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A Practicable Immigration Policy

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Immigration is a highly contentious topic today, and has become a focal point of political divide. One the one side you have a coalition of libertarian and left-leaning groups who advocate for open borders on economic or individual rights grounds. On the other you have increasing nativist sentiment who desire borders restricted to protect domestic workers and industries, or fear the cultural threat of unrestricted immigration. Balancing these concerns ought not be a difficult task, but moderate voices in the debate seem to have been all but lost in the ideological fervour.

The proposals advocated by adherents of these varying philosophies all seem to believe that the concerns they acknowledge are the totality of concerns for a society. When analysed through prisms that are either wholly economic or wholly cultural, one fails to make sense of the arguments put forward by those across the ideological divide. If one were instead to believe that the underlying methodology of each position has something to offer, a more holistic analysis is possible, and from this one can form a practicable immigration policy that addresses the concerns of the majority.

This policy would best be adapted from the system of godparents in early Christian times. There were a multitude of fears for early Christians, including the fear of Roman spies infiltrating their group, and the fear of quasi-believers entering their ranks resulting in a perversion of the theological understanding of the Christian gospels. Nonetheless, Christianity would not have survived if it did not have its evangelising mission, which required that believers seek to make disciples of all in every nation. Balancing this fear of outsiders with the desire for assimilation led to the introduction of the godparent system. Godparents effectively vouched for the individuals who sought conversion into the faith, in doing so placing the risks on the individual godparents who were willing to bear them. By making individuals already part of the group bear the fears of the whole, the incentive created was to encourage those individuals to mitigate the potential for harm, while the group reaped the rewards brought by new members.

When it comes to immigration, the closest analogue is that of private sponsorship. The Canadian immigration system features elements of private sponsorship for refugees, and to a lesser extent with foreign spouses. The privately sponsored refugees generally have adapted much better to Canadian society than government sponsored one’s, generally having superior English skills, lower feelings of isolation, and better social cohesion.

Private sponsorship asks that someone from the country vouches for the immigrant before they arrive, be they a potential employer, a spouse/family member, or a religious organisation. They then would bear the risks associated with the immigrant, for example, if the individual commits a crime, the sponsorship contract would be void, and the sponsor would have to pay the costs of judicial process and deportation. The added benefit of allowing private organisations or individuals to sponsor immigrants is that the government no longer needs to pry into personal affairs, asking why someone is coming or why someone is a sponsor. It would simply be assumed that by bearing risk, the sponsoring party is making a rational decision. This incentive results from the skin in the game principle, that those who bear the risk of an action are more likely to make better decisions.

This would also improve the mechanisms or refugee sponsorship, as Churches and other religious bodies have members of their faithful with concern over the plight of refugees and migrants, and would be willing to bear the costs of caring and their assimilation.

One can tweak the specifics of the sponsorship contract to expand upon the obligations of the sponsor. In cases of divorce, one can ask the citizen-spouse to pay for the costs of the foreign-spouse’s lawyer and divorce proceedings, and any associated welfare costs required during that time. This would alleviate any perceived social burdens that arise from immigration. It should, however, be left to the most local level actor to stipulate more specific concerns beyond crime, as the costs and laws surrounding actions such as divorce vary widely.

How does this policy assuage the concerns of each party in the immigration debate? First, the libertarian open borders position, that the economic benefits of immigration are felt by not only the immigrant, but the host country, are maintained. The economic benefits would hold insofar as there are any individuals willing to acknowledge them. Those who accept this would accept the role of sponsor, and accept that should anything go wrong, they would bear the costs. It would limit the ability for those who cannot work, and would therefore seek welfare payments, from immigrating, unless they had an individual willing to support them in the host country.

Second, the argument from individual rights is still protected. Pro-open borders advocates often claim that immigration restrictions are coercive by restricting an individual’s “freedom of movement”. This interpretation of individual rights is one-sided, and fails to acknowledge the obligations placed on other people from movement. While preventing people from emigrating is clearly coercive, preventing people from immigrating is not. Oxford Professor David Miller has made this argument as clearly as possible: coercion is something of the form “Thou Shalt”, while prevention is something of the form “Thou Shalt Not”. The latter is something that is a legitimate legislative tool possessed by the sovereign. In preventing an individual from entering one country, they are in no way forced to remain in their home country, nor prevented from entering others. This means some restrictions on immigration are not inherently coercive in the technical sense of the term.

This is a point about certain individual rights that is not always acknowledged in the immigration debate: that certain rights are two-sided. Freedom of association is one of the rights that form the foundation of freedom of movement, and is a two-sided right. The freedom to associate with another individual is only really an association if the other party consents. Both parties have the freedom to associate, and if either party uses the corresponding freedom to disassociate, then the association does not exist. It is absurd to have a freedom to associate without a freedom to disassociate, since then one party can force you to associate with them whether you like it or not. From this, it is clear that immigration freedoms arise from both the immigrant and his host’s freedoms, which should be equally respected.

