Read: How the Democrats lost their way on immigration
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.