Why you should care

Because the most divisive debates usually need a fresh injection of novelty and unorthodoxy. Anu Bradford has both. 

Anu Bradford knows a little something about persuasion. Every day, her children, 8-year-old Oliver and 4-year-old Sylvia, need a metaphorical kick in the butt to get them to do one thing or another: eat their vegetables, go to bed, do homework, the usual. “It’s all about incentives,” Bradford says, a Goldilocks-like balance of reward and punishment. She’s found that children have a lot in common with another subset of people who have a tendency to not play nicely: world leaders.

It may be a strange and unorthodox connection, but it is the very kind of thinking that has quietly vaulted this Columbia University law professor onto the global immigration scene. Or shall we say behind the scenes? Though hardly in any headlines, the international lawyer — herself a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Finland — is being sought by labor union leaders and U.N. immigration envoys who have become keen about turning her ideas into action. Their motivation, of course, is trying to finally align the diverse interests countries have always had in dealing with — or not dealing with — the world’s 230 million migrants.

And what are those ideas? Essentially, many countries worry that only the best of their nation tend to leave, creating a brain and talent drain at home, while nations that receive a lot of immigrants aren’t very excited about paying the welfare and societal costs of taking the ones who don’t work out. Bradford has drawn up a flexible system for covering the cost on both ends.

“Immigration unambiguously serves countries,” Bradford says.

Though only 39 years old, the schoolmarmish Bradford has been writing about all this in academic journals for years — even landing a “Forum of Young Global Leaders” invitation to Davos two years ago. But outside of the sciences, it’s like Christmas Day anytime an academic can manage to get ideas turned into reality. Still, ideas alone don’t make the world go ’round, and even all this interest doesn’t mean countries are going to agree. “It’ll probably fall on deaf ears,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an adjunct professor of law at Cornell University and a prominent immigration expert.

When you hear of Bradford’s childhood in Tampere, a bustling city far from Finland’s shores, her fascination with academia and abstract ideas becomes clear. The daughter and granddaughter of educators, Bradford never really considered rebelling against her elders, despite being a painter since she could remember. (She did modern art: “I never tried to re-create reality; it was always very abstract and expressive.”) Part of the path to becoming an immigration expert was through education, leaving her homeland to get a master’s and a doctorate at Harvard University — an experience, she says, that taught her the value of promoting immigration as a means to making countries smarter and richer. “Immigration unambiguously serves countries,” she says.

Despite all the attention, Bradford doesn’t exactly act like your stereotypical immigration advocate — you won’t find her making fiery speeches to protesters or clashing with border guards. Her impeccable and notably European sense of style, finished with a fitted navy blue blazer, belies her bookishness. In a classic Scandinavian accent, Bradford shares the basis of her understanding of immigration: Economic migration is an undeniable boon for destination countries — immigrants net billions of dollars for national economies and pay far more in taxes than they receive in welfare.

Her way, called “reversible rewards,” to close the gap: A business that wants a worker from outside the country (let’s say his name is George) will pay approximately $50,000 into a fund controlled by a third party. If everything goes smoothly and George succeeds at work and eventually decides to stay, then the country he left will be compensated for educating George and losing his economic output. If George ends up losing his job and needing welfare, or breaks the law, the destination country will receive the funds to pay for deportation. George would be compensated if he was successful as an immigrant, then returned to his homeland.

Labor unionists — like Andrew Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union — love the reversible rewards concept because employers would bring in outsiders only if absolutely necessary. “It’s one of the first really thoughtful ideas” that is attractive to unions, he tells OZY. Even Peter Sutherland, U.N. special representative for migration, is in discussions with Bradford about ways to implement the idea, says his adviser, Gregory Maniatis.

For her part, Bradford says it will be up to policymakers to translate theory into practice. In the meantime, the reversible rewards principle can be put to good use in a number of other ways, she says. Promoting good drivers, paying gangs not to shoot each other or even getting big polluters to sign climate change agreements — those are all scenarios in which incentivizing both parties to cooperate can work. Or as she puts it: “Onto the next idea!”

Photography by Tom Wool for OZY.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Bradford’s daughter’s name, wrongly referred to the Forum of Young Global Leaders as “young leaders” and incorrectly stated that the cost of imprisonment would be covered under the proposed bond.

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