Pope Francis on Immigration

Pope Francis asked all Catholics to pray for those “who seek a home where they can live without fear” but went further by actually praising those who help refugees.  In arguing for the admission of more Syrian refugees, he said the goal should be “to give them a concrete hope, and not just to tell them: ‘Have courage, be patient!’”  No doubt the Pope would go further than many of us in arguing for welfare for refugees even though merely getting the governments of the way to stop hurting refugees is enough, but his full-throated support for granting them refuge is commendable.

But Pope Francis didn’t just talk about refugees fleeing violence, he also discussed those fleeing poverty:

We see these refugees, these poor people who are escaping from war, escaping from hunger, but that’s the tip of the iceberg.  But underlying that is the cause, and the cause is a socio-economic system that is bad, unjust, because within an economic system, within everything, within the world, speaking of the ecological problem, within the socio-economic society, in politics, the person always has to be the center.  And today’s dominant economic system has removed the person from the center, and at the center is the god of money.  [Emphasis added]

The Pope is correct that free-markets are to blame for immigration, but not in the way he thinks.  The prosperity of free-market countries attracts large numbers of immigrants from less-free ones.  Economists Maryam Naghsh Nejad and Andrew T. Young recently found that improving economic freedom is a huge attraction for immigrants.  Fortunately that movement does not decrease economic freedom in receiving nations and may actually increase it according to this paper, but the lesson is that people who vote with their feet prefer relatively freer economic systems.

The Pope is deeply and rightly concerned with poverty but he should consider that immigration is an excellent way to fight it.  Migration is one of the most successful strategies the World Bank has developed to fight poverty – raising the wages of Tongan migrants in this example almost 10-fold in a short period of time.  No other development project has shown such dramatic improvements and the improvements are scalable.  Crucially, as economist Michael Clemens pointed out, that increase in Tongan wealth also made New Zealand a wealthier nation through the benefits of mutually voluntary exchange.

Pope Francis is generally supportive of liberalizing immigration policy and reducing poverty around the world, but he should realize that free-markets and the migration of poor people to them is the cheapest and fastest way to alleviate much human suffering.