Against economic determinism for migration trends

Post by Vipul Naik (regular blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

My co-blogger John Lee recently retweeted Hein de Haas’s tweet which began with “Migration… it’s the economy, stupid!” and linked to a blog post of the same name. The central claim of this blog post is that trends and variation in migration are better explained by changes in the economy than they are by changes in immigration policies and the extent of crackdown on illegal/undocumented immigration. Hein de Haas writes:

Politicians know all too well that migration serves vital economic interests, and cannot stop immigration even if they would want so, but do not dare to tell so to their voters. Their tough talk about reducing immigration is usually nothing more than a smokescreen to hide their inability and unwillingness to stop immigration.

Hein de Haas also links to an article by Jagdish Bhagwati that appeared in Foreign Affairs in 2003, titled Borders Beyond Control, which makes the same point.

Bhagwati writes:

Paradoxically, the ability to control migration has shrunk as the desire to do so has increased. The reality is that borders are beyond control and little can be done to really cut down on immigration. The societies of developed countries will simply not allow it. The less developed countries also seem overwhelmed by forces propelling emigration. Thus, there must be a seismic shift in the way migration is addressed: governments must reorient their policies from attempting to curtail migration to coping and working with it to seek benefits for all.

Bhagwati later writes:

All three problems raise issues that derive from the fact that the flows cannot be effectively constrained and must instead be creatively accommodated. In designing such accommodation, it must be kept in mind that the illegal entry of asylum seekers and economic migrants often cannot be entirely separated. Frustrated economic migrants are known to turn occasionally to asylum as a way of getting in. The effective tightening of one form of immigrant entry will put pressure on another.

This “economic determinism” — the idea that migration that happens for economic reasons is beyond the ability of governments to stem — runs rife through the writings of many people generally considered to be pro-immigration. For instance, the Immigration Policy Center blog recently had a piece titled New Research Casts Doubt Upon “Attrition Through Enforcement” stating:

These conclusions are bolstered by new research from the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Los Angeles and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. This research indicates that, when it comes to Mexican migration patterns, “northbound flows are holding steady with signs of increasing unauthorized migration, while southbound flows are decreasing. The result is that the size of the Mexican-born population in the United States has fully recovered from losses experienced during the recession.” Moreover, “given the available indicators as of mid-2012, it appears that even a relatively small increase in the demand for Mexican labor in the U.S. economy would prompt a positive response in the migration flows despite intensified enforcement efforts by the federal government, several states, and some local governments.”

My quick reaction upon reading these: these statements, although correct in a very narrow sense, are wrong and misleading and play right into the hands of restrictionists.

Technical problem with the research: open borders and closed borders out of sample

The research seems to be correct in so far as it estimates the relative roles of variations in the economy and variations in immigration enforcement policy over the years in terms of determining migration trends. But the main reason this is so is that, despite some widely publicized moves on the pro-immigration and anti-immigration side, the immigration enforcement policies of the US, and of many other countries, has been remarkably consistent across the years. There has been too little variation in these policies to meaningfully say that drastically freer migration, or drastically less free migration, would not be more decisive in determining migration flows.

Claiming the inevitability of immigration plays into the hands of support for the status quo

Bryan Caplan says of democracy:

“In the naive public-interest view, democracy works because it does what voters want. In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want.”

I’ll shamelessly borrow Caplan’s logical structure:

“Restrictionists claim that immigration restrictions (if well designed) can and do work, and that’s a good thing. Economic determinists claim that immigration restrictions cannot or do not work and are overruled by the economy, and we just have to live with it. Open borders advocates argue that immigration restrictions do work, and the very fact that they work exactly (or approximately) as advertised is the problem.”

For the open borders advocates, the problem with immigration restrictions is not that they don’t work. The problem is that they do! Open borders advocates should be calling out economic determinists for their flawed reading of history and heavy status quo bias, not siding with economic determinists just in order to contradict or one-up restrictionists! By siding with economic determinists, open borders advocates undersell the significance of immigration restrictions and their effectiveness in destroying wealth.

Even the weaker claim that borders are already at their most closed point is suspect

When I made a condensed version of this argument to John Lee, he pointed out a somewhat different interpretation of Bhagwati’s piece. In John’s reading, it may be the case that borders are already at the most closed level possible. Thus, government policies restricting immigration do affect the levels of immigration, but they cannot cut immigration down to zero, and current policies already achieve the maximum possible restrictiveness for the current political climate.

I am skeptical of this. It seems clear to me that if politicians and the general public in the US wanted, and were willing to pay the price, it would be relatively easier to close the borders a lot more. Contrary to the claims of the Immigration Policy Center, attrition through enforcement does work. if governments were serious about enforcing immigration law, and natives were willing to put up with all the inconveniences and productivity losses that a serious crackdown would entail, borders could be closed significantly. It is true that civil rights groups will do their best to highlight the cases of citizens and legal residents who were deported due to errors in the system, and the reluctance of natives to allow collateral damage in the war on immigrants might dampen restrictionism. But restrictionist groups already take such concerns seriously. And given that the public in the US has been willing to support wars — which involve a lot more collateral damage to American citizens — a few citizens being deported may well be seen as a small price to pay for deporting unauthorized immigrants and deterring future immigration. As they say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

The public in the US already thinks that current levels of immigration are too high (links available at the polling data on migration page). There were more Americans in favor of than against Arizona’s immigration crackdown. Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff famous for not being too friendly to illegal immigrants residing in Arizona, has repeatedly won re-election.

