The Agenda

Immigration Policy Is Not Binary

Immigration advocates have a frustrating tendency to insist that the immigration debate is binary. You are either for immigration or against it. They neglect the possibility that one might be for certain kinds of immigration and against others, and they routinely deploy data that fails to differentiate among immigrants by skill level or language proficiency. The reason, I suspect, is that many immigration advocates recognize that their arguments from global poverty alleviation fail to resonate with the broader public, and so they seek to yoke their case for less-skilled immigration to the much stronger case for skilled immigration by blurring the distinction between the two. 

Charles Kenny, a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek and a proponent of large-scale less-skilled immigration, offers a comparative analysis of public opinion concerning immigration across several market democracies, drawing on 2013 data from the German Marshall Fund. Though I very much enjoy Kenny’s writing, his latest column obscures more than it reveals. 

The U.K. is the only country out of eight European countries and the U.S. surveyed by the German Marshall Fund where the majority of respondents thought there were too many immigrants in the country in 2013. Compare that with 41 percent in the U.S. and only 24 percent in Germany.

What Kenny does not mention is that when asked if there were “a lot but not too many” immigrants in the country, 39 percent of Americans, 55 percent of Germans, and 28 percent of Britons answered in the affirmative. One obvious possibility that Kenny neglects is that Germans might be reluctant to tell a pollster that there are “too many” immigrants residing in their country while Americans and Britons, who presumably don’t have the same anxieties about national chauvinism, are somewhat more inclined to do so. While Kenny cites the fact that only 24 percent of Germans will forthrightly say that there are too many immigrants in the country, he neglects to mention that 43 percent of Italians and 43 percent of the French say the same. The Swedes, like the Germans, are outliers in that only 23 percent report that there are too many immigrants in the country, yet Sweden is home to large numbers of migrants from neighboring countries like Finland (12.5 percent of all foreigners residing in Sweden), Denmark (6.8), and Norway (6) as well as countries like Iraq (9.3). A finer-grained question might ask respondents if there were “too many” immigrants from affluent market democracies or from the developing world.

Kenny’s column is, of course, about immigration, which is to say whether or not the citizens of market democracies should allow more immigrants to settle in their countries. The “too many” question is not the most obvious way to get at this particular concern. Ask Americans about illegal immigration and the German Marshall Fund finds that 61 percent are worried about it; 71 percent of Germans are worried about it, as are 80 percent of Britons. On legal immigration, only 25 percent of Americans are worried while the same is true of 29 percent of Germans and 41 percent of Britons. 

So why might Britons be so much more concerned than Germans? One hint comes from the World Bank, which finds that from 2009 to 2013, net migration to Germany has been 549,998 while net migration to Britain has been 900,000. This might sound like a relatively modest difference, but remember that Germany has a population of 82 million while Britain has a population of 62 million. Moreover, immigration to Britain has been concentrated in southeastern England while it has been somewhat more diffuse in Germany. 

In the U.S., more than two-thirds view immigration as a good thing for the country. And even in the outlier U.K., the percentage of people suggesting immigration has gone too far has been similar—and if anything a little higher—all the way back to the 1960s. The proportion of Britons who admit they are at least a little prejudiced against people of other races has fallen from 35 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in the latest survey. The downward trend looks set to continue: Opposition to immigration skews old, and young people are considerably more relaxed about migration and race. Thirty-seven percent of British people born before 1929 admit to being very or a little prejudiced against people of another race, compared with 25 percent of Generation Y.

First of all, to say that immigration is a good thing for the country is trivial, as it has no bearing on the kind of immigration policy a country ought to pursue. I would agree that immigration is a good thing for the United States; I also believe that a Canadian- or Australian-style immigration policy would be far superior to the status quo. Kenny’s findings concerning racial prejudice in Britain are not terribly surprising, considering that 14 percent of the UK population now belongs to visible minority communities, and it is expected to increase to 20-30 percent of the UK population by 2030. And of course Kenny is taking it for granted that opposition to immigration and racial prejudice are necessarily linked. British opposition to immigration has remained persistently high even as British society has grown more racially tolerant. 

The U.K. also demonstrates the disconnect between attitudes toward immigration and the scale of immigration itself. While rising concern in the U.K. over the past decade has followed an upswing in migration from new member states of the European Union, in 2012 U.K. net migration was at its lowest level since 2008. Prejudice is the least prevalent in the most racially diverse parts of the country. Inner London, perhaps the most diverse part of the U.K., sees only 16 percent willing to admit prejudice—about one half the national average. Similarly, animosity toward immigrants in the U.S. is concentrated in rural areas, according to Katherine Fennelly and Christopher M. Federico of the University of Minnesota. They suggest that might be because of “greater isolation and lesser contact with immigrants and minorities.”

