The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Perhaps the best news since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic is that two highly effective vaccines are about to become available: one developed by Pfizer in partnership with the German firm BioNTech and one by Moderna. Immigrants or children of immigrants played key roles in both. Their role in this vital technological breakthrough is an example of the enormous benefits of international freedom of movement.
Noubar Afeyan, co-founder of Moderna, emigrated with his parents from Lebanon to Canada, as a teenager. Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the husband and wife team that founded BioNTech, are children of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany as guest-workers—a group much derided by German anti-immigrant nationalists. It is perhaps worth adding that Moncef Slaoui, the scientist who heads the US federal government Operation Warp Speed vaccine development initiative, emigrated from Morocco to Belgium at the age of 17, and eventually came to the US.
Not only are all four of these people immigrants or children thereof; they or their parents also all came from Muslim-majority nations (though Afeyan comes from a family of Armenian Christians). Muslim immigration is, of course, a special target of the ire of both American and European immigration restrictionists.
It is unlikely that Afeyan, Sahin, Tureci, and Slaoui could have made such valuable contributions to Covid vaccine development if they or (in the cases of Sahin and Tureci) their parents, had remained in their countries of origin. Lebanon, Turkey, and Morocco, simply don't have the the same educational and research opportunities for scientists are as are available in the US and Europe.
Native-born American and European scientists would likely have eventually developed effective Covid vaccines even without the help of immigrant researchers. But, in the meantime, many thousands of additional lives would have been lost, and untold economic and social damage would have been inflicted. In the United States alone, we have over 1000 Covid deaths every day.
Obviously, only a tiny minority of immigrants ever make the kinds of enormous contributions to society that the Covid vaccine developers have. But even a relatively small number of such cases demonstrate the benefits of free migration. If even 1 in 1 million immigrants end up making extraordinary innovations that would not have been possible otherwise, that's a tremendous boon to the entire world.
Ordinary immigrants also still make major contributions to economic and scientific development. In the US and many other countries, immigrants and their children are disproportionately represented among doctors and scientists. Without them, the pandemic would have been considerably worse. Immigrants are also disproportionately likely to found new businesses, and develop other types of innovations.
Perhaps we should let in migrants who seem likely to become doctors, scientists, or innovators, but keep out most others. This, however, assumes that government can do a good job allocating labor, and predicting which types of workers will make useful contributions and where. That assumption is unlikely to be true; if it were sound, the Soviet Union would have been a great economic success. Conservatives who (rightly) deride socialist economic central planning in other contexts should be equally suspicious of government planning of international labor flows.
Moreover, immigrants who are not scientists, doctors, or outstanding entrepreneurs nonetheless make important contributions to economic development. Immigrants from poor nations routinely increase their productivity several-fold upon moving to wealthier and freer societies. That's a huge boon to receiving nations' economies, and indeed to the world as a whole. Economists estimate that eliminating legal barriers to migration throughout the world would roughly double world GDP, creating enormous new wealth. And wealthier societies generally have more innovation, better health care, and more capability to combat pandemics and other threats.
If extraordinary immigrant achievements like the development of Covid-19 vaccines are a point in favor of expanded migration rights, what of immigrants who cause extraordinary harm? In any large group of people, there are likely to be a few terrorists, serial killers, and the like.
Fortunately, the extreme "tail end" of positive immigrant contributions easily outweighs the negative tail end on the other side. The early development of the Covid-19 vaccine by itself is likely to save far more lives than have ever been taken by immigrant terrorists or serial killers in the US and Europe. When it comes to more ordinary crime, immigrants in many Western nations (including the US and Canada), actually have much lower crime rates than native-born citizens. I summarize the relevant data in Chapter 6 of my recent book Free to Move.
A more difficult to assess tail-end risk is the possibility that an immigrant might become a dangerous political leader who subverts the nation's institutions. Adolf Hitler, for example, emigrated to Germany from Austria. Perhaps the world would be a better place if the Germans had kept out the future Fuhrer of the Third Reich. And if tight general restrictions on migration from Austria were the only way to keep out potential dictators, then perhaps Germany should have adopted them.
But the better way to forestall would-be demagogic dictators is to establish strong institutional barriers to their rise. Such barriers are essential even in nations that have few or no immigrants. Indeed, many authoritarian movements are in fact nationalist parties that advocate the supposed interests of the dominant native-born ethnic group (which was also, of course, true of the Nazi Party led by Hitler).
In Free to Move, I also consider claims that immigrants with illiberal political views might pose a threat to free societies, in their role as voters, even if none of them actually become dangerous political leaders. Such problems are—in most cases—overblown; where they are a genuine threat they can be addressed by "keyhole" solutions less draconian than forcibly excluding migrants.
Extraordinary immigrant contributions to breakthroughs like the development of Covid-19 vaccines do not by themselves prove that we should have a presumption in favor of "open borders." But they do strengthen the case for breaking down barriers to international migration. The more we restrict migration, the greater the danger that the person whose research might have saved your life will instead be languishing in poverty and obscurity somewhere where they have no chance to fulfill their potential.