E.g., 09/24/2023
E.g., 09/24/2023
Disentangling Immigration and International Development in the United States

Disentangling Immigration and International Development in the United States

The notion that migration is somehow related to development in migrants' countries of origin is deeply intuitive but is often misunderstood, especially in migrant-receiving countries. The migration and development debate has received worldwide attention at all levels, but the role for policymakers is not obvious. In the United States, the debate feeds from the intersection between immigration and international development policies, and tapping into a contemporary understanding of this intersection could contribute to future policymaking.

The two sets of policies have different priorities, evoke different levels of public interest, and are shaped by different political and administrative forces. Linking the two is politically appealing for some advocates, but the historical record warns against attempting to insert U.S. domestic policy objectives into international development goals. Similarly, it is unrealistic to assume that international concerns can dominate any country's immigration policy.

In the United States, many policymakers fear that neither immigration nor international development policies are serving national interests. Some see development as the solution to immigration problems, with the assumption that once sending countries prosper, the United States will no longer have to worry about immigrants from those countries. Others argue that attempting to improve living conditions abroad is largely beyond the mandate of the U.S. government and a better solution is to simply focus on better controlling who enters the United States. Still others claim that migration will solve developing countries' challenges and that greater mobility will lead to prosperity.

These lines of thought are overly simplistic. This article aims to explain the link between immigration and international development and to outline a contemporary approach to understanding how the policies interact in the United States. It argues that it is more effective to invest in immigrants' success in the United States and empower immigrant communities to remain engaged with their countries of origin, than to attempt to address the full range of factors that compel migrants to leave their communities of origin. While some experts believe that more generous and open U.S. immigration policies admitting more immigrants (and especially less educated immigrants) would be beneficial for developing countries, in reality, an open U.S. society — that is, a United States that is welcoming to immigrants and capable of investing in their future — is more important that open borders.

Historical Context

Few narratives are as ingrained in the American popular identity as the story of immigrant success and upward social mobility over generations in the United States. An often overlooked part of this story is how across history, immigrants (and their U.S.-born descendants) have consistently remained interested in and contributed to development in their countries of origin or ancestry.

Long before either immigration or international development emerged as distinct policy fields, there had been a record of immigrants to the United States sending remittances, making charitable contributions, investing in businesses, and influencing decision makers in their countries of origin. For instance, Swiss-born politician Albert Gallatin served as U.S. ambassador to France and Switzerland in the 1820s. In the 1860s, Swedish immigrants in Chicago established a club (at the suggestion of the Swedish consul in that city) in order to raise funds for famine relief in northern Sweden. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie established a charitable trust in 1901 to advance higher education in his native Scotland. By 1906, The New York Times reported that the 13 million immigrants in the United States sent an estimated $200 million (current U.S. dollars) in Christmas remittances, mostly to Great Britain, Italy, Hungary, and Sweden.

Migrants' contributions to development in their countries of origin most often emerged organically out of family ties, civil society efforts, and individual business interests. Immigration policy did not emerge as a federal government responsibility until the late 19th century and international development did not emerge as a distinct policy field until the 1950s and 1960s. Yet even early on, policymakers were cognizant that immigration to the United States was fueled, at least in part, by poverty abroad. For instance, the 1907-10 Dillingham Commission, which was mandated by Congress to review U.S. immigration policy and ultimately recommended the imposition of numerical limits on the annual admission of immigrants, acknowledged that poverty and political oppression — particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe at the time — drove many immigrants to seek opportunities in the United States.

Throughout recent history, for policymakers and the general public alike, there have been both security and humanitarian concerns about newly arriving immigrants. Concern for the socio-economic conditions that pushed migrants to seek opportunities in the United States coincided with suspicion about immigrants' continued loyalties to their countries of origin. These suspicions were especially prominent in the United States during the First and Second World Wars when immigrants from combatant countries were subject to public scrutiny and, in the case of Japanese-American communities, detention.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the linkages between immigration and international development again attracted attention from policymakers. In response to growing illegal immigration — primarily from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America — policymakers sought to leverage international development assistance to reduce the conditions pushing increasing numbers of people to leave the region. During the early 1980s, the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development (USAID) provided substantial foreign aid to Haiti aimed at creating jobs and reducing the push factors leading people to risk crossing the Florida Straights. By the end of the decade, these efforts had achieved little, and policy shifted to maritime interdiction of crossers by the U.S. Coast Guard, coupled with repatriation agreements. Similarly, during the late 1980s, job creation through expanded trade was perceived as the solution to illegal immigration from Mexico, leading to the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). However, illegal immigration continued even as trade with Mexico expanded in the decade after NAFTA's implementation.

