Perhaps the best news since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic is that two highly effective vaccines will be available: one developed by Pfizer in collaboration with German company BioNTech, and one by Moderna. Immigrants or children of immigrants played a key role in both areas. Your role in this crucial technological breakthrough is an example of the tremendous benefits of international freedom of movement.
Noubar Afeyan, co-founder of Moderna, immigrated to Canada with his parents from Lebanon as a teenager. Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the couple who founded BioNTech, are children of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany as guest workers – a group that has been mocked by German anti-immigrant nationalists. It is perhaps worth noting that Moncef Slaoui, the scientist who leads the US federal government’s 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 of them; She or her parents were also all from Muslim-majority countries (although Afeyan came from a family of Armenian Christians). Muslim immigration, of course, is a particular target of the wrath of both American and European immigration refiners.
It is unlikely that Afeyan, Sahin, Tureci and Slaoui could have made such valuable contributions to the development of Covid vaccines if they or (in Sahin and Tureci’s cases) their parents had stayed in their countries of origin. Lebanon, Turkey and Morocco simply do not have the same educational and research opportunities for scientists as in the US and Europe.
American and European scientists born in the United States would likely have developed effective Covid vaccines without the help of immigrant researchers. In the meantime, however, many thousands more lives would have been lost, and there would have been countless economic and social damage. Over 1,000 Covid people die every day in the United States alone.
Obviously, only a tiny minority of immigrants ever make the enormous contributions to society that the developers of Covid vaccines make. But even a relatively small number of such cases show the advantages of free migration. If even 1 in 1 million immigrants produce extraordinary innovations that would otherwise not have been possible, it will be a tremendous blessing for the whole world.
Ordinary immigrants also continue to make an important contribution to economic and scientific development. In the United States and many other countries, immigrants and their children are disproportionately represented among doctors and scientists. Without them, the pandemic would have been significantly worse. Immigrants are also disproportionately likely to start new businesses and develop other types of innovations.
Perhaps we should take in migrants who are likely to become doctors, scientists, or innovators but keep most of the others away. However, this assumes that the government can do a good job of allocating workers and predicting what types of workers will make useful contributions and where. It is unlikely that this assumption is true. If it were healthy, the Soviet Union would have been a great economic success. Conservatives who (rightly) ridicule socialist central economic planning in other contexts should be equally suspicious of state planning for international labor flows.
In addition, immigrants who are not scientists, doctors, or outstanding entrepreneurs make important contributions to economic development. Immigrants from poor countries routinely increase their productivity many times over as they move to more affluent and freer societies. This is a great boon to the economies of the nations and indeed to the whole world. Economists estimate that removing legal barriers to migration around the world would roughly double global GDP and create enormous new wealth. And wealthier societies generally have more innovation, better health care, and more opportunities to combat pandemics and other threats.
If exceptional accomplishments by immigrants like the development of Covid-19 vaccines are a point for expanded immigration rights, then what about immigrants doing exceptional harm? In any large group of people there are likely to be some terrorists, serial killers, and the like.
Fortunately, the extreme “end” of positive immigration contributions slightly outweighs the negative end on the other side. The early development of the Covid-19 vaccine alone is likely to save far more lives than ever before from immigrant terrorists or serial killers in the US and Europe. When it comes to common crime, immigrants in many western countries (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 last book Free to Move.
A more difficult risk to assess is the possibility of an immigrant becoming a dangerous political leader who undermines the institutions of the nation. Adolf Hitler, for example, emigrated to Germany from Austria. Perhaps the world would be a better place if the Germans had kept the future leader of the Third Reich away. And if strict general migration restrictions from Austria were the only way to keep potential dictators out, maybe Germany should have adopted them.
The better way to forestall potential demagogic dictators is to create strong institutional barriers to their rise. Such barriers are essential even in countries with few or no immigrants. Indeed, many authoritarian movements are actually nationalist parties that represent the supposed interests of the dominant indigenous ethnic group (which of course also applies to the Hitler-led NSDAP).
In Free to Move, I also look at claims that immigrants with illiberal political views could 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, exaggerated; Where they pose a real threat, they can be addressed through “keyhole” solutions that are less draconian than the forcible exclusion of migrants.
Exceptional contributions from immigrants to breakthroughs like the development of Covid-19 vaccines alone do not prove that we should have a presumption in favor of “open borders”. However, they speak in favor of removing obstacles to international migration. The more we restrict migration, the greater the risk that the person whose research could have saved your life will instead suffer in poverty and darkness where they have no chance to reach their potential.