Immigration: the pros — and the big con

It’s way past time we had a grown-up, informed conversation about freedom of movement

Warning: pot of gold at end of rainbow may turn out to be punch in face

I’ve made a case for migration being an intrinsic part of what it is to be human. That does not, of course, necessarily make it a good thing. Human instinct is not always the most reliable moral compass. And since purportedly liberal voices have recently joined the far-right tub-thumpers in talking about “tighter controls”, and even the Guardian has to use “actually” in the headline of a positive story about immigration, there are clearly issues yet to be settled here.

So here’s a cost-benefit analysis: a comparison of the (alleged) benefits and drawbacks of human resettlement. Since I’m a Brit, this discussion will be skewed towards the UK, but most of the points can be applied more broadly.

The downsides

Prior to 1066, most arrivals in the British Isles were invaders or raiders rather than true migrants. It was the relative calm that followed the Norman Conquest that paved the way for the first peaceful settlers — and the slurs the natives have lobbed at them have barely evolved in a millennium.

‘They’re stealing our jobs’

Twaddle on every level.

  • It was never “your” job to begin with. It was a job advertised in the country where you happened to be born. It was the employer’s job, to give to whomsoever she chose.
  • The migrant is in no sense “stealing” the job; she is merely competing fairly for it. If you’re finishing second best to someone whose first language isn’t English, you might want to think about a different line of work.
  • The majority of immigrants take jobs that Britons simply don’t want to do, such as cleaning, fruit picking and social care. Many more take roles that Britons cannot do: the UK has huge skills shortages in a number of sectors, notably engineering, IT and healthcare.

(Incidentally, the racists who trot out this line can rarely back it up with evidence. When they do, it’s anecdotal: “It happened to me” or “It happened to my mate”. Sorry to break it to you, Socrates, but the value of anecdotal evidence is precisely diddly-squat. All the large-scale data says otherwise.)

Besides, the number of jobs available is not fixed (this common misapprehension is known as the lump of labour fallacy). Immigrants earn and pay taxes, pay rent, buy food and clothes and phones and all the other things natives do. This indirectly creates more jobs. Furthermore, many of them start up their own businesses (indeed, immigrants are twice as likely as locals to do so), thus directly creating more jobs. If there were a fixed number of vacancies in an economy, then unemployment after years of mass immigration should be stratospheric. It’s not. The latest figure is 4.1%, or 1.38 million people.

It’s true that living in an economic union of 550 million citizens means there’s 10 times as much competition as when the UK’s borders were closed. But it also means there are 10 times as many job opportunities. That’s the whole point of an expanded labour market: more choice for employers, more for employees.

‘They’re driving down wages’

Not according to 99% of all research into this issue, they’re not. Some studies have found marginal evidence of a slight depression in pay for the very lowest-paid, but the picture is far from clear-cut, not least because it’s impossible to know what would have happened to wages in the absence of freedom of movement.

At worst, according to the Migration Advisory Council’s calculations, a 10% increase in the number of non-natives entering the services industry may have resulted in a 1.9% decrease in wages for those employed in it — most of whom, traditionally, were migrants already.

Besides, any short-term losses are more than made up for in the long term by overall growth in the economy due to immigration, which benefits everyone.

‘They’re all scroungers’

It has been pointed out that this argument, in conjunction with the above, conjures the image of Schrödinger’s immigrant: a shadowy figure simultaneously stealing people’s jobs and lazing in front of Jeremy Kyle while wallowing in the opulence conferred by the UK welfare system.

It’s also bollocks. Government figures show that foreign nationals are far less likely to claim benefits than people born in the UK; while they make up 17.6% of the working population, they account for less than 7.4% of benefits awarded.

This is largely because the law grants foreign-born citizens less access to the welfare system in the first place. Under our arrangement with the EU, no EU citizen can claim benefits for the first three months of their stay, and they can be deported if they have not found work after three further months on benefits (or cannot otherwise support themselves).

Besides, it makes no sense. Who in their right mind would give up their friends, family and culture, uproot everything and go to all the trouble of building an entire new life in a country with unfamiliar food, customs and language, with the sole aim of pocketing the princely sum of £73 a week?

‘They’re all criminals’

Jewish usurers, Gypsy thieves, Italian mobsters, Irish thugs, Asian grooming gangs: virtually every wave of foreigners to set foot on these shores has endured systematic accusations of wrongdoing. While every cart has its bad apples, it simply isn’t true that immigrants are more likely to break the law than natives.

There are just under 10,000 foreign offenders in British jails and NOMS-operated IRCs, just under 12% of the prison population, and they make up 9% of the population overall. “Whoa!” you cry. “That’s above the national average! Immigrants are more criminal than the average Brit!”

