Migration: putting the individual at the center

One of the core arguments for free movement of people is the economic logic of the free movement of labor. But of course people are more than just labor, and migrants make the journey for a variety of reasons. If it isn’t for economic gain (or welfare benefits maximization, in the cynic’s version of the narrow economic motive), then the migrant must be fleeing oppression, if the typical migration discussants are to be believed. The role open borders could play in offering sanctuary for the oppressed is important, of course. But this too, is not the full story.

The stories of students studying in foreign universities are also familiar, and I suppose could be construed as human capital development and thus economic in nature. But of course, not all (or even most?) students seek higher learning only for its economic benefits. Perhaps their parents expect it of them; or it is what their peers are doing; or they have the scholar’s instinct to learn; or they hope to find love and value the kinds of people who attend university; or they are enchanted by the sheer romantic adventure of it all. Or perhaps education is a convenient vehicle for the intended aim of moving far away from the student’s home.

People cross frontiers because of family, evoking sympathy from moderates and cynicism about anchor babies and phony marriages from immigration skeptics. But people move to get away from family as well. The bonds of family and village can stifle and suffocate, and sometimes the only way to escape the kind of life and values you see around you is to physically leave. And perhaps the easiest way to get far enough away to find the right mix of desired opportunities and personal contacts and values is to leave your country of origin.

Incidentally, distaste for the culture of Oklahoma played no small role in my own eventual migration (within the US) to California. It’s worth noting in my case that economic calculation played no role whatsoever in this decision; instead, it was educational opportunities (graduate school in chemistry) and the desire to live in a more cosmopolitan locale, far away from the “Bible Belt” of my rearing.

There are still other reasons to move. Someone might be interested in moving to another country simply because of a fascination with the culture there. Consider a young Westerner who has studied Japan through much of her childhood. Perhaps she is of Japanese descent and wishes to learn and experience more of a culture that is mostly alien but for an easily overlooked familial connection. Or she wishes to study one of the Japanese schools of Buddhism and must do so in Japan. Or perhaps our young Westerner has no connection to Japan at all. She just got hooked on manga by a random twist of fate and the love of the language and udon and the rest came along later.

This last gets at something entirely missed by models built only on economistic concepts like wage gaps and place premia: glamour. As goofy as it usually becomes on close inspection, some foreign lands just seem to have a magical allure. Consider the mythologies surrounding New York City or Hollywood or Paris. These cities are romanticized out of all proportion to reality in movies, in popular literature, and in the dreams people share with one another. Or to those non-urbanists in the audience, take the American western frontier, the “wild west”. These examples are colored by my own American experience, of course. I don’t know much about the mythologies surrounding life on the rich side of Europe’s guarded borders, except for my vague, leftish fantasies about maybe some day moving to a land free of cowboy conservatism. And I know nothing of the sparkling, rapidly modernizing cities of India and China and the hopes and dreams they represent for nearby hinterlanders. And as an irreligious mongrel, I will likely never appreciate the importance attached to holy lands and ancestral homes. Perhaps glamour is just killer marketing, but even if it is just marketing, it hardly matters. We feel the effects.

Or sometimes the effect is not felt. John Lee’s recent exposition of the all-things-considered quite open borders of Argentina is an illuminating example of what gets people moving and what doesn’t. Given the freedom to immigrate that Argentina respects, the country’s history of immigration, and the high wages of the Argentine labor market compared to much of the world, one would expect to see floods of migrants to the country. But wage gaps aren’t everything. Maybe no one knows about Argentina’s mostly open borders, or maybe the country gets bad press for its unenviable macroeconomic management, or maybe the aspiring migrants of the world have not had time to adjust their hopes and dreams to include this new possibility.

