Tag Archives: Michael Clemens

What open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can teach each other

I’ve recently been reading the scholarly literature on migration and development. In this blog post, I attempt to summarize my understanding of important ways in which researchers in the area are similar to and important ways that they differ from open borders advocates. Then, I’ll discuss what I think both sides can learn from each other.

For examples of the sort of things I’ve been reading, consider this 2007 report for the Department for International Development in the UK, this article on labor migration in India, the World Bank People Move blog, and the websites of KNOMAD and Migrating out of Poverty.

Who are the migration and development scholars who’ve explicitly endorsed radically freer migration?

Some scholars of migration and development are quite sympathetic to the logic of open borders, want the world to move as far as possible in that direction, and explicitly say so. One example is Michael Clemens. While he has expressed some terminological disagreement with “open borders” as a term, he accepts the basic moral logic, he’s all for the main aspects of open borders, and he supports moving as far in that direction as is feasible. Clemens is a co-creator of the place premium and income per natural concepts. He has raised the status in the economic development community of the idea that development is about people, not places. And he wrote the paper that prompted Bryan Caplan to come up with the double world GDP slogan. Note that Clemens isn’t famous solely as a migration researcher; he has also been at the forefront of critiquing some aspects of the Millennium Villages Project.

Another migration scholar who’s expressed considerable sympathy for the open borders position is Lant Pritchett. Pritchett co-authored the place premium paper with Clemens, and has also written a book advocating for freer migration. Pritchett is a renowned development economist who has done considerable work on many areas unrelated to migration, including the return to schooling worldwide and the relation between desired and actual fertility and the importance of contraception to fertility reduction.

How has the community of development scholars changed its views on migration?

I haven’t been able to get a very clear picture, but it seems to me that the international development community as a whole used to be more hostile to migration as a poverty reduction strategy, but they are now more open to it. The following are some general observations:

  • Brain drain was considered a major argument against migration among development scholars, but the balance of the evidence in recent years has moved scholars to the view that the problem is not severe, with many scholars believing that brain circulation and idea flows can be beneficial on net.
  • Historically, the dominant view in the international development community has been similar to the view of many mainstream moderate pro-immigration people that John Lee described here, namely, that migration is not natural, that barriers to it are natural, and that removing migration barriers creates an artificial subsidy encouraging people to move. They’ve also taken the view that suggesting migration as a solution to poverty is essentially a cop-out that accepts defeat in tackling the harder problem of how to get countries to develop. These views again seem to be declining somewhat. It’s more common now for development scholars to consider migration a legitimate part of a strategy that can facilitate improvements in the living conditions of people who migrate and people who stay behind.
  • Dilip Ratha’s work on remittances (see also this New York Times article) got people more interested in the idea that migration can benefit the people who are left behind. Robert Guest’s book on the importance of diasporas encapsulates the growing recognition among migration scholars of how migration can benefit people everywhere, not just those who migrate.

Some other people weighed in on the topic on the comments on this post on the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook.

How do the mainstream migration and development scholars differ from open borders advocates in their views and in their rhetorical emphasis?

In general, mainstream scholars of migration and development are quite similar to the mainstream moderate pro-immigration people John Lee described. In some respects, however, the scholars of migration and development come closer to the open borders position. In particular, compared to mainstream pro-immigration people, and perhaps even compared to some open borders advocates, they differ in these respects:

  • They have a clearer understanding of what poverty and wealth mean, and how rich and poor people are in different parts of the world. And they confront these facts on a regular basis in their work, so it’s harder for them to simply brush these under the carpet. Even somebody like Paul Collier, who wrote the book Exodus that took a lukewarm stance to migration, showed clear understanding and concern about just how big the differences in living standards are.
  • Even if they don’t use the term, they understand the concept of the place premium — the idea that an individual can improve his or her earnings just by crossing borders, with no change in skills, and that much of this improvement is attributable to differences in the value of what the person produces rather than a result of labor legislation or government redistribution.
  • They understand that governments often pander to nativist, citizenist, and territorialist sentiments to an extent that goes beyond what they think is morally appropriate, and also that the sentiments they are pandering to often rely on misguided economic logic. They themselves personally lean more universalist, sometimes in the additive utilitarian sense, sometimes in the egalitarian sense.
  • Even if they’re not themselves libertarians, the libertarian argument in favor of the right to migrate is something that stands out to them more than it does to moderate pro-immigration folks who haven’t thought much about international development. To them, it’s not just an armchair hypothetical. They are also aware of arguments based on human capabilities, even if they haven’t encountered the explicit framework.

