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Next week, President Obama will meet with Congress to begin discussing changes in the way that the United States regulates who can enter this country and what they can do here. The elephant in the room: global development. U.S. immigration policy transforms the lives of low-income people from all over the world, but you won’t hear much about them.

That only makes sense, right? Aren’t immigration politics defined entirely by narrow domestic self-interest?

Antonio Spilimbergo (IMF), Michael Kremer (Harvard), and Maurice Schiff (World Bank) at The ConferenceNo. A major portion of U.S. immigration policy is already defined by concern for others. Last year the United States gave permanent residency to 166,392 refugees and asylum seekers, almost all from developing countries. That’s a full 15% of all immigrants. So the question isn’t whether or not U.S. immigration policy can take the welfare of people from developing countries into account, but how U.S. immigration policy can work better toward that goal --- among its multiple goals.

We at CGD just teamed up with Harvard University’s Center for International Development to address this question at an important research conference in Washington, called “Beyond the Fence.” It was generously supported by the new Foundation for an Open America and by the MacArthur Foundation.

The papers and transcripts on the conference website give a great snapshot of top-notch research on how migration shapes development — for migrants, the places they come from, and they places they go. I led CGD’s involvement in the conference and I’ve spelled out my thoughts on how the U.S. government can act to make immigration policy more development-friendly in a brief entitled Don’t Close the Golden Door. But I learned a lot from the fresh, savvy, and highly rigorous presentations at this conference. Every one of them was valuable, but here are a few things that stood out for me:

  • CGD non-resident fellow Lant Pritchett argued that the case for the development benefits of migration may one day seem as obvious as the development benefits of trade --- which were once deeply doubted by the mainstream. He also pointed out that while “who you were born as” matters less and less to your economic prospects, “where you were born” matters more and more.
  • Patricia Cortés and CGD non-resident fellow Michael Kremer, in separate papers, discussed fresh research on the effect of immigration on the decisions of native-born women to work outside the home. There is strong evidence that labor force participation by native-born women is higher when immigration makes it easier for them to get help with childcare, eldercare, and other work.
  • Ali Noorani gave an eye-opening lunchtime address on the policy complexities of immigration reform. While it’s common to say that a time of economic troubles is the wrong time to pursue reform, Noorani gave polling data suggesting that 72% of Americans want Congress to act on immigration reform this year.
  • Dean Yang and Sendhil Mullainathan, in separate papers, showed that the ways migrants can send money home has major effects on how much they send. When transfer mechanisms allow them to monitor how the money is spent, for example, they send far more.

What was the policy bottom line? Edward Schumacher-Matos made a compelling case for a new guest-worker program, addressing common concerns about how details like labor shortage certification would work. Lant Pritchett has argued that an expanded guest worker program is possibly the most development-friendly direction in which immigration policy could change at the margin.

I believe this is not just a good idea for development; it’s a good idea for the United States, for at least three reasons.

First, energetic young labor from abroad grows our businesses and our entire economy, as it has from day one of this country’s history, and it does that best when it comes through legal channels -- like a guest-worker program. Second, an expanded legal guest-worker program would enhance U.S. national security by bringing movements that now occur in the dark into the light -- as all three people who have held the post of Secretary of Homeland Security have pointed out. Third, it helps our foreign policy and image around the world. Peter Hakim explained to Congress the consequences of building an ever-higher fence at the border:

"No action by the U.S. government would be more offensive to the people of Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Regardless of its intent, the erection of this barrier --- which is often compared to the Berlin Wall --- would make it plain to most Latin Americans that Washington no longer views the region as a serious partner or collaborator, but mainly as a source of unwanted problems."

I hope that policymakers --- including those in the Obama administration and Congress --- take these views into account as they being to tackle U.S. immigration policy.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.