After the pandemic, let’s not keep families separated by borders

by John Quiggin on January 4, 2021

That’s the headline for a piece that ran in the Canberra Times on New Years’ Eve, looking at the way borders separate families for serious reasons (like controlling the pandemic) and for frivolous ones (for example, because of spurious claims about the effect of migration on wages, or because people are uncomfortable about a changing population).

Like most Australians, my wife and I have spent much of 2020 unable to visit family and loved ones. International borders closed first, cutting us off from our newly married US-based son and his wife. That was soon followed by the closure of state borders, and even the imposition of borders within states, narrowing our family circle to two.

Reopenings have allowed some travel, of course, but always with the fear that we might be stuck on the wrong side of a border with a renewed outbreak. But we have been lucky compared to the many people separated from their spouses and young children.

That’s only one of the costs imposed by travel restrictions. Intending migrants and temporary visitors who had accepted job offers here have been unable to take them up, while Australians working overseas have been stuck there, unable to get a flight home. Regrettable as all this is, most of us accept it as necessary. The alternative, after all, is a mass tragedy like that we see in so many other countries.

Britain has been among the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. And, with the discovery of a highly contagious new strain of the Covid-19 virus, restrictions on travel to and from that country have become even tighter. The economic and social costs of these restrictions are evident for all to see.

Now, just as the grip of the pandemic has tightened again, Britain is formally leaving the European Union and bringing an end to the era of free movement between Britain and the rest of Europe. The inevitable result will be many more separations of the kind families have experienced in the pandemic year. 

Young people who formed relationships on holidays or during study overseas will have to navigate a thicket of visa requirements if they are to live together and perhaps marry. Even being married is not a guarantee: Britain, for instance, imposes an income test (currently about $A32,000 a year) on spouse visas.

One of the cruellest effects of the pandemic has been to separate elderly parents, sometimes ill and dying, from their children. But this same effect is the deliberate outcome of Brexit. A typical case is that of a British citizen, living in Europe and with a European spouse and children, with sick parents in England. Before Brexit, the family could move to England to look after the parents in their final years, with the ability to work and pay taxes there. Now they face not only the income test but the prospect that the non-British partner may be unable to work.

In Britain’s case, there is nothing new in this, except the extension of restrictive policies to the European Union. The British government has long sought to discourage migration by creating what it calls a “hostile environment” for anyone who falls outside its increasingly Byzantine rules. And, while Britain has been particularly hostile, similar policies apply almost everywhere, including Australia.

Now that the pandemic has given us all a taste of being separated from our loved ones by impassable borders, it is worth reconsidering whether stringent restrictions on movement across national borders are actually justified.

On examination, many of the most common justifications are either flimsy or frivolous.

In the flimsy category, the most notable is the claim that immigration reduces wages and job opportunities for low-income workers. The evidence is mixed, but even the estimates pushed hardest by restrictionists imply relatively small negative effects, which could easily be offset by changes to tax and welfare policies. But the governments that have been most keen to limit freedom of movement have also been the ones pushing policies — from regressive tax cuts and anti-union labor market reforms to resisting increases in minimum wages — that harm low-income workers.

In this context, it’s worth noting that the strongest support for Leave (more than enough to account for the margin by which the referendum was carried) came from retired people over 65, for whom the threat of competition for jobs was irrelevant. Young people, who actually had to weigh the benefits of excluding competition from foreigners against the costs of being locked out of work in Europe, overwhelming voted for Remain.

An equally flimsy justification for hostile borders is the claim that migration creates problems of urban congestion. Those who use this claim to justify keeping family members apart are rarely willing to support modest, but politically contentious, measures to reduce congestion, such as road pricing and urban consolidation.

At the frivolous level, but probably among the most significant sources of support for immigration restrictions, is the discomfort felt by many about people who look, live and pray differently from the ones they are used to. Quite simply, this discomfort has no moral standing. 

But the most frivolous justification of all is “because we can” — or, to put it in the grandiose language of national sovereignty, “we will decide who comes here, and under what circumstances.” The rush to turn immigration departments, here and in other countries, into absurdly costumed “border forces” is an illustration 

The weakness of these claims does not imply that immigration should be unlimited, a position often described as “open borders.” In reality, we are nowhere near having open borders. On the contrary, borders operate on the default presumption that no-one should be allowed to cross them, unless they fall into some special category. We have all experienced the operation of this presumption during the pandemic.

The number of people who actually want to migrate for personal and family reasons is limited. There must be some level at which migration would have clear and substantial effects on wages but we are nowhere that point at the moment.

For the moment, even repatriating Australians stranded abroad seems beyond the capacity of our government. But when international travel finally resumes, we should ask ourselves whether it makes sense to keep families separated in order to maintain arbitrary quotas, or pander to nativist prejudice. •

{ 7 comments }

1

Tim Worstall 01.04.21 at 12:22 pm

“In the flimsy category, the most notable is the claim that immigration reduces wages and job opportunities for low-income workers.”

Depends. That Marx thing about the reserve army of workers. Their existence reduces wage growth. OK. To some extent – to some, how much is arguable – the reserve army at the low end of the British workforce was in Wroclaw, Bratislava and other places a £50 flight away. There’s definitely a correlation between net EU migration and wage growth:

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/august2020

https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/averageweeklyearningsingreatbritain/july2020

2

alexander 01.04.21 at 1:01 pm

this issue is very impotant for many families, thanks for raising it!!

3

Blissex 01.04.21 at 2:30 pm

«The number of people who actually want to migrate for personal and family reasons is limited.»

But then the migrants who arrive have family members too, and so there is a further wave of immigration, and “secondary” immigration is usually the biggest component of immigration. Then there is the issue that as a rule younger people from poorer countries are those who immigrate, and their family members are older and often retired, and their origin country pensions and healthcare insurance are often minimal or non-existent, and then they claim those of their destination country, and when they cannot get them (because they have made no contributions in the destination country) that creates a significant problem.

«There must be some level at which migration would have clear and substantial effects on wages but we are nowhere that point at the moment.»

Careful here: the “literature” involves the much narrower claim that immigration does not reduce much the level of average wages. Claiming that it does not impact substantially and clearly wages (for example their distribution, or their growth rate, or the total yearly wages per person through a reduction in hours worked) is a completely different claim.

«Britain is formally leaving the European Union and bringing an end to the era of free movement between Britain and the rest of Europe. The inevitable result will be many more separations of the kind families have experienced in the pandemic year. »

That seems to me quite a disingenuous argument: free travel and free stays will still be possible between the UK and the EU, for up to 3 months in a 6 month period. That is not going to result in any inability to maintain family contacts. What is ending is the ability to settle permanently for work without permission, but that’s a completely different issue.

4

Fergus 01.05.21 at 11:55 am

Three comments in and we already have two very incorrect claims about the migration and wages literature. Tim Worstall would have you eyeball two graphs rather than read the academic literature finding no substantial impact. Blissex claims that literature doesn’t consider changes over time, which is a bizarre and untrue claim: there are plenty of studies, including from the UK, looking at dynamic impacts. The picture doesn’t change: if you look very hard, you can sometimes find a small negative impact on a small subgroup of low-income workers, alongside positive impacts overall. So to add a detail to John’s phrasing, it’s not just that the effects are small enough to be easily fixed by compensatory policy – it’s that that fix can come entirely from the aggregate benefits of immigration, not at the cost of anything else. Here’s a summary of evidence from just last week: https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/why-immigration-doesnt-reduce-wages.

5

notGoodenough 01.05.21 at 1:55 pm

Leaving aside moral implications for another day, formal study is also a significant component of reasons for immigration. I am under the impression that that, typically speaking, does not drive second wave migration. From the ONS and Home Office numbers (which generate some uncertainty due to not being fully in agreement), it would seem immigration “to accompany or join a family member” appears to have not kept pace with other types of immigration – its share of total inflows steadily decreased to three-year averages of between 12% and 13% over the period 2009-2018 (the lowest on record). Notably, in 2018 work and study were quite comparable, while “to accompany or join a family member” is substantially less so.

Regarding economic impact of immigration to the UK, the picture is somewhat confusing (in part due to there being substantial difficulties in producing reliable metrics for analysis). However, in all cases the impacts have been estimated at less than +/- 1% of GDP. Given this, I’m uncertain as to how any form of immigration to the UK could be considered to be a significant problem for the UK in general.

6

Chris Bertram 01.05.21 at 2:01 pm

@Fergus – thank you.

The claims Blissex makes about being able to maintain family contact are the ones that are disingenous. It is hard to know exactly how many children are separated from a parent by the UK’s minimum income requirement (the highest or 2nd highest in the world, depending on how you calculate). The Home Office does not make an estimate itself, but I’ve heard estimates of 25-30,000 from migration researchers. Now EU nationals are in the firing line for this. Think about it: if you can’t meet the income requirement, how are you going to finance regular trips to Poland, say, so that dad can occasionally see his kids (consistent with the kids going to school etc)? The callousness of the attitude on display here is really dreadful.

7

nastywoman 01.06.21 at 5:52 am

@
”Think about it: if you can’t meet the income requirement, how are you going to finance regular trips to Poland, say, so that dad can occasionally see his kids (consistent with the kids going to school etc)? The callousness of the attitude on display here is really dreadful”.

Yes!

But as I have proof that it doesn’t work –
at least on the long run –
or at least for the duration of the rest of my Life –
I –
WE –
patiently will watch how all these efforts of ”the STUPID” will finally end like the efforts in the first lockdown to re-erect some ”border” between Germany and Switzerland –
or Germany and France –
and then –
see as all together at the ”Rheinfall”.

What a… ”Reinfall” for all the Idiots who think they can change London back to a time –
where WE – ”the mutt’s” –
(as Obama called US) –
didn’t rule the city.

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