are there persuasive non-economic arguments for migration?
April 11, 2019 9:45 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for books, articles, argument précis, people to follow on social media, comics -- anything that provides persuasive arguments for migration being a Good Thing (or Bad Thing!) which are not predicated on economic benefit or cost.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about whether or not I think immigration is a good or a bad thing for a given society. I can't imagine what has led me to think this (cough Border Wall, cough Muslim ban, cough Syrian refugee crisis, cough Brexit), but I find it an interesting question. Most of the arguments that it is a good thing seem always to fall back on 'migrants help the economy', while arguments that it is bad usually boil down to 'they're a burden and we need to look after "our own"' (whatever "our own" is defined to be). I am trying and failing to find arguments that are not at all to do with economics and resource distribution, which to me seems to trap the whole debate in neoliberal assumptions. Is there any alternative? I would love readings especially, but any of the above or more would be much appreciated.

I should say I have found the argument "a cosmopolitan and diverse society is inherently good" to be largely unpersuasive. I am open to persuasion, but would appreciate arguments that might be potentially convincing even to those who are not. I have found that this argument is usually killed by "well letting everyone in would be all nice and utopian but there just isn't enough to go around." So are we all doomed to the economic base?
posted by starcrust to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
One point of view is, if one area becomes uninhabitable due to climate change (or due to the rule of a murderous regime), then migration is A Good Thing because the people who used to live there can go live somewhere else instead of just being resigned to dying

Though I don't have any particular books, articles, or twitters to recommend that offer that point of view, sorry.
posted by entropone at 9:53 AM on April 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

There are likely some health-related studies around gene diversity, disease, and so on.

But really, economic arguments are simply measurable outcomes of things that are found to be of value. So, maybe shift your exploration into what drives the economic benefit, and relate the other benefits that come from the same source. Since the economic value is derived from our valuing of that 'thing.'

For example, it is pointed out that many inventors and entrepreneurs are immigrants. Yes, they contribute to the overall economic benefit by adding to our capital system and driving up employment, etc etc etc. But, the added knowledge is really what is at value. So, introducing new knowledge into a closed system, therefore re-invigorating it is the actual benefit that is then economically realized.
posted by rich at 9:58 AM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I should say I have found the argument "a cosmopolitan and diverse society is inherently good" to be largely unpersuasive

Well, much of the argument is moral. That is, the arbitrary boundary lines of nation-states, races, tribes are themselves constructs which can lead to immoral behavior if taken too seriously. The word 'immigration' is already loaded as it implies that staying still is the natural state.

For readings, look at the philosophical underpinnings of Cosmopolitanism
posted by vacapinta at 9:58 AM on April 11, 2019 [11 favorites]

Good for who? The people who are migrating or the people who already live in the place those migrants are traveling to? These are two different questions and will have different answers.

My grandfather left Latvia and came to the United States in 1907 because in Latvia Jews were being killed in pogroms. There is no question that emigration was good for him along a large number of non-economic measures. I think it turned out well for the people in the US, too. But the benefits are different.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:07 AM on April 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

Turning away refugees (such the asylum seekers that the US media is currently calling "migrants") is essentially sentencing people to torture and/or death. Which is not just a terrible thing for the refugees themselves but also for the people -- and the country -- complicit in their suffering. It's a morally repugnant act.

Maybe it will be easier for you to register the current plight of asylum seekers if it's placed within a broader historical context of what happens when refugees are turned away. Here's a Smithsonian magazine article on the US turning away ships of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. These refugees were virtually all subsequently put in camps and murdered. In the article, you'll recognize a lot of the fear-mongering that equates refugees with a national security threat -- the US regime spun the same lies then as it's doing it again now to asylum seekers from Latin America.
posted by rue72 at 10:09 AM on April 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

This comment is so basic to history that I'm not including a reference (as in, pretty much every relevant history acknowledges this...)

