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Better Democracy Promotion through Immigration

Margaret E. Peters, Michael K. Miller
Sunday, April 1, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Immigrants are often portrayed as a threat to democracy, particularly if they come from "shithole" countries as our president has so charmingly put it. This view, however, ignores the very power of democracy and the attractiveness of its values for those who have only known tyranny. Margaret Peters of UCLA and Michael Miller of GWU find that an excellent way to spread democracy is to take in more migrants from dictatorships.

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Editor’s Note: Immigrants are often portrayed as a threat to democracy, particularly if they come from "shithole" countries as our president has so charmingly put it. This view, however, ignores the very power of democracy and the attractiveness of its values for those who have only known tyranny. Margaret Peters of UCLA and Michael Miller of GWU find that an excellent way to spread democracy is to take in more migrants from dictatorships. In a democracy, they learn the ways and advantages of freedom—and in so doing make democracy more likely to spread back to their homes.


While the United States is increasingly restricting immigration, the rest of the world is currently debating the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. The Global Compact is the first international agreement on voluntary migration to be negotiated by governments under the auspices of the United Nations. One of the goals of the Global Compact is to strengthen the contribution of migrants to sustainable development. However, while most reports have focused on the contribution of migration to economic development, few have noted how migration can contribute to political development.

Migration, especially to consolidated democracies like the United States, Western European countries, Canada, and Australia, can significantly contribute to states’ democratic development. In a recent paper, we examine how the total number of emigrants from autocracies and where they go affect whether or not autocratic states democratize. We find that when greater numbers of citizens from an autocratic home country migrate to democracies, the likelihood that the home country will democratize within the next five years goes up sevenfold. In contrast, when migrants only have the opportunity to move to other autocracies, emigration stabilizes authoritarian regimes.

Emigration affects authoritarian regimes in a couple of ways. First, by opening the door to emigration, the authoritarian government can rid itself of people unhappy with the regime and those most likely to become so later. Dictators can kick out potential challengers and opposition members (or simply “encourage” them to leave, as Putin’s regime in Russia has done). Perhaps more importantly, those who might join protest movements or insurgencies if they have no other options often choose to leave as well. This last group includes young men who lack jobs at home and seek them abroad, a key source of recruits for opposition movements and rebel groups.

Second, emigrants send home large amounts of money in the form of remittances that can help to stabilize dictatorships. Remittances make families wealthier, which generally makes people happier with the regime, even though they’re getting money earned in another country. Families also tend to spend remittances to purchase private versions of local public goods—like sending their children to private schools—or save it in place of social insurance, like unemployment or crop insurance. This helps free up funds that the government can spend on maintaining power instead—for example, bolstering state security forces or increasing vote-buying.

These two factors suggest that dictators should always open their borders and allow emigration. But some dictatorships—such as North Korea, Eritrea, or Franco’s Spain—restrict emigration. In Eritrea, the government is so worried about people leaving that athletes traveling abroad are often warned that their family homes will be taken if they defect. Our research suggests that autocrats’ fears about emigration are well founded in some cases.

One explanation for their concern is that these dictators recognize the ways that democratic norms and oppositional tools can spread from emigrants living in well-functioning democracies back to their countries of origin. When emigrants from autocracies go to democracies, they learn about life in a free society. This includes learning about fundamental rights, like freedom of the press and association, and what free and fair elections look like. Immigrants often start their own newspapers, for instance; prior to World War I there were over 1,300 foreign-language newspapers in the United States. In countries like Ireland and Norway, non-citizen residents can vote in local elections, learning about democracy first-hand. Migrants can also learn the tools of civil society by joining unions and other organized groups and participating in peaceful protests. For example, immigrants to the United States have participated in protests for comprehensive immigration reform.

Migrants also learn about parts of daily life in a democracy that citizens in democracies often take for granted, such as not having to constantly pay bribes and not getting harassed by the police for their political views. They can learn that it is acceptable to challenge a government official, such as a school principal with whom they disagree. They may also learn about what their home country’s government is doing from the free press abroad or from contacts with other migrants.

Migrants spread the resulting norms and tools of organization when they return home, or communicate them to their friends and family through “social remittances.” Migrants and their families thus become a constituency for democratic change. Some migrants even take leadership roles in the opposition back home, as occurred in Mexico, Taiwan, and Indonesia.

Authoritarian governments understand that their migrants to democracies could spread democratic norms back home and take steps to guard against this. For example, the regimes in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria created Amicales, or migrants’ organizations, in the 1960s that were used by the governments to keep tabs on their migrants in Europe and to discourage them from naturalizing and participating in European society. China currently uses their Chinese Students and Scholars Association in much the same way.

Understanding the role that migrants play in the spread of democracy provides an opportunity for policymakers in well-functioning democracies. Through development aid and regime change in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, democratic governments have spent billions trying to democratize autocracies with relatively little success. Opening their borders to migrants from autocracies can help spread democratic norms without spending additional funds. In fact, as many economists point out, increasing immigration would improve economic growth and help with looming fiscal crises from aging populations, all while having little or no effect on the citizens’ wages. Increasing immigration to well-functioning democracies is a way to spread democracy and make money while doing it.

We are not so naïve that we think our research will influence the current U.S. administration. It might, however, help sway a leader like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into allowing more migrants from Venezuela (currently undergoing a burgeoning refugee crisis) or perhaps a future U.S. administration more concerned about democratization. It should also inform the negotiations over the Global Compact. At a time when consolidated democracies are increasingly restricting legal immigration for low-skill migrants, increasing opportunities for regular migration to Europe—as the Compact seeks to do—would increase the likelihood of democratization and help stabilize new democracies in the Middle East and Africa.

Our research also further undermines the supposed benefits of Trump’s policy to “take the shackles off” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. By increasing the harassment and fear of immigrants, including legal immigrants, the administration is decreasing the likelihood that immigrants to the United States learn and embrace the norms of American democracy. Instead, they learn to fear the U.S. state just as they may have feared their own. Worse, immigrants are less likely to participate in civil society groups in the United States given the Trump administration’s targeting of immigrant advocates for deportation. In this way, immigration policy has become another foreign policy own goal, reducing America’s soft power to spread democracy abroad.

Margaret E. Peters is an assistant professor of political science at UCLA and the author of the award-winning book, Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization.
Michael K. Miller is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, with a focus on autocracy and democratization. He runs the Authoritarian Warning Survey.

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