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Why an immigration amnesty could benefit British workers

An amnesty for illegal immigrants can help boost their income, reducing socio-economic disparities.

One of the most depressing things about contemporary British politics is the extent to which one of the key arguments of the anti-immigrant right, that immigration increases unemployment among British-born workers, has gone unchallenged. Indeed, two years ago this capitulation reached its nadir with Gordon Brown's infamous slogan of "British jobs for British workers". This is a pity, because economists who have studied this area increasingly believe that the relationship between immigration and native-born unemployment is not straightforward. Also, there is evidence that restrictive immigration policies may make things worse for unskilled workers, not better.

Indeed a study by Harvard academics George Borjas and Lawrence Katz, found that immigration had a two-stage effect on wages and employment. Although unanticipated surges in immigration were found to depress wages in the short run, these lower wages then encouraged firms to increase investment, causing wages to rebound and unemployment to fall. Indeed, the post-war British and American labour markets have been able to deal with changes that were far more disruptive and wide-ranging than immigration, such as the simultaneous decline of manufacturing and rise of the service sector, the revolution in information technology and the breakdown of traditional gender roles.

Opponents of immigration also like to quote factoids that imply that immigrants are draining public services. For instance, Migration Watch claim that "there are more than 300 primary schools in which over 70 per cent have English as a second language; this is nearly a half million children". However, since new arrivals tend to be younger than the average Briton, and many return home during periods of unemployment, they consistently make a net contribution to the public finances. In some cases this can be substantial, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies finding that immigrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004 used £9.7bn worth of public services but paid £13.6bn in taxes between 2005/6 and 2008/9.

Paradoxically, some of the arguments made by the anti-immigration lobby inadvertently make the case for a relaxation of controls, rather than further crackdowns. Although the tendency of illegal migrants to cluster in low-paid and casual sectors of the economy contributes to increased inequality, this mostly occurs because short-sighted immigration controls restrict their opportunities to gain more productive employment. Just as the development community has gradually become aware of the importance of property rights in reducing the size of the black market in emerging economies, some far-sighted policymakers are beginning to realize that regularizing the status of illegal immigrants in the developed world may allow them to begin the process of joining the middle class.

Indeed, there is conclusive evidence that granting amnesty to illegal immigrants enables them to boost their income, reducing socio-economic disparities. As part of the last attempt at immigration reform 25 years ago, the United States granted amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants. A study carried out last November by the American Immigration Council found that whereas their homeownership rates and skills levels lagged those of equivalent ages who had been born in the United States, this gap had almost completely disappeared by 2006. Indeed, many of those who came to the United States in their late 20s and early 30s without the equivalent of a secondary education had improved their levels of qualifications, suggesting that they had invested time and money in remedial education.

Therefore progressives need to be less apologetic about their support for immigration and more ready to confront those who use crocodile tears for working families to mask old-fashioned bigotry. Ed Miliband was correct to say in his inaugural speech as leader that, "we did not do enough to address concerns about some of the consequences of globalisation, including migration". However, addressing concerns means explaining the benefits of an open labour market and enabling illegal immigrants to work legally, not pandering to the fears and prejudices of Daily Mail leader writers or xenophobic think tanks.