Then there is the romance of the expatriate, who chooses to dwell within a new country, for work or school or whatever. The expatriate is not a permanent immigrant, however long she might stay in her host country. She has no intention of assimilating, and perhaps even relishes the identity of being a stranger in a strange land. Among a certain set of expats, which country they live in doesn’t even matter that much, as long as it’s somewhere different from their birth country. Some will teach their native language, or join a multinational volunteer program, or find work–any work–in order just to stay abroad. And some will hop from country to country as opportunities present themselves, staying one step ahead of the little things in life that tie one down. Work, school, teaching, etc., are for these rootless cosmopolitans just means to the purpose of migration.

And there is no good reason to think that the desire to migrate for the sheer hell of it is something limited to rich kids from OECD countries, other than what might uncharitably be called neocolonialist assumptions about the people of “developing” nations. Laura Agustin, in a work filled with interviews of migrants exercising agency, describes this “metanarrative” in which

leisure is considered an aspect of western modernity that facilitates tourism, which is characterized by the absence of work, while migration is undertaken by less modern people impelled by identifiable causes to leave home. The tourism and pleasure seeking of people from ‘developing’ societies rarely figures, as though migration and tourism (and working and tourism) were mutually exclusive. […]

Armed conflict and loss of farms may push people away from home, while labour shortage and favourable immigration policy may pull them elsewhere: the basic concept is unarguable, but it also envisions migrants as acted upon, leaving little room for desire, aspiration, anxiety or other states of the soul. In contrast, first-world travellers are imagined to be modern individuals searching for ways to realise themselves.

We all, rich and poor alike, experience push and pull factors of economic forces and, in very bad cases, geopolitical forces. But we all also access any of a variety of personal reasons like those I described above to exercise agency, both in how we react to external forces and how we formulate and execute our life plans in circumstances we find ourselves in. Ignoring the centrality of the individual agent in decisions to migrate in an attempt to understand migration in terms of impersonal forces robs migrants of the dignity of their lived experiences.

Nevertheless, there are important differences between the well-off citizens of rich nations and the least fortunate among us: with the education, personal connections, and financial and institutional resources common in the rich world, we the lucky ones can form our aspirations with a greater awareness of alternative possibilities. An illiterate subsistence farmer, to take an extreme example, has not seen enough of the world to know what he is missing. A woman growing up in a society that fails to respect the rights of women and forsakes their education and development may never learn that women can lead other kinds of lives.

Migration is a valid choice for the plethora of reasons described above, but it’s worth noting that it is the option to move that is of value rather than movement itself. After all, movement isn’t always voluntary. The individual’s desire is frequently to remain wherever it is she calls home, and this desire can be thwarted by violent upheavals, forced migrations, and human trafficking. Also, the capability to move may be valued even if it is never exercised. I may fervently wish to move to that shining city on a far-flung hill and plan my life accordingly, even if life in its intricate twists and turns ultimately presents me with something completely different to settle my yearning feet. The planning itself and the decision to change my mind will have been the products of my own agency, no one else’s, and there is something worthwhile in that. Finally, I may value the freedom of movement so that someone else might exercise it. Perhaps I will stay rooted, but my son will chase dreams taking him far, far away.

It’s important also to make room for contingency in life and in the decisions we make. I met my spouse on a blind date arranged by a casual friend who, one fateful evening, instant-messaged my wife-to-be by accident. Stupid luck can radically change our lives. Random events affect migrants as well–the chance meeting that provides a crucial contact abroad, or falling in love while on a work assignment or studying in another country, or hearing about an employment opportunity while on a religious pilgrimage. These chance scenarios present a person with good reasons to make migration decisions that aren’t captured well by economic push-pull models, nor by the tear-jerking stories of violent political crises or persecution (compelling though they are).

I should point out that I don’t mean to impugn simplified economic models categorically. I only mean to caution their use. They usefully model what the world would look like if people acted only according to their economic self-interest, which is indeed a powerful force. But economic self-interest is but one of a range of motives, a plethora of which may act on an individual all at once. Homo economicus, like homo refugeeus, is a cartoon that doesn’t reflect the rich diversity and texture of human agency.

