The story of migration: Goldin talks U.S. dynamism and immigrant innovation

RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer

Professor, author and economist Ian Goldin speaks about past mass migrations and current migration issues during the Friday morning lecture in the Amphitheater.

The history of the United States — and of all places — is a history of migration.

That’s according to Ian Goldin, economist, director of the Oxford Martin School and former vice president of the World Bank. He is the author of the 2011 book, Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define the Future. It is also the name of the lecture he delivered Friday morning in the Amphitheater, concluding Week Three, “Immigration: Origins and Destination.”

Goldin’s own history makes the subject personal. His mother fled Austria as a Holocaust refugee, and his father fled pogroms in Russia. He was born in South Africa and has lived in the U.S., France and the U.K. His daughter is a naturalized U.S. citizen, whose college graduation he flew to attend after finishing his lecture.

“The reason I wrote the book was because, for years, I was puzzled with the disconnect between how we see immigrants and our own pasts,” he said. “We’re all immigrants at one time or another. Why do we resent immigrants when we know they contribute quite positively? Why do we keep them out of societies?”

Goldin found true understanding came not solely from economics, but from anthropology and sociology. He wanted to understand why logic is often overwhelmed by prejudice.

“Neither myself nor my parents would exist without immigration,” he said.

Immigration is almost as old as the human race.  America’s first immigrants came to the continent 20,000 years ago before the glaciers of the last Ice Age melted. Without immigration, Goldin said humans would have died out long ago.

But the story of migration is not a happy history. It is a tale of slavery and servitude, Goldin said. Similarly, the history of America was bloody from the beginning.

In the years after Christopher Columbus found his way to the Americas, 95 percent of the native population perished. Ten million humans were forcefully relocated across the Atlantic to the New World. Goldin cited Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, as reference on the devastation inflicted on Native Americans.

The 19th century was the “age of mass migration,” according to Goldin. But what is overlooked is that over half of those who came to Latin America returned home at different points, and one-third of U.S. immigrants did the same.

“If people are allowed to go home, they will. Because that’s where their roots are,” he said. “It’s not often [they leave] because they want to be somewhere else. It is often out of need.”

The rise of Darwinism at the turn of the 20th century contributed a profound impact, Goldin said. It was used to justify racism, identifying ethnicities that were believed inferior. It was used as an excuse to keep out immigrants, particularly in Anglo-Saxon communities.

Until the early 1900s, there were no such things as passports, Goldin said. He agreed with Thursday’s lecturer Alberto Gonzales that documentation is important and necessary for the future of immigration.

While Goldin recognized the importance of a border to national security, he reserved judgment on the effectiveness of border control. He posed the question: If the border were more open, would more people leave, confident they could return if they so choose?

“On immigration, my view is we have to be extremely careful about whether it keeps people in or allows them to go home,” he said.

Migration is not done in a vacuum, he added. It is a network decision made by many, by families, friends and whole communities. Goldin refers to this as “migration chains.” Why are taxi drivers in certain cities specific ethnicities?  It is because of migration chains, Goldin said, and it is true from the U.S. to Dubai. The latter is a thriving city with a 98-percent immigration rate.

The best way to curb immigration, Goldin said, is to improve lives abroad — a point also made by Sonia Nazario during the morning lecture Tuesday.

“Immigrants will return if their country changes, if there is less crime, violence and corruption,” he said.

There are also ecological and humanitarian factors that fuel immigration. Climate change will force people in Africa and Bangladesh to move as sea levels rise, Goldin said. Refugees from the Syrian Civil War continue to flood neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey.

Of the 20 million refugees globally, half are children.

“The fracturing of societies that we’ve seen in Sarajevo, in Syria, is a massive responsibility of the global community,” he said. “People leave because they have to, because their societies turn their backs on them, and because they will die if they stay.”

The positives of immigration are overwhelming in aggregate, but there are negatives for individual communities, Goldin said. Problems arise when there is a high concentration. One example is Italy and the Baltic states, which are havens by “accidents of geography.” As many as 500 refugees die daily attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa.

