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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.

Posted 23 Jun 2008 in Published articles

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