The point I’ve alluded to thus far but will now make explicit is that the right to migrate–or more precisely, the capability to choose where one lives–has both instrumental as well as intrinsic value. The focus of most economic accounts of migration is its instrumental value, that is, the role of migration in facilitating other, more traditionally understood economic projects like finding higher wages and developing human capital. But as I hope I’ve illustrated above, migration for many people can be seen as valuable in and of itself. One migrates to work, but might also work to migrate. I have tried to flesh out an agent-centered view of migration, where the decisions made by individuals to move or not to move, and where to move and how, are understood as belonging to the individuals involved, whether those decisions are heavily constrained by external forces or not. The versatile instrumentality, the intrinsic value, and the dignity inherent in the choice to move or stay make the freedom of movement a strong candidate for fundamental human right, the abrogation of which requires powerful and particular justification.

Consider an analogy with the freedom of speech, which is considered fundamental at least in the democracies of the developed world. One could list all of the reasons why people value the ability to express themselves. Free speech creates a marketplace of ideas, allowing unpopular but meritorious ideas to gain a foothold and with time possibly come to dominate. The benefits redound to us all in the forms of technology, philosophy, religion, education, sexuality, etc. Free speech allows art and literature to flourish in a way that state-controlled arts and letters cannot hope to match. Art, literature, and the entertainment forms of modern media also bring people together, strengthening the existing bonds of human relationships and communities, and engendering new relationships and communities. Volumes have been written on these instrumental advantages of free expression. But self-expression is also a valuable experience all on its own, in terms of pure amusement, organization, catharsis, and spiritual fulfillment. The limits to freedom of expression we accept as reasonable (Crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater) do not damage the principle involved. We still presume freedom of expression is valuable unless very strong arguments are brought to bear in particular cases. The capability to express oneself is, quite simply, the kind of thing a person has reason to value.

International migration is an entirely natural phenomenon that should evoke no more suspicion than moving over to the next town. People have a palate of reasons for migrating that reflects the diversity of their individual histories, relationships, dreams, and even whimsical fantasies. These are reasons that even the most rooted among us can understand with a bit of imagination. The multiplicity of reasons to migrate is wide-ranging enough that it makes sense to consider it a fundamental human capability–the kind of capacity a person has reason to value without needing to appeal to other ends. And migrants themselves are just folks, from all races and classes, from all creeds, from all genders and sexualities, from all parts of the world.

With all of this in mind, it becomes obvious that the violent enforcement of border controls around the world is both hopeless and hopelessly misguided. It is hopeless because movement is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. As such, like the urges to speak one’s mind to be heard, to make friends and to love lovers, to labor and to enjoy the fruits thereof, the urge to move will find a way by cussed grit and ingenuity. Fences and gunboats will extinguish some dreams and rack up body counts but, short of truly totalitarian crackdowns, they will not halt the flows of humanity. But the control of the border does warp the experience of migrants, creating or worsening conditions of fear, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination. And the project to control the border is misguided because it ignores the basic, human element at play: individuals making decisions about their own lives for their own reasons. People move. They always will. Embrace them.

This post was inspired by Hein de Haas’s paper, “Migration Theory: Quo Vadis?”, which formulates a model of migration in the capabilities framework. This framework is implicit in the post.

2 thoughts on “Migration: putting the individual at the center”

  1. I really enjoyed this Article, In fact I can relate to being an immigrant for another reason other than labor. In my case as stated by Paul Crider of course I seek higher education for “it’s economic benefit” but also because its expected from my parents. Thus concurring with Crider that migration cannot only be because of better economy. Of course it is an important factor, however migration is part of human nature and there are many reason behind a person’s decision to leave their native country. Thus of which are not mainly economic benefits. Instead a person could migrate to a new nation or place for the culture. In addition a country that has better economy would rather have immigrants from poor countries rather than wealthy, yet these doesn’t mean it’s only people from one country who are migrating.


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