Immigration: Are we Missing the Bigger Picture?

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The issue of immigration calls for a global, proactive, and comprehensive approach that goes beyond the simplistic solutions of the far Right and Left.

In dealing with the question of immigration, we may expect to encounter appeals to morality. First of all, we should dispense with the racial and conspiratorial arguments, such as beliefs that the dilution of ‘white’ genetics will destroy the strength of Western civilisation, or that this is a plot by liberals and the Left to punish the West for colonialism.

It’s true that many of those who support immigration do so from a perspective of duty, but this should not be considered vindictiveness, in the same sense that a desire to redistribute wealth in general does not emerge from a ‘politics of envy’.

Regardless, in a democratic state, citizens can generally be expected to vote for the policies they believe will benefit them, as citizens, the most. It is beyond the scope of this article to win people over to any alternative sense of morality and justice. Therefore, I aim to focus on the potential impact of immigration on existing citizens.

Homeostasis

The mistake we make when considering immigration is to imagine a nation-state as something like a ‘closed system’. That is, a unique ecosystem which functions autonomously. Of course, we all understand that trade and travel happen, so the image is more like a semi-closed system–a singular entity which nevertheless occasionally exchanges particles with the outside world. Following this concept, we can control the rate at which these particles exit and enter, and thus protect our insides from contaminants, and yet our governments are choosing to ‘import’ people who are likely to cause problems. In biological terms, this would be described as ‘homeostasis’.

But a more accurate analysis would see the whole world as a single system. A ‘world system’ if you like. We can try to close ourselves off, and may see a reduction, but we would enter a state of constant vigilance as the particles attempt to follow their natural flow, and this would come at great cost. The idea of massaging immigration to conform to numerical totals set by the government is functionally equivalent to setting price controls–what it does is cause multiple complications as the natural flow attempts to reassert itself. If prices, or numbers of migrants, are spiralling out of control, then the solution should come from tackling the root causes of the issue, not from allowing the government to dictate arbitrary numbers.

What are the reasons behind immigration?

Immigration is a ‘natural’ levelling out of an imbalance–global variations in living standards–and thus it will continue to happen, whether governments try to restrict it or not, as long as that imbalance remains. We understand, or should understand, that when a city is affected by economic decline, it becomes a potential haven for crime and corruption. Such a downturn has a tendency to leak out into surrounding areas, as gangs extend their reach, people move out and spread nihilistic attitudes, dodgy officials gain higher status and so on. The idea that we could solve the problem by walling off, literally or figuratively, the affected area would seem ludicrous.

One of the primary arguments raised in defence of immigration has been that immigrants do not, to any great degree, impact on local jobs. This seems entirely unintuitive to most people. It is evident that many immigrants do have jobs, since we meet such people in the course of our daily lives. In some ways, it is understandable to trust the evidence of our own experiences over statistics.

However, if we look at it in terms of ‘more people coming in means more competition for jobs, which means the depression of local wages’, we are missing the bigger picture. Look at it this way. That depression in wages and loss of jobs? It has already happened. The West has been experiencing it for decades. And it has been caused at least partly through competition with workers from the rest of the world. But here’s the thing. They don’t have to come here to compete with us.

Photo: Reuters/Kham

Misplaced fears

It’s far more profitable in most cases to build factories in ‘developing’ countries–where the laws may be looser and living standards much lower. The biggest source of competition for your labour is not immigrants but the workers who stay in other countries. They are competing with us on a level we could never hope to match without giving up the living standards we take for granted. They are not taking your job–they are taking a job which pays half as much and causes twice the workplace accidents.

In a similar fashion, the impact on a host country from illegal immigration has the potential to be far worse than the impact from legal immigration. When immigration is highly restrictive, and we get large numbers of illegal immigrants, they pose a greater threat to local jobs, because they are ripe for exploitation. With no legal recourse, hiring undocumented workers can be much more lucrative than hiring locals, who have pesky things like the enforcement of labour laws to back them up. Much like what transpired with alcohol during the Prohibition era in the United States, immigration continues to happen, only now it is controlled by criminal gangs and unscrupulous employers.

