — an emotional way — and two, where nasty, far-right politicians are trying to profit from this situation. They’re saying, “We told you so, immigration is a bad thing,” and conflating the idea of immigration, Islam, terrorism, refugees, and saying the solution is to shut up shop and turn away refugees.
That same conflation has been happening in the U.S. And it was magnified when a married couple killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. It was labeled a terrorist attack, as the couple supported ISIS ideology. The husband was born in Chicago, to an immigrant family from Pakistan; the wife came to the U.S. from Pakistan in July, 2014, on what’s known as a “fiancé visa,” whose screening process is said to be particularly rigorous. Donald Trump took the hardest line among the Presidential candidates, calling for a temporary but complete ban on all Muslim immigrants to the U.S. There was plenty of outrage, sure – but Trump’s position also lifted his poll numbers to an all-time high.
[MUSIC: Shane Theriot Jack Miele, “American Streets”]
CLEMENS: It’s critical to protect the security of the country. That’s an important thing to do.
That’s the economist Michael Clemens again, whose specialty is global migration.
CLEMENS: However, there is a long tradition in this country of overreacting to imagined security threats. This was one of the reasons why there was a movement to ban Catholics in the middle of the 19th century, because there was a perceived threat of the Vatican taking over governance of the U.S. It was the reason cited to exclude all ethnically Chinese people for 70 years. It was a reason cited to exclude Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans perceived to be anarchists and Communists in the 1920s.
If you are a progressive, or a capital-D Democrat, or even a libertarian, Clemens’s argument probably rings true. But if you’re not — or even if you’re just influenced a little bit by the recent terrorism — then the idea of opening up our borders, as Alex Tabarrok is advocating, isn’t even a legitimate idea.
CALLAHAN: It would seem that if Tabarrok is really serious, that if a couple thousand members of ISIS showed up today and said, “Well, we’re here to overthrow your government,” we’d have to say, “We can’t stop you until they do something.” Certainly, I think if we can stop someone at the border who has evil intents and stop them there, that’s better than catching them later. And without borders, of course, we can’t do that.
[MUSIC: From Indian Lakes, “Till I Can Walk” (from Able Bodies)]
I interviewed Alex Tabarrok just before the Paris attacks. Afterwards, I e-mailed him. Here’s what he wrote back: “My view is that this is less about immigration than it is about war. We are at war with Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and other elements in the Middle East … Even if we conclude that we need to scrutinize young, Middle Eastern men more closely for security reasons, we also ought to recognize our common humanity with the refugees. The refugees are running from the same evil death cult that attacked us. ISIS has killed many more Muslims than Christians or Europeans.”
BASEL ESA: My name is Basel. Basel Esa.
Basel Esa is a Syrian refugee who made it to Germany on his 23rd birthday.
ESA: The journey was so hard, very, very extremely hard. We crossed to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to Austria to Germany.
It wasn’t ISIS he was running away from. It was the Assad regime.
ESA: Bashar Assad kills every day. They slaughter, actually slaughter, kill people with knives. They killed children, they killed babies. Let me tell you something, one of my relatives, he and his wife and his small baby one year baby, Bashar Assad burned him, burned him with fire. Five times I was almost very close to death. One time I was going to take a bullet from a Bashar Assad sniper. I actually heard the sound of the bullet near my head it was like zoom, exactly near my ear. I heard that.
Esa and a friend paid smugglers to get them from Turkey across the Mediterranean. He says the entire trip from Turkey to Germany took him 16 days. He didn’t get much to eat or drink during the trip; he slept outside, in the cold.
ESA: The way I came in, that was absolutely wrong. I just came here by myself, you know, me and my friends. But we are young guys, we can handle everything. We can stay for hours without food; we can sleep in cold, because we’re young. But some people, they have families; some people they have kids; some people they have babies. And I’ve seen miserable things there. There was a baby, a small baby that was like five or six months. He was crying. And his dad told me that he had problem in his lungs, and he can’t stay here because it’s too cold for him. And I talked to the Hungarian police and they said, “OK, go back, go back.” What, go back? We are human beings here. We are humans.
It’s natural to empathize with someone like Esa – or with any refugee who’s fleeing hardship. But you can also understand why so many countries are reluctant to accept large numbers of refugees. There are economic reasons, cultural reasons and yes, fear. But it isn’t as though we haven’t been through this before, unfortunately.