However, immigration is not a top issue for voters. This means that there is some political slack for elected leaders and bureaucrats. Currently, the slack has been used to favor an immigration policy that is more expansive than the general public wants. Under creative political leadership, the slack could be used to create policies and measures that are more restrictionist even compared to what the median voter desires. US federal policies that fulfil the restrictionist dream of attrition through enforcement are politically plausible. Civil rights groups would protest, but there is no reason to believe that they would definitely hold the day against the tide of public opinion given the right mix of political leadership and circumstances. State-level legislation of this sort is already being seen in Arizona, Alabama, and other US states.

Further, when such legislation has been implemented in states such as Arizona, the unauthorized immigrant populations in these states has dropped — both due to existing immigrants leaving the states for states that are more tolerant of unauthorized immigration, and due to fewer new immigrants choosing to head to that state. Alex Nowrasteh’s paper on the economic case against Arizona-style immigration laws looks at the data and finds that Arizona’s immigration crackdown did succeed in driving out immigrants, mostly unauthorized immigrants. Thus, there is every reason to believe that if the US instituted a nationwide crackdown on immigration, future immigration levels would fall considerably, and it’s even possible that a significant fraction of the existing unauthorized immigrant population might try to leave.

The law versus legislation tack

A variant of Bhagwati’s argument that I’d be more sympathetic to is the law versus legislation distinction. This distinction was made popular by Friedrich Hayek: law (common law) is what most people generally accept as the thing to strive to follow, and legislation is just rules passed by a legislative body. The relation between law and legislation is complex. If there is respect for “the rule of law” then a legislation might quickly become law. Conversely, a law (in the common law sense) might eventually force the passage of corresponding legislation.

The “law versus legislation” argument would say that, as a matter of law, in terms of their day-to-day activities, people don’t consider unauthorized immigration to be a crime. But with their voters’ hats on, primed to citizenism and related ideologies, they oppose unauthorized immigration. Thus, the practical, private, voluntary activities of people are in direct conflict with the enforcement of immigration law. This means that, in practice, there will be enough natives who have ties to unauthorized immigrants (as employers, friends, employees, business associates, customers) and do not want to see these people deported.

Still, I think even this is overstated. I think most Americans would have a problem personally attacking peaceful users of recreational drugs, yet they support a government doing so. They’d have a problem reporting their friends to the government for copyright infringement, yet there has been no mass movement to change or oppose expansive copyright legislation from the US public. And respect for the rule of law runs deep in America, so they might cooperate with immigration enforcement even if it imposes strong direct costs on them personally and has a detrimental effect on their friendships and business relationships.

8 thoughts on “Against economic determinism for migration trends”

  1. Well argued but:

    1. I think economic determinists are at least correct that it’s impossible to bring undocumented immigration down to negligible levels while remaining a free country in the Anglo-American liberal tradition which it was purpose of our great wars to defend. In that sense, “enforce the law” is not an option– any more than in Prohibition times.

    2. Collateral damage in wars is a different matter, most obviously when you have a volunteer military which consents to the risks involved, but even when you have a draft. War is abnormal, everyone knows that. And it is temporary. It is undertaken so that normalcy may be made safe, for ourselves or others. The consequences of harsh immigration enforcement are such that the normal/abnormal distinction breaks down. And it cannot be temporary. It’s reasonable to regard 100,000 soldiers stationed in a dangerous foreign country and 1,000 killed as acceptable, but 100,000 natives wrongfully deported to dangerous foreign counties and 1,000 killed as intolerable.

    3. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that enforcement is more lax than the median voter wants. Polls show contradictory public opinion, with large majorities supporting a path to citizenship even as they want undocumented immigration to somehow magically just stop. Moreover, “back of the line” and other arguments that only make sense if they presuppose that a right to immigrate legally exists. The median voter wishes gas prices to be lower too but that doesn’t mean they favor price controls. In the case of immigration, voters are mostly too ignorant to deserve to be regarded as having opinions at all, just as a student who flanks out of pre-algebra can’t have an opinion about whether Bayesian or frequenting statistics is a more valid way of understanding probability.

  2. For instance, if policy makers tell me that they want less migration, I tell them that tightening immigration policies will be of little help (at least in liberal democracies). It will require measures that address the source: less flexible labour markets, stronger law enforcement, less economic liberalism overall, step out of the EU / Schengen, reduce economic growth. However, there’s no political will for that.

    1. This is my reading as well. I think I am somewhere between you/Bhagwati and Vipul on the political feasibility of restrictionism. A lot of people can tell pollsters they want to deport all “illegals” — but if you were to actually do it, you’d find a terribly mixed reaction I suspect. People won’t accept it lying down the way they accept the policing of marijuana consumption (because of a mix of status quo bias and the relative magnitude of these two different cases), but at the same time, I do think it plausible that Western democracies could be even more restrictionist than they currently are without significant changes in the political climate.

      To your point, in a democracy, the government would likely be punished at elections if it pursued extremely harsh restrictionist measures — but this may not necessarily directly stem from response to stricter immigration policy. Harsher immigration laws are likely to be economically destructive, especially in salient ways, and people will lash out when the economy tanks. Restrictionists promise an economic boon if immigrants go away, but the best economic scenario I think plausible from the facts (certainly not plausible from theory) is merely that nothing significant will happen — and that’s a remote scenario at best.

    2. Perhaps our disagreement is terminological, but I would call the extent of enforcement of immigration laws (for instance, workplace raids, street stops) and the nature of deportation policy a part of a country’s “immigration policy.” Immigration policy isn’t just about who is allowed to migrate legally, it’s also about what is done to the people who violate the immigration laws by crossing borders illegally or by overstaying their visas.

      I’m also not sure what you mean by “liberal democracy” here. One could definitionally make the case that any stringent measures against immigration violate the definition of “liberal democracy” — an argument that immigrant civil rights advocates are happy to make. But if that’s the case, then perhaps we shouldn’t take it for granted that the US and/or Europe will continue to satisfy the criteria for “liberal democracy” by this restrictive definition.

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