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help haitians (and haiti) through immigration

In the past, I have covered Lant Pritchett’s wonderful book on immigration, “Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility.” In those posts, I addressed the morality, the positive development implications, and the benefits to host nations of increasing work visas. The tragedy in Haiti has pushed the question to the forefront, thanks in no small part to the work of folks like Michael Clemens (whose article includes many of the numbers included below).

Visa expansion is competing for airtime with debt forgiveness and disaster relief, and it’s worthwhile to restate the human value of greater immigration. As Michael Clemens and many others have reported, 50% of Haitians wanted to leave Haiti before the disaster. Last year, following an earlier natural disaster, the US refused to grant temporary protected status to Haitian immigrants and proceeded with deportation hearings. Thankfully, the US has granted TPS to immigrants in the wake of the latest disaster.

Yet the US could do significantly more good by taking the next step and opening its doors, even if on a temporary basis, to Haiti’s poor and huddled masses. Such a policy may even find broader support than TPS, which touched on the political nerve of protecting immigrants in the country illegally.

The US currently permits 21,000 Haitian immigrants and handed out only 498 temporary season work visas last year.  A dramatic expansion of even the work visas would help both the immigrants and Haiti itself. As Clemens notes, “A high school dropout in the United States earns an average of $24,000 a year — about seven times the wages of a typical Haitian worker.”

Such a policy would not doom the Haitians that remain. For one, it would provided needed capital through remittances, already a large percentage of the Haitian economy (to the tune of $2 billion a year). Second, if the visas were temporary it would Haiti’s long-term economic capacity. Most fundamentally, it would support higher wages in Haiti by decreasing population pressure.

To use an example I cited in a previous post, Ireland’s potato famine precipitated a mass exodus. Because of the corresponding reduction in labor supply, “real wages in Ireland relative to the United Kingdom never fell and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita never fell.”  Similarly, the collapse of industry towns in US met with a decline in population that also mitigated wage losses. When the optimal level of population decreases, a commensurate migration is best for all involved.

Pritchett contrasts these scenarios with immobile Bolivia:

In contrast, Bolivia had a clear negative shock as well, but one that occurred in a period in which there was little or no international labor mobility. So, rather than the shock being accommodated by changes in population while real wages of Bolivians remained constant (both in Bolivia and elsewhere), real wages in Bolivia fell spectacularly.

While counter intuitive in some ways, the best chance for Haiti is for many to leave. The best opportunity for those who want to leave is to head to the US. Due to Haiti’s small size, the US can accommodate these people-in-need without a measurable impact on the economic well-being of its population. Disaster relief is necessary. Debt relief can help. Temporary work visas (at the very least) should be at the forefront of any moral crusader’s policy push.


Filed under: Economic Policy, General Welfare

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