NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 19, 2006

In the immigration debate, rich countries often argue border enforcement, employer sanctions and so on, yet they rarely relate the argument to economic development.  In fact, immigration could lead to greater economic gains than any other method, says columnist Sebastian Mallaby. 

In "Let Their People Come," a new book published by the Center for Global Development, Lant Pritchett says:

  • If rich countries permitted extra immigration equivalent to 3 percent of their labor force, the citizens of poor countries would gain about $300 billion a year.
  • That amount would be three times more than the direct gains from abolishing all remaining trade barriers, four times more than the foreign aid given by governments and 100 times more than the value of debt relief.

And while there is a downside to immigration from poor countries, it isn't that it depresses wages in the United States; researchers find that this effect is small or nonexistent.  Rather, it's a lack of trained workers, who are the first to leave their countries, which creates a more serious obstacle to poverty reduction.

Thus, the best way to promote development is to allow a rolling cohort of poor and relatively unskilled workers to amass savings and experience -- and then return to their own countries, says Mallaby.  One of the ways to do this is through a guest-worker program, albeit one with certain criteria, to ensure workers return to their home countries. 

Some of the possible measures could include:

  • Stipulations that workers be recruited by agencies, which would screen candidates for criminal records, require minimal English skills and ensure repatriation.
  • Denying guest workers the right to marry citizens.  A tough measure; but if desperately poor migrants accept the no-marriage condition in exchange for a visa, then they should be allowed.

Source: Sebastian Mallaby, "Migrating to Modernity," Washington Post, September 18, 2006.

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