Before resentment builds, it’s important to remember all the tangible effects immigration has had economically, Goldin said.

He dispelled the myth that immigrants reduce wages. Goldin said they actually increase them because more workers lead to overall growth for the market. For example, one reason the U.S. has high female participation in the workforce is because there are migrants willing to do the child-caring and service jobs, allowing women to pursue more diverse opportunities.

Without migration, Goldin said the U.S. agriculture industry would not exist and clothing would be much more expensive. The problem occurs when all the economic growth and gains go upward, instead of distributed equally.

Another myth is they take out far more in social benefits like welfare and education than they put back in.

“The answer is no, they do not. All studies show that migrants contribute more than they take out,” Goldin said.

This is because, unlike the population at large, most first-generation immigrants are single males of working age who demand less and give more. But the biggest benefits lie not in the static, Goldin said, but the dynamic.

The evidence is overwhelmingly in favor that migrants contribute to economic growth rates. Despite being only 12 percent of the U.S. population, two-thirds of Nobel Prize winner and Academy Award winners are immigrants. Eighty percent of Silicon Valley founders are immigrants or have immigrant parents. Sixty-seven percent of science and engineering jobs in the U.S. are taken by immigrants.

“They are the engine of change for the future,” he said. “Increasing immigration increases innovation.”

It was estimated by the World Bank that a 3 percent increase in immigration globally would add $350 billion of development globally. However, immigration needs to be approached not only economically, but also ethically, Goldin said.

“Globalization has been the most remarkable progressive movement the world has ever seen,” he said. “Ideas travel, as simple as the virtue of washing hands and as complex as the science of vaccines.”

But as trade, goods and ideas have increased, it’s contributed to a constant tension on immigration, not only in the U.S. but across the globe. Goldin said the U.S. is in a better position because of its dynamism while Europe and China have closed themselves off. The latter lost 1.6 million workers last year alone.

“People feel more and more vulnerable and uncertain,” he said. “It’s not because of immigration; it’s because of hyperconnectivity. It’s the double-edged sword of globalization.”

Blaming foreigners might be a natural human instinct, but Goldin said it is also inappropriate and lacks any scientific basis. A lack of immigration leads to economic stagnation, as seen in Spain and Greece where high unemployment leads many to stay at home, where at least they can live with their parents, Goldin said.

“This is not about numbers; it’s about how we think,” he said. “It’s about how we feel about each other and how we treat each other.”


Q: It may be a naive American question, but I’m realizing that our children who go to work in London or China or Africa are immigrants, but you said the definition isn’t a good hard one. So how do we think about the fact that we are not only the receiving society, but that the U.S. is also the sending society?

A: I think this is a very important point, and a lot of these debates — and this is why I often prefer the term in this framework to be migrant, rather than immigrant, because it’s as much about us going to other places and living in other places as it is about people coming here. And the data on this is very clear; in fact in Britain, we send out about one and a half million Britons living elsewhere in Europe, which is one of the big debates that comes up when Britain says it won’t accept more Europeans. Spain says, “Well, what about the people living in the south of Spain, very happily?” It’s a very important point. I think, when people — and I understand your daughter has been working in Liberia, doing really heroic work there, I think. She’s not an immigrant, she’s a temporary worker. They might define her as an immigrant, certainly if she came to the U.S. — I think she’s been in Africa for years — she’d need the visas of an immigrant, some status, it’s absolutely the case. And I think it’s one of the reasons we need to move toward international rules on this, because there needs to be much more mutuality and reciprocity around these things.


Q: This question is from Twitter, also a question I have — please elaborate on migration and climate change.

