The Immigration Debate and a Fact-Based View of the World

Swedish medical researcher Hans Rosling spent his entire career trying to convince Western nations that we have a fundamentally messed up view of everybody else in the world. In public forums, private meetings, and viral TED talks, Rosling presented comprehensive data to demonstrate that–contrary to Western opinion–most people in the world are not starving to death in rat-infested s***holes. Most people, in fact, are doing much better than they ever have.

Rosling created the data-rich, interactive web site Gapminder before he died in 2017. HIs children Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund completed the book he was working on when he died. In April of this year, they published Factfulness in 24 different languages in the hopes of convincing global policymakers to start basing their decisions on an accurate picture of the world.

Many people need to read this book. Americans trying to understand the immigration issue need to read it twice, because the picture of the world that comes out of the data is fundamentally at odds with the assumptions underlying much of the debate.

To understand what I mean by this, take a look at this chart of the world in 1965. This is a single chart that looks at two characteristics that often serve as stand-ins for many other aspects of a country: the average number of children in each family and the infant mortality rate.

As you can see, the world in 1965 fit nicely into a narrative that saw everybody fitting into two boxes:  Box 1 (small): “developed”–highly industrialized, wealthy countries with small families and great health care. Box 2 (big): Poor, overpopulated, non-industrial countries with big families and rotten health care. And a big, almost empty chasm in between. This was our narrative in 1965, and we even had a Cold-War term for the big box: at a time when the “civilized” world was divided into two warring camps, we called everyone else “The Third World.”

The problems is that we still have the same view of the world, even though it has changed enormously in the last 50 years. Here is what things looked like in 2017:

Now almost everybody is in the small box or between boxes. The two huge circles–China and India–are right where the rest of us are. Only a handful of countries are in the old box, and even there, infant mortality rate has improved substantially. There is no Third World. There is no gap. There are just people. 

This same movement happens for almost every metric we can find: income rates, calories per day, education rates, access to health care. The world has gotten a lot better since 1965, but most Westerners still tend to think of everybody else as desperately poor, overpopulated, and miserable. To demonstrate this ignorance, Rosling developed what he called the “Chimpanzee Test” (take it here)–a set of questions about the world that the vast majority of Westerners answer less successfully than a chimpanzee randomly picking answers written on bananas.

Why is this important to the immigration debate? Because most of the people making and enforcing the current laws about who can and cannot enter our country have a fundamentally flawed understanding of the world. If everybody else is desperately poor and miserable, then of course they want to come to the United States–not because they are in any danger at home, but because they want to live the good life on America’s dime.

This view of the world means that we start every asylum request with the assumption that the asylum seeker is lying. We do not start with the assumption that a person is seeking asylum because they need asylum–because people where they come from are actively trying to harm their families. We reject the idea that they could be fleeing anything other than the desperate poverty that we are so sure everybody down there is experiencing. We make no effort to understand what sorts of other things may be making people want to flee their homes.

Underneath all of our debates about immigration lurks the assumption that the rest of the world is a desperately poor, overpopulated cesspool of misery waiting to overwhelm us and steal our toys. But this is not what the rest of the world looks like. This is not what Latin America looks like. It is an uncharitable and inaccurate version of what some parts of the world looked like in 1965; it has no business driving American policy in 2018.


  1. it's a series of tubes says:

    Michael, those graphs are mind-boggling. Incredible to see such progress. Just added the book to my library queue.

  2. jaxjensen says:

    I didn’t know Rosling had died. I loved his TED talks (though only knowledge I have of him honestly). Sad to hear it.

    What seems ironic to me about your comments is that BCC leans decidedly to the left in US political discussions. And the left is always using arguments about income inequality, standard of living issues, etc etc, to justify massive social programs, foreign aid/relief spending, and other policies to help all those poor starving people overseas. And related to immigration they say it is a ‘Christain imperative’ that we take in these poor helpless people and give them room here. And it is usually the political right that calls all of that poppycock, that points out that starvation is almost entirely gone, that poverty is vanishing, and says that other countries can take care of themselves …etc.

    So, correctly pointing out that the spread of capitalism has raised the standard of living (and is working on abolishing poverty entirely) in almost every country, to a level comparable to Western cultures, it begs two questions: 1) if things are as good in their home countries as in the US, why should we let them in, unless it is to our national advantage? (I.E. stop saying it is the ‘Christian thing to do’ ) 2) If we should also feel no shame is deporting people here illegally, because they will have just as many good opportunities at home as they have here?

  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s been perplexing to watch most of the moral outrage be directed towards our border policy. Can you imagine what the response would be if we strung up barbed wire and shot to death over a hundred people who approached the border?

