In Praise of Immigration

British public opinion is, at present, strongly opposed to immigration. At least, that is the impression given by the tabloids, and by the government's moves. Instead of defending the principle of asylum, government ministers compete to see who can be tougher on illegal immigrants. The standard defence of immigration seems to be that we have a moral duty to take people fleeing tyranny and persecution. That is certainly true, but it is a very weak counterblast. After all, the most recent figures show that 60% of applicants for asylum had their applications refused. Even if we allow that the immigration tribunals are biased in favour of exclusion, it seems likely that a substantial minority of asylum seekers are not fleeing persecution at all. Instead, they are looking for a better life in Britain.

I want to argue that they should be allowed to remain, on two grounds. First, if conditions back in the immigrant's country are that bad, we have a prima facie duty to accept them if possible. Second, immigration is good for Britain, and for receiving countries in general.

Duties to the Poor

Consider what is involved in emigrating from a poor nation to the UK. First, you have to leave home. This is not a minor step in itself, as anyone who has moved a long distance even within a country will know. Second, you have to go to a distant country, with a different culture, where you do not speak the language, and know no-one, and then look for work. You cannot arrange anything in advance, because you are not immigrating legally. When you do find work, it is likely to be menial, even if you are highly qualified. After all, you do not speak the language very well, so no-one is going to hire you as a doctor or computer technician. Third, you have to pay for the trip. If you could simply buy a plane ticket, this would cost around a year's income. But in fact you have to pay people smugglers, and they charge far more than British Airways. And the in-flight entertainment isn't as good.

So, those who leave think that life as a member of Britain's underclass is sufficiently better than life at home for it to be worth suffering all those hardships to attain it. Life at home must, therefore, be really bad. And, indeed, it is, in many cases. Someone working forty hours a week on the minimum wage can probably afford to live in the UK, with access to better facilities, better healthcare, and better entertainment than back home, and still send the equivalent of one person's income in their home country back to their family.

If life back home is that bad, it seems that we should allow them to come here and have a better life.

Now, there are two objections to this. First, perhaps people in poor countries have an excessively rosy view of life in Britain, and expect the streets to be paved with gold. It is all but certain that some immigrants are excessively optimistic; after all, they have seen television and thus expect to live like Hollywood superstars. However, people tend to base their wildest dreams on their current situation. From some places, wild optimism will actually fall short of the reality of life on the minimum wage. But suppose that life in Britain isn't as good as they expected. No-one is stopping them from returning home. (If anyone is, then they are genuine refugees, and we really do have an urgent moral duty to let them remain.) If they choose to stay, it is presumably because life in Britain is still better than life back home. What is moral about saying that these people cannot have this better life because they were born in the wrong place? They have shown considerable initiative in trying to improve their lives, and they have succeeded. Taking this success away from them because of their nationality seems unreasonable.

The second objection is more substantial. Britain could not cope if everyone decided to come here. This is certainly true. If the whole population of India decided to immigrate to the UK, we would be in serious trouble. I'm not sure where we'd put a billion extra people; it isn't as if the UK is full of vast, unpopulated spaces. However, Britain can certainly cope with a fairly high level of immigration. The UK population is naturally shrinking now, as women no longer have enough babies to keep the population stable. There is also a constant flow of emigration from Britain.

So why not allow immigration, with no questions asked, and see how many people actually try to come? If that is more than Britain can handle, then we can put a cap on, or add requirements such as competence in English, until the numbers come down to the right level. Even if there are no requirements placed on admission, people still have to find the money for transport and make the decision to travel. It is worth bearing in mind that British people can go to Italy with no questions asked, because both countries are part of the EU. Despite the attractions of climate, most do not. Most prefer to stay in the culture they know. Now, admittedly, life in Britain really isn't that bad, but I still suspect that most people are going to prefer to stay where they are, unless things are really bad.

Of course, even this is the sort of government regulation that is frowned upon nowadays. If there were no limits at all on immigration, people might come to Britain until life here was not enough better than life in China to motivate the move. Because of the difficulties involved in emigration, things would still be better here. This would be the market solution to immigration problems. For example, I do not believe that Argentina currently has major problems with immigration, because no-one wants to go there. I don't think that this is a practical solution at present. Life in Britain is so much better than life in certain other parts of the world that the flow of people could be enormous. But if we could create a more just world, for which there is sufficient moral reason, then a liberalisation of immigration regimes might well be a good idea. And, indeed, it is possible that even if all restrictions on immigration to Britain were lifted, the flow of immigrants would still be slow enough for British society to cope with no more dislocation than is occasioned by the free movement of goods and capital.

So, neither objection ultimately holds much water. The benefit to the immigrants is substantial enough to justify allowing a large amount of immigration. This is strengthened by the second leg of the argument: immigration benefits us, as well.

Benefits of Immigration

Immigration is often portrayed as negative for two sorts of reason. First, immigrants 'take' 'our' jobs; they are claimed to have a negative economic impact. Second, immigrants 'dilute' British culture; they are claimed to have a negative cultural impact. I want to argue that both of these claims are backwards. Immigrants are good for both the economy and culture.