On the other hand, they still differ from us “tear down the borders” folks:

  • Their more laser-like focus on poverty alleviation can make them seem somewhat lacking in moral qualms as they discuss issues of optimal migration policy, even when they favor freer migration.
  • Even when they do favor dismantling border controls or other regulations, they’ll frame it in language that suggests more government management of migration. For instance, a concrete recommendation like “get rid of Know Your Customer regulations that forbid migrants from opening bank accounts” would be framed as “facilitate migrant access to banking through reform in Know Your Customer regulations.”
  • Many of their recommendations are focused on strengthening existing patterns of migration that already exist, rather than on loosening border controls that could facilitate new patterns of migration. This may be partly because they’re too anchored to the status quo to consider radical changes. More defensibly, diaspora dynamics suggests that it’s easier to facilitate the expansion of existing migration patterns than create new ones.
  • Related to the preceding, migration and development scholars are a lot more focused on intranational migration as well as international migration among low-income countries and between low-income and middle-income countries.
  • For policy questions, migration and development scholars concentrate their energies on thinking about how to tweak existing systems rather than coming up with new systems from scratch (such as DRITI).
  • Migration and development scholars are very focused on other aspects of the welfare of migrants that are not directly related to open borders. These include migrant childrens’ access to schools, migrants’ access to government-provided and private sector services, and facilitation of communication between migrants and their relatives back home.

What can open borders advocates learn from migration scholars?

Here are some things I believe open borders advocates should learn from migration scholars:

  • More attention to the actual experiences of poor people who migrate: Open borders isn’t purely about poor people, and in particular I believe that there will be a strong imperative for open borders even in a world without poverty. But certainly, freer migration should be an important part of the toolkit to end poverty, and the current state of world poverty considerably raises the importance of the issue. To the extent that open borders advocates are interested in the issue not just theoretically but at a practical level, a closer empirical look at how poor people fare under migration is warranted. Migration and development scholars spend a large part of their life thinking about poverty, and we can be inspired to spend at least a few hours on it.
  • More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: Open borders advocacy can sometimes seem like too much speculation about something that doesn’t exist at all. And to an extent, that’s right: open borders across a huge place premium (of 5X or more) hasn’t happened. But it might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus more on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

What can migration scholars learn from open borders advocates?

I think migration scholars can also take a few lessons from open borders advocates:

  • The moral case for free migration matters. It’s the foundation of everything else. Make the case boldly wherever possible.
  • It helps to consider the radical proposal that is open borders, and ask just how far one can get there. Bold policy changes can be useful to consider, even if they aren’t possible to directly implement. It’s not good to stay anchored to the present all the time.
  • When advocating for reductions in government restrictions on migration, it may make sense to not obfuscate this with the “more government management of migration” language. Further, in cases where the optimal policy comes very close to complete deregulation, consider advocating complete principled deregulation instead of trying to target the specific optimal policy. Complete principled deregulation, even if not optimal on paper, leaves less room for governments to re-institute the counterproductive controls seen in current policy.

The photograph of an open borders campaigner at the top of this post was taken by Jonathan McIntosh at a rally in Los Angeles, California, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Implications of embracing low-end estimates of the global economic impact of open borders

Carl Shulman’s recent post on upward and downward biases in the double world GDP estimates, as well as Nathan’s (forthcoming) post proposing his own model, led me to start thinking about the extent to which the case for open borders is tied to uncertain claims about the economic effects, and whether pushing the “double world GDP” idea as a slogan is epistemically unsound.