    By their own accounts Palestinians do indeed live in a ****hole which is unquestionably desperately poor and a cesspool of misery.

    What makes this border dispute all the more diffucult for Mormons is their theology and policy which seems to favor certain land being consecrated to be inhabited by certain people at the expense of others.

  4. Jax,

    There’s a lot going on in your questions, most of which is going to come down to definitions. For example, there is an important distinction between a leftist (which I am not) and a liberal (which I am). There is also a distinction between free markets (which I support) and unregulated capitalism (about which I am extremely skeptical). And you are making some perhaps unwarranted assumptions in there about the political uniformity of BCC bloggers. I think that we would probably surprise you with the fairly large number of things that we do not agree on.

    But I think that I can answer your two major questions on the basis of the information I presented. What I was trying to show in the post is that there are reasons other than crushing poverty that compel people to leave their countries. If one assumes that everybody in a region is desperately poor, then there is no reason to look further for reasons that they might want to leave their country of origin. But if we take “terrible poverty” off the list, then we have to look further, It is then that we might be willing to consider that the petitions for political asylum may actually be petitions for political asylum and not just lies that people are telling us because they are “poor” and want to come to a “rich” country.

    As it happens, immigration from Mexico is no longer a problem for the United States. The Mexican economy has improved dramatically over the last 20 years or so, and we now have a negative immigration balance with them–more Americans move to Mexico each year than Mexicans move to America. The issue is immigration THROUGH Mexico from countries in the Northern part of Central America–Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

    These are not desperately poor countries. But they are dangerous countries. The central governments are weak and often corrupt, and criminal gangs regularly target families to extort money from them. What the people from these countries are telling us is that they are in danger there because of political instability (and political instability that we contributed a fair amount to during the Cold War).

    So, the thrust of my argument is that the image of extreme poverty that most of us have in our minds is preventing us from looking at reasons other than extreme poverty that might be causing the current wave of migration–and acknowledging that some of these reasons are exactly the kinds of things that our asylum laws were designed to handle.

  5. Nonrandom Set says:

    So why are they passing through Mexico to the US?

  6. jaxjensen says:

    Michael, I did catch the difference between asylum and immigration that you pointed out in your comment. I didn’t mean to make mine sound like I was talking about asylum. I wasn’t. but I failed to differentiate. I meant immigration. You mention our issue is now people passing through Mexico to get to the US. Why do you think they pass through, rather than stop in Mexico, if things there are just as good as they are here? I commented on a previous post that I’d like to refuse asylum to anyone who passed through a country and didn’t seek asylum there first, for precisely the reason that other countries are just as able to help/protect/assimilate displaced persons as we are. If you’re fleeing gang violence in Honduras, then Mexico should serve just as well as the US. So if you didn’t apply for asylum there??? what is the need to continue travelling and seeking it here? Thoughts?

    And for regular immigration, with other countries offering comparable standards of living and growing opportunities, there is no reason to accept immigrants that aren’t a national benefit, right? (labor that we need, skills we want, etc)

  7. Jax, a lot of people do. Mexico received around 15,000 applications for asylum last year from Central Americans. But their system is very slow, and they reject about 95% of applicants. And some people get discouraged with how long it takes. And others don’t feel safe because some of the gangs have Mexican elements. And people who are taking their family and leaving because people want to kill them are usually not really good with exact legal procedures. |

    Which is not to say that everybody’s request is legitimate. Just that they are serious enough that they deserve a legitimate hearing without having their children taken away or being arrested and put into jail on the initial assumption that they are lying.

  8. jaxjensen says:

    “not really good with exact legal procedures”… is this an adequate explanation for why they don’t apply at the embassies? I can see contingencies where it was “We need to leave right now!” and there wasn’t time for formalities, but if you’re in that kind of danger/fear, don’t you ask for help at the first place you can?

    Honestly, we have gang violence here in the US. But there is no way I’d view that as grounds for a family to seek asylum in the UK. It would seem completely unreasonable to me… doesn’t it to you? That is how it seems when I think of other applying here from far off places.

    (If you didn’t catch it in past posts, I am friends with a family here through asylum from gang violence in Argentina. I try to help them support their 3 missionary sons all serving right now, and think the world of the whole family. But it still seems odd that they’d need to flee an entire continent, doesn’t it? I love this family, but still question the legitimacy of their need for asylum HERE.)

  9. There are parts of Central America that are essentially run by gangs. Young men, especially, are at risk of losing their lives unless they join these gangs. Unfortunately, U.S. asylum law (and I’m guessing Mexico’s as well) doesn’t typically grant those escaping gang violence in Central America asylum.

