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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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.