Against economic determinism for migration trends

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. Continue reading “Against economic determinism for migration trends” »

Diversity: an unimpressive reason to support open borders

As an open borders advocate, I’m always on the lookout for good arguments for open borders. But more often than not, the arguments make me wonder, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Case in point: diversity.

Now, I don’t deny that diversity has its benefits to immigrant-receiving countries, particularly when it comes to cuisine. And I’m happy to point out that open borders can help address the concerns of restrictionists such as Mark Krikorian regarding the lack of diversity in the current immigrant flow to the United States (Krikorian is concerned that the proportion of the immigrant flow coming from a single country is much larger today than in any past era, i.e., a much higher fraction of immigrants come from Mexico to the US than for any other country to the US in any other era). And it’s also noteworthy that immigration proportion seems to be positively correlated with cultural sophistication in the United States, though admittedly correlation is not causation.

But diversity has its costs. If Robert Putnam’s work is to be believed, it leads to social capital decline. To be clear, I haven’t had the time yet to thoroughly review Putnam’s work. I would start with a skeptical prior, but haven’t studied it in sufficient detail yet to make a clear rebuttal — the point I am making, however, is that if you’re interested in specifically addressing the diversity angle of immigration, you’d better engage the most serious critiques of diversity. There are also possibilities of a nativist backlash and a culture clash. In the face of these costs, the benefits of diversity need to be established rather than blithely asserted.

Frankly, a lot of the arguments that tout the benefits of diversity fail to make any meaningful case, and/or play right into the hands of restrictionists. For instance, in an otherwise decent article for The Atlantic, Noah Smith writes:

Adding diversity to our melting pot will speed up America’s inevitable and necessary transition from a “nation of all European races” to a “nation of all races.” The sooner that happens — the sooner people realize that America’s multi-racialization is a done deal — the quicker our political debate can shed its current ethnic overtones and go back to being about the issues.

Smith seems to be playing right into the hands of restrictionist concerns here. Or consider the illegal immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas (life story) who has repeatedly written that “diversity is destiny” and “demographics is destiny” and connected this to his pro-immigration and pro-DREAM Act lobbying. His basic argument is that the 21st century is a century of diversity and the foreign-born are a formidable and growing share of the American population and electorate, so nativists, better concede defeat! I critiqued this type of argument a while back:

But more importantly, in so far as Vargas is right about the “whites versus non-whites” cleavage, this doesn’t make a case for more immigration, because the demographic decline in proportion of whites is itself largely a consequence of immigration, not merely of differential birth rates. If somebody is concerned about the decline in the proportion of the white population, this bolsters the case for immigration restrictionism. By constantly harping on the decline of white hegemony in so far as it exists, Vargas seems to be daring restrictionists. And it doesn’t seem strategic to issue dares to people who already have the upper hand.

Some people might argue that, in the context of the United States, there is an aura of moral righteousness around racial diversity that makes it particularly appealing to frame pro-immigration arguments in terms of achieving diversity. Continue reading “Diversity: an unimpressive reason to support open borders” »

Who favors open borders?

The World Values Survey records quite a bit of information about public opinion related to immigration. I’d like to do in-depth analysis of it at some point. Here are a few things I’ve noted so far (no rich statistical analysis yet though):

  • Young people worldwide are more favorable to open borders, but the effect is very slight. There is no sign– yet– that generational change will tilt the world towards open borders.
  • Children of immigrants are somewhat more favorable to immigration.
  • There seems to be NO correlation worldwide between attitudes towards immigration policy and self-positioning on the left-right spectrum. (This surprised me.)
  • There seems to be no correlation between social class and attitudes towards immigration policy, unless it’s that the middle classes are a bit more favorable.
  • Correlations with life satisfaction are weak; however, the most strongly restrictionist attitudes seem to be more common among people leaning towards dissatisfaction with their lives.
  • People who trust foreigners “completely” are more favorable to a welcoming immigration policy (well, duh), yet 13% of those who don’t trust foreigners at all still say “let anyone come.”
  • People who don’t want immigrants as neighbors are more likely to favor strict limits on or prohibition of immigration (58%, to 42% of those who don’t mind immigrant neighbors) but some of these, too, favor “letting anyone come.”
  • No difference between men and women.

There are large differences across countries in attitudes towards immigration policy. Only 48 countries seem to be covered by the survey, but among those, two-thirds have public opinion more favorable to immigration than the United States, as measured by the share saying “let anyone come.” In particular, Mexican attitudes towards immigration policy are more liberal than Americans’. Some commenters at this site have suggested Asia as an example of a more restrictionist society that nativist Americans might desire to emulate. The WVS data suggest that this is true at the level of public opinion: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have some of the lowest shares of open borders supporters in the world, though in the terms of the number favoring “strict limits” or more, South Koreans are more liberal on immigration than Americans are.

