Time to reject false choices and fears about immigration

Basic freedom of movement across borders is fundamental to human dignity.

Srinivasa Ramanujan isn’t a name most people know, but his story illustrates the power of migration to improve the world.

Born to a poor family in southern India in the late nineteenth century, Ramanujan displayed a remarkable mathematical mind from an early age, developing complex theorums as a teenager.

He was a genius, but he left school in poverty and seemed destined to live a life of subsistence. By chance, Ramanujan was discovered by another Indian mathematician and ended up at Cambridge, producing ingenious new ideas and eventually becoming the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College.

Ramanujan was lucky. Had he not been discovered when he was, he could have easily spent a life in poverty, his genius untapped and giving nothing to the world.

The west’s immigration laws make it remarkably difficult for latter-day Ramanujans to exploit their potential. Ramanujan represents not just the geniuses lying fallow in subsistence agriculture, but all human talent that is not being tapped to its full potential.

Whether the reasons are poor governance, cultural constraints, poverty or other restraints on human productivity, billions of people are being condemned to lives of relative squalor, with no way out.

A person’s productivity is enormously dependent on the circumstances they find themselves in. Taxi drivers in New York City, over 90 per cent of whom are immigrants, earn between $25,000 and $28,000 a year (£). Taxi drivers in, say, Benin can expect to earn less than $1,440 a year for exactly the same work.

Lowering the borders to allow more people from poor countries to come and work in the developed world would harness this and make the world dramatically richer in a very short space of time.

A 2011 study of the existing research around the GDP benefits of immigration by Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development (Economics and Emigration: Trillion Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?) found that removing all barriers to migration could increase global GDP by between 67 per cent and a whopping 147 per cent – in other words, more than doubling global GDP. (In contrast, the studies reviewed found that removing all global barriers to trade – still an important goal – would increase global GDP by between 0.3 per cent and 4.1 per cent.)

Would these benefits mostly accrue to the host countries, depriving poor countries of the productivity of human capital? It doesn’t look like it. Development economist William Easterly has cited four reasons that "brain drain" from poor countries is a good thing: benefits to the migrants themselves, benefits to their families (through money sent back by those migrants), new skills and fresh ideas from migrants who do return home, and the global "brain gain" of tapping talent and unleashing the ideas of more people.

A World Bank study that compared the per-capita income gain to Tonga from microfinance, deworming programmes, conditional cash transfers and a seasonal migrant worker programme in New Zealand. The results were staggering – migrant workers sent home huge amounts of cash, increasing spending and investment in Tonga to raise per-capita incomes by 30 to 40 per cent - see graph below.

Graph from David MacKenzie on the World Bank blog.

We should reject the false choice presented by opponents of immigration between a fortress Britain and being "swamped" by immigrants. Fears of the welfare state being overrun are misplaced and do not reflect the reality that immigrants are actually helping to support state services. Immigrants to Britain pay more in taxes to the state than they consume in services – and since the average immigrant to Britain is young, we are counting on increased immigration to support our aging population.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that immigrants are more entrepreneurial than the average person, as you might expect of someone who has travelled halfway across the world in search of a better life. A 2006 study in the US (pdf) found that "50 per cent of Silicon Valley engineering and technology startups were founded by immigrants (as were 25 per cent of such startups nationwide)." And, of course, the more innovation that takes place anywhere in the world, the better off we all are.

To libertarians and liberals, basic freedom of movement across borders is fundamental to human dignity. But everyone should be eager to make the world’s poorest better off and unlock the talent of more people like Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Sam Bowman is the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute

The backdrop to a speech about immigration. Photograph: Getty Images
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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.