A: It’s a very big topic. There are some, like Norman Myers and Lord Nixton, who have said that hundreds of millions will be climate refugees, and that we should be seeing this as leading to different orders of magnitude of migration in the future. My own view is that this is unlikely to be that dramatic. It will be very important in certain places. I indicated that migration decisions are very complex. People take them for many, many reasons, and so people might move because their crops failed, but also because they’re in danger, they don’t have money. And most climate refugees will be moving from rural areas to cities, and the responsibility will be on the cities to feed them. Now if the cities can’t feed them, they might move. Obviously there are some places — and I mentioned Bangladesh and Maldives as extreme examples, they’ll be coastal areas, and there will be a lot of migration in. Now given that something like 80 percent of the big growing cities of the world are coastal, this might force people away from coastal zones much more. I think the Florida Keys has a problem going forward, but people just move in the U.S. When that is a separate country, it’ll be an immigrant [issue], mainly to neighboring countries. A very important question that will be raised and has been raised is who’s responsible. We’ve spent 200 years filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses; these people have to move their home, what’s our liability in the process. And that will become a big international discussion.


Q: This may be an editorial comment, but it follows on what you just said. As immigrants move the U.S. and adopt our wasteful standard of living and spending, will this contribute further to climate change?

A: There’s some great literature on how migrants — immigrants — change over time. If you look at the data, for example, for Mexican immigrants to the U.S., each generation gets less healthy. The first generation is much healthier than the second, and the third reverts to the mean, basically, of U.S. population. There’s some great papers on this. And that’s true — not only in health, it’s true in other respects — what their consumer habits are and so on. So people do revert to the mean over time — over the second and third generation — and yes that will contribute to climate change, because the U.S. has a very very high per capita carbon footprint. Now, over the next 20 or 30 years, I hope that that’s going to change.


Q: How well is South Africa handling the influx of whites, and of West, Central and East Africans? And I might add to this Chinese.

A: I’m afraid South Africa has been doing a rather bad job. It’s a real sadness to anyone who was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle because a lot of people, hundreds of thousands of people, were sheltered in neighboring countries, including — not Mandela, who was imprisoned in South Africa, but most of the leadership that’s in power now lived outside of South Africa for a very long period of time and owe other African countries, I think, something for that. There’s very high unemployment. There is something like 40 percent youth unemployment in South Africa, and this is a very, very dangerous cocktail. So immigrants are, like they are in many places where you have high unemployment, immigrants are blamed for taking jobs. That’s unfair, but they are blamed. So you have xenophobia. And you might have picked up in the media that a number of people have been killed in recent weeks in xenophobic attacks, and the government was very slow to respond. So it’s a massive issue. Chinese less so. China’s mainly investment, the Chinese workers are a bigger issue in other parts of Africa, in east Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in other places, but in South Africa there are very few Chinese workers. The Chinese in South Africa came in the 1880s, indentured laborers, they were brought to work on the sugar plantations and things. There’s a big Chinese population, but they go back 120 years.


Q: What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?

A: Refugee has a very formal, legal definition. You can look it up on Wikipedia. If you type it in, it will pop up immediately. An international refugee is someone who is at threat of their life and livelihood from war, famine or some natural disaster or some other cause. So it’s a strict, legal definition. It’s an internationally recognized definition, and then there is an asylum process as well that associated with it. How it’s interpreted varies widely, and that is why some countries accept 90 percent of refugees that come to them, and other accept one percent or less. So the interpretation of this is very, very important. Everyone else is an immigrant, with the caveat of what defines immigrant, because we don’t really have a common global agreement on that.


Q: How do you transfer these concepts to the influx of Muslims who are coming into Europe?

A: It’s a very sensitive issue. Of course there were, in many societies, Muslims historically. Spain was a Muslim country at one point. We expelled them, historically, certainly from Southern Europe. They had a very powerful influence, created great civilizations in Spain and elsewhere. So, in many societies, they have been there for generations. In the U.K., there are many Muslim societies that have been there for 100 years, and this is true in France in well. I think what people are worried about is not the numbers of Muslims, but when Muslims have certain cultural attributes that you worry about, like when they wear the habib on the face, women in black, and so on. And suddenly, in many cases these become more visible. The big question — that I don’t have the answer to — is should you enforce, for example, in schools, that children are not allowed to wear habib. Is this different from Jewish people wearing a kippa, or others. How is it different? Why is it different? And to what extent should allow tolerance of things which are very different to [the cultural norm]? So this is a big debate in France, it’s less of a debate in the U.K., it’ll be a big debate in many places. A totally separate issue, in my view, is the association of Muslims with terrorism. I mean, this is, I think, a very crude generalization; it’s totally unjustified. If a tiny fraction of Muslims are fundamentalist and jihadists, that needs to be dealt with, just like a small fraction of other religions also are. That requires law and order.


