What Fiji Can Teach America About Immigration

Many people will invest in their own skills if they know that doing so will give them a shot at a better life overseas.

An afternoon storm looms above fishermen in Suva, Fiji
Will Burgess / Reuters

The Republic of Fiji is perhaps best known as an earthly paradise, dotted with luxury beach resorts catering to the global elite. Yet Fijian history has a dark side to it. Since the colonial era, Fijian society has been divided between the country’s indigenous population, which is itself fragmented by status hierarchies, and Fijians of Indian origin, most of whom are the descendants of impoverished and illiterate indentured laborers brought to the islands more than a century ago. Intermarriage between these two groups remains exceptionally rare, and ethnic conflict between them, often over the control of land, has periodically erupted into rioting and constitutional crises.

Starting in 1987, Fiji saw a number of military coups d’état, in which indigenous Fijian military officers sought to curb the rising political power of the Indo-Fijian community, which was roughly equal in number to the indigenous Fijian population at the time. To entrench the superior status of the indigenous population, the post-coup government adopted a constitution that limited Indo-Fijians to a minority of seats in Parliament and barred them from ever serving as head of government or head of state. In the social realm, the post-coup government implemented racial preferences in the allocation of housing, education spending, and aid to businesses that further disadvantaged Indo-Fijians, notwithstanding the fact that they were on average no richer than their indigenous fellow citizens.

One unanticipated consequence of this campaign of legal discrimination, however, is that it spurred Indo-Fijians to invest in their human capital, as Satish Chand and Michael Clemens observe in a fascinating working paper. Unlike land or other material possessions, skills and knowledge can’t be seized by even the most predatory government, and they are almost perfectly portable. And so many Indo-Fijians took their skills and knowledge with them to other countries. Much can be learned from Fiji’s experience, and its lessons ought to inform the ongoing debate over U.S. immigration policy. Reorienting America’s approach to immigration to focus on skills wouldn’t only benefit the United States—it might also spur the development of other countries around the world.

As Chand and Clemens make clear, Indo-Fijians found the post-coup diminishment of their status and economic freedom profoundly threatening, and the two decades that followed saw a mass exodus of skilled Indo-Fijian workers and their families. Why was it skilled workers who were most likely to emigrate? Most Indo-Fijian émigrés settled in Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, all of which had adopted immigration systems that prioritized the admission of skilled workers. During this 20-year period, the Indo-Fijian population plummeted, from roughly half of the Fijian population to fewer than 40 percent, and it has since fallen to under a third.

Given that skilled Indo-Fijian workers were in the best position to secure permanent visas in desirable destination countries, one might assume that the Indo-Fijian community experienced a sharp drop in its level of educational attainment as the best and the brightest rushed for the exits, an oft-discussed possibility in those years. But that is not what happened. After the 1987 coup, Indo-Fijians started enrolling in higher education at far higher levels than before, creating a much wider gap with indigenous Fijians in educational attainment than in years past. Older skilled Indo-Fijians did indeed emigrate in large numbers, shrinking the supply of skilled Indo-Fijian workers in the short run. At the same time, however, rising Indo-Fijian educational attainment soon replenished the stock of skilled Indo-Fijian workers, and then some.

Notably, Indo-Fijians didn’t just boost their educational attainment. They were particularly inclined to seek precisely the postsecondary credentials prized by Australia’s visa points system, a system designed to select immigrants on the basis of their prospects for success in the Australian labor market. In short, in the post-coup era, many young Indo-Fijians did everything they could to ensure they had a Plan B in Australia if things went south at home. Of course, not all skilled Indo-Fijian workers gained admission to Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, and so they’ve made do at home. Others found that while they wanted the option to leave Fiji, they’d prefer to remain in their native land. And as Fiji’s political situation has grown stable, it has been greatly enriched by a more educated workforce.