One can make a case that high estimates of the global effect of open borders have value in getting people initially interested in the subject, and that once they’re sufficiently invested they will not change their mind even if they learn that the estimates were too high. Indeed, something similar seems to have happened with the growth of the effective altruism movement: initial estimates of the money you needed to donate to save a life were in the range of a few hundred dollars, whereas current estimates are over 2000 dollars, and still rising. Jacob Steinhardt described this in his critique of effective altruism:

The history of effective altruism is littered with over-confident claims, many of which have later turned out to be false. In 2009, Peter Singer claimed that you could save a life for $200 (and many others repeated his claim). While the number was already questionable at the time, by 2011 we discovered that the number was completely off. Now new numbers were thrown around: from numbers still in the hundreds of dollars (GWWC’s estimate for SCI, which was later shown to be flawed) up to $1600 (GiveWell’s estimate for AMF, which GiveWell itself expected to go up, and which indeed did go up). These numbers were often cited without caveats, as well as other claims such as that the effectiveness of charities can vary by a factor of 1,000. How many people citing these numbers understood the process that generated them, or the high degree of uncertainty surrounding them, or the inaccuracy of past estimates? How many would have pointed out that saying that charities vary by a factor of 1,000 in effectiveness is by itself not very helpful, and is more a statement about how bad the bottom end is than how good the top end is?

People who may have been attracted initially by the lowball estimates have generally tended not to leave, perhaps due to an endowment effect or status quo bias, or because they found more compelling and robust reasons to stay once they became effective altruists.

On the other hand, “too-good-to-be-true” estimates can also make it difficult to get people to take the cause seriously in the first place, and can also lead to people getting disillusioned once they realize the estimates won’t work, thereby throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. As Carl Shulman wrote in the context of effective altruism estimates:

Mainly, I think it’s bad news for probably mistaken estimates to spread, and then disillusion the readers or make the writers look biased. If people interested in effective philanthropy go around trumpeting likely wrong (over-optimistic) figures and don’t correct them, then the community’s credibility will fall, and bad models and epistemic practices may be strengthened. This is why GiveWell goes ballistic on people who go around quoting its old cost-effectiveness estimates rather than more recent ones (revisions tend to be towards less cost-effectiveness).

I have listed above some of the strategic pros and cons of embracing overly optimistic estimates, but I am personally more interested in the epistemic question of the extent to which the case for open borders, or for migration liberalization in general, hinges on the magnitude of the estimates, and what a reasonable case for open borders, and for open borders advocacy, might be in the lowball scenario.

Let’s first look at the lowball scenario. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation that Clemens does in his literature review paper (Pages 84-85) (emphasis mine):

Should these large estimated gains from an expansion of international migration outrage our economic intuition, or after some consideration, are they at least plausible? We can check these calculations on the back of the metaphorical envelope. Divide the world into a “rich” region, where one billion people earn $30,000 per year, and a “poor” region, where six billion earn $5,000 per year. Suppose emigrants from the poor region have lower productivity, so each gains just 60 percent of the simple earnings gap upon emigrating—that is, $15,000 per year. This marginal gain shrinks as emigration proceeds, so suppose that the average gain is just $7,500 per year.
If half the population of the poor region emigrates, migrants would gain $23 trillion—which is 38 percent of global GDP. For nonmigrants, the outcome of such a wave of migration would have complicated effects: presumably, average wages would rise in the poor region and fall in the rich region, while returns to capital rise in the rich region and fall in the poor region. The net effect of these other changes could theoretically be negative, zero, or positive. But when combining these factors with the gains to migrants, we might plausibly imagine overall gains of 20–60 percent of global GDP.

This 20-60% comes under assumptions that I think would seem reasonable to many critics of migration. For instance, it largely accords with the assumption of no closing of the skills gap between migrants and natives. Also, it doesn’t consider the long term (the children of migrants getting better education and therefore having more human capital than their counterfactuals in the home country). So it does not rely on beliefs about the closing of skill level and achievement gaps, which are controversial among many critics of migration. In particular, if you believe in intergenerational persistence of these gaps, the above estimation exercise should still seem reasonable to you. The only thing the above doesn’t account for is a radical form of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs (note that the lower end of the 20-60% estimate already accounts for moderate forms of goose-killing, as the original point estimate is 38%). So, setting such radical goose-killing aside for now as an important possibility worth separate investigation, let’s look at the 20-60% estimate. What would it mean?

