Migration and Human Rights (41): What Will Happen When We Open Our Borders?

Regular readers know that I often advocate an open border policy on this blog. I do so because most of the arguments in favor of immigration restrictions don’t survive a confrontation with the data, but also, more positively, because I think there are four important reasons to favor open borders:

  1. Allowing immigration means respecting certain human rights, such as the right to free movement and the right of free association (most people migrate because they want to associate with employers elsewhere). Closed borders on the other hand result in various rights violations: illegal immigrants incur physical risks while traveling, and exploitation upon arrival (because they have diminished bargaining power and because they live with the constant fear of apprehension). Furthermore, they are almost permanently separated from their families and friends back home etc. That’s a heavy burden of rights violations.
  2. Immigration reduces poverty. Strictly speaking this is not conceptually different from the previous reason, since poverty is a human rights violation, but it’s worth mentioning separately because many fail to see this point.
  3. Third, allowing immigration is a matter of justice because monopolizing a piece of the earth goes against the principle of the common ownership of the earth, and because nobody deserves to be born in a certain place.
  4. Fourth, immigration restrictions are inefficient because they require resources that can better be spent elsewhere, and because efficient economic activity requires a high degree of freedom of movement for workers as well as goods. Moreover, aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going.

I agree that these arguments don’t necessarily establish the soundness of an open border policy. They do, however, make it harder to argue in favor of restrictions and they put the burden of proof on those arguing in favor of restrictions.

I can imagine that many of those people aren’t convinced by the rather abstract arguments given above. Hence it may be useful to try to estimate the consequences of a significantly higher number of immigrants in wealthy countries. I’ll assume that this increase won’t be sudden, because restrictions can be removed gradually. Hence we can discount the “shock” of increased migration as a possible negative consequence.

Wouldn’t massive immigration strain the domestic economy and possibly destroy it? I never quite understood that argument. For one thing, if that would happen, I guess the immigrants would decide to just go back home; immigrants are drawn to economic opportunity and typically return when opportunities become rare. But it won’t happen, because immigrants produce and consume. The “destruction argument” sounds ridiculously zero-sum, as if the presence of immigrants in a country is similar to leeches draining the blood from a healthy body. Immigrants generally come to work, to produce and to consume. Some of them may be a net loss for the native economy, but it’s silly to claim that most of them are or will be. In fact, in the U.S. most immigrants currently use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. Even if massive immigration brings in a lot more slackers their numbers will be swamped by the even larger number of productive immigrants.

So I don’t think we should compensate an open borders policy with a denial of welfare for immigrants. Most immigrant won’t come for welfare, and if you allow a whole lot of new immigrants, most of those will work and pay taxes (also because they won’t be illegal) and will thereby contribute to the funding of the welfare system rather than be a drain on it.

Perhaps the arrival of a lot of immigrants won’t destroy the destination economy or the welfare state, but maybe it will hurt certain groups of people, for example low-skilled native workers with whom the immigrants will compete for jobs. Again, that’s too much of a zero-sum focus. Immigrants are usually complementary to native workers and don’t necessarily have to replace native workers. And when they are not complementary, they can allow the latter to move to different and often better paying occupations.

To the extent that massive immigration will drive down wages in some sectors and skill levels, I would ask the following: if an immigrant is willing to work for a lower wage, why should the rights of relatively more wealthy native workers (“relatively more wealthy” because they earn a higher wage) trump the rights of the immigrant? If rights have any meaning it is that they protect the weaker against the stronger, not vice versa. From a cosmopolitan point of view it’s more important to help poorest people find a better job than to protect the jobs of the relatively less poor.

What about higher rents and house prices? Surely massive immigration would price almost everyone out of the housing market. And then what? I would guess that this will be self-correcting: huge housing prices will reduce the inflow of immigrants or increase the supply of houses. In the latter case, demand for labor – including native labor – would increase. Again, let’s drop the zero-sum thinking: why should we assume a constant supply of housing with an increasing demand for it?

What about security issues? Will open borders policies flood us with criminal immigrants? Immigrants with contagious diseases? What about the smuggling of drugs? Or terrorists moving freely into the country? Well, open borders as it’s understood here means free immigration, not the absence of borders or border controls. Allowing massive immigration doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep track of who or what is coming in and is going out. And we have domestic criminals, whom we don’t systematically banish. Let us also not forget that immigrants are on average less likely to be involved in crime (see here and here).

The fact that open borders doesn’t equal “no borders” should also calm certain fears about sovereignty, “nationhood”, national culture, community and national solidarity.

The same is true for the fact that an open borders policy doesn’t equal “free citizenship“. Obviously access to citizenship would not be possible for all immigrants at the moment of arrival, otherwise an open border policy would undermine the very notion of citizenship. That restriction includes voting rights.

What about the consequences for the origin countries which will lose a lot of highly skilled professionals? That’s difficult to tell but if we extrapolate from the current state of affairs, this might not be a problem. There’s already a huge brain drain going on from developing countries to developed ones, but the pernicious effects of this brain drain are heavily overstated, and compensated by the gains from remittances. Of course, this compensation effect depends on the number of people involved. Drastically higher numbers of migrants may provide a different outcome, or maybe not. And there’s also some evidence of other beneficial effects of the brain drain, unrelated to remittances.

More posts in this series are here.


2 thoughts on “Migration and Human Rights (41): What Will Happen When We Open Our Borders?

  1. Thanks for this insightful and comprehensive post. Too often, I have seen people who are liberal in every other sense, become closed-minded on the subject of immigration. They see immigration as hitting at the low-skilled native stratum, and don’t realize, as you rightly say, that immigration REDUCES poverty rates, contributes to and doesn’t use much of welfare, and is in general, extremely easy to reconcile with humanist principles AND with purely economic considerations such as removal of artificial trade barriers, and removal of mercantilist protectionism, which are the economic policies that any sane country will adopt.

  2. The subject of poverty seems to be ostracized by many immigration debates. The fact that there are people in the US who are barred from working and therefore from providing food for their families ignores the fact the poverty is a human rights violation.

    And yet ironically, it is easy to ship USAID rice bags abroad while transportation costs to these countries can be cut by those working in the US supporting their respective families worldwide. As an example, in the not too distant past it was reported that the US Western Union was showing low rates of monetary transfers between Mexico and USA alongside passage of US racial immigration “You Have an Accent” laws. I doubt the correlation between these rates and impact on poverty would be hard to draw.

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