Immigration is not just an economic problem, it is cultural, and the Irish government has to make strong choices as to what direction it wants to take when it comes to policies.
The deportation of members of a Roma family this week is a tipping point. It focuses our minds on the issue of immigration and -more to the point- raises the question of what exactly is Ireland’s immigration policy?
In the years ahead, this will be one of the main economic questions facing the country, because the number of people wanting to come here from all over the world is increasing by the day. Let’s just put the issue in context: this year, global migration has reached its highest ever level, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The Geneva-based organisation says there are now about 150 million people on the move worldwide – just under 3 per cent of the world population. That is 30 million more than ten years ago and 37 times the population of Ireland.
Immigration is not just an economic conundrum that can be reduced to the needs of the economy and industry; immigration is cultural. Immigrants change the face and complexion of the host society and it is up to the hosts to decide the extent of this transformation. In addition, all immigration policies discriminate.
Host countries chose what type of people they want to let in and what type of people they want to keep out. This difficult but essential choice is something that Ireland will have to consider in the future.
Take countries like Canada and Australia. Both these societies base immigration on a points system and if a person has a certain qualification that is deemed lacking, then the potential immigrant has a chance to get in. This is discrimination. In recent years, the US has made it easier for immigrants from certain Asian countries to enter the US than European immigrants.
This is discrimination. With the Morrison visas, the US allowed thousands of Irish to get a green card – yet more discrimination. So immigration involves discrimination and that discrimination can be based on a variety of benchmarks.
In the case of the Morrison visa, the discrimination towards the Irish was purely racial. In the case of the Canadians wanting medics with certain qualifications, the discrimination was educational and also, as a result, likely to be class-based.
At the moment, Irish immigration policy is framed in London not Brussels. Because of the border with the North, whatever the British do, we follow. So when London said in 2004 that all people from the accession countries could work in Britain – in contrast to most EU countries – we followed suit.
When last year Downing Street decided that Bulgarians and Romanians could enter Britain on a more restrictive basis, we introduced the very same policy. In fact you could say that Gordon Brown sets Ireland’s immigration policy.
So what might our future immigration policy look like? Before we answer this question let’s analyse what immigration does to a country from an economic perspective.
Remember that economics is colour-blind, it doesn’t see race, culture or creed and simply deals with the factual effects. This can give us an idea of who is likely to be a winner and who is likely to be a loser from mass immigration.
Classic economic theory tells us that immigration is bad for workers and good for bosses and landlords. The reason is the following: the immigrants compete in the labour market with the local workers.
This ultimately leads towages being lower than they would otherwise be. We see this happening on building sites all over the country every day. With immigrants making up close to 30 per cent of all workers in construction, competition is particularly acute in hard-hat land.
Obviously, anything that reduces the cost of labour means more money for the employer. So we can easily see how local workers suffer and local employers thrive. We have seen this pattern time and again all over the world.
On the other hand, the immigrants have to live somewhere. So they compete with the local workers in the housing market, driving up rents and ultimately house prices. Again, the local worker/renter suffers, but the local landlord makes more cash than he otherwise would get if the immigrants hadn’t arrived in the first place. So the local workers get shafted twice.
Economics also has something to say about the battle for other resources in the economy. Take, for example, schools.
The immigrants, by increasing the school-going population, put much bigger demands on the system than would otherwise be the case, leading to overcrowding, special teaching facilities and demands for more capacity. Obviously if the host country is receiving a tiny fraction of its overall population, these capacity issues are marginal.
When, as is the case in Ireland, the population jumps by 10 per cent, it creates a logistical challenge.
Immigrants also pay taxes, generate ideas and jobs among themselves and in so doing pay for themselves. Most experiences of immigrant communities reveal that they are hungrier to progress and thus work harder than the locals. They are often more ambitious for their children and bring a drive and an energy to the society that has a positive impact.
But this doesn’t take away from the fact that there are winners and losers. The losers are usually local workers and the winners are normally the local bosses and landlords. Not surprisingly, therefore, views on immigration depend on who is articulating them and immigration policy will reflect the interests of those who are framing it.
An immigration policy made by landlords and developers would obviously seek to increase the number of immigrants to maximise rents and house prices. In contrast, an immigration policy written by bricklayers might want to restrict or reverse immigration altogether, so that the hourly wage for the brickie would rise, free from competition from thousands of Poles and Lithuanians on the site.
Maybe one of the reasons that we don’t have this type of clear thinking on the economic impacts of immigration is that the agenda, particularly in the media, is set by people whose livelihood will never be threatened by immigrants. As a result an ‘immigration is good’ bias emerges.
Typically, the journalists and academics who appear on the talk shows and write in the papers (including this scribbler) are unlikely to be usurped by an immigrant who can do the job cheaper in the next few years.
But the printer who prints the paper or the electrician who lights the TV studio might feel threatened and might have a different take on the issue.
In the years ahead, if we are to avoid the mistakes of other countries, we have to listen to all sides on immigration. Having listened, we then need to formulate an Irish solution to an Irish dilemma. Nobody else is going to do this for us.
Most importantly – and this might be difficult for some who believe that our own emigrant history should be a factor in our decision – we have to be rational. Being rational demands that Ireland will have to learn to discriminate and live with it.