America’s immigration policy has got the country to where it is today, for better or worse. It created a diverse and innovative nation that has pushed human civilization forward. It also brought us President Trump, and with him, a more heated debate about immigration. But rather than continuing to shout over one another and refusing to listen to the opposing side, it is time for us to think about pragmatic compromise policy options, given the importance of immigration to American history, innovative capacity, and its future growth.
Systematic reviews of rigorous empirical research indicate that migrants are net positive contributors to the US economy, generating economic growth, starting businesses, producing innovations, creating jobs and imposing minimal pressure on natives’ wages.
In spite of the net benefits, there are rising populist concerns about new immigrants, in part because in North America and most of Europe, legal international migration is largely understood as inherently coupled with a path to citizenship. This construct naturally leads to polarizing political positions, weighing the rights of current citizens against migrants, who are, by design, potential future citizens. This leads to pressures to place restrictions upfront to limit the inflow of migrants.
Identifying opportunities for compromise require us to move away from the binary view of either erecting walls to prevent entry or integrating every immigrant by creating a path to full citizenship rights. We instead need to think more creatively about the full spectrum of options, including partial integration. Those countries that welcome the largest numbers of migrant workers per capita have generally opted for such middle-of-the-road policy options. Many countries, including the UAE, Kuwait, Malaysia and Singapore, allow significant inflows of temporary labour migration to fill their labour gaps. In this model, legal migration is time-limited, and workers are required to return to their home countries at the end of the authorized spell. Policies like these may allow a deal-making president like Trump to reach a compromise with advocates focused on the economic returns of migration.
Temporary migration policies would allow the US to draw on migrants to meet labour shortages in jobs Americans do not want, while avoiding contested questions regarding illegal immigration and integration. Liberals may claim that inviting people to work but not stay is not consistent with American values, and undermines the welfare of people who were not lucky enough to be born in the United States. And they are right that, for the few that are let into the United States under the current system, a path to citizenship improves their welfare dramatically. But a partial-integration policy may open the doors to a much larger number of people, thereby raising welfare to an even greater extent in the aggregate.
This compromise, of course, does not address the needs of the existing pool of migrants, asylum-seekers, or refugees, nor does it help those in the limbo of DACA. However, rich Asian countries have used these types of policies to provide employment opportunities to many, many more poor economic migrants per capita than the US, Canada or Europe have. For example, 45% of the residents of Singapore and 88% of the residents in UAE at any given moment are foreign-born, compared to 14% of US residents. Indians, Britons and Ukrainians earn a lot more in Dubai than they would at home. These richer Asian hosts, not the US, Canada or Germany, generate the lion’s share of the global economic value from cross-border mobility.
We would certainly not want American policy to replicate the reported abuse of poor workers in Dubai. But that’s the beauty of thinking about immigration policy as a spectrum: we don’t need to choose the exact point on the spectrum that the UAE has chosen; and the U.S. can choose a different point that is more consistent with American values own values, monitoring working conditions and imposing sanctions on employers who violate human rights.
Researchers have shown that if 1,000 Haitians worked in the United States temporarily under the H2 programme (a small programme that President Trump has himself taken advantage of), they would earn over $200 million dollars in income in the US over 10 years. Of those earnings, 60-70% would be ploughed back into the American economy, while one-third would flow back to Haiti, improving lives and reducing pressures on future illegal migration. In the spectrum of policies, one might even think about supporting internal migration in developing countries, which has been shown to alleviate poverty locally.
Any immigration policy that pits the rights of citizens against those of immigrants will always be prone to controversy. Given the economic costs and benefits, and the current political reality, it may be useful for us to all start thinking about compromise options available in the full spectrum of possible immigration policies.