Migration is a NORMAL thing, regardless of the reason, up to and including "because they felt like it". (In fact, one could argue that movement for reasons such as religion would, at their heart, be because someone merely desired to.)
posted by stormyteal at 10:10 AM on April 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

I should say I have found the argument "a cosmopolitan and diverse society is inherently good" to be largely unpersuasive. I am open to persuasion, but would appreciate arguments that might be potentially convincing even to those who are not.

There is evidence that diverse teams in workplaces are smarter. I believe that this can be extrapolated to cultures and communities. Diverse groups in decision making capacities such as juries are more thorough and thoughtful than homogenous groups. Diverse groups of stock traders make better decisions picking stocks and thereby boost the economy. In science, papers written by diverse groups receive more citations & have higher impact factors than papers written by people from the same ethnic group. In fact, here's a huge thing from Scientific American about how diversity empowers not just science but innovation generally.

You don't get diversity in the workplace, in science, in the stock market and on juries if you don't have a mix of people with different cultural backgrounds.

"well letting everyone in would be all nice and utopian but there just isn't enough to go around."

There is very little evidence to support the fact that there is not enough to go around. In most cases access to resources is (currently) not a scarcity thing but a political machination. There is enough food for everyone. There is enough water for everyone. There is enough housing for everyone. There is a pack of super elites hogging the resources for themselves AND trying to sell you on the idea that there is not enough food/space/housing for anyone else. In nearly all cases (all of them in the US) the people making these arguments were themselves migrants from elsewhere who wanted to pull the drawbridge up after them. There aren't rational arguments against immigration in the US that aren't fundamentally racist/xenophobic/anti-semitic or based on lies about resources themselves based on artificially induced scarcity.
posted by jessamyn at 10:21 AM on April 11, 2019 [15 favorites]

Particularly for an American, if you're fond of American society, it's the result of broadly indiscriminate immigration which turned out pretty well. There's no strong argument I can see saying that the immigrants we got in the 19th and early 20th century were specifically fitted to benefit the US, but the immigrants we're getting now won't be.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:24 AM on April 11, 2019

SMBC just wrote a book you might find interesting.
posted by Grither at 10:27 AM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

stormyteal has it

Migration is just a Thing. In the longer view, all of us came from Africa & then moved around the continents over the course of thousands of years. It's always happened, it will always continue to happen. Border controls are a very recent innovation, and I'd wager that their existence will turn out to be short in the context of human history.

Plate tectonics is also a thing. So is the motion of the planets. Are those things Good, or are they Bad? For that question even to make sense, we have to assume a standpoint from which we'll measure their Goodness or Badness. As you've already noticed, the range of possible standpoints that we could evaluate from is very broad indeed, and our choice is inherently & irreducibly ideological.

At the last session of my philosophy meetup, I had the opportunity to discuss this very question with a gentleman who did not share my standpoint that diversity of population is inherently good. The conversation did not go well for either of us - my interlocutor wanted urgently to discuss the family sizes of various nationalities & ethnic groups, and at that point I wanted urgently to leave. I resolved only to discuss this whole thing with people whose standpoint is somewhere close to my own. It's just not worth the grief.
posted by rd45 at 10:29 AM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

"well letting everyone in would be all nice and utopian but there just isn't enough to go around."

Since you asked for readings on this try:

Capital in the 21st Century by Picketty

Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization by Milanovic
in which he sets out the case that opening up the world's borders would actually make everyone better off.
posted by vacapinta at 10:30 AM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

these are all great, I'm digesting and will mark best answers later, but for now just wanted to clarify that when I said I find cosmopolitanism to be "unpersuasive", I meant unpersuasive in the context of discussions about immigration in which interlocutors involved were operating from principally economic assumptions. That is to say, the argument that, for example, "we can't have migrants because they leech off welfare benefits from bona fide citizens" seems only persuasively answerable by "no they don't, they actually make us money". Both trap the conversation in economic reckoning & often devolves into competing sources for statistics about migrant "contributions". In that respect is it, as rd45 might be suggesting, that it's just not possible to have a conversation from standpoints that are too divergent? or maybe, as rich suggests, is it because the morally correct argument (that we should want not to be complicit in condemning multitudes to death) will always be entirely divorced from the economic one because this society doesn't ultimately value that moral position in a way that can be expressed by our economics? just musing out loud, but mostly wanted to clarify. I won't threadsit further.
posted by starcrust at 10:49 AM on April 11, 2019