What should we Americans take away from Fiji’s recent history? For one, the priorities of immigration systems in desirable destination countries can have powerful effects on the decisions made by potential immigrants. Many thoughtful scholars, including Clemens, have argued that the best thing affluent market democracies can do regarding immigration is admit larger numbers of intending immigrants, both high skill and low skill, because doing so would yield enormous humanitarian benefits, and they have strong arguments on their side. For example, the Fijian case illustrates the importance of offering the citizens of poorly governed societies a way out. If skilled Fijian workers had no prospect of finding a market for their talents abroad, they would have had fewer options in the face of legal discrimination.

Another lesson of Fiji’s experience, however, is that a constrained and skill-selected immigration system can also yield significant humanitarian benefits. Such a system would offer individuals the possibility of an exit option, provided they first acquire skills that would help them achieve economic self-sufficiency in their chosen destination and, importantly, they enter an open competition with prospective immigrants from elsewhere, therefore giving rise to a race to the top. By adopting visa points systems that placed high value on educational attainment, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada helped kick-start mass skill creation among Fiji’s citizens of Indian descent, a development that has redounded to Fiji’s benefit in all sorts of ways.

Apart from strengthening Fiji’s tourism sector, which can now benefit from a surfeit of skilled managers, many in the country’s skilled workforce have embraced offshoring in other forms. It is growing more common for Fijian professionals to work remotely for firms headquartered overseas, where their skills and cultural knowledge make them enormously valuable, even when they’re far away. And unlike emigration, which can mean the severing, or at least the attenuation, of ties to loved ones at home, remote work gives skilled professionals the opportunity to access global labor markets without uprooting themselves.

With this in mind, it is worth reflecting on the message that the U.S. immigration system sends to would-be immigrants around the world. In 2017, 66 percent of the 1.1 million foreign nationals admitted to the U.S. as lawful permanent residents were admitted on the basis of family ties, while 12 percent were admitted on the basis of employment and 4.5 percent on the basis of diversity, which is to say that they hailed from countries that have sent relatively few immigrants to the U.S. in recent years. Most of the balance of green cards are granted to refugees or asylum seekers. Unless you have a close relative in the U.S., there is precious little you can do to secure a green card, even if you make a concerted effort to acquire skills that would put you in an excellent position to thrive in the U.S. labor market. Had they faced an immigration system like America’s, Indo-Fijians would not likely have responded by embracing skill creation—they might have been better off finding U.S. citizens looking for a Fijian spouse, or filing asylum claims that might not pass muster.

It is not hard to imagine a system that would work rather differently, and that would do far more to stimulate skill creation around the world, even if the number of new lawful permanent residents was kept roughly the same. We could continue to treat the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens exactly as we do now—they secured roughly 46 percent of all new green cards in 2017. We could also continue to place extended family members of U.S. citizens, relatives of lawful permanent residents, citizens of countries that haven’t sent many immigrants to the U.S. in recent years, and employment-based petitioners, who altogether represented 37 percent of all new green cards in 2017, in a broader pool that uses a modified points system. If you have a relative or if you come from an underrepresented country, you’d be granted a modest number of points, on the grounds that having family members in the country could help you get on your feet and that a more diverse immigrant pool can be beneficial. Otherwise, points would be granted on the basis of skills that are strongly associated with lasting labor-market success.

To those who believe that people are utterly unresponsive to economic incentives, points systems might seem like a cruel rigging of the rules to benefit intending immigrants who are already privileged. What Fiji’s experience teaches us, however, is that many people will invest in their own human capital if they know that doing so will give them a shot at achieving a better life overseas. A well-designed points system would benefit the U.S. by ensuring that newcomers can make larger economic contributions sooner, because they’ll have a better sense of the challenges involved in successfully navigating the American economy.

Yet it would also benefit the world by stimulating human-capital investment—investment that will benefit all who choose to pursue it, including those who don’t (yet) gain entry through America’s Golden Door. Some immigrants would venture elsewhere, to countries offering entrepreneurial opportunities closer to home, and then they might take another shot at gaining entry to the U.S. in the future. Others would remain in their native countries, where they’d be well positioned to take part in the ever-expanding offshoring economy, which is poised for a boom in the coming decades, and where they’d share the fruits of mass skill creation with their neighbors and their loved ones, including those who can’t bear the prospect of leaving home.