Unfortunately for your argument, Mr Racist, IRCs are … immigration removal centres, which hold people awaiting deportation, almost exclusively for immigration violations. They generally hold around 3,000 people, or a third of the total. So the number of foreigners detained in English and Welsh prisons, for actual crimes, is only 8% of the total. Or below the national average.

In some cases, it appears that immigration actually lowers crime. One research paper, for example, found that the incarceration rate among foreign-born US citizens was a quarter of the rate for those born there.

Criminals, like benefit scroungers, are lazy. It’s practically their defining quality. The reason they commit crimes and sign on, rather than getting a job, is that they want maximum return for minimum effort. But (as any British plumber allegedly put out of work by a Polish counterpart will tell you) migrants tend to be harder-working.

It stands to reason. Is someone who has the get-up-and-go, organisational skills and commitment to do the necessary research, learn a new language, fill out all the paperwork, leave behind home, career and family, travel hundreds of miles, set up a bank account, etc, really going to turn into a slob on arrival? Is a rapist-in-waiting really going to go to all that trouble merely because he fancies raping British women?

Blackguards and wastrels are more likely to ply their “trades” nearer home, where they have established criminal networks and understand the local markets and loopholes, than to trudge halfway across the world to an alien land with a firmer rule of law.

It’s worth mentioning — because most Leave voters sure as hell don’t seem to know — that under EU law, the UK already has the power to deport criminals of EU origin. It can also prevent known offenders from entering. In the year ending June 2017, 5,301 EU citizens were deported from the UK, and in the period 2010–2016, the Border Force refused entry to 6,000 EU nationals.

“But look,” say the racists, linking to a single story about an EU immigrant who committed a crime, or a handful of bad guys. Again, they’re generalising from isolated incidents to a broader pattern that the figures just don’t support.

“I don’t care if only 0.25% of foreigners commit crimes,” bleat other racists. “Ten thousand is too many! Get rid of them all!” That’s like banning all cars because 0.6% of them are involved in serious accidents every year, or banning all doctors because 0.4% of them have criminal convictions. Madness.

When racists attempt to support their claims with evidence, they invariably cite the Quilliam report, just about the only vaguely authoritative investigation into so-called grooming gangs conducted to date in the UK. Close analysis, however, reveals it to be no such thing; its assumptions, methodology and conclusions have all been called into question by other commentators.

As a footnote, I would remind you that Britain’s departure from the EU threatens its participation in the European Arrest Warrant, under which almost 7,000 criminals were removed from 2009–2016.

‘They’re putting pressure on housing and social services’

There is some logic behind this one. Unlike the labour market, a country’s resources and services are, at any given point, finite. If more people arrive, there will be fewer houses, school places and GP appointments to go around.

However, governments always have the option to build more houses and schools, just as they have done to accommodate population growth throughout history. And as it turns out, immigrants disproportionately take jobs in education and healthcare, and, being younger and healthier, use these services less. As the UK is now discovering, if you create a hostile environment for foreigners, the teachers, lecturers, doctors, nurses and carers will be among the first to leave, and services will come under yet more strain.

“Why can’t we just train our own?” whine the racists. We can; but in the first place, it’s expensive — it costs £70,000 to train a nurse from scratch, £479,000 for a general practitioner, and £725,000 for a consultant. Second, it takes time: four years for a nurse, nine for a doctor. And third, you can’t expect exactly the right number of British students to step into a particular role simply because The Country Needs It. Supply does not always meet demand (which is another argument for a common market; it creates a larger playing field over which such imbalances can be corrected).

By the by, the notion that “Britain is full” is risible. The population density of the UK is 272/km2. By comparison, Monaco has 19,009 people per square kilometre, or 70 times the concentration. The UK population would have to reach 4.5 billion before it was as full as Monaco.

‘They’re destroying our culture’

A couple of hundred years ago, English culture was cockfighting, bear-baiting, maypoles and Morris dancing. Few got out their hankies when they faded away to be replaced with football, pubs and Celebrity fucking Big Brother.

In any case, the speed of change in the UK is constantly being exaggerated by the media. The endless stories in the Daily Mail and Express about people forced to say “Happy holiday” instead of “Christmas”, the word “Easter” being omitted from chocolate eggs and pork products being dropped from restaurant menus are usually anecdotal if true at all: scaremongering designed to sell more papers. Oh, and there are no sharia courts. There are a few dozen sharia councils that consult on matters of marriage and divorce.

