Can immigration lead to greater democratisation in the world? It depends where the migrants go says, Margaret Peters. Maria Armoudian spoke with Peters, author of Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization, about her new research into the impact of emigration on democratisation.

Margaret Peters is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at UCLA. She is an expert in international political economy and is the author of Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: You and your colleagues have been looking at migration and how it affects democratisation. And it is kind of fascinating to think that where somebody goes has an effect on the home country. Can you walk us through those findings?

Margaret Peters: So what we find in the paper is that when migrants from authoritarian countries, so countries run by dictators, countries run by the military, countries run by political parties where they don’t have free and fair elections, when they go to democracies we find that then they spread the norms of democracy back home and this leads to greater democratisation at home. And so what we think is going on – and there is a fair amount of literature in sociology and political science based on case by case examples – is that when migrants come to a country like the US or go to countries in the EU from authoritarian countries they learn about everyday politics and life in the democracies. So they might be learning things like ‘ A cop doesn’t stop and ask me for a bribe, that’s different’, or if they send their kids to school they might say ‘Oh, it is okay in the US to challenge the principle or teacher on something that is going on, that is not what happens in my country’. Or they might look at things like the free press and learn about the home country, or just learn about how politics happens in a democracy. There are always different opportunities for learning about political life that is very different from their life at home, which they can then tell their friends and family about, or they might return home with that knowledge.

MA: Could you give some examples as to where you have seen greater democratisation?

MP: One of the best examples of this is probably in Mexico. So there is a fair amount of research that shows the migrants who came to the US under the Farmworkers Program learned a lot about democracy in the US. And during that time period Mexico was an autocracy, it was run by the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional] and they learned a lot about democracy and how what the PRI was doing even though it held elections was not really democracy. And so they helped become a constituency for democratic parties and these migrants became greater supporters for democratic change.

MA: Have you seen that go in other directions as well?

MP: We can see some of that happening in places [after] the Arab Spring. So one of the interesting sot of correlations that are out there, and we are still working on nailing down that this is in fact happened directly, is that you had the Great Recession happen in 2008 and this meant that a lot of people who used to go from North Africa or the Middle East to Europe could no longer go to Europe because there were no longer jobs in Europe to go to, there were stronger border enforcements, there were fewer visas to get. And so people who had been going back and forth or who had been planning to go to Europe suddenly they were stuck at home. And so a lot of these younger people who may have been going to Europe for work were now stuck at home were part of the protests. And while that did not lead in all cases to full democratisation you saw a lot of support in the region from people who were former migrants to Europe or who had family members in Europe and had learned what was going on in Europe and how political life was different there.

MA: What was the role of the [United Nations’ program] Global Compact?

MP: I would like to see a larger role for these sorts of discussions of politics in things like the Global Compact. The World Bank talks a lot about the importance of migration on development but rarely ever talks about its role in political development and the role that migrants can play in spreading these norms of democracy. And this is frustrating because they are always focussing on economic development and they talk about how politics is very important for economic development and we have to get the right institutions. So ignoring this channel is frustrating as a scholar.

MA: Well this is the first time we have really even heard the words Global Compact around these issues. This is an awareness that is growing to some degree that we are going to have to have these conversations. The question is related to both these discussions that happen on a global level, whether or not they come to full implementation and an effect at all on issues of democratisation.

MP: I think it is great that people are hearing more about it and I think we could maybe get more buy-in and support. The US is totally out of the Global Compact at this point, they are not going to participate. But you look at places where you have openness to the ideas of Global Compact, so you think about Canada, maybe Australia, maybe New Zealand and Scandinavian countries, so smaller powers. I think that getting this idea that migrants can help spread democracy and that this will be good for the world in general, because we think that having greater democracy and greater freedom is good for peace, democracies don’t go to war with each other, all of those sorts of good things – I think that could become part of a discussion about the Global Compact and maybe help think about maybe they should have more regularised labour programs where workers can come from authoritarian countries and work and earn money and help their families back home but also come and learn about democracy while abroad.

But right now so many labour migrants are going to places like the Persian Gulf, Russia, Singapore, countries that are not democratic and while they are earning a lot of money and this is helping their family back home and this is good for the migrants and their families it is not necessarily good for their country. Because another finding that we have in the paper is that when migrants go to other autocracies, so when they go to the Persian Gulf, Singapore they are sending back money home and the money they are sending back home is sort of being misattributed to the leaders. So when people’s personal economy is doing well they tend to support the leader regardless of who the leader is. And so by having people go to places like the Persian Gulf means that migration is actually bolstering authoritarianism, whereas when they can come to western consolidated democracies that can actually lead to greater democratisation.

MA: And you have also said that it leads to democratization in a sort of cheap way?

MP: Not only a cheap way, but if you think about the GDP and making money, we actually in the developed world make money or increase our GDP when we bring in more immigrants. So just by having more workers around we can produce more stuff, there is not much evidence that especially low-skilled workers from developing countries are really labour market threats to natives and in fact there is a lot of evidence that they compliment natives in the developed world. So you can sort of do democracy promotion on the cheap, or even as I jokingly say make money off of it without concerns of real economic harm to your native population.

MA: Also you have found the relationship between trade and immigration. How do you see this?

MP: That is in my first book, and I found that there is this real robust negative relationship between open borders, between trade and migration. And so what has happened is we have opened our country and most of the developed world to more and more trading goods. So things like products we get from China or from elsewhere in the developing world that leads to the closure of low-skilled intensive businesses or businesses that use a lot of low-skilled labour here in the US and in Europe, and when those businesses close they no longer support open immigration. They were once a major employer of immigrant workers and once they close they no longer support immigration, politically speaking. So to give you an example, textiles here in the US used to be a major employer of immigrant labour, and the textile industry has now shrunk in size and has become smaller capital intensive in the US and just doesn’t even lobby for immigration any longer, whereas they used to be a major industry player in lobbying for immigration. So you see the sort of differences between trade having this effect: as with more open trade there is less industry support for immigration which makes it all the much harder then to have these good benefits from migration on democratisation.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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