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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder