The Other Other Side of Immigration

Most of the time, the immigration policy debate is set up as being between nativists and advocates of unrestricted migration. I use the two extremes to characterize each side, but I mean to include all those in the middle that more-or-less can be ascribed to one camp or the other. I believe that migration should be unrestricted, although my opinion does not heavily weight short-run frictions that unrestricted migration inevitable produce. But, there is another side that isn’t as represented in the media, which is strange since it offers an opportunity to nativists to further bolster their case against free immigration. The argument is that migration may cause negative externalities in sending states.

The example I know, which I was exposed to in a comparative public policy course, has to do with what is referred to as the “reproductive division of labor.” These are jobs related to the caring for children. In developed economies, female migrants are a large chunk of this sector’s workforce. Indeed, the availability of migrant labor allows receiving state women to join other sectors of the workforce. From the perspective of the receiving state, this is great since it increases the overall productivity of the economy. Less productive labor takes over labor intensive stay-at-home jobs, and more productive labor can be allocated elsewhere. For sending states, however, this kind of migration can be particularly damaging.

A mother is an important facet of a child’s upbringing. In countries where the father usually has to work long hours, or where there may be no father at all, being raised motherless can lead to psychological issues that will impair the productivity of the future adult. Women looking to earn a living abroad usually, out of necessity, leave their families behind. This produces a negative externality, in that the costs to the child are, unintentionally or purely out of necessity, overlooked by the mother. This brings into question the aggregate gain of labor mobility.

I don’t think this is an argument against immigration, but it could be used as one. Maybe this is evidence of the fact that many of those who advocate migration restrictions are not basing their case on sophisticated theory. Rather, their opinions are nearsighted and non-academic. This doesn’t mean that the case against free immigration ought to be ignored. Most of the time those who oppose free entry of foreigners have a lot to lose. These are the short run frictions that I, as a neoclassical economist, tend to hold in less regard than the overall benefits of an increased labor supply. But, it is interesting just how little theory actually matters in this policy debate.

A second point, related to the first, stems from a response to these externality concerns that I wrote for the class. One of the papers I was responding to was actually written by my professor, and I wanted to bring an economist’s perspective to the topic. I think my objection is relevant to the immigration debate as a whole. I argued that there are costs and benefits to everything, but we can’t judge a policy on its costs or the costs of not implementing it. We also have to judge it on its benefits. It may be that sending states suffer a negative externality, but at the same time they benefit through remittances. They also benefit from improving terms of trade, as the markets they import from become more productive. In the case of psychological problems that motherless children may suffer from, it could be that a more productive global order will allow the sending state to develop institutions and firms to solve these issues in different, more efficient, ways.

The same holds true for nativist concerns. A good opinion on immigration will always consider the “big picture.” We don’t always have to agree on the implication of a broad cost benefit analysis, even if I think theory unequivocally supports the advocates of free migration.

  • Roberto Severino

    Your post reminds me of the fact that I need to listen to Bryan Caplan’s defense of open immigration. The nationalist types, especially the racial ones on YouTube, really don’t like to have more immigration because they think that there’s some white genocide going on and that multiculturalism and anti-racism are codewords for anti-white and all this irrational stuff.

    I’m also glad Gene published my comment yesterday and that I wasn’t banned from his blog.