Behind numbers lies politics when it comes to the subject of immigration in recent years.
As I indicated in my previous column, the trend line of immigrants arriving in Canada slopes upward. What this means is simple: The numbers of new arrivals into the country bears little relationship to how the economy is performing.
The obvious question then is, on what basis does the federal government — irrespective of which party, Conservative or Liberal, is in power — decide to keep the immigration tap open, disregarding the cyclical nature of an open economy?
The answer in part is the role of the pro-immigration lobby or industry, deeply entrenched in Ottawa, maintaining the argument that the net benefit of immigration for the economy is greater than any social cost over time.
The historical premise of this argument is how greatly the U.S. economy and society, for instance, benefited from the “great migration” during the century between 1815 and 1914. Immigration provided for upward mobility as people moved from conditions of adversity, natural or man-made, to situations offering greater opportunity.
In Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (2006), Philippe Legrain, an economist based in London (England), presents the case for increased immigration from less developed to developed countries. Legrain argues on economic grounds, drawing upon the example of migration into the U.S., and on ethical grounds of social justice.
Legrain’s book is a fine example of the pro-immigration lobby’s case for increased numbers of immigrants. It is an argument for open borders with rich countries helping poor countries by keeping the immigration tap open, and in the process also correcting the demographic imbalance in rich countries due to the sharply declining birth rates.
Legrain writes, “America’s long tradition of immigration testifies to the power of newcomers to forge a dynamic economy and society.” And he concludes, “Opening our borders offers huge opportunities for all. Our rallying cry for a better world must be ‘Let Them In’.”
This open-border argument is favoured by a majority of business, political, media and intellectual elites in the West, since they are generally cushioned by their status from the effects of cyclical downturns in the economy. The argument also tends to show how proponents of open borders are more sophisticated than those limited by, or holding to, the stale ideology of nationalism in a globalizing economy.
One cannot fail to note that this argument for open borders made by the pro-immigration lobby occurs in countries that are already most open to migration. And those favouring this argument are also generally dismissive of the concerns of those in society negatively affected in the labour market by immigration numbers, especially during economic slowdown.
Over time, the assumptions behind the policy of open borders have become, in effect, the political divide in Canada and other western countries between the elite and the public increasingly apprehensive of how immigration numbers are altering, perhaps irreversibly, the traditional cultural foundation of the society.
This division has grown sharper, and the politics behind the numbers increasingly acrimonious. In the aftermath of 9/11, concern over the negative effects of higher levels of immigration is genuine, and will be increasingly divisive.