A Different View of Immigration-A Call For Open Borders


Open Borders Work

by Philippe Legrain, Posted June 6, 2008

Imagine you were born in a part of the country where farming was no longer productive, or in a rust-belt town where the local factories had closed. You hear of good jobs in California and Colorado, so you decide to move. How would you feel if, when you arrived at the state line, you were denied the opportunity of a better life because you happened to have been born in a different state? Welcome to what it is like to be Mexican.

Freedom of movement is one of the most basic human rights, as anyone denied it can confirm. Yet governments obstruct people’s movement across borders in all manner of arbitrary and iniquitous ways. They require that people prove — how? — that their lives are in danger before admitting them. They determine which family members are permitted to join their relatives and which are not; Danes’ non-European spouses cannot come to live with them in Denmark unless both are age 24 or more. Americans’ foreign girlfriends and boyfriends also struggle to gain admission; the rules for foreign pets are laxer. Those seeking to come to work are vetted through a byzantine set of rules and quotas that delight bureaucrats, lawyers, and lobbyists, but deny most people the opportunity to better themselves and do untold damage to the U.S. and global economy.

Immigration controls are generally seen as normal, reasonable, and necessary, but in fact they are economically stupid, politically unsustainable, and morally wrong. For a start, the freedom to leave a country and enter another is the ultimate safeguard against tyranny. Throughout history, emigrating has often meant the difference between life and death: remember the Pilgrims who set sail on the Mayflower, the Huguenots who fled France to take refuge in England, and the Jews who escaped Nazi Germany. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the shameful recognition that governments had conspired to send countless Jews to their deaths by denying them refuge led to their signing on to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In practice, though, this right is often honored in the breach.

While it is vitally important that asylum-seekers are able to seek refuge abroad, fear of persecution is not the only legitimate reason that people might want to cross national borders. They might be seeking a better job. They might want to be with the ones they love. They might simply want to experience something different. And why shouldn’t they be able to?

Those fortunate enough to be rich and highly educated take it for granted that they can move around the world more or less as they please. They vacation in Mexico, safari in Africa, even go on trips around the world; they increasingly work abroad for periods of time; and some end up settling elsewhere — like the many Americans who now live in London, and the many Londoners who now live in the United States. Why, then, do we seek to deny this right to others?

Opponents of open borders often respond that Americans aren’t actually free to go where they choose. They point out, correctly, that one needs a visa to go to many countries and that the Chinese government, for instance, may very well deny you one. But why should America be basing its policies on what the Chinese government does? Should the United States deny people freedom of speech because the Chinese government does so? The point about universal human rights is not that they are necessarily universally applied, but that they ought to be. That others fail to apply them is not a reason for the United States to fail to do so too.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own.” But what is the right to leave a country if one cannot enter another? Since even international human-rights law does not give people the right to cross borders freely, the United States should lead by example, by passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing open borders.

Costs and benefits

Many people argue that opening the borders would have devastating consequences. But are the potential costs really so great that they warrant the huge injustice of denying people the possibility of moving freely? Might there not be big benefits to opening up the borders too? And even if one thinks immigration is a threat, are the costs of immigration controls not even greater?

This is not a point of abstract principle. Each year thousands drown trying to reach Europe. More people have died trying to cross from Mexico to the United State in the past decade than were killed on 9/11. By denying desperate people the opportunity to cross borders legally, the United States is driving them to risk death. Of course, voters and government officials would rather migrants didn’t die. But implicitly, they consider it a price worth paying for protecting the borders. That sounds shocking — and it is. But how else can we explain the general indifference to the deaths that U.S. immigration controls cause? Why is the official response always that “we” must remain tough in enforcing “our” border controls, rather than questioning whether the system makes sense? Immigrants are not an invading army; they are mostly people seeking a better life.

Freeing up migration is not just morally right, it is economically beneficial. When workers from poor countries move to rich ones, they too can make use of advanced economies’ superior capital, technology, and institutions, making them much more productive, and the world much better off. The departure of one in six Swedes for North America between 1870 and 1910, relieved pressure on the land, drove up the productivity and wages of those who remained, and helped catapult Sweden from grinding rural poverty to prosperity within fewer than 50 years.

