Open borders encourages assimilation: a lesson from the EU?

The Economist recently ran an interesting story on intra-EU migration. Relative to Greece and Spain, Germany has an economy chugging along well. Peripheral immigration to Germany is growing, which was the whole point of the common labour market in the first place. But though visas may no longer be an issue, language remains a challenge. So prospective immigrants are adapting:

When the euro crisis began, the branches in southern Europe of the Goethe Institute, the German equivalent of the British Council, were overwhelmed by demand for German courses, says Heike Uhlig, the institute’s director of language programmes. That demand was also different, she adds: less about yearning to read Goethe’s “Faust” than about finding work. So the institute retooled, offering courses geared to the technical German used by engineers, nurses or doctors.

Britain, thanks to English, has an advantage in the competition for foreign talent, which big German firms try to minimise by accepting English as their working language. But many of the job openings in Germany are to be found in medium-sized and private Mittelstand firms, often in remote places, where speaking German is still a must. That’s why Mr Gómez is advising his friends back home in Spain to bone up on the language and then “leave, get out”.

The common labour market is actually encouraging pre-assimilation, because of the incentive it provides for workers to learn the languages of thriving economies. If people have to cross borders unlawfully in times of economic crisis, it is harder for them to command a wage that corresponds to their productivity, since they must work under the table. Consequently, they have less reason to invest in pre-assimilation, or assimilation itself: the marginal return to investing in learning the language is not going to be great, especially if you’re going there to be a janitor instead of a technician, and especially if there’s little reasonable chance of moving up the career ladder.

If immigrants can cross in the full light of day, they have more reason to expect a better career trajectory in their new country. How far they can go will depend more on how much they invest in their careers; they aren’t arbitrarily circumscribed by immigration restrictions. They will have more reason to learn their new country’s language, more reason to try and fit into the new working culture. It is difficult to tell under a closed-borders regime how prospective immigrants would approach assimilation under true open borders (as opposed to more economically distortionary schemes, such as those specifically targeting open borders for refugees or open borders for citizens’ relatives). But the early read from the EU may have lessons for us here.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


One thought on “Open borders encourages assimilation: a lesson from the EU?”

  1. This is an excellent point that I don’t remember having thought of before. It’s consistent with my general emphasis on rules rather than discretion, on rights rather than arbitrariness. By making the rules clear, you make the incentives more effective.

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