What Immigration Policy for the Left?

What should be the left’s policy on immigration? The sensitivity of the topic sometimes precludes an open discussion. Meanwhile, right-wing populists and nativists are building considerable constituencies in many countries by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments. Even in progressive Sweden, the influx of migrants since 2015 has propelled the far-right Sweden Democrats to third place in party rankings. We avoid the topic at our, and democracy’s, peril.

What is Reasonable?

Like many of my readers, I’m not an expert on immigration policy. So how do we non-wonks find our way to a reasoned stance, one that accords both with our values and our current realities?

Let’s begin with the obvious: the policy would establish immigration targets that accord with both the integrative capacity of a society and our humanitarian obligations. This evident formulation, however, raises several difficult questions.

“Integrative capacity” is not clear-cut. it depends on contestable calculations of the available resources, projected job availability, and willingness of citizens to accept immigration. But the calculation is important. For example, as the costs associated with higher immigration mount, public services should not lead to deteriorating services in areas where migrant concentrate. If this decline occurs,  popular support for immigration will plummet. And what is the availability of jobs fitting the qualifications of immigrants? Nothing is gained if the level of in-migration is such that it creates an underclass of permanently unemployed or semi-employed people or drives the white working class into the arms of fascists.

To be ethical, an immigration policy must, at a minimum, respect treaty obligations regarding the movement of people, especially those relating to refugees. Yet the definition of “refugee,” focusing on political persecution, may be too narrow given ecological trends. And the criteria for accepting immigrants must be non-discriminatory as to race, religion, sexuality, gender, and national origin. Simple principles – yet they raise difficult questions.

Challenging Orthodox Positions

In thinking through the issues, I found a recent book (2019) by Stephen Smith – The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent – stimulating in challenging orthodoxies.  The title might suggest a right-wing diatribe. It is far from that, written by a respected journalist and academic and published by a left-of-centre press (Polity Books). Opposing a xenophobic approach, Smith’s goal is to establish demographic trends and probable patterns of international migration, and reflect on the cogency of arguments for and against immigration to industrialized countries. He aims, in short, to inform a reasoned and ethical debate on a contentious topic.

Smith, as a professor of African Studies, forecasts substantial and growing migration from Africa to Europe over the next 30 years. This population movement, he claims, is the likely outcome of four factors:

  • demographic imbalance: Africa has twice the population of Europe today and a projected ratio of five to one by 2050, with two-thirds of its population under 30 years of age
  • the inter-continental inequality of income, which will continue
  • the rising per capita of income of African countries, paradoxically making emigration feasible for larger numbers (as emigration is expensive)
  • the catastrophic regional effects of climate change in African countries.

Not only circumstances, but also attitudes suggest considerable emigration from Africa. Smith cites recent Gallup polls in Africa, including one in which 42 percent of those between 15 and 24 expressed the wish to leave for the West.

What is the just and practical policy response in these circumstances?

Smith arrives at some startling challenges to standard economic and ethical positions. Of course, The Scramble for Europe is not the ultimate authority on these issues; other experts may disagree. Yet Smith’s positions are well documented and thus deserve consideration.

Consider his skepticism concerning these standard arguments:

  • As Europe’s population ages, it needs high immigration to improve the dependency ratio. Smith counters that immigration does not improve the dependency ratio in Europe because of family reunification programs and the larger average size of immigrant families.
  • To keep the economy moving while the working age population shrinks – in Europe and elsewhere – requires the import of young immigrants. Smith notes that automation is destroying whole categories of jobs, especially those in routine activities where immigrants get their start. A smaller working population, fortified by the high productivity generated by artificial intelligence, can provide a high living standard for a shrinking population, Raising the retirement age to 68 or 69, reflecting our lengthier life spans, would augment the labour force, if this is needed. Finally, if tax rates remain stagnant, the costs of integrating immigrants may fall on the working and middle classes as educational, health and housing services deteriorate in the larger cities. This decline will fuel hostility.
  • Even if the economic arguments for immigration are not as firm as generally thought, the humanitarian case for a liberal immigration policy surely remains strong. But for a twist of fate, we might all have been born in Mali or Honduras rather than Western Europe, North America, Japan or Australasia. This awareness should predispose us to welcome those from poor countries who wish to share in, and contribute to, our prosperity. But this ethical argument, too, is not as strong as some progressives assume:
      • It is not the poor who seek to enter Europe or other destinations but those who belong to the middle class. Why? Because it is expensive to make the journey. For instance, in Africa, depending on where you live, you needed (2017) $US2000-3000 to reach Europe. In countries with low per capita incomes, it is difficult to accumulate that much money.
      • High emigration of the better educated/higher skilled middle class from developing countries constitutes a brain drain of dramatic proportions. For example, one-third of all African-born physicians work in OECD countries. One-third to half of university degree holders from Africa have either left their countries or did not return home after graduating abroad. The loss not only diminishes the developmental prospects of poor countries, but also demoralizes those who remain. “The best and brightest do not believe in Africa’s future” (p.161).

