A great benefit of immigration is that it allows people to escape all kinds of tyranny. As George Mason University’s Ilya Somin has written in his excellent Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, “Empowering more people to vote with their feet can save millions from lives of poverty and oppression, and expand opportunities for meaningful political freedom for many more.” Indeed, immigration has already freed millions of people.
Using the Cato Institute‐Fraser Institute Human Freedom Index and the United Nations Population Division’s international migrant stock data, it is possible to estimate that about 187 million people have moved to freer countries than the ones in which they were born. The average immigrant moving to a freer country moved 70 spots up the Human Freedom Index ranking. This is roughly like moving from Libya to Mexico or from Mexico to the United States.
Cuban immigrants have benefited the most from immigration, moving up, on average, 172 spots relative to their birth country, which is about the difference between the United States and Cuba (which isn’t actually ranked on the HFI due to a lack of data but for the purpose of this post, was—along with 11 other unfree, authoritarian countries where data was absent to make a specific score—assigned the lowest score in the Human Freedom Index). A total of 204 countries and territories were used for this article. The other top freedom‐enhancing immigrant nationalities are Iranians (153 spots up), Saudis (140), Ethiopians (135), Chinese (134), Omanis (128), Algerians (123), Iraqis (123), Turks (122), and Vietnamese (121).
Figure 1 shows the breakdown by origin region for the immigrants who have moved to freer countries as of 2019. Nearly 43 million were born in South or East Asia, with the leading countries being China, Bangladesh, and India (10.5, 6.5, and 6.5 million, respectively). About 39 million more born in Europe with Russia, Poland, and Romania leading (9.3, 4.4, and 3.1 million, respectively). The Mideast and Central Asia saw 36.2 million freedom movers with Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan leading (8.3, 5.1, and 4.9 million, respectively). Another 34.1 million were from South or Central America and the Caribbean with Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia leading (11.8, 2.5, and 1.9 million, respectively). Africa added another 32.8 million with the most from Egypt, Morocco, and South Sudan (3.5, 3.1, and 2.6 million, respectively).
Mexicans, Chinese, Russians, and Syrians had done the most moving to freer countries in absolute terms (11.8, 10.5, 9.3, and 8.3 million, respectively), but the people most likely to have moved to freer countries in percentage terms are those born in the Cook Islands (56%), Palestine (40%), Guyana (39%), Samoa (38%), and Syria (33%).
Figure 2 shows the breakdown for freedom movers by country of destination. About 60.1 million of the immigrants moving to freer countries have moved to countries in Europe with Germany, Britain, and France leading (12.8, 7.6, and 5.8 million, respectively), 50.3 million to North America (almost entirely the United States and Canada). Another 28.7 million moved to countries within the Middle East or Central Asia with Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia taking the most (4.1, 3.5, and 3.4 million, respectively). South and east Asia have received 19.1 million freedom seekers with the top receiving countries being India, Thailand, and Hong Kong (4.4, 2.9, and 2.8 million, respectively). In Africa, the top receiving countries were South Africa, Uganda, and Ethiopia (2.4, 1.6, and 1.2 million). The latter two are certainly still “unfree,” but they share borders with far worse despotisms.
While the largest absolute number of freedom‐enhancing immigrants live in the United States (42.6 million), that amounts to only 13 percent of its population, which is lower than the shares in at least 33 other countries or territories including Sweden (18 percent), New Zealand (21 percent), Australia (27 percent), or Switzerland (28 percent). Another nearly 50 million immigrants could obtain more freedom in the United States if the country had the same share of freedom‐enhancing immigrants as Switzerland.
Some 69 million immigrants have moved to less free countries than their birthplaces, but these moves are almost always lateral (an average of about 15 spots down versus 70 spots up the rankings), and in almost all cases, these moves are still almost always freedom enhancing for the individual mover. The specific type of freedom that might be most urgently needed may be more relevant to the immigrant than the other types. Ilya Somin writes:
For both positive and negative freedom, the benefits of foot voting go far beyond the narrowly “economic.” Expanded foot‐voting opportunities can also massively enhance migrants’ freedom and well‐being more generally. Consider, for example, women fleeing patriarchal societies, religious minorities fleeing oppression, and people fleeing repressive tyrannical regimes of various kinds.
This is why even what appears on average to be a net loss in liberty can, given a person’s individual circumstances, be freedom‐enhancing. It’s also a benefit of using the Cato‐Fraser human freedom index that it does include measures of human freedom that extend beyond the “narrowly economic” or merely civil liberties to take a holistic approach to individual liberty. Ultimately, millions of people’s lives will depend on the rules around immigration in the future, and whatever other considerations policymakers have, they should at least recognize that more immigration can make the world much freer.