These frustrating experiences during the 1980s and 1990s led to widespread skepticism toward the idea that efforts to promote economic growth in migrant-sending countries could realistically have an impact on the outflow of migrants, at least within a time frame considered by U.S. policymakers. Ultimately, they contributed to a political consensus in the United States that the country's interests are best served by a greater emphasis on reforming U.S. immigration laws and enforcing the border.

However, behind these high-profile failures of U.S. immigration and development policy, there are a number of surprising, if unexpected and largely unknown, successes. Many have not been driven by government, but rather by community groups and civil society. Others have involved U.S. government agencies but more were focused on promoting investment, civic participation and good governance; lofty objectives such as addressing the "root causes" of migration were almost never an objective. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. government leveraged the expertise and energy of many first- and second-generation Eastern European immigrants — primarily through technical assistance missions, temporary placements, and investment funds — to support U.S. government efforts to assist the former Soviet-bloc countries during their transition to democracy and market-based economies. The Luso-American Foundation, which grew out of USAID's Mission in Portugal when the agency's work in that country ended, has worked with Portuguese-American communities to promote interest in Portugal in the United States and vice versa.

At the same time, U.S. policies starting in the early 1990s to facilitate the admission of highly educated immigrants have been criticized by some scholars as having harmful consequences for developing countries. However, the academic and labor market success among many of these skilled immigrants, and especially among their U.S.-born and educated children, has led to a growing interest in, commitment to, and engagement with some parts of the developing world. Few examples are as compelling as the case of Indian immigrants, and particularly Indian-American youth. One prominent effort is Indicorps, which was founded by an Indian-American family and is a sort of Peace Corps for Indian-American youth to spend time volunteering in rural India. Many former Indicorps volunteers have continued their interest in India and Indian-American ties after the program ends.

Other recent examples include the Federal Reserve Board's work with the Central Bank of Mexico to reduce remittance transfer cost; the case of African-born health professionals who have immigrated to the United States but who have contributed to U.S. efforts to combat infectious disease in Africa under the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis Relief (PEPFAR).

Refining the Migration and Development Debate

Two sets of questions have motivated most policy interest in the overall migration and development debate in major destination countries:

  • First, why do people migrate and how do migration trends evolve when countries prosper and living conditions improve?
  • Second, are countries (and the communities left behind) better or worse off when people migrate abroad?

In general, the sprawling literature on migration and development fails to capture the complexities of the phenomenon in either the sending or receiving country, and often ignores political constraints. Studies typically emphasize the positive or negative consequences of migration for developing countries and rarely acknowledge that the reality is more ambiguous.

On the first set of questions, it is generally accepted that poverty, repression, and lack of opportunity push people to migrate, but individual decisions are complex, dynamic, and shaped by the opportunities available. There are substantial costs involved in migration and the poorest of the world's poor — as well as the poorer social segments of middle income countries — typically do not move far from their places of birth. Rates of emigration are highest in upper middle-income countries; somewhat lower in high income countries; still lower in lower middle-income countries; and the lowest in low income countries.

Despite these figures and despite data showing that migration among high-income countries is nearly as common as migration from upper-middle income to high-income countries, the general public perceives migration among high income countries (e.g., between the United States, Western Europe, and Canada) as far less controversial than migration from less developed to more developed countries (e.g., from Latin America to the United States). In part, this is due to the fact that migrants from more developed countries tend to be better educated and, accordingly, have greater opportunities for legal immigration due to preferences for well-educated immigrants built into immigration policies of many advanced industrialized countries.