    Young men in Central America also have very limited, and sometimes nonexistent, job opportunities. Demand for workers in the U.S. is extremely high right now. So immigrants, fleeing the gangs and the lack of jobs, come here. And because there is typically no legal way for many of them to enter the U.S., they come in illegally.

  10. jaxjensen, have you asked your friends why they came all the way to the US rather than stopping somewhere along their route? I typically find that my mind is opened in new and charitable ways when I speak to real people who have actual lived experience in whatever it is that I have an opinion about, but for which I have no personal experience.

  11. jaxjensen says:

    Yes… they didn’t view the opportunities other places as being as favorable here. So while the OP think we should stop looking down on other countries as poor/disadvantaged, many there still look up to us as being rich/advantaged not available to them. And while I agree we are above most (if not all) other places, the differences have been shrinking rapidly and we are no longer are head and shoulders better. But perception is well behind reality.

  12. Jax, a lot of Austrians and Germans (and other Europeans, I’m sure) are asking the same questions—why do Afghans, Syrians, and anyone from Africa need to cross a half dozen or more perfectly reasonable countries to settle HERE?! I imagine most would give a similar answer as your friends from Argentina.

  13. Truckers Atlas says:

    Michael, you raise good questions, but I worry you’re misapplying Rosling by discounting the relative affluence that many subject to asylum adjudications seek. My understanding is that isues like the loan crisis among rural farmers in Guatemala or abysmal work opportunities for young men in South Asia are larger drivers among asylum seekers than many rightfully-compassionate advocates of the asylum program may want to believe. Still, I think your post is a valuable reminder that the true protection needs of some should not remove the opportunity to seek protection for all.

  14. Why do Mormons, who started in New York, need to go through so many states and territories to live in North Mexico? Why didn’t they just stay in one of those states in between? Why didn’t they just stay and make where they were a better place?

  15. You’re joking, right?

  16. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    One reason Central Americans often don’t stop in Mexico is that the parts of Mexico that have jobs (mostly northern cities like Monterrey, but also the D.F.) also tend to be intensely racist against Central Americans (and people from the parts of Mexico bordering Guatemala). Mestizaje by and large didn’t happen in southern Mexico, and Central Americans (and Oaxacans, Chiapans, and Maya) look different; the system of ethnic stratification that the Spanish established in their colonies put full-blooded Indians pretty close to the bottom. Mexican immigrants to the US carried this racism with them, which is why MS-13 and 18 (originally for 18th Street in Mid-City L.A.) formed in Los Angeles to provide protection for Central American refugee immigrants against Mexican and Chicano gangs.

    The degree to which the US broke Central America during the Cold War is heart-rending, and almost unknown outside of activist circles.

  17. jaxjensen says:

    Frank, seriously? Mormons did stop and intend to stay in states in between… but then were forced to leave there too… until they ran out of states. They only moved a couple hundred miles at a time. They ended up in Mexico because they were simply spreading out.

    Peter LLC… I have friends from Europe who are asking that (complaining would be a better description) because they are seeing the disintegration of their nations/cultures because of it. They are right to question it, and to oppose the destruction coming from it.

  18. jaxjensen – it was Mexico when the Mormons moved in. the US annexed it shortly afterward. Mormons hadn’t stopped in many places between New York and the Salt Lake basin.

    Many of the people we’re arresting at the border have also intend to stay in countries in between… but then were forced to leave there too… until they ran out of spanish speaking countries. It’s no day trip taken on a whim.

    If your nation/culture is so weak that adding more people is going to break it, then it doesn’t deserve to exist. Even if a flood of immigrants fame to the US, it wouldn’t break us, any more than accepting blacks as full members would not have broken the early Church. Isolationism is a stop gap measure that impedes growth. Just as the Church will still be the Church if not even one member is left in Utah, mass immigration will not make the US be lost in the flood.

    It’s also good to remember that while the world in general is getting better many of the refugees and immigrants left where they were because of our actions as a country. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria are the easy ones that come to mind, but we’ve done more than our share of destabilizing in central and south america as well. We’re reaping what we have sown.

  19. Michael great post! I tend to describe myself as a cross between a conservative and a libertarian. Technically and historically the term “liberal” would best describe me. Sadly, the viewpoint you describe tends to be falling into disfavor, in spite of having a lot of good data to back it up. Both major US political parties seem to be tripping over themselves to describe how awful the world is. The truth is trade and immigration created a net benefit for the United States and the word over the last half century. It is too bad to watch one major party now reject both of those things, while the other party rejects have the equation.

  20. kinda not anonymous (banned) says:

    If you believe in open borders, and free movement of all people regardless of nationality, vote Libertarian.

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