How the G20 could help fight the Trumps of the world in immigration

June 17, 2016

I have resisted writing about the U.S. Republican Party’s nominee for president. This decision likely cost me some Twitter followers. Misogyny and xenophobia get people tweeting. For publishers, editors and reporters, Donald Trump was Miracle Gro for their digital audiences. Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy released a study on June 13 that shows Trump received an unusual amount of coverage in 2015 for a candidate with such miniscule poll numbers. Other estimates suggest the ink, pixels and airtime devoted to Trump amount to more than $2 billion in free advertising. As a result, the mainstream press is obliged to report objectively on proposals such as refusing visas to all Muslims.

So now that I have typed the T-word, let us attempt the kind of discussion about migration that might have been possible if the media had left him on the fringes. The United Nations Refugee Agency predicts that more than 1 million people will seek resettlement through 2017, a 72 percent increase of 2014. Demand for safe passports far outstrips supply, however. Even with increased refugee quotas by countries such as Canada, the UN expects it will find havens for only 143,000 people this year and 170,000 in 2017. The leaders of advanced nations say they want to do more and there is no reason to question their sincerity. But they are afraid of the politics. The exodus of refugees from Syria, Sudan and other fraught places exacerbates the political sensitivities that plague economic migration. Robots have replaced far more American and European factory workers than have migrants, yet Trump and others have had little difficulty obfuscating that fact while pitching to their supporters’ base instincts. Moderates need a better response than they have managed to date. There may be a role for the G20 in providing one.

Gateway House, an Indian think tank that specializes in economics and foreign policy, hosted a conference June 13-14 in Mumbai. Among the panel discussions was an excellent exchange on global labour mobility between Chris Alexander, Canada’s former immigration minister; Harvard professor Lant Prichett; and Manish Sabharawal, co-founder of TeamLease, an Indian staffing company. Sabharwal was the realist on the panel. India is a big exporter of human capital, both skilled (Silicon Valley) and unskilled (Dubai). The country benefits greatly from out-migration. India struggles under the weight of its population of 1.3 billion people; emigration helps relieve the pressure. The diaspora generates remittances that support millions of households. And just so we’re clear, the economies of the countries where all those Indians settle benefit a great deal, too. Yet Sabharwal was skeptical that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should count on enlarging the Indian diaspora. Political conditions in the places Indians want to go won’t allow it, he said. Instead of counting on income from remittances, India must focus on employing its citizens itself, Sabharwal said.

That’s the Trump effect. The developing world is starting to lose hope in globalization. But Alexander and Prichett aren’t ready to give up. It was almost certainly an accident, but they combined to set out a way demoralized globalists could yet defeat ascendent nativists.

The migration debate is unique in that facts have little influence on attitudes. Virtually every economist agrees that immigration is good for economic growth, especially when working populations begin to shrink from retirement as they are in the West. Yet the narrative remains that all immigrants do is steal jobs. Pritchett recalled his time in Washington at the  World Bank. Thousands of economists went to work every day at the International Monetary Fund to conduct research in support of free trade, fiscal prudence, floating exchange rates and productivity. The weight of that research eventually crushed other ideas about how the global economy should function: the IMF and the World Bank created the consensus.

There is no equivalent when it comes to global labour mobility. Pritchett called on India to do for the freer movement of people what the IMF did for the freer movement of goods and money. Since India has designs on becoming a global power, it will need issues on which to base its claim for a seat at the table, Pritchett argued. He found support for the need to institutionalize the advocacy of freer movement of labour from Alexander. The Canadian said the G20 should make freer movement of labour a priority. It could set a baseline that would provide moderate politicians with some leverage in the debate.

Alexander, a right-wing politician, and Prichett, a leftish economist, aren't natural allies. The two clashed when Alexander said politicians should be led by entrepreneurs and executives on immigration policy. (Pritchett said that would be folly because businesses are responding to the distorted signals sent by overly rigid immigration policies.) Alexander said Pritchett’s notion of opening the doors to immigrants to do low-skilled work such as caring for the elderly was problematic because of high levels of youth unemployment in Europe and North America. But they agreed that politicians such as Trump must be engaged, not wished away. They also showed how compromise is possible when there are no radicals in the room. 

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at CIGI and the national business columnist at the Financial Post.