CLEMENS: We know exactly how to handle this refugee crisis because this is not the first time, by any means, that this has happened. Think back to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. In the space of a few months, 200,000 Hungarians fled a Soviet crackdown in and around Budapest, and ended up across the border in Austria — desperate people fleeing for their lives. One of two things could have happened: They could have been put in camps; they could have been shunted from one country to another as everybody played beggar-thy-neighbor, trying to get rid of these people. Or they could have been assisted by a broad coalition of countries around the world. Fortunately, what actually happened is the second one. Thirty-seven countries came together through the U.N. and an organization that later became the International Organization for Migration. They sat down, they shared responsibility for assisting those Hungarians broadly. Some of them went to the U.S., some to Canada, some stayed in Austria, some to Germany. Some went to Paraguay, some went to Colombia, New Zealand — all over the world. And because of that sharing, they ended up being massively beneficial to the places they went. The cinematographer of Ghostbusters was one of them, who moved to L.A. as a kid. The founder of Intel Corporation, which probably made the chip in your phone or computer, was one of them — tremendously beneficial, but only because of a choice. And it was the choice to broadly share responsibility for assisting them. They could have been turned into a burden, just an expense to keep them alive in the camps. Instead they were turned into a resource, in fact, a gift. That’s exactly what Syrians could be. The numbers involved are not numbers that would overwhelm a broad group of countries. They are numbers that can overwhelm one, two, or three countries if other countries don’t assist those places where all of them are ending up. And that’s what’s happening right now, and it’s a terrible shame, not just for the migrants but for the countries that could benefit from those people if they were willing to do what’s necessary to turn them into a resource. It is bitterly ironic that Hungary, which was the source of many refugees in living memory is turning them away.
[MUSIC: Aubrey Agard, “Mister Sunshine” (from Tangerine Toad)]
You have by now figured out that many economists, if not most, agree that immigration is net-positive.
TABARROK: Absolutely. This is one of the things on which economists unite. So, I think economists look at the world and they see opportunities for trade. There’s lots of opportunities for trade between us and residents of the rest of the world. And when people from the other parts of the world move here, that’s really what’s going on. We’re allowing them to trade labor for money. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for mutual gain. And I think economists look around and they see the history of the United States —as well as other parts of the world — and they see there has been tremendous immigration into the United States. And wages have gone up, standards of living have gone up.
DUBNER: So, let’s imagine that open borders starts to happen. Walk me through, in your view, how it would work — the immigration itself, the assimilation, all the kind of transactional and social elements.
TABARROK: So, if someone wanted to immigrate, they would come to the United States, you know, on an airplane like normal people do. So it’d be a much more humane system. Now, there are a whole bunch of questions we can start to ask, such as: Should the immigrants be allowed to access the welfare system? How difficult would it be to become a citizen? And I’m actually quite agnostic on those questions. So to me, it would be fine to allow immigrants to come in and not give them much cash welfare. I think that would perfectly moral. So my issue is preventing people from moving. I don’t say that we must give them things when they do move here. Now, what would we see in the United States if this happened? I do think it is fair to say the following: we would see more poverty in the United States. And I literally mean that we would see it. But you know, out of sight, out of mind is not out of morality. So we would see more poverty here. But there would actually be less poverty in the world as a whole. The United States would look different. But I don’t think that it’s right to say, “In order that I — to make myself feel good — I don’t want to see poverty. And in order to solve that problem, I’m going to push the poor people out into another country.” That’s what I don’t think is right.
There is one more proposal, also from an economist, that might allow more people to come to the U.S. without taking the risk of increasing poverty. How?
CASEY MULLIGAN: You know, these two sides could be in more harmony if we just charged a fee for immigration.
That’s Casey Mulligan.
MULLIGAN: And I’m a professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
MULLIGAN: That immigration fee would, on one hand, help cover the costs that the opponents are justly worried about. On the other hand, it would create opportunities for people who haven’t been able to get through our bureaucracy to get American citizenship, to raise the money and become a U.S. citizen when they want to be one.
So, what kind of fee was Becker thinking about?
MULLIGAN: The example he cited was $50,000, although the precise number is not important.
Eventually, of course, you’d need to find the right price. That’s what economists do. You’d also need to decide how many immigration slots you want to put up for sale.
MULLIGAN: I think when our country was growing — especially in the 19th century — the right price was fairly close to zero. So zero didn’t do such a bad job in terms of getting the number of immigrants that was good for the country and good for the immigrants. And then things changed. Especially our welfare state grew — grew massively. And zero wasn’t the right price anymore and I’m not sure we ever went back and thought through, you know, maybe we should update this. Maybe some of these immigrant crises that we have now around the world will motivate some of that thinking, and a country will try it, and we can see how it works.