Migrants from poor countries can earn wages many times higher in rich ones, and the money they send home — some $300 billion a year officially, perhaps the same again informally — dwarfs the $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, they fund small businesses, and they benefit the local economy more broadly. Where remittances account for a large share of the economy, they slash the poverty rate by a third. Even in countries that receive relatively little, they can cut the poverty rate by nearly a fifth. And by keeping children in school, paying for them to see a doctor, and funding new businesses, remittances can also boost economic growth. What’s more, when migrants return home, they take with them new skills, new ideas, and the money to start new businesses. Africa’s first Internet cafés were started by migrants returning from Europe.

Economists estimate that abolishing immigration controls could more than double the size of the world economy. This dwarfs the benefits of any other public-policy change. Just as the freeing up of international trade and capital flows since the Second World War has helped power a huge rise in living standards across the world, the freeing up of international labor mobility could deliver vast economic gains over the next 50 years. Indeed, the economic gains from migration are akin to those from trade.

Consider an American who requires medical care. He could be treated locally by an American doctor; he could go abroad to be treated by a foreign doctor; the foreign doctor could treat him remotely — over the Internet, for instance; or the foreign doctor could come to the United States to treat him. In the last three cases, the United States is importing medical care from the foreign doctor; the final case, which we classify as migration instead of trade, is simply a form of international services trade where a foreign provider comes to America to offer his services to consumers on the spot. But where services have to be delivered locally — the elderly cannot be cared for from afar; taxi drivers have to operate locally; dishes have to be washed on the spot — international migration is the only form of international trade that is possible.

Migration and trade

Now if one accepts that international trade is generally mutually beneficial — because, in a nutshell, it permits greater specialization, reaps economies of scale, reduces prices, increases choice, boosts competition, stimulates innovation, and raises economic growth — then so too, surely, is the particular form of it that involves foreign service-providers crossing borders to ply their trade. And just as governments have no place denying us the opportunity of watching foreign films, eating foreign food, or driving foreign cars, they should not be denying us the opportunity of engaging in mutually advantageous economic transactions with foreigners that entail their moving to our vicinity.

Where governments permit it, a global labor market is emerging: international financiers cluster in New York and London, IT specialists in Silicon Valley, and actors in Hollywood, while multinational companies scatter skilled professionals around the world.

Yet rich-country governments endeavor to keep out Mexican construction workers, Filipino care workers, and Congolese cooks, even though they are simply service providers who ply their trade abroad, just as American investment bankers do. And just as it is often cheaper and mutually beneficial to import computers from China and IT services from India, it often makes sense to import menial services that have to be delivered on the spot, such as cleaning.

Economic theory suggests that the gains from trade are greatest when countries are different. The United States has an aging, well-educated population, while the developing world has a much younger and generally less well-educated population. In effect, the work forces complement each other. It’s unfortunate that many free-traders who rejoice that Vietnamese people are bettering themselves by working in Nike factories to produce shoes for Americans are opposed to their coming to better themselves in America. People who truly believe in open societies and individual freedom are a rare breed.

Part 2  Posted June 9, 2008

Opponents of immigration marshal a battery of objections to opening up borders. They claim that it would cost jobs, pose a huge welfare burden, and threaten Americans’ way of life — even their security. Yet these fears are mostly nonsense.

Critics argue 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, more than half of American workers older than 25 were high-school dropouts; now, only one in ten is. 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. Many low-skilled jobs cannot readily be mechanized or imported: old people cannot be cared for by a robot or from abroad.

And as people get richer, they increasingly pay others to perform arduous tasks, such as home improvements, that they once did themselves, freeing up time for more productive work or more enjoyable leisure. Thus, as advanced economies create high-skilled jobs, they inevitably create low-skilled ones too. The way to reconcile aspirations to opportunity for all with the reality of drudgery for some is through immigration.

Fears that immigrants threaten American workers are based on two fallacies: that there is a fixed number of jobs to go around, and that foreign workers are direct substitutes for American ones. But just as women did not deprive men of jobs when they entered the labor force too, foreigners don’t cost Americans their jobs. They don’t just take jobs; they create them too. When they spend their wages, they boost demand for people who produce the goods and services that they consume; and as they work, they stimulate demand for Americans in complementary lines of work. An influx of Mexican construction workers, for instance, creates new jobs for people selling building materials, as well as for interior designers. Thus while the number of immigrants has risen sharply over the past 20 years, America’s unemployment rate has fallen.

But do some American workers lose out? Hardly any; most actually gain. Why? Because, as critics of immigration are the first to admit, immigrants are different from Americans, so that they rarely compete directly with them in the labor market; often, they complement their efforts — a foreign child-minder may enable an American nurse to go back to work, where her productivity may be enhanced by hard-working foreign doctors and cleaners.

