A few years ago, my grandmother remarked that “talking about immigration in Sweden feels like screaming in church”. Openness is in many ways Sweden’s national religion, and so any debate surrounding immigration is seen as racist, sinful almost, by the mostly left-leaning political class. This unwillingness to engage with immigration has produced deeply negative results.
Sweden’s very generous open border policy led to acute housing shortages and unemployment when in 2015, 163,000 asylum-seekers reached the country- the largest influx relative to population ever recorded by the OECD. Predictably, receiving so many immigrants and a lack of preparation for their integration, led to a national political crisis. Indeed, in the 2014 general election, the Sweden Democrats –a neo-fascist political party- became the third largest party in a country that prides itself on its tolerance. Paradoxically, the unwillingness to discuss immigration for the fear of sounding racist resulted in actual anti-immigrant sentiments. Sadly, as the old adage says, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.
This deeply inadequate discourse on immigration is prevalent in both America and Europe. Both sides of the political divide tend to make bold, yet vague, claims about its impact on the economy and society at large. Trump and many right-wing movements in Europe believe immigration tethers the social fabric and drains resources. Immigrants bring with them higher levels of crime and use the system to their advantage, harming the prospects of ordinary tax paying citizens. Left-leaning politicians, for their part, often refuse to even debate immigration, asserting that it is both a moral imperative and, in addition, a boon as it simply improves the economy for everyone.
Yet the two stances are reductionist and incomplete. Some conservatives tend to devolve into race-baiting and ignore the economic and societal benefits that an influx of immigrants can generate. Liberals, on the other hand, unwittingly side-step a hard truth- immigration can significantly hurt the prospects of some natives, especially those in the lower-income brackets. Crucially, liberals’ dismissal of immigration’s negative impact spurs resentment among disenfranchised groups, inadvertently supporting nationalist or populist causes that reject immigration. With the emboldening of far-right groups and parties in Europe, such as the Sweden Democrats, and the triumph of populist movements like Brexit and the Trump presidency, it is necessary to pose a somewhat taboo question: what if immigration is not always that great?
According to a study conducted by The Economist, the ten localities that voted most heavily for leaving the EU (60:40 in favor of Brexit compared to the 52:48 average across Britain) were also the areas that saw the largest proportional increase in foreign-born residents from 2005-2015. These ten regions rely more heavily on agriculture and manufacturing than the rest of the UK, thus offering cheaper living and a greater number of low-skill jobs. Such places are often attractive to new arrivals who are not particularly well educated or fluent in English. The rise in the number of new immigrant workers increases the competition for low paying jobs, allowing employers to pay each such worker less than they would for a native one. And indeed, the regions that experienced the greatest spikes in immigration also saw the fastest decline in wages across Britain from 2005-2015.
This does not mean, however, that there are no winners. The immigrants themselves earn much more than they could have earned in their own countries. And those who employ the newcomers might, because of the lower wages, not have to move their manufacturing operations to low-cost countries; a win-win in a way, but perhaps not as all would have liked it.
Restrictive immigration policies tend to align themselves with the resentment of native low-skilled workers, and operate under the notion that the government has a duty to prioritize the well-being of its own citizens over those seeking to enter the country. Trump, and many other right wing movements in Europe, take this view to an extreme, proposing xenophobic policies that cruelly and unnecessarily punish those seeking a better life.
However, we must recognize that all nation-states must restrict entry. Democracy is difficult and expensive; it requires governments to offer equal treatment, like education and healthcare, to all citizens. Immigration is doomed to failure unless society is prepared to pay the costs associated with equal treatment to newcomers, and to require such newcomers to meet the demanding standards of democracy. This is self-evident.
As a result, espousing a very loose immigration policy without securing equal treatment and equal obligations for all citizens and newcomers alike can be much more damaging than adhering to a very restrictive immigration policy. A poorly managed influx of immigration –particularly if it is low-skilled- can lead to a two-caste society. Native low-skilled workers feel alienated and resentful, whilst newcomers feel angry for the many obstacles they face as they try to assimilate into their new countries. It is therefore not hard to see why race problems and tensions go hand in glove with ill thought out immigration policies.
So is there a way to keep everyone happy? Probably not. But there are some ways to ensure the greatest benefit for the largest number of people. The answer does not lie on a ban on immigration, but rather in estimating the number of high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants a country can receive without generating the tensions we see today. The goal, however difficult, of a good immigration policy should be to compensate natives that are negatively impacted by immigration and ensure that newcomers assimilate and thrive. This can be brought about by making a judicious but difficult decision with respect to the ideal mixture of high-skilled and low-skilled immigration.
High-skilled immigrants increase the productivity of a country, and usually pay higher taxes than low-skilled immigrants and natives, at times even in spades as many of America’s most famous founding entrepreneurs have demonstrated over the years. The steady supply of tax revenue and jobs created by these high-skilled immigrants not only help cover the cost of the more vulnerable, low-skilled newcomers, but also guarantee the jobs and retirement of the native population. Accepting both the skilled and the needy is thus not only a good middle ground, but arguably, an absolute necessity for immigration to be considered a good across the board.
Overall, immigration is not necessarily the socioeconomic marvel or existential threat that many liberals and far-right pundits make it out to be. We have to move beyond reducing complex issues to simple dichotomies. Let us leave the shouting matches and moral high horses to the past, and start having more rational discussions surrounding immigration. Maybe then we can move towards a more ideal solution.