Immigration: bring it on

Adam Roberts reports from a Hay debate on immigration and he’s optimistic.

Restricting migration is bad news for the development of both the rich world and the poor. You’d probably expect the well-heeled and well-educated types gathered at Hay-on-Wye to favour letting poorer people improve their lives – and ours – by moving country. And quite right too. The argument raging at the Economist-sponsored debate on migration would not have cheered anti-immigrant types.

Even those – such as Trevor Phillips – who argued for stronger restrictions on future migration did so while nodding heavily to the gains from high migration. He pointed to football’s Premier League as a model for letting foreigners come to our shores to perform to their best ability. His concern? At least to me, that more immigration should be managed to avoid too nasty a political backlash and too much of a boost to far-right parties such as the BNP. Such a backlash is a real risk – as the Economist pointed out in a special report on migration a few months ago – but as another panellist noted, you don’t fail to build a house because you worry about a leak in the roof. You let migration continue to flow, but take steps to help those (the poorest) who feel threatened by it.

He could have added: why support free movement of capital, but not free movement of labour?

Of course the foul lies about migration continue to flourish, and are taken seriously not just by the disaffected working class but the professional middle class. Many people believe that immigrants routinely jump the housing queue, despite the fact that it’s standard practice for councils to allocate on the basis of connection to the local area. The BNP and sometimes the government uses this slander to turn sections of the poor against each other.

And many believe that migrants are a drain on the welfare state and the economy – when according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, they actually boost economic growth. 

Unity summarises the impact of mass migration thus:

Economic migration has:

a) pushed up economic growth, allowing the Treasury to revise its projections of future performance upwards by a quarter of a per cent,

b) reduced labour costs,

c) had no appreciable impact on the employment prospects of British workers – migrant workers have, for the most part, been filling gaps in the UK labour market rather than displacing British workers because they’re doing the jobs that British workers either don’t want or don’t have the skills to do, and

d) had no appreciable impact on public finances. In fact migrant workers are net contributors to both the British economy and the public purse. They pay their taxes, like everyone else. They contribute to the local economy in the area they live, by spending some of their earnings in local shops and on rented accommodation – and, of course, to the profitability of their employer. And they take less out of the system than UK workers, because they have fewer rights in terms of access to welfare benefits, social housing and some other public services and have much less need of those services because, in general, they have fewer dependents and also tend to be younger and therefore less likely to require the services of the NHS than Britain’s ageing population.

He also despatches the lie that immigrants commit more crime.

You can’t help thinking that the argument that migrants just sit on their arses living on housing benefit is simple projection. Greg Palast, an American journalist and radical, took a trip to our little island and was surprised at its insularity compared to the US – an immigrant nation whose success is built on immigrants. He quotes an American economist:

[I]t’s the deal of the millennium, says Dr Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute, a think-tank founded by big-name Republicans. ‘It’s a form of reverse foreign aid. We give less than $20 billion in direct aid to Third World nations and we get back $30bn a year in capital assets.’

You could also make the point that an indigenous individual has to have their schooling paid for by the state from the age of four to at least sixteen – eighteen if they stay on for A levels. If they go to university, the state may have to lend them the money to do so – a loan that may or may not be paid back this century. And we haven’t even factored in child benefit, NHS costs, and additional benefits that may be needed after education ends.

Whereas, a migrant can hop off the boat and – if the government lets him – start working right away.

Phillips is wrong. To patronise council tenants with get-tough rhetorical gestures is to insult their intelligence, and a form of class snobbery. To play down the benefits of immigration in fear of a BNP backlash is to let the far right set the agenda. We should defeat the BNP on their home turf and lay out the facts about immigration. (And let’s not forget that for every struggling working class person who votes BNP there are thousands that don’t.)

So far we’ve concentrated on dry economics. But immigration is more than economics. It is the human story – in Jack Kerouac’s words, ‘performing our one and noble function of the time, move’. We are all rootless cosmopolitans, and there is no such thing as a fixed culture. To finish with Palast:

It’s my story. Anna Palast stole across the border in 1920. Luckily, La Migra didn’t catch her until a few days before her 100th birthday… It’s not where you come from that counts. It’s where you’re going.

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