One major motivation for opposing the current regime of immigration controls is that it plays a major role in upholding and causing inequality. Citizenship is initially assigned by place of birth or by parents’ nationality, not by any choice that people have made. Nonetheless, this has major effects of people’s life chances. A central tenant of many forms of liberal egalitarian political philosophy (most prominently luck egalitarianism) is that people should not be avoidably disadvantaged for morally arbitrary reasons.
Citizenship, at least as it is presently granted, may very well be morally arbitrary. In “Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” Joseph Carens suggested an analogy to feudalism:
Compare the case for freedom of movement in light of the liberal critique of feudal practices that determined a person’s life chances on the basis of his or her birth. Citizenship in the modern world is a lot like feudal status in the medieval world. It is assigned at birth; for the most part it is not subject to change by the individual’s will and efforts; and it has a major impact upon that person’s life chances.
What is worse is that developed states spend billions of dollars to keep out those who would like to improve their chances by moving to a country with higher wages and better infrastructure. In an even more perturbing analogy, Lant Pritchett and Jonathan Moses have separately compared the global immigration regime to South African apartheid which used mobility controls as one of its mechanisms for segmenting the labor force along racial lines.
There is considerable evidence that freer migration could play a significant role in alleviating global poverty (a claim that should not be confused with the suggestion that allowing more migration is all that needs to be done for development). First, immigrating reliably increases the income of most migrants. For example, according to the World Bank, the GDP per capita of Mexico (a middle income country) was $10,307 in 2013. Moving to the United States where the GDP per capita is $53,143 can increase one’s income five-fold. The World Bank has calculated that a 3% increase of people moving from developing to developed regions could lead to income gains of $356 billion.
Second, the World Bank estimates remittances flowing to developing country to have totaled $404 billion in 2013. (The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has a useful summary here.) This is commonly compared to Official Development Assistance which totaled a mere $134.70 billion in 2013. Remittances go directly to families who can use their judgment in where they are best spent.
Third, migration can encourage the transfer of skills, culture, technology bridges, and social capital connections between sending countries and diaspora.
It is therefore surprising that many philosophers who are otherwise committed to alleviating poverty and moving toward a more equal world have been skeptical about migration. Philosophers have devoted more attention to the moral dilemmas that arise from harms allegedly caused by skilled migration (I have written about this here) than thinking carefully about how migration’s beneficial effects might give rise to moral obligations.
For example, Thomas Pogge in his article “Migration and Poverty” (reprinted here) argued that people concerned with global poverty should focus their energies on transferring resources, rather than opening borders on the grounds that open borders are unrealistic and that migration tends not to help the worst off. We can ask why Pogge thinks that migration and development aid are mutually exclusive (why can’t we pursue both?) and why we should only care about the worst off, especially given that some badly off people will alleviate their own condition by migration if allowed to do so.
Another conviction among many political philosophers is that countries can choose to discharge any duties they have toward global poverty either by allowing more migrants or giving more development aid. For example, Christopher Heath Wellman writes:
no matter how substantial their duties of distributive justice, wealthier countries need not open their borders. At most, affluent societies are duty bound to choose between allowing needy foreigners to enter their society or sending some of their wealth to those less fortunate.
We see this conviction that there is a choice between opening borders and sending resources in work by philosophers including Ayelet Shachar’s The Birthright Lottery, Eric Cavallero’s “An Immigration-Pressure Model of Global Justice”, and Will Kymlicka’s “Territorial Boundaries: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective”.
I find this trade off between immigration and development aid questionable for the following reasons:
1. Immigration is highly likely to bring immediate benefits to immigrants and their families – in the case of settlement, this benefit is permanent. The benefits of developmental aid are less reliable. (A more radical claim is made by economists such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo who argue that development aid is usually ineffective and sometimes harmful. I suspect they overstate their case, but the benefits of development aid seem to me more controversial than the benefits of migration.
2. The people helped by developmental aid and the people who benefit from immigration are not necessarily the same people. One of the dangers of thinking about people in aggregate – in this case using people within a nation-state as the relevant unit of analysis – is that not everybody is affected equally by policies. Giving development aid does not necessarily affect the moral claims of people who wish to migrate because they may not benefit from it.
3. Immigration and development are not interchangeable, but rather related by complex feedback loops. Migration can be caused by and cause development. Development involves considerable disruption, including internal migration as people move from the countryside to industrialized areas. Once people have moved from a rural village to a city, they are more likely to take one more step and risk international migration. This gives rise to an empirical problem with substituting development aid for allowing more migration: effective development aid may actually lead to more migration!
4. The view that development aid can overcome global inequalities requires a certain naiveté about the function of borders and a commitment to the “container theory of society” that sees nation-states as more or less autonomous economic units. This ignores how borders do not simply separate countries, but also define their economic prospects. Border controls are market distortions that maintain wage disparities that benefit the citizens of the developed world at the expense of the rest of the population.
I suspect that this conflation of development aid and allowing more migration is partly a result of methodological nationalism that leads political philosophers to naturalize and reify the nation-state and its accompanying nation-building projects. (A related prejudice is what Speranta Dumitru has called the “sedentarist mistake” that treats migration as an abnormality that needs to be explained while considering the norm of staying in one place as not needing explanation.) Immigrants are frequently perceived as outside of nation-building narratives. The result is that many political philosophers are adverse to the idea of using immigration as a tool for addressing global inequalities.
In contrast, a commitment to poverty alleviation, to development, and to a more equal world will involve migration. This is an empirical claim: economic growth will disrupt people’s lives and lead many of them to migrate. It is also a normative claim: one component of any feasible, morally attractive proposal to make the world a less inequitable place involves thinking carefully about the role of migration. This isn’t as simple as calling for states to open their borders (though this is part of what is required). Rather, it will require thinking carefully about how different types of migration interact with other policies and institutions.