The fact is that many refugees now are paying thousands of dollars in smuggling fees and bribes. Wouldn’t it be better for that money to go directly to their destination country rather than fueling a black market? Now, I can you hear you, podcast listeners: the outrage that’s fomenting in your brain. Setting a price on the right to immigrate? It’s un-American! It’s unethical!
MULLIGAN: I think there are ethical dilemmas in not doing it as well. I mean there are people who really suffer because we don’t let them in or they can’t get through the bureaucratic hurdles that we use in our price-equals-zero approach to this problem.
So what kind of immigrants would this fee-based structure appeal to?
MULLIGAN: They might have an advanced degree that could give them a good financial return after they come to America.
But what if you don’t have $50,000 or whatever it costs to get into America? Gary Becker considered that.
MULLIGAN: Yeah I think he envisioned it very much like acquiring higher education. That’s costly — in fact, a lot more costly than $50,000 — to get a four-year college degree, not to mention a medical degree or a law degree. And there’s a market there that people get loans, they get assistance, they may have an employer who would like them to have that degree and so they help finance it. So the market would present a lot of opportunities to raise that money.
But wait a minute. Wouldn’t this make it easy for terrorists to buy their way into our country?
MULLIGAN: I also don’t think we should delude ourselves that the price equals zero system that we have now somehow shuts out ISIS more than it shuts out law abiding people from Europe or Africa or Asia, or wherever they may be coming from.
OK, so even if this doesn’t increase the risk of terrorism, isn’t this basically an invitation for some other country — China, maybe — to buy up all the immigration slots that we’ve put up for sale?
MULLIGAN: Oh, that would be good news. That would mean that you could set a much higher price and get a lot more revenue from this than we ever expected. So, whenever you’re selling something and you have a sellout on the first day, it’s a time for celebration. It’s a time for adjustment, yes, but a time for celebration.
[MUSIC: Lucy Bland, “Backseat” (from The Ruiner)]
I don’t expect that Casey Mulligan – or any of the other economists we’ve spoken with today – have fundamentally changed your views on immigration. Our individual opinions on this issue tend to be pretty – well, fundamental. If you see the world in a certain way, then open borders makes sense — economically and morally at least. But as a practical matter, especially as you invoke emotions, and that gets turned into politics – it’s much more complicated. At the very least, I thank you for listening in today as we talked this through. One thing history teaches us is that our predictions about the future are generally terrible. But if we can collectively push our thinking on hard issues like immigration just a bit more into the future, we probably stand a slightly better chance of getting on the right side of history before it’s too late.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Arwa Gunja, with help from Nigar Fatali. Our staff also includes Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas behind this episode:
- Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University
- Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, former U.S. Ambassador to the United States, Chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University
- Michael Clemens, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development where he leads the Migration and Development initiative
- Gene Callahan, lecturer at St. Joseph’s College and contributor to The American Conservative
- Philippe Legrain, visiting senior fellow at London School of Economics at European Institute; former Economic Adviser to the President of the European Commission; author of “European Spring; Why our Economies and Politics Are a Mess and How to Put Them Right“
- Casey Mulligan, Professor in Economics and the College at University of Chicago, author of “The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy” and “Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health Care Reform”
- Gary Becker, economist and sociologist at University of Chicago (d. 2014)
- Naveen, political asylee from Egypt
- Basel Esa, refugee from Syria
- “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely” by Alex Tabarok, The Atlantic (Oct. 10, 2015)
- “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” by Michael Clemens, Journal of Economic Perspectives (Summer 2011)
- “The Open Borders Fantasy,” by Gene Callahan The American Conservative (Oct 2015)
- “The ‘New American’ Fortune 500,” Partnership for a New American Economy (June 2011)
- “How Immigrants and Job Mobility Help Low-Skilled Workers,” by Mette Foged, Giovanni Peri (April 2015)
- “Task Specialization, Immigration, and Wages,” by Peri, Giovanni, and Chad Sparber, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (2009)
- “How Poland Became Europe’s Most Dynamic Economy,” by Stephan Faris Bloomberg Business (November 27, 2013)
- “Fear of Terrorism Lifts Donald Trump in New York Times/CBS Poll,” by Jonathan Martin and Dalia Sussman The New York Times (Dec. 10, 2015)
- “Immigration and Globalization: A Review Essay,” by George J. Borjas, Harvard University (September 2014)
- “A Market Solution to Immigration Reform,” by Gary S. Becker and Edward Lazear, The Wall Street Journal (March 1, 2103)
- “Watch 1000 Years of European Borders Change In 3 Minutes,” Viral Forest
- Syria Regional Refugee Response, UNHCR
- “Watch: Here’s What the Refugee Screening Process Looks Like,” The White House