What Kenny does not mention is that net migration has decreased from 2008 to 2012 in part because Britain’s Coalition government has sought to reduce net migration, and the share of Britons who believe that there are “too many” immigrants in the country has fallen from a peak of 59 percent in 2010 to 55 percent. That is, the Coalition appears to be reassuring some number of Britons that it is addressing anxieties about immigration.

Again and again, Kenny slides from a discussion of opposition to immigration to a discussion of racial prejudice, as if the two sentiments were indistinguishable. Leaving aside the fact that opposition to immigration and racial prejudice are not in fact indistinguishable, Kenny’s discussion of prejudice in inner London is curious, as only 45 percent of London’s population is white British; one assumes that white Britons who are prejudiced have over time migrated to other regions of the country.

Across Europe, the recent elections may reflect a growing animosity toward immigrants during a downturn, but the far right in Europe did better in countries that suffered comparatively little from the financial crisis. Decades of research suggest views about migration simply aren’t related to self-interested worries about the threat of losing jobs. In their survey (PDF) of public attitudes toward immigration, Jens Hainmueller and Daniel Hopkins suggest the idea has “repeatedly failed to find empirical support,” making it something of a “zombie theory.” At the same time, a cluster of attitudes toward race and nationalism alongside immigration are closely linked.

This all suggests attitudes toward migration are a cultural issue—like those toward guns or gay marriage. And cultural attitudes unmoored from immediate economic concerns can change fast—look at gay marriage, where popular backing for marriage equality increased from 27 percent to 55 percent over the past 18 years. 

Unfortunately, Kenny fails to take into account rising anti-immigration sentiment in Singapore, a racially diverse society with a large Chinese majority, where a large share of recent migration has come from China. Singapore has seen a dramatic increase (34 percent) in its population since 2000, and in the last general election, voters issued a stern rebuke to the ruling People’s Action Party, which has moved quickly to reduce reliance on foreign labor, which now represents a third of the workforce. The notion that Chinese Singaporeans are resisting Chinese immigration out of racial animus strains credulity, which is why Kenny is wise not to have invoked the (very salient) example of Singapore. Moreover, there is reliable evidence, from Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri, among others, that new immigration puts wage pressure on earlier immigrants, a fact that is worthy of note in societies like the U.S. where the foreign-born share of the workforce is above 15 percent. 

Or take another cultural question about employment: The World Values Survey in Germany in the late 1990s found more than one-fifth of the adult population thought that when jobs were scarce men had more right to a job than did women. That has fallen to 7 percent in the most recent survey. In Spain, that figure has dropped from 27 percent in the 1990s to 7 percent today. No major politician in Europe or America has come out with a proposal to shut women out of the workforce during the recent economic crisis. Hopefully, during the next economic crisis, the same will be true of migrants.

To be clear, Kenny is suggesting that the full inclusion of women in the workforce can meaningfully be compared to whether or not it is wise for a given country to increase net migration. This is a hard argument to take seriously. Reducing net migration may well lead to increased female labor force participation, thus further undermining patriarchal norms. 

Those politicians fostering “acceptable nativism” might want to look at long-term economic trends. A recent analysis by the U.K.’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that the long-term impact of reducing net migration by 50 percent—in line with the target proposed by Britain’s David Cameron—would reduce British income per capita by about 2.7 percent by 2060 and force income tax increases of about 2.2 percentage points. That’s largely because most migrants are young—and so populations skew older absent immigration. Lower net migration implies more retirees on pensions with heavy hospital bills and fewer working-age people paying taxes.

You can be the party of low taxes or of low immigration. You can’t be the party of both. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic should consider that math next time they use immigrants as a convenient scapegoat come election time.

Kenny neglects the possibility — for good reason — that raising the average skill level of migrants could offset some of the cost associated with reducing net migration. While he frets over the difficulties of financing retirees on pensions with heavy hospital bills, he neglects the fact that migrants age and that retirees aren’t the only people who require labor-intensive services; so do low-income individuals in need of retraining, or the children of parents with low levels of educational attainment, who need supplementary instruction and other support services. Instead of admonishing politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to consider the math, Kenny should keep in mind that the math favors immigration policies that raise the average skill level over those that lower it. Lo and behold, it turns out that societies that select immigrants on the basis of skill are also less hostile to immigration.


Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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