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Last year, migrants sent home nearly $300 billion in remittances, or three times the world’s total foreign-aid budget. The cash transfers have proven to be an unprecedented economic boon to many developing nations. But a new World Bank study suggests that remittances’ raw economic power is not the only thing being transmitted along the wires. ...

Last year, migrants sent home nearly $300 billion in remittances, or three times the world’s total foreign-aid budget. The cash transfers have proven to be an unprecedented economic boon to many developing nations. But a new World Bank study suggests that remittances’ raw economic power is not the only thing being transmitted along the wires. As migrants from developing countries settle in richer nations, they also send back to their native countries the social mores and values of their newfound homes.

What matters most may be where migrants choose to live. For example, one effective measure of changing social values is a rise or decline in fertility rates. By examining the relationship between remittances and fertility rates in the Middle East, Philippe Fargues, a demographer at the American University in Cairo, found that the number of children per family in migrants’ origin countries begins to mirror that of the migrants’ destinations. Countries whose emigrants typically settle in Europe, such as Morocco and Tunisia, have seen a sharp decline in birthrates as remittances rise. In contrast, countries whose emigrants head for the Persian Gulf, such as those from Egypt or Jordan, show less of a decline or even an increase in fertility as money transfers pour in from abroad. Migrants to Europe, explains Fargues, "transmit ideas [home] that lead to delayed marriage, longer education among women, and more birth control…. When people migrate to the Gulf, they are confronted with societies that are more conservative than their own."

But, though values are an important and often ignored agent of fertility change, correlation does not equal causation, warns Michael Teitelbaum, an expert on immigration and demographic change with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. The Middle Eastern countries that Fargues examines "have very different politics of population," says Teitelbaum, some with an obsession for "demographic power." Still, the evidence suggests that migration can be a powerful and practical tool in the spread of values, not simply to the migrants themselves but to their home countries as well. And that means closing a nation’s borders could mean closing the door to the very ideals it hopes to export.

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