Finally, the nativist concern is addressed by ensuring that any concerns regarding foreigners are properly internalised. While these anti-immigration sentiments are often characterised by opposing groups as racist or xenophobic, it seems odd to assume that these are beliefs that exist without reason. While there may be individuals who are racist for racism’s sake, they would not represent a significant percent of the population, as the advances in racial equality and justice over the last 50 years would attest. Those who have seemingly racist beliefs, however, are more likely using race (or religion or nationality) as a proxy for some other worry. If one wants to address these concerns, and to defuse the associated tensions, one has to look at the reasons behind racist sentiments, which often arise from material concerns. A few of these concerns are well-known: economic stability, cultural dilution, and national security.

The economic stability argument, that immigration devalues the local work force, costing domestic citizens their jobs or lowering their wages, is clearly addressed through a private sponsorship system. Rather than using the State to limit the number of immigrants coming in, or adding burdens to hire foreign workers, simply making an employer acknowledge that they would bear the risk of something going wrong, would make them think about the value a foreign worker adds. In doing so, they would likely hire a foreign worker only when the skills of that foreign worker are higher than the domestic labour pool, or if there were not enough domestic workers able to fill that specific role. This all results from the incentive that private sponsorship creates by adding personal stake, no matter how minimal, to the sponsor.

Not only would this address the skills gap that is growing in the country, by allowing employers to hire as many skilled employees as they need without State interference, but it would lessen the belief that immigrants were undercutting domestic workers. While the argument that immigrants put downward pressure on domestic wages is ill-supported, it is a sentiment that needs to be acknowledged in crafting a practicable immigration policy.

Arguments from culture are similarly addressed in a private sponsorship system, as evidence from Canada’s programme show. Worries such as a failure of integration are lessened by the desire of the sponsoring party to ensure maximum success for the immigrant for both their sakes. This would encourage sponsors to either prefer individuals with high degree of English skills, or to ensure that they receive sufficient English training upon arrival. It would encourage sponsors to improve the immigrant’s skillset, and to encourage them to be part of the community. Failure to do so would increase the risk of the new immigrant causing some sort of harm in the community, or falling on hard times himself, which would be a significant cost to the sponsor. By playing with incentives, cultural risks can be absorbed into the system.

The argument from national security is the case where supposedly racist sentiments are most clearly proxies for something else, namely propensity to violence. It has famously discovered by psychologist Daniel Kahneman that we have a tendency to overestimate small probabilities, such as the likelihood that a Muslim immigrant is a terrorist. Using race or a religion as a proxy in this regard would leave Muslims desiring to live happy lives significantly disadvantaged, simply as a result of cognitive bias.

This psychological tendency, however, can be addressed by sound policy design. By making individuals (or private organisations) make the decision, they will seek to ask relevant questions about the immigrants background and criminal history before sponsorship (we have fairly effective techniques for background checks). In doing so, individuals put a personal face on the sponsored individual and build a trust relationship, one of the foundations to reducing risk. Those with violent or antisocial tendencies would not be able to successfully make it past this stage, significantly lowering the number of risky people who would be sponsored.

The risk still exists that someone will be effective at presenting themselves as a much more likeable person than they really are, but since this is a smaller number than the total of potentially violent people, it is not worth sacrificing the benefits to so many others to prevent their entry. There is an increasing marginal cost to crime prevention and screening techniques, as noted by economist Gary Becker. Simple incentives and small costs reduce the vast majority of potential harms, but an ever increasing amount of further resources required to weed out the final few. It is not justifiable past a certain level of costs imposed on citizens and immigrants to continue to seek further security concerns. It is better in this situation to give people the benefit of the doubt, and allow sponsors to accept the cost of any associated harm.

For a policy to be practicable it needs to acknowledge the underlying concerns of the various groups who have an interest in the policy’s outcome. The failure of current political discourse is that it fails to accept that opposing ideological groups can have valid points, or dismisses their fears as the product of fiction. This furthers the divide between political groups, and intensifies the extremity of proposals that end up becoming law. It is relevant then to investigate moderate proposals, especially on immigration, that address everyone’s concerns as to halt the spread of political division, and create policy that benefits society.

This post was originally published by the author on his personal blog: https://medium.com/@ryankhurana/a-practicable-immigration-policy-ddc738aab865

About Ryan Khurana

Profile photo of Ryan Khurana
Ryan Khurana is a Research Fellow at the Consumer Choice Center. He has previously worked at the General Medical Council and the Institute of Economic Affairs. His work on UK Land Planning Regulation won the first annual Breakthrough Prize on Poverty Alleviation. His current interests are in the Economics of Technology, Health, and Welfare Policy.

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