Difficulty in locating hostilities

Fences and Neighbours
June 22, 2001

Immigration control, like any restraint on trade, inhibits mutually beneficial economic transactions and should be seen, to that extent, as a bad thing. Moreover, the enterprising spirit that drives individuals to migrate internationally in search of economic betterment ought to be welcomed by economically progressive nations. Yet this is not so. Popular attitudes to "economic migrants" are frequently hostile and politicians are keen to present themselves as firm in restricting the rights of immigrants, particularly from poorer and ethnically dissimilar countries.

Jeannette Money has written a responsible and thoughtful book in which she seeks to explain the evolution of immigration policies in developed nations. She develops a general theory drawing on ideas from a number of disciplines and applies it to detailed case studies of three countries - two of them European Union countries with colonial pasts, the United Kingdom and France, and the third a "settler state", Australia. In each of these countries, as in many others, regimes of relative openness have metamorphosed into ones of stricter control.

Why is animosity to immigrants often so intense? Money points to many potential factors, typically relating to competition in economic or cultural spheres. The economic impact of immigration is complex and depends subtly on the skill levels, capital endowments and demographic composition of the immigrating population. There is in fact little empirical evidence establishing any conclusive case that the impact of immigrants on wages, employment or public welfare systems is negative. However, immigrants can be negatively caricatured as stealing the jobs of indigenous populations or imposing burdens on the welfare state. Aside from economic concerns, a taste for cultural homogeneity and resistance to cultural change provide further reason for hostility.

Money has assembled an international data set following immigration control policies in several countries across almost 30 years. She concludes that her data provides little support for most of the hypotheses offered to explain levels of immigration, despite their plausibility. While I welcome her readiness to test these ideas empirically, I am sceptical about her "nonresults", which seem to arise mainly from the dominance of the current change in immigration in explaining the current level of immigration, in my opinion a statistically questionable variable to include in such a specification.

But what she concludes from this is a sensible thesis in its own right. She argues that a full understanding of the political economy cannot ignore the geography of immigrant settlement. Immigrant settlement is spatially concentrated and, in countries with geographically based systems of political representation, so is political influence. It is the interplay between these two that forms the basis of her explanation.

The merit of her book is in developing a concrete explanation for cross-country differences in timing of policy changes and in her preparedness to engage in detailed comparative assessment of its applicability. Her interesting analysis of the UK case, for example, typifies her approach. She argues that, by comparison with the other two countries studied, immigration control reached prominence in UK political debate early and with an abiding intensity because of the settlement of immigrant communities in electorally influential areas of industrial decline, such as the West Midlands. While initial postwar settlement policies may have directed immigrants to areas of labour shortage, these areas continued to attract inflows through interpersonal networks despite changing employment conditions. As local economies declined, immigrant communities became perceived as problems and this perception transferred itself to national politics through the preponderance of marginal constituencies in such areas.

Her claims are founded strongly in the relevance of economic impact to attitudes regarding immigration. While in no way denying the role of racism and cultural conflict, she argues that a recognition of the role played by economic sources of resentment is critical to understanding the process of policy determination. In my belief, investigation of cross-sectional attitudinal data offers little support for the relevance of economic factors. My own analysis, with Christian Dustmann, of the same British Social Attitudes data that Money uses (in conjunction with other data sets) suggests that job insecurity and concerns about welfare spending are barely related to hostility to immigration among those manual workers who are often argued to be most vulnerable to labour market competition. What is strongly associated throughout the population is expression of racial antipathy - concern about racial intermarriage, unhappiness about ethnic-minority superiors in the workplace or straightforward admission of racial prejudice. Of course, racial antagonism may be aggravated by economic stereotyping of immigrants and, to that extent, greater emphasis on the economic benefits of immigration in popular debate would surely lessen hostility. Whatever the truth about the comparative importance of economics and racial attitudes, the stress that she places on the geographical distribution of anti-immigrant sentiment is an important one.

Ian Preston is a senior lecturer in economics, University College London.

Fences and Neighbours: The Political Geography of Immigration Control

Author - Jeannette Money
ISBN - 0 8014 3570 6
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Price - £29.50
Pages - 247

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