Sunday, February 3, 2013

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

I was interested to hear a friend advocate a tool against world poverty that I hadn't thought of: immigration.

The World Bank estimates that migrants around the world sent home $406 billion dollars last year.   Young people move to rich countries, get jobs that pay far better than they could make back home in India or Mexico, and send some of their earnings back home to their families.  That money amounts to more than twice the global aid to developing countries.

What about the effect on rich countries?  Despite the popular debate among immigration, both liberal and conservative economists mostly agree that immigration is good for the US economy.   When immigration rises, there are more inventions and patents, more companies founded, more taxpayers, and more young people available to care for our large crop of elders.  Some unskilled workers in rich countries do face more competition for jobs.  But in general, immigration is a win-win situation.

I work with immigrants who have been caught without proper paperwork and are detained in jail as they await deportation.  I've met some very brave people there, people who came to the United States to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries.  It seems ludicrous that my government spends about $3 billion a year to catch, detain, and deport people who are mostly otherwise law-abiding construction and farm workers.  They tell me about the years they worked for better lives not just for themselves, but for their families. The wages that paid for diabetes medication for their mother and school fees for their kids.

It's crazy that we're deporting these people.

So I'm excited to see this topic getting more attention lately. Something like an expanded temporary work visa system would allow thousands or millions of poor people to support their families.  Given that it wouldn't cost us anything, and would in fact help our own economy, it seems we should at least allow them to do that.

More on this topic at Giving What We Can's new series and Robert Wiblin's blog.


  1. There are seldom times when one well done argument completely changed my perspective on something. But immigration as a method of alleviating poverty was one of those issues. And it was changed by this guy:

    And a lot of gumballs.

    1. Unknown,

      I watched the video, and it seems to be making the point "There are a lot of poor people in the world, and accepting even millions more of them would not make a dent in world poverty while completely overwhelming the US."

      First, it's not clear what the effect of millions more immigrants would be - I'm not as convinced as he is that it would be a disaster.

      Second, I'm not a fan of the argument that a drop in the bucket doesn't matter. Worldwide, remittances (immigrants sending money sent home) to developing countries are around $400 billion a year - compare that to the $23 billion US foreign aid budget. Remittances make up a quarter of Haiti's GDP - it's not just a drop in their bucket.

      If we can help a few million more of the world's people with little or no cost to ourselves, that's a good thing in my book. Saying, "Look, this particular policy change is not helping a lot more people!" doesn't make it a bad idea.