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Maggie Peters, assistant professor of political science. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Maggie Peters and the political economy of migration

Maggie Peters, a new member of the Global Studies teaching faculty, has spent a decade examining the dichotomy between free trade and open migration.

UCLA International Institute, January 3, 2017 — Maggie Peters is intrigued by the paradox that free trade and open migration don’t seem to coincide. “In the 19th century during the era of mass migration,” she says, “you had very open borders for people, but trade between states was much more restricted,” she notes. “Today, when we think about globalization, we think in terms of goods — and corporations — moving across borders freely, but we don’t see as much open migration.”

Peters is one of the newest faculty members to the join the teaching ranks of the UCLA International Institute, with a joint appointment to the Institute and the department of political science. In winter quarter, she will teach her first course for its Global Studies Program, “Governance and Conflict” — one of three core courses required of both majors and minors.

Peters arrived at UCLA last fall after teaching at both Yale University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The political scientist, who also has a master’s degree in economics, is no stranger to California. She earned her Ph.D. at Stanford in 2011 and previously lived in Los Angeles when her husband was working in the Silver Lake–Echo Park area. “We always really loved Los Angeles,” she remarks. “UCLA is a great school and it’s nice to be back at a public institution.”

An empirical puzzle

The political economy of migration has been the focus of Peters’ research for over a decade. Her upcoming book, Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization (Princeton, 2017), examines the topic in historical perspective.

“I got interested in the dichotomy of trade and immigration policies,” she remarks, “because you would think that if goods can move easily, why can’t people? Or if people can move easily, why can’t goods?” Part of the book answers these questions by examining the U.S. agricultural sector over time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, agriculture benefited greatly from the influx of low-skilled labor. But the sector underwent progressive mechanization that radically improved productivity and reduced the need for that labor.

“Where you really the saw change first was in the Midwest, where you initially saw Europeans settling farmland, with huge numbers of immigrants working on farms,” she says. “Then starting in the 1850s and 1860s, various tools such as plows, reapers and combines start being developed, and soon you needed one-quarter or even less the amount of labor you once needed.” Second- and -third generation immigrant farmers soon poured into urban factories.

A 33-horse team harvester in 1902. (Photo: Robert N. Dennis, stereoscopic views of Washington State.)
Courtesy of New York Public Library Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of
Art, Prints and Photographs, via Wikimedia Commons.

Productivity gains first affected the cultivation of grains, then of cotton and finally, of tree fruits. Whereas approximately 16 percent of Americans were farmers in the 1870s, by the 1950 it was 6 percent, and today, less than 1 percent. 

Farming in California, however, remains largely labor intensive, says Peters. That’s because the state produces a number of specialty crops — such as strawberries —in very large volume. The cultivation of such crops has not yet and may never be mechanized and the need for seasonal workers, most of whom come from Mexico, remains high. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she says, it was immigrants from China and Japan who came to work in agriculture, followed by Filipinos after the Asian Exclusion Act was passed in 1924.

Technological advances and free trade, combined

Peters notes that trade restrictions have historically promoted labor-intensive industrial production, giving businesses an incentive to encourage immigration in order to attract low-skilled labor. By contrast, free trade — one of the defining characteristics of globalization — forces firms to compete on price, which drives the production of labor-intensive goods to countries with the lowest labor costs.

Free trade agreements, she points out, frequently lead to industrial collapse in countries with higher labor costs, as labor-intensive manufacturing moves offshore. With low-skilled labor no longer a priority, domestic firms have less reason to lobby for open immigration. The only manufacturing that remains profitable, she points out, is that of high-end, complex goods.

Container ships under giant cranes, Port of Los Angeles. Photo: Evan Blaser, 2011; cropped.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

What’s happening in the United States economy today, she continues, is a reflection of two forces: free trade, on one hand, and the rapid mechanization of production that reduces labor demand, on the other. Steel production in the U.S., for example, has made enormous productivity gains in the past two decades due to technological advances. Despite the production crash of the 1970s and 1980s, notes Peters, “We now produce as much steel as we did in the 1960s, but with a much smaller labor force… [but] the industry needs more high-skill workers.”