Where we are failing

The solution to the economic anxiety we have been facing in the West is probably the most counterproductive approach we could imagine. The answer to the suffering of working class citizens in our own countries is a speedy rise in the political stability, living standards, and labour laws of the rest of the world until they match our own.

If democratic, socially progressive, up to date economies were the norm across the world, there would be no noticeable large-scale immigration to worry about. As it stands, the rest of the world is getting richer at the expense of the West, as international firms take advantage of their ability to choose where to employ people, but we are also facing a global downturn in democracy and a rise in relative levels of inequality. By attempting to stem the tide, walling ourselves off and preserving the nation’s wealth that way, we only encourage the economic decline of the vast majority of Westerners, to the benefit of small numbers of international elites. Only organised, global action can maintain a social democratic future. By tackling the absurd wealth of the richest few, closing up loopholes and tax havens, we can create a globally regulated economy in which large scale migration is a thing of the past.

A similar argument can be made on cultural grounds as well as economic. We are not, and cannot be, isolated from the deeply unpleasant philosophies which still hold sway over much of the world’s population. Through the UN, through international diplomacy, even through the work of foreign intelligence agencies, other countries seek to propagate their worldviews just as we seek to propagate ours.

They know that the best defence is a good offence–and so should we. If people come to our country with backward ideologies, we should work doubly hard to help them see the error of their ways. Full integration into our society, without special treatment or prejudice, is the best weapon we have in the war of ideas. And if we subsequently help them return to their home countries–as many of them would dearly love to do–we can protect ourselves by assisting in the reform of those countries from within.

A march of the anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party in Athens, Greece. Photo: AP/Yorgos Karahalis

Reconciling values with practicalities

The prospect of large numbers of people moving into our country who may not share our beliefs is a daunting one. But it is an integral part of those values to be open, so we must find a way to protect our values without compromising them. The far-right claims to wish to preserve respect for women and egalitarian principles, but, just like the Islamists, they too hold disdain for democracy, human rights, and social progressivism.

The more restrictions we place on immigration, the more we create a barrier between ourselves and the rest of the world, the more we open the door to authoritarian, elitist attitudes. Nation states are supposed to favour their own citizens–but the more they justify ill-treatment of non-citizens, the easier it is to justify similar treatment of the citizens themselves.

A fear of immigration is fundamentally detrimental to our political and social outlooks. With recent elections in the US and Europe, the biggest threat to our way of life seems to come not from the immigrants themselves, but from the lengths people are willing to go, the parties people are willing to elect, to keep them out. The solution here is to find a way to address the cultural baggage people may bring with them to our countries without increasing the power of the state over people’s lives.

This article has addressed the issue of immigration in purely practical terms of self-interest, leaving moral arguments aside. However, morality serves a practical purpose within society. A system of morality can be judged by the results it produces. Does it protect those who follow it, and allow them to spread? Or is it self-destructive, causing its believers to perish? Reciprocal altruism is about building mutually productive relationships. Experiments with game theory have demonstrated that openness to cooperation, tempered by self-defence against hostility, is an optimum strategy.

We have to stop seeing the nation state as an insular environment. What we are living in now is becoming irreversibly a global economy. This is something that governments are powerless to stand against. I expect more protectionists will come into power in the coming decades, fuelled by frustration at economic stagnation and the apparent indifference of elites. But they will continue to fail because the power of wider forces–masses of people, global financial institutions, and multinational corporations–will prove too much for any one country to challenge. In their failure they turn to authoritarian measures and dismantle the democratic process. This is a future we must prevent.

Mainstream parties have tried to maintain the support of the public by taking ‘tougher’ stances on immigration. But they cannot provide the solutions people ask for because they understand the economic situation makes them unfeasible. This only gives more ground to people willing to promise more than they can achieve.

If we want to adopt a more effective strategy, we have to be prepared to stand up to the lies and distortions spread by right-wing media sources and personalities, while engaging in honest and open dialogue with the general public. Simply labelling all critics of immigration as racist isn’t going to cut it, but neither will adopting a hard-line anti-immigration policy.

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