Confronting one of the most hotly debated topics of the time —immigration— Caroline Theoharides, assistant professor of economics, urges her students to look past the pundits, and focus on the specifics and the stories of those who leave home to find better lives.

She teaches Econ 223: “Economics of Migration,” which looks at why people migrate and how their migration economically affects the countries they leave and the countries they migrate to.

“I’m always nervous teaching this,” Theoharides says—especially this academic year because the topic is so heated nationally.  “So, I try to really just make it be about them [the students].”

Ever since her graduate school days at the University of Michigan, Theoharides has studied the Philippines, one of the world's largest exporters of migrant workers. “You're faced with the choice: you’re home but you can't feed your kids, or you've got to go work in the Gulf for the next 20 years, and someone else is going to raise your kids,” she says.

The words of one Filipina especially resonate with her: “Nobody wants to go, home is always better, but this is the option that you have.”

Alejandra Castro '20 gestures as she speaks during class
Alejandra Castro ’20 (far right) participating in the class discussion.

Through the course, students examine research that, according to Theoharides, busts a number of myths in the political debates about immigration.

“Probably the biggest myth is that when immigrants come in, they drive down native-born worker wages and they drive up native-born worker unemployment,” she says. “We have really good empirical evidence that shows … that’s just not true.”

She cites Nobel-winning MIT economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, who have argued strongly that immigrant workers do not negatively affect the wages of native-born workers.  

Another common argument is that immigration leads to “brain drain,” in which home countries lose highly educated workers. Turns out that’s not a universal given.

In many cases, countries will experience “brain gain,” Theoharides says, in which young people stay in school because of the high-wage opportunities abroad—but ultimately take jobs in their home countries.

Students in the course also study, among other scholars, Harvard’s George Borjas, who supports increased restrictions on immigration.

“I stay away from the politics as much as I can and just say, here’s our model of labor supply, here’s our model of education and let’s think about how these moving parts work,” Theoharides says. “My job is to give them tools so they can reach their own conclusion.”

Alejandra Castro ’20, who in a recent class session took part in a breakout group on hot-button issues and myths, says the course “has allowed me to shift conversations with friends and family in my everyday life from a rhetoric that is very broad and not based on evidence, to a rhetoric that is based on data.”

Jennifer Fuentes Rodriguez '22 listens to her fellow students presenting during class
Jennifer Fuentes Rodriguez ’22 (left in grey sweater), Professor Theoharides (standing) and other class members listening to group presentations.

Jennifer Fuentes Rodriguez ’22 says the class gave a greater insight into her own experience as an immigrant from Honduras. “I never quite knew the extent of the effects on the country until this class,” she says. “I was glad to better educate myself on the relationship between my home and adopted countries.”

Their professor couldn’t be more pleased with those outcomes. “What I love about economics,” Theoharides says, “is that it speaks to the mathematical, quantitative side of my brain, but then it has the power and capacity to think really hard about social issues and how we might improve people’s welfare and people’s lives.”