Bryan Caplan  

Immigration Charity Bleg

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Suppose you wanted to spend your charitable dollars to increase the total number of people who migrate from the Third World to the First World.  What approach would give you the biggest bang for your buck?  Are any specific countries, organizations, or loopholes especially promising?

Unconventional answers are welcome as long as they're genuinely effective.  Please show your work.

COMMENTS (31 to date)
David Barry writes:

GiveWell posted a (very preliminary) conversation with David McKenzie on this topic recently here (Word doc).

There weren't really any definitive take-aways, but apparently there are countries which don't currently reach their government's immigration limits. Migration is politically sensitive, so most large NGO's stay a long way away from the area, and this probably leaves a large gap that donors or philanthropists could fill.

But there was no recommendation of a particular charity to donate to, they just said that some particular institutes of migration would know more about organisations that directly facilitate migration from developing to developed countries.

DK writes:

By far, the most efficient investment:
Pay for a cab ride to Bryan Caplan's home with a verbal promise that he will, in accordance with his high moral standards, personally take care of the every Third World immigrant that shows up at his door.

Neal writes:

Might not maximize bang/$, but here we go:

Educational charities (incl universities themselves) who fund people from poor countries to study in rich countries - especially PhDs. They can bypass immigration to an extent as it's a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn't directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly.

For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?

oneeyedman writes:

There are probably different answers for different budgets. I suspect that teaching French to African English speaking college students so they can use the Canadian point based immigration system would do it. You could fund French clubs inexpensively and partner with local schools and or professors. For very large budgets you could influence policy through changing public opinion and elections, lobbying seems relatively cheap in America. For very small budgets how about providing steady work at a slightly above market wage to an undocumented worker on the theory that this would increase illegal immigration and such migration is often legalized years later.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

+1 to oneeyedman's language teaching idea.
Also, support organizations that facilitate social and religious interactions between natives and migrants. Churches located on borders between ethnic enclaves often fill this role. It's a lot easier to empathize if you know actual individuals in a group.

Handle writes:

I doubt there's any effective strategy that would survive the political iterative process. If a tactic was effective, it would get noticed and motivated opponents would work to shut it down. It's like a Yogi Berra quote, "Whatever works wouldn't work."

Nathan Smith writes:

If the amount of money in question is large (say, >$10,000), I'll go out on a limb and recommending contacting IMPALA ( and trying to figure out what the elasticity of their performance might be with respect to a little more cash. IMPALA is trying to generate a large dataset on migration policies in different countries. This would help freedom of migration directly by allowing immigrants to make informed choices. It could also be an aid to advocacy. For example, it could drive home the simple point that most people are excluded from birth from most countries, which I think would surprise a lot of people and make them uncomfortable-in-a-good-way.

Shayne Cook writes:

The most efficient "charity" is first-world to third-world capital investments. That moves third-world citizenry to a path of enjoying first-world benefit, opportunity and living standard, without having to physically re-locate to a different geographical location.

AND that form of "charity" has proven to have worked marvelously well to that end for China, India, Russia and Brazil - the "BRIC" countries - as well as others.

Bostonian writes:

Reasonable people can disagree about immigration laws, but it is unethical for Caplan to promote the use of "loopholes" to get around the laws we do have.

Motoko writes:

"They can bypass immigration to an extent as it's a different category of visa and easier to justify hiring someone from abroad. Although this doesn't directly achieve citizenship, it can do indirectly."

I'm in an engineering PhD program. The majority of students are foreign. The problem with hiring foreigners for high-caliber work is that they're culturally and socially illiterate. Maybe 10% of them can overcome this hurdle and get hired in the US.

But those that can't... well... they just go back to their home country. They don't earn half of what they'd earn in the U.S., but they are no longer so poor that they need our help.

"For example, in some countries (e.g. Denmark?) I believe PhD students can be treated as staff and get work permits, and if you work for 4 years, you can get residency?"

Good point. We shouldn't just try to get more people in the States. Generally, we should try to get the needy into better countries that are easy to immigrate to.

David N writes:

The most efficient way would be to find a charity that actually make things worse for people living in the third world and thus increases incentive to migrate. Shouldn't be hard to find one.

Tom West writes:

By far, the most efficient investment:
Pay for a cab ride to Bryan Caplan's home with a verbal promise that he will, in accordance with his high moral standards, personally take care of the every Third World immigrant that shows up at his door.

While I disagree with Bryan's stance, this is not a fair characterization of his policy. He's fighting for their *right* to try and make it here, not demanding that if they try and fail we are responsible for them.

(Since I feel it *is* our moral responsibility to feed anyone who lives in our country, Bryan and I obviously part ways.)

Reasonable people can disagree about immigration laws, but it is unethical for Caplan to promote the use of "loopholes" to get around the laws we do have.

If you consider a law to be completely unethical, then I think you could easily claim that it is your ethical duty to find loopholes. To go all Godwin, think Schindler's List.

A little more subtle example - for those who think imprisoning millions of Marijuana users is completely unethical, using medical Marijuana laws to shield recreational users might well be considered ethical.

Sonic Charmer writes:

Presumably you should just donate to the main left-center political parties in key districts/etc. in the first world. They will continue to implement the socialist labor-market restrictions (minimum wage etc.), as well as tribal-favor-based feudal political-economics, that are what create the pressure & constituency for, and sustainability of, the black-market, ghettoized helot labor whose ranks you wish to see increased for some reason.

Blake Watson writes:

Hire a Coyote. The cost of smuggling illegal aliens into the country may be high for the immigrants but they are fairly low for Americans. If its true that the best thing you can do for 3rd worlders is move them to the first world then this is obviously the fastest and cheapest way. I think it costs only a few thousand dollars and you boost that person's income and their children's incomes permanently (provided they are not caught). Plus it would appear that more illegals increases the political pressure on liberalizing immigration law.

Vipul Naik writes:

I think you need to be a bit more specific on what the goal is. Is the goal to simply increase the quantity of migration from people living in Third World countries, or do you wish to focus on poor people in these countries? Would a reasonably well-to-do graduate student in computer science who wants a job in the IT sector qualify for your concern? Are you okay with guest worker programs that have a return date stamped on them, or do you insist on immigration with no such return restrictions?

It turns out that there anyway aren't a lot of options.

The only short-term philanthropic opportunity I can think of that directly provides temporary migration opportunities to people who might otherwise not have had the chance is the Independent Agricultural Workers Center (CITA). They try to match farmers in the US with potential farm workers in nearby countries and facilitate H-2 visa sponsorship for temporary farm work. I think their ultimate goal is to be self-financing, but they are a non-profit. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development blogged about them here.

Other than this, I can only think of legal and political advocacy for the medium term and migration research for the long term. For the medium term, you might want to put your weight behind schemes like the Red Card proposal by the Krieble Foundation, which is one of the few proposals that comes anywhere near open borders and was endorsed by a Republican presidential candidate. However, the Red Card already has the support of Helen Krieble, a fairly rich individual, and if it cannot make progress despite that, I don't think that marginal dollars will make much of an impact. Efforts to promote things like the startup visa in the US might also be worthwhile, but I don't think these will directly help increase the number of poor people migrating to rich countries.

If you're interested more in the longer term, I think it makes sense to donate to groups that are doing research into collecting data on migration. Nathan already mentioned IMPALA. Other possibilities are the Migration Data Initative of the Center for Global Development and the Migrant Integration Policy Index. However, I'm quite unclear on (i) whether these projects can use marginal dollars effectively, (ii) what kind of long-run impact they may have on making the case for open borders.

One other possibility, which is admittedly speculative, is to fund a large-scale randomized controlled trial of immigration, possibly based on lottery-based visa allocation, to some First World country. Probably, this will not be the US. Many countries already do have some type of visa lottery, so "natural experiments" of this sort can be done by looking at the data, but a RCT offers scope to address many questions far more clearly and definitively. The issue is obviously politically sensitive, but considering that potentially life-saving medicines and potentially life-saving aid interventions are game for RCTs, I don't see any good reason why immigration cannot be the subject of a RCT.

Ken B writes:

Does Israel count as first world? because I can name several charities hostile to Israel's existence eager to promote immigration there.

Ken B writes:

@bostonian. No, there is nothing unethical in what Bryan is doing. Mostly he's being provocative to make a point anyway. Two can play at that, as my Israel comment shows. I highlight issues Bryan ignores or undervalues. I do that to make a point. As does Bryan, slyly noting that immigration has a strong charitable effect.

daubery writes:

For the US specifically, look for people willing to marry foreigners. This is the only immigration route that doesn't have a hard cap. This could even be profit-making if they agreed under the table to kick back some of their increased earnings. You may need to base your matchmaking service off-shore so as not to have the list of clients fall into the hands of the US immigration force, however.

In general though the US is hard to get into. Unless you're already living in Mexico and can come illegally and wait for amnesty, you're better off sending people to the EU. Unfortunately the EU is not one country and where to find the cheapest route from here would require a large team of lawyers and translators...

john wahba writes:

Fund journalists in third world dictatorships who are on the brink of having an asylum case developed against them.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Okay, you want to make a charitable expenditure to increase immigration from the Third World to the First World.

The way you've phrased your bleg, I get the idea you don't just want to "micro-finance" a few migrants by personally gifting them airfare from, I dunno, Dakar (Senegal) to Paris (France).

I regret that I cannot tell you exactly where to send your money (Vipul above has some suggestions), but I will beg you: since you make a big deal about morals as you see them,[1] please don't embarrass yourself by giving your money to groups that lobby First World governments to spend taxpayers' money on foreigners.

All so-called charities which are actually pressure groups eager to spend "other people's money" (OPM) by political means are unethical in concept and execution. For you to spend your money, not directly on charity, but on lobbying the government to force other people to spend their money on your charitable causes, would be unethical.

As you are surely aware, most governmental foreign aid taxes poor people in rich countries to provide luxuries to rich people in poor countries. How is that moral? Besides the personal immorality involved, "foreign aid" that helps Third World dictators become billionaires via patronage and simple skimming is counter-productive: the Iron Law of Subsidy reads "you get what you pay for." So long as First-World governments (and NGO's too) keep paying for picturesque poverty, Third World dictators will keep producing it, by force if necessary.[2] No Third World thug wants to stop the gravy train (of OPM) which enriches him personally by eliminating the starving-children photo-ops which most effectively prompt donors to open their wallets.[3]

I hope you don't want your pro-migration charitable efforts to end up perpetuating a foreign-aid-like racket.

So please don't give your money to groups which lobby the government to create "programs" to "address" their concerns. That is nothing but advocacy for aggression against taxpayers, to take their money by force and spend it on things they didn't ask for and likely don't want at all.

You may think a pressure group which merely wants to repeal restrictive immigration laws is a suitable recipient of your donations. It might be, but please vet any such group carefully: does it ask the government to provide "resettlement assistance" to immigrants? Or to give government grants to "private" groups[4] or churches that do? I suggest you cannot ethically give to any group which "goes beyond" advocacy for repeal of restrictive laws to advocacy for "assistance" to poor immigrants. Taxing citizens to give the money to foreigners is immoral even if the foreigners must migrate to collect the money.

[1] You're always claiming that people in, for example, the USA have a moral obligation to invite immigration which outweighs their various other reasons to oppose it.

[2] Remember the First World idiots who were buying slaves in Sudan a few years back (in order to manumit them), even though they were warned that they were subsidizing slave raiders to capture and enslave innocent people?

[3]It's like the US and E.U. subsidies to Hamas (using OPM). Once you pay Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane!

[4] Allegedly "private" groups (NGO's) which exist chiefly to obtain government grants (OPM) to pay their own staffs to "help" other people are all immoral scams. They are government alter-egos and exist by aggression against taxpayers.

Joe Cushing writes:


There is no way on earth, I'd give a woman, whom I don't know, the power of the state to use against me by marrying me. Although I suppose an immigrant woman would have a bit less power but divorces don't go well for men, usually. The state sides with the woman. Even if I got to know these women for a few months, you could never trust the state not to screw you over in the end somehow. The state has really inserted itself into our relationships in an unhealthy way and this is true, even for domestic to domestic relationships. It effects divorce rates, divorce outcomes, and the power structure effects otherwise healthy relationships. Whenever women complain about men fearing commitment; I like to tell them that men don't fear commitment, men fear the state. A marriage to a man is a completely different risk than it is to a woman. This is why woman can't understand how we feel.

With all of this to consider, You should focus on American women who would be willing to marry foreign men. The foreign men would be willing to take the risk. Then again, domestic men would be willing to take the risk to find more attractive women than they could find here. That's why we have these mail order bride services already.

Steve Sailer writes:

Donate to the Democratic Party.

Their strategy is to achieve permanent one party rule by importing groups that will vote Democratic.

Keith Webb writes:

To provide a slight alternative to Blake Watson's proposal, give money to someone trying to save enough to smuggle relatives or friends into the country.

Or one could make an effort to use more immigrant labor. At least some of the money paid in wages would go to getting more people here, and at the margin, boost wages for immigrant labor therefore convincing more people to try to enter the US.

mikedc writes:

Keep contributing to make the third world the sort of place no reasonable person wants to live.

Simon C writes:

Contra some of the other comments, I imagine the most efficient use of money might be to hire someone to subtly lobby for increases in work and student visa issuance. There is no concentrated lobby against this so a small amount might go a long way. Admittedly there is popular opposition, but if the change was made quietly, gradually increasing visa numbers rather than any sudden legal change perhaps it could happen without raising much notice. As to being unethical, I can't really think of a more ethical act than doing this.
Another cheap way might be the production of a large amount of fake documentation. Modern technology may prevent this being effective though and it would be considered a crime. We can remember though that people who rescued the victims of the Nazis using false documentation are now considered heroes. Why could it not be the same for rescuing someone from Libya, Zimbabwe or North Korea?

Mike Linksvayer writes:

Asylum advocacy organizations.

I have no real work to show, but my rationalization:

  • There may be more flexibility in "the system" overall, such that advocacy for individual refugees and other at-risk persons, and groups of same, might increase total immigration to wealthy jurisdictions.
  • Excluding people whose risk is acute puts movement/residence/work restrictions in the worst light possible, assuming no systemic change in discourse from "immigration" to "apartheid".
  • Further to both of the above points, there is vast ground to shame the US and other Iraq/Afghanistan invader/occupiers for excluding people put at-risk by those campaigns, starting with all collaborators.

I'm embarrassed to say I've never investigated asylum advocacy organizations, but I will give to at least one before the end of the year.

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project appears to be one with a small budget, coordinating lots of pro-bono work. is someplace to start looking for others.

PrometheeFeu writes:

What about funding an agency which promotes speed-dating between third-world and first-world citizens?

As for the ethics of this, I think there is little that is more ethical than to help people circumvent evil laws.

PrometheeFeu writes:

A long-term political winner would be to help in the immigration of asylum seekers who have the capacity to become wealthy. They would already be primed to favor immigration reform. It would be very difficult to attack them politically. (Who is going to bash the guy whose family was murdered by a brutal regime?) And if they are wealthy, they can serve as a shining example of what immigrants can bring to the United States.

Sonic Charmer writes:

You could also go the route of directing your charity toward the NY/DC area upper class. Find ways to help them and their children remain shielded and cloistered away from areas with large densities of third-world immigrants other than when they commute in as cheap, reliable, yet ignorable manual labor. They will then continue to see massive immigration as an unalloyed good and support policies along those lines.

john hare writes:

Do a bit of research on poverty to wealth stories in targeted third world countries. Where the stories are ethical, and more important, replicable, devise a plan that creates a situation in which a growing number of individuals can bootstrap up to first world living conditions, and then help others do the same. This is not necessarily investing in factories or other 'brick and mortar' but rather a change in mindset of the affected people. Think Amway and other pyramid style organizations in which early entry is enhanced by recruiting, motivating , and training other people to be successful in ones' own self interest.

Obviously this won't work in countries so corrupt that success just makes one a target. In those, other plans need to be devised.

Kiran writes:

I think it is easier to get people to accept higher skilled immigrants than people with lower skills.

Make immigration more acceptable. Anyone who wants a green card can train a US citizen to expand on his skills or gain additional skills to get a job. I'd donate to an organization that can show immigrants add value not only to their primary organization, but also to the society by supplementing skills of the people who are jobless.

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