This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
In a nutshell
What is the problem?
Policy barriers in wealthy countries prevent many people who may be able to benefit from migrating from doing so. This is a controversial issue that we have not thoroughly researched, but there are arguments that increasing opportunities for migration could be extremely beneficial to people in low-income countries.
What are possible interventions?
To substantially increase international migration, a philanthropist would likely have to promote policy changes in one or more countries, though some opportunities may exist within existing policy regimes. We do not have a good sense of the likelihood of success of particular attempts to change policy, or what the returns to successful changes might be.
Who else is working on it?
Immigration is a major policy area that receives attention from a variety of research and advocacy groups at the national and international levels. We are not aware of any estimates of how much funding is spent on advocacy related to immigration in the U.S. or other wealthy countries.
1. Why did we look into this area?
- We have come across research papers by economists suggesting that loosening or removing barriers to labor mobility would have enormous benefits for economic welfare globally (e.g. on the order of a 50% increase in world GDP).1
- Development scholar Lant Pritchett suggested working to liberalize restrictions on labor mobility as one of three potentially extremely high-return philanthropic activities in an open-ended conversation with GiveWell and Good Ventures staff in June 2012.2
2. What is the problem?
Polls indicate that hundreds of millions of people, particularly in low-income countries, would like to migrate to another country if they were able to.3 Since country of residence accounts for the majority of global variation in income (poor people generally live in poor countries and rich people in rich countries),4 the gains from migration could potentially be quite large.5 Despite the potentially large benefits to migrants, public opinion in wealthy countries is generally strongly opposed to allowing more migrants.6
We have seen three randomized controlled trials studying the impacts of international migration, all of which took place in the context of lotteries held by receiving country governments when visa programs were oversubscribed:
- Tonga to New Zealand: A program allowing a small number of Tongans to permanently migrate to New Zealand quadrupled household income and tripled household spending amongst migrants four years after migration.7 Results for subjective well-being and mental health are more mixed.8 Migration also appears to decrease per capita consumption one year later for household members who remain at the source, though this may not represent an actual decline because household composition changes.9
- Samoa to New Zealand: Unlike in Tonga, migration from Samoa appears to increase the income and consumption of household members left behind, but statistical significance of the results varies by specification.10 The study did not collect data on migrants at their destinations, so the impact on migrant wages is unknown. (In both studies of migration to New Zealand, the sample size is fairly limited, with fewer than 200 individuals for key specifications.)11
- India to the United States: within a single Indian technology firm, winning an H1-B visa and subsequently migrating from India produces a ~$55,000 increase in annual wages at market exchange rates, equivalent to a more than doubling of real wages.12
These studies are all too small to assess any general equilibrium effects of migration (e.g., whether migration raises or lowers prevailing wages in the sending or receiving locations).13
We have not seen arguments based on global humanitarian values against liberalizing immigration that we consider especially compelling, but we have not conducted a thorough search. Particular areas of concern that we have seen identified but have not fully investigated include:
- distributional effects on wages at the destination (e.g. driving down wages for less-educated workers)
- negative impacts of “brain drain,” particularly of medical professionals, on source countries
potential negative impacts on the subjective well-being of migrants.
Were we to prioritize further research on immigration, we would attempt to more fully address these questions and to seek out other credible humanitarian arguments against liberalizing immigration restrictions.
3. What are possible interventions?
In general, attempting to increase migration would require policy change in wealthy countries, though there are some exceptions where particular existing visa caps are not being met in the U.S.14
We do not have a sense of whether it would be possible, or how much it would cost, to attempt to change a wealthy government’s migration policy. We would expect the costs and returns to vary depending on many factors, including:
- which country or countries are targeted for policy change
- what stage(s) of the policy process one attempts to affect
- the particular migration policy agenda that one promotes.
4. Who else is working on this?
Migration is a major policy area in many developed countries. In the United States, for instance, there are a number of think tanks, policy advocacy organizations, and grassroots groups that are partly or wholly focused on migration. These organizations represent a variety of both pro- and anti-immigration views, though our understanding is that there is relatively little focus on the interests of potential future migrants.
The philanthropic funders that we have come across in our research that appear to have done some work on immigration policy issues are:
- Ford Foundation
- Carnegie Foundation
- MacArthur Foundation
- Atlantic Philanthropies
- Unbound Philanthropy
- Rosenberg Foundation
- Russell Sage Foundation
- Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund
- California Endowment
- Krieble Foundation
However, we have not seen any estimates of the total spending on immigration issues by these groups, or by the business interests that we would expect to support some of the same policy goals.
In addition to organizations that work in specific countries, there are also some transnational organizations devoted to the study and support of migration (e.g., the International Organization on Migration).15
5. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.
Amongst other topics, our further research on this cause might address:
- What does the non-experimental economic evidence regarding the impacts of loosening migration restrictions say, and how strong is it? What are the likely humanitarian impacts of increased migration in source and destination countries and how confident can we be?
- How do the costs and returns to advocacy strategies vary by target country, stage of the policy process, and the particular policy agenda promoted?
- How much money do immigration proponents and restrictionists spend on advocacy, and how does it vary by country?
Clemens 2011 – Source
Clemens 2012 – Source
Clemens conversation – Source
Gallup 2013 – Source
Gibson, McKenzie, and Stillman 2011 – Source
Gibson, McKenzie, and Stillman 2013 – Source
IOM 2012 – Source (Archive)
Milanovic 2011 – Source
Milanovic 2012 – Source
Mobarak conversation – Source
Pritchett 2006 – Source
Pritchett conversation – Source
Stillman et al. 2012 – Source
IOM homepage – Source
|SOURCE NAME USED IN FOOTNOTES||LINK||DATE LINK WAS LAST ACCESSED (FOR EXTERNAL FILES)||ARCHIVED LINK (FOR EXTERNAL FILES)|
|Gibson, McKenzie, and Stillman 2011||Source||5/7/2013||Archive|
|Gibson, McKenzie, and Stillman 2013||Source||5/7/2013||Archive|
|Stillman et al. 2012||Source||5/7/2013||Archive|