UBI And Immigrants: Lessons from the Pandemic

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Professor Jennifer Gordon’s blog post on universal basic income and the lessons learned from the pandemic was published on the Yale Law School Kaw & Political Economy Project website.

Does universal basic income have a role to play in a more just political economy?  It is by now fairly well appreciated that, on the level of individual countries, much depends on the framing and design of the program: a UBI that replaces social insurance is not the same as one that supplements it.

But comparatively little thought has gone into the global perspective. Even the most progressive nation-based approach to basic income faces a fundamental justice challenge in the reality of human mobility.   Almost all basic income proposals focus on the country as a unit. (Exceptions include Philippe Van Parijs and Juliana Bidadanure.) Responding to the assertion that nations with UBI programs open to all would be overrun by outsiders seeking to access the benefit, most make citizenship a prerequisite for a grant.  A number also call for increased restrictions on immigration (other than of temporary laborers) in order to make such programs politically feasible.

Most of these initiatives were created following pressure from immigrants’ rights movements and organizations.  Their proponents emphasized the local rather than the national community as the relevant unit for assessing who “belongs,” and asserted that undocumented immigrants were full members in that community independent of their legal status.  Arguments ranged from the pragmatic (benefits were necessary to avoid the health risk to the broader community if undocumented people were not granted equal access to such programs, because they would show up to work sick or fail to seek necessary health care) to the normative (benefits were due to undocumented immigrants in recognition for their contributions to the community through their labor in “essential” jobs that others shunned, for the risks they were taking on behalf of the community as some continued to work through the pandemic, and for their equal humanity to others in the location).  The conceptions of membership based on geographic co-location that emerged from these campaigns resonate with scholarly notions of belonging based on “stakeholder citizenship,” physical proximity or co-location,and “city-zenship,” rather than legally-sanctioned national membership.  Together, these ideas help break the straightjacket of traditional citizenship as a measure of entitlement to UBI.

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