First, let us consider the economic benefits. Recall the barriers that immigrants have to surmount before they ever get to Britain. This means that those who get here are the more motivated and enterprising people, the ones with greater initiative, self-confidence, and persistence. These are the sorts of people who tend to make a success of economic endeavours. Further, since they are here in search of a better life, they are going to try to make a success of it. I find the claim that immigrants want to sit around and claim benefits frankly incredible. Benefits are not that impressive. Even a minimum wage job pays more. If someone is sufficiently motivated to travel thousands of miles in search of a better life, they are sufficiently motivated to get out of the damp bedsit and look for work in search of one that is better yet.

Some immigrants will establish businesses of their own. Others will take jobs and join the ranks of the employed. A few will fail to establish themselves, but that is hardly unique to immigrants, and there are good reasons to believe that fewer immigrants than natives will fall short. On the whole, then, immigration will add substantial numbers of economically productive individuals, and, given the chance, many of them will be more economically productive than average.

The ultimate limit on the size of an economy is the average productivity of an individual, multiplied by the number of individuals. More individuals, each with above average productivity, mean a larger economy. Some natives will lose out, due to being unable to compete with the immigrants. But overall, the country will benefit, and most natives will be in a better position afterwards than they were before.

So, what about the plight of the natives who lose out? Don't they deserve our sympathy? Of course, but we must balance the losses and benefits. The social security system in Britain is actually quite good, so someone who loses a minimum wage job to an immigrant loses a lot less than the immigrant gains. The only way to justify a strong bias in favour of the native is to invoke nationalism, and to rank foreigners as less valuable than natives. I don't think that such a bias can be morally justified.

But remember that those natives who suffer from immigration are a small minority. Most people benefit from living in a larger economy. The 'demographic timebomb' may be overstated, but as the number of native Britons of working age is declining, there are good reasons to suppose that immigrating workers have a great deal to offer.


The economic benefits are secondary, however. The biggest gift that immigrants offer is the enrichment of British culture. A culture is a living thing, and it is always growing and changing. Cultures which feed on nothing but themselves tend to become stale and derivative, while those that are open to outside influences are constantly renewed and remain exciting.

British culture is no exception. It has always grown by taking in outside influences, including those of distant lands. The Notting Hill Carnival is one of the most vibrant aspects of contemporary British culture, and it has fed on the cultural riches brought in by immigrants.

Look at some examples. Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani immigrants have transformed British food, overwhelmingly for the better. (Although, personally, I'm not fond of curry.) Nevertheless, 'traditional British cookery' has not disappeared. It is no longer the only thing on offer, and it has to be better to compete, and both of these are good things. Or visit the Chinatown in a major city, and enjoy the different feeling. Or even just walk through a city with a substantial immigrant population (where, for these purposes, 'immigrant' can include people whose parents were born in Britain).

This is an area where I think we fail to get the full benefit of immigration, and both natives and immigrants suffer as a result. There is no need to homogenise our entire island. Indeed, most people accept that this is a bad idea; they want to preserve local culture. Sometimes that gets out of hand, and people want nothing at all to change, and everything to be like it was when they were children, but the basic motive is sound. A varied culture can learn from other aspects of itself, and is thus even less likely to stagnate. World culture can be considered as the largest example of this. The same consideration applies to immigrant cultures. Why should we want Chinese or Pakistani immigrants to be just like us? Surely it is better if they create and preserve a distinctive part of British culture?

Of course, this requires the immigrant communities to be open to influence from the rest of British culture, but they can hardly avoid that. There are some things which are legally mandated, such as education for all their children, and others which are simply ubiquitous, such as British television. But the rest of British culture should be open to influence from them, as well. There is nothing remotely 'unBritish' about becoming a Muslim, for example, or dressing in a manner inspired by the Chinese, or learning to cook curry. Similarly, someone of Chinese origin does not betray her heritage by learning to play cricket.

It would also help if both sides stopped demanding that borrowings 'respect' their culture. The whole point about cultural borrowing is that it takes an element of one culture and transforms it into an element in another.

Language is perhaps the largest barrier, because when you cannot communicate with the members of a culture, it is very hard to assimilate aspects of that culture. However, the emphasis on immigrants learning English seems rather one-sided. It is certainly true that it is very helpful for immigrants to learn English, because not speaking English cuts them off from a lot of British culture. On the other hand, what is wrong with English children learning Urdu or Cantonese? In those areas where there are substantial communities speaking these languages natively, it makes sense for these to be the second languages taught in school. First, most schools would be able to recruit native speakers, either as teachers or assistants, and that improves language learning in itself. Second, the children would actually be able to use the language they are learning in their daily life, which will reduce the feeling that it is a useless school subject. They might never go to France, but they might well visit the local Chinese takeaway every night, so they would get much more use out of Cantonese than out of French.

As more immigrant groups enter the country, this raises the potential of producing a generation of Britons who collectively can really speak a fantastically broad range of foreign languages, and this would give Britain access to a much broader range of cultural influences. There might be less worry about being swamped by American culture if, for large portions of the country, there was no language barrier to enjoying Bollywood movies as well.

One of the best things about the cultural benefits, however, is that it is impossible to predict exactly what they will be. Many historical cultures have flowered spectacularly when brought into contact with foreign cultures, but every flowering has been different. Greater immigration increases the chance that British culture will blossom into something truly new and wonderful.

David Chart
16 March 2003
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