Millions of people around the world have seen the heart-breaking photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying, as if asleep, on a beach in Turkey, the waves gently lapping against his cheek. His death brings the question of international migration straight to our hearts. What can we do to protect people like Aylan and his family?
As Catholics, we have a special duty to protect the least of these. As American Catholics, even more so. To those who have been given much, much will be expected. But what can we do? I want to suggest policy options that could help people like Aylan and then discuss what the results of these policies are likely to be.
The first is to reform the United States refugee and asylum system. The asylum system suffers from a huge backlog of applications. Both Republicans and Democrats need to work together to dramatically increase the resources for processing these applications. Recently, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services hired an additional 175 asylum officers, but with current average wait times of almost two years and hundreds of thousands of cases waiting to be heard, this is not likely to be enough.
Furthermore, the system suffers from quotas that are too small and adjust too slowly to deal with sudden crises as serious as the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. Raising the quota from 70,000 per year to 100,000 per year, as Secretary Kerry recently announced will soon occur, will still leave too many Aylans in danger. I believe we need a bigger, albeit temporary, increase.
Finally, we need to do a better job of making the Church the first face that asylum seekers see when they come to our shores. Too much of the hard work that Catholics do to protect and befriend migrants remains behind the scenes. Pope Francis recommended that each parish in Europe take in one migrant family. These face to face encounters are what bear fruit for the Gospel, ensuring that we are not providing merely physical bread, but the spiritual bread that leads to eternal life.
Here is what I think the likely outcomes of these policies would be. First, I think that there are likely to be some winners. The most important group of winners will be the refugees themselves; they will experience a chance for religious and political freedom, a chance for education and security, and a chance to pass on these gifts to their children. The second group of winners will be employers who tend to hire employees with the kind of skills the refugees have; they will have access to a larger supply of workers with these skills. The third group of winners will be consumers who tend to purchase the types of goods and services which the refugees will eventually end up producing in our economy. These consumers will experience a larger supply of the goods and services they desire. Finally, the fourth winner will be Jesus Christ: if, in addition to accepting more refugees, we actually suffer and live face to face with them after they arrive, then I believe we will spread the Gospel and win more souls for Heaven.
But I also think there will be, at least in the short term, and at least in economic terms, losers. In my view, the most carefully done empirical work on the economics of immigration consistently shows that there are some people who lose during immigration episodes. People with extremely similar skills to the new immigrants often have trouble retaining their employment and real wages. As Catholics, we have to be careful to balance our passion for the moral issues we care about with our passion for the truth.
While it is theoretically possible that no one will ever lose from massive changes in the population of people with a specific set of skills, possible does not mean likely. The most careful empirical research on this subject (research that transparently uses the latest and most believable causal identification techniques, and that is not funded by lobbying groups on either side of the debate) shows that people with very close skills to new migrants have experienced negative economic consequences to their employment and wages for at least several years following migration, and sometimes for much longer.
While what has happened in the past is not guaranteed to happen again in the future, I believe it is likely to. In light of this likelihood, we have a duty to propose immigration reform in a way that takes into account these likely economic losers. I believe we should do this in two ways.
First, we should change the tone with which we propose immigration increases. Any words demeaning to low skilled workers, to high school dropouts, or to people from geographic areas experiencing heavy migration should be dropped from our rhetoric.
Many low-skilled workers are rightly worried about labor market competition from low skilled refugees. Their fears are not quelled by economists’ claims that the average impact of immigration on wages overall will probably be small; they know that things that do not affect the average much can often help the privileged while hurting the disadvantaged. They are definitely not quelled when educated Americans who are unlikely to experience any labor market competition from low skilled migrants respond to their fears by lecturing them about not being xenophobic.
This has the opposite of the intended effect on the debate: it insults the people who are likely to have to face all the labor market competition with refugees while experiencing only a small fraction of the total employer and consumption gains described above. And insulting these people prolongs the debate, debases our discourse, and leaves more people like Aylan to suffer and die needlessly.
In light of this, the second thing we need to do is face up to the following reality: even if the gains to the gainers outweigh the losses to the losers from immigration, it is our duty to assure the losers that they will be recompensed from these gains. We should seek what economists call a Pareto improvement: some people are helped without making anyone else worse off. We can reach towards this Pareto improvement by establishing programs to train and match with jobs workers likely to be strongly affected by a sudden influx of refugees. This will take some tax dollars from the rich, but it is the rich who are likely to benefit the most from increased immigration of low skilled workers, and it is the rich who have lobbied most vociferously to take more low skilled workers into the country, and so it is only fair that it should be the rich who should ease the burden on their low skilled fellow citizens.
Most of all, we can invite all Americans to view accepting many refugees as a noble sacrifice. Instead of pretending that it is impossible that anyone could suffer from accepting a large influx of refugees, we should embrace the truth that there will be some suffering. There is a glory and a joy in suffering when we suffer for love of others and love of God. Young people know this in their hearts, which is why they so often rebel against our superficial and materialistic society. Suffering with and for these refugees will help ensure that children like Aylan Kurdi can live as God intended them to: surrounded by His love.
Kirk Doran is an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame and serves as a faculty advisor for the Irish Rover.