While immigrants and employers deal with the daily reality of overcoming immigration policies aimed at restricting, rather than promoting, migration, there are those who have called for liberalizing the world’s policies on the movement of people. In their book Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define our Future, authors Ian Goldin (Oxford), Geoffrey Cameron (Oxford) and Meera Balarajan (University of Cambridge) call for a fundamental change in immigration policies.
The authors argue that freeing up migration around the world would reap benefits. The authors note that according to the World Bank, “Increasing migration equal to 3 percent of the workforce in developed countries between 2005 and 2025 would generate global gains of $365 billion.” More radically: “Completely opening borders, some economists predict, would produce gains as high as $39 trillion for the world economy over 25 years.”
The authors are realistic enough to note that nothing like complete open borders is going to happen anytime soon. Their detailed history of migration around the world explains that until about 100 years ago, “open borders” was mostly the policy around the globe. The advent of World War I, nationalism, and the increase in modern transportation made such policies politically untenable.
Yet Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan explain that even if borders were not completely open, more migration, particularly if it was done in an orderly, legal way, can achieve positive results: “A small increase in migration would produce a much greater boon to the global economy and developing countries than free trade and development assistance combined.”
The authors call for an international body to help facilitate more open migration policies. Such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears. “So long as nationalism can legitimately trump more universal claims of international cooperation, world development, poverty alleviation, and human freedom, the project to advance an agenda for the liberalization of migration will be stalled,” the authors note.
Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan do not discuss the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which has provided a degree of openness on skilled migration through a multilateral body. The United States, for example, committed, in essence, to maintain its policies on H-1B and L-1 temporary visas in exchange for greater market access in other sectors. To date, no cases have been filed against the United States for failing to honor those commitments, although it’s possible that could change.
The immigration issue is not going away. Factors beyond the control of elected officials propel both the issue and individual migration decisions. “A growing supply of migrants will result from greater pressure and propensity for people to move,” the authors note. “The pressure to migrate arises from the push and pull factors (whether economic, social, or political) that make migration attractive, whereas the propensity to migrate is related to individuals’ ability and willingness to bear the costs of moving.”
Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan conclude by placing their call for more open immigration policies in historical perspective: “Genetic and other evidence has placed the old arguments for ethnic purity in the dustbin of history. The ethical justification for discriminating on the basis of nation-states is also becoming moribund. While the world may still hold tightly to its national categories, as an excuse for restricting human liberties, they are being eroded by the tides of history. We contend that the idea of freer movement . . . will end up like the other big ideas that emerged from the margins of impossibility into the realm of the self-evident.”