The uncomfortable moral implications of opposing immigration
Opposing immigration from low-income countries might come with some nasty bullets to bite.
I generally don’t buy the standard arguments against dramatically increasing low-skilled immigration to high-income countries such as Canada, the US, and the UK.
For example, selection effects probably mean that there is some degree of value alignment between immigrants and the countries they’re seeking to enter. My dad and his side of the family moved to Canada because they wanted to become Canadian, simple and plain. It’s not rocket science: immigrants want to go to these countries because they prefer them.
But even if there was some degree of misalignment, I don’t think cultural and political institutions are as brittle as immigration sceptics sometimes imply, nor are immigrants powerful and influential enough to change that. And by the time immigrants settle down and have kids, this is even less important.
The idea that immigrants want to come and abuse the welfare state also seems implausible. Immigrants respond to incentives like everyone else. At least in countries like the US, living off welfare is not exactly a glamorous socioeconomic lifestyle. Even for just purely self-interested reasons, it seems obvious that immigrants would prefer to work and earn wages above the welfare line for the same reasons we do.
Immigrants also don’t commit more crime than native born members of the population. I’m not going to elaborate much more on this — they just don’t.
Anti-immigration talking points are empirically and morally questionable
Yadda yadda yadda. I could go on and on, but Alex Nowrasteh did a better job than I ever could with his blog post highlighting counter arguments against anti-immigration.
The anti-immigration movement is built on a flimsy foundation of empirically questionable and morally suspect claims. But crucially, I think those arguing in favour of immigration should draw more attention to the implicit moral claims being made by those who oppose immigration.
Pointing out empirical evidence that the supposed costs of immigration are overstated can’t do anything to counter the normative stance of “yeah but I still just don’t want them to come here”. Given this, perhaps we should argue in terms of the moral implication of this stance.
As I will argue below, perhaps clearly spelling out these implications might make a non-negligible portion of the anti-immigration crowd reconsider their stance.
Making the moral case for immigration
Anti-immigration policies seek to preserve the privileges of existing citizens at the expense of would-be immigrants — many of whom would like to flee wretched living conditions, but are prevented from doing so.
It’s unfortunate that a contingent of people in rich countries believe that they are morally entitled to the resources, opportunities, and institutions that have been built by past generations. Others — indeed, the ones who I’m hoping to convince — take a less harsh stance. They aren’t against immigration per se — in fact, many of their best friends, colleagues, and neighbours are immigrants. They’re just concerned about the societal change that rapid immigration could bring. I sympathise with these folks. I don’t think they’re evil or malicious. But I think they haven’t fully thought through the ethical ramifications of opposing immigration. This is problematic.
A preference for one’s own people is neither unusual nor necessarily morally impermissible, according to many value systems. But even so, it seems to me that one would need rather strong preferences in this area to justify the costs that anti-immigration imposes on would-be immigrants. I’m not sure most people who have anti-immigration preferences are even aware of how large these costs can be.
Let’s explore these costs with a case study.
How much would someone’s life improve if they could leave low-income countries?
There are approximately 12 million people living in Burundi. In 2021, Burundi’s GDP per capita was $790, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. Nearly three quarters of the population lives in poverty, and life expectancy is just 62 years on average.
Many people in Burundi would like to move to countries like Canada or the US — doing so would dramatically increase their economic standing almost instantaneously. Even if the highest they reached is what the US considers the poverty line, that would still be around 18 times higher than what the average Burundian earns in a year.
But because of restrictive immigration laws, the millions of Burundians who would prefer to move can’t. And so they languish. They have no choice but to endure abject poverty, political violence, and preventable disease. All because high-income countries have by and large decided that it’s not fair for them to share in the resources, opportunities, and institutions that make high-income countries so prosperous.
What being anti-immigration implies
Those in high-income countries who endorse anti-immigrant policies are implicitly saying that they’re okay with people having roughly 20 times lower incomes so long as it means that native-born members of the population don’t have to experience any change (however small or non-existent in reality) to their way of life. That’s a strong stance to take. By turning away immigrants, high-income countries cruelly dangle the ladder to prosperity above the reach of people seeking better lives for themselves and their children. Indeed, anti-immigration comes with some nasty bullets to bite.
It’s easy for us to endlessly pontificate about the effects of immigration. Oh, wouldn’t it be really bad if it reduces local employment by some minuscule percentage? What if my — gulp — neighbourhood character changes? I’m not claiming there is some objectively right answer to these questions, as they’re normative in nature. Instead, my claim is that those opposing immigration should be reminded that the other side of the equation includes the well-being of millions of people in low-income countries like Burundi.
A mother and a child come knocking
Thought experiments are always fun, so allow me to modify one of my favourites.
Suppose a mother holding a small child came knocking at your door one evening. She explains to you that her child is gravely ill with a diarrhoeal disease, and all she needs is some electrolytes and a couch for the kid to sleep on for the night. She tried knocking on all of your neighbours’ doors but nobody answered. Without your help, the child might die. Do you let them into your house, even though it poses a slight inconvenience to you? I imagine that very few people would say no. But every single day we close our doors to would-be immigrants from low-income countries, kids needlessly die of the same kinds of preventable diseases.
There are real human beings behind these statistics — people with plans, dreams and hopes for the future. Refusing to let them move comes with gutwrenching costs that should be made much more salient. While society sits around and dilly dallies over whether we should admit more people from low-income countries, an invisible graveyard fills up with people dying from poverty. The heartbreaking fact is that we know the cure — just let them in.
Refuting false claims made about the supposed harms of immigration is one thing. But flat out asking people against immigration if they’re willing to implicitly inflict dire poverty on others is another. I suspect that many people who care at least somewhat about the well-being of those living in poverty, yet support anti-immigrant policies nonetheless, would find this question deeply uncomfortable.
That’s precisely why we should keep asking it.
I am really happy to read this article by you. I am also glad to find your substack, Julian.
Fantastic writing as always!