Welcome to our first Open Essay, a new format in which a writer develops an argument in three instalments over the course of a full week, in conversation with our readers.

Part One (June 1st)

Part Two (June 4th)

Part Three (June 7th)

Part One

Openness to immigration is a good thing, as I hope you agree. But how can we persuade moderate sceptics? Presenting rational arguments and evidence is important but often insufficient.

The liberal case for immigration is simply put. Openness to newcomers is morally right, economically beneficial and culturally enriching.

The freedom to move is fundamentally important. It enables people to flee persecution, seek a better life, be with the ones they love or simply broaden their horizons. The biggest determinant of someone’s life chances is not their talent or hard work but where they were born, so allowing an African to move to America is life-changing.

The economic case for migration is equally compelling. Just as labour mobility is desirable within national borders, so too across them. Allowing people to move from poorer countries to richer ones that have more capital, superior technologies and better institutions boosts their productivity and that of the global economy.

Although the biggest benefits go to migrants and their children, countries that receive them gain, too. This is largely because migrants are different from natives of a country, and their differences tend to complement local needs and conditions. Some are more willing to do jobs that locals spurn, such as picking fruit or caring for the elderly. Others have skills that natives lack, such as medical training or fluency in Mandarin.

Their diverse perspectives help spark new ideas. More than three-quarters of patents generated at top American universities involve a migrant inventor. In both America and Britain migrants are twice as likely to start a business as locals. Around half of Silicon Valley startups, including Google, LinkedIn, Tesla and Stripe, were co-founded by immigrants.

Overall, a 1% rise in the immigrant share of the population tends to raise income per person by 2%. It’s not Donald Trump who makes America great, it’s the country’s openness to newcomers.

Migrants’ countries of origin tend to benefit too. The money migrants send home—$466bn last year—dwarfs rich-country governments’ aid and is often better spent. Remittances go straight into people’s pockets, pay for better education and health, and are used to start businesses. Migrants who return home also bring with them capital and new ideas.

Migration is culturally enriching too. Along with often providing a greater range of restaurants in an area, it also leads to more creativity in art and music, more exciting football teams and a wider range of friends and partners.

Even so, many people oppose immigration—and not all are irredeemably racist and xenophobic.

They may be ignorant; sceptics worried about the scale of immigration tend to vastly overestimate it. 

They may have genuine misperceptions. It may seem like common sense that immigrants take local jobs, until you realise there isn’t a fixed number of jobs, and that migrants also create jobs when they spend their wages. It may also seem obvious that immigrants lengthen hospital waiting lists, although in countries such as in Britain they tend to pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services, see a doctor less often and are disproportionately doctors and nurses themselves.

Beyond dispelling ignorance and misperceptions, here are six quick suggestions to try to win over sceptics.

* Personal stories. People generally relate more to personal stories—such as that of Paulette Wilson, a retired cook who previously worked at the House of Commons, who was wrongly arrested and threatened with deportation by the British government—than to dry statistics.

* Social contact. Fear of “the other” tends to dissipate when people get to know each other. So getting people to mix more would help.

* Appeal to emotions. Opponents of immigration whip up fear and hate. As well as appealing to compassion for immigrants, supporters could tap into patriotism, arguing how openness makes a country great.

* Emphasise what unites us. Diversity is great; so is what people in a particular place have in common.

* Appeal to other people’s values. Liberal values such as individual freedom and equal rights leave some people cold. But Trump voters may be swayed by stories about immigrants who fought for America; traditionalists may be persuaded by highlighting how Latino immigrants share their family values.

* Address people’s underlying concerns. As well as pointing out that immigrants aren’t to blame for unemployment, stagnant wages or stretched public services, politicians need to implement policies to address these problems.

Part Two

Thank you for all your comments. Many expressed their objections to immigration. Today I will address the three main issues which arose. On Thursday, in the concluding section, I will provide other suggestions for convincing sceptics of the value of immigration.

The first issue is economics. One commenter was blunt: “You cannot convince people who view immigration sceptically for the simple reason that IMMIGRATION HURTS THEM.” 

