Saturday, April 01, 2006

Immigration controls: scrap them now

Immigration is near the top of the political agenda in both Britain and the US. On the other side of the Atlantic, last Saturday saw 500,000 people march through the streets of Los Angeles, in opposition to proposals from Republican majority leader Bill Frist that would define 12m undocumented immigrants as felons, and build a 700-mile barrier along the Mexican border.

The issue will dominate both the gubernatorial race in California and the mid-term congressional elections in November. Interestingly - as Bill Kristol points out in the Weekly Standard - the GOP is split on this one.

On the one hand, there are the populists like Frist, who plainly perceive electoral advantage in pandering to racism. These people can surf the waves created by both post-9/11 xenophobia and the reality that undocumented workers lower domestic wages.

On the other are big business conservatives, who know cheap labour when they see it, and at least a section of the neocons, who take a principled stand in favour of people's right to live where they want to live.

Ironically, these reactionary political forces are well in advance of wide swathes of the British left on this one. Respect MP George Galloway, for instance, favours a Tory-style 'points system' of immigration controls. Remind me. What was it Karl Marx said again? The workers have no fatherland. Damn right.

But his allies in the Socialist Workers' Party are apparently too embarrassed to pull him up on this. So top SWP blogger, Richard at Lenin's Tomb, is able to praise the LA march without even mentioning the policies of his organisation's most famous ally.

Yet even arguing from the premises of conventional economic theory, the case for freedom of movement is unanswerable. The economic activity of first generation immigrants in the UK is worth something like 10% of GDP. That's twice the contribution of North Sea oil.

Either liberalisation is the way to maximise economic welfare, or it isn't. If it is, governments should set about dismantling immigration controls with the same zeal with which they scrapped capital controls.

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