Labour immigration policy: What do we want, and why?

I spend a lot of my time talking to journalists and policy-makers about labour immigration. In that context, I am often asked if labour immigration and/or a particular labour immigration policy is “good” or “bad”.

I suspect most researchers will share my basic hesitation in engaging with this question. International labour migration creates a wide range of economic, social, cultural and other impacts for individuals, communities and countries as a whole. Some of these impacts can be measured and quantified (with some difficulties and disagreements in the literature), e.g. the impacts of immigration on wages, while others are much harder to define and measure (e.g. impacts of immigration on “national identity” and “social cohesion”, both vague and contested terms).

So, at a very basic level, one could argue that the different types of impacts of international migration are inevitably incommensurable and, in any case, there are so many gaps in the evidence base that we do not have enough information to provide a complete and comprehensive assessment (e.g. in the UK there are very limited data and analyses of the effects of immigration on the provision and consumption of public services).

While I have given this answer many times, the problem is that, nine times out of ten, it is a conversation-stopper, especially when talking to journalists looking for an answer to a “reasonable question” about an issue that, as opinion polls suggest, most people in the country “care about very deeply”.

So my second response to the “immigration good or bad” question that I have used more frequently – and with some (a little) more success in terms of continuing the conversation – is that it all depends on whose interests the policy is meant to serve. This sounds like a very obvious point but the dearth of explicit discussion of this issue is, in my view, the primary reason why immigration has become such a contested public policy issue in the UK and many other high-income countries. There is no clarity and very little discussion about what exactly policy is trying to achieve, and why.

So I want to ask in this blog: in whose interests should the UK’s immigration policy be made – and why? Before you stop reading, the answer “in the UK’s best interest” is not good enough because what constitutes the “UK’s best interest” is precisely the question that I want to raise.

What are the potential objectives of immigration policy?

To start the discussion we need a list of the different types of impacts of international labour migration – in itself a difficult and maybe impossible task. At the risk of over-simplification, I suggest that the main types of effects of international migration on migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries include impacts on:

  • economic growth and welfare (e.g. impacts on the labour market, public finances and wider economy)
  • the distribution of income (e.g. the impacts of immigration or emigration on the lowest income earners in the economy)
  • social cohesion and national identity (terms that are hard to define but nevertheless feature prominently in public debates)
  • crime and national security
  • the rights of individual citizens

International migration also has important effects for migrants themselves, e.g. by affecting their “economic welfare”, “human development” and “rights”, all in many ways related effects that still have some distinct features and dimensions.

All these impacts are likely to be interrelated and potentially conflicting, which means that the relationship between them may be characterised by trade-offs. Trade-offs may exist when comparing the interests of the receiving country, migrants and their countries of origin (e.g. the international migration of highly skilled workers from low-income countries may generate significant benefits for migrants and receiving countries, but can have adverse impacts on migrants’ countries of origin); between the interests of different groups of people within countries (e.g. in the short term immigration may benefit employers but harm some domestic workers in receiving countries); and between different types of impact (e.g. the level and kind of immigration that maximises economic growth may not be perceived to be compatible with considerations about national identity and social cohesion; for another example, migration may help migrants to raise their incomes but at the same time reduce some of their rights).

Whether these potential trade-offs exist in practice is an important empirical question that can be specific to time and place. But the fundamental and in many ways obvious point is that there will always be some conflict between some impacts and objectives. If migration was always good for everybody and everything, the issue would not be so high up the agenda in public policy debates.

What do we want? The underlying ethical questions

So, given the list of potential objectives and trade-offs, what impacts and whose interests should labour immigration policy in the UK (and other high-income countries) serve?

This is an inherently normative question that different people will answer in different ways. When thinking about this question, I find it useful to think about two underlying ethical questions.

  1. To what extent, if at all, should the outcomes for collectives (such as economic economic growth or distribution) and the economic welfare of individuals be given priority over individuals’ rights? To put this question in the context of an example taken from the current debate in the UK, should immigration policy restrict British citizens’ right to get married to a non-EEA national in order to minimise the fiscal costs of immigration? To what extent, if at all, do the ‘means’ (individual rights restrictions in this case) justify the ‘ends’?
  2. To what extent, if at all, should the interests of citizens of receiving countries be given priority over those of non-citizens (including existing migrants without citizenship of the host country and people in migrants’ countries of origin)? Many (although not all!) people would agree that nation states need to prioritise the interests of their own citizens, but exactly how much more weight should be given to the interests of citizens? International migration can generate huge benefits for migrants, especially for low-skilled workers, so to what extent should these benefits inform the design of immigration policy in the UK and other high-income countries? And how should policy distinguish, if at all, between the interests of citizens and other residents without citizenship (e.g. migrants with permanent and temporary residence permits)?

Different answers to these two ethical questions have radically different implications for immigration policy. For example, within an “ethical framework” that emphasises consequences for collectives rather than rights of individuals and that strongly prioritises the interests of citizens, a country’s labour immigration policy is determined based on an assessment of the consequences for economic growth, distribution, national identity/cohesion and security in receiving countries – with little to no importance given to the outcomes or rights of migrants and people in their countries of origin.

For example, points-based systems that aim to “optimally select” migrants in terms of their skills and other characteristics in order to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs of immigration for the receiving country can be justified by such a normative framework. Guest worker programmes that restrict the employment of migrants to specific sectors of the labour market that suffer from labour shortages and that limit migrants’ access to the welfare state are another example.

In contrast, an ethical framework that prioritises consequences but puts equal weights on the interests of all people (“consequentialist cosmopolitanism”), i.e. migrants as well as non-migrants in receiving and sending countries, would demand a labour immigration policy that would admit much larger numbers of migrants. In fact, it could be argued that if economic efficiency and distribution were the only outcome parameters, “consequentialist cosmopolitanism” would require open borders, as the free flow of labour increases world welfare and decreases global inequality.

What do you think?

There are longstanding debates in political theory and philosophy about these questions. Clearly, they are normative questions with no one “right answer.” My intention here is not to take a position but to simply emphasise that all labour immigration policies are based, either explicitly or more frequently implicitly, on answers to fundamental ethical questions about the extent to which consequences for collectives should trump individual rights, and about the degree to which nation states prioritise the interests of their own citizens.

So, to create more clarity in immigration debates we need not only better evidence about numbers and impacts but also more open discussion about the policy objectives, including the underlying ethical questions.