The pessimistic end of the estimate, 20%, is still more than three times the total of the highest literature estimate of the gains from removing trade barriers and the gains from removing barriers to capital mobility (4.1% + 1.7% = 5.8%) among the papers cited by Clemens. So, free labor mobility still has higher upside — even with these pessimistic assumptions — than free trade.

But even though there’s bigger upside, the margin isn’t that huge. If you had originally believed that open borders would double world GDP, but you then revised the estimate downward to 20%, that would mean that the extent to which open borders advocacy is a compelling cause would reduce, ceteris paribus. However, there are a few countervailing considerations, even if you embrace the lowball estimate.

To help explain this, let me look at my Drake equation-like estimate of the social value of open borders advocacy. I expressed the value as a product:

$latex \text{Utility of a particular form of open borders advocacy} = Wxyz$

Here:

  • $latex W$ is the naive estimate of the gains from complete open borders (using, for instance, the double world GDP ballpark).
  • $latex x$ is a fudge factor to represent the idea that “things rarely turn out as well as we expect them to.” If we set $latex x = 0.1$, for instance, that’s tantamount to saying that, due to all the numerous problems that our naive models fail to account for, the actual gains from open borders would be only 10% of the advertised gains. The product so far, namely $latex Wx$, describes what we really expect the gains from open borders to be.
  • $latex y$ is the fraction to which the world can realistically move in the direction of open borders. The product $latex Wxy$ is total expected gain from however far one can realistically move in the open borders direction.
  • $latex z$ is the extent to which a particular effort at advocacy or discussions moves the world toward open borders, as a fraction of what is realistically possible. For instance, setting $latex z = 10^{-4}$ for Open Borders the website would mean that the creation of the website, and work on the website, has moved the world 1/10,000 of the way it feasibly could in the direction of open borders.

Now, note that we have at least two ways that a decline in $latex W$ might be compensated for:

  • Compensating increase in $latex x$: This would be tricky to argue, because we need to show that our current belief of how realistically our new model accounts for stuff is better than our past belief of how the old model accounted for stuff. In other words, if our original estimate of $latex x$ was based on the knowledge that that model is as crude as it turns out to be, then when we adjust $latex W$ downward and thus make our model realistic, we can compensatingly adjust $latex x$ upward. The effects would approximately, though not exactly, cancel out.
  • Compensating increase in $latex y$: In the specific case at hand, in fact, these arguments do apply. The main source of overestimation in the models predicting huge gains in world GDP is the large number of people that would need to move. Adjusting those numbers alone would get us in the 20-60% range. But, to the extent that this is true, the fraction in which we can move in the direction of open borders might also increase: if open borders involves “only” 300 million people moving instead of 3 billion, then allowing 30 million people to move moves us 10% (0.1) of the way to open borders, rather than 1% (0.01). Again, whether or not $latex y$ gets compensated in practice depends on whether we were aware a priori of the large numbers of people that the model needs to move — if we weren’t, then the adjustment might not happen.
  • Compensating increase in $latex z$: If open borders, or partial moves in that direction, aren’t as radical as they seemed, maybe partial advocacy efforts in that direction are more likely to move us toward them. We should be careful not to double-count this against $latex y$, though — if we’ve already made the adjustment for $latex y$, we probably don’t need to make the adjustment for $latex z$.

A couple of additional notes:

  • All the estimates ($latex x$, $latex y$, and $latex z$) are highly speculative. Combined with the fact that these estimates are related to our estimates for $latex W$ and the methods we used to arrive at those estimates, there’s a lot of room for fudging and very little that can be said conclusively. The order of magnitude of decline in our gain estimate (from 100% of current world GDP to 20%) is only a decline by a factor of five, so our estimates of utility go down by only one order of magnitude, whereas the range of uncertainty is about three orders of magnitude (the range I gave in the original blog post for the Open Borders website was $50,000 -$50,000,000).
  • That said, it would be surprising if the decline in $latex W$ were accompanied by no decline in the overall utility of the form of open borders advocacy. That could happen, based on the considerations listed above, but we should have a prior against it happening. Remember the one-penny proof whenever you’re tempted to believe that a specific change in the estimate of one value will not affect the estimate of another value that it is in general related to.