Study after study fails 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 complementarities among immigrant labor, native labor, and capital. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study by Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri finds 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, high-school dropouts, lost slightly, by 1 percent. Moreover, the new arrivals boost the returns to capital and benefit consumers through cheaper goods and services. Overall, then, America clearly gains. Ethically, it is hard to object to a policy that makes poor immigrants and the vast majority of Americans better off at the expense of a small number of people whose lot could be improved through such things as better education and training.

But might things be different if America’s borders were open to all and sundry? Israel’s experience is instructive. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the mass exodus of Russian Jews swelled Israel’s working-age population by 8 percent in two years and by more than 15 percent between 1989 and 1997 — the equivalent of 15 million foreigners unexpectedly arriving in the United States over the next two years, and 29 million by 2016. Jews everywhere have an automatic right to settle in Israel, which leaves the country open to mass inflows of immigrants, irrespective of the country’s economic needs and circumstances.

The influx of Russian Jews in the 1990s posed a severe test of the economic viability of Israel’s “right of return” policy. After all, the newcomers didn’t speak Hebrew and didn’t have jobs to go to. Yet as I explain in detail in my book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, Israel was able to absorb this huge and unexpected inflow of immigrants without a rise in unemployment, and with only a temporary fall in wages. The upshot is clear: even when migration is motivated by political crisis rather than economic demand, flexible advanced economies can absorb large numbers of immigrants with scarcely any cost to native workers.

Innovation and dynamism

Yet narrow calculations of immigrants’ impact on native wages or their net contribution to public finances neglect the much broader benefits of creating a more open and dynamic society. The exceptional people who come up with brilliant new ideas and set up new enterprises often happen to be immigrants. Instead of following the conventional wisdom, they tend to see things differently, and as outsiders they are more determined to succeed. Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. Nearly half of America’s venture-capital-funded start-ups have immigrant cofounders.

Most innovation comes from groups of talented people sparking off each other — and foreigners with different ideas, perspectives, and experiences add something extra to the mix. If there are ten people sitting around a table trying to come up with a solution to a problem and they all think alike, then those ten heads are no better than one. But if they all think differently, then by bouncing ideas off each other they can solve problems better and faster, as a growing volume of research shows. Just look at Silicon Valley: Google, Yahoo!, and eBay were all cofounded by immigrants who arrived not as graduates, but as children. And an ever-increasing share of a society’s prosperity comes from solving problems — developing new medicines, computer games, and environmentally friendly technologies, designing innovative products and policies, providing original management advice. Since diversity boosts innovation and enterprise, which are the source of most economic growth, critics who claim that immigration has few or no economic benefits are profoundly mistaken.

Immigration and welfare

Milton Friedman once claimed that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state. He was right on many things, but in this case he was mistaken. Admittedly, if people from poor countries are better off on welfare in rich countries than they are working in their country of origin, they could conceivably be motivated to move, and if enough poor people did that, welfare provision could become economically and politically unsustainable. But even in such cases, immigrants would still be even better off working than being on welfare. So immigrants would have to be both enterprising enough to move in the first place but then suddenly be sapped of enterprise once they arrive. This is highly improbable — and there is no evidence, as even immigration critic George Borjas concedes, that the United States actually does act as a “welfare magnet” for people in poor countries.

In countries where we observe high unemployment among immigrants, the reason is not that foreigners are lazy and don’t want to work. The blame generally lies with labor-market restrictions that privilege insiders at the expense of outsiders. Throwing immigrants out wouldn’t reduce unemployment; it would more likely raise unemployment among native-born people. In any case, if rich countries opened their borders, they could at the same time restrict the availability of welfare to foreigners initially, just as the 1996 welfare-reform act cut off immigrants’ access to federal public benefits.

It is perverse to use the welfare state as an excuse to keep immigrants out. If the price of gaining the right to work in a country was not being able to claim welfare benefits when they arrive, most immigrants would take it. But unfortunately, they are not offered that option.

The costs of intervention

Many people say that they have no objection to legal immigrants, but that illegal immigrants are a problem. Of course, if the U.S. borders were open, the distinction would disappear. But in any case, illegal immigrants are not the problem; they are a symptom of the real problem: nonsensical immigration restrictions.

