Untied Hands

Increased immigration can help combat global poverty

Each minute tons of goods pass freely, quickly, and quietly across international borders. The new Blackberry Storm, released last Friday and equipped with beautiful haptic touch-screens, will certainly reach far-flung outposts in Oceania, the Andes, and the Sahara by the time you read this column. Many of the gadgets will probably rest in the palms of business executives sitting in pleather first-class seats, on missions to freely, quickly, and quietly move capital across international borders. And far below them while they fly, floating on rafts and side-winding in the desert high noon, will be migrants, refugees, and undocumented workers who can only pass those same borders restrictively, slowly, and with much effort. In a world where output has increased over the past twenty years primarily due to a fivefold expansion of the labor supply, according to International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook 2007, increased labor mobility—rather, increased human mobility—is still anathema to both the political left and right in developed countries. Even though a dramatic increase in immigration would probably alleviate world poverty and generate wealth more than any other policy, faster flows are still seen as too risky and unguarded by the left, and too extreme by the right. Although it’s difficult to realize a world with stateless globetrotters and no borders—such a romantic place will probably never exist—it is in both the moral and economic interest of individuals in developed and developing countries to push for much higher rates of immigration between states. The movement for human mobility has received ardent support from Harvard Kennedy School professor Lant Pritchett, who co-taught Economics 1400, “The Contents of Globalization,” with University professor Lawrence Summers last spring. Professor Pritchett, and his views on migration, are often seen as radical by other economists: Jeffrey Sachs notes that migration “will never substitute for economic development at home.” But Pritchett is one of the few who has explored how big of a punch higher immigration rates can pack. In a recent book, Pritchett cites a 2005 World Bank study which claims that if the 30 developed countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) permit just a 3 percent rise in immigration, the gains to citizens in developing countries would be about $300 billion. Right now, the developed world spends about $70 billion in foreign aid—$70 billion from the pockets of those in the OECD. The study concludes that wealthy states would receive $51 billion through boosted returns to capital if they allowed this rise in immigration. Furthermore, aid and increased immigration are not necessarily substitutes: They can be coeval. More immigration coupled with aid—albeit less than the $70 billion currently spent—would bring even more gains to the Southern Hemisphere without hurting the OECD. In any case, citizens of developed nations should grasp the economic benefits. Some, like Sachs, might say that allowing people from destitute places to migrate doesn’t help them where it counts: at home. This Washington Consensus logic asserts that immigration-friendly policies prevent poor states from developing their own economic infrastructure. But perhaps we should care less about Somalia and El Salvador and more about Somalis and Salvadoreños. What citizens of developing countries have as a comparative advantage is cheap labor and little else because of geographical constraints and entrenched, frozen financial and legal institutions. Individuals should be permitted to work in countries with aging and picky populations. There will always be immigrants. A human can work the same job in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas and make six times as much money on the north side of the border. That’s six times as much food in a baby’s mouth, six times as often that a family can run hot water, and possibly the opportunity to invest. Some say immigrants, especially guest workers, become fourth class citizens. But they are often sub-castes in their own countries, invisible to the oh-so-keen eye of the developed world. Some say it robs developing countries of their skills and talent. But more people bring home skills and know-how than leave permanently in the “brain drain.” Lastly, some say it promotes dissolution of families. Love, however, is a little tougher with empty stomachs and untreated infections. In Cape Verde, an African island nation, live about 460,000 people. There are about 500,000 Cape Verdeans overseas, including a very large contingent in Boston. With the help of remittances sent back home from workers abroad, Cape Verde has doubled its per capita income since 1990—the sums amount to about 12 percent of GDP. In fact, Cape Verde migrants elect their own representatives to the National Assembly. Cape Verde has become a state beyond borders, and this is all the better for Cape Verdeans. If we start to increase human mobility rather than impede it, fighting poverty will become more than a zero-sum game. Our economic output would increase tremendously. A major reason global productivity has increased over the last twenty-five years is because of removing immigration barriers and expanding the workforce within states, especially China, India, and the European Union. It’s time to make this happen on a worldwide scale. Liberalizing trade and migration both create wealth, and migration does so on a wider scale. The moral and economic interests of the majority of citizens in the developed and developing world are aligned, and it shouldn’t require cosmopolitan ethics to unite and untie the hands of humans to work where they please. Raúl A. Carrillo ’10 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears regularly.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: January 31, 2010

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the Nov. 28 column entitled "Untied Hands" incorrectly carried the sub-headline "We shouldn’t fear a borderless world." In fact, the piece is not arguing for the elimination of boundaries between countries, but instead for increased awareness of the benefits of immigration.