Looking into history to understand international migration

03 January 2022

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How can economic history contribute to our understanding of international migration?

In a recent paper, Martín Fernández-Sánchez, a Research Associate at Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research and a fellow of the Institute Convergences Migrations, provides a few examples of how economic history contributes to migration research.

History offers a wealth of data

History offers a wealth of data, sometimes of a quality and richness that is difficult to find in contemporary sources.

For example, historical population censuses in many countries allow tracking migrants over space and time, using their surnames and other characteristics to track them.

This type of data allows for the analysis of issues of great relevance today, including migrants’ family trajectories, second generation integration, and selection patterns in emigration and return.

Migration quotas can affect innovation

History provides a variety of ‘historical accidents’ that can be explored to make causal connections.

Some historical episodes look like a laboratory experiment as certain individuals are exposed to or randomly affected by the aspect a researcher is seeking to understand. For example, the displacement and resettlement of populations as a result of natural disasters, conflict or government policies can help us explore questions such as the role of diversity in sustainable development.

Similarly, analysis of past policy changes can provide important information that helps us design better policies.

As an illustration, American researchers Petra Moser and Shmuel San assessed how the introduction of migration quotas can affect innovation. Using detailed biographical information of one hundred thousand American scientists, they found that restrictions implemented in the 1920s reduced inventions by more than 50% in the following decades. It is important to note that this decline is not only due to the loss of new scientists from abroad, but also to the decline in inventions among natives.

Communities that historically received more immigrants have on average higher income and schooling levels

Taking a historical approach is crucial, as the effects of migration can change in complex ways over time. Indeed, to fully understand the economic effects of migration in host countries, having a short-term look is not enough, as a few decades later, second-generation migrants may also contribute to the economy by improving it.

In a related work, Sequeira, Nunn and Qian showed that the massive influx of Europeans to the United States between 1850 and 1920 brought long-term economic benefits.

Today, communities that have historically received more immigrants have, on average, higher incomes and educational attainment.

It is interesting to note that in the 1920s, American politicians and much of society shared the same fears and concerns about immigration as today.

The rhetoric that migrants would steal jobs from natives and threaten their culture was pervasive, and eventually led to changes in local policies and severe restrictions on immigration. Only by analysing the long-term effects can it be argued that these claims were wrong and that, on the contrary, immigration has actually boosted the country’s economic prosperity.
On the contrary, immigration has in fact boosted America’s economic prosperity.

Limiting the brain drain or even turn it into a virtuous cycle

To Martín Fernández-Sánchez, there are several lessons to draw from this study that are particularly relevant for developing countries today.

First, despite having a negative short-run effect, emigration may lead to gains in human capital that persist in the long run, highlighting the importance of considering long-term horizons.

Second, these gains in human capital may materialise partly thanks to migrants investing in their home communities and by the diffusion of new beliefs.

Policymakers should try to preserve the links between migrants and their home communities, facilitate the creation of migrant local associations that could invest in public goods, and foster the diffusion of information and values conducive to investments in education. Introducing innovative public policies on these spheres could have a large impact on human capital accumulation and economic development for generations to come.

Martín Fernández-Sánchez, LISER

In sum, history allows scholars to re-evaluate existing questions with new data and methods, as well as to explore original questions that were previously unanswerable. Ultimately, would our understanding of migration change if we looked at the long term?

Read the full paper Mass Emigration and Human Capital over a Century: Evidence from the Galician Diaspora

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