The resulting policy challenge, she explains, is how to help people who have spent decades working in low-skill manufacturing, particularly if they do not have much education. These workers are being left behind, she adds, because advances in technology mean that even entry-level manufacturing jobs now require a fair amount of technical know-how, such as the ability to use a computer.

In a previous era when industrial manufacturing moved up the skill chain from mass production to batch processing, Peters notes that universal free high school education became the norm. President Obama’s efforts to make community college free and universal, she continues, are focused on the same end goal of providing people the skills required by a changing labor market.

Yet the policy challenge in the U.S. is hampered by the rhetoric that “government is the problem, not the solution,” she adds. In other countries, says Peters, governments are much more involved in developing workforce policies. Germany, for example, is geared toward high-tech manufacturing and has built an excellent vocation training system to support it.

Teaching trade and immigration

Peters insists that in order to understand the politics of trade and immigration, “you first have to understand the economics of it.” Although some students get “freaked out” when she puts mathematical equations on the board, she says, “The concepts are not that hard to understand once you’ve explained it, but they’re important for understanding the economics. And the economics largely explain where people’s interests lie,” she adds.

Peters notes that students are typically surprised to learn how much migration takes place is in the global South, tending to think that most migration is from poorer countries to the U.S. and Europe. “They don’t know very much about the huge migration that goes from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, to Singapore and Malaysia, or even from former Soviet republics into Russia,” she remarks. “There’s even a large amount of migration within Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Peters focuses on the macro level of migration in her courses. After initial discussion of the theories of why people migrate, she concentrates on the effects of migration on receiving and sending states and how these effects inform the politics of migration in those states. She points out that in both the U.K. and the U.S., one sees anger directed against immigrants in areas without high levels of immigration.

Islington, London, June 13, 2016. Photo: <a href="">David Holt, 2016</a>; cropped.Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. <a href="">CC BY 2.0</a>. “It wasn’t London voting for Brexit,” she says, “it was areas with smaller immigrant numbers where migration is new and disturbing. You see the same thing in the U.S., where California doesn’t want to close the border, but people in Iowa do. There haven’t been many immigrants in Iowa until lately.”

“It is generalized economic anxiety that makes people anti-immigrant,” she adds. “It’s not necessarily correlated with the economic conditions that we measure, but with people’s perceptions of their economic well-being and their own economic anxiety.”

Current research

With her book soon to be published, Peters has turned her attention to new research projects. Together with co-author Michael Miller of George Washington University, she is exploring how emigration affects authoritarian stability and democratic change in sending states. Their research to date, she says, shows that post-1980, emigration, especially to very wealthy countries, is generally stabilizing because it provides economic rents used by autocrats while at the same time improving people’s economic circumstances.

“Even though the regime has nothing to do with the fact that you’re getting remittances,” she observes, “the fact that you’re getting remittances and that you have a better life makes you happier with the regime. On the flip side,” she continues, “we find that if most emigrants are going to democracies, you see an increased likelihood of democratization.” She and Miller trace that likelihood to both the spread of democratic norms and the ideas (and sometimes skills) in organizing political opposition that people take home with them.

The other major project that Peters is pursuing, also with co-authors, is a survey of Syrian and Iraqi migrants and non-migrants in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The survey focuses on why people do and don’t leave these countries, and examines in particular how much those who do leave know about where they want to go in Europe. The survey also asks migrants about the ethics of what they are doing and who they think deserve priority entry into receiving countries. “We have all these theorists talking about the ethics and political philosophy of migration,” observes Peters, “but they tend to be people in the advanced economies, so it’s interesting to hear what migrants themselves think.”

Given the current impact of migration on the politics of countries worldwide, Peters’ research and teaching are to certain to become a valuable part of the Global Studies Program for years to come.

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