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The Case for Open Immigration: A Q&A With Philippe Legrain

Philippe Legrain

A British economist and journalist, Philippe Legrain has served as special adviser to the director-general of the World Trade Organization and worked as the trade and economics correspondent for the Economist. For his latest book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, he spent over six months interviewing immigrants across the globe and researching immigration policies in wealthy countries. (Click here for an earlier immigrant’s tale on this blog; and here to see what Fred Thompson had to say on the subject.) The book was just nominated for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. Legrain kindly agreed to answer our questions.

Q: You argue that immigration is a good thing, under almost any circumstances. Why? Are there any circumstances in which it isn’t good?

A: I think freedom of movement is one of the most basic human rights, as anyone who is denied it can confirm. It is abhorrent that the rich and the educated are allowed to circulate around the world more or less freely, while the poor are not — causing, in effect, a form of global apartheid. So I think the burden of proof lies with supporters of immigration controls to justify why they think letting people move freely would have such catastrophic consequences. And, frankly, I don’t think they can.

The economic case for open borders is as compelling as the moral one. No government, except perhaps North Korea’s, would dream of trying to ban the movement of goods and services across borders; trying to ban the movement of most people who produce goods and services is equally self-defeating. When it comes to the domestic economy, politicians and policymakers are forever urging people to be more mobile, and to move to where the jobs are. But if it is a good thing for people to move from Kentucky to California in search of a better job, why is it so terrible for people to move from Mexico to the U.S. to work?

We tend to think it’s fine that foreign financiers cluster together in New York, I.T. specialists in Silicon Valley, and actors in Hollywood, while American bankers ply their trade in London, Hong Kong, and China; surely the same logic should apply to Mexican construction workers, Filipino care workers, and Congolese cleaners coming to the U.S. After all, they are all simply service providers plying their trade abroad.

From a global perspective, freer migration could bring huge economic gains. When workers from poor countries move to rich ones, they can make use of the advanced economies’ superior capital, technologies, and institutions, making these economies much more productive. Economists calculate that removing immigration controls could more than double the size of the world economy. Even a small relaxation of immigration controls would yield disproportionately big gains.

From an ethical point of view, it seems hard to argue against a policy that would do so much to help people poorer than ourselves. A Rand study of recent immigrants to the U.S. finds that the typical immigrant ends up $20,000 per year better off. And it’s not just the migrants themselves who gain — it’s their countries of origin, too. Already, migrants born in poor countries and working in rich ones send home much more — some $200 billion a year officially, perhaps another $400 billion informally — than the miserly $100 billion that Western governments give in aid. These remittances are not wasted on weapons or siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts; they go straight into the pockets of local people. They pay for food, clean water, and medicines. They enable children to stay in school, fund small businesses, and benefit the local economy. What’s more, when migrants return home, they bring with them new skills, new ideas, and the money to start new businesses that can provide a huge boost to the local economy. For example, Africa’s first Internet cafés were started by migrants returning from Europe.

The World Bank calculates that, in countries where remittances account for a large share of the economy (11 percent of GDP on average), they slash the poverty rate by a third. Even in countries that receive relatively few (2.2 percent of GDP on average) remittances can cut the poverty rate by nearly a fifth. Since the true level of remittances is much higher than official figures, their impact on poverty is likely to be even greater. And, by keeping children in school, paying for them to see doctors, and funding new businesses, remittances can boost economic growth. One study finds that when remittances increase by one percentage point of GDP, growth rises by 0.2 percentage points.

From a cultural perspective, immigration is a win-win for the U.S. America needs immigrants because they add something extra to the mix, enriching the economy, culture, and society. For a start, they tend to be enterprising and hard-working people, because it takes courage to uproot yourself in search of a better life. Those who come from countries that offer fewer opportunities than the U.S. are more willing to do the low-skilled jobs that America’s aging and increasingly wealthy citizens rely on, but are unwilling to do — essential services that cannot readily be mechanized or imported, such as caring for the young and old, and cleaning homes, offices, and hospitals.

