With Open Borders, Should Governments Facilitate Migration?

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute has suggested helping America’s long-term unemployed by having the U.S. government subsidize their relocation from areas in the U.S. with poor labor markets to ones with stronger markets.  He states that “many of the long-term unemployed living in, say, New Jersey would likely have a much easier time finding a job in North Dakota.”  Noting that many of the unemployed don’t possess the resources to move, Mr. Strain states that the subsidies would cover a majority of their moving expenses.

Similarly, should governments of advanced countries subsidize the relocation (or even cover the total cost of moving) of destitute foreigners into their countries as part of open borders policies that hopefully will one day be adopted?  An impoverished Bangladeshi would seem to have even less ability to move to an advanced country than an unemployed resident of New Jersey would have to move to North Dakota, even without legal barriers to migration.  An impoverished Bangladeshi also would have greatly improved opportunities to better her economic situation in an advanced country.

There are many powerful moral arguments supporting open borders, but what are the ethics involved in helping individuals immigrate?  While this question does not appear to have been explored, one argument for open borders would seem to easily incorporate migration assistance into its case for unimpeded movement.  Joseph Carens  of the University of Toronto, using John Rawls’ question about what laws people would adopt if they knew nothing about their personal situations, concludes that people would choose the right to migrate since “it might prove essential to one’s plan of life…”   Since many impoverished people might not be able to take advantage of open borders, people who know nothing of their situations would probably support both the right to migrate plus government provided relocation aid to those who need it.  This  would ensure that if they were one of those needing aid they would have the opportunity to improve their lives through migration.

The moral philosopher Peter Singer’s  drowning child parable also seems to suggest that relocation aid for would-be migrants would be morally obligatory.  In the parable, which is meant to help Mr. Singer’s students “think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need,” a student sees that a child is drowning in a shallow pond.  Saving the child would be easy, although the student’s clothes would get muddy and, having to change clothes, the student would miss their class.  Mr. Singer notes that his students unanimously agree there is an obligation to rescue the child.  In addition, most students agree that it would not make any difference “if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost–and absolutely no danger–to yourself… distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation.”  He then suggests that citizens of advanced countries can, at little cost, save lives in the Third World through donations to aid agencies, just like the student can easily save the life of the drowning child in the parable.

Some people desiring to migrate to an advanced country may be truly in mortal danger, whether through starvation or persecution, and helping them migrate would save their lives.  Like in Mr. Singer’s parable, citizens of advanced countries, acting through their governments, could help some of them migrate to their countries at little cost.  Thankfully most would-be immigrants aren’t in such dire situations, but many could see vast improvement in their lives by being able to migrate with the help of advanced countries.  (Would-be immigrants who aren’t in immediate danger would generally be easier and cheaper to assist than those who are starving or being threatened with violence.)  Furthermore, arrangements could be made for the migrants to reimburse governments for the migration assistance, perhaps through garnishment of wages from jobs they find in the advanced countries.

Other supporters of open borders may have a different perspective on using government funds to assist migration.  The economist Bryan Caplan writes that “Yes, you have an obligation to leave strangers alone, but charity is optional.”  Having a government compel its citizens to pay for the relocation of migrants from other countries into their country may not be morally justifiable in his opinion.  Private funding of migration would probably be Mr. Caplan’s preferred approach.

With the advent of open borders policies, perhaps aid organizations would shift their focus from providing help to the needy in the countries where they live to providing migration assistance that would allow individuals to move to advanced countries where they could help themselves through work.  Perhaps organizations or businesses in the home countries of would-be migrants would provide loans to help them emigrate, although in some instances these arrangements could be abusive.  Should these entities provide the resources necessary for people to migrate, then the question of migration support from governments of the advanced nations would be a moot point.

However, these resources from private sources may be insufficient to meet the needs of all who wish to migrate.  The availability of government support would help ensure that all those who wished to migrate could do so.  Unlike private entities, governments could also more easily employ transportation assets to facilitate migration, such as the U.S. sending ships or planes to Haiti to collect migrants and bring them to the U.S.

Under open borders, related questions also arise.  In countries with murderous conflicts like the one in Syria, should advanced countries intervene to create safe passages for those who wish to flee the countries and settle in a different country, most likely an advanced one?  Should advanced countries punish countries like North Korea that forbid or severely impede emigration?  Hopefully open borders will be embraced in the not too distant future, and questions about the extent of government facilitation of migration will constitute the debates citizens in the advanced countries have over immigration.

In a future post, Vipul will discuss whether migration flows under open borders would be too large, too small, or optimal.  Government intervention to facilitate migration would be another factor when considering the amount of migration under open borders.

The image featured at the top of this post is a 1917 painting depicting Armenian refugees at Port Said, Egypt.

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

3 thoughts on “With Open Borders, Should Governments Facilitate Migration?”

  1. While using public resources to facilitate immigration faces some obvious objections, considering how the public is torn on the issue, private organizations providing such assistance should be fairly unobjectionable. But legitimate, private organizations probably hesitate to set up a program like this given the legal restrictions on immigration and the wide swings in enforcement enthusiasm. Regulatory uncertainty?

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