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Eight years ago Oscar risked his life to reach America–illegally. Now he works 17 hours a day, 6 days a week in a bar in Miami’s South Beach. He earns $3.85 an hour plus up to $100 a night in tips, sending home $400 a month to his family in Honduras. That funds his three kids’ education, supports his mother and has enabled his wife to open a small store.

Oscar’s life is tough. Now 30, he hasn’t seen his family since he left Honduras. “Not having documents is suffocating. Businesses exploit you. You’re always hiding,” he says. “We need immigration reform. I sent an e-mail to our President.” Your President? “Yes, he’s my President. I love this country. If I could, I’d help this country get back on its feet.” Oscar seems like the kind of guy America would want to hang on to. “I’m afraid of being deported, so my money is hidden,” he says. “Otherwise I could put it in the bank to invest.”

The U.S. is already home to some 12 million illegal immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. What to do with them–and with America’s broken immigration system–is suddenly back at the top of the political agenda. Tempers are flaring after Arizona passed a draconian new law clamping down on illegal immigrants. President Obama persists with failed policies: erecting a fence along the Mexican border, sending National Guard troops to police it and wishing the issue would go away. Isn’t it finally time for a radical rethink?

America should open its borders. Anyone who wants to immigrate to the U.S. should be allowed to, with the bare minimum of bureaucracy. Those already here illegally should be legalized. Open borders would make this country richer, more entrepreneurial–and more secure.

Critics object that lawbreaking illegals should not be rewarded. Yet for the most part these 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. They do the jobs that most people spurn: pick fruit, wash dishes, pack meat. Without them America would grind to a halt.

Government efforts to stop migration have mainly driven it underground–at huge financial and human cost. Billions of dollars are wasted annually in a futile effort to seal an inherently unsealable border. More people have died trying to cross over from Mexico in the past decade than were killed on Sept. 11. Ever tougher measures won’t work: Documents can be forged or stolen, people smuggled, officials bribed. Even with a shoot-to-kill policy, people got across the Berlin Wall.

Ending this senseless and unwinnable war would make America more secure, not less–instead of chasing harmless migrants, federal agents could concentrate on identifying and neutralizing homegrown and foreign terrorists. Above all, opening the border would bring huge economic benefits.

The case for free migration follows logically from that for free trade. Just as it’s beneficial for goods and services to flow freely across borders, so, too, the people who produce them. Freer trade has made Americans much richer over the past 50 years; unfreezing labor flows could deliver vast gains over the next 50. According to some estimates, removing immigration controls could more than double the size of the world economy.

Heather Mac Donald worries that newcomers are poorer and less educated than Americans. But that’s precisely why they’re willing to do low-paid, low-skilled jobs that Americans shun. Many low-skilled jobs can’t be mechanized or globalized. The elderly can’t be cared for by a robot. Lawn care can’t be outsourced to India.

Fears that immigrants threaten American workers are mostly misplaced. Just as working women haven’t deprived men of jobs, immigrants create jobs as well as filling them–both when they spend their wages and in complementary lines of work. Mexican construction workers, for instance, create jobs for Americans selling building materials, as well as spending their wages at Wal-Mart.

Nor do immigrants depress wages, since they rarely compete directly with native-born Americans for jobs. On the contrary, their efforts often complement one another. A foreign nanny may enable an American doctor to return to work more quickly after childbirth, where hardworking foreign nurses and cleaners enhance her productivity. Research by Gianmarco Ottaviano of Bologna University and UC, Davis’ Giovanni Peri found that the influx of foreign workers between 1990 and 2004 raised native-born Americans’ wages by 2%. Only one in ten–high school dropouts–lost slightly, by 1%. All Americans benefited from higher capital returns, cheaper goods and services and faster productivity growth.

Immigrant diversity and dynamism stimulates new ideas and businesses. Migrants are a self-selected minority who tend to be young, hardworking and enterprising. Like starting a new business, migrating is risky, and hard work is needed to make it pay off. Immigrants are 30% more likely than native-born Americans to start their own business.

That number would surely be higher if we legitimized their status. People who lack formal property and business rights can’t get a bank loan to start a business or ink legally enforceable contracts. Legalizing them would unleash their entrepreneurial energies and swell tax revenues.

Exceptional individuals who generate brilliant new ideas are often migrants. Instead of following conventional wisdom, they tend to see things differently, and as outsiders they are more determined to succeed. Nearly a quarter of America’s Nobel laureates were born abroad. Nearly half of Silicon Valley’s venture capital-funded startups were cofounded by immigrants. No one could have guessed when he arrived at age 6 as a refugee from the Soviet Union that Sergey Brin would go on to cofound Google. How many potential Brins does America turn away–and at what cost?

Many worry that if America opened its borders now, millions would come, the welfare burden would be unsustainable and society would collapse. Yet such fears are misplaced. Most people don’t want to leave home at all, let alone forever. Since 2004 three rich European countries–Britain, Ireland, and Sweden–have allowed people in eight poor eastern European countries (notably Poland) to come work there freely. All 75 million of those eastern Europeans could have moved, yet only 1 million did–and half have already gone home.

The belief that free migration is incompatible with a welfare state–asserted by Milton Friedman and recently echoed by Paul Krugman–is also incorrect. When in 2004 Poles were given the option of moving to Sweden–which has the most generous welfare state on earth–or to Britain and Ireland, which denied Poles access to any benefits until they had worked for a year, less than 1% opted for Sweden. America, too, could deny immigrants access to welfare initially.

Opening up to eastern Europeans gave Britain a big boost. Growth soared. Unemployment fell. Wages continued to rise. Newcomers paid much more in taxes than they took out in benefits and public services. After the global financial crisis plunged the economy into recession, many Poles went home rather than remain unemployed in Britain. Considering that Sweden is as rich as the U.S. and that Romania is poorer than Mexico, if open borders can work within the European Union, they can work in North America.

Allowing people to move freely is not just a matter of economic self-interest. It is also a moral imperative: Freedom of movement is a basic human right that should not be denied to people less fortunate than ourselves. Since migration is inevitable, far better that it be safe and legal. A pipe dream? That’s what people once said about abolishing slavery.

Posted 13 Jun 2010 in Published articles

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