Changing The Immigration Dialogue

Changing The Immigration Dialogue

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For as long as I can remember — certainly for the last decade, or my entire adult existence — the narrative on immigration in the British media and in British politics has been overwhelmingly negative. Political parties from across the spectrum from Labour to the Conservatives and UKIP compete with each other to win votes based on who can be toughest on immigration both in terms of reducing future flows, and in terms of removing undocumented migrants from the country. Immigrants are often demonised as money-sucking and parasitic, taking jobs from British peoplecommitting crime, taking up scarce housing and basically being a drain upon the system. The coalition government that came to power in 2010 has the stated aim of reducing the flow of migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands per year. 

Certainly, there was a big upswing in migration to Britain following Britain’s accession to the European Union. But the effects of immigration on British society have been quantifiably beneficial. Immigrants commit statistically less crime than natives. Immigrants pay more taxes than they receive in benefits, and more tax per capita than natives. While there are definitely some real concerns about overcrowding public services, and overcrowding the housing market these can be dealt with by expanding house-building and by increasing investment in public services, activities which would actually create jobs at a time when unemployment is high and job-creation is necessary. And it is arguable that Britain would face a housing crisis even without mass immigration due to its restrictive planning laws. But to begin to invest in infrastructure to accommodate an increasing population would require the political class to accept the reality of an increasing population, instead of simply falling back on the populist argument that immigration is something that can and should be clamped down on. Of course, everyone is descended from immigrants. Our history as a species has been one of immigration out of Africa, and across the continents of the world. But modern political dialogue is not often cognizant of that fact.

Certainly, it is true that many people feel threatened and scared by the demographic changes that have occurred in the past twenty years in Britain. Recent reports suggest anti-immigration attitudes are hardening. But whether or not people feel culturally threatened by it, the world is swept up in change and it is hardly a uniquely British or uniquely European phenomenon.The world we live in is increasingly globalised. Capital is increasingly mobile, and free from borders, able to go wherever the labour and resources are cheapest. It is unlikely that global labour can ever become as mobile as capital due to things like language and cultural barriers, but unless labour can become more highly mobile — able to travel and take up employment where the work is — there exists the threat of increasing economic dislocation. Ultimately, we live in a world where job opportunities are spread out across the face of the globe. By giving individuals the freedom of movement to work wherever their comparative advantage in the global economy exists, we let people specialise in what they are best at.

According to the paper Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk? (2011) by Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development, open borders could lead to a one-time boost in world GDP by about 50-150%. That would be enough to lift billions out of poverty and it could come about simply from lifting restrictions on human movement and letting people find their niche in the global economy. This is a huge incentive to adopt global freedom of movement as soon as possible. Although open borders would not necessarily — and in my view, should not and would not — mean an end to national and tribal identities, such an economic system would seem to be a scary change for much of the world. Many people find rapid change extremely frightening, and for good reason. It would at the very least mean a massive economic upheaval, and would require very careful and adaptive planning of infrastructure and public services. Culturally, children today are raised within the same or similar national and cultural narratives as their parents or grandparents, although technologies like the internet are providing more and greater exposure to other cultures, and turning English into a global lingua franca. Certain cultural practices associated with more global mobility like interracial relationships that were considered unacceptable by many two generations ago are now widely accepted. So it does appear that we are moving very slowly toward a world with greater international mobility.

Of course, these advances could easily be set back by events like a global war that flares up international tensions. There still exist lots of ethnic and cultural flash points and old hatreds and animosities — for example, look at the recent flare-ups between China and Japan, or between Russia and Georgia, or between Israel and Palestine — that could make global economic integration more difficult. And the pace of integration has so far been really quite glacial. Xenophobic attitudes are still prevalent to some degree throughout the world. But it should not be forgotten just how much advance has been made from the mid-20th century, when nationalism and potent national mythology broke the world up and drove the world to war. Small outbursts of anti-immigration sentiment are inevitable stumbles against the long run trend toward internationalism and freedom of movement.


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