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open borders: a response to jake syma about refugees and self-selection effects

Last week, we had an ASA session on open borders. Tanya Golash-Boza, David Fitzgerald, and my self gave short talks on open borders. Overall, I am very happy with what happened. Not only did all panelists deliver a set of interesting comments, but about 30 in total. Not bad for a session with minimal advertising on a controversial topic. If someone out there wants to help with audio processing to make a nice podcast, please reach out. My zoom recorded it.

Here, I want to discuss an issue about open borders that Jake Syma brought up on Facebook. When I talk about open borders, I often discuss self-selection of immigrants. People often wonder if immigrants will bring crime or become dependent on public services. I say that this is counter-intuitive because of self-selection. Immigrants are not a random sample of people from the home country. Rather, immigrants tend to b above average because migration often requires that you save money, plan ahead, and learn a new language and culture.

When I was speaking, I casually said that maybe refugees are an exception. On Facebook, Jake then asked why I thought that. This post is a response to Jake’s query. My mental model of refugees is that a war or other forms of mass violence occur and that entire populations move. In this model of refugee migration, everyone is moved out. So there is no self selection for better people. But this might not be true. It probably is not the case that wars randomly move people. For example, perhaps some people are part of the conflict and they stay home in order to fight and settle grievances. Another issue is that moving is costly no matter the reason. So refugee populations may be more middle or upper class than the population average. The public image of Syrian Civil War refugees was that may were middle class. I would be very interested in knowing if that impression is true.

The two selection processes that I mentioned (people who fight stay home/wealthier and more educated people are more likely to move) produce migrant populations that will likely be less likely to be incarcerated or rely on public services. However, war and internal conflict has complex effects on society and it may be the case that selection effects produce populations that have high incarceration rates and might be less well off economically.

Still, this would not dampen my enthusiasm for open borders. Refugee crises are the exception, not the norm, in immigration. Most immigration brings people who seek work and opportunity. Even in the case of refugee migration, I would be hesitant to stop their movement. As I note above, there are reasons to think refugee populations are above average due to selection effects. But even if that weren’t the case, the benefits to be gained (e.g., not dying) really outweigh the likely modest strain on public services.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 17, 2020 at 4:52 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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