In theory, a community could nurture, educate, and connect political migrants, so that they could return to their original lands with more power. Then, we wouldn't be essentially ceding territory to inhumane regimes.
posted by amtho at 10:56 AM on April 11, 2019

A libertarian argument is that migration happens whether you like it or not. Visa overstays are guaranteed. Actually sealing a physical border is nearly impossible, and people will enter. Building a draconian internal police force to stop and inspect everyone's papers is an inherently bad thing for everyone's liberties, whether you have legal status or not.

Another one. Many countries around the world obey their obligations to refugees, and if they didn't, the world would look a lot more chaotic and shitty, which could come back to bite domestically in various ways. Expecting other countries to do this, but not doing it at home, means that other countries will feel more free to stop. In a race to the bottom, expending vast resources on putting up borders in an endless tit-for-tat leaves everyone worse off in various ways, not just economically.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:12 AM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

A non-economic argument is: do you like to have a varied choice of cuisines? that... doesn't really happen without some level of immigration. Unless you only want to eat soylent every day, you'd better be on board with immigrants, as food travels when people do, and doesn't really when they don't.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:17 AM on April 11, 2019

So, I keep re-reading the question and the variety of answers. Most of the answers are focused on very specific, context-based situations. I.e. "It's good for getting different foods to eat." "Not being complicit in murder and torture of asylum seekers." "Enable them to return to their own lands and take them over."

Vacapinta I think had the more accurate tact with the Milanovic book.

Though, still, that doesn't go back and answer the core philosophical question on (if/why/how) migration is a benefit to society, as a whole (so, thinking the human race, as an overall race/species), and then separately if it is a benefit to a specific society that is experiencing immigration (or not experience immigration, as a counter-view).

All the other use case bits are simple observations. (ok, so admittedly, the whole moral issue of people escaping violence and torture shouldn't be brushed to the side, BUT that is not the only - nor likely the predominant DRIVER of migration. As noted - migration is just a 'thing.')

But - so that becomes the question - WHY is migration a 'thing'.? It has to be a thing because it infers some benefit on the migrant, or the society that chooses to migrate. In early history, it is typically pointed to the whole hunter/gatherer society as a necessity - so therein was the primary benefit. But were there other ancillary benefits?

And now, are those translatable into general human race terms, regardless of the nuances of politics and invented borders (and maybe even geographic borders... as now this can further impact the 'why space?' Why Mars? Is it simply some genetic meed to propagate the species, or does it confer some other basic set of benefits on an individual and society/race as a whole?
posted by rich at 11:52 AM on April 11, 2019

I think you won’t find the argument you’re searching for. There are many people who don’t care about different cuisines. These same people might be totally on board with not letting refugees die.

But I think that if migration is normal, and has happened for 1000’s of years- it’s usually because that population has fewer resources and they are moving where there are more resources. The idea that people should accept that, because it’s normal, and has happened for 1000’s of years... doesn’t make it easier for local someone who is also fighting for those resources. And then you have the change in the community. It’s not easy to process for a working class person in sleaford (for example). I have a feeling that even 1000’s of Years ago the original inhabitants of any place that was deemed desirable for migrants probably didn’t like it either.
posted by catspajammies at 12:20 PM on April 11, 2019

The historical record, as refracted through DNA analysis, tends to look fairly grim:
As far back as 2500 B.C., the researchers found, Iberians began living alongside people who moved in from central Europe and carried recent genetic ancestry from the Russian steppe. Within a few hundred years, analyses showed, the two groups had extensively interbred.