To those racists who insist that the British way of life is under threat, I say this: Welsh, Scottish and Irish cultures are all still pretty damned vibrant. If they can survive centuries of English dominion, why can’t English culture survive the arrival of a few million guests?

Culture is fluid. Like language, it’s a living, breathing thing. Any culture that stops changing withers and dies. And how do cultures change? By evolution, certainly, but mostly, like language, by borrowing from others. To illustrate this point, I’ve compiled a short list of aspects of “British” culture that aren’t actually British at all:

Fish and chips (Portugal, Belgium), roast dinners (France), full English breakfast (Germans popularised sausages and bacon, while baked beans come from South America via the US and their sauce is made from Mediterranean tomatoes), barbecues (Caribbean), beer made from hops (Netherlands), golf (ancient Rome or China, via pre-Union Scotland), April Fool’s Day (France, or the Netherlands; certainly not England), Christmas and all things Christian (Middle East), Christmas trees (Germany), Easter eggs (Africa via Iraq), New Year’s celebrations (Iraq), pantomime (Italy), curry (India/Sri Lanka), pizza (Italy) and St George (Turkey).

‘They don’t integrate’

Admittedly, some do so more successfully than others. Just two points here: 1) integration is a two-way street. If you demonise and/or intimidate immigrants and refuse to employ them or socialise with them, you can hardly blame them for sticking with their own kind. 2) I can state categorically that every one of my friends from the EU — the ones who are still here, as well as the ones driven away by Brexit — speak and write English to a far higher standard than the average Brexiter on social media.

‘Allowing free movement within the EU discriminates against non-EU citizens’

This laughable bad-faith argument is about migration from specific countries rather than migration in general, but I’m mentioning it here because it seems to have gained a lot of traction of late.

You can see its appeal. It allows Brexit diehards to paint Remainers as the bad, racist guys and by extension themselves as the angels. But the notion that, because certain people enjoy certain advantages and others do not, you must create a level playing field by removing them from everyone — “’S not fair!” — is absurd.

By this reasoning, Fitness First is discriminating against non-members by only allowing in paying members. Alice is discriminating against Jenny (and everyone else on the planet) by dating Brian, so she must remain single for ever. And you are discriminating against all other fruits by eating an apple, and so must starve.

It’s impossible to strike deals with everyone at once. This is just a cynical contortion of language in an attempt to mislead, one that smells very strongly of 55 Tufton Street.

‘They’re all riddled with disease’

What utter bastards! When they’re not stealing your job or raping your children, they’re infecting you with typhus and AIDS!

Accusations of uncleanliness have dogged migrants for centuries — the Irish and the Gypsies came in for a particularly hard time — and while this line hasn’t seen so much play in the Brexit debate, the fake news merchants at Fox News and the like are frantically pursuing the health emergency angle in their rush to demonise the central American migrant caravan.

The claim is, to put it politely, a bunch of arse.

‘They’re replacing the native population’

The more hysterical nationalists are convinced that if immigration persists at its present levels, white British people will soon be in a minority, or eliminated altogether.

This is the slippery slope fallacy in action: the assumption that a trend will continue unchanged. But trends never do. Rates of migration rise and fall. The UK has recently experienced a peak in new arrivals, as a result of the accession of the eastern European states. As those states’ prosperity approaches that of the UK, the number of people moving here will decline.

Other racists point to the fact that immigrants “outbreed” the native population — new arrivals tend to have larger families. This is quite true. However, it is also true that natality among subsequent generations tends to subside to local levels (pdf).

The upsides

They fill skills shortages

No one’s seriously going to dispute this, are they? I’ve already mentioned the high levels of foreign-born staff in the NHS and the education system, but they also make up a disproportionate chunk of the workforce in catering, construction, fruit-picking, food preparation and technology. Food is already rotting in fields and patients dying alone in hospitals since the number of immigrants began to fall after the Brexit vote.

They’re great for business

Immigrants bring energy, dynamism and ideas. Immigrants are responsible for one in every seven new startups in the UK, and their ventures create 14% of all British jobs. Here’s a far from complete list of great “British” brands that were in fact founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants: Dollond & Aitchison, M&S, Tesco, Rothschild & Co, ICI, General Electric, Burton, Selfridge’s, Barings Bank, Barnardo’s, Mme Tussauds, GlaxoSmithKline, British Petroleum, Reuters, Schroders Asset Management, Moss Bros, Triumph, Lion’s soaps, Shell, Easyjet, Cobra Beer, Acorn Computers (ARM), WPP, Cafe Nero, DueDil, RationalFX, Deliveroo, Transferwise, Kano, Carwow and Hassle.