What I find most interesting in the international data is that some developing countries have far more favorable attitudes towards immigration than any rich country. In Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, nearly half the population favors letting anyone come. India has an unusually large number of open borders supporters as well, though it is also tied for highest in terms of the number of people supporting complete prohibition of immigration. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America also seem to have more open borders supporters than any of the rich countries, except Sweden, which appears to be an outlier, with a far more pro-open borders populace of any rich country included in the survey.

Country Let anyone come As long as jobs available Strict limits Prohibit

1

Vietnam

49%

27%

22%

1%

2

Burkina Faso

43%

45%

10%

1%

3

Rwanda

41%

48%

8%

2%

4

Ethiopia

40%

28%

27%

5%

5

Mali

34%

46%

16%

4%

6

Morocco

28%

41%

20%

11%

7

Romania

23%

42%

23%

11%

8

Uruguay

23%

56%

17%

3%

9

Peru

23%

50%

21%

6%

10

India

23%

22%

25%

30%

11

Ukraine

21%

53%

19%

7%

12

China

20%

51%

21%

8%

13

Ghana

18%

39%

36%

6%

14

Sweden

18%

54%

27%

1%

15

Guatemala

17%

55%

21%

7%

16

Argentina

15%

45%

34%

6%

17

Serbia

14%

26%

46%

14%

18

Bulgaria

13%

55%

24%

8%

19

Moldova

13%

50%

26%

11%

20

Poland

12%

35%

46%

6%

21

Mexico

12%

45%

25%

17%

22

Zambia

11%

30%

44%

15%

23

Brazil

9%

47%

33%

11%

24

Georgia

9%

19%

56%

16%

25

Finland

9%

40%

48%

3%

26

Turkey

9%

43%

27%

21%

27

Italy

8%

49%

37%

6%

28

Canada

8%

51%

39%

2%

29

Spain

8%

48%

42%

3%

30

Slovenia

7%

56%

29%

8%

31

Germany

7%

43%

45%

5%

32

USA

7%

37%

49%

8%

33

Chile

6%

50%

35%

9%

34

Cyprus

6%

36%

51%

7%

35

S Africa

6%

16%

48%

30%

36

Switzerland

6%

67%

26%

1%

37

Indonesia

6%

15%

72%

8%

38

Andorra

5%

72%

22%

1%

39

Egypt

5%

25%

43%

26%

40

Thailand

5%

16%

65%

14%

41

Norway

4%

53%

42%

1%

42

Trinidad And Tobago

4%

32%

55%

10%

43

Australia

3%

54%

41%

2%

44

S Korea

3%

56%

36%

5%

45

Japan

3%

42%

50%

5%

46

Taiwan

3%

30%

58%

9%

47

Jordan

2%

28%

46%

25%

48

Malaysia

2%

8%

72%

18%

 

Another very interesting pattern emerged when I dug down into the data involving religion. When asked “How important is God in your life?” on a scale of 1 to 10, about half the respondents answered “10” and half answered something less.  I was distressed to discover that those for whom God was very important in their lives seemed to have less favorable attitudes towards immigration. But when I broke it down by religious demonination, I found something different. While Muslims who regard God as very important in their lives tend to be more restrictionist, Christians of each denomination are more likely to support open borders if they are strongly in touch with God, as shown in the table below (which includes all denominations for which there were over 500 observations in the WVS dataset):

 

How important is God in your life? (scale: 1-10)
Religious Denomination <10 10
Roman Catholic 9% 15%
Protestant 7% 15%
Evangelical 7% 11%
Orthodox 13% 19%
Church of Sweden 16% 19%
Muslim 19% 13%
Buddhist 7% 9%
Ancestor worship 44% 57%
Hindu 12% 15%

 

The percentage in each cell represents the share of respondents saying “Let anyone come.” Note that it is not the case that Christians are more supportive of open borders in general. Many factors affect support for open borders, and it seems that public opinion in rich countries is often less favorable to open borders. And of course most rich countries are nominally/historically Christian. So Muslims are actually more likely than most Christian denominations to favor open borders. But within each Christians denomination, there is a statistically significant (though fairly small) positive correlation between rating God’s importance in one’s life “10” and advocating “let anyone come.”

Continue reading “Who favors open borders?” »