Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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How can someone outside Haiti raise the income of a person who is very poor in Haiti? The fastest, surest, biggest way is simply to let that person work outside Haiti for some period, in a rich country. My co-authors and I document that a 35 year old urban male with some secondary schooling, born and educated in Haiti, earns a standard of living at least six times greater on average in the United States than the same person earns in Haiti.

No standard development intervention can hold a candle to transformative effects like that. Migration deserves a place in development policy. But for many people in the development field, migration remains a sideshow, an unfortunate consequence when development fails. That’s starting to change. More and more people I talk with see how migration can transform the lives of large numbers of poor people, and it has become odd to discuss development policy without discussing migration.

Likewise, development can and must be a part of the immigration policy debate. In the U.S. Congress, debate will heat up this year around new immigration reform legislation. Any new law will have enormous effects on poor people overseas. Those effects will never be front and center of the debate. But offering life-changing opportunities to poor people from overseas is one of the longest and greatest American traditions, and there is absolutely no reason why current reform efforts should ignore that proud history.

By nurturing this tradition, we need not harm U.S. workers. A range of new evidence shows that even large-scale immigration does little to harm native U.S. workers in the labor market. Economist Silvia Barcellos’s PhD dissertation at Princeton University this year shows that immigrants have had negligible effects on wages in 38 U.S. states, confirming recent work by economist Giovanni Peri at the University of California and many others. I am not aware of any credible economist who has found there to be large negative effects of immigration on overall wages or employment in the U.S., even in the short run.

The clearest way that immigration reform can work for development is to create a flexible mechanism for temporary guest worker visas, as Lant Pritchett has argued. UCLA’s Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda has shown that a guest worker program would help grow the US economy, speeding its recovery. But the initial draft of immigration reform legislation mostly delays the issue of how to handle guest workers. It would create a limited number of guest-worker visas for a transitional period of three years, during which a new “Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets” would come up with a more permanent solution. We’ll see what happens as the draft legislation evolves.

I’m writing a new working paper about why migration deserves a bigger place in development policy, and why immigration policy debates must take some account of their massive effects on poor people overseas. In the video clip below, I summarize some key ideas from that forthcoming paper. Here I favor brevity and clarity over the somewhat more academic treatment in the paper:

A side note: Since we posted that video three weeks ago, with essentially no promotion, it has spread to several developing countries. The following map from the YouTube statistics shows its popularity (shown in dark green) in Tanzania, Niger, Zambia, and Nepal:

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US immigration policymakers take note: The world is watching. Immigration policy is not exclusively a domestic political issue; it is also an issue of foreign policy and development policy.