In A Truly Globalised World, Immigration Must Be Free

Four Corners last week told the story of Landina, a three-month-old girl lifted from the ruins of a Haitian hospital and evacuated to the United Kingdom for lifesaving medical treatment.
The show focused on the search for Landina’s family and the ethical dilemmas faced by the British surgeon who saved her life. Decisions had to be made about whether to return the girl to Haiti or keep her in England for long-term care.
But, at its heart, the story of Landina is the story of borders and immigration restrictions.
The choice to take the baby to England was a medical one. Yet the sad reality is, if she stays permanently, her life will be on almost every measure better than had she gone home to Haiti.
Being separated from her mother will be, of course, hard. But her potential income, to take an obvious indicator of wellbeing, will be at least five to six times higher than it would have been in Haiti. No matter what level of education she obtains.
Landina has this opportunity because she was plucked from the rubble of an earthquake by a compassionate doctor.
Fifty per cent of Haitians say they would leave Haiti if they could.
Our world, we’re continuously told, is a globalised world. In 2011, trade is not completely free, but the barriers to trade are lower than they have been in centuries.
Capital, too, is allocated internationally – investors shift their money from country to country, from market to market, looking for the most profitable enterprises.
Goods move easily. Money moves easily. That’s all great.
But the situation for people is very different. People don’t move around the world easily at all.
With its quotas, plodding bureaucracy, and, more obviously, all the smuggling, immigration today looks strikingly like the restricted and protectionist global trade of yesterday.
Indeed, over the last century, migration has de-liberalised – the relatively open borders of the 19th century have become the closed and rigid borders of the 21st century.
All the same principles which make free trade a win-win apply to free movement of people – large scale immigration allows people to work where they can be most productive, further facilitating the economic specialisation that has boosted global prosperity.
The development economist Lant Pritchett describes our world as “everything-but-labour globalisation”.
In his 2006 book, Let Their People Come: Breaking the Policy Deadlock on International Labor Mobility, Pritchett cites a study which found the economic benefits of free movement of people would be spectacular.
Eliminating the planet’s remaining trade barriers would increase global GDP by around $US100 billion.
Eliminating immigration barriers, by comparison, would as much as double world income: that is, increase global GDP by $US60 trillion.
This added wealth would be shared, but the overwhelming beneficiaries would be people who now live in poor countries.
Sure, right now, poverty in the third world is caused and maintained by institutional failure: bad governance, bad laws, bad justice, bad bureaucracies, bad political systems, and bad economic policy. In recent decades, having seen the failure of too many foreign aid programs, the first world’s development focus has been on fixing those institutions.
Slowly improvements have been made.
Yet slow improvements are no consolation for those people living in poverty, being told they cannot travel to rich countries where there is abundant work and where their labour could be usefully employed.
So the question – repeatedly posed in discussions of economic development – of whether we should focus on foreign trade or foreign aid is badly incomplete. The biggest idea in development no-one has really tried (in the phrase of economist Michael Clemens) is allowing large scale immigration from the third world to the first.
The story of a Haitian baby being raised in Britain is just a small window into the possibilities of this shift in development thinking.
After all it is not Haiti, or, say, Nigeria, we want to be rich: it is Haitians and Nigerians.
None of the standard arguments against immigration hold up to careful scrutiny. Immigrants do not steal jobs. They do not erode living standards. Those who move for work contribute more tax than they take in public services. Migrants – for all the tedious polemic and hyperbole – have never managed to undermine the political and social cultures of host nations.
(We can debate the merits of multiculturalism later, but for now it will suffice to say nobody agrees what the word actually means.)
In the Four Corners documentary, the difference between Landina’s future life in the first world and her family’s life was strikingly clear. In Haiti, the filmmakers followed the surgeon to a tour of Landina’s family home – a single, unadorned room of concrete floors and walls and fire corner, deep in a Port au Prince slum.
When the camera turned to England, Landina was carried into a middle class British home, with long passages and yellow painted walls, full of furniture.
It was a graphic display of the difference in living standards between the first and the third world.
Development activists who have spent their careers obsessing over the difference between free and “fair” trade have missed the point entirely.
Any effective strategy to eliminate world poverty will have to focus on immigration.