International Migration and (you guessed it) Hope

After my last post, my grandpa left the following comment:

My father experienced some of the kind of poverty you write about when he was growing up in the Netherlands. The “hope” factor for him was emigrating to the USA, for which I (and you) owe our very lives…

Thanks grandpa!

This brings up an important point that (a) was backed up by ALL of the households I visited in the rural areas of Myanmar (b) has implications for voters in the United States and other Western nations and (c) for full disclosure, confirms my priors on the topic of immigration.

Migration is the most effective poverty alleviation method on the planet ever. Full stop.

Consider this. I visited households in six villages in one region of Myanmar. We talked to people at random and every household had someone in their family who was living or had lived abroad. Most of the time the family member was in Thailand. It is relatively easy for someone from Myanmar to broker a deal to get into Thailand, even if it is illegal. (I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but it is not difficult to imagine that these desperate migrants would be super-vulnerable to human trafficking.)

One household had a son who had even made it to the United States as a refugee and was working in a fast food restaurant. He was sending back remittances and they were the richest household in their village.

Think about that for a second. Their son is working in the United States in a fast food restaurant (probably making minimum wage in a job most Americans above the age of 17 wouldn’t accept), he sends back his excess income, and they are the richest household in the village…

This story and my own family history demonstrate the transformative power of international migration.

Dani Rodrik (an economist at Harvard) is writing a book on the economic and moral imperative to open our borders. Here are some striking figures:

Letting someone migrate to the West does so much for their wealth, at so little cost to Western workers, that we (the West) have to care about a random person inside our borders five times as much as someone on the other side to justify not letting the outsiders in.

Or we have to value whatever we think we get from closed borders (protecting the culture) so much that we’re willing to deny other human beings a path from poverty.

So here’s the point:

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll remember that psychologists say hope is comprised of three elements that interact and feed off of each other: goals, agency, and pathways. Therefore, if my experience chatting with people from rural villages in Myanmar indicates the true reality, that migration is one of the (if not the only) pathways out of poverty and if we believe hope is an important characteristic to posses, then we have two options:

(1) We should help improve the local situation so that migration isn’t the only viable pathway out of poverty. (This is proves challenging. Development is a long-term, frustrating, slow, and sweaty business that isn’t very glamorous and doesn’t photograph well.)

(2) We should take strides in allowing for safer, cheaper, easier, and legal international migration.

While we should probably do both, if you’re from the West (and are not a development practitioner or an economist at the IMF) the easiest and simplest way to bear witness to hope is by voting for the opening of our borders. It is simply the most effective, most direct, most dynamic way we (those who have already benefited from international migration) can make a difference in the lives of the poor and vulnerable around the world.


2 responses to “International Migration and (you guessed it) Hope”

  1. The “most effective. Ever.” But your evidence sounds like correlation, not causation. Is this backed up elsewhere? I’d have to think more about this. Maybe we are doing this wrong and we should just get the poor to move? J

    1. Yeah, its a strong claim that needs to be understood under very specific terms. A couple folks at the Center for Global Development have been thinking about this quite a bit. Here’s a link to one discussion:

      I think the central claim is correct. However, the correct policy response is not to transplant everyone to a richer country. What we should be doing is ensuring that the people who do want to move and would benefit from it are able to do so with safety and security.

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