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.

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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.