Open borders would accelerate the global economy and lift millions out of poverty, argues Dutch author and historian Rutger Bregman

If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the world is in the throes of an immigration Armageddon. Europe is being inundated by hundreds of thousands of refugees. Donald Trump is calling to ban Muslims from entering the US, and all the while walls are going up right and left. In fact, three-quarters of all border walls and fences were erected after the year 2000. Here we are, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and from Uzbekistan to Thailand, from Israel to Botswana, the world has more barriers than ever.

Why, you ask? The usual reasons: migrants and refugees will steal our jobs. Or, instead, they’re too lazy to work. Crime rates are higher among immigrants. Or, even worse, they’re all terrorists in disguise.

There’s just one problem with the usual arguments against migration. Stated simply, they’re wrong. In point of fact, there is no better recipe for making the world wealthier – a lot wealthier – than migration. Four different studies have shown that, depending on the level of movement in the global labor market, the estimated growth in “gross worldwide product” would be in the range of 67 per cent to 147 per cent. Effectively, open borders would make the whole world twice as rich.

In a world of insane inequality, migration is the most powerful tool for fighting poverty

This has led one New York University researcher to conclude that we’re currently leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.” An economist at the University of Wisconsin has calculated that open borders would boost the income of an average Angolan by about $10,000 (£7,580) a year, and of a Nigerian by $22,000 (£16,678) annually.

Even just cracking the door would help. If all the developed countries would let in just three per cent more immigrants, the world’s poor would have $305bn (£231bn) more to spend, says the World Bank. That’s the combined total of all development aid – times three.

The problem, in short, isn’t too much migration, but too little. In our era of “globalisation,” only three per cent of the world’s population lives outside their country of birth. The world is wide open for everything but people. Goods, services, and stocks crisscross the globe. Sure, we still have a few trade barriers, but if we scrapped them the global economy would grow only a few percentage points. According to the International Monetary Fund, lifting the remaining restrictions on capital would free up at most $65bn (£49bn). Pocket change, says Harvard economist Lant Pritchett. Opening borders to labor would boost wealth by much more – one thousand times more.

In numbers, that’s $65,000,000,000,000. In words, sixty-five trillion dollars (£49tn).

Economic growth isn’t a cure-all, of course, but in most countries, it’s still the main driver of progress. Opening up our borders, even just a little, is by far the most powerful weapon we have in the global fight against poverty. But sadly, it’s an idea that keeps getting beaten back by the same old faulty arguments.

1. They’re all criminals and terrorists
Not according to the statistics. As it happens, people making a new life in the US commit fewer offenses and less frequently end up in prison than the native population. Even as the number of illegal immigrants tripled between 1990 and 2013 to over 11 million, the crime rate reversed dramatically. According to FBI data, by as much as 48 per cent for violence (aggravated assault, robbery, rape, and murder) and 41 per cent for property crime (motor vehicle theft, larceny/robbery, and burglary).

What about terrorism? New research from the University of Warwick on migration flows between 145 countries over the period from 1970 to 2000 shows that far from being the cause of terrorism, immigration actually leads to a decline in terrorist acts. “When migrants move from one country to another they take new skills, knowledge and perspectives,” the lead researcher writes. “These stimulate technological innovation and diffusion of new ideas and this in turn stimulates economic growth. If we subscribe to the belief that economic development is linked to a decrease in extremism then we should expect an increase in migration to have a positive effect.”

2. They’ll take our jobs
We’ve all heard this one before. When a huge number of women suddenly entered the labor market in the 1970s, the papers were filled with predictions that the flood of cheaper working women would displace male breadwinners. There is a stubborn misconception that the job market is like a game of musical chairs. It’s not. Productive women, seniors, or immigrants won’t displace men, young adults, or hardworking citizens from their jobs. In fact, they create more employment opportunities. A bigger workforce means more consumption, more demand, more jobs. If we insist on comparing the job market to musical chairs, then it’s a version where new party animals keep showing up with more chairs.

3. Cheap immigrant labor will force our wages down
To disprove this fallacy, we can turn to a study by the Center for Immigration Studies – a think tank that opposes immigration – which found that immigration has virtually no effect on wages. Other research even shows that new arrivals lead to an uptick in the earnings of the domestic workforce. Hard-working immigrants boost productivity, which brings paycheck payoffs to everybody. All too often, moreover, the alternative to hiring immigrants is to outsource work to other countries. And that, ironically, does force wages down.

4. They’re too lazy to work
There’s no evidence that immigrants are more likely to apply for assistance than native citizens. Nor do countries with a strong social safety net attract a higher share of immigrants. In reality, if you correct for income and job status, immigrants actually take less advantage of public assistance. Overall, the net value of immigrants is almost wholly positive. In countries like Austria, Ireland, Spain, and England, they even bring in more tax revenue per capita than the native population.

5. They’ll never go back
This brings us to a fascinating paradox: open borders promote immigrants’ return. Take the border between Mexico and the US. In the 1960s, 70 million Mexicans crossed it, but in time, 85 per cent returned home. Since the 1980s, and especially since 9/11, the US side of the border has been heavily militarised, with a 2,000-mile long wall secured by cameras, sensors, drones, and 20,000 border patrol agents. Nowadays, only seven per cent of illegal Mexican immigrants ever go back.

“We annually spend billions of taxpayer dollars on border enforcement that is worse than useless – it is counterproductive,” observes a sociology professor at Princeton University. “Migrants quite rationally responded to the increased costs and risks by minimising the number of times they crossed the border.” Little wonder that the number of Mexicans who are in the US illegally grew to seven million by 2007 – seven times as many as in 1980.

Get a move on, get rich

Opening our borders is not something we can do overnight, of course – nor should we. Unchecked migration would certainly corrode social cohesion. But we do need to remember one thing: In a world of insane inequality, migration is the most powerful tool for fighting poverty.

How do we know? Experience. When life in 1850s Ireland and in 1880s Italy took a dramatic downturn, most poor farmers left; so did 100,000 Dutch people in 1830–1880. All of them set their sights across the ocean on the land where opportunity seemed unlimited. The richest country in the world, the United States, is a nation built on immigration.

Perhaps in a century or so we’ll look back on borders the way we look back on slavery and apartheid today. One thing is certain however: if we want to make the world a better place, there’s no getting around migration. As Joseph Carens, one of the leading advocates of open borders, wrote in 1987: “Free migration may not be immediately achievable, but it is a goal toward which we should strive.”

This is an extract from Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek.