Bryan Caplan  

The Swamping that Wasn't: The Diaspora Dynamics of the Puerto Rican Open Borders Experiment

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The best part of Collier's Exodus is his analysis of "diaspora dynamics."  In plain English, Irish like to immigrate to countries that already have a lot of Irish, Jews like to immigrate to countries that already have a lot of Jews, and Mexicans like to immigrate to countries that already have a lot of Mexicans.  Collier:
The third big thing we know [about immigration] is that the costs of migration are greatly eased by the presence in the host country of a diaspora from the country of origin.  The costs of migration fall as the size of the network of immigrants who are already settled increases.  So the rate of migration is determined by the width of the [income] gap, the level of income in countries of origin, and the size of the diaspora.  The relationship is not additive but multiplicative: a wide gap but a small diaspora, and a small gap with with a large diaspora, will both only generate a trickle of migration.  Big flows depend upon a wide gap interacting with a large diaspora and an adequate level of income in countries of origin.
I recently stumbled on an excellent example.  Puerto Rico came under U.S. rule in 1898.  Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Puerto Ricans' right to freely enter the United States (Gonzales v. Williams [1904])  Consider it open borders by judicial fiat.

Did Puerto Ricans "swamp" in?  Hardly.  Instead, the Supreme Court's decision sparked a century-long chain reaction.  Here's the data, courtesy of historian Carmen Whalen. 

Notice: When there were only a few thousand Puerto Ricans in the entire country, open borders led to only modest migration.  But decade-by-decade (with an understandable hiatus during the Great Depression), Puerto Rican migration snowballed.  In the end, you get what you'd expect from open borders: More Puerto Ricans live in America than Puerto Rico.  Yet this great transformation took decades.

Not convinced?  You see similar diaspora dynamics if you break Puerto Rican immigration down by state:

Look.  In 1950, there were only 4,040 Puerto Ricans in Florida - versus a quarter million in New York.  Florida was far more like Puerto Rico in every way - except for the lack of Puerto Ricans.  The result: The vast majority of Puerto Rican immigrants in 1950 chose to freeze in New York with their own kind than bask with the Anglos in the Florida sun.  Florida eventually became Puerto Ricans' second-favorite state of residence - but only after the Puerto Rican population hit critical mass.

Since the historic 1904 Supreme Court decision, transportation costs have drastically fallen and wage gaps between the First and Third Worlds have grown.  I'd expect open borders to work their magic more swiftly today than they did a century ago.  But the basic point remains sound.  Open borders wouldn't lead to instant "swamping."  Instead, we'd see the Puerto Rican experience writ large.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Steve Johnson writes:

"Open borders wouldn't lead to instant "swamping." Instead, we'd see the Puerto Rican experience writ large."

Oh good.

MikeP writes:

I like to be in America
Okay by me in America
Everything free in America
For a small fee in America

I think I'll go back to San Juan
I know what boat you can get on
Everyone there will give big cheers
Everyone there will have moved here

Shane L writes:

There was a huge wave of migration from Poland to UK and Ireland after Poland joined the EU in 2004. Hundreds of thousands of people migrated. To my knowledge there was very little Polish diaspora in Ireland prior to this.

My guess is that good English-language skills, low-cost airlines, access to the market, low unemployment in Ireland and UK and relatively similar cultures made the migration easy for large numbers.

(Poland is just one example, other east European countries have experienced major migration to western Europe since joining the EU. In 1981 no Orthodox Christians were recorded in the Irish Census. In 1991 there were 358; by 2011 there were 45,223, which is a pretty steep increase for a small country.),7,Education,Ethnicity,and,Irish,Traveller,entire,doc.pdf

To summarise, I guess the Puerto Rican experience may not be universal.

Mico writes:

Do you see the same thing when repeating the analysis using immigration from Eastern European EU accession countries to the UK?

RPLong writes:

Not to be "that guy," but this analysis at least partially assumes that being swamped by an influx of Puerto Ricans is bad. I don't know what life was like in NYC before the Puerto Rican diaspora took deep roots, but is anyone willing to make the case that they were a detriment to the city, and more broadly, the country?

On the other hand, perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.

Anecdotally, I know more than a few people who chose to immigrate to nations that lacked a significant diaspora. In one hilarious example, an immigrant told me about how he used his rudimentary English to explain to an immigration officer that the whole reason he was emigrating was to get away from people like him.

Nathan Smith writes:

But would "the Puerto Rican experience writ large" NOT be swamping? Not immediately, no, but once the diaspora dynamics had reached their peak? Think about the hundreds of thousands in the 1950s divided by Puerto Rico's population, then multiply that by the world population.

I'm all in favor of swamping. And it is comforting if the acceleration is delayed a bit so markets have time to prepare. But open borders is definitely a radical proposal, probably more so, not less so, than most people realize.

Tom DeMeo writes:

Puerto Rico has under 4 million people. It receives more than $6 billion in aid annually from the US. It is poor relative to the continental US, but is classified as a high income economy by the World Bank. There has been no war, and no natural disasters that have resulted in widespread death.

The number of people living on less than $2 per day runs in the billions. Wars do occur, and so do major natural disasters.

Jeff writes:

I would just like to point out, as I am sure all the readers are already aware, open borders cannot easily coexist with are current welfare state.

I seriously doubt that public schools could handle the influx of school age children (assuming we continue to offer children free education and meals).

Further, to reiterate what others have commented on, it seems likely the 30-40 years it took for vast emigration from Puerto Rico, was largely delayed by the great depression (so knock at least a decade off that estimate). And modern transportation and information is so much cheaper, that I suspect it would take less than a decade to reach what took 40 years if you could repeat the experiment in 2014 instead of 1904.

The US already deports more than >300,000 people a year. Granted if there were open borders there would be a limit to how many people could physically come to the US in a day, but given that ~40% of Mexicans claim they would rather live in the USA, I think a rough estimate puts 250M Latin Americans as desiring to immigrate to the USA. Besides the ensuing housing shortage, I don't see what would prevent >100M worldwide from coming in the first decade.

Also, there is already a large diaspora of Latin Americans in the USA, so maybe there will not be a flood of Mongolians, but I think the idea that immigration would be comparable to the experience with Puerto Rico is false.

Moreover, ~5M people are on a waitlist for a green card, at least this many people would come in the first months of open borders (granted that is less than 2% of the USA's population).

Tom DeMeo writes:

Nathan - you say you are in favor of swamping. How concerned are you about violence, political destabilization and war resulting from swamping, and it's reciprocal, abandonment?

It seems the entire argument, for or against, rests on whether social cohesion can take the stress. If stronger societies can absorb these populations and can remain strong, and if weaker societies can empty out without creating a political collapse for those to weak to leave, then obviously the pain will be worth it. If it can't, history tells us that people will start killing each other.

Swamping sounds like a bad idea to me.

Jagdish Kadvekar writes:

"But the basic point remains sound." How?

The central argument for supporting the idea "swamping" will occur is the ease of transportation today. Mr. Caplan does not counter this argument.

If a century ago migrants came at a "harmonious" rate, it was also because a voyage to a far-off land was dangerous. Today, reaching New York from Kenya is a banal experience.

Ofcourse, the term "swamping" is itself assailable. Some people may feel swamped by just a few individuals of, say an intolerant culture, coming to live around them.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan admits:

"I recently stumbled on an excellent example."

The disastrous history of the Puerto Rican influx into New York City is not something somebody who opines so self-confidently and so dogmatically upon immigration policy should only have "recently stumbled on."

New Yorkers considered the Puerto Rican influx a major contributor to the decline in New York City in the third quarter of the 20th Century. That's why the U.S. government provides giant tax subsidies to corporations to artificially boost the economy of Puerto Rico so some Puerto Ricans will stay home.

Andrew Whicker writes:

I grimace at comments that point to a worse society because of open borders. It's protectionism and it's wrong.

You were born here, by luck, you have no say in who can come here. None.

An argument like that supports bad governments. It helps keep poor people poor, unhappy people unhappy, and the entire world less free than it could otherwise be.

Countries are a human invention. They are political and they change according political motives. They are not private property and it certainly isn't your private property.

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