UPDATE: Diaspora dynamics might reconcile low short-run estimates of how many would move with large long-run estimates of the same. For more, see here.

Economists want more immigration, why don’t you?

A perennial assertion of open borders skeptics is that they are the voice of reason and empirics in the immigration debate, while open borders advocates are soft-headed people thinking with their hearts instead of their brains. So this humble blogger spent a Friday lunch hour in Washington, D.C. attending a Cato Institute panel titled What Economists Think About Immigration. Incidentally, the panel was broadcast on C-SPAN, and thanks to them, you can also view the full panel online.

Of the four people on stage, only one was a new face to me:

  1. Alex Nowrasteh (moderator of the panel, Cato Institute researcher, and an Open Borders blogger)
  2. Madeline Zavodny (panelist, chair of the Agnes Scott College economics department)
  3. Ethan Lewis (panelist, associate professor of economics at Dartmouth, and my former econometrics professor)
  4. Michael Clemens (panelist, Center for Global Development researcher, and the man who single-handedly changed the way I think about immigration)

Zavogny presented first, talking about high-skilled immigrants to the US and how they contribute economically to the US. I think even open borders skeptics tend to favour high-skilled immigration. Those who don’t are either unmoored from reality, or openly admit that they don’t have a hard empirical reason for their belief that high-skilled immigrants should be banned from taking good jobs. So I won’t cover Zavogny’s presentation in depth.

Clemens presented third, but similar to Zavogny, I don’t think he covered much terribly new ground in the debate (at least, that would be new to someone already familiar with the academic debate on immigration’s empirical impacts). Clemens presented a version of his double world GDP lecture, covering the usual ground: immense gains to migrants, doubling world GDP, banning “brain drain” dehumanises immigrants and doesn’t help anyone, and ending restrictions on freedom of movement may seem crazy, but crazier things have happened (see: the abolition of slavery).

Lewis, on the other hand, presented some really compelling and new material. To me, one of the new things was how strongly he feels about immigration! I suppose econometrics does not lend itself to very passionate lectures, but although I knew he studied immigration while I was a student of his, I had no inkling of the depth of his support for reducing immigration restrictions.  (Full disclosure: I was also a student of his wife, Elizabeth Cascio, who supervised my senior seminar and final economics paper.) Even more new and exciting to me: Lewis presented some of his latest work, which finds that immigration has boosted the income of Americans across the board — even low-income Americans.

Perhaps the most commonly-cited harm of immigration is its impact on the wages and employment of natives. Immigration supposedly reduces wages across the board. This is a complete myth, which no economist would sign on to (at least, none that I’ve read, including prominent skeptics). There is concern among a few economists that immigration harms income and employment for low-earning natives. However, few find this result, and most that do have been subject to various criticisms: the impact they find is extremely small (the most popular estimate here would suggest that 20 years of immigration to the US resulted in a cumulative 3% decline in low-earning natives’ wages); it’s sensitive to the removal of a few data points; it doesn’t account for how capital investments  react to the influx of labour; it relies on data from a period when other things driving reduction in wages, such as the decline of trade unions, could be confounding the results.

