It seems counter intuitive.
When a debate about jobs, or the lack thereof, arises in any country there are immediate and passionate calls to restrict immigration so only true native sons can fill the vacancies that do exist. The fewer the jobs, the greater the protest. But could the solution be to simply open our borders to all immigrants? One noted economist says yes.
This past spring, The Royal Bank of Canada came under fire after it was alleged that it was misusing Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, hiring cheaper foreign workers before Canadians had a chance to win those jobs. CEO Gord Nixon issued an email to employees saying this wasn’t so, but the genie was already out of the bottle.
This issue is a particularly sensitive one, and had popped up again at a mining project near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., where 201 Chinese workers were cleared to work on HD Mining’s Murray River coal project. Two unions went to Federal Court to prevent this. HD Mining said they needed workers with specialized skills in ” longwall mining” a method not often used in North America, and they couldn’t find Canadians with this experience.
Then, on August 7th, the federal government announced it was making changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that would tighten restrictions and require employers to make “greater efforts” to source Canadian workers.
“Our Government’s number one priority remains jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity. These additional reforms help ensure that Canadians are first in line for available jobs,” said Minister of Employment and Social Development, Jason Kenny. “They also ensure that taxpayers no longer pay the cost of processing employer applications for temporary foreign workers.”
Canadian-born economist Alex Tabarrok, co-author of the highly-regarded economics blog Marginal Revolution, says he disagrees with Kenny’s assessment of the situation, and that Canada should actually be taking the opposite tack.
If people are worried about the burden on the systems, with immigrants going on welfare, the solution is not to prevent them from moving around. The solution is to say that immigrants are not able to go on welfare.
“It’s really a great shame that Canada, which has been historically quite open to immigration, is thinking about tightening, ” said Tabarrok in a recent interview with the CBC podcast “The 180”. “Immigration is one of the great things that one can do for the world. It’s good for Canadians and it’s incredibly good for immigrants.”
Tabarrok is one of the founders of the Open Borders Movement, which argues that there are not only moral reasons to unrestrict the movement of people around the world, but practical ones. The economist was co-author of the 2006 “Open Letter on Immigration”, which was addressed to then President George W. Bush and all Members of Congress. The letter, which was co-signed by more than 500 economists, laid out the case that immigration was not a burden but a benefit to Americans.
“Legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration on the poorest Americans should not be addressed by penalizing even poorer immigrants. Instead, we should promote policies, such as improving our education system, that enable Americans to be more productive with high-wage skills,” said the letter. “We must not forget that the gains to immigrants coming to the United States are immense. Immigration is the greatest anti-poverty program ever devised.”
But wouldn’t opening up the Canadian border to anyone and everyone create a free-for-all that would overwhelm our social programs? Tabarrok says there is an easy fix to that.
“If people are worried about the burden on the systems, with immigrants going on welfare, the solution is not to prevent them from moving around. The solution is to say that immigrants are not able to go on welfare.”
Tabarrok says the idea of open borders offers a small benefit to Canadians and a massive benefit to the world.
“If the developed countries of the world increased immigration by 3%, that would be worth more to the world, worth more to developing countries than all of the foreign aid which is currently given,” he says.
Tabborrok’s thoughts on immigration may be outside the box, but they echo the comments of one recent immigrant success story in Canada’s technology space. RuggedCom founder Marzio Pozzuoli, in accepting the CVCA’s 2013 ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ award, talked about the “Canadian Dream”.
Pozzuoli says after he sold RuggedCom for $440-million, a close friend told him he was living “The American Dream”.
“Because Joe is a dear friend, and because his sentiments were heartfelt and true I didn’t correct him,” he told the crowd at the awards dinner in Banff. “What I didn’t tell him was, what I lived is not the American dream, it’s very much a Canadian dream.”
Pozzuoli said the “Canadian Dream” exists because Canada embraces immigrants and multiculturalism. He says there is a strong correlation between immigration and entrepreneurialism, noting that 52% of the startups in Silicon Valley have immigrant founders.
Pozzuoli, of course, is not the first immigrant to put Canada on the map in the world of technology. The emergence of Ottawa’s tech scene owes more to one immigrant, Terry Matthews, than any other single person. The same could be said for Waterloo’s Tech Triangle, and Turkish immigrant Mike Lazaridis, who co-founded BlackBerry.
But a wholesale opening of all borders, could it actually happen?
Tabborrok says rather than being a strictly intellectual exercise, he sees The Open Borders Movement as something that will eventually happen. He points to the fact that most countries already let in highly skilled labour as a necessary precursor to a more general acceptance of the idea.