Some immigrants bring exceptional skills that American companies need if they are to compete in a global marketplace. Also, immigrants’ collective diversity and dynamism helps spur innovation and economic growth, because if people who think differently bounce ideas off each other, they can solve problems better and faster. Just look at Silicon Valley: Intel, Yahoo, Google, eBay, and others were all co-founded by immigrants who arrived in the U.S. not as highly-skilled graduates, but as children.

Q: What are the hidden costs of current immigration restrictions?

A: The biggest cost is the humanitarian crisis — the deaths and suffering in the desert; the detentions; the soaring expense of border controls and bureaucracy; a criminalized people-smuggling industry; an expanding shadow economy in which illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labor laws are broken and taxes go unpaid; an undermining of faith in government, because politicians cannot deliver on their promises to halt immigration; and a corrosion of attitudes towards immigrants, who are perceived as law-breakers rather than hard-working and enterprising people. Despite efforts to build a Fortress America, nearly a million foreigners bypass U.S. defenses each year: some enter covertly, while others overstay their visas and then work illicitly. Clearly, draconian policies do not prevent migration, but rather drive it underground — a result that has huge costs.

These consequences, both economic and humanitarian, are generally blamed on immigrants themselves, but they are actually due to misguided immigration controls. Even those who view immigration as a threat should recognize that current policies achieve the worst of both worlds: they are not just costly and cruel, but also ineffective and counterproductive. Far from protecting society, they undermine law and order.

Those who claim that tougher laws and restrictions could stop immigration are peddling a false prospectus. Even if, at a huge cost, the U.S. built a wall along its vast border with Mexico, deployed an armada to patrol its shores, searched every arriving vehicle and vessel, denied visas altogether to people from developing countries, and enforced stringent internal checks on people’s right to remain here, migrants would get through — documents can be forged or stolen, people smuggled, officials bribed. And by trying to protect the country from the phantom menace of immigration, officials could end up turning the U.S. into a police state.

Q: What are the biggest barriers to enacting open immigration policies in rich countries like the U.S., the U.K., and Australia?

A: Fear of change and fear of foreigners.

Critics worry that low-skilled immigration is harmful because the newcomers are poorer and less-educated than Americans. But that is precisely why they are willing to do low-paid, low-skilled jobs that Americans shun. In 1960, over half of American workers older than 25 were high school dropouts; now, only one in ten are. Understandably, high school graduates aspire to better things, while even those with no qualifications don’t want to do certain dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs. The only way to reconcile high aspirations for all with the reality of drudgery for some is through immigration.

It is also widely believed that immigrants take local workers’ jobs, with the assumption that only a fixed number of jobs exist to go around. This is nonsense. We heard similar scare stories when women began to enter the labor force in large numbers: many men thought that if women started working, there would be fewer jobs for them. In fact, of course, most women now work, as do most men. Why? Because people don’t just take jobs, they also create them. They create jobs as they spend their wages because they create extra demand for people to produce the goods and services they consume; and they create jobs as they work, because they stimulate demand for complementary workers. An influx of construction workers, for instance, boosts demand for those selling building supplies, as well as for interior designers. Thus, while the number of immigrants has risen sharply over the past twenty years, America’s unemployment rate has fallen.

But do some American workers lose out? The answer is: hardly any. In fact, most actually gain. Why? Because, as critics of immigration are the first to admit, immigrants are different than Americans, so they rarely compete directly with U.S. citizens in the labor market. Often, immigrants complement the efforts of native citizens — a foreign nanny may enable an American mother to go back to work, where her productivity may be enhanced — while also stimulating extra capital investment.