They enhance our culture

New food, new music, new fashions, new words. You can draw up your own fucking list this time.

They boost the economy

If you can find me a single authoritative, peer-reviewed study that shows that immigrants to the UK have a net negative effect on the economy, I’ll shag Katie Hopkins.

Immigrants put more in than they take out; natives’ net contribution is negative

Cultural homogeneity has a positive impact on GDP growth

Influxes of asylum seekers increase per-capita GDP, reduce unemployment and boost tax revenues

Migration has no negative impact on employment outcomes; increases productivity

But you don’t have to trawl through academic papers for proof that freedom of movement is an economic boon. You just have to draw up a list of the richest cities and countries in the world and then look at their respective levels of migration.

They compensate for falling birthrates

Indigenous Brits are not reproducing at a sufficiently high rate to replace the existing population. British-born women have an average of only 1.7 children each, and a further 200,000 Brits leave these shores every year. Without immigration to make up the shortfall, the British population would decline by 417,000 every year.

And a shrinking population, as China is discovering, is catastrophic for the economy, because there are fewer people to pay tax and thus fund healthcare and pensions for the older generation.

They enhance our personal lives

As well as giving us access to a wider employment market, migration — inward and outward — vastly increases the choice of friends, business partners and lovers available to us. As this is hard to quantify, there’s little in the way of hard research on the subject, but I know I am not alone in having made dozens of wonderful, life-changing connections that would never have come to pass without freedom of movement.

They make war less likely

Last and foremost, freedom of movement between the nations of Europe has — exactly as it was intended to — increased mutual reliance, cooperation and understanding between peoples, tempered nationalist tendencies, and led to the longest spell of uninterrupted peace in the continent’s history. I’m in no hurry to throw that away.

So that means …

“Tottenham has turned French” — Unnamed Londoner, early 16th C
“A certain preacher … abused the strangers in the town, and their manners and customs, alleging that they not only deprived the English of their industry, and of the profits arising therefrom, but dishonoured their dwellings by taking their wives and daughters” — Sebastian Giustinian, ambassador to Venice, 1517
“A congregation … of distressed exiles growne so great and yet daily multiplying, that the place in short time is likely to prove a hive too little to contain such a swarme” — W Somner, 1639
“The nation it is almost quit undone//By French men that doe it daily overrun” — Anonymous, 1691
“Why should we take the bread out of the mouths of our own children and give it to strangers?” — John Adams, US president, 1800
“The Jews of the lower orders … have not a principle of honesty in them; to grasp and be getting money for ever is their single and exclusive occupation” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1830
“Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are — some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?” — Donald Trump, 2015

I feel ashamed to be a human being when I’m reminded of how little we have learned through the ages.

When debating Brexit with Leave voters on Twitter, I used to concede the point that “having concerns about mass immigration is not racist”. I take it all back. It’s racist as fuck.

The reason I’ve liberally peppered this post with the word “racist” is that, after looking at material from hundreds of sources and weighing the matter long and hard, I’ve concluded that there is no argument against immigration. The benefits are enormous, the costs negligible. The only possible reason left that anyone could have for objecting to immigration is xenophobia, English exceptionalism, Fear of the Other: in a word, racism.

Immigrants are people. Just like us. In fact, usually, better than us; more industrious, less likely to commit crimes, younger, healthier, brighter. If you deny or dismiss the fact that migration is a fundamental part of human nature; if you wave away the proven benefits; if you insist on stressing the downsides to the exclusion of all else, even though there is scant (if endlessly repeated) evidence to back up your point; then you, my foe, are a racist.

Most people who have actually encountered large numbers of immigrants are not afraid of them; they know from experience that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. The only reason people think migration is a bad thing is that power-hungry populists, rightwing media and, increasingly, trolls in the employ of enemy powers tell them that it is.

Historically, there have been some problems, but it’s invariably the migrants who bear the brunt. Locals might have been mildly inconvenienced by the unsanitary conditions in an Irish ghetto, or the din generated by Italian ragamuffins playing barrel organs on the streets of 19th-century London; meanwhile, the migrants themselves were starving, dying from cholera, being shunned and deported and lynched.

Robert Winder put it so eloquently in his book on migration, Bloody Foreigners, that I’m shamelessly going to quote him in full:

“Illegal immigration is a fine-toothed comb. The system catches the clumsy or the clueless; only the best, the bravest and the luckiest slip through. It should never surprise us when migrants prosper; nearly all of them have passed an exacting extrance exam.”

All this fearmongering about immigrants and minorities has no basis in reality; it is the tool of dangerous demagogues. It is they, and not the targets of their false fury, that we should be deporting.

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