Lewis presents a slide (at roughly the 25:30 mark in the C-SPAN recording) suggesting that not only has immigration increased the wages of high-skilled natives, as you would expect — it has also increased the wages of low-skilled natives. Why does the wage data suggest this? What plausible mechanisms are there? Lewis suggests two major things:

  1. Changes in the use of capital — firms respond to an influx of immigrants by investing less in capital than they had planned, creating jobs for low-skilled natives as well as immigrants and ameliorating the potential negative wage impacts for low-skilled natives
  2. Immigrants compete in a different labour market than natives — immigrants whose English fluency is limited or non-existent will compete among one another for jobs, and natives emerge unscathed thanks to their English skills

Lewis presents the arguments for these mechanisms quite well, so I’d urge you to watch his talk yourself. In particular, he has a number of interesting charts backing all these points up. My understanding is he has a forthcoming paper that will fully flesh out the ideas in his presentation. My take is this is just one data point, but if you’re analytically evaluating the likely outcomes of more immigration, seeing this ought to make you revise upward your assessment of the probability that immigration helps or doesn’t harm natives. And given the existing literature, that assessment should already have been assigned a fairly high probability in the first place — certainly not the 0% chance that so often seems to be assumed in immigration debates.

Lewis wraps up his talk by urging the audience to think beyond the current policy debate in Washington, which focuses today primarily on whether to regularise the 11 million unauthorised immigrants currently living in the US. He points out that it makes absolutely no sense to ban people from migrating in the first place, and given the immense gains to the migrants, even if you don’t believe his estimates, you should be happy to enforce a tax or fee on them that captures some of those gains, to ensure all natives benefit from immigration.

Economists overwhelmingly reject popular myths that immigrants are economic harms. Yet these myths refuse to die. We no longer believe that Jews drink the blood of babies, that Chinese eat rats, or that Irish are just drunk beggars. Why do we believe that people born on the other side of an invisible line called the national border are an incredible harm to us, while people born on the other side of an invisible line demarcating a county or province are perfectly guiltless? Both types of people are as likely to “steal” our jobs and drive down our wages. But one person we call a criminal for crossing that invisible line; the other, we call a good citizen.

I can’t echo my former professor’s words enough. We need to think beyond today’s debates about immigration. The fact is, today’s debates rely on ignorant assumptions about immigration. They assume immigrants are “job thieves”. Having a debate on these terms is like arguing whether we should let more Jews in or hold back lest they start drinking our children’s blood or poisoning our wells. We’re starting from premises so utterly wrong that there’s no point having the debate.

Of course the US should have a process for legalising people who’ve lived in the US for a long period of time. If they ever did any harm by crossing an invisible line 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, as long as they aren’t committing any crimes and harming anyone today, we should live and let live. This is so basic that as Lewis says, we need to think bigger. We need to reject the myths of the past, and adopt a reality-based immigration policy — one that embraces all human beings as people with dreams and goals and potential and contributions that will enrich us all and build our communities.

Conversation between Michael Clemens and GiveWell

Charity evaluator GiveWell often carries out conversations with subject matter experts in a number of areas relevant to the philanthropic directions that GiveWell is considering. Notes from some of these conversations get published on GiveWell’s conversations page.

Recently, GiveWell staffer Alexander Berger had a conversation with Michael Clemens. Clemens is in charge of migration and development at the Center for Global Development, a Washington D.C. think tank. A full PDF of the conversation can be found here.

The part that interested me most in the conversation was the section on migration from Haiti to America:

After the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the United States strengthened its naval blockade of Haiti to prevent Haitians from moving to the US. Together with others, Clemens worked to loosen the restrictions on a US visa program to allow more Haitians to move to the US legally as a part of the post earthquake relief and recovery effort.

For historical reasons, before 2012 Haitians were not eligible for H-­‐2 visas. After the earthquake, Clemens and his collaborators made a very substantial effort to make Haitians eligible for H-­‐2 visas.

  • They pointed out that if 2,000 Haitians were to get H–2 visas every year,over the course of 10 years, the total amount earned by the migrant workers would be more than $400m, a total exceeding the US relief emergency assistance after the earthquake.
  • They had meetings with the staff from both Florida senators and several Florida Representatives, with the office of John Kerry, with the White House, the State Dept., with several nongovernmental organizations and with the Haitian ambassador.
  • In the end, they were able to get bipartisan support for the proposed policy change. Bill Nelson (a Democratic Senator from Florida) and Marco Rubio (a Republican Senator from Florida) jointly signed a letter to Janet Napolitano (United States Secretary of Homeland Security) requesting that she make Haiti eligible for H–2 visas, and she implemented the change.
  • Last year 58 Haitians obtained H–2 visas. as. The reason that more didn’t obtain visas is the fact that there exists no mechanism to match US employers who need Haitian labor to Haitian workers willing to come to the US on an H–2 visa. No H–2 recruiters are currently active in Haiti, and none has yet been willing to become the first mover.

