Immigration, Population, and Public Services

In yesterday’s BBC leaders’ debate for the upcoming UK general election, in response to a question about immigration, the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) leader Paul Nuttall raised the well-known concerns of his party.

Last week it was announced that a city the size of Hull came to this country, net. […] That’s going to be a Birmingham over a five year period. It’s unsustainable. What we need to do is we need to reduce immigration, and we do it by having an Australian points-based system, so if you’ve got the skills that this country needs: yes, please come here and work. But beyond that, beyond that, we have to get the population under control because if we carry on on the road we’re on, we’ll have a population of 80 million by the middle of this century. Now you just think what’ll happen. There’ll have to be a huge school building programme; there’ll have to be new hospitals, new motorways, a new rail network, new houses–we’re already having to build a house every seven minutes just to keep up with the numbers of people coming into this country.

According to Nuttall’s claims, UKIP are concerned about the contribution immigration makes to population growth and the strain this allegedly places on public infrastructure and other resources, and therefore wish to further curb it. Other parties, including the UK’s Conservative party, have made the same arguments.

These parties like to invoke worries about strained public services, as well as gluts in the labour market, as a way of addressing immigration. Doing so helps them avoid the appearance of relying on any xenophobic premise. Resource concerns provide a rhetorically powerful veneer, for those wishing to shed a xenophobic image, of an ideological neutrality acceptable to many voters uneasy with other forms of anti-immigrant discourse.

Luckily, there seems to be a way to test whether this discourse truly reflects an abandonment of xenophobic premises, or merely provides cover for them. You can do so by comparing the attention given to immigration and any similar phenomenon that would place public resources under comparable strain (granting, for the sake of argument, that immigration places any strain on public services in the first place).

Nuttall is correct that net immigration to the UK per year is equivalent to about the population of Hull—248,000 people in 2016. Interestingly, when you compare domestic, non-immigrant population growth—by subtracting deaths from live births in the UK (for the last year for which I could find UK-wide data, 2008)—you get a similar figure: 214,703. A Portsmouth rather than a Hull. Yet, one does not hear Nuttall or UKIP demanding action on domestic population control. This appears to reveal an inconsistency suggesting something other than a concern for public services underlies the desire to further curb immigration to the UK.

Of course, the cases are different. One question concerns the rights of foreigners to settle in the UK; the other concerns the rights of citizens to reproduce and pass that right onto their offspring. And granting (though I take no position on this issue here), that nation states have a right to grant citizens rights that they deny to foreigners on grounds of sovereignty, it may seem simply obvious why laws prohibiting foreigners’ freedom of settlement are more acceptable than laws restricting citizens’ reproductive rights.

However, this reply is only a temporary fix.  First, granting the legitimacy of distributing rights differently to foreigners and citizens, this differential distribution must obey some ethical constraints, however loose. It might be okay to require foreigners but not citizens to apply for a visa; but it’s not okay, for instance, to permit the torture of foreigners entering the country, while forbidding the torture of citizens. In short, foreigners cannot have all rights afforded to citizens forfeited simply for being foreign. So, for any given case, there is a live question as to whether denying entry to the foreigner in question is acceptable or not given these constraints—i.e. it doesn’t simply follow from national sovereignty that the receiving country can do as it pleases with foreigners.

Second, relatedly, denying the very fundamental freedom to any foreigner to settle where she pleases requires justification—the burden is on whoever wishes to restrict the freedom, not on whoever wishes to exercise it. This justification may be forthcoming on the grounds, for instance, of strained public services. But if so, part of this justification for denying the foreigner her liberty must include the fact that strained public services cannot be avoided in less draconian ways. For instance, to take a fanciful example, if the UK denied settlement to Germans on the grounds that the UK’s data entry systems couldn’t handle the umlauts in German names, then the obvious fix would be to either change the data entry system or ignore the bureaucratic requirement for exact spelling. Denying Germans the liberty to settle in the UK on such grounds would be unjustified. So, any claim that denying freedom of settlement to foreigners is less severe a denial of freedom than denying the freedom of citizens to reproduce, or reproduce as much, requires support, even if it’s easy to come by (the same applies if we consider the choice as between granting settlement to foreigners and granting it to citizens’ unborn children). Again, favouring the citizens’ freedoms over foreigners’ doesn’t simply follow once we grant national sovereignty.

But third, and most crucially, these worries only apply to the severe case of introducing legal prohibitions, whether on settlement of a foreigner, or on the reproductive rights of a citizen. But, of course, acting to control the UK’s domestic population need not take the form of legal prohibitions; it might take the form of informal measures such as more comprehensive reproductive health education, publically funded advocacy for living with no or fewer children, an easier adoption process, expanded access to contraceptives or abortions, or reduced prices for such, etc. Indeed, given the difficulty the UK government has had with its repeated attempts to reduce immigration, even with the severe instruments of legal prohibition at its disposal, I’m far more confident in the potential of informal measures to reduce the ratio of domestic live births to deaths in a way that preserves rights and freedoms than I am in their potential to similarly reduce immigration.

Assuming this is right, the large amount of attention given to immigration as a source of alleged strain on public services, and the total lack of attention given to domestic population control, calls out for explanation. Here’s my preferred explanation: UKIP, the Conservatives, etc. don’t really care about the number of people in the country; they care about the number of foreign people in the country (I submit as further evidence this highly xenophobically framed article on the same topic by former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage). Or, more cynically, they care about neither but recognize on pragmatic grounds that they must appear to care about them.

So, former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband may have been right to claim that it’s not prejudiced to be concerned about immigration. But, if I’m right, as long as your concern is framed in terms of population pressures, it probably is prejudiced to be concerned about immigration while remaining unconcerned about domestic rates of reproduction.

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