The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The World Bank provides much-needed rationality about global migration

Migrants just south of the U.S.-Mexico border May 13. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
5 min

As the debate over President Biden’s new effort to exert control over the U.S.-Mexico border shows, no issue is more susceptible to polarization than immigration.

Having temporized as millions tried to cross during his first two years in office, the president is now trying to limit the flow, using existing statutory authority in lieu of new legislation. He offers carrots — more entry slots — for certain migrants who avoid the irregular route through Mexico. And he threatens a stick — denial of access — to those who do not.

Immigrant rights groups, feeling betrayed by a president who had embraced much of their policy agenda, accuse him of recasting “cruel” restrictions on asylum seekers that his predecessor, Donald Trump, imposed. But 20 red states, led by Texas, say he still isn’t doing enough to stop migration and is in fact unlawfully opening the country to even more “illegal aliens.” Both sides are suing.

The courts will weigh in soon enough. Meanwhile, the technocrats already have, albeit indirectly. The World Bank has devoted the 2023 edition of its annual World Development Report to the subject of migration. The possibly quixotic aim of the volume, titled “Migrants, Refugees, and Societies,” is to encourage coolheaded thinking about this hot topic.

It begins with a reminder that migration has been a “part of the human experience since ... Homo sapiens left Africa’s Omo Valley some 200,000 years ago,” and that the number of people living outside their countries of citizenship — 184 million — is high, but in a real sense, not unprecedented. As a share of world population, 2.3 percent, it is the same as in 1960.

Nor does the 184 million number necessarily connote social and economic crisis; it encompasses such special cases as the 31 million fully documented (if sometimes exploited) guest workers who inhabit oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the 11 million European Union citizens who have exercised their right to live anywhere in that area. Even many refugees have found new homes relatively seamlessly in countries where their skills are in demand.

Stable outcomes benefit both receiving countries, where immigration-enhanced economic production offsets the costs of integrating newcomers, and sending countries, where migrants’ remittances help sustain economies.

Therefore, they hit the sweet spot in “The Match and Motive Matrix,” which is not a proposed cyberpunk movie sequel but a model the World Bank uses to clarify migration’s trade-offs. It posits that people migrate for two basic reasons. The first is economic opportunity: When economically motivated migrants find jobs and integrate where their labor is needed, the “match” between them and a recipient country is strong and, in a sense, migration pays for itself. The only challenge for policymakers is to figure out how to make more such matches.

The second reason to leave home, though, is fear of persecution. Countries have to take in refugees under international law. There’s no necessary economic “match”; the policy challenge is to minimize the costs of providing haven and share them internationally. That’s essentially the situation of 5.5 million Syrian civil war refugees spread among Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, partially supported by the United Nations, governments and private charities.

The real-world difficulty, of course, is that migrants’ motives, economic and political, cannot be sharply distinguished. The people flocking to the U.S. border often represent what the report calls “distressed migrants” — fleeing failed or semi-failed states, such as Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti, where almost everyone is poor and politically repressed. Most such migrants lack either particularly in-demand job skills or the individualized fear of persecution that would entitle them to refugee status or asylum.

Hence, the World Bank says, distress migration creates “the most difficult policy challenges”: the rise of organized criminal smugglers, deadly risks that migrants face en route and, for the destination countries, “a sense of loss of control over borders,” which can “undermine the fragile consensus on the treatment of regular migrants and refugees.”

The right response, the report notes, is to obviate large-scale distress migration through political and economic reform in countries of origin, to absorb some of the migrants in destination countries, and to return the rest humanely. Removals of unauthorized migrants help “ensure the sustainability of the migration system because they demonstrate to citizens and would-be migrants alike that rules will be enforced,” as the report puts it.

To be sure, skepticism is in order about getting at the roots of migration through aid, which the United States has tried for years. A wider guest worker program, however, could enable the U.S. economy to absorb migrants lawfully without the binary choice current law creates between permanent legal status and deportation.

The World Bank report takes no position on Biden’s policy, but the clear implication of its analysis is that, however belatedly, he is at least going in the right direction: toward a realistic approach, one that maximizes the benefits of U.S.-bound migration and minimizes its costs.