That immigrants are in the United States illegally is a sign not of moral turpitude but of misguided government intervention in the labor market: since employers cannot obtain visas for low-skilled foreigners to come work legally, foreigners who want to take up jobs in the United States have no choice but to come illegally instead. These generally hard-working and enterprising people’s only crime is wanting to work hard to earn a better life for themselves and their children — the epitome of the American dream. Without them, America would grind to a halt.

In any case, governments cannot stop people from moving across borders. Despite efforts to build a Fortress America, half a million foreigners bypass U.S. border defenses each year. Some enter covertly; most overstay their visas and then work illicitly. Far from preventing immigration, increasing draconian policies mostly drives it underground.

That creates huge costs: a humanitarian crisis; the soaring expense of border controls and bureaucracy; a criminalized people-smuggling industry; an expanding shadow economy, where illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labor laws are broken, and taxes go unpaid; a loss of faith in politicians who cannot keep their promises about immigration; a corrosion of attitudes towards immigrants, who are perceived as lawbreakers rather than hard-working and enterprising people; and the mistreatment of refugees in an attempt to deter people who want to come work from applying for asylum, besmirching the American commitment to help those fleeing tyranny.

These problems are generally blamed on immigrants, but they are actually due to immigration controls. It should be obvious, even to those who view immigrants as a threat, that the U.S. border controls are not just costly and cruel, but ineffective and counterproductive. Far from protecting society, they undermine law and order, just as Prohibition did more damage to America than drinking ever has.

Those who claim that tougher measures could stop immigration are peddling a false prospectus. Even if, at huge cost, the United States built a wall along its long border with Mexico, deployed an armada to patrol its shores, searched every arriving vehicle and vessel, denied people from developing countries visas altogether, and enforced stringent internal checks on people’s right to be in the United States, migrants would get through: documents can be forged or stolen, people smuggled, officials bribed. Even with a shoot-to-kill policy, people got across the Berlin Wall. And by trying to protect the land of the free from the phantom menace of immigration, anti-immigrationists would end up turning the United States into a police state. Politicians should instead have the courage to stop fighting a costly, unjust, and unwinnable war against immigration.

Open borders and terrorism

Having open borders does not imply opening the United States up to terrorism. If terrorists are home-grown, such as the Oklahoma bombers, or are foreigners already in the United States, then even the most stringent immigration controls could not feasibly keep them out. If foreigners are suspected terrorists trying to get in, then the government should use the standard legal means to apprehend them and have them extradited.

Tighter border security is perfectly compatible with free immigration: if most people were allowed to cross borders legally, government officials could focus their efforts on apprehending the tiny minority of terrorists, rather than diverting their efforts trying to keep out Mexicans who want to come work. Conversely, even if the United States granted no immigrant visas at all, terrorists could still enter the country on tourist, student, or short-term business visas, or under the 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 United States 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. There are more effective means of combating terrorism. Building a border wall is a hugely costly diversion.

Many people fear that if the United States opened its borders, everyone in poor countries would move in and American societies would collapse. It is a deep-rooted fear, as if immigrants were the barbarians at the gates. But it is misplaced.

After all, America didn’t do too badly when millions of poor European immigrants arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nor has Britain collapsed since it opened its borders to Poland and the seven other ex-Communist countries that joined the European Union in 2004. If you consider that Poland is almost as poor as Argentina, Europe’s partial experiment with open borders is not a million miles away from the United States’s opening its labor markets to Latin America.

When Britain opened its borders to the Poles and other East Europeans, all 75 million people in those much poorer countries could conceivably have moved, but in fact only a fraction have, and most have already left again. 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 people don’t want to leave home at all, let alone leave it forever: they want to go work abroad for a while to learn English and 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. But perversely, U.S. border controls end up making many stay for good, because crossing the border is so risky and costly that once a person has got across he tends to stay. A Mexican who overstays his visa knows that if he returns home, he will never be able to reenter the United States legally.

The case for open borders is compelling. Yet persuading skeptics won’t be easy. That’s why the argument for setting people free has to be made at several levels. There is a principled case: it increases freedom and reduces injustice; a humanitarian case: it helps people in developing countries; an economic case: it makes Americans richer; and a pragmatic case: migration is inevitable, so it is in everyone’s interests to make the best of it.

Allowing people to move freely may seem unrealistic. But so too, once, did abolishing slavery or giving women the vote. Campaigning for open borders is a noble cause for our time.


Philippe Legrain is an award-winning journalist and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. His latest book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (Princeton, 2007), was shortlisted for the 2007 Financial Times Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award.

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

Published on June 13, 2008 at 10:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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