On the second set of questions, the empirical evidence is mixed. Large-scale emigration has coincided with social and economic development in some countries (e.g., Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Scandinavia, South Korea, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Spain) while in other countries large-scale emigration has moderated poverty but not (yet) led to sustainable growth (e.g., El Salvador, Egypt, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, the Philippines) and in still other countries, decades of out migration has coincided with a deterioration of development indicators (e.g., Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia).

There is little doubt that migration increases individual families' income and well-being, but the broader spillover effects can go both ways. For instance, if migrants come from less educated groups, less educated workers who remain can benefit from wage increases but if migrants come from more educated groups, the general population suffers from an increase in the price of skilled services. Similarly, migrants may convey new attitudes toward women or active civic participation — known as social remittances — but they can also transmit unhealthy eating habits learned abroad (for instance, a taste for processed foods), or more dramatically, criminal behavior. On the family level, migration can increase the resources available to children and families for investment in health, education and material goods, but also separates families causing emotional stress for children, parents, and other relatives.

What Role for Immigrants' Success in the Policy Debate?

For broad swaths of society in many wealthy nations — particularly in North America and Europe — immigration has become one of the most visible windows on the developing world. In 1970, about 1 of every 29 people worldwide lived in a country with a total immigrant population of 10 percent or more; by 2010, the ratio was nearly 1 in 9. Within receiving countries, immigrants are now moving beyond the urban gateways where they had historically concentrated and are settling in smaller communities with less experience welcoming immigrants and, often, less direct exposure to the developing world. Often, these encounters have provoked popular unease with occasional acts of hostility toward immigrants. But immigration has also generated a popular awareness and concern for the challenges facing developing countries.

There is often a sense that migration and development, in general, are somehow linked but this is rarely a firm understanding of what (if any) role there might be for policy. In general, immigration and international development policy respond to very different political priorities and administrative dynamics, and critically, have very different objectives. Given the current U.S. political context of domestic economic weakness and tight public finances, there is likely to be little appetite for visionary proposals. Indeed, a lesson of past experience is that often the most successful migration and development initiatives, at any level, are not conceived as such.

While intuitively appealing for advocates, experience suggests that attempting to place immigration policy at the service of international development priorities is as unrealistic (and futile) as attempting to place international development policy at the service of immigration policy goals. A more practical approach is to take an agnostic position with respect to immigration — the decision to migrate or not ultimately depends on individual and household calculus. Regardless of how immigrants end up in the United States, they have an enormous potential to improve living standards in their countries of origin; however, their primary concern is typically their individual well-being and that of their family, friends, and communities. In many instances, immigrants' priorities will overlap with the U.S. government's international development priorities although this will not always be the case.

For immigration policymakers, the recommendations are not as obvious. On the administrative level, most immigration policymakers acknowledge that U.S. policies have enormous consequences for origin countries and that, in the long-term, similar levels of development makes immigration less of a politically thorny issue. Few political leaders acknowledge the international dimensions of U.S. immigration policy, although it is more common among technical administrators. In the longer term, as more recent immigrant groups become citizens and they and their descendants become more deeply involved in U.S. public life, their individual concerns about their countries of origin could take greater prominence in political conversations. However, ultimately, any country's immigration policy will be most shaped by domestic political forces and economic needs.

In the past, many immigrants and their descendants have been successful at promoting development in their countries of origin precisely because U.S. society has allowed them to be successful in the United States. Historically, immigrants in the United States have made enormous contributions to development in their countries of origin in organic and often-unexpected ways; immigrants and their descendants can act as domestic ambassadors for international development concerns, and may possess insight on such issues. In addition, stability and security in the United States often allows immigrants the space to engage with their countries of origin, whether individually or as diaspora communities. The general U.S. tolerance of cultural pluralism allows second-generation youth to become interested and engaged with their countries of ancestry. Promoting immigrant integration and ensuring that immigrants and their children have access to quality education and are able to advance in the U.S. labor market holds enormous implications both for domestic and foreign policy. As foreign policy scholar and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye has observed, the fact that so many successful Americans "look like" people in other countries expands U.S. influence and appeal around the world.

This brief draws heavily on Migration and Development: Policy Perspectives from the United States.


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