Immigration covers a plethora of types, motives and processes. They’re often confused. The two main kinds, so far as present-day Britain is concerned, are economic immigrants and political refugees. Economic migrants come to Britain for better jobs, a better lifestyle, and better material prospects all round. Refugees come because they are seriously and usually physically endangered in their previous countries, through war, religious persecution or whatever. In order to qualify as ‘immigrants’ all must intend to settle in their new lands, at least until the danger is over for them. (Some refugees don’t.) Otherwise they’re classified as merely visitors.
The distinction between these two main categories is not hard and fast. An economic immigrant, to give an extreme example, might claim that he was being politically persecuted by being heavily taxed or regulated in his native country. I sometimes claim that I should be granted ‘refugee’ status in Sweden because I’m fleeing from Brexit: but that’s just as absurd. Then there are other minority groups of immigrants: people who want to join their families, for example, or to retire in the sun. (Not in Sweden!) But in general terms the distinction between economic migrants and refugees is a pretty good one, and maybe ought to inform the debates on immigration, in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, more than it currently does.
For a start: the moral arguments for both are radically different. The case for ‘free movement’ rests on a liberal world-view that holds that an essential part of ‘freedom’ consists in being able to live wherever you like. There’s also a liberal economic argument for this: free movement enables labour to gravitate to where it’s most needed, and consequently allows employers to hire at the cheapest rate, so maximising the efficiency of the capitalist machine. That’s why politically it fits far more snugly with free market or liberal ideas, than with – for example – socialist ones. So it may seem odd that today immigration restriction is usually associated with right-wing – that is, pro-capitalist – parties; but if you look carefully you will probably find that underneath their populist clamour they really don’t want to lose their Polish plumbers, Spanish nurses and Romanian strawberry-pickers. It may have other appeals too; but ‘free immigration’ is essentially a Neo-Liberal principal.
Refugees are different. The case for admitting them rests on ethical grounds: basically, on our humanitarian (or Christian, or whatever) duty to relieve suffering, of whatever kind and in whatever part of the world it is found. Of course you could try to do that by intervening in the most persecuted parts of the world; but then one has to be careful not to be ‘imperialistic’, which is how most such interventions turn out. (I’m wearing my other, imperial, hat here.) Short of that, the least that we in the more fortunate countries of the world can do is to give ‘asylum’ to those fleeing from persecution.
Of course asylum has to be properly managed, and, if possible, shared out between the fortunate countries so as not to cause problems in the one or two more generous ones. I used to hope that the European Union would attend to that; but of course it can’t with all this primitive and racist nationalism around. (I’m thinking here of Hungary.) In the long run, such refugees are more likely than not to contribute positively to the economy and culture of the receiving countries – I could give you scores of examples in Britain’s case – but that benefit might take a generation or two to show up, and in any case it shouldn’t be the main argument for admitting them. Asylum is a moral issue, not an economic one.
So far as economic migrants are concerned, the moral case is less convincing. There is no ethical argument for admitting anyone to live in your country, any more than into your home. There is certainly no socialist argument, for Socialists should have no ideological objection to controlling the movement of labour, so as to benefit their own people (in Britain’s case, Britons) and protect them from unfair competition, undercutting of wages and the other downsides of ‘globalisation’: the phenomena which are probably, deep down, powering Trumpism and Ukippery today. There are better ways of doing this than by limiting immigration: giving trade unions more powers over minimum wage levels, for example, in order to discourage employers from recruiting labour from abroad simply because it’s cheap. That might dampen down the xenophobia which is the most serious by-effect of recent immigration into Britain. But still, as a general principle, countries should be able to control their borders. Socialists should not fall into the liberal trap here. Even Socialist ‘internationalism’, though it should look out for refugees, doesn’t require us to take in everyone who asks. And I’m writing as one who is applying to be taken in by Sweden.
Afterword. Immigration has happened before. The USA is, of course, a nation of immigrants. So is Britain, if we go back to the dark ages and before. I once published a book about Britain’s reception of Continental political refugees in the nineteenth century. (That’s my other historical hat.) That was a time when freedom of movement was a basic principle of British life, with the result that foreigners weren’t even required to have passports in order to disembark in Dover or wherever. Very few people, apart from so-called ‘British Brothers’ in London’s East End objecting to an influx of east European Jews there around 1900, felt it was a problem. I’m not saying that any modern lessons can be drawn from this – conditions were very different – apart from the obvious fact that it does depend on conditions. Societies like ours are not naturally anti-immigrant.