Smith, however, neglects to consider one pertinent humanitarian/ethical argument: the effects of climate change. Most tropical countries have contributed negligible volumes of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet their populations nevertheless suffer the worst effects of the climate emergency. Coastal villages and towns are inundated, and interior regions are, or will become, uninhabitable owing to heat and dryness. Do not those countries that account for bulk of GHG emissions have an obligation to mitigate these adverse effects? Mitigation involves major North-South transfers of technology and money, and/or acceptance of those fleeing ecological collapse as “climate refugees.” However, if this ethical responsibility for climate refugees is accepted, how do we reconcile this obligation with the integrative capacity of societies?

Drawing Conclusions

On the one hand, we must reject the punitive, even racist, approach to immigration adopted by nationalists such as Trump – the “Fortress America” or “Fortress Europe” approach. Right-wing populists exploit and magnify racial and religious resentments for their own advancement; they cast migrants as scapegoats for various social problems, some of which – for example the shrinking of the welfare state – predate the influx of immigrants. The natural and proper reaction on the left is to rally to the support of excoriated groups in society.

That part is easy. On the other hand, should we not also rule out a prominent tendency on the left that champions open or near-open borders? Although we may applaud the cosmopolitan good will that underlies this position, it is nonetheless dangerously utopian. Not only would such a policy lead to the collapse of welfare states and social provision, but also it would drive large sectors of the working and middle classes into the arms of the far right. In addition, draining the developing world of its most talented and educated people would not undercut the resolution of economic, ecological and political problems in these areas.

If the first approach is an abomination and the second a fantasy, what is the honorable alternative? It must be this: to set limits on immigration based on a calculation of the integrative capacity of a society and economy, to respect international treaties, to maintain non-discriminatory criteria for selecting immigrants, and to accept the reality of climate refugees, which requires, at least,  substantially augmenting the North-South transfer of resources to mitigate ecological damage,

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).

3 thoughts on “What Immigration Policy for the Left?

  1. Jon Kraus

    First, I am glad that you address seriously the question of immigration, to which the left and progressives, in the US at least, fail to respond. Among Democratic party candidates, I a have heard any serious consideration of the problems posed the relatively high levels of immigration which US has recently experienced. Indeed, it does sound a bit like the Democratic candidates essentially favor open borders- though certainly the attitude among the Democratic electorate does not share this position.
    The permeability of the US southern border favors disproportionately refuges and immigration requests from Latin America, in contrast to those waiting in refugee camps for possible emigration of people in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
    Educated friends of mine have long ignored or dismissed the argument that we are robbing all kinds of developing countries when we welcome with open arms their doctors, nurses, and other educated persons, creating shortages of skilled man/woman power in their countries. Their taxes pay for the cost of the education, of which we’re the beneficiaries. Huge numbers of nurses educated in Ghana and Nigeria now serve the aging population of the US and Europe.
    I acknowledge the other major arguments that you raise. But for me we have an urgent need to understand the powerful impetus to populist and right wing resentment , and support for rightest policies and sentiment, when Democrats and other progressives fail to acknowledge the need for a sustainable immigration policy and, implicitly, support any and all levels of immigration. Our capacity for generosity and sympathy, and outrage at Republican/Trumpist policies, are a necessary but insufficient response. Policies to permit in relatively wealthy persons who contribute to investment and employment are frequently fraudulent and in any event undermine America’s tradition of welcoming immigrants and political refugees.


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