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Linking Ethics and Self-Interest in Human Mobility

By Michele Wucker | January 26, 2010

Facing demographic and economic challenges, countries around the world are reconsidering the policies that govern migrant rights—the basis on which people are allowed to enter a country, the access that non-citizens have to services and rights, and the ability of non-citizens to naturalize. Decisions about who gets the right to move have significant consequences for the citizens, societies, and economies of host and sending countries alike.

The central question for many countries is: Who is admitted and how? In countries where ethnicity or family ties are priority criteria, the ethics of deciding who enters are closely tied to national conceptions of self-interest and identity. Sometimes these conceptions conflict, as Germany found when reconciling its long-standing policy of admitting people based on blood ties with its national desire to provide hospice to refugees. Admissions decisions also have consequences for sending countries which in turn ripple back to host countries when borders are weak and economic pull is strong.

Immigration rights advocates often make a moral argument for liberalizing immigration policy. No matter how good the moral case is, however, under the fraught politics of immigration the only arguments that will succeed are those that make a strong case for the self-interest of the host society. Yet the moral arguments are not necessarily opposed to self-interest; in fact, they often coincide.

For most countries, the goal is a moderate flow of immigration over which host country citizens feel that they have some say. But in some cases, moderating immigration requires addressing long-term economic and political development in sending countries.

Ethical migration policies balance a right to move with the right of citizens to shape the communities and nations in which they live. They do this through a clear and workable set of admission criteria, a broadened concept of self-interest, and realistic expectations of migrants and native born.

Smart and ethical policymaking must take into account unintended consequences and domino effects of seemingly non-migration-related policies that nonetheless may intensify pressure for people to migrate from sending countries. For host countries that wish to moderate the flow of migration, policies that do not disrupt migrant-sending countries are essential.

Entry Criteria

Countries admit immigrants for various reasons: skills and job availability (such as the increase in technical worker admissions to the United States in the late 1990s); family ties; blood ties (as in the German admission of ethnic Germans from neighboring nations, though this policy has been reined in significantly to allow increased admissions from other categories); refugee status; humanitarian reasons (such as U.S. temporary protected status given to victims of Central American hurricanes, and now to Haitians following the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince on January 12); colonial relationships (such as the British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish policies giving preference to former colonies); and political interests (such as U.S. policy on Cuban refugees).

Self-interest requires host countries to look more closely at both the moral and practical impact of admissions criteria on sending countries. Many host countries wish to see a moderate and controllable flow of migration: one driven by opportunity, not by desperation. Ethical migration policies require a broadened sense of self-interest. In some cases, the best way to make it less necessary for some to move is to allow more freedom of movement for others.

In the United States, roughly 6 of 10 legal migrants are admitted based on family ties. Yet in practice, the policy does not work as ethically as it seems; moreover, its historical origins are racist. Because of limits on the number of legal immigrants from any one country, adult non-dependent siblings of naturalized citizens often take priority over spouses and minor children of permanent residents, particularly from high-population countries. Historically family reunification criteria were put in place to ensure that most new immigrants would be of Anglo-Saxon origins, on the assumption that giving priority to family members of existing populations would result in more members of the majority populations being admitted.

Perverse Incentives

The policy also unwittingly creates perverse incentives that can deter sending-country governments from providing for their citizens' needs and investing in human capital. Many countries see emigration as not only a social and political safety valve, but also a source of remittance income. If the main criterion for entry is skills rather than family ties, both individuals and governments have an incentive to invest in education.

In recent years, countries have been increasingly welcoming of skilled migration as part of a global competition for talent in the transition to a knowledge economy. The ethics of "brain drain" have long caused worries that skilled emigration could hurt development potential in poor countries.

Nevertheless, some scholars, including Oded Stark and Andrew Mountford, now assert that when skilled emigration increases, overall education levels rise in sending countries. A recent Center for Global Development (CGD) report on the Fiji Islands supports their argument. Following military coups in 1987, 2000, and 2006, a wave of Indian-origin Fijians emigrated, largely to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—all of which fairly recently instituted "points" systems which favor skilled migration. High emigration of university-educated Fiji Islanders, CGD concluded, actually raised investment in higher education in Fiji and increased the number of people with university training even after emigration.

Host countries tend to be more welcoming to high-skilled workers, yet low-skilled workers also are in demand. This raises ethical dilemmas for both sending and host countries. While most economic studies show that immigration is positive for the economy as a whole, there is evidence that higher-educated natives benefit more than lower-skilled natives. In response, some scholars and organizations advocate limiting immigration, leaving the whole population worse off. The ethical answer instead is to improve education for natives, opening opportunities for them while also allowing lower-skilled migrants to improve their lot in life; and to ensure that low-skilled workers have the tools to stand up for their rights.

Ethical Labor Policies

The American industrialist Henry Ford once argued that the best way to make a profit is not to pay as little as you can get away with, but as much as you can afford. His goal was to increase productivity, on a bet that in the long run greater profits would ensue from treating workers right and from building a base of worker-consumers who could afford its products. These were self-interested arguments for doing the moral thing (notwithstanding the criticisms that have been leveled against Ford over the years for the company's intrusive social programs). Ford's "Five-Dollar-Day" program increased productivity, lowered turnover and work days lost to strikes and absenteeism among its heavily immigrant labor force, and resulted in Ford motor cars becoming a household name.

In 2000, U.S. labor unions reversed their long-standing opposition to liberalizing immigration policy because they recognized that it was in the interest of native-born workers. It had become clear that many employers knowingly hired undocumented workers, then used immigration laws to intimidate those workers if they sought to improve working conditions. "This both subverts the intent of the law and lowers working and living standards for all workers—immigrant and non-immigrant—in many industries," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, the union's executive vice president, in announcing the change. The new policy, of course, did not hurt union membership rolls as more U.S.-born workers sought white-collar jobs and a greater number of manufacturing jobs went to immigrants; once again, the moral thing to do coincided with self-interest.

The Right Not to Change

From an ethical point of view, increasing the ability to move across borders will allow a greater number of people to develop their potential. Yet the right to move may appear to clash with the right of countries and citizens to determine who belongs within their borders. In many new destinations for migrants, native-born populations are understandably hesitant about the change that an influx of people different from them brings.

Still, an important corollary to the question of whether or not there is a right to move is whether citizens have a right for things not to change. In a world of natural disasters, economic and demographic trends, political shifts, and many other events outside of our control, it is clear that while many people share a desire for things to stay the same, it is simply impossible to prevent change. How can there be a right to something that is not achievable?

The question is how to manage change. Migration policies often involve tradeoffs: accepting new groups of people or seeing towns shrink; providing a structure that accommodates legal immigration or, in failing to do so, creating an underground market for unauthorized workers; encouraging new migrants to embrace the host country or forcing them underground and marginalizing them. It is a rare country that can fully control who enters its borders and stays.

Citizens do see a strong self-interest in choosing immigrants and immigration levels that encourage migrants to embrace host-country values, language, and culture. If it is too difficult to gain legal status or naturalize, a country will end up with an underground of unauthorized migrants—as is the case in the United States. If a country's borders are completely open, it risks destabilizing itself and the countries that send migrants. The moral, ethical, practical, and self-interested choice in migration policy is to seek liberalized and rationalized migration that combines incentives with clear and fair entry criteria that take into account the needs of host and sending countries alike.


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