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Why might immigration restrictions be a problem?

Many people are hurt by the fact that they cannot legally move away from the country where they were born.

Immigration restrictions can keep people in poverty, and/or force them to live in countries where they risk facing violence or oppression.

Immigration restrictions also cause indirect harms. For example, they can prevent scientists from collaborating, which slows down the development of useful technologies that could help many people.

Polls suggest that 750 million people worldwide would migrate if they could, and that migrants tend to be happier after they move, particularly if they move from poorer to richer countries. In 2021, 356,000 people were refused visas to the US alone.

Here we’ll go through five reasons to think that immigration restrictions should be loosened, and three reasons to think that this would be harmful.

Arguments in favour of easing immigration restrictions

1. Restrictions contribute to global poverty.

Many people live in poverty because economic productivity and wages in their home country are very low. For some such people, if they could move to a different country, they could earn many times as much and thereby escape poverty.

Some economists have even suggested that if national borders were completely open, global GDP would double and extreme poverty would be largely eliminated.

Already, migrants send hundreds of billions of dollars home to their families every year; these remittances are a substantial fraction of the GDP in many countries. If there were fewer immigration restrictions, this wealth transfer from richer to poorer countries seems likely to increase.

2. Restrictions can prevent talented people from solving pressing problems.

Immigration restrictions can hinder scientists, entrepreneurs, and other talented people from networking and collaborating with their peers.

For example, imagine a young Nigerian scientist who is working on photovoltaic cells. If she could move to a centre of innovation in her field and collaborate with others, her work could cause a breakthrough in the development of green energy, thus slowing climate change. Current migration restrictions might prevent this.

3. Restrictions sometimes force people to live in danger.

Some people are unsafe in their home countries; immigration restrictions can prevent them from leaving.

Many people live in countries beset by war — they face a high risk of death or disaster if they stay. Similarly, political activists who oppose oppressive regimes might be unable to move to countries where they and their families would be safer. (There are asylum mechanisms meant to help with this, but they are not always effective.)

Others face oppression in their home country due to their ethnicity or sexuality. If immigration were easier, more people in these situations could move to safer places.

4. Restrictions allow governments to be more complacent.

If borders were open, citizens who were unhappy with their home countries could more easily ‘vote with their feet’ and move to countries with better laws. Faced with this threat, governments would have an incentive to treat their citizens better. As it is, governments don’t face this threat because it’s difficult for citizens to leave en masse.

5. Restrictions might violate people’s rights.

In addition to these concrete harms, some moral philosophers argue that preventing people from freely moving across the Earth by threatening them with violence and imprisonment is a violation of people’s natural rights and freedoms. If this is true, governments would need an incredibly strong reason to justify such a violation — a reason that (these philosophers argue) is typically absent.

Even if you think that some immigration restrictions can be justified, you might still think that current restrictions are far too strict, which leads to unnecessary poverty, suffering, and wasted human potential.

Arguments against easing immigration restrictions

There are some benefits to limiting people’s movement across national borders. For example, it can make it harder for people to conduct international crime, and it can limit levels of economic inequality within countries.

Moreover, some have argued that dramatically easing immigration restrictions could have bad consequences. For example:

1. It could create xenophobic backlash and (thus) harsher restrictions.

If a government passes laws allowing higher levels of immigration, this might foster resentment among locals, leading them to vote for anti-immigration politicians who would reverse the changes. Such politicians might make immigration restrictions even stricter than they were before, and may perhaps pass other harmful laws.

2. It could increase local inequality, and hence dissatisfaction.

Laxer immigration laws would reduce poverty and wealth inequality globally, since people could more easily increase their incomes by moving from poorer countries to richer ones.

However, it’s possible that people care not just about their absolute wealth or poverty, but also about their relative economic position locally — for example, they might care about how rich they are by the standards of their city, rather than by global standards. Relaxing immigration restrictions could increase the amount of immigration from poor countries to rich ones, thus increasing local inequality and, hence, possibly causing more people to feel dissatisfied with their lot (even if they were wealthier overall).

It’s worth noting, though, that poor immigrants would be the ones who would experience much of this effect, if it’s real — they might go from being relatively well-off by the standards of their home country, to being very poor by the standards of the (richer) country they migrated to, even if they became richer in absolute terms. If they choose to stay in their new country anyway, this suggests that they are not too dissatisfied with their new situation, despite being poorer relative to their new neighbours.

3. It could cause ‘brain drain.’

When particularly skilled or ambitious people migrate, this might be good for both them and the country they move to, but it could slow down the development of the country they’re leaving.

Despite these counterarguments, we think that the negative effects would probably be smaller than the positive ones. On balance, we think that making immigration easier has the potential to substantially help people and increase global wellbeing.

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