Study after study has failed to find evidence that immigrants harm American workers. Harvard’s George Borjas claims otherwise, but his partial approach is flawed because it neglects the broader similarities between immigrant labor, native labor and capital. A recent NBER study by Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri found that the influx of foreign workers between 1990 and 2004 raised the average wage of U.S.-born workers by 2 percent. Nine in ten American workers gained; only one in ten, (all high school dropouts), lost slightly, by 1 percent.

Another fear among citizens of wealthy countries is that their nations act as “welfare magnets” for poorer migrants. True, if people from poor countries are better off on welfare in the U.S. than they are working in Mexico, this could conceivably motivate them to migrate. But immigrants would still be even better off working in the U.S. than living on welfare. As such, immigrants would have to be enterprising enough to uproot themselves to start a new life in a foreign land, but then suddenly become sapped of enterprise once they arrive in the U.S. This outcome is highly improbable — and there is no evidence, as even Borjas concedes, that the U.S. actually does act as a welfare magnet.

In any case, migrants’ access to social benefits is increasingly restricted in most rich countries. America’s Welfare Reform Act of 1996, for instance, cut off immigrants’ access to federal public benefits. If rich countries allowed in more migrants from poor countries, they could at the same time further restrict the availability of welfare so that only citizens or long-term residents could claim it. The British government has allowed workers from Poland and the other ex-communist countries that joined the European Union in 2004 to come and work freely in the U.K., but barred them from claiming social benefits for two years.

Other fears are cultural, and, more recently, tied to worries about terrorism. Mostly, this fear is illogical: Christian Latinos are scarcely likely to be a fifth column of Al-Qaeda operatives, as Pat Buchanan has suggested. But psychological studies nonetheless confirm that opposition to immigration tends to stem from an emotional dislike of foreigners.

While it’s important to address people’s fears and consider people’s arguments, it is also important to see them for what they often are: a rationalization of xenophobia. Indeed, anti-immigrant rhetoric is one of the last forms of racism that is deemed acceptable. Seemingly-respectable politicians and pundits get away with voicing the most vile prejudice about a group dehumanized by the title “immigrants”, expressing opinions that they would never dare voice openly about a particular race.

Q: Are there any aspects of current immigration policies that we should keep? Or should they be scrapped entirely and new laws written fresh?

A: I think the U.S. would do well to emulate its own immigration policy of a century ago: its virtually open borders attracted the huddled masses whose efforts propelled the country from a post-Civil War provincial backwater to the leading world power that it became after the First World War. More recently, the U.S.’s largely open border with Mexico until the 1960s attracted mainly temporary migrants.

America should also take a leaf out of Europe’s book: Britain’s experience of opening its borders to the much poorer countries that joined the EU in 2004 has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that most of the other rich EU countries have lifted their own restrictions on people from Eastern Europe. All 75 million people in those countries could conceivably have moved, but in fact only a small fraction have, and most of those have already left for home. Many are, in effect, international commuters, splitting their time between Britain and Poland. Of course, some will end up settling, but most won’t. Most migrants do not want to leave home forever; they want to go work abroad for a while, to earn enough to buy a house or set up a business back home.

Studies show that most Mexican migrants have similar aspirations. If they could come and go freely, most would move only temporarily. Perversely, U.S. border controls end up making many stay for good, since crossing the border is so risky and costly that once you have gotten across, you tend to stay.

Q: Tell us a story about one of the immigrants you interviewed for the book.

A: I met Inmer Omar Rivera at a hostel for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. He had spent twenty days and traveled 1,250 miles by train across Guatemala and Mexico to reach the U.S. border. “There were around two thousand of us on the train initially. Only twenty of us made it this far,” he told me. “Getting here is a triumph.”
Along the way, he had to rely on the kindness of strangers for food. “Of the twenty days, we ate on eight and didn’t on twelve. Lots of people are good. They would help us and feed us. I didn’t want to ask for a taco. I was too ashamed to beg,” he explained.