Yes, some locals may lose out. But any negative impact on local wages or jobs is typically tiny, while research, notably by Giovanni Peri, suggests the impact is generally positive. So this is mostly a problem of misperception. Hardship due to industrial decline or the financial crisis is wrongly blamed on immigrants. 

Another commenter thinks automation will depress the demand for labour, and so reduce the number of jobs for immigrants. Perhaps. But for now, unemployment is very low in America, Britain, Germany and elsewhere. Moreover, many jobs won’t be automated any time soon, while previous technological change has always created new jobs too.

Many argued that immigrants are a welfare burden. Some indeed may be, as are some locals. But overall, studies, notably by the OECD, suggest migrants are typically net contributors to public finances. Young immigrants are particularly beneficial to countries with low birth rates and ageing populations, as another commenter pointed out.

More broadly, because immigration boosts the diversity of skills and ideas, a 1% rise in the immigrant share of the population, low- or high-skilled, tends to raise incomes per person by 2%. (As requested, here’s the link to this research.) That, in turn, tends to raise wages and improve public finances.

Others pointed to pressure on public services, infrastructure and housing. Their supply needs to respond to increased demand (from locals or migrants). When they don’t, the impact of austerity or planning restrictions is often blamed on immigrants.

What about overcrowding? Neither America nor Britain are very overcrowded overall. Most people live in cities and suburbs that occupy a small part of the country. While congestion is a downside of densely populated places—one which better public transport and new technologies can alleviate—those who choose to live in cities do so because they offer more jobs, more entertainment and, yes, more people to socialise with.

Another commenter questioned the impact on migrants’ country of origin. “When the educated, able and young with high agency and initiative leave, potential for development leaves, too.” Yet research by Michael Clemens and others suggests migration typically boosts development.

The second issue is selecting which migrants to allow into a country. Many argued that although some immigration is better than none, there could also be too much. Numbers needed to be controlled and newcomers vetted. Many distinguished between “good” and “bad” immigrants; but as one commenter pointed out, “How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?”

Someone else pointed out that most Australians support their country’s high immigration rate because it is mostly selective. Control over borders is indeed popular: all developed countries have immigration rules. But to minimise their economic costs, the rules need to be flexible. The political imperative to cut net migration to Britain led to absurdities such as expelling international students once they graduate and monstrosities such as the Windrush scandal, in which children of Caribbean migrants who came to Britain between 1948-71 and who were legally resident in the country were threatened with deportation. 

What of illegal immigrants? Undocumented migrants do valuable work, pay sales taxes and rarely draw on the public purse. While regularising their situation would reduce exploitation and bolster the rule of law, many object to their presence, arguing that a country has a right to choose who comes in. That said, if low-skilled migrants are in demand but there are no legal channels for them to enter, irregular immigration is inevitable. We should blame politicians for that instead.

The most controversial issue centred on culture: what immigrants need to do to fit in. Some locals object to the presence of immigrants no matter what. Others expect them to adopt the local culture wholesale (while still providing ethnic restaurants). Still others see adaptation as a two-way street, albeit one where immigrants have to adapt more. Everyone agrees that newcomers need to learn the local language.

Mixing is crucial. As one commenter put it: “I am an immigrant in the UK but I know more people in my town than the average native Brit. We buy each other drinks; have a laugh at the pub; help each other etc. Policies ought to concentrate more on facilitating interaction at the grassroots level.”

While it is understandable that newcomers to a strange country cluster together, another commenter urges against ghettoisation: “Stop ONLY socialising in your own tightly knit communities speaking only your local language and grouping together everywhere from homes to offices. These behaviours reinforce the feeling of the ‘other’ and create a natural backlash.”

Some require help to fit in. But what to do with those who do not want to? In particular, how far should a liberal society accommodate illiberal immigrants? A self-described liberal points out that not all diversity is good. “I personally see no cultural richness in practices such as female circumcision or the uncanny views of some Muslims towards women and homosexuals.” Catherine Shaw argues that we “need to defend the things we are good at in the west—rule of law, lower corruption, gender equality, sustainable birth rates and respect for the environment.” Another commenter believes that adaptation happens naturally over time: “By the time you are looking at their grandchildren, their culture is exactly that of the rest of the country.”