The next section is about the “Potential for scale-up” of this successful advocacy: Continue reading “Conversation between Michael Clemens and GiveWell” »

Michael Clemens on the “path to citizenship”

Michael Clemens, who heads the migration-related initiatives at the Center for Global Development, recently wrote a blog post titled Care About Unauthorized Immigration? The ‘Path to Citizenship’ Is What Matters Least. Like my co-blogger Chris, Clemens is critical of overemphasis on the path to citizenship. Clemens:

I am not saying that the status of unauthorized immigrants isn’t important. I’m saying that the policy step of a path-to-citizenship is unlikely to be an important determinant of the unauthorized immigrant population, even in the short term.

This is clear from U.S. history. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan created a path to citizenship for most of the 3 million unauthorized immigrants then living in America when he signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Watch what happened to the unauthorized immigrant population. By 1990, just four years later, you couldn’t even tell that anything had happened: [view graph at original link]

Later in the same post:

If you’re concerned about the phenomenon of unauthorized immigration or the plight of unauthorized immigrants, pay less attention to the path-to-citizenship. Keep one question foremost in your mind as you read the forthcoming details of the Senators’ and president’s proposals: What are they offering U.S. farmers to get the labor they need without going under? What are they offering U.S. parents to get the childcare they need without breaking the bank? These are the provisions that will shape unauthorized immigration for tomorrow’s America.

My thoughts:

  • From a pro-open borders perspective, the path to citizenship is the least important of all issues being discussed.
  • From the political externalities perspective, the path to citizenship is very very important.
  • I think that while Clemens is correct that citizenship or the lack of it is not much of an incentive to migrate, the data offered by Clemens don’t quite support that conclusion. The graph displayed by Clemens does suggest that a path to citizenship will not reduce future unauthorized immigration. I’m not exactly sure who argues this, though it does seem like the sort of thing that somebody who hasn’t thought clearly about the issue might say. But restrictionists usually argue the opposite — that a path to citizenship for past unauthorized immigrants will incentivize increases in future unauthorized immigration. This, I suspect, is true. Clemens’ graph doesn’t extend much before 1986, but it’s easy to see that the rate of increase must have been slower before 1986, because the total number of unauthorized immigrants couldn’t have been negative. So, it does seem like the 1986 immigration reform incentivized future unauthorized immigration. What’s not clear, though, is whether citizenship specifically had that effect over and above being granted legal status. So overall, the marginal effect of citizenship seems to be unclear.
  • Even if a path to citizenship is not important for migrants or for open borders advocates, it’s very important for political parties, who are after all negotiating with their political competitors about future voters — the people who’ll decide the parties’ future fate. I don’t see eye to eye with Peter Brimelow, but he’s right that granting citizenship to migrants is about electing a new people, and political parties have a self-interest in electing people who’ll elect them. This doesn’t mean they’d always follow that self-interest — there might be other pragmatic and ethical considerations — but the issue will weigh heavily in negotiations. BK pointed out in the comments that even pro-immigration Republicans don’t expect large numbers of newly minted immigrant citizens to vote for the Republicans, hence they are more likely to support guest worker programs. Democrats do seem to have an advantage with migrant votes, and hence support a path to citizenship, but supporting guest worker programs may cost them union support, which might make them reluctant to do so, as Alex Nowrasteh pointed out:

    So why doesn’t the proposed immigration reform include a comprehensive guest-worker program? Surprisingly, the main issue is not opposition from conservative Republicans. It is unions and their supporters who do not want it.

    In the 2007 immigration reform push, an amendment that would have ended the guest-worker program after five years destroyed Republican support.

    The then-leaders of the AFL-CIO, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers and the Teamsters all wrote letters opposing guest workers and supporting the amendment.