But the biggest challenge for Inmer and his fellow illegal migrants was dodging the Mexican military, risking their lives as they leaped on and off moving trains. “Whenever the train approached a military checkpoint, we had to decide whether to jump off the train or stay on and hide. When we got off, we would go round the checkpoint and wait for the next train. I was lucky: sometimes I got off the train and the soldiers got on; other times I stayed on the train and the people who jumped off got caught. Some people got cut in two as they tried to get on a train. Others fell under the train as they jumped off and got cut in half.”

Back in Honduras, Inmer worked as an industrial electrician in a factory making car parts for a U.S. company called Empire Electronics. “They treated me well,” he said, but he earned only 658 lempiras ($33) a week. It was a struggle for him and his wife Patricia to provide for their twenty-month-old son, Derek. So, aged only twenty-five, he decided to take his chances and try to go to the U.S. to work. “It was a very tough decision. I miss my family and my kid a lot. But it’s a sacrifice I have to make so my kid can go to school and not have to suffer like me.”

Inmer is a model of what many think an American citizen should be: God-fearing, hard-working and devoted to his family. Dressed in jeans, a baseball cap and a blue hooded top, he would not look out of place in a U.S. city. That he is exceptionally courageous and enterprising is not in doubt. But, unfortunately, he is not allowed into the U.S. legally — because he is poor, from Honduras, and has no family in the U.S. He didn’t have the $2,000 needed to pay a smuggler to try to get him across the border, so he decided to take his chances on his own. But he was worried that all his efforts would be in vain. “I’m afraid I’ll get caught and be deported back to Honduras. I’ll have wasted twenty days’ suffering. But if God wants it I’ll find a way,” he said.

I asked him whether he thought the U.S. was right to control its border so strictly. “I think the United States should give an opportunity to those who need it. Because life is hard. The U.S. is one of the most developed countries. I know that some people come with bad intentions but I don’t have any vices. The U.S. should give us permits to come work from Honduras. We come to work hard, not to destroy.”

Unfortunately, I don’t know what has happened to Inmer since I interviewed him. I hope he made it across the border and is building a better life for himself and his family.

Q: Is there any validity to fears that Muslim immigrants are a threat to national security?

A: I think it is terrifying how the debate about immigration has gotten mixed up with fears about terrorism. Of course, it is worrying that certain disaffected young people — Muslims and converts to Islam — express their alienation and rejection through Islamic extremism and that a tiny minority actually want to blow themselves and others up, just as it is terrible that young people go on shooting sprees in schools. But we shouldn’t perceive Muslim immigrants in general as a threat, any more than we should feel threatened by all Christians because a handful of Christian fundamentalists bomb U.S. abortion clinics, or by all right-wingers because some extreme right-wing militia members caused the Oklahoma bombing.

I grew up in London with the ever-present reality of IRA bombings. That did not make us treat all Irish people as a potential threat, and the British government continued to let Irish citizens travel to Britain freely without a passport. It is grossly unfair to tar all Muslims with the same brush — and utterly counterproductive, since it can only breed resentment and antagonism.

In any case, tighter border security is perfectly compatible with freer immigration: the federal government could grant many more work visas to foreigners, while at the same time screening potential applicants for terrorist links. Conversely, even if the U.S. granted no immigrant visas at all, terrorists could still enter the country on tourist, student, or short-term business visas, or even under the U.S.’s visa-waiver program.

And whatever you think about the merits of building a wall along the border with Mexico, it certainly won’t keep out terrorists. When I visited the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas, they said their top priority was catching would-be terrorists. I asked them precisely how many terror suspects they had apprehended. The answer was zero. Does that mean al-Qaeda operatives are flooding into the U.S. across the New Mexico desert unnoticed? Of course not; they would most likely enter the country through a normal entry point using a false passport, or a genuine ID, if they are not yet suspects.

Governments need to combat terrorism through targeted, proportionate, and, above all, effective measures, such as intelligence work and surveillance. Attacking immigration is simply a dangerous diversion from that.