For example, at a Bronze Age site known as the Castillejo de Bonete in Spain where a woman and man were found buried side by side, analyses revealed that the woman's ancestry was entirely local, while the man had very recent ancestors from central Europe.

To the researchers' surprise, men and women from the two groups contributed strikingly unequal proportions of DNA to subsequent generations.

Before the central Europeans moved in, Iberians had no detectable recent ancestry from outside the Iberian Peninsula. After 2000 B.C., 40 percent of Iberians' overall ancestors and 100 percent of their patrilineal ancestors—that is, their father and their father's father and so forth—could be traced to the incoming groups from central Europe.
And, for another example from among a number of possible candidates, recently it's been determined that the builders of Stonehenge were dark skinned with blue eyes and as I recall frizzy hair, who, for all their celebrated legacy on the land, have left no traces in the DNA of current inhabitants.
posted by jamjam at 12:33 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

This has been addressed a few times by Current Affairs, perhaps most directyly in their response to Angela Nagle.
Most cases against open borders simply assume that militarized borders are inherently legitimate, that the voting populace of the United States is allowed to determine who gets to reside within a certain set of geographic boundaries. That is not self-evident. There is a strong case that “free movement” should be treated as the default, since the earth belongs to all human beings in common, and that there should be a high threshold to justify artificial boundaries that restrict people’s freedom on the basis of where they happened to be born. The question of whether the United States should have “open borders” assumes that we have the right to decide who should be allowed to enter a large, well-resourced, mostly empty swath of land, all of which—if we want to get into the niceties—was rather recently stolen from either Indians or Mexico (which was itself stolen from Indians). Borders are threats of violence—if you cross this line, the state may detain and expel you—and threats of violence must be justified. In order to make any case against open borders, you first need to explain why it would not have been acceptable for Illinois to ban Mississippians from immigrating and seeking jobs, but it is acceptable for the people of the United States to keep out anyone born in Honduras or Guatemala.
See also: What Would Humane Immigration Policy Look Like?
posted by ludwig_van at 1:10 PM on April 11, 2019 [8 favorites]

I've noticed a certain rhetorical device among right-wingers regarding the current immigration & asylum-seekers situation along the US-Mexico border that goes something like this: "If you're so into letting these people into the country, why don't you leave your front door open?" The metaphor they're relying on, of course, is that just as you have right to bar people from entering your house, the country has the right to bar people from entering its territory. In my head, I always want to counter-argue with: "Well, when you're only able to occupy a house because you murdered almost all of the previous occupants and then chased out and/or subjugated the ones you didn't murder, they normally don't let you just keep the house."

One of the fundamental premises in this whole immigration discussion is that national borders (never mind the enforcement of the borders, but simply the existence of them) are absolutely legitimate. I would ask, "well, what if they weren't?" This is, of course, somewhat of a radical position and perhaps not too convincing. But, it is certainly different from the "immigrants are a net positive" line of argument.

On preview: ludwig_van's quoted excerpt seems to proceed along a similar line
posted by mhum at 1:22 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

These are all great, I've marked as best the ones which most made me pause and (re)consider or brought a position I hadn't considered (regardless of whether I agree), but really the value in this has been, as always on MeFi, the range of responses which broaden my horizons by sheer number. I will keep checking back for new responses, and so grateful to all who have responded, I'll be following up all links & recs (including the amazing-looking SMBC book!)
posted by starcrust at 1:32 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in to add a link to the Wiki for the "immigrant paradox". Basically, people who migrate are generally healthier than people who stay put. Immigrants and foreign-born people living in the US tend to use fewer healthcare resources than native-born people and have better health outcomes.
posted by acridrabbit at 3:32 PM on April 12, 2019

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