Hein de Hass, the co-director of the International Migration Institute at Oxford University, recently wrote a blog stating the old refrain, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Haas stated matter-of-factly that immigration to developed countries can never be significantly reduced because immigration causes the GDP of these countries to increase, using his native country, the Netherlands as the example that proves the rule. That is the only argument he proffered in that blog probably because he believes that is the only argument that matters.
A deeper analysis recognizes that, in an increasingly interconnected world, migration presents, more than ever, challenges that go beyond labor market supplies and demands. Those challenges are also social, psychological, cultural, political and legal, yet most migration studies and debates offer only economic analyses.
Haas uses the same crude logic that proponents of mass immigration in Europe and the U.S. resort to –that immigration makes the economy bigger, bigger is always better, therefore, the more immigration, the better, ad infinitum. According to him, migration is a ‘demand-driven phenomenon’ and is, therefore, ‘beyond control.’ Only a prolonged economic recession from the receiving side can discourage people from immigrating.
To be sure, economic drivers are not to be discounted: global remittances in 2013 alone totaled $540 billion. Supply and demand of international labor markets are determining migration indicators; immigrants do pursue job prospects, seek higher wages, and many do eventually receive taxpayer funded benefits in their receiving countries. Material aspirations, however, do not explain it all. Migration is first and foremost about people. Some people move while others under similar circumstances don’t; those who do are often regarded as the most adventurous. People’s mobility is also linked to friends, family, and neighbors from the homeland who, by emigrating first, facilitate the transition for the newcomers. Those who provide social networks have also led the way: migratory journeys are not only physical; they are also, “acts of the imagination”.
When people migrate, they carry with them their own moral codes, skills, attitudes toward work and risk-taking. The reproduction of cultural capital and notions of identity and belonging – or ‘cultural transplants’, as labeled by Thomas Sowell – are in fact inherent to migratory processes. Many feel strongly about retaining much of the culture they left behind, but cultural preservation is not exclusive to immigrants. The recent Swiss vote against mass immigration was, for many, a demonstration of ‘national sentiments’ and loyalties (not to be confused with ultra-nationalism and far-right allegiances). According to Dominique Reynié, a French political scientist, the Swiss did not only defend their standard of living but also their ‘way of living’ in, what he calls, a public display of ‘populisme patrimonial’ (popular preservation of the cultural heritage). Jean Dominique Giuliani (Chairman of The Robert Schuman Foundation) addressed the subject as well: “The problem of immigration is a cultural problem, it is not a problem of racism or anti-immigration. It is simply about: what is going to happen to us…to our social codes…This is an identity issue”.
It ultimately does come down to identity, and how individuals identify themselves as part of a group. Paul Collier drew upon Nobel laureate George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton’s concept of ‘Identity Economics’ to explain how successful organizations motivate through identity attributes. For instance, to the simple question: ‘What makes a good plumber?’ the “essential step is neither technical training nor incentive pay, but whether the plumber has made the leap of identity: ‘I am a good plumber’”. According to a plumber who made this leap, not doing a good job would be in opposition to his sense of identity. Successful organizations encourage their workers to “internalize the objectives of the firm”, or put more simply, to ‘become insiders’. Becoming an insider, making that leap is essential for successful immigration. Otherwise, the probable scenario is the one described by the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut: “prevailing mistrust, rampant communitarianism and the formation of parallel societies that grow distant from each other”.
So yes, it’s the economy, but so much more…