Momentum seems to be gaining this week on the idea of a Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA). As the Washington Post reports, a joint White House-European Union committee exploring the topic is due to report back in a few weeks' time. If the committee's report is to be of any value, it needs to examine a key corollary to free trade -- labor mobility. A TAFTA agreement done right will help us move towards a much more rational immigration policy.
Unfortunately, in most countries today, immigration policy has become tied to citizenship and many of the benefits that come with it, including government welfare services. Those benefits are so costly to taxpayers in modern welfare states that many democracies have tried to restrict immigration, to the detriment of both free trade and labor mobility. Yet not all who work in a state want to become a citizen of it. It is long past time immigration policies reflected that.
Throughout history, economic growth has been fueled by what the classical Greeks called metics, and what have been known in English as sojourners. As James Bennett puts it:
A sojourner is one who moves from one country to another to reside and engage in economic activity, but does not give up his previous identity, returns to previous countries of residence frequently, and remains in constant communication with his home network. This sojourner is an essential element of transnational cooperation, making possible entrepreneurial activity on a wide scale with an extremely low cost of entry.
The European Union, to its credit, recognized the importance of such status, allowing free movement of labor at its founding in 1957. In that same spirit, the joint committee absolutely needs to address the issue of labor mobility in its report. By recognizing some form of sojourner status distinct from citizenship, the agreement could provide the framework for a rational rethink of America's immigration laws.
What would sojourner status look like? Given the political difficulty of introducing genuine labor mobility, it should initially provide a right not to seek employment but to engage in business, such as entrepreneurship, consulting, or contracting. No rights to social insurance would accrue to a sojourner, nor would political rights such as voting or contributing financially to political campaigns. Efforts by sojourners to claim those citizens' rights outside legal channels would be grounds for repatriation. Sojourner status would only be granted to nationals of countries willing to grant reciprocity in the arrangements.
As such, a sojourner would not be appropriate status for those wishing to gain citizenship, but it would be appropriate for those who wish to offer their skills in return for opportunity. Sojourners in the United States would generally return home, taking with them new skills and an appreciation for America that would probably extend beyond the economic.
Meanwhile, it would give native-born Americans a new appreciation for immigrants, as the perception of their costing taxpayers through their use of welfare services would dissipate. In fact, return migration is a natural market phenomenon that was common through much of American history until it was disrupted by arbitrary restrictions on entry first implemented in the 1920s. The overwhelming majority of early 20th century Italian immigrants to the United States returned home after a few years. Reentry restrictions, by contrast, provide incentives to overstay -- making it more difficult to come in also makes it more difficult to go back.
A TAFTA that included steps towards increased labor mobility could provide the basis for a more rational immigration policy. The use of sojourner status, if successful, could be expanded to other countries (always on the basis of reciprocity), breaking the link between immigration and citizenship benefits, thus providing more economic bang per immigration buck.
It is sadly unlikely the White House-EU committee will grasp this particular nettle. If it did, however, the benefits to transatlantic trade could be immense.