May 15, 2020 1:16PM

Migration Reciprocity with Other Nations Is a Path Toward Expanding Legal Immigration

Cato just released a large white paper chock full of new and innovative ways to reform the legal U.S. immigration system for the 21st century. All of the essays are worth reading and they all shifted my opinion on the relative merits and demerits of certain proposals. But I especially want to highlight a point made by Michelangelo Landgrave in his chapter on a bilateral labor agreement with Canada.

Landgrave, my frequent coauthor, proposes a bilateral agreement between Canada and the United States where citizens of both countries can work in either country with minimal rules. He analyzes other such arrangements between developed countries offers some suggestions for how to adapt their rules to North America, but his most striking finding is how popular such an agreement would be among Americans – if it’s reciprocal. If Americans and Canadians can both work in each other’s countries, as long as there are certain rules, then it would be very popular with Americans.

Landgrave analyzed survey data on this point and found broad agreement along three principles of a bilateral agreement: work authorization, restricted welfare access, and reciprocity. He wrote:

Of the respondents, 66 percent favored a BLA if it were to allow immigrants to live and work, approximately 5 percentage points more than if immigrants faced work restrictions. Seventy percent favored the agreement if immigrants were to be explicitly denied access to welfare, a 13 percentage point difference compared with if welfare access were allowed. An explicit reciprocal agreement garnered the support of 70 percent of respondents. All three differences are statistically significant using conventional measures.

Landgrave discovers that there is a partisan gap in support for a bilateral worker agreement with Canada. While 76 percent of all Democrats favor such an agreement with Canada, 44 percent of all Republicans do. Landgrave is quick to point out that this gap is somewhat misleading. When all three principles of work authorization, restricted welfare access, and reciprocity are included in a proposed bilateral labor agreement, “a sizeable majority of Democrats (87 percent) and Republicans (64 percent) favored a BLA with Canada.”

Reciprocity in immigration reforms elicits a “this is fair” response among Americans. Anecdotally, one criticism I frequently hear against liberalizing U.S. immigration is that Americans can’t work in other countries and, if they tried to do so illegally, they would be treated much more harshly than the U.S. government treats illegal immigrants. Thus, Americans are treated worse than immigrants in their minds. I never thought this was a big criticism of liberalized immigration, but the results from Landgrave’s analysis of the survey data convinced me otherwise.

Reciprocity is an underused way to create a sense of fairness among Americans skeptical of liberalizing the immigration system. Essentially, it will probably convince Canadians to support such a system. I must confess, that I didn’t place much emphasis on the principle of reciprocity before. Immigration is a huge net benefit to the United States regardless of what other countries do. But reciprocity not only garners more support, it liberalizes immigration rules for other countries as well. Mutually beneficial policy changes like these should be seriously considered by policy makers who want to liberalize immigration.

Imagine the selling points for such a plan: “This will allow Americans the freedom to work in other countries. Yes, this will allow Canadians to work here and will allow you to work in Canada.” It also removes the (false) stigma that migrants from one country are exploiting another by making the movement two‐​way.

Of course, this can work with countries other than Canada. The biggest gains are with poorer nations like Mexico, but we should try this policy first with Canada to work out all of the problems. Then we can extend it to other developed nations and, eventually, to countries like Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala. We can’t just steam roll our political opposition to immigration. Although I disagree with them and think their policy positions are bad for America, we need to address their concerns in thoughtful ways. A bilateral labor agreement that allows Canadians to work in the United States, under certain rules that restrict welfare access, and allows Americans to work in Canada under the same set of rules would do much to alleviate a visceral negative reaction to liberalized immigration.