Open Borders Benefit First World Citizens Too

A primary advantage of open borders is the opportunity provided to Third World citizens to escape their impoverished conditions and find a better life in more economically advanced countries.  While open borders would probably most benefit those in the Third World,  its advantages for citizens of more advanced countries should not be overlooked.

Many First World citizens might benefit under open borders from the positive economic impact of a greater influx of immigrants into their countries.  In response to a 1990 Alexis de Tocqueville Institution survey question “What reforms in U.S. immigration laws or quotas would you recommend to improve the U.S. economy,” the late economist Milton Friedman, 1976 Nobel laureate, stated “From an economic point of view, unlimited immigration, but limiting access for a decade or so to welfare and similar benefits would be ideal.”  And Philippe Legrain writes in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them that immigrants “… bring different skills, varied views, diverse experiences and a zeal for self-improvement that combine with the talents of local people to boost innovation, productivity and economic growth.” (page 19)

Another advantage of open borders for citizens of countries with advanced economies would be the expanded opportunity for them to move to another country in search of economic opportunities.  In fact, some Americans are currently emigrating to other countries to find work, especially given the high unemployment rate in the United States and the millions of people who are considered long-term unemployed   (See also here.)   An article on the NBC site  states that “Reversing a trend that’s perhaps 400 years old, workers are leaving America to find opportunity elsewhere.”  The article refers to Americans who have found work in China, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates.  An emigrant to China was reported as saying that her standard of living was better there than in the U.S.  In a report that collected stories from Americans who are struggling in the U.S. job market,  an American teaching English in South Korea, referring to fellow Americans working abroad, stated that “… for many of us the best way to find a steady job or pay off a student loan is to leave America.” The NBC article notes that the U.S. government has had difficulty determining how many Americans are working overseas, although it could be in the millions.

Hein de Haas, blogger and co-director of the International Migration Institute, notes that Europeans are similarly looking for work outside of their countries’ borders.  He writes that many Irish are emigrating to a number of English speaking countries, Portuguese are emigrating to France, Brazil, Mozambique, and Angola, Greeks are emigrating to Germany, Australia, and Turkey, and Spaniards are moving to a number of other European countries and Morocco.  Mr. de Hass states that “what many people ignore… is that some African economies are growing fast, and can nowadays offer better opportunities to skilled, entrepreneurial Europeans than the stagnating economies of Southern and European Europe.”

Many from advanced countries are emigrating to Mexico, according to a New York Times article entitled “For Migrants, New Land of Opportunity Is Mexico.”  Almost 70,000 Americans were legally working in the country in 2011, as were tens of thousands of Europeans, Canadians, and Asians.   A French citizen moved to Mexico, according to the article, “… because college graduates in France were struggling to find work.  He has stayed here… because the affordable quality of life beats living in Europe–and because Mexico offers more opportunity for entrepreneurship.”  He has opened a successful communications business in Mexico and said, “‘We’re not going back to France… The business is doing well and we’re very happy in Mexico.’”  The article notes that “… Spanish filmmakers, Japanese automotive executives and entrepreneurs from the United States and Latin America arrive practically daily–pursuing dreams, living well and frequently succeeding.”

Some American retirees are also emigrating to improve their quality of life.   Some who moved to Mexico between 2007 and 2010 had houses and stock that had lost a significant amount of value.  More emigration to cheaper countries would, in the opinion of Don Peck of the Atlantic, “… give recession-battered Baby Boomers more choices and opportunities.”

I am not an expert on immigration policies throughout the world, but the apparent ease with which many citizens of advanced countries emigrate to other countries is probably due to the substantial financial, educational, and occupational resources they possess compared to emigrants from Third World countries.  In the New York Times article on emigration to Mexico, it was noted that “most of the immigrants who have the resources or corporate sponsorship to gain legal residency here come from the United States and Europe. The thousands of Central American immigrants coming to Mexico without visas — to work on farms or in cities, or to get to the United States — are often greeted with beatings by the Mexican police or intense pressure to work for drug cartels.”

However, none of this is to suggest that open borders currently exist for First World citizens, with the exception that citizens of European Union countries can freely look for work in other EU countries. (See also here and here.)  Americans are sometimes deported from Mexico,  Canada,  and Europe (see here and here), and Europeans are deported from Australia  and the U.S. (see here and here).  John Lee has shared that his American employer no longer sponsors work visas for foreigners, including Canadians, because of the cost and uncertainty involved.

A universal acceptance of open borders would provide insurance against fluctuations in the health of national economies.  It would allow citizens in countries who experience flagging economies in the future to seek employment in economies with greater opportunities.  Consider the dramatic vacillations in Spain’s economy.  According to the Atlantic, after years of being a “poor, backward country,” in the late 20th century it quickly evolved into a “… modern, wealthy, technologically-advanced European social democracy…” with a single digit unemployment rate by the mid-2000s.  However, the 2008 global economic crisis has led it to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the developed world.  Fortunately, Spain’s membership in the EU has allowed its citizens the opportunity to seek work in other EU countries.

Similarly, the relative ease with which citizens from advanced countries can currently move around the world, even in the absence of open borders, may not last.  Perhaps one day Americans, Canadians, and Europeans may have great difficulty emigrating to China, Brazil, or Africa, for example.  Establishing durable, universal open borders would help insure against the future closing of borders in many countries.

Even in the absence of a compelling need to emigrate to find work in another country, the unobstructed ability to move to another country would enrich the lives of many citizens of First World countries.  Victoria Ferauge has referred to the “joy of discovering a new country and building a life and a career there,” and Paul Crider has stated that “migration is a valuable right and capability for all kinds of people, not just those who ‘need’ it to escape poverty or persecution.”   Some people are happier living in a country other than their own, economic (and political) considerations aside.

Citizens of advanced countries have much to gain from open borders.   And, as Mr. Crider has noted, appealing to their self-interest may make the case for open borders more attractive to them than focusing on how it can help people in the Third World.

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

6 thoughts on “Open Borders Benefit First World Citizens Too”

  1. This post is not quite what I expected from the title. I was expecting it to be about the land value windfall, or the rise in wages that some natives can expect. Those are alluded to, but the stress is on the benefits that First World citizens enjoy from having the option to emigrate. Cool.

    It’s true that there is plenty of work to do freeing up migration among rich countries, quite apart from the benefits of opening up migration options to people from the Third World. For example, what about a free migration deal between the US and the EU? I’m sure a lot of Americans would like to work in Europe, for personal enrichment, while a lot of Europeans would like to emigrate to America, with its suburban lifestyles and higher incomes. It doesn’t seem like this gets talked about much. I wonder why.

    1. For many, I think it’s really because of a sense of entitlement and privilege. My impression is that a lot of people who do dream of going abroad, whether for temporary work or permanent settlement, tend to take for granted that if they wanted to, they could work or live anywhere (except for places that they wouldn’t want to work or live in anyway, like North Korea). I’ve seen plenty of stories of developed world citizens faced with an unpleasant shock being deported from the US or EU or Canada or Australia because they went there to work (typically for a short period, like a working holiday on an organic farm) and didn’t get a work visa — because why would they need one? Many who go on these working holiday stints are there illegally and don’t even know it. Some examples: and

      My impression is that in general people in the developed world assume that immigration laws will treat them fairly, until they actually have to deal with immigration laws themselves. Another example, this time of an American being deported from Ireland:

      Then again, it’s possible this is just an artifact of socioeconomic privilege in general. I’ve observed plenty of high-income migrants from the developing world who’ve been shocked that immigration laws prevent them from doing something they consider entirely reasonable.

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