Q: Doesn’t the dynamism create fear of competition among the dominant groups in the receiving society?

A: It can. We see a lot of professional associations doing a lot of things to try and keep competition — professional associations are trade unions for professionals, many of their rules have merit, because you don’t want someone with any old qualifications to operate on you and do heart surgery on you, so these things have validity. At the same time they are designed to keep out immigrants, professional immigrants at times. And I think that’s changing, because I think we are so used to going to a doctor, or seeing on TV someone from somewhere else in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, that I think we are getting much more used to dynamism being associated with everyone in our society. We see this in the Academy Award winners. We see the Nobel prizes. We feel proud of them as being US citizens, or citizens of our countries. And I think that’s changing, that we see professionals as a threat. I hope it’s changing, but I feel it is.


Q: In today’s paper, we see Hungary building a fence between their border and Serbia. Will this become a trend in the EU?

A: I think this is going to become a trend, but I think it’s not a good use of resources, and this was discussed in some depth by judge Gonzales yesterday. There’s so much evidence about the threat to our society coming from people who are already in on legal visas, and Hungary is so open to certain people coming — Hungary has to accept citizens from the rest of Europe. So why would you go through that fence when you could just go around it? It just doesn’t make sense to me.


Q: You mentioned Jared Diamond’s great book, Guns, Germs and Steel. His other great book is Collapse: how civilizations choose to succeed or fail, and this person asks: Is our attitude to migration a critical one to our success or failure as a society?

A: The U.S. is not going to collapse anytime soon. There is so much good dynamism here. I don’t think it’s about collapse. I think it’s about whether you grow at 1 percent, 3 percent going forward. It’s about how much dynamism you have in the society. It’s also about how you look after elderly people going forward, how this engine goes forward, and it’s about your moral and ethical leadership in the world — about what you do and what you represent globally. So I don’t see it as collapse. I see it as different degrees of progress.


Q: And several question about free trade agreements and how they affect migration or migration affects them.

A: Free trade agreements are extremely important. I am a very big believer in freer trade and more equitable trade — in other words, the sharing of the reduction of barriers around the world, both tariff and nontariff. But I don’t do that in the belief, the simple belief that’s sometimes advocated, that trade is a substitute for immigration. There’s not a huge amount of evidence for that. The U.S. trade agreement with Mexico, NAFTA. I think has been a huge success story. It would be difficult to argue that it has reduced Mexican immigration to the US. And the same is true of European integration. It’s been an incredibly successful trade agreement in Europe. It’s improved the economies of Spain, of Southern Europe and other places. It’s been beneficial to everyone one, not least Germany, but I don’t think it’s a substitute for immigration. Both things are important, for important and complementary reasons.


Q: This person wants to get back to climate change, talking about non-renewable natural resources being finite. So if our population has grown in the last 50 years, almost doubled, if this is true, from 200 million to 330 million, and migrants are creating larger families, are we creating a climate change problem for ourselves.

A: Yeah, I mean, more people consuming more things does lead to more natural resource use and more pollution and more climate change. That is certainly true. I don’t believe the answer is less people, and certainly less immigrants, to solve climate change. I’m not trying to advertise, but I’ve done a book recently called Is the Planet Full? And the my conclusion is no. Maybe it is. And that depends on what we do. A world of one billion people, living completely wasteful existence would be as destructive for the planet as a world of nine billion living a better type of lifestyle. So it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the choices people make — and there is lots and lots of evidence of incredibly densely packed places which have very low climate impact or very low resource impact. So there are lots of good examples of how this can be done. In the end, it’s about asinine individual choices — are we prepared to make these choices.


Q:  And following on a question on are we are prepared to make good choices, what is your view on what we should do, the U.S., with people who are in our country illegally now?

A: I believe in documentation. I think it’s incredibly important for the society and individuals involved that you know who they are — the same thing applies in the U.K. — that you know who they are, that you know where they live, you know they are paying tax, you know if they have done something wrong they go to jail or you deport them, and that you also give them the privileges of being in the society. So they have access to services. They are protected by the minimum wage and other legislation. My sense is that’s the deal. Now, whether these people have to suffer penalties, as was suggested by judge Gonzales, is obviously a national decision, it’s a decision for the Congress and the people of the United States. I can see there is what’s called a “moral hazard” with just blank amnesties. But one needs a very credible pathway, and I think this is going to have to happen in many societies. The same thing in the U.K., where we have a population of a million out of 65 million, undocumented people. It creates this greyness, this people living in the shadows is really a massive threat to our societies and to the individuals involved. Of course, many of them might go home if we said, “You can come back again, some time,” and particularly elderly people might go home. So I’m not at all convinced that the net effect would be that we’d wind up with more immigrants. I think there is a very plausible scenario where we’d wind up with healthier people in our society and many dependents that go home — children, elderly.


Q: Here’s someone who raises another ethical question, which is everyone talking about immigrants working for very low wages and no benefits. Shouldn’t we be more concerned in paying them a living wage?

A: Yes. Actually, this is very interesting because the conservative Prime Minister in England, David Cameron, has just announced much to the surprise of his cabinet and members of his party that he’s going to be introducing a living wage in the U.K. So this issue of a living wage is, I think, important. One has to look at the consequences for certain sectors, like agriculture — would agriculture be competitive on a minimum wage, I don’t know the answer to that question. But ensuring that people that are working are able to survive decently, live, have food, clothe their children, etc., is essential. And I think any decent society should strive to do that.


Q: And we’ll move over to the other side of pond again: How should Europe handle the big flood of migrants from Northern Africa?

A: This is a real tragedy — hundreds of people are dying, there’s certain days where 500 people have died in one day trying to cross the Mediterranean. The scale of this humanitarian disaster is really just awful to witness, and of course, with modern technology, we do witness it. It’s largely the response to the crises in the Middle East and Africa. So something like 20 to 30 percent of these people are from Syria, Libya and places which are in collapse. And there’s just no option for people to stay at home. Another share of the people are from Eritrea, where they are being conscripted into the dictators military service — young kids, trying to avoid conscription, to fight for the Eritrean army. So these are not largely economic migrants. These are people that I would consider largely have a plausible case to be refugees. And they are so desperate that knowingly they are willing to risk their lives. That is, to me, a very good demonstration that they are likely to be refugees. Because the places they come from are even more risky than their journey is to them. The focus of the European authorities has been on smuggling. It’s an issue; these people clearly have smugglers bringing them, but if you kill one group of smugglers or destroy their boats, others will pop up. These people are desperate. The focus hasn’t been on what I think it should be, which is the fair distribution across Europe and the world — is the U.S. prepared to accept some of them? I don’t know the answer to that question. And helping them to escape where they are. Most of them, as I indicated, stay nearby. Turkey has accepted 1,000 times more refugees than Europe. So most of them stay nearby in the hopes that they’ll go home but also because that’s the easiest option. But if they do make these perilous journeys, I think we should be much better at protecting them from dying, and I think we should be better at welcoming them, giving them a life until they can go home again. Most of these people will go home. Syria will hopefully sort itself out some time. Libya will hopefully sort itself out. Those people will want to go home at that point. But until then, to me it’s an ethical and moral issue. It’s a question of who we are and whether we let people die because we are not willing to invite them into our homes. By the way, one point I would make on that — the argument that, somehow, by helping them you encourage them to come over, I don’t know if it’s been made in the U.S. media, but it’s been made strongly by some elements of the British media. This is really — I mean, when I think about my mother and what she went through. I mean, they say, “Don’t let them come out of Austria, because more will come.” To me, this is unethical.