 

Part Three

Thank you all for your comments. Many people again raised objections to immigration (which I addressed in part two) instead of addressing how to change negative attitudes, which I will cover in this third and final part. As I initially pointed out, facts and rational arguments are often insufficient to sway sceptics; personal stories, social contact, appealing to emotions, emphasising what unites us, appealing to other people’s values and addressing people’s underlying concerns may also help.

One commenter suggested that we follow Aristotle’s advice and deploy reason, values and emotions to try to convince sceptics.

Starting with reason, an American commenter says sceptics should be asked: “Would you personally (not to mention the country) be better off if the anti-immigration policies that you advocate had been in place when…your ancestors…were immigrating? Remembering that they were viewed every bit as negatively as you are viewing others today.”

In a similar vein, Sarah Gauen said on Facebook: “Before scorning immigrants or refugees, explore the history of your own family’s travels. You will find both barriers they faced, and people who chose to support their future. Then ask yourself who you would have been.”

Encouraging locals to put themselves in newcomers’ shoes may persuade some sceptics. But in my experience many won’t be convinced because they consider themselves “good” people, while they think others may be “bad” ones.

Others suggest acknowledging the downsides of immigration, namely that some migrants end up as criminals or even terrorists. While that is true, the perception that migrants are often criminals or terrorists is not true. In fact, immigrants are typically less likely to commit crimes or terrorist attacks than locals. As Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has shown, since 1975 only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all by Cuban refugees in the 1970s.

Moving on to values, one commenter says the moralising tone of immigration advocates can be a turn-off: “Berating the other is not a good way to engage in authentic dialogue.” It’s true that liberals need to listen and talk to moderate sceptics to try to persuade them; that said, many opponents of immigration aren’t interested in dialogue.

Turning to emotions, one commenter argues that personal contact may override some people’s fear of immigration. “Sixty years ago most people disapproved of homosexual relationships; today most people know at least one openly homosexual person and thus have come to understand (subliminally if not consciously) that homosexuality does not endanger the tribe. Exposure to what you fear, when that fear was unfounded, does over time reduce and even remove the fear.”

There is solid evidence to substantiate that theory, as the work of Miles Hewstone of the University of Oxford shows. So organising events that bring people together may help, as the charity More in Common does in Britain.

Several commenters concurred that contact with immigrants often reduces prejudice. After all, people in big cities with large migrant populations are typically least concerned about immigration. Conversely, fears are often greatest in places that have only recently started to receive immigrants and where attitudes haven’t yet adapted, as well as in those with few migrants, where locals fear the change but have scarcely met actual immigrants.

One commenter recommends promoting positive images of immigrants, as veterans and sportspeople, for instance. Fans of Liverpool football club chant "Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, if he's good enough for you, he's good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I'll be Muslim too” to celebrate their star Egyptian striker, Mohamed Salah. Whether this translates into more positive views of Muslim migrants in general remains to be seen.

A recently elected local councillor in Britain disagrees with my suggestion that personal stories are effective. His constituents “would say things like ‘The X family, they’re alright. They work really hard, it’s the rest of them’….” Appeals to emotion may not succeed either. “Nearly everyone I talked to expressed sympathy for migrants, but there was a sense that Britain simply could not afford to be generous at the moment and needed to look after the people who were already here.”

The key issue, the councillor believes, is the perceived fairness of the system. “The complaints I have heard about migrants are nearly all based on the idea that the UK is treating immigrants better than native-born British people” – notably the misperception that they have better access to social housing and public services. He suggests one way to convey that migrants are contributing to society might be a “contribution card – a symbol that, whatever your country of origin, you are making a contribution”.

Perhaps more importantly, the underlying problems that are blamed on immigrants need to be addressed. As one commenter remarked: “Nobody telling you that migration is economically beneficial…is going to cut through your own perception of the impact of decline on where you live, which you attribute (wrongly) to migrants.”

About the author

Philippe Legrain is the founder of Open Political Economy Network (OPEN), a think-tank that defends liberal societies, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. Previously he was economic advisor to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, special adviser to World Trade Organisation Director-General Mike Moore and a correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of four books, notably "Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them" (